journalism

How Linking to Knowledge Could Boost News Media

 

A key way to differentiate value-added news from commodity contents is to rework the notion of linking. Thanks to semantics and APIs, we could move from dumb links to knowledge linking. 

Most media organizations are still stuck in version 1.0 of linking. When they produce content, they assign tags and links to mostly internal other contents. This is done out of fear that readers would escape for good if doors were opened too wide. Assigning tags is not exact science: I recently spotted a story about the new pregnancy in the British Royal family; it was tagged “Demography”, as if it was some piece about Germany’s weak fertility rate.

Today’s ways of laying out tags and and structuring topics are a mere first step; they are compulsory tools to keep the reader within the publication’s perimeter. The whole mechanism is improving, though. Some publications already use reader data profiling to dynamically assign related stories based on presumed affinities: Someone reading a story about General Electric might get a different set of related stories if she had been profiled as working in legal or finance rather than engineering.

But there is much more to come in that field. Two factors are are at work: API’s and semantic improvements. APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) act like the receptors of a cell that exchanges chemical signals with other cells. It’s the way to connect a wide variety of contents to the outside world. A story, a video, a graph can “talk” to and be read by other publications, databases and other “organisms”. But first, it has to pass through semantic filters. From a text, the most basic tools extract sets of words and expressions such as named entities, patronyms, places.

Another higher level involves extracting meanings like “X acquired Y for Z million dollars” or “X has been appointed to Finance Minister….”, etc. But what about a video? Some go with granular tagging systems; others, such as Ted Talks, come with multilingual transcripts that provide valuable raw material for semantic analysis. But the bulk of contents remain stuck in a dumb form: minimal and most often unstructured tagging. These require complex treatments to make them “readable” by the outside world. For instance, a untranscribed video seen as interesting (say a Charlie Rose interview), will have to undergo a speech-to-text analysis to become usable. This processes requires both human curation (finding out what content is worth processing) and sophisticated technology (transcribing a speech by someone speaking super-fast or with a strong accent.)

Once this issues are solved, a complete new world of knowledge emerges.  Enter “Semantic Culturonomics“. The term has been coined by two scholars working in France, Fabian Suchanek and Nicoleta Preda. Here is a short abstract of their paper (thanks to Christophe Tricot for the tip):

Newspapers are testimonials of history. The same is increasingly true of social media such as online forums, online communities, and blogs.
Semantic Culturomics [is] a paradigm that uses semantic knowledge bases in order to give meaning to textual corpora such as news and social media. This idea is not without challenges, because it requires the link between textual corpora and se-antic knowledge, as well as the ability to mine a hybrid data model for trends and logical rules. [...] Semantics turns the texts into rich and deep sources of knowledge, exposing nu- ances that today’s analyses are still blind to. This would be of great use not just for historians and linguists, but also for journalists, sociologists, public opinion analysts, and political scientists.

In other words, and viewed through my own glasses, these two scientists suggest to go from this:

335_semantic1

…To this:

335semantic2C

Now picture this: A hypothetical big-issue story about GE’s strategic climate change thinking, published in the Wall Street Journal, the FT, or in The Atlantic, suddenly opens to a vast web of knowledge. The text (along with graphics, videos, etc.) provided by the news media staff, is amplified by access to three books on global warming, two Ted Talks, several databases containing references to places and people mentioned in the story, an academic paper from Knowledge@Wharton, a MOOC from Coursera, a survey from a Scandinavian research institute, a National Geographic documentary, etc. Since (supposedly), all of the above is semanticized and speaks the same lingua franca as the original journalistic content, the process is largely automatized.

Great, but where is the value for the news organization, you might ask? First of all, a trusted publication (and a trusted byline) offering such super-curation to its readers is much more likely to attract a solvent audience: readers willing to pay for a service no one else offers. Second, money-making business-to-business intelligence services can be derived from modern tagging, structuring and linking. Such products would carry great value because they would be unique, based on trust, selection and relevance.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

BuzzFeed: An Open Letter to Ben Horowitz

 

Ben Horowitz, the erudite cofounder of the Andreessen Horowitz (A16z) firm is a respected heavyweight in the Silicon Valley’s venture capital milieu. But A16z’s $50m BuzzFeed funding looks surprisingly ill-advised, to say the least. 

From: frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com
To: Ben Horowitz, Andreessen Horowitz, Menlo Park, California
Re: A16z investment in BuzzFeed
———————————————————
Dear Ben:

May I ask you something? How long did you spend on BuzzFeed before deciding to invest $50m? I’m not talking of Jonah Peretti’s PowerPoint deck or spreadsheets, which, I’m sure, must be quite compelling. But did you sample the real thing, the BuzzFeed site?

And how many times a day do you log in? Please, don’t tell me it’s part of your mandatory media diet, I’ll have to struggle not to express polite disbelief.

Frankly, your investment leaves me bewildered.

Judging by your blog and your remarkable book (I energetically proselytize both), you embody a mixture of vista, courage, combining focus on details with broad systemic vision, all supported by deep hands-on experience.

In addition, you are of the generous type and I was even happier to buy two copies of your book (including a paper version for a friend) knowing all proceeds will go to Women in the Struggle — a noble cause.

In short Ben, I have a great deal of respect for you. You are the type of person our modern economy needs.

Except that I don’t share your vision of the news business. In fact, I’m standing at the polar opposite of it.

Let me be clear: I do not question the goals and means of the VC business you’re in. In fact, I think this extraordinary ecosystem of financing innovation has long been a vital booster to the economy. Whenever I get the opportunity, I preach this in France, only to find out that my plea is beyond the cognitive grasp of the French governing elite (our VC perimeter is 33 times smaller than yours for a GDP only 6 times smaller.) The whole system sounds fine to me:  investors gives you money — $4.15bn for Andreessen Horowitz at my last count –  your mission is to multiply, you create scores of high qualified jobs. Great.

But is BuzzFeed really such a good multiplier?

Obviously, you know more than I do about BuzzFeed’s long term’s prospects: Impressive growth, heavy reliance to technology. From a pure business perspective tough, I would be very careful to put other people’s money in a traffic-machine that depends for 75% on social referrals because not all clicks are born equal. BF’s are myriad, but they are worth a tiny fraction of, say, a click on The New York Times.

I spent some time trying to overcome my reluctance to BuzzFeed’s editorial content. I wanted to to convince myself that I might be wrong, that BuzzFeed could in fact embody some version of journalism’s future. But if that’s the case, I will quickly resettle in a remote place of New Mexico or Provence.

BuzzFeed is to journalism what Geraldo is to Walter Cronkite. It sucks. It is built on meanest of readers’ instincts. These endless stream of crass listicles are an insult to the human intelligence and goodness you personify. Even Business Insider, a champion practitioner of cheap click-bait schemes, looks like The New York Review of Books compared to BuzzFeed. And don’t tell me that, by hiring a couple of “seasoned editors and writers” as the PR spin puts it, BuzzFeed will become a noble and notable contributor of information. We never saw a down/mass market product morphing into a premium media. You can delete as many posts as you wish, it won’t alter BF’s peculiar DNA.

Fact is, quality content does exist in BuzzFeed (an example here), but in the same way as a trash can contains leftovers of good food: you must go deep to find it.  It won’t change the fact that what people enjoy the most on BuzzFeed is unparalleled ability to package, organize and disseminate mediocrity broken down in this promising nomenclature:

334-buzzfeed

Ben, don’t tell me you’re proud of A16z investment in BuzzFeed. By funding it, you are contributing to the intellectual decrepitude of readers, the youngest ones especially — already severely damaged by Facebook and Snapchat sub-cultures. Did it ever cross your mind that these people are going to vote some day?

Two years ago, one of your competitors, the Founders Fund (I believed it held values similar to yours) published an essay titled What Happened to the Future?. Their article outlines the conflict between “funding transformational technologies (like search or mobility)” and supporting “companies that solved incremental problems or even fake problems”. Do you realize that, by funding a company such as BuzzFeed, you fall on the wrong side of the fence?

Look, I’ve no problem to see BuzzFeed or The HuffingtonPost thrive. They’re run by super-smart people (such as this one) who developed audience-building techniques that legacy media should pay more attention to.

What bothers me the most is to see smart money such as A16z’s being diverted to such a shallow product.

Ben: You want to invest in the information business? Consider what the Sandler Family did with ProPublica: they provided the seed money for a fantastic public interest journalism project (which, in passing, snatched two Pulitzers). Technology-driven ProPublica is now financially autonomous. Or consider emulating Pierre Omidyar who supports First Look Media, which promotes the kind of journalism a democracy badly needs.

Of course, these two ventures won’t produce VC-caliber ROI, but you already have plenty of items in A16z portfolio to keep your investors salivating. So, why wallow in BuzzFeed?

And if you want to put your excess of cash into something even more meaningful, hop on a Netjets plane and go to Africa. I recently bumped into an investment banker from Lazard who gave me the full picture of the economic potential of African countries, in every possible field — including leapfrogging technologies that build on the explosion of the mobile internet. For that matter, I’m personally exploring opportunities and the development of mobile apps for health and education in poor countries (a non-profit project). I started modestly by lending an Android phone and other items to an eye surgeon who runs (pro-bono) surgery campaigns in Sub-Saharian Africa. After her last campaign in Burkina-Faso last spring, we debriefed and the conclusions are staggering in terms of demand and opportunities. And I know the same thing is happening with mobile education. I decided to put €10,000 of my own money, just to see some of the ideas I’m nurturing could fly. If I were you Ben, I’d put a million dollars to explore this. And if I were running A16z, I would invest millions in long-term projects such as the automated large-cargo drones system described at the end of Alexis Madrigal’s recent story in The Atlantic that could change a whole continent economy. Or in mobile phone-based projects in Africa funded by PlaNetFinance Group or others. Tech investment in developing countries is indeed a Next Big Thing — much bigger than listicles. Risks and upsides are both huge. Right up your alley.

Best regards,

—Frederic Filloux

The New York Times KPI’s

 

Here are numbers lifted form the NYT’s Innovation report (see last week) and other sources. 

Most of The New York Times’ reach comes from its digital audience. Regardless of the metric, viewers on desktops and mobile are crushing print readers.

321-1 - 450

Sources: ComScore for the monthly uniques (US only); internal count for the home page views per 24 hours period and Gfk MRI based on net weekday & Sunday readership, Fall 2013 survey.

321-2 - 450

321-3 - 450

In theory, the Times can get rid of print. Digital revenue far exceeds the cost of running the newsroom, which amounts to $200m a year for 1300 writers and editors. Even if you add $20m for the 200 technical staff needed to run digital operations, and even 30% more for overhead, sales, marketing, and support staff, the result would still be a substantial profit  – but would advertisers come in the same way for a digital-only product?

321-4 - 450

The ad market seems to reward quality journalism over aggregation and listicles: The NYTimes.com monetizes itself three times better than Business Insider and nineteen times better than BuzzFeed. For this graph I simply divided annual advertising revenue for each media by the number of monthly users: 30m UVs for the NYT, 12m UVs for Business Insider according to ComScore figures quoted in this 247wallst story, and a revenue estimated at $20m by Reuters. (Had I used a 25m UVs assumption, BI’s ARPU would have been only $0.80 per visitor and per year).

321-5 - 450

The Times is known to have invested a lot in its digital subscription system (760,000 subs to date). It turns out to have been worth every penny. For those who doubt the paid model’s efficiency, The New York Times provides a great blueprint for quality media.

–frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com 

 

Time to Rethink the Newspaper. Seriously.

 

The newspaper’s lingering preeminence keeps pulling legacy media downward. Their inability to challenge the old sovereign’s status precludes every step of a critically needed modernization. (Part of a series).  

This column was scheduled to appear in the next two or three weeks. Then, on Thursday, the thick Innovation report by an ad hoc New Times task force came to the fore. Like many media watchers, I downloaded its 97 pages PDF , printed it (yes) and carefully annotated it. A lot has been written about it and I’m not going to add my own exegesis on top of numerous others. You can look at the always competent viewpoint from Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton who sees The leaked New York Times innovation report as one of the key documents of this media age. (Other good coverage includes Politico and Capital New York — I’m linking to the NYT tag, then you’ll have all the stories pertaining to Jill Abramson’s brutal firing as well).

320-Innovation_full

This report is important one for two main reasons:

– The New York Times is viewed as one of the few traditional media to have successfully morphed into a spectacular digital machine. This backdrop gives a strong resonance to the report because many news organizations haven’t achieved half of what the NYT did, whether the metric is the performance of its digital subscription model, or its achievements in high-yield advertising – all while keeping its impregnable ability to collect Pulitzer prizes.

– We rarely, if ever, see an internal analysis expressed in such bold terms. Usually, to avoid ruffling feathers, such reports are heavily edited – which ends up being the best way to preserve the status quo. Even more, mastheads tend to distance themselves from endorsing conclusions coming from the “management crowd” – a coldly demeaning phrase. But, it the Times case, the report was expressly endorsed by the top editors (Abramson and her then second-in-command Dean Baquet who now leads the shop.)

Let’s then focus back to this column’s original intent: Why reinvent the newspaper, quickly and thoroughly.

Until last week, the reference on the matter was an email sent in January 2013 by Lionel Barber, the Financial Times editor (full-text in the Guardian), in which he sets a clear roadmap to shifting resources from print to digital:

I now want to set out in detail how we propose to reshape the FT for the digital age. (…)

[We] are proposing a shift of some resources from night work to day and from print to digital. This requires an FT-wide initiative to train our journalists to operate to the best of their abilities. And it requires decisive leadership. (…)

On unified news desks, we need to become content editors rather than page editors. We must rethink how we publish our content, when and in what form, whether conventional news, blogs, video or social media.

 A year later, key numbers for the FT are impressive:

– A 2013 profit of £55m ($92m, €67m) for the FT Group (which includes the 50% stake Pearson owns in the Economist Group); that’s an increase of 17%, while sales are slightly down by 1% to £449m ( $755m, €551m)

– 415,000 digital subscribers (+31% in one year) who now account for two-thirds of the FT’s total audience (652,000 altogether: +8%, including a staggering 60% growth in corporate users at 260,000)

– A rise in digital subscribers that offsets the decline in advertising now accounting for 32% of FT Group revenue vs. 52% in 2008.

– For the first time, in 2013, FT digital content revenue exceeded print content.

The FT might be on sale – but its management did quite well.

Echoing Lionel Barber’s view of resources reassignments are the equally strong terms from The New York Times’Innovation Report:

In the coming years, The New York Times needs to accelerate its transition from a newspaper that also produces a rich and impressive digital report to a digital publication that also produces a rich and impressive newspaper. This is not a matter of semantics. It is a critical, difficult and, at times, painful transformation that will require us to rethink much of what we do every day. [page 81] 

Stories are typically filed late in the day. Our mobile apps are organized by print sections. Desks meticulously lay out their sections but spend little time thinking about social strategies. Traditional reporting skills are the top priority in hiring and promotion. The habits and traditions built over a century and a half of putting out the paper are a powerful, conservative force as we transition to digital — none more so than the gravitational pull of Page One. [It] has become increasingly clear that we are not moving with enough urgency. [page 59]

The newsroom should begin an intensive review of its print traditions and digital needs — and create a road map for the difficult transition ahead. We need to know where we are, where we’re headed and where we want to go. [page 82]

These quotes from a news organization that never gave up on great journalism will be helpful to those who desperately struggle to transform newsrooms. It is also a plea for the necessity of dumping the obdurate print-first obsession:

– It precludes modernizing the recruiting process as journalists are still too often picked for their writing capabilities while many other talents are needed.

– It limits audience development initiatives. In today’s print-oriented newsrooms, most writers and editors consider their jobs done once the story is filed in the CMS (Content Management System). Unfortunately, in every fast-growing digital media outlets such as Buzzfeed, The HuffPo, Politico, Quartz, Vox Media, now part of the competitive landscape, throwing the story online is actually just the beginning. The ability to cause a news item to reverberate around the social sphere is now as important as being a good writer.

– As stated in the Times report, convincing the masthead on the mandatory resource-shifting in only part of the journey; most of the transformation’s weight lies on the shoulders of the rank and file in the newsroom.

– At the NYT as everywhere else, the old guard (regardless of age, actually), is the main obstacle to the necessary rapprochement between the editorial and the business side. For instance, by rejecting the idea that Branded Content would greatly benefit from the newsroom expertise (although everyone agrees that a news writer should never be asked to write advertorial), or that a conference is indeed an editorial initiative directed to a valuable audience segment, such conservative postures are actually shrinking the company down to its most fragile component.

– The same goes for the analytics arsenal. I heard scores of examples in which newsrooms call for more dashboards and indicators, but seldom use them. Editors should be supported by tactical analytics teams (including at the editorial meeting level) that will provide immediate and mi-terms trends, as well as editorial decision-making tools.

One of the most difficult part of the transformation of legacy media is not addressed in the Times Innovation report nor in the FT’s exposé. It pertains to the future of the physical newspapers itself (the layout of the Times remains terribly out-of-date): How should it evolve? What should be its primary goals in order to address and seduce a readership now overwhelmed by commodity news? What should be the main KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) of a modern newspapers? What about content: types of stories, length, timelessness, value-added? Should it actually remain a daily?

(To be continued…)

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

 

On Marc Andreessen’s optimistic view of news

 

A strongly-worded column by venture capitalist Marc Andreessen triggered an intense debate on the future of news. Andreessen might be right places, but his views can also be dangerously simplistic. 

For starters, it is always great to have an outsider’s view. Marc Andreessen’s witty, and fast-paced dithyramb on the future of news is undoubtedly welcome. But, as always, regardless of the depth and breath of the big picture he paints, the devil lies in the details. In no particular order, here are my thoughts on his manifesto.

As a European, I found his piece extraordinary US-centric or, slightly more broadly, Anglophone-centric.

Andreessen wrote :

[T]he market size is dramatically expanding—many more people consume news now vs. 10 or 20 years ago. Many more still will consume news in the next 10 to 20 years. Volume is being driven up, and that is a big, big deal.
Right now everyone is obsessed with slumping prices, but ultimately, the most important dynamic is No. 3 – increasing volume. Here’s why: Market size equals destiny. The big opportunity for the news industry in the next five to 10 years is to increase its market size 100x AND drop prices 10X. Become larger and much more important in the process.

By saying this, Andreessen makes two good faith mistakes.

First, he mixes up global reach and monetizable audience. Evidently, a growing number of people will enjoy access to news (maybe not all the 5 billion cellphone users he mentions), but the proportion of those able to generate a measurable ARPU is likely to be very small.

The Scalability that works for Google Maps or WhatsApp doesn’t work as well for the notion of relevant information, one that is more tightly connected to language, proximity and culture.

Second, he overestimates the addressable news market’s fragmentation. I live in France, a 66 million people country with a high standard of living and good fixed and mobile internet access. In spite of these factors, it remains a small market for the super-low-yield digital news business that brings few euros per year and per user (except for a minuscule subscriber base.) I remained stunned by the inability of good journalistic products, created by smart people, to find a sustainable business models after years of trying.

And the huge, globalized English speaking market does not warrant financial success. The Guardian is one such example. It operates one of the finest digital news system in the world but keeps bleeding money. The Guardian brings a mere $60m in digital ad revenue per year — to be compared to a kitten-rigged, listicles-saturated aggregator generating a multiple of this amount. Journalism has become almost impossible to monetize by itself (I’ll come back to that topic).

Andreessen also vastly underestimates the cost of good journalism when he writes:

[T]he total global expense budget of all investigative journalism is tiny —  in the neighborhood of tens of millions of dollars annually.”

Fact is, journalism is inherently expensive because it is by laborious and unpredictable: An investigation can take months, and yield nothing; or the journalistic outcome can be great, lifting the reputation of the media, but with zero impact on the revenue side (no identifiable growth in subscriptions or advertising). The same goes for ambitious coverage of people or events. No one has ever translated a Pulitzer Prize in hard dollars.

This is also the case for what Andreessen calls the “Baghdad Bureau problem”. It was said to cost $3m/year for the New York Times. In fact, on an annual basis, the Times spends about $200m for its news operations, including $70m for foreign coverage alone. The NYT is likely to stay afloat when it goes entirely digital (which might happen before the end of the decade), but one of the nastiest features of digital news is the unforgiving Winner Takes All mechanism.

As far as philanthropy is considered, I won’t spend too much time on the issue except to say this: Relying on philanthropy to cure malaria or to support ill-understood artists bears witness to an absence of sustainable economic system. (Until, perhaps, the artist dies; as for malaria, there is indeed a very long term benefit for society, but not for those who supply the treatment, hence the mandatory call to generosity.) Saying investigative or public-interest journalism could/should rely on philanthropy is the same as admitting it’s economically unsustainable. Luckily, American society has produced scores of philanthropists free from any agenda (political, ideological, religious) — such as the Sandler Foundation with ProPublica. That’s not the case in France — not to mention Russia and many other countries.

There are plenty of areas in which I completely support Marc Andreessen’s view. For example: A media company “should be run like a business“, i.e. seek the profitability that will warrant its independence (from every economic agent: shareholders, advertisers, political pressure, etc.) This brings us to the size and shape of a modern news factory (I use the term on purpose). We have to deal with an unpleasant reality: Good journalism is no longer sustainable as a standalone activity. But — and that’s the good news — it remains the best and indispensable core around which to develop multiple activities (see my recent column about The News Media Revenue Matrix).You can’t develop services, conferences, publishing, etc. around a depreciated journalistic asset. On the other hand, this asset has to be drastically streamlined: In many cases, less people, better-paid (simply for the ability to retain talent) and with sufficient means to do their job (don’t go for the press junkets because the travel budget has been slashed, you’ll lose on three counts: credibility of your brand, self-esteem of your team, quality of the reporting.)

Unfortunately, as Andreessen noted, there are plenty of hurdles to overcome. In fact, most existing news companies do not fathom the depth of the transformation required to survive and thrive. Nor do they understand the urgency to set this massive overhaul in motion. Such moves require strength, strong leadership, creativity, a fresh approach, unabated confidence, and a systemic vision — all of the above in short supply at legacy media. Note that when Marc Andreessen prides himself to be an investor in media ventures (for instance Business Insider– no conflict of interest), all are digital natives and bear none of the burdens of traditional media. His bullishness on news is selective, personal.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

What to do with $250m in digital journalism? (II)

 

In a previous Monday Note, we looked at an ideal newsroom, profusely funded by Pierre Omidyar and managed by whistleblowing facilitator Glenn Greenwald, a structure that combines the agility of a tech startup with the highest of journalistic standards. Today, we look at the product and the business model.   

Profit or non-profit? Definitely for-profit! First, because the eBay founder’s track record (see this The New Inquiry article) shows a fierce appetite for profitable ventures. And second, because there no such thing as a free and independent media press without a strong business side: financial vulnerability is journalism’s worst enemy while profit breeds scalability. How to make money, then, with a narrow niche such as investigative journalism? Can Omidyar’s venture move beyond the cross-subsidy system that powered legacy media for decades? This weekend, in a FT.com interview, Henry Blodget justified the deluge of eye-grabbing headlines spread over Business Insider by saying “The dining and motoring sections pay for the Iraq bureau”. . .

For this, Omidyar can look at a wide set of choices: he could devise click-driven contents built on the proven high volume / cheap ads equation. Or he could opt for what I’ll call the Porsche Model, one in which the most visible activity (in this case sports car manufacturing) brings only a marginal contribution to the P&L when compared to its financial activities: in 2009, Porsche made $1bn in profit from car sales and almost $7bn betting on Volkswagen stock. More realistically, an endowment-like model sounds natural for a deep-pocketed investor like Pierre Omidyar. Most US universities are doing fine with that model: a large sum of money, the endowment, is invested and produces enough interest to run operations. One sure thing: If he really wants to go against big corporations and finance, to shield it from pressure, Omidyar should keep its business model disconnected from its editorial operation.

Investigative journalism is a field in which the subscription model can work. In France, the web site Mediapart offers a credible example. Known for, among many others feats, its investigation of the Budget Minister’s hidden Swiss bank account that led to its resignation, Mediapart maintains a newsroom of seasoned reporters working on hot topics. In five years, it collected close to 80,000 subscribers paying €9.90 per month; the web site intends to make €6m ($8m) in revenue and a profit of €0.4m ($0.5m) this year. Small amounts indeed, but not so bad for a market one fifth the size of the US. Scaling up to the huge English-speaking market, and assuming that it will go for a global scope rather than a US-centric coverage, the Omidyar-Greenwald venture could shoot for 500,000 to 800,000 subscribers within a few years, achieving $40m to $60m in yearly revenue.

On the product side, the motto should be Try Everything – on multiple segments and platforms.

Here is possible product-line structure:

298 graph

Mobile should primarily be a news updating vector. In a developing story, say hearings on the NSA scandal, readers want quotes, live blogging, snapshots – all easy to grab while on the go. Addiction must be the goal.

Newsletters deserve particular attention. They remain an excellent vector to distribute news and a powerful traffic driver. But this requires two conditions: First, they must be carefully designed, written by human beings and not by robots. Second, they must be run like an e-commerce operation: a combination of mass emailing and heavy personalization based on collected navigation data. For an editorial product, this means mapping out granular “semantic profiles” in order to serve users with tailored contents. If the Omidyar-Greenwald project lives up to its promise, it will deliver a regular stream of exclusive stuff. A cleverly engineered email system (both editorially and technically) stands good chances  to become a must-read.

User profiling must allow the creation of several verticals. Judging who will join the venture from the first bylines (see article in CNet), the coverage intends te be broad: from national security to White House politics, sports issues (a sure click-bait), civil liberties, military affairs, etc. This justifies working on audience segmentation, as not everyone will be interested in the same subject. The same goes for social web extensions: the more segmented, the better.

Web TV. If you want to go beyond kittens or Nascar crashes, providing TV contents on the web is more difficult that it appears. But “programs” available in Scandinavia show that, for developing stories, Web TV can be a great substitute for conventional TV as it allows simultaneous coverage of multiple events. Nordic viewers love that.

Fact-checking. Since the Omidyar-Greenwald project is built. t on trust and transparency, it should consider launching the equivalent of politifact.com, a fact-checking web site operated by the Tampa Bay Times, which landed a Pulitzer Prize in 2009. A vertical fact-checking site on national security, privacy and data protection issue would definitely be a hit.

Other languages. Going after the Chinese market could be hard to resist. According to Internet World Stats, it is by far the largest single market in the world with 538 million people connected to the web in 2012. For a media venture aimed at lifting the veil on corruption, China offers strong potential in itself. As far as evading censorship, it should be an appealing challenge for the squad of hackers hired by Omidyar-Greenwald.

A print version? Yes. It sounds weird, but I strongly believe that a well-designed weekly, large format (tabloid or Berliner), distributed on selected, affluent markets, would complete the product line. Print remains a vector of choice for specific, long-form readings, ambitious news scenographies with high impact photographs, for an in-depth profile or a public interest story.

Global Thinking. Its potential for worldwide reach is one of this venture’s most interesting factors. It will be of limited interest if it doesn’t embrace a global approach to public interest journalism in large democracies but also in countries that are deprived of a free press (a long list). Creating a high standard, worldwide affiliation system to promote investigative journalism everywhere, regardless of the economic and political constraints, should definitely be on the founders’ roadmap.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

What to do with $250m in digital journalism? (1)

 

Pierre Omidyar, Ebay’s founder and now philanthropist, pledged $250m to a new investigative reporting venture. Starting a project of this magnitude from scratch isn’t an everyday occurrence, leading us to wonder how it could look like? (First of two articles) 

For a digital journalism project, 250 million dollars (€185m) is a serious investment. So far, it’s unclear whether this is a one-time investment, merely initial funding (Omidyar’s share in eBay is approx. $8.5bn), or just yearly running costs. To put things in perspective, The New York Times’ 1300 people newsroom costs around $200m per year, including $70m for international coverage alone, i.e. reporting abroad and maintaining 24 foreign bureaus manned by 50 reporters. But, by most measures, the scope of NYT operations is at the far end of the scale.

A more realistic example is the funding of the non-profit media ProPublica (see a previous Monday Note on the subject). According to its 2012 financial statement (PDF here), ProPublica has raised a little more than $10m from philanthropic organizations and spends less than that for a 30 persons staff. No one disputes that, journalistically speaking, ProPublica is a remarkable publication; it faithfully follows its “Journalism in the Public Interest” mission statement, collecting two Pulitzer Prizes in so doing.

Great journalism can be done at a relatively minimal cost, especially when focused on a narrow segment of the news spectrum. On the other hand, as the New York Times P&L shows, the scope and size of its output directly correlates to the money invested in its production – causing the spending to skyrocket as a result.

Since we know little of Pierre Omidyar’s intentions (interview here in the NYT and a story outlining the project), I’ll spare Monday Note readers my usual back-of-the-envelope calculations, and I’ll stick to a general outline of what a richly funded news ventures could look like.

Staffing structure. Once again, ProPublica shows the way: a relatively small team of young staffers, coached by seasoned reporters and editors. For this, Omidyar draws the hottest name in the field, namely the lawyer-activist-Guardian blogger Glenn Greenwald, who played a prominent role in the Snowden leaks (more about him: his blog on The Guardian; a NYT Magazine profile of Greenwald’s pal Laura Poitras, another key Snowden helper).

Greenwald_guardian

Multi-layer hierarchy is the plague of legacy media. The org chart should be minimalist. A management team of five dedicated, experienced editors is sufficient to lead a 24/365 news structure. Add another layer for production tasks and that’s pretty much it. As for the headcount, it depends on the scope of the news coverage: My guess is a newsroom of 100-150, including a production staff (I’ll come back to that in a moment) can do a terrific  job.

No Guild, no unions, no syndicats à la française, please. Behind their “fighting for our people” façade, they cynically protect their cushy prebends and accelerate the industry’s demise. As a result, the field is left open to pure players – who are keeping people in stables, content-recycling factories.

Beyond that, avoiding any kind of collective bargaining allows management to pay whatever will be necessary to hire and retain talent, without relying to fake titles or bogus hierarchy positions to justify their choices. In addition, above-market salaries should discourage ethically dubious external gigs. Lastly, a strict No-Kolkhoze governance must be enforced from the outset; collaboration and heated intellectual debate is fine as long as it doesn’t emasculate decisions, development, innovation – and speed.

A Journalism 2.0 Academy. I strongly believe in the training of staffers, journalists or not. Hiring motivated young lawyers, accountants, financial analysts, even scientists, and teaching them the trade of journalism is one the best ways to raise the competency level in a newsroom. It means having a couple of in-house “teachers” who will compile and document the best internal and external practices, and dispense those on a permanent basis. This is what excellence requires.

A Technology Directorate. On purpose, I’m borrowing jargon from the CIA or the FSB. A modern news organization should get inspiration from the intelligence community, with a small staff of top level engineers, hackers, cryptographers, data miners, semantic specialists. Together, they will collect data, protect communications for the staff and their sources, provide secured workstations, laptops and servers, build a mirroring infrastructure as a precaution against governmental intrusion. This is complex and expensive: It means establishing encrypted links between countries, preferably on a dedicated network (take advantage of Google’s anger against the NSA to rent capacity), and putting servers in countries like Iceland — a libertarian country and also one of the most connected in the world. While writing this, I ran a couple of “ping” tests, and it turned out that, from Europe, the response-time from an Icelandic server is twice as short as from the New York Times!

Besides assisting the newsroom, tech staff should build a secure and super-fast and easy-to-use Content Management System. Most likely, the best way will turn out to be a WordPress system hack – as Forbes, Quartz, AllThingsD, and plenty of others did. Whatever the setup ends up being, it must be loaded with a powerful semantic engine, connected to scores of databases that will help enrich stories with metadata (see a previous Monday Note on the subject The story as gateway to knowledge). By the same token, a v2.0 newsroom should have its own “aggrefilter”, its own Techmeme that will monitor hundreds websites, blogs and twitter feeds and programmatically collect the most relevant stories. This could be a potent tool for a newsroom (we are building one at Les Echos that will primarily benefit our news team.)

Predictive Analysis Tools and Signal-to-Noise detection. In a more ambitious fashion, an ideal news machine should run analytics aimed at anticipating/predicting spasms in the news cycle. Pierre Omidyar and Glenn Greenwald should acquire or build a unit like the Swedish company Recorded Future (more in this story in Wired UK), which is used by large corporations and by the CIA. Perhaps more realistically, building tools to analyze and decipher in realtime the internet’s “noise”, and being able to detect “low-level signals” could be critical to effectively surfing the wave.

That’s all for today. Next week, I’ll address two main points: Designing modern news products, and ideas on how to make (some) money with this enthralling venture.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

The story as gateway to knowledge (and revenue)

 

In digital journalism, the article is no longer an end in itself. Quite the contrary, it’s an entry point to the depths and riches of the web, and a significant contributor to the revenue stream.

Last week in Paris, I met the representative of a major US tech firm in charge of content-based partnerships. This witty, fast-thinking young engineer toured European capitals for an upcoming web + mobile platform, meeting guys like me in charge of digital operations in large media companies. Our discussion quickly centered on the notion of article in the digital world. Like many of his peers (I can’t  name them otherwise you might triangulate with whom I spoke), he looked at the journalistic article in an old-fashioned way: a block of text, augmented with links here and there, period.

This no longer is how it works — or how it should work.

There are many forms of digital journalistic contents. They range from the morning briefing you’ll eat up on your smartphone while inhaling your breakfast, or during your commute to work, to the long-form piece aimed at lean-back reading, preferably on a tablet and with a glass of chilled chardonnay. In between, there is the immense output of large media outlets that create good original content, hundreds of pieces every day.

If we draw a quick matrix of contents vs time and devices, chances are it will look like this:

usages, devices

As the graph shows, in a ideal world, a news stream should be broken into multiple formats to fit different devices at different times of the day. Of course, the size of the bubbles depicting usage intensity varies by market.

Three notes: the smartphone appears as the clear winner with high usage, spread all over the day; tablets enjoy the largest scope of contents (plus the highest engagement). As for the PC, it has been evicted as a vector for mainstream, general news. Still, thanks to its unparalleled capabilities and penetration as a productivity tool, the PC retains the most of the business uses. Consequently, the news read on a PC, largely in the context of a professional use, carry a greater value — as long as the article is linked to three different functions:

First as an audience concentrator from multiple sources, see here:

traffic drivers

Second, by building a system in which the article becomes an entry point to the web’s depths, i.e. to the trove of publicly and freely available databases. To get an idea of the open web’s riches, see the image below and click this link to dive into it:

debpedia_colored

 

This two-year old graph was designed by University of Berlin computer scientists. All these datasets are up for grabs by editors and publishers willing to expand their contents. Every single piece of news can be greatly augmented by hundreds of datasets orbiting around the DNpedia Knowledge Base (part of the Wikipedia Project.) According to its official description, the English version of DPpedia describes 4 million objects, including:

  • 832,000 persons
  • 639,000 places (including 427,000 populated places)
  • 372,000 creative works (including 116,000 music albums, 78,000 films and 18,500 video games)
  • 209,000 organizations (including 49,000 companies and 45,000 educational institutions), 226,000 species
  • 5,600 diseases.
  • When extended to the 119 available languages, the number of objects rises to 25 million.

The third way to raise the value of editorial contents is to use the article as a promotional vehicle for a broad set of ancillary products that media organizations should develop:

article upsell

(Needless to say, in this chart, Church and State must remain separated: the article is to be a journalistic product, aimed primarily at informing the public; the “promotional” aspect being only secondary.)

Until now, connecting to multiple datasets and up-selling extra products weren’t priorities for most legacy media. The main reasons are well-known: insufficient technological culture and investments  — which left the field totally open to pure players that made a modern, productive use of both datasets and new commercial channels. Things are changing though. Slowly.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

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