Under Marissa Mayer’s leadership, Yahoo keeps making substantial efforts to become a major news media player. Will a couple of well-know bylines and a shiny mobile app do the job?
A big Silicon Valley player entering the news business has long been the worst nightmare of legacy publishers. Combining an array of high tech products with the ability to get all the talent money can buy, the Valley giant could be truly disruptive. Ten years ago, the ongoing fantasy was Google or a Yahoo gulping the New York Times or another such big media property. For many reasons — economical as well as cultural ones — it didn’t happen. Yahoo once approached NYT’s columnist Thomas Friedman, offering him a hefty pay raise to become its star writer. But the Times’ globo-pundit quickly backed off when he realized that most of his reputation — as arguable as it can be (see the cruel Tom Friedman OpEd Generator) — was tied to his employer. Yahoo and others put the issue at rest for years, focusing on core challenges: survival for Yahoo and global domination for Google.
Last year, we first witnessed a significant move from the tech galaxy: Jeff Bezos acquired the Washington Post by. As mentioned in the Monday Note (see the Memos To Jeff series), Amazon’s technical firepower will undoubtedly exert a transformative — rather than merely incremental — impact on the Post. Further, I guess this will end up being a welcome stimulus for the entire industry, it really needs a tech kick in its sagging backside.
Then came the Yahoo initiatives. Last fall, Marissa Mayer, snatched three visible talents from the New York Times: Megan Liberman, until then the Times’ deputy news editor, was appointed Yahoo News editor in chief; Mayer also tapped iconic tech columnist David Pogue; a month later, she picked the Times’ chief political correspondent Matt Bai. Finally, on November 25th, Marissa Mayer announced that she hired former TV host Katie Couric as the portal’s “global anchor”.
Here we are: Expect Yahoo to simultaneously enter three major information segments: General audience programming with Katie Couric’s show; political and national issues; and tech coverage (in addition to the classical Food site). Logically, Yahoo started with the tech side. Pogue himself introduced Yahoo Tech on stage at CES last week — and didn’t pass up the opportunity to blast its competitors, mocking their nerdy and obscure language. Interface wise, I found the site pretty clever with its one page, endless scrolling structure — a trend to be noticed — and articles showcased in about 120 tiles (approx 7 tiles x 18 rows), each expanding as needed and keeping its own URL, which is essential for social sharing uses.
Regardless of David Pogue’s ability to put a the human face on technology, Yahoo Tech is entering an increasingly crowded segment. This month, the Wall Street Journal rolled out WSJD, set to take Walt Mossberg’s and Kara Swisher’s AllThingsD slot, itself reborn as Re/Code (can’t find a geekier name), operated by the same duo. The Re/Code money machine will be the already sold-out Code Conference and its offsprings. WSJD features potent editorial firepower with no less than 50 writers on deck.
Marissa Mayer made no mystery of the fact that her editorial initiatives will be directed at Yahoo’s #1 priority, “the company’s commitment to mobile”. When she landed at Yahoo, Mayer was dismayed to discover that everyone received a Blackberry. Now, the company wants to board every relevant ecosystem, starting with iOS and Android.
That’s what Yahoo does with its interesting NewsDigest App for iOS, launched at CES. As its tech web site does, the mobile app focuses on a series of hot trends. First of all, with its truncated structure, the app borrows a lot from Circa (see a previous Monday Note); it also inherits technology developed by Summly, the startup it acquired in March last year (merely five months after the app’s launch). Summly’s core idea is a news summarizing algorithm. The NewsDigest iteration does actually much more than condensing stories: In a neat interface, it creates context by slicing coverage as follows:
–Main Twitter feeds
…plus a set of references if you want more.
For a story picked up yesterday, it looks like this:
Evidently, there is room for improvement. Weirdly enough, the app is updated only twice a day and carries less than ten stories. Both elements go against the idea of a smartphone app supposed to update on a permanent and to provide content in an endless stream. Plus, automated as it is, the prose can’t quite compete for a Pulitzer Prize. But, if Yahoo decides to hand the key ingredients over to a competent editorial team, the NewsDigest could become a really good product.
Coming back to this column’s main topic, I believe Yahoo is really up to something in the news sector:
— Yahoo enjoys huge traction in the mobile world: According to Marissa Mayer, among the 800 million people who access Yahoo every month (excluding Tumbler), roughly 400 million reach the portal through their mobile phone. (Despite that number, one irritating thing: Yahoo made its app available to the US AppStore only, ignoring the hundreds millions of English-speaking users on other shores, East and West of Sunnyvale, California.)
— Unlike with Google’s mobile strategy, Yahoo is free from Android’s strategic goals and from a difficult relationship with Apple. It can therefore play the two ecosystems equally, opening the potential for one to gain leverage against the other.
— Even better, by last week acquiring Aviate, an Android customizing interface layer, Yahoo can now create its own branded experience on top of the standard Android interface.
— Assuming it enters the news business for good, Yahoo will act like a tech company, not a legacy media one. In other words, it will first build a sizable audience for its news ecosystem while deliberately ignoring the revenue side as long as needed. Then, it will optimize and datamine this user base to understand in the most granular way what works and what doesn’t. Having successfully gone through those steps, Yahoo will then transform the (hopefully vast) newly acquired audience into a money machine.
This is the way it works nowadays.
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:
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.
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…
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
Scroll #2 & 3 : a short development and main quotes
Scroll 4 & 5, the end of the development and related stories
Now, tap the “i” icon to get source information (in green):
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) :
“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:
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…