databases

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

Lessons from ProPublica

Paul Steiger is one of the men I admire the most in my profession. Five years ago, at the age of 65, and after a 16-year tenure as the Wall Street Journal’s managing editor, he seized the opportunity to create a new form of investigative journalism. Steiger created ProPublica, a non-profit newsroom dedicated to the public interest and to deep dive reporting. He hired a bunch of young staffers (coached by seasoned editors and reporters) that could help him lift data journalism and computer-assisted reporting to the highest level. Thanks to wisely managed partnerships, he gave ProPublica a wide audience and the quality and breadth of his newsroom’s reporting landed it scores of awards, including two Pulitzer Prizes. ProPublica was the first online news organization to receive such a seal of approval.

All this in five years, with now 33 journalists. Kudos.

Last wednesday, at the end of quick hop to New York, I paid Paul Steiger a visit. His corner office nests on the 23rd floor of Broadway, overlooking Wall Street’s canyons and Manhattan’s southern tip. At 70, Steiger has a twinkle in the eye that you don’t often find in reporters half his age. Especially when he speaks about ProPublica’s most shining journalistic moments.

In late 2006, the Sandler Foundation, approached Steiger with a wish to allocate a fraction of its immense wealth to the funding of investigative reporting. The newsman made four recommendations:

– The first one was to rely on a permanent staff as opposed to hired guns. “To do the kind of journalism we wanted to do, you must have people comfortable enough to stay on the story as long as needed. You also must accept dry holes. Freelancers will starve in such conditions!”

– Two, for the biggest stories, he wanted to partner with one or two large news organizations that could be granted some exclusivity over a short period of time in exchange for good visibility.

– Three, in order to guarantee the widest reach, Paul Steiger wanted to distribute the material freely on the web.

– Four, he would solely be responsible for content; funders or other contributors would not be involved in selecting stories. (Actually, on ProPublica’s first board meeting, none of the financial backers knew what the newsroom was working on.)

The partnership proved to be a great idea and expanded much farther than anticipated. It relied quite a lot on Paul Steiger’s and Stephen Engelberg’s personal connections (Engelberg is ProPublica’s editor-in-chief.) Quite often, Steiger explained, once a story neared completion, he’d place a call directly to a key editor in a major publications. “Sometimes, I could feel the excitement over the phone”, he laughs. He had to be very careful not to say too much before hammering the deal. I asked him how he handles confidential sources: “Well, we do not mind giving sources’ names to editors and lawyers, but less so to beat reporters… You know, reporters are human, and they might be tempted to call the sources themselves…”

Cooperation with other medias turned out to breed an unexpected advantage: transforming good national stories into a local ones. The best example, is the Dollars for Docs project. In a nutshell: a sizable portion of pharmaceutical firms operating in the United States are now required to reveal all direct contributions to doctors. (It’ll be 100% next year.) Needless to say, they complied reluctantly, providing a sloppy, almost useless database. As a result, the two reporters assigned to the subject were at a loss when it came to retrieve relevant data. Then, a young ProPublica in-house data specialist joined the team and solved the puzzle in a few weeks. The story was published by ProPublica’s five partners: The Chicago Tribune, The Boston Globe, PBS, NPR and Consumer Reports. Why Consumer Reports? “Because they had polling capabilities”, Steiger said. “Pharmaceuticals companies were saying patients didn’t mind if doctors got fees from them, we proved patients actually care…” After a few days for the key partners’ exclusivity window, the database was released on the web on October 19, 2010. In an easily searchable way, it showed the status of 17,000 doctors receiving a total of $750 million. A small stimulus to keep the flow of prescriptions smooth and steady — and to contribute to the indecent cost of healthcare in America.

Then the local mechanics kicked in. In the months afterwards, no less than 125 local outlets picked up the story, extracting relevant local information from the database and adding context. That’s one of the most interesting aspects of ProPublica’s work: its ability to cause a national interest story to percolate down to the local news organizations which, in turn, will give the story more depth by connecting it to its relevant community. (ProPublica now has 78 partners)

I asked Paul Steiger if he believes this model could be translated into a classic business. After all, why not gather half a dozen non-competiting news outlets, happy to split the price of large journalistic projects — each costing from $100,000 to $200,000 to produce — in addition to a small fee from local news? Paul Steiger says it cannot be made to work. To sum it up, by asking a newspaper or a TV network to pay, ProPublica would directly compete with their clients’ internal economics. Inevitably, someone will say, hey, last year, we paid x thousands dollars in fees for ProPublica’s stories, that’s the equivalent of y staffers. Not to mention the state of the news industry with, in fact, very few companies willing (and able) to pay extra editorial costs. The consequence would be a down spiral: deprived of the vast audience it now enjoys, the organization would have a hard time attracting clients for its content, nor would it be able to attract donations. Fact is, such syndication doesn’t work. California Watch, which operates on the same beat as ProPublica, burns more than $2 million a year but collects less than… $30,000 dollars in syndication fees.

That’s why ProPublica plans to stick to its original structure. Next year, Paul Steiger will step down as ProPublica’s editor-in-chief and chief executive, he’ll become executive chairman, a position in which he will spend most of his time raising money for the organization. As it stands today, ProPublica is on a sound path. The first two years of operation were solely funded by the Sandler family, for about $10 million a year. This year their contribution will be down to $4 million, with $6m coming from other sources. In 2013, the breakdown will be $3m and $7 million. Not only did ProPublica put itself at the forefront of the public interest, high quality, digitally boosted, modern journalism, but it also created a sustainable way to support it.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

Mark Zuckerberg, The Architect

The Social Network is an excellent movie. It’s fast, entertaining. And words crafted by Aaron Sorkin, one of Hollywood’s most talented screenwriter, flatter the Harvard crowd and make it sound wittier than it actually is. In addition, digital imaging enthusiasts will enjoy the Red Camera’s performance, demonstrating its extraordinary low light and depth-of-field creative potential. David Fincher’s movie has to be seen as fiction based on a true story. Nothing more. There is no room or need for an exegesis here.

And yet, Facebook’s most game-changing feature couldn’t be rendered into pixels. It is actually encapsulated on page 34 of Sorkin’s script, when Zuckerberg is facing the too-perfect Winkelvoss twins (played by a single actor in the movie, thanks to special effects) who pitch him their idea of the “HarvardConnection” social network. Their sketchy description triggers a short but intense burst of activity in Mark’s brain. The 20 year-old geek is seen processing the idea at light speed, before mumbling: “I’m in”.

No further questions. In five seconds, we’ve witnessed the fictitious Zuckerberg envisioning the seeds of a grand plan, going well beyond his own (and gross) rate-a-girl algorithm, and beyond the Winkelvosses project of “an exclusive Harvard-dot-e-d-u” network. (In the real life, the twin eventually sue Zuckerberg for stealing their idea, and settle for an alleged $64m). More

Can Data Revitalize Journalism ?

Get a demo of a Bloomberg terminal. You’ll be is blown away by the depth of available data. Thousands of statistics, historical tables, sources… Everything is available through the proprietary terminal. Bloomberg started by offering a real-time news flow dedicated to the needs of the financial community, traders, analysts, etc. Over the years, the system expanded in two directions. First, remarkable journalistic work grew Bloomberg from a unidimensional newswire into a multi-product company providing breaking news, features stories, in-depth reporting, TV feed, radio, podcasts, even a magazine. The service is encapsulated in a terminal rented for a fixed price (€1800 a month), no discount, no complex pricing structure, just one product, that’s it. (This choice of integrating content into a piece of hardware reminds me of a famous Cupertino-based fruit company). Bundled with the product, you get raw data, lots of it. That’s the other Bloomberg’s gem. The ability to tap into big databases is an essential journalistic tool. It undoubtedly helped Bloomberg to reach its status in the financial information sector. More