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Aug. 30, 2013, 12:24 p.m.
LINK: www.nytimes.com  ➚   |   Posted by: Joshua Benton   |   August 30, 2013

nytimes-logoDiscussions about the future of news often feature a dystopian, filter-bubbly argument: Let people personalize the news they consume and it’ll kill the common conversation essential to democracy.

I’ve always been suspicious of that argument. (That “common conversation” was always a bit of a charade, and old newspaper monopolies can’t be simply willed back into existence by trying to guilt-trip readers who’ve found options they prefer.)

But whatever your feelings about it, the reality is that very few news organizations have invested in technology that would allow for substantially different presentation of the news from person to person. If my neighbor goes to CNN.com, he’ll see the same webpage I do; if my mother goes to LATimes.com, it’ll be the same page I see. (Some sites do minor shifts based on geography — local audiences vs. national audiences, for instance — but that’s still a long way from true personalization.)

The New York Times is one of the few major news organizations that’s invested in a recommendations engine that attempts to figure out what stories you, as an individual, might be most interested in. Today, they pushed a set of improvements to that engine, with more to come:

So what’s changed?

They’re not kidding about the real-time aspect; my recommendations have changed several times in just the past few minutes. (Although it keeps insisting I need to read this Miley Cyrus article.)

I’ve always found the Times’ recommendations engine to be quite good, and the early reviews of this edition are solid:

The Times is well positioned for an investment in personalization. First off, it produces an enormous amount of content — hundreds of stories, blog posts, videos, and slideshows each day. If you’re limiting your recommendations to recent content, you need to be producing a lot of it every day for a personalization filter to make any sense.

Second, the Times’ metered paywall approach — 10 free articles a month, payment required after that — means that getting another click can mean a lot more than earning another $0.004 in advertising revenue. The meter incentivizes the paper to do whatever it can to push a marginal reader’s story count higher. If you can figure out what a reader wants — and you can make those recommendations prominent, as the Times does by putting them in the sidebar of article pages — maybe you can turn a few 8-article-a-month (free) types into 15-article-a-month (paying) types. (In the beta version of article pages, recommendations aren’t nearly as prominent — but that could obviously change before the site redesign launches.)

My big question is when recommendations will break out of their shell and become more prominent on the front page of NYTimes.com. They’re there now, but several screenfuls down, beneath dozens of other links. When the layout and selection of stories at the top of the front page starts to be influenced by personal recommendations — when, say, 2 of the 15 articles on the top of my version of NYTimes.com are different from your version — that’ll be a milestone for the algorithm. (Or the death knell of democracy, if you argue the other side.) There’s a lot of newspaper tradition arguing against that sort of personalization; I’m hoping the Times can allow itself to benefit a bit more from a pretty powerful tool.

Also, Jacob Harris has an interesting idea:

Update: This isn’t strictly related to the recommendations engine, but I also noticed that the Times is now available for programming on IFTTT, the web-automation tool popular among a certain subspecies of nerds. So you can, for example, now get an automatic email when a New York Times Magazine becomes very popular, or save all Well stories to Instapaper, or get an SMS when your company is mentioned in a Times story.

Will IFTTT generate earthshaking pageviews for the Times? Highly doubtful. But it’s another case, like the recommendations engine, of the Times (a) differentiating itself from its peers and (b) using technology to make the Times more useful to its readers. Those are wins.

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LINK: comicsalliance.com  ➚   |   Posted by: Justin Ellis   |   September 17, 2014

The Guardian is giving new life to the traditional newspaper comic strip with The Last Saturday. Instead of Marmaduke or the ongoing exotic adventures of Mark Trail, The Last Saturday is a weekly graphic novella made to be read in print and online.

Created by the Eisner Award and Harvey Award winner Chris Ware, the episodic comic is blown out in vivid color and rich detail, with stories following the daily lives of people in the town of Sandy Port, Michigan. Ware is no stranger to collaborating with newspapers; part of his graphic novel “Building Stories” was serialized in The New York Times Magazine.

chris-ware-guardian-comic

As Comics Alliance notes, the Guardian may be trying to find better ways to make Ware’s work more tactile and engaging in digital formats:

‘The Last Saturday’ is an interesting format experiment. The first page doesn’t offer much more than a digital magnifier (primarily for mobile readers) and some unorthodox panel orientations, as is standard for Ware’s work, but considering that The Guardian’s “interactive team” is developing functionality for the comic, there’s a possibility that the comic could take advantage of the online format in all sorts of interesting ways.

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LINK: bbcpopup.tumblr.com  ➚   |   Posted by: Justin Ellis   |   September 11, 2014

The business of journalism looks a lot like a game of Risk right now, as media companies are angling for position with new sites and bureaus around the globe. Quartz and The Huffington Post have both recently set up shop in India. BuzzFeed plans to use its new funding to expand its overseas reporting footprint, and this week Politico announced it was partnering with Axel Springer to launch a Europe-focused politics site.

bbcnewsWith so much globetrotting it only makes sense that foreign news outlets would turn their eyes to the United States. The BBC set off on one adventure this week with BBC Pop Up, a mobile (in the on-the-move sense, not the iPhone 6 sense) reporting project where journalists will report from a series of U.S. cities over the next six months. Like any good pop up restaurant, the BBC’s plans are simultaneously ambitious but also limited: the BBC team will file stories for online, shoot video for broadcast, and work with locals to uncover unreported stories. It’ll do all of that in one month before moving on to the next town. The first stop is Boulder, Colo. The Ringling Brothers would be proud.

For an organization as large as the BBC the pop up bureaus are a relatively low risk/high reward proposition. It gets the BBC wider exposure in the United States as something other than the place that broadcasts Gordon Ramsey and Doctor Who, but also serves as a test for whether there is a broader appetite for their reporting in the states.

As far as experiments go, it’s still curious why a news organization that already has large bureaus throughout the United States, not to mention various language services around the world, would put on a roadshow. As Matt Danzico, head of the BBC innovation lab explains, the pop up project is about building a bridge to a new type of audience:

In the 21st Century, creating video for television from cities like Washington, New York and/or Los Angeles is definitely an effective way of reaching traditional media consumers in those markets. But if you’re also trying to reach younger generations in Colorado, for instance, why not create gripping video from the state that’s of interest to a global audience?

And now you’ve not only provided interesting programming to your traditional audience but you have also sparked the interest of an entirely new community as well.

Do that for one month at a time. Post your videos to local social media. Move cities. Repeat.

Yes, BBC News has 44 foreign bureaus in a heap of cities around the world. But the world has nearly 3,000 cities with a population over 150k. So why not create a mobile bureau that can embed itself in a community and then relocate easily?

Here’s a look at what they have in store:

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LINK: www.buzzfeed.com  ➚   |   Posted by: Joseph Lichterman   |   September 11, 2014

Apple WatchAfter Apple unveiled its Apple Watch earlier this week most news organizations are still figuring out how — or even if — they’ll develop apps for the smart watch. Most outlets haven’t received any technical specifications from Apple about the device and are still in the very preliminary stages of thinking about how they’ll approach the smart watch, Myles Tanzer reports in BuzzFeed.

There was at least one news app that got an advance look at the Apple Watch: Yahoo News Digest. The app’s logo was visible on mock-ups of the watch during Apple’s presentation. (It’s the purple one with the colorful dots in a circle — above the Pinterest logo — in the watch that’s above.)

From BuzzFeed:

But during the Tuesday’s keynote, close observers noticed multiple quick flashes of the Apple Watch’s homescreen that showed icons for two apps from Yahoo, one of which is a version of the popular Yahoo News Digest app. Adam Cahan, Yahoo’s senior vice president of mobile and emerging products, confirmed to BuzzFeed News that the company has a working version of a Yahoo News Digest product but was wary to comment on any additional apps from Yahoo — “I wouldn’t read into every icon that you see everywhere.” He said the Yahoo team was one of a select few chosen to participate in a multi-week test of the Apple Watch’s development kit.

The Apple Watch is slated to be released sometime early next year. It seems likely more news apps will be developed for the platform.

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LINK: new.dowjones.com  ➚   |   Posted by: Justin Ellis   |   September 9, 2014

The Wall Street Journal wants readers to know that being a subscriber has its perks. The Journal rolled out WSJ+ this week, a complimentary membership program for readers who have subscriptions to the paper.

What, exactly, does being a WSJ+ member get you beyond a sweet membership card to display on your digital device of choice? From the Journal’s news release:

WSJ+ members will receive special offers and be welcomed to invitation-only events designed to bring Journal content to life, while providing subscribers elevated Journal experiences specially curated to speak to their wide-ranging and ambitious interests. Events will take place across the country and will include panel discussions with top Journal editors, as well as arts performances and private film screenings.

As a WSJ+ member you could get a talk and tour of the Journal newsroom (“learn how our famous stipples are made,” the event advertises) with Editor in Chief Gerald Baker or see a conversation between Whoopi Goldberg and legendary TV producer Norman Lear.

Many of the offers through WSJ+ are either discounts or raffles seemingly attuned to the needs of the aspirational Journal reader. Tell the “Golf Concierge” you’d like a discount to play at course in Hilton Head Island, or win two tickets to the Longines Los Angeles Masters equestrian event.

The Journal is one of a growing number of media companies that wants to deepen the relationship with readers through membership programs. Both nonprofit and for-profit companies are trying to find programs to incentivize paid readership while also collecting more detailed data on their audience. One difference is that some loyalty programs, like WSJ+, are complimentary with a subscription. Others, like The Guardian’s membership plan and The New York Times’ Times Premier, are extra, which means a potential added source of revenue.

The characteristics of the programs usually fall into similar categories: special access to events, discounts, and invitations to look behind the curtain of your beloved news provider. Wine and free books seem to be a love shared by media executives and newspaper readers.

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LINK: gigaom.com  ➚   |   Posted by: Justin Ellis   |   September 5, 2014

Netflix wants to boost its mobile audience and plans to make shorter, bite-sized videos to do it. According to Janko Roettgers at Gigaom, the streaming media company plans to create 2-5 minute video clips specifically targeted at mobile viewers. The catch is that Netflix won’t be producing new content, but slicing up scenes from its catalog of movies, TV shows, and comedy specials. Like many media companies, Netflix is seeing a shift in the consumption patterns and interests of its audience:

Davis said Thursday that most Netflix content is still watched on TV screens, but that mobile is seeing the biggest growth, in part because of the way phones have been changing. “As screen sizes are becoming bigger, watching content on phones becomes more natural,” he said.

That development prompted Netflix to take mobile more seriously, and while researching the space, Netflix’s designers came upon an unexpected challenge: 87 percent of all mobile sessions last less than ten minutes — but Netflix didn’t have any content that was less than ten minutes long. That’s why the company decided to experiment with shorter-form content.

It’s an interesting move that lines up with interest in things like, say, seconds-long clips of crucial soccer goals. It also mirrors recent short-form video products like NFL Now and 120 Sports.

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