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Sept. 6, 2013, 1:28 p.m.

New York Times Company CEO Mark Thompson was back in his native U.K. today to give an address at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, which is celebrating an anniversary of its fellowship program. Here’s the full text (pdf) of his prepared remarks. Here are a few of the items I thought were most worth highlighting:

Classified evaporation

One statistic that is still startling even if, by now, it’s hardly surprising: In 2000, The New York Times generated $204 million in help-wanted advertising. In 2012? $13 million, a decline of 94 percent.

Nothing Compares 2 Times

Thompson shares a bit more about the Times’ project-in-progress Need 2 Know. (I sincerely hope that that his prepared remarks are mistaken and it’s actually “Need To Know” — or else he’s been listening to a lot of Prince slow jams.)

One of the new ideas is a project with the working title of Need 2 Know. Though it will be available on all digital platforms, we’re developing it for mobile, and particularly smart-phone first, and it’s intended to offer users the perfect briefing not just on the news that’s already happened but on the events and stories up ahead that our editors have already got their eye on, and to it with its own voice and its own flavour. If you’ve caught the ‘New York Today’ feature in the Metro section of our website, you’ll have an idea of what that flavour could be.

I do like the idea of more and better summarization products — but I wonder how easy they’ll be to monetize. (A roundup of news links, service-y news-you-can-use, and some editorial flavor can be great — but it’s also not that hard to duplicate.)

Passing the controls overseas

Control of NYTimes.com and related digital products will no longer rest solely in midtown Manhattan:

Our newsrooms around the world are already working far more closely together than before and editorial control of the global edition of the Web site will be handed over, for the first time, to Jill and Andy’s teams in London, Paris and Hong Kong.

Aiming high with video

Some interesting details on video strategy: Thompson doesn’t seem to be a huge fan of the two-journalists-talking-about-a-story model for newspaper video:

Newsroom or studio-based video talk — which The Times has experimented with over the years and which both the Wall Street Journal and the Huffington Post are spending heavily on at the moment — can work well when there’s a big and real-time event to talk about. I thought that The Times’s video coverage of last autumn’s election, combining news feeds of some of the key moments with cogent analysis, worked very well — and it certainly drove impressions. But, as the twenty-four hour TV news teams discovered many years ago, there’s nothing quite as dull as journalists talking to each other on video when nothing is happening.

He promotes high-end productions like Op-Docs — which would seem to indicate the Times will treat video like text and keep aiming at the high end of the market, leaving the HuffPost Lives of the world to generate thousands of hours of cheap-to-produce talk-show-style video a year.

Also: “We are currently leaving money on the table because we don’t yet have enough video-advertising opportunities to sell.”

Play on

Interesting: The Times will expand into “smart games, building out from our crossword franchise and its remarkable success as an independent digital subscription play.”

We’re not Twitter

Here’s Thompson on the Times’ differentiation from Twitter as a news provider:

Once, and not so long ago, different papers, TV channels and news websites competed for who was going to be first with the really big breaking story. Now we know in advance where that story’s almost certainly going to appear first – Twitter and sites like it. They usually beat us all.

And yet the problem with Twitter is you don’t just get the news, you get everything else as well: uncorroborated but potentially precious eye-witness testimony and citizen journalism, but also rumour, speculation, disinformation, propaganda, lies and general nuttiness. Just a few years ago, it was sometimes suggested that the world’s professional journalists might well soon be replaced by a kind of Wikipedia of news, reported and curated by a global army of publicly spirited amateurs. But quite apart from issues of political and cultural bias and objectivity, it turns out that what we face in a major unfolding hard news story is a vast, roiling sea of actuality, with fresh breakers crashing in every few seconds and with both truth and narrative often fiendishly hard to pick out.

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LINK: mobilemediamemo.com  ➚   |   Posted by: Joshua Benton   |   November 18, 2014

You may known Cory Bergman as the cofounder (and now general manager) of the innovative mobile app Breaking News, or as the cofounder of Seattle hyperlocal network Next Door Media. But now he’s got a new email newsletter, Mobile Media Memo, that I suspect a number of Lab readers will be interested in. (Subscribe here.) The first issue just went out and features some smart thoughts on a pet peeve of mine: Journalists’ obsession with equating length and quality.

In the world of media, longer content is heralded as higher quality. A six-minute piece is more prestigious than a minute-twenty package. Full-length features trump shorts. Shows beat webisodes. Two-thousand words are better than two hundred. There are lots of reasons for the industry bias toward longer content. Legacy platforms and business models. Prominence and awards. Creative freedom and journalistic context. Ask just about anyone in the content business, and they prefer longer work.

[…]

That doesn’t mean there’s not a market for longer-form content on mobile. I read books and watch movies on my iPhone while flying back and forth from NYC. Tablet users, especially in evening and nighttime hours, read longer-form stories and binge on Netflix. But on average across the mobile universe, shorter content is consumed more. It’s also the gateway to longer forms of content: social apps act as recommendation engines for your attention. That’s how Facebook’s app became the “home page” of mobile, accounting for more time spent than all mobile browsers combined.

[…]

Part of the problem is the industry’s fixation on “time spent” as an engagement metric. I remember a Poynter study a couple years ago that discovered the average “bail out” point on a tablet is 78.3 seconds of reading. The recommendation? Write the story in such a way that gets users to keep reading. The obvious solution: write a shorter story.

It’s often better to maximize “time saved” rather than time spent, especially on a per session basis. Imagine, for example, that you can get the nugget of a 2-minute video in a 24-second clip, or 80% of the value in 20% of the time. For most mobile users, that’s more delightful than watching the full 2 minutes. The more delighted the users, the more frequently they’ll return, which all adds up to a lot of time spent/user at the end of the month.

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LINK: ww2.cfo.com  ➚   |   Posted by: Joshua Benton   |   November 17, 2014

CFO magazine has an interview with Victoria Harker, the chief financial officer of Gannett, which is one of a number of news companies in various stages of splitting off its print properties (newspapers, mostly) from its broadcast and digital ones. The positive spin is that it’ll let each type of company pursue the best approach without strategy tax; the negative spin is that it’s sending print off onto an ice floe where its continued decline will no longer infect the other side of the business. This question would seem to position Gannett as a candidate for the newspaper industry rollup (or mop-up) many have been anticipating (emphasis mine):

Q: Some people praise Gannett because it isn’t burdening the newspaper spin-off with debt, as other media companies have done. Others criticize Gannett for not including, say, Cars.com in the spin-off to provide more advertising revenue. How do you respond to these views?

A: Relative to the debt, we felt very strongly that the publishing segment — which has its own digital properties, by the way — needed to have the kind of capital structure that will enable them to be a consolidator in the industry, should that be the strategic decision they make. They have produced a very efficient model for running the newsroom of today and tomorrow. So we didn’t want to saddle them with a lot of debt. We wanted to enable a good revenue stream, a good cost structure, and good cash production, so they can do the kinds of things they need to do to create longevity within that business.

Relative to Cars.com, we will have affiliation agreements with the publishing business for five years after the deal closes. In our way of thinking it’s the best of both worlds, in that Cars.com will live in the broadcast and digital company, where it will have the right type of capital structure and investment, while the publishing side will continue to be able to leverage that relationship.

You know, we spent a lot of time with investors during the last 10 days, and a number of them asked how they can become an investor on both sides of the house once we spin. So it’s not that everybody wants to go into growth and be in broadcast and digital. We have a number of investors saying, “We’re very interested in publishing, this is an interesting story for the value side of our investment house.” And it’s a dividend-producing entity, which is very attractive to them.

Getting external capital for that sort of move will likely only get tougher, so flexibility on the balance sheet is important.

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LINK: blog.pastpages.org  ➚   |   Posted by: Joshua Benton   |   November 13, 2014

Hopefully you know about PastPages, the tool built by L.A. Times data journalist Ben Welsh to record what some of the web’s most important news sites have on their homepage — hour by hour, every single day. Want to see what The Guardian’s homepage looked like Tuesday night? Here you go. Want to see how that Ebola patient first appeared on DallasNews.com in September? Try the small item here. It’s a valuable service, particularly for future researchers who will want to study how stories moved through new media. (For print media, we have physical archives; for digital news, work even a few years old has an alarming tendency to disappear.)

Anyway, Ben is back with a new tool called StoryTracker, “a set of open source tools for archiving and analyzing news homepages,” backed in part by the Reynolds Journalism Institute at Mizzou.

It offers a menu of options, documented here, for creating an orderly archive of HTML snapshots, extracting hyperlinks with a bonus set of metadata that captures each link’s prominence on the page and visualizing a page’s layout with animations that show changes over time.

The potential uses for researchers are obvious, but I could also imagine plenty of realtime uses. Tracking your own homepage over time, you could get good data on how the granular movement of stories there correlates with traffic over time. (To ask questions like: Is the top slot more or less valuable on weekends or overnight than during the day Monday to Friday?) You could track your competition’s homepages to get hard data on what stories they’re pushing hardest. And unlike the base PastPages, which saves screenshots of homepages, StoryTracker gets at the HTML to determine what stories are where. It’s all open source, so have at it. (Here’s a sample analysis to see what sources the Drudge Report links to most.)

Ben presented StoryTracker at a conference at RJI earlier this week; here’s the video and his slide deck.

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LINK: www.nber.org  ➚   |   Posted by: Joshua Benton   |   November 10, 2014

Interesting new study (PDF) from Stefano DellaVigna of UC Berkeley and Johannes Hermle of the University of Bonn. From the abstract (emphasis mine):

Media outlets are increasingly owned by conglomerates, inducing a conflict of interest: a media outlet can bias its coverage to benefit companies in the same group. We test for bias by examining movie reviews by media outlets owned by News Corp. — such as the Wall Street Journal — and by Time Warner — such as Time.

We use a matching procedure based on reported preferences to disentangle bias due to conflict of interest from correlated tastes. We find no evidence of bias in the reviews for 20th Century Fox movies in the News Corp. outlets, nor for the reviews of Warner Bros. movies in the Time Warner outlets. We can reject even small effects, such as biasing the review by one extra star (out of four) every 13 movies. We test for differential bias when the return to bias is plausibly higher, examine bias by media outlet and by journalist, as well as editorial bias. We also consider bias by omission: whether the media at conflict of interest are more likely to review highly-rated movies by affiliated studios.

In none of these dimensions do we find systematic evidence of bias. Lastly, we document that conflict of interest within a movie aggregator does not lead to bias either.

(For an interesting and somewhat contradictory perspective, you might enjoy this great piece from the summer on the history of Entertainment Weekly and its role within the various iterations of Time Warner.)

So why don’t movie reviews get skewed to support the corporate parent? DellaVigna and Hermle suggest it’s the high degree of competition: “We conclude that media reputation in this competitive industry acts as a powerful disciplining force.” In other words, there are plenty of voices available on any given movie, so readers who think the fix is in for Horrible Bosses 2 would find it easy to switch to some other source of reviews.

(I’d argue another factor is that inaccurate movie reviews exact a more concrete cost to readers — a wasted movie ticket and a lame night out — than most other news products. You generally don’t lose money and time if a city council story has a fact wrong. That direct tie to consumer behavior probably incentivizes more ready switching.)

If competition on a given subject discourages bias, you can imagine the opposite would be true too — less competition, more bias. You can certainly read that as discouraging: After all, there are many beats that have fewer professional reporters covering them than 10 or 20 years ago. But you could also read it as encouraging, since social media and personal publishing can bring corrective voices to the fore. In all cases, it seems to be a critical mass of interested voices that can help tamp down (or at least surface) bias.

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LINK:   ➚   |   Posted by: Joseph Lichterman   |   November 6, 2014

News video aggregator Watchup just announced a new funding round, a $2.75 million investment led by Tribune Media, the broadcast arm of the former Tribune Company. With this round, Watchup has now raised $4.25 million since its launch in 2012. McClatchy along with prior funders the Knight Enterprise Fund, the Stanford-StartX Fund, and businessmen Ned Lamont, Gordon Crovitz, and Jim Friedlich are also investors.

“We are so excited about this round because we have brought together a select group of media innovators who are willing to contribute their industry knowledge and their content to help us reinvent the video news experience,” Adriano Farano, Watchup’s co-founder and CEO said in a statement.

Watchup (which started as a Knight News Challenge winner) is an app that allows users to build personalized newscasts by pulling video from dozens of global and local news outlets. Most of the video is pulled in through public YouTube channels, but Watchup also has agreements with The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, PBS NewsHour, and other organizations to directly provide video to the app.

This round marks the latest in a series of investments legacy news organizations are making in news startups. In September, Vice Media received $500 million in funding, including $250 million from A&E Networks, which is owned by Hearst and Disney. Last month, The New York Times Co. and German publishing behemoth Axel Springer said they were investing $3.7 million into Blendle, a Dutch news reading platform where readers pay by the article.

Tribune Media, for its part, is investing in Watchup because it “extends our vision of expanding the reach of quality local news content,” Larry Wert, Tribune’s president of broadcasting said in a statement. Tribune Media owns or operates 42 different local broadcast stations.

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