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What are the boundaries of today’s journalism, and how is the rise of digital changing who defines them?
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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: www.buzzfeed.com  ➚   |   Posted by: Justin Ellis   |   April 27, 2015

BuzzFeed wants to find a better way to weigh its viral success, and it wants to convert clicks to Pounds.

At the NewFronts presentations in New York today the company unveiled its new proprietary system for analyzing how content races across the the web — and sharing that information with its advertisers. Specifically, the “Process for Optimizing and Understanding Network Diffusion” is meant to shed a little light into the hidden corners of the social web. BuzzFeed has said that 75 percent of its 200 million monthly users are visiting the site through social media, so it would only make sense the company would want to better understand the patterns and habits of social sharing.

What exactly does Pound do? BuzzFeed publisher Dao Nguyen:

It follows propagations from one sharer to another, through all the downstream visits, even across social networks and one-to-one sharing platforms like Gchat and email.

Pound is the Process for Optimizing and Understanding Network Diffusion.

Pound does not store usernames or any personally identifiable information (PII) with the share events. Each node in the sharing graph is anonymous. We are not able to figure out who a user is by looking at the graph data. Pound data is collected based on an oscillating, anonymous hash in a sharer’s URL as a UTM code.

Instead of roping off social sharing into platform-based categories (how many came from Twitter vs. Facebook vs. Pinterest), Pound is designed to trace the way stories or videos are shared. It builds a pathway that shows all the routes a piece of content can take from being shared by one person over chat to exploding on Twitter.

What does it look like in action? BuzzFeed decided to examine the case of the infamous blue/black/white/gold dress that brought the Internet to a standstill in February. The initial post from BuzzFeed has been viewed more than 38 million times. Using Pound, they broke that down:

buzzfeedpound

Nguyen said they plan to use Pound to gather more granular insights on the type of content that resonates with people and to optimize their sharing strategies. And since Pound made its debut at the marketer-friendly NewFronts, the company will use the tool to give advertisers a better picture of their audience. They’ve already used it to evaluate the effectiveness of sponsored content:

It should not be a surprise BuzzFeed wants to build a better machine for understanding how content performs in the wider world outside its own website, as the company has been laying out its vision for distributed content over the last several months.

In March, it was reported that the company, along with The New York Times and National Geographic, was considering hosting content on Facebook. At SXSW, BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti offered a glimpse of the “cascade” of data that Pound provides. (Indeed, compare Pound to The New York Times’ similar-in-spirit Cascade project.)

Peretti told the audience then: “For us, it increasingly doesn’t matter where our content lives,” he said. “That can actually be a huge advantage.”

One measure of that success has been BuzzFeed’s success with video, reaching 1 billion monthly video views, with only 5 percent of that coming from BuzzFeed.com.

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LINK: en.ejo.ch  ➚   |   Posted by: Joshua Benton   |   April 21, 2015

The Guardian’s Wolfgang Blau has an interesting piece up at the European Journalism Observatory asking a question about the new Politico Europe, the D.C.-based site’s expansion into Brussels and the broader continent:

Politico Europe — the new Brussels-based site covering European politics — is doing important pioneer work in establishing the notion of there even being such a thing as a ‘European public sphere’.

For European publishers, this is not necessarily a space where you have to or want to be the first mover. It seems advantageous to first let Politico — backed by the politically very conservative, but entrepreneurially very aggressive German publishing giant Axel Springer — do some of the hard work of not only having to introduce its own brand, but with it — and more importantly — to establish the very idea of there being a European mid-layer between domestic and international journalism.

In the old world, you mostly had the choice between regional and nationwide publishers addressing domestic audiences and the few globalists who ‘cover the world for those who run it’, as my friend Dan Gillmor once put it, describing The Economist, the Financial Times or The Wall Street Journal.

[…]

It is quite likely that domestic newspapers, especially the ‘papers of record’, are culturally over-invested into the idea of the nation state as it only underlines their own importance and the value of the political access they enjoy in their respective capitals.

[…]

The usual — and very plausible — argument against launching pan-European publications thus far has been that there is no pan-European ad market yet and that paywalls are a terrible model to build an audience from scratch, especially outside of your domestic markets.

Politico, with its mix of ad revenue, paid industry newsletters, print ads and paid events might help break the old chicken-or-egg dilemma which has held back domestic publishers from venturing into this promising space for many years.

Blau is both well positioned to comment on this (as a German journalist helping run one of the U.K.’s top news brands) and a walking conflict of interest (since Politico Europe will be a competitor for The Guardian). And he’s right that political conglomerations line up with audience interests in inconsistent ways. (While the EU and NAFTA hardly make for a fair comparison — nowhere near same level of economic or political integration — one imagines a “North American” media outlet dedicated to covering the U.S., Canada, and Mexico probably wouldn’t go very far.)

There’s a long line of academic interest in the core of what Blau is talking about — to what degree do news outlets arise to cover communities of interest, and to what degree do news outlets create communities of interest? I’m reminded of a 2011 study by Krissy Clark and Geoff McGhee that asked a similar question: “Did the West Make Newspapers, or Did Newspapers Make the West?”

Finally — and because we haven’t hit our 2015 quota of Jürgen Habermas mentions on Nieman Lab yet — his thinking about the public sphere is an obvious point of reference:

More on the Habermasian carrier class here.

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LINK: shorensteincenter.org  ➚   |   Posted by: Joshua Benton   |   April 15, 2015

Our old friend (and former Nieman Fellow) David Skok got a nice promotion at The Boston Globe yesterday, being bumped up from digital advisor to the editor to both managing editor for digital and general manager of BostonGlobe.com. He also spent part of the day here on campus, giving a talk at the Shorenstein Center on his work there.

A few highlights:

The challenge is, on the Internet, I can write the best lede or nutgraf for a story in the world, but if you can’t read it on your phone within 0.1 seconds, it’s irrelevant, it’s invisible, and it doesn’t exist. If you’re going to be a digital product-driven organization, the user experience has to be the first and foremost [priority].

As newspapers were disrupted by Craigslist and other things, yes, there were technological reasons for why this happened. But it would be incredibly naive and arrogant of us as legacy publishers to suggest that we weren’t also responsible for our own demise, in our structures, in our cultures, in our processes that we have in our newsrooms.

There’s a great need to have a content management system that allows for the flexibility that reporters need and want to do their jobs. Whether it’s improving the content management system, getting better analytics…improving the resources that we give our people ultimately will help us as well.

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LINK: cmsw.mit.edu  ➚   |   Posted by: Joseph Lichterman   |   April 14, 2015

Where does the culture of the Internet come from? One important origin point, according to Kevin Driscoll: the mid-1970s standardization of phone jacks.

While the core technology behind today’s Internet was developed through the U.S. government-backed ARPANET, the things that define the culture of today’s Internet — sharing information, connecting with new people, playing games, even shopping — developed more through the bulletin board systems that proliferated before the advent of the World Wide Web. As Driscoll, a postdoctoral researcher at Microsoft Research, argued in a talk he gave at MIT last week:

We can think of this as a parallel world. There are parallel tracks here where the ARPANET is developing really robust ways of doing Internet working over a long distance with various types of media. Sometimes it goes over the wires, sometimes it goes over the airwaves, sometimes it goes through a satellite.

At the same time, there are hobbyists who are using just the telephone network that had been in place for decades — but they’re developing all this social technology on top of it. Figuring out how you should moderate the system, administer it. Who’s in charge? Who makes the rules? What are good rules? What are bad rules? How do you kick people off if they’re being a jerk? How do you get cool people to join you? All of this is happening on this “people’s Internet” layer.

According to Driscoll, the deregulation of the phone industry and the standardization of phone jacks allowed individuals to hook up things like fax machines and modems to the phone network and use it to communicate in new ways. Similarly, the popularity of CB radio in the 1970s helped introduce the concepts of communicating semi-anonymously over long distances — so as technology advanced, many avid CB radio users migrated to BBS.

The barriers to entry to BBS were relatively low. Computers were becoming more affordable, and it wasn’t too difficult to hook them up to the phone line, where you could find conversations relevant to your interests and, in many cases, safe spaces where you could discuss sensitive information that you couldn’t discuss elsewhere:

This was extremely important to communities who were using these systems and were otherwise facing oppression, or were marginalized, or their communication was being suppressed in other systematic sorts of ways. The Gay and Lesbian BBS list, which was compiled and circulated monthly, was organized by area code, so you can easily find and locate a system that’s near to you. You could think of lots of reasons why a system that is geared toward gay and lesbian users in the 1980s, it would be helpful to know if a system was nearby. Not only is it cheaper to call — you have an economic reason to do it — but there’s a chance that those people are dealing with conditions that are unique to that region.

And though bulletin boards eventually faded, those conversations and online social norms were carried elsewhere on the Internet. Even as the Internet continues to spread globally and splinter into countless messaging apps, social networks, and more, the DNA of those early bulletin boards lives on in today’s connected world.

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LINK: shorensteincenter.org  ➚   |   Posted by: Joseph Lichterman   |   April 6, 2015

The plight of the local American newspaper is well known at this point: Circulation is shrinking, print ad revenue is shrinking, and papers haven’t been able to make up the difference digitally.

But in a new paper released last week, Shorenstein Center fellow Matthew Hindman, an associate professor at George Washington University, says newspapers are far worse off digitally than most people think.

News sites attract about 3 percent of all web traffic, Hindman writes, and about 85 percent of that traffic goes to national news sites. That leaves local news organizations with about 15 percent of online news attention, or about half a percent of overall web traffic. And that terrain is further split among local papers, TV and radio stations. The average local newspaper only gets 5 minutes per month per web user, Hindman writes: “Local newspaper traffic is just a rounding error on the larger Web.”

The bottom line is that any successful strategy for digital local news requires sites to grow their audience. This is obviously true for sites relying on ad revenue — though local newspaper sites cannot expect the same level of ad revenue per person that larger websites earn. Audience growth is just as essential for plans that rely on selling subscriptions. The current core audience of local news sites is too small to provide digital sustainability. Visitors who spend just a few minutes a month on a site are not good subscriber prospects. Even nonprofit journalism efforts need to demonstrate that their work is reaching a broad audience in order to ensure continued funding.

In order to grow their audiences, Hindman says local newspapers must answer two related questions: How can they make news “stickier” compared to all the other content on the web? And how can local news sites attract some of the audience that currently only reads national news sites?

Hindman offers a number of possible solutions. His top priority: improving the technical experience of local news sites, speeding up load times and making them work well on mobile devices. He also recommends improving content recommendation systems and simply producing more content to populate their websites. Additionally, he suggests local news sites do more A/B testing, optimize content for social media, and produce more videos and multimedia.

All of these suggestions, of course, cost money and resources; Hindman acknowledges that “for newspapers money is exactly the issue, and everything-at-once is not a viable strategy.”

Newspapers need to think marginally, to identify the changes that provide the most stickiness for the least additional cost. Some strategies are so important that they should be implemented immediately. For any editors reading this: If your site is slow, you are bleeding traffic day after day after day. If your site does not work seamlessly on mobile or tablet devices, drop everything and fix it. If your homepage does not have at least some visible new content every hour, you are throwing away traffic. Fix
these problems first.

If you’d like more details on Hindman’s specific suggestions, here is a link to the full report.

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