The next stage in the battle for our attention: Our wrists
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Jan. 14, 2014, 2:06 p.m.
LINK: blog.nytlabs.com  ➚   |   Posted by: Joshua Benton   |   January 14, 2014

nytrnd_logoLet’s say you work in a modern digital newsroom. Your colleagues are looking at interesting stuff online all day long — reading stimulating news stories, searching down rabbit holes you’ve never thought of. There are probably connections between what the reporter five desks down from you is looking for and what you already know — or vice versa. Wouldn’t it be useful if you could somehow gather up that all that knowledge-questing and turn it into a kind of intraoffice intel?

A version of that vision is what Noah Feehan and others in The New York Times’ R&D Lab is working on with a new system called Curriculum. It started as an in-house browser extension he and Jer Thorp built last year called Semex, which monitored your browsing and, by semantically analyzing the web pages you visit, rendered it as a series of themes. Semex

presents your web history as a series of sessions and topics rather than URLs and timestamps. For example, one session might be a fifteen minute period this morning where I was researching the topic “humidity sensors.”

Semex was useful when it helped me remember where I was in a problem that I hadn’t worked on in awhile: seeing the sequence of topics I browsed made much more sense than a list of page titles. At the same time, Semex felt anticlimactic in the way that a lot of Quantified Self projects do: there was a sense of OK, we recorded all this; now what?

The “now what” was to shift Semex from your own web browsing to a shared environment — to move it from Quantified Self to Quantified Everybody, you might say.

…if Semex was most useful to me as a way to record my cognitive context, the state in which I left a problem, maybe I could share that state with other people who might need to know it. Sharing topics from my browsing history with a close group of colleagues can afford us insight into one another’s processes, yet is abstracted enough (and constrained to a trusted group) to not feel too invasive…

Each user in a group has a Chrome extension that submits pageviews to a server to perform semantic analysis and publish a private, authenticated feed. (I should note here that the extension ignores any pages using HTTPS, to avoid analyzing emails, bank statements, and other secure pages.) Curriculum is carefully designed to be anonymous; that is, no topic in the feed can be traced back to any one particular user. The anonymity isn’t perfect, of course: because there are only five people using it, and because we five are in very close communication with each other, it is usually not too difficult to figure out who might be researching a particular topic.

You could think of it as a natural progression from something like Fuego, which tracks what URLs are being shared in a given community on Twitter. Rather than analyzing what people are sharing, Curriculum analyzes what people are reading.

There’s a lot that I love about this idea. It matches up with something Heidi Moore and I (and others) were tweeting about last fall:

You don’t need me to tell you the potential privacy problems of something like this. If this sort of tool were actually used in a newsroom, I imagine its most immediate impact would be to send lots of people scurrying to their phones when they don’t want their colleagues virtually reading over their shoulder. (A few too many fantasy baseball topics showing up in the newsroom feed might lead to a trip to HR, one imagines.) I’d have to think it would take a special kind of work environment for people to find this sort of thing tolerable — it’d be a nightmare in most newsrooms.

But that very real issue aside, there’s a ton of potential with this line of thinking. Journalists learn so much information every day — and so little of it ends up anywhere other than their heads. With business models in flux, finding new ways to generate more value out of the expertise of journalists is critical. My thinking about that question has focused on more ways for that information to reach audiences, via niche blogging, social media, events, and other routes:

But Curriculum raises the interesting point that that information can be of great value just by spreading it further within the same news organization. Feehan:

… Curriculum is kind of like a Fitbit for context, an effortless way to record what’s on our minds throughout the day and make it available to the people who need it most: the people we work with. The function Curriculum performs, that of semantic listening, is fantastically useful when people need to share their contexts (what they were working on, what approaches they were investigating, what problems they’re facing) with each other.

The Curriculum feed is truly a new channel of input for us, a stream of information of a different character than we’ve encountered before. Having access to the residue of our collective web travels has led to many questions, conversations, and jokes that wouldn’t have happened without it.

When asked on Twitter whether any of Curriculum might be made publicly available, Feehan replied:

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LINK: stratechery.com  ➚   |   Posted by: Joshua Benton   |   March 3, 2015

Analyst Ben Thompson has a good piece up providing the service he often does: examining a portion of the media landscape the way a Valley-tinged capitalist might, without any of the romance people brought up in the media business might bring. If you’ve ever wondered why so many people are fascinated by BuzzFeed — specifically in how it takes the broader lessons of Internet success and tries to apply them to the creation of news — this piece is a good starting point.

What’s interesting is how the existence and popularity of this post [yes, the one about #TheDress] was made possible by BuzzFeed’s embrace of Internet assumptions:

— The photo may have seemed frivolous, but hey, why not make a post? It’s not like it cost BuzzFeed anything beyond a few minutes of Holderness’s time

— Like a huge amount of BuzzFeed’s content, the photo wasn’t produced by BuzzFeed; it was discovered on the Internet (Tumblr in this case)

— The post blew up first on Twitter, and then Facebook: millions of people were exposed directly to the link within minutes. Few if any arrived via BuzzFeed’s homepage

In fact, while it’s theoretically possible that the post could have been created anywhere, I don’t think it was an accident that it happened at BuzzFeed.


…BuzzFeed incentivizes its writers to fully embrace Internet assumptions, and just as importantly disincentivizes pure sensationalism. There is no self-editing or consideration of whether or not a particular post will make money, or if it will play well on the home page, or dishonestly writing a headline just to drive clicks. The only goal is to create — or find — something that resonates.

More importantly, with this model BuzzFeed has returned to the journalistic ideal that many – including myself – thought was lost with the demise of newspapers’ old geographic monopolies: true journalistic independence. Just as journalists of old didn’t need to worry about making money, just writing stories that they thought important, BuzzFeed’s writers simply need to write stories that people find important enough to share; the learning that results is how they make money. The incentives are perfectly aligned.


The world needs great journalism, but great journalism needs a great business model. That’s exactly what BuzzFeed seems to have, and it’s for that reason the company is the most important news organization in the world.

LINK: www.buzzfeed.com  ➚   |   Posted by: Joshua Benton   |   February 26, 2015

It’s what qualifies as an age-old debate in the digital media business: Web or native apps? The question isn’t really either/or — for most news outlets, the answer is “both” — but since the iPhone arrived, publishers have debated how much emphasis to put behind publishing on the open web vs. building native app experiences for iOS and Android.

Focus too much on apps and you risk being ignored by the social web. Focus too much on the web and you end up being a lonely webview inside someone’s Facebook News Feed. Focus too much on apps and you risk getting lost on the fifth homescreen of someone’s phone. Focus too much on the web and you lose out on tools like push notifications that can drive attention.

For a number of years (and to broadly generalize), it was traditional publishers that ran to apps — think of all the magazines who poured money into building iPad Newsstand apps, trying to reclaim their old paywalled gardens — and the digital natives who bet on the web and winning on social. Again, it was always more nuanced than that — HuffPo had an app or two — but your Gawkers and BuzzFeeds were broadly betting on the open web and social distribution.

But now things are more complicated. On one hand, Circa debuted a full website today, breaking further out of its app shell. Earlier this month, Flipboard did the same.

On the other hand, Gawker is now building a native app, 12 years into its existence. And BuzzFeed is going app-happy too, releasing a Tinder-for-cute-animals app, preparing a specialized news app, and more. Product VP Chris Johanesen:

We see the App Store as a platform, and it makes sense for us to be experimenting there the same way we experiment on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat etc…

I’m often asked why we believe in apps when many media companies are ditching their apps and focusing on pure-web experiences. Another building block of our DNA is to make the best experience for our readers on whatever platform they are on, whether they are finding us on the web or downloading one of our apps directly.

We’re excited about native apps because we can provide deep experiences that aren’t always possible on the web. Providing rich features like notifications, personalization, home screen widgets, offline access, and wearable features can bring huge enhancements to your experience.

There has been a lot of talk about unbundling in the tech industry. At BuzzFeed we’ve thought a lot about our apps and our audience and have spent a lot of time thinking about what makes the most sense for us…

To some people, BuzzFeed is about reading fun lists, taking quizzes and sharing and discussing them amongst their friends. To others, we are a source for vital news and groundbreaking journalism, or for ways to get more out of your life. And to some, we are a source of hilarious videos they love to binge watch.

As we thought about what the best experience for each of these things would be, it became increasingly apparent that shoehorning all the ways to experience BuzzFeed into one app doesn’t make sense. We don’t see it as “unbundling” as much as focusing. Instead of having one baseline for all types of stories and media we need to build apps that can excel at providing the best experience for each.

We’ll see how this works for BuzzFeed, but I think there are a few things underlying this broader shift:

A broader victory for app use on phones. comScore data: “The average U.S. smartphone user now spends 88 percent of his or her time when using a mobile phone within an app and just 12 percent using the web browser.” (That’s a gap that is widening over time.) Forrester data: Smartphone owners “use an average of 24 apps per month but spend more than 80 percent of their [in app] time on just five apps.” Of course, some of that time in apps is spent on the web — the links you click on Twitter, for instance — but the broad trend is clear: A small number of homescreen icons are increasingly dominating attention, and Safari and Chrome are losing out.

A recognition of the power of social platforms. (And by “social platforms,” I really just mean Facebook.) As Bloomberg’s Justin Smith put it this week: “The list is a lot longer than is publicly known of those that have Facebook delivering half to two-thirds of their traffic right now.” Facebook’s rumblings about wanting sites to publish their content straight to the platform has reawakened publishers’ desire for greater control of their own destiny than social distribution allows.

A shift in business strategy. It’s increasingly clear that banner advertising isn’t going to be big enough for most online publishers to sustain their businesses. And it’s clear that the user-data advantage that Google, Facebook, and maybe a few other giants have over publishers isn’t going away. That’s pushed differentiation and the desire to built an environment where engaged users are more easily sold to premium advertisers.

(You could actually read each of those forces as good reasons for the boom of email newsletters too; email is an open platform that most people still have to spend some time in, and the the act of subscribing to a newsletter creates the same sort of engaged, committed relationship that a good app might.)

There are also two complementary forces at work here: the move to apps, and the move to lots of apps. That’s the unbundling bit Johanesen references. Some BuzzFeed readers want cats; some want news; some want videos about how their generation has totally lived a unique and special experience that can only be understood through 90-second videos. The news people will look down on the cat stuff, and probably vice versa — so you give them separate points of entry.

That’s not always an easy bet, though. The New York Times has been quite successful with a unified paywall model, getting around 900,000 people to buy what amounts to an all-you-can-eat package. But its attempts at siphoning off chunks of Times content — NYT Now and the late NYT Opinion — have had less than stellar uptake.

Who knows if these attempts to cloister off user attention will work — the competition is very fierce, and most of the alternatives don’t have the burden of being, you know, news. (Think games, chat apps, Facebook.) And this shift still leaves out most smaller and local publishers, who don’t have the technical game to build good native experiences. But it’s a logical next salvo in the ongoing battle for mindshare.

LINK: medium.com  ➚   |   Posted by: Caroline O'Donovan   |   February 24, 2015

Medium announced some new updates to its publishing platform today. They include a tagging system (which means more structured data), a redesign of post presentation called The Stream, and an inline editor that’s supposed to make it easier to start writing. This last feature has received the most attention so far, with the general consensus being that Medium is getting “bloggier” (or is it Bloggerier?) and “more like Twitter.”

When I met with Evan Hansen at Medium headquarters in October, he talked about how the site had grown a reputation as a home for longform writing. While Medium loves longform, Hansen said, they were also actively looking for ways to lower the barrier of entry for writers, trying to compel more writers to write more stuff more casually. That’s why, for example, they introduced a commenting format that encouraged readers with something to say to “write a response” in the form of a Medium post. Here’s how Medium (and Twitter) founder Ev Williams put it:

It was not our intention, however, to create a platform just for “long-form” content or where people feel intimidated to publish if they’re not a professional writer or a famous person (something we’ve heard many times).

We know that length is not a measure of thoughtfulness. The quality of an idea is not determined by the polish of the writing. And production value does not determine worthiness of time investment on the web any more than it does at the movie theater.

We also know that sometimes you need to get a thought out in an incomplete form in order for it to grow — by bumping into other brains and breathing in fresh air.

That’s why, today, we’re making some pretty big changes to how Medium works and feels.

Venture-backed sites like Medium need lots of content and lots of users. While being known for free, elegant, digital publishing has worked for Medium so far, it hasn’t brought the hockey-stick user base growth that early investors typically seek. It’s also worth noting that Matter, the digital science magazine that Medium bought and turned into a sort of flagship for what it’s possible to build on Medium, is currently filling a senior editor position that reflects this pivot.

short form

By showing that Medium can be a destination for both the long and the short, the high brow and the low, the goal is to lower the stakes and get more fingers tapping away on Medium.com.

LINK: fredrikdeboer.com  ➚   |   Posted by: Joshua Benton   |   February 23, 2015

If you’re a weekend denizen of Media Twitter, (a) my apologies and (b) you’ve already seen this Friday blog post from Fredrik deBoer, a doctoral student at Purdue and a smart critic of contemporary media. He’s riffing off of some time spent reading Fusion and noting the sameness of the 2015 News Web:

But [Fusion] just isn’t about anything in the way that the site’s founders and editorial people clearly want it to be…you’re still another site publishing people writing about news and politics and culture and sometimes sports. And in that, you’re joining every other website that publishes about news and politics and culture and sometimes sports.

The mix changes… [here deBoer has a lengthy and funny and telling riff about the various 10-percent-different boxes that online publishers slot themselves into — it’s not fair to excerpt it, go read it all.] But one way or another, you could take 90% of what each of these sites publish and stick it on any other, and nobody would ever know the difference.

I’m sure some people will think I’m talking poop and saying these sites aren’t good. That is not the case. I’m saying that they are all as good or as bad as whatever piece I am reading at the moment. Writers are good or bad, and much more, writing is good or bad. But I no longer know what a website means as an identity, unless that identity is a specific subject. I know what Guns and Ammo is. I know what Road and Track is. (I know what Redtube is.) I don’t know what Fusion is.

I think he’s onto something here, but I want to put a slightly different twist on it. What unites these outlets? (Fusion, Grantland, Slate, The Atlantic, New York, The New York Times Magazine, The New Republic, BuzzFeed, Salon, The Awl, Gawker, Vice, Vox, FiveThirtyEight.) Two things:

They are not local. (New York, Gawker, and The Awl might in some moods claim to be local to New York, but they’re really more about the state of being (or aspiring to be) a New Yorker, which is universal.) This is both deeply obvious and historically strange. Before the Internet, journalism in the United States was intensely local — local newspapers, local television, and local radio, with only magazines really slicing up the market psychographically rather than geographically.

Today, with the Internet taking distribution out of the physical world of broadcast towers and delivery trucks, the media world is even more centered on New York (with honorable mention to D.C./L.A./S.F.) than ever. Add in younger (and cheaper) staffs at most places and you end up with content that is highly shaped by its context — the sort of broad editorial middle that 20something and 30something graduates of good universities like to write. (You’ll also note that these outlets are much more willing to be open about taking left-of-center stances — on, say, same-sex marriage or immigration — than a more geographically dispersed media ecosystem would be, because in that world, there really is only one side to those arguments.)

Most are funded by venture money (Vox, Vice, BuzzFeed), backed by giant corporations (538, Grantland, Fusion), or traditional media companies trying to adjust to the digital world (The Atlantic, The New Republic). In each of those cases, the operative business model of choice requires scale — scale to support national advertising buys. Of the 14 outlets deBoer mentions, only The New York Times Magazine has a paywall of note. Despite what you may hear about events strategies, digital advertising is still very much the big kahuna in their models. And you don’t get sort of scale by being quirky or playing on the culture’s edges.

It’s also worth remembering that this was not The Dream of The Internet from what seems like not that long ago. The power of personal publishing was supposed to be about empowering the little guy — everyone on an equal platform, subcultures to the fore, the crowd and those who make it up given expressive power heretofore unseen. Not a bunch of good but same-ish websites bound by most of the same boxes.

When I talk about digital media, I often fall back on an accordion metaphor: The playing field of any medium takes turns expanding out and crunching back in. The early days of newspapers were filled with handfuls or dozens of papers per city, each attached to a specific audience or political point of view. But over time, they compressed down to a single, establishment daily in most places. The early days of radio were filled with amateur and experimental stations, operating under the regulatory radar. But they quickly divvied up the dial and, through many years of conglomeration, turned into your Clear Channels and Cumulus Medias. It’s a regular pattern — a new format opens up a wide space for experimentation and audience targeting, and then business forces compress it down into a few big players.

We’ve already seen a version of this online in the political blogosphere (that quaint word), which a decade ago was a lively place with many thousands of blogs, some big, some small, all operating and interlinking on the open web. That’s mostly been subsumed by a much smaller set of large political sites on both left and right that are both professionalized and monetized. The formation of the broad content middle deBoer describes is a logical next step in that process. There’ll still be the little magazines and their equivalent, but they’ll enter the broader conversation insofar as they get aggregated up the food chain. (And of course “personal publishing” has long moved to the biggest players I haven’t mentioned yet: Facebook, Twitter, and the other social platforms that are even more all-encompassing — and aim to stake even further claim to their domain.)

The image of the accordion crunching back in doesn’t have to mean a financial crunch; lots of people made lots of money in the consolidation of readers and outlets in newspaper and radio. What deBoer is really describing is the re-creation of mass media — a little younger-skewing than the last one, sure, but the same sort of broad zone of uniformity.

LINK: www.vox.com  ➚   |   Posted by: Joshua Benton   |   February 13, 2015

Vox Sentences is Vox’s evening email newsletter, designed to be a wrapup of the day’s top news — we wrote about it back in October when it entered the ever-crowding arena of news-roundup emails. Vox Sentences’ major differentiators are its timing (evening rather than morning) and its format — a series of scannable one-sentence bullet points with links. For example, here’s a screenshot of Tuesday’s email. (I’ve shrunk down the type size so you can see more of it; it arrives at a much more readable size, I can assure you.)


On Wednesday, Vox tried out a different style in its email and asked for feedback. The change: The bullet points were turned into meaty paragraphs, rich with context, links, and something closer to traditional narrative prose. Another screenshot (also with the type shrunk down):


Who doesn’t like context and narrative prose? Well, the readers of Vox Sentences. Last night, Vox ended the experiment when the response was fierce.

Format update: The votes are in, and man, you guys really did not care for yesterday’s Sentences format! It wasn’t even close. 177 people wrote in, and 169 expressed a clear preference one way or the other (many thanks to the very sweet people who said they’d read it in any format). 32 preferred the new version, while 137 liked the old one better.

That’s an 81 percent to 19 percent margin. Dictators win elections by smaller margins than that. We’ll keep experimenting with how we do Sentences — today’s the first day we’ll have pictures in the email version, for example — but for now, it’s back to bullets all the way through.

I’d side with the majority here. If you asked me what morning email newsletter about journalism has the most and best content, I’d probably go with the American Press Institute’s Need To Know. But at the same time, some of its formatting and style is so dense that it can be offputting. It’s hard to scan a paragraph like this one from this morning’s edition:


More broadly, it’s a reminder that, for all the buzz around The Email Newsletter Renaissance, we’re still figuring out the formats — length, structure, content — that work. There’s still a lot of space for evolution and experimentation.

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