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March 24, 2014, 11:32 a.m.
LINK: www.wweek.com  ➚   |   Posted by: Joshua Benton   |   March 24, 2014

In the Portland alt-weekly Willamette Week, Aaron Mesh has word of a new evaluation system for journalists at The Oregonian — one of Advance Publications’ daily newspapers that have been rendered less than daily in print.

Internal documents obtained by WW show that a quota system is being put in place that calls for steep increases in posting to Oregonlive.com, and promises compensation for those employees who post most often.

The new policy, shown to the editorial staff in a PowerPoint presentation in late February, provides that as much as 75 percent of reporters’ job performance will be based on measurable web-based metrics, including how often they post to Oregonlive.com.

Beat reporters will be expected to post at least three times a day, and all reporters are expected to increase their average number of posts by 40 percent over the next year.

In addition, reporters have been told to stir up online conversations among readers.

David Carr has a column tied to the same information and riffing on the general idea of tying compensation to metrics.

Mesh called me a few days ago to ask what I thought of this arrangement, and I think it’s fair to say I’m less outraged by it than a lot of people:

“Advance, for better or for worse, has been the most aggressive American newspaper company in moving to the web,” says Joshua Benton, director of the Nieman Journalism Lab. “This is their bet. It makes sense that they would want to align their staff with that bet.”

Here’s what I mean. Advance has decided the way forward for newspapers is to get to a digital orientation as quickly as possible. Remaining tethered to print means that reader behaviors won’t change fast enough, ad sales behaviors won’t change fast enough, and editorial behaviors won’t change fast enough. Keeping the focus on print may well mean more revenue in the short term, but it delays the changes that’ll be necessary for the long term, since no one thinks print is going to make a stunning comeback anytime soon. So Advance has chosen radical action: stopping daily printing and/or daily home delivery at its papers, laying off a big chunk of their newsrooms, and demanding a shift to shorter online content and audience engagement.

That’s their bet. It may be a good bet or a bad bet. I tend to side with Ken Doctor when he argues the print losses end up being greater than the digital gains. And it’s a strategy that relies on the assumption that you’ll have the remaining print market to yourself — which is what makes the incursion of Baton Rouge’s Advocate into New Orleans so threatening.

But it’s their bet. And even though there are parts of it I don’t like — and even though there are good questions about whether these metrics and these standards are the right ones — I for one am happy to see newspaper companies making big bets. Because even if some (most!) of them are wrong, we know that continuing down the road the industry’s been on the past decade — cuts every year, smaller papers, weaker but still traditional journalism, neverending advertising decline, constantly aging audience — leads nowhere. That really can’t be emphasized enough: Other than what’s looking like a one-time bump from paywall revenue, the basic narrative of metro newspaper revenues has been virtually unchanged for years.

So we need big bets. And if we’re going to have big bets, we should have staff and incentive structures that line up with that bet.

Look at a paper making a different bet, The Globe and Mail. Canada’s national newspaper is betting that a paywall will be a big part of its financial future. So how is it aligning its staff resources? It’s tying compensation for some employees to paywall performance — how successful a given section’s articles were in converting readers to subscribers. A very different bet, but a similar alignment of incentives and goals.

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LINK: firstlook.org  ➚   |   Posted by: Caroline O'Donovan   |   November 25, 2014

First Look Media announced today that Racket, the political satire magazine originally headed by Matt Taibbi, is shutting down.

Since Matt Taibbi’s departure, we’ve been working with the team he hired to consider various options for launching a project without him. After multiple explorations, we’ve decided not to pursue the project. Unfortunately, this means that the team Matt hired will be let go.

The announcement follows weeks of seeming instability at the company. New York Magazine’s Andrew Rice broke the news last month that Taibbi, who had been brought on to run the magazine, would be leaving the project. The team at First Look’s The Intercept followed up with a detailed explanation of the management and culture clashes that led up to his departure. Shortly thereafter, Glenn Greenwald announced that editor-in-chief John Cook was leaving The Intercept and returning to Gawker Media.

In the wake of Taibbi’s departure, the remaining staff of Racket, presumably under the leadership of Racket executive editor Alex Pareene launched a new project that fit in well with what was to have been the magazine’s satirical tone and penchant for pranks. RacketTeen, a somewhat inscrutable Tumblr account, poked fun at everything from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to media insiders to parents.

The announcement, which leaves the entire staff of Racket without jobs, was met with consternation and general upset by those in the media who had hoped RacketTeen was the sign of more cutting-edge commentary to come. Some also expressed concerns for how the staff had been treated by First Look.


What’s next for the staff of Racket, and for First Look, remains to be seen.

I reached out to Racket staff members for comment, but so far haven’t heard anything back.

Amid the wry jokes, though, it’s important to remember that Pierre Omidyar, First Look’s founder, promised $250 million to the project last year. The organization is often cited on the list of new media projects that are cause for optimism about the state of the industry. With plenty of funds and talent on hand, there’s considerable confusion over what is causing First Look to falter.

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LINK: www.nber.org  ➚   |   Posted by: Joshua Benton   |   November 24, 2014

When I’m asked about the future of news, I always say I’m optimistic, at least on net. But that doesn’t mean that there won’t be holes, and the holes I worry about most are at the local level. The pre-Internet journalism model was highly localized because distribution was highly localized; the web changes that dramatically.

That’s the context for this interesting new paper from Horacio Larreguy, John Marshall, and James Snyder, Jr., looking at corruption in Mexico and how it gets reported — and how that that reporting impacts elections (emphasis mine):

We estimate the effect of local media outlets on political accountability in Mexico, focusing on malfeasance by municipal mayors…In particular, we compare neighboring precincts on the boundaries of media stations’ coverage areas to isolate the effects of an additional media station.

We find that voters punish the party of malfeasant mayors, but only in electoral precincts covered by local media stations (which emit from within the precinct’s municipality). An additional local radio or television station reduces the vote share of an incumbent political party revealed to be corrupt by 1 percentage point, and reduces the vote share of an incumbent political party revealed to have diverted funds to projects not benefiting the poor by around 2 percentage points.

We also show that these electoral sanctions persist: at the next election, the vote share of the current incumbent’s party continues to be reduced by a similar magnitude…However, we find no effect of media stations based in other municipalities.

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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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