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April 7, 2014, 2:34 p.m.
LINK: www.niemanlab.org  ➚   |   Posted by: Joshua Benton   |   April 7, 2014

It’s remarkable, I think, how much mainstream-media attention the departures of Nate Silver from The New York Times and Ezra Klein from The Washington Post have gotten over the past few months. I’ve admired the work of both men enormously, and I look forward to reading their new sites for years to come. But I think the chatter has been so loud in part because it fit into the preconceived narrative that Newspaper People Are Dumb And Internet People Get It. That narrative’s been right plenty of times over the past decade — but it’s also a little too pat for my liking, a default frame for every question.

vox-logoLast night, the Klein & Co. project Vox launched — more about that to come — and in The New York Times Klein was quoted as saying unflattering things about the Post (which were later amended to be unflattering things about newspapers as a whole).

At ISOJ this weekend, Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron gave a speech about the state of news today, which we covered elsewhere. But he also, in the Q&A that followed, talked a bit about how the Klein departure went down from his perspective. I thought it was worth presenting that perspective.

This sort of he-said-he-said shade-throwing is kind of boring, in the end — more about internal politics and personalities than ideas. Today we have a really interesting new news startup, embedded at maybe the smartest online news company, one that I’ve always hoped would move beyond sports/tech/games and into more traditional news. And we have one of America’s great newspapers, adding net staff for the first time in years, trying new things, and with a close to ideal ownership situation. It’s good all around! So maybe a little less trash talk?

Until then, let me ironically contribute to the chatter by sharing Baron’s comments:

I have great admiration for Ezra and I wish him well. And as I said, I think this is a sign of health in our industry that there is capital for people to embark on entrepreneurial ventures. He obviously had the entrepreneurial itch and decided to attend to that itch. He’s been able to find financing, and good for him. As I said, I think the availability of financing is a healthy aspect of our industry.

That said, I think people have been left with the impression with the coverage that somehow he was trying to do this within the umbrella of The Washington Post, and that’s just simply not the case. What Ezra said when he came to senior executives at the Post — and I was the first one he came to, as far as I know — was that he wanted to create an entirely new news organization, something entirely separate from the Post. And that he would be in charge of it — he would be the president, the CEO, the editor-in-chief, he would select the technology, he would select the advertising chief — pretty much everything. And it would exist outside the framework of The Washington Post.

It was not a request for more financing for his venture within the Post called Wonkblog, which we had financed to the tune of millions of dollars over many years — we had grown it. I don’t know how well people knew Ezra before he worked at The Washington Post, but I know that after he worked at The Washington Post, they knew him quite well. It was a great platform for him, and he was great for us as well.

But this was something that he — he had said that, you know, Wonkblog had grown about as much as it could — maybe it could have a few more people — but what he had in mind was a separate news organization. And what he really wanted to know — what he wanted to know was whether Jeff Bezos would be willing to finance that.

And that’s fine, and we obviously ran that up the pole. But I don’t have a venture capital fund available to me. I’ve looked all around — I’ve looked in the files. I don’t have a venture capital fund. And our publisher, I don’t believe, has a venture capital fund either. The company is owned 100 percent by Jeff Bezos, so any decision to fund a new venture would be his to make. And, as it turned out, the amount of money that apparently was being sought, you know, was somewhere roughly equivalent to 10 percent of our newsroom budget. And, you know, I think it’s safe to say that I would not have been too happy if 10 percent of my newsroom budget had been earmarked for [this project].

Here’s audio, if you want to check my transcribing skills, and the full Q&A starts around 5 hours and 56 minutes into this day-long ISOJ video.

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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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LINK: www.indystar.com  ➚   |   Posted by: Joshua Benton   |   March 31, 2015

Indiana’s passed a bill that many say allows state-sanctioned discrimination by businesses against gays and lesbians, and it’s led to a huge backlash. The state’s dominant paper, The Indianapolis Star wanted to take a strong stand on the matter, so it pulled out perhaps the biggest weapon a newspaper has — a front-page editorial:

The move worked, getting the Star’s position a huge amount of attention — many times more than a standard editorial would have. (I must have seen that image of today’s front page at least 30 times in my Twitter stream last night; the editorial has been shared on Facebook more than 18,000 times.)

If you’re going to do a blowout presentation in print, you’d want to do the same online, right? After all, a huge part of the discussion around the subject is happening far outside the Star’s print circulation area. Not really:

The blow-out print presentation got slotted into a standard Gannett-made template. That included a hard-to-read headline on mobile, with Gannett-standard cluttered presentation and location-seeking modal:

As the @MayorEmanuel-creating Dan Sinker put it:

The followup discussion to that tweet includes some back and forth about some flexibility in the Gannett CMS that the Star apparently didn’t take advantage of.

Still, it’s remarkable that, in 2015, a story that got so much thought and attention for print apparently didn’t get much for online.

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