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June 23, 2014, 11:29 a.m.
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LINK: twitter.com  ➚   |   Posted by: Joshua Benton   |   June 23, 2014

Reed Emmons, director of web development at The New York Times:

“Async” in this case meaning that ads load asynchronously — that is, a slow ad server is no longer allowed to block the loading of the rest of the page.

Last month, The Guardian’s Patrick Hamman summarized some of the ways they’re trying to speed up their site — and noted that the speed of NYTimes.com was one of their key comparative performance metrics.

Emmons said that the tech improvements on the homepage were similar to those already made on article pages, which he wrote about in January. And there’s also this video from November in which the Times’ Eitan Konigsberg outlines some of the site’s speed frustrations and how developers have tackled them.

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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.

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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.

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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.)

vox-sentences-screenshot-1

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):

vox-sentences-screenshot-2

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:

api-need-to-know-screenshot

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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LINK: twitter.com  ➚   |   Posted by: Joshua Benton   |   February 11, 2015

One question that’s been asked a lot since Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post is how involved he is in the newspaper’s evolution. Bezos hasn’t spoken in much detail about the subject. (One of his relatively few public comments about his ownership starts at 42:45 of this Business Insider video.) Media references to the Post’s real successes of the past year sometimes seem to give credit to his magical touch — but how engaged is he, really, given that other pretty big company he owns?

Joey Marburger, the Post’s director of digital products and design, precipitated a tweetstorm last night that opened a small window into Bezos’ involvement in the development of the Post’s Kindle Fire app:

Two quick thoughts. First, the Kindle Fire app they built is an nice piece of work, with an interesting UX and a twist on the linear-reading model a print newspaper offers. But you probably haven’t heard much about it since its release — because it’s locked on the Kindle Fire, a tablet not that many people use, but which Bezos’ other company happens to make.

In business, they call it a strategy tax when something makes a product less likely to succeed but advances larger corporate goals. (Think Microsoft refusing for so long to release Office for iOS, where it likely would have been a success, because it wanted to prop up its own Windows mobile platforms.) I don’t think it’s a stretch to say there is zero chance this would have launched exclusive to the Kindle Fire if Jeff Bezos was not the owner of the newspaper. It’ll be worth watching to see to what degree future interesting Post work gets constrained to Amazon platforms.

Second, if you haven’t already, read this Fast Company piece from last month — on what went wrong with the Amazon Fire Phone — for a different vision of Bezos’ involvement in product development.

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LINK: medium.com  ➚   |   Posted by: Joshua Benton   |   February 9, 2015

Melody Kramer (who’ll be joining us here in Cambridge later this year as a Nieman Visiting Fellow) had a terrific piece up on Medium over the weekend that’s worth a scroll-and-read. She’s been doing a number of projects recently that aim to get outside the news-industry bubble and talk to non-journalists about how they might want their news delivered. This time, the topic is homepages, which have been declared dead more times than Abe Vigoda.

Last September, I went to Chicago for a conference. On the third day of the conference, I slipped away to my friend Max’s apartment on a mission. The mission was to gather together a lot of very smart people who don’t work in news — and ask them to design a new news homepage.

From there, she runs through 64 different visions of what a homepage could be — some long in existence, some little more than napkin scribbles. Basically, she and some friends saved you a brainstorming session; go take advantage of that. (“If you’re trying to come up with new ideas, invite people in who DO NOT work in your profession.”) A key point here: Many of these ideas, though tagged as “homepage” visions, could work on smaller scales on your news site.

Mel has had a number of roles in the world of public radio, most recently on the social media desk at NPR, but today was her first day at the federal digital services agency 18F.

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