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June 11, 2014, 2:33 p.m.
Business Models
LINK: medium.com  ➚   |   Posted by: Caroline O'Donovan   |   June 11, 2014

Felix Salmon’s post-text revolution continued today with his 23,000-word magnum opus on the life and times of Jonah Peretti. Didn’t have the extra 91 minutes today to read it all? No problem — we’ve got the highlights.

(The interview in question is on the newly relaunched Medium sub-brand Matter; editor-in-chief Mark Lotto teased it yesterday by calling it “so long you’re going to thing we’re insane.” The new Matter seems, at a glance, to be some kind of experimental publishing space with a magazine-y feel.)

Much of the ground the two cover is familiar stuff for readers of past Peretti profiles — his time at the MIT Media Lab, his experiments in content sharing with funny projects like Black People Love Us and the Nike sneaker email, his partnership with Ken “Kenny” Lerer. You also learn that as an undergraduate at UC Santa Cruz, Peretti took a lot of graduate courses on postmodernism and Lacanian psychoanalysis while reading Freud, Marx, Kant, and Foucault. (No word on whether he considers himself an actual Marxist or not, though. Lol.) After that, he became a teacher in New Orleans, which it actually sounds like he was pretty good at. (Peretti credits this period of life with teaching him how to communicate with non-critical theorists.)

You also learn a little about BuzzFeed, which he started out working on one day a week while still at The Huffington Post. At first, Peretti says, BuzzFeed was little more than a chat bot that spewed out popular links from around the web.

FS: At this point, it’s more reactive. You’re not creating stuff which is designed to go viral. You’re just identifying the stuff which is already viral and amplifying it.

JP: Exactly. That’s exactly right. That was true for the first couple years.

There are other fun nuggets of information about early days at BuzzFeed, including partners that could have been:

JP: At that stage, the site was a proof of concept for the technology. We were thinking of building a technology platform, and then the site was a proof of concept. It wasn’t like, “Oh, we want to make the site big.” But if the site didn’t grow, the proof of concept wouldn’t work. We even had a conversation with The Washington Post about them using our technology to optimize The Washington Post.

You can learn a lot about how Peretti thinks about business from the interview — why, for example, he thinks venture funding is right for his management style, but not necessarily for everyone.

FS: That’s [technologist] Anil Dash’s whole theory about the web we lost. The minute it all became a business, it all died, in a way.

JP: I don’t know I’d totally agree with that. Scaling things, and building a business, and the data that you have when you grow something to a large scale, does allow you to learn certain things that you can’t learn in a lab. The thing that bothered me about Eyebeam was that you’d do some amazing project or event and it would get attention and people would love it and it would be a cool idea and would make people think about new ideas and get excited, and then, at the end of the project, you would start back at zero or you’d have to go write another MacArthur grant, which would take two years.

What I learned first at HuffPost is that if you do something and make a splash and build something interesting, then people will give you money to do more stuff. They come to you and say, “Why don’t you take this to the next level? Let us invest.” And then you generate revenue, and that allows you to explore more ideas. Then you start saying, “Oh, wow, we’re at a scale that starts to be significant relevant to the web as a whole. So we can see, based on that, some things about how people behave and how the ecosystem works.”

I did become a convert to building businesses and start-ups. But at the time that I was at Eyebeam, I wasn’t really interested in that. I wasn’t interested in business and I was almost like, “Oh, this is just something that constrains you and doesn’t let you explore ideas as freely.” That’s remembering how I thought then, not how I think now. At Eyebeam, I would do a project, it would go well, and then at the end of the project I would have zero budget again and have to start back at zero.

Kenny [Lerer] was the one that got me excited about doing business. I wasn’t interested in Huffington Post primarily as a business. I was like, “Oh, it’s a cool new opportunity. It’s something different. I’ve been at Eyebeam for a long time. We’ve had this Bush guy in office for a long time.”

He also talks about the nature of success, and the idea that a technology platform is the most important aspect of any digital publishing business.

FS: How much of HuffPost’s success do you ascribe to tech, you being able to do stuff on the tech side which no one else could do?

JP: People always overestimate their importance to the success of the company. When you talk to the people who are on the sales side, they say, “Well, you know, we drove revenue. That allowed us to invest in all these things. None of the rest of the company would have even been possible if we hadn’t driven that revenue.”

You ask the tech people, the product people, they say, “That’s the competitive advantage of the company. All the other companies had great editors but we had the better tech.” Then you ask people who are on the editorial team and they say, “Well, if you get a scoop, people have to link to it no matter where it is. Great editorial content is really what drives the traffic. The CMS, it can be broken and then stop you from being successful, but if it’s good enough, then edit really is the key and so we really drove a lot of the success.”

In some cases, there’s things that aren’t even measurable. Like maybe just having tech, edit, and business teams communicating effectively, is more important. The lines might be more important than the dots.’

At one point, Salmon took an opportunity to give a tiny glimpse into what his new employer Fusion is doing, regarding the kind of management infrastructure that’s necessary to build something new:

FS: I think we’re doing that at Fusion, as well. I think that Fusion is being set up in Miami, which is quite a long way from the more conventional media centers. The Fusion digital team in New York, again, is away from the Fusion TV bit in Miami. The distance can help. It can allow you to be a little bit more innovative and dynamic.

But some of the most interesting questions Salmon asks are about the editorial decisions at BuzzFeed, questions that are often lost in the flood of interest about their business and technology strategies. For example, the much talked about but little understood no-haters policy, in Peretti’s words:

JP: We tend to be enthusiastic and we tend to avoid snarky articles about mediocre things.

It’s not like there’s some hard rule. In general, we tend to avoid a post that is designed to make the author feel smart and superior and the reader to vicariously feel smart and superior because a Hollywood film is mediocre or because something in culture is mediocre.

FS: Honest enthusiasm is a sort of default stance at BuzzFeed.

JP: If there’s something that is worth someone’s time that is interesting and is worthy of being excited about, we should cover that. If there’s an egregious miscarriage of justice or corruption or fraud or something that needs to be investigated, those are both strong things. In the middle, there’s a lot of things that are kind of a waste of time. Mediocre things that you can write cynical comments about.

(In true no-hater fashion, Peretti refuses to take the bait when Salmon asks him why Nick Denton says the two are in a “blood feud.” Competition is good, says Peretti, and he seems to have a lot of respect for companies like Vox and Vice. Peretti is, at one point, critical of The New York Times’ innovation report, saying it should have focused more on editorial, which some Times employees seem to agree with.)

Salmon also asks Peretti to explain how the well-known focus on metrics at BuzzFeed influences what they do and don’t cover. Peretti says they have creative editorial meetings about ideas in which metrics play no role. But at the same time, every BuzzFeed piece has a different maximum audience, and the goal is to reach every person who might be interested in a piece of content.

JP: I feel like what you see in the industry now is people jumping around and trying to find the God metric for content. It’s all about shares or it’s all about time spent or it’s all about pages or it’s all about uniques. The problem is you can only optimize one thing and you have to pick, otherwise all you’re doing is making a bunch of compromises if you try to optimize for multiple things. So you pick the one that matters and maybe you have minimum thresholds for a few others. The problem with that is that the natural inclination, if one metric is seen as the important, true metric —

FS: Is to game it.

JP: Is to game it. And then when you game it, you essentially are creating a fake version of that metric.

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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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