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A conversation with David Rose, little magazine veteran and publisher of Lapham’s Quarterly
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June 11, 2014, 2:33 p.m.
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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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The Economist offers an interesting perspective today on the flip side of the wonky data journalism craze. While traditional newsrooms and media startups sift through spreadsheets and build interactive graphics and apps, think tanks — they of the traditionally dry, analytical white paper — have increasingly come to resemble digital news sites themselves. From the magazine:

Foreign Policy, a magazine, now runs “Democracy Lab”, a website paid for by the Legatum Institute, a think-tank based in London. It has a modest budget for freelancers. In June the Centre for Policy Studies, a think-tank co-founded by Margaret Thatcher, launched “CapX”, which publishes daily news and comment on its website and by e-mail. The Centre for European Reform, a think-tank founded by Charles Grant (formerly of The Economist), publishes pieces with gripping headlines such as: “Twelve things everyone should know about the European Court of Justice”.

It’s not especially surprising that think tanks and NGOs have begun to realize the value of producing fresh Takes. It’s the best way to remain a part of the conversation, which is essential if what you’re trying to do is shape opinion and influence policy. But not all the work these organizations are producing is mere content — in fact, think tank employees can fill some of the void left by ever-shrinking international reportage.

Human Rights Watch, which investigates abusive governments, recently published a series of articles on the plight of the Yazidis in Iraq. [,..] Nathan Thrall, the ICG’s Middle East analyst, based in Jerusalem, has written about the conflict in Gaza for, among others, the New York Times and the London Review of Books.

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LINK: comicsalliance.com  ➚   |   Posted by: Justin Ellis   |   September 17, 2014

The Guardian is giving new life to the traditional newspaper comic strip with The Last Saturday. Instead of Marmaduke or the ongoing exotic adventures of Mark Trail, The Last Saturday is a weekly graphic novella made to be read in print and online.

Created by the Eisner Award and Harvey Award winner Chris Ware, the episodic comic is blown out in vivid color and rich detail, with stories following the daily lives of people in the town of Sandy Port, Michigan. Ware is no stranger to collaborating with newspapers; part of his graphic novel “Building Stories” was serialized in The New York Times Magazine.

chris-ware-guardian-comic

As Comics Alliance notes, the Guardian may be trying to find better ways to make Ware’s work more tactile and engaging in digital formats:

‘The Last Saturday’ is an interesting format experiment. The first page doesn’t offer much more than a digital magnifier (primarily for mobile readers) and some unorthodox panel orientations, as is standard for Ware’s work, but considering that The Guardian’s “interactive team” is developing functionality for the comic, there’s a possibility that the comic could take advantage of the online format in all sorts of interesting ways.

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LINK: bbcpopup.tumblr.com  ➚   |   Posted by: Justin Ellis   |   September 11, 2014

The business of journalism looks a lot like a game of Risk right now, as media companies are angling for position with new sites and bureaus around the globe. Quartz and The Huffington Post have both recently set up shop in India. BuzzFeed plans to use its new funding to expand its overseas reporting footprint, and this week Politico announced it was partnering with Axel Springer to launch a Europe-focused politics site.

bbcnewsWith so much globetrotting it only makes sense that foreign news outlets would turn their eyes to the United States. The BBC set off on one adventure this week with BBC Pop Up, a mobile (in the on-the-move sense, not the iPhone 6 sense) reporting project where journalists will report from a series of U.S. cities over the next six months. Like any good pop up restaurant, the BBC’s plans are simultaneously ambitious but also limited: the BBC team will file stories for online, shoot video for broadcast, and work with locals to uncover unreported stories. It’ll do all of that in one month before moving on to the next town. The first stop is Boulder, Colo. The Ringling Brothers would be proud.

For an organization as large as the BBC the pop up bureaus are a relatively low risk/high reward proposition. It gets the BBC wider exposure in the United States as something other than the place that broadcasts Gordon Ramsey and Doctor Who, but also serves as a test for whether there is a broader appetite for their reporting in the states.

As far as experiments go, it’s still curious why a news organization that already has large bureaus throughout the United States, not to mention various language services around the world, would put on a roadshow. As Matt Danzico, head of the BBC innovation lab explains, the pop up project is about building a bridge to a new type of audience:

In the 21st Century, creating video for television from cities like Washington, New York and/or Los Angeles is definitely an effective way of reaching traditional media consumers in those markets. But if you’re also trying to reach younger generations in Colorado, for instance, why not create gripping video from the state that’s of interest to a global audience?

And now you’ve not only provided interesting programming to your traditional audience but you have also sparked the interest of an entirely new community as well.

Do that for one month at a time. Post your videos to local social media. Move cities. Repeat.

Yes, BBC News has 44 foreign bureaus in a heap of cities around the world. But the world has nearly 3,000 cities with a population over 150k. So why not create a mobile bureau that can embed itself in a community and then relocate easily?

Here’s a look at what they have in store:

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LINK: www.buzzfeed.com  ➚   |   Posted by: Joseph Lichterman   |   September 11, 2014

Apple WatchAfter Apple unveiled its Apple Watch earlier this week most news organizations are still figuring out how — or even if — they’ll develop apps for the smart watch. Most outlets haven’t received any technical specifications from Apple about the device and are still in the very preliminary stages of thinking about how they’ll approach the smart watch, Myles Tanzer reports in BuzzFeed.

There was at least one news app that got an advance look at the Apple Watch: Yahoo News Digest. The app’s logo was visible on mock-ups of the watch during Apple’s presentation. (It’s the purple one with the colorful dots in a circle — above the Pinterest logo — in the watch that’s above.)

From BuzzFeed:

But during the Tuesday’s keynote, close observers noticed multiple quick flashes of the Apple Watch’s homescreen that showed icons for two apps from Yahoo, one of which is a version of the popular Yahoo News Digest app. Adam Cahan, Yahoo’s senior vice president of mobile and emerging products, confirmed to BuzzFeed News that the company has a working version of a Yahoo News Digest product but was wary to comment on any additional apps from Yahoo — “I wouldn’t read into every icon that you see everywhere.” He said the Yahoo team was one of a select few chosen to participate in a multi-week test of the Apple Watch’s development kit.

The Apple Watch is slated to be released sometime early next year. It seems likely more news apps will be developed for the platform.

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LINK: new.dowjones.com  ➚   |   Posted by: Justin Ellis   |   September 9, 2014

The Wall Street Journal wants readers to know that being a subscriber has its perks. The Journal rolled out WSJ+ this week, a complimentary membership program for readers who have subscriptions to the paper.

What, exactly, does being a WSJ+ member get you beyond a sweet membership card to display on your digital device of choice? From the Journal’s news release:

WSJ+ members will receive special offers and be welcomed to invitation-only events designed to bring Journal content to life, while providing subscribers elevated Journal experiences specially curated to speak to their wide-ranging and ambitious interests. Events will take place across the country and will include panel discussions with top Journal editors, as well as arts performances and private film screenings.

As a WSJ+ member you could get a talk and tour of the Journal newsroom (“learn how our famous stipples are made,” the event advertises) with Editor in Chief Gerald Baker or see a conversation between Whoopi Goldberg and legendary TV producer Norman Lear.

Many of the offers through WSJ+ are either discounts or raffles seemingly attuned to the needs of the aspirational Journal reader. Tell the “Golf Concierge” you’d like a discount to play at course in Hilton Head Island, or win two tickets to the Longines Los Angeles Masters equestrian event.

The Journal is one of a growing number of media companies that wants to deepen the relationship with readers through membership programs. Both nonprofit and for-profit companies are trying to find programs to incentivize paid readership while also collecting more detailed data on their audience. One difference is that some loyalty programs, like WSJ+, are complimentary with a subscription. Others, like The Guardian’s membership plan and The New York Times’ Times Premier, are extra, which means a potential added source of revenue.

The characteristics of the programs usually fall into similar categories: special access to events, discounts, and invitations to look behind the curtain of your beloved news provider. Wine and free books seem to be a love shared by media executives and newspaper readers.

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