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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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LINK: files.nyu.edu  ➚   |   Posted by: Joshua Benton   |   October 20, 2014

One of the most common complaints about social media is about filter bubbles — the idea that, because you choose your own universe of friends or accounts on platforms like Twitter and Facebook, you risk cocooning yourself in a world of likeminded perspectives. Conservatives only hear from fellow conservatives, the argument goes, liberals from fellow liberals, and everyone ends up with hardened, more extreme positions. The result: increased political polarization.

But this new paper from NYU’s Pablo Barberá argues that that’s not true. The core of his argument: Social media encourages connections between people with weak ties — not just your best friends, for instance, but also your high school classmates, that guy you met on a business trip who friended you, and the local guy you heard was funny on Twitter. Those people tend to be “more politically heterogeneous than citizens’ immediate personal networks,” which exposes you to more perspectives, not fewer.

I apply this method to measure the ideological positions of millions of individuals in Germany, Spain, and the United States over time, as well as the ideological composition of their personal networks. Results from this panel design show that most social media users are embedded in ideologically diverse networks, and that exposure to political diversity has a positive effect on political moderation…Contrary to conventional wisdom, my analysis provides evidence that social media usage reduces mass political polarization.

This is just one paper, but it adds to a growing body of knowledge that shows that the connection between media consumption and political polarization is much more complicated than conventional wisdom has it. Add this to Alan Abramowitz’s work showing that knowing more about politics correlated with more extreme views on both left and right and Pew’s findings that show viewers of one cable news network are more likely to watch other cable news channels. (In other words, regular Fox News viewers are more likely to watch MSNBC than the average American, and vice versa.) The filter bubble narrative is more complicated than it seems. Barberá:

Contrary to a growing body of work that suggests that the Internet functions as an “echo chamber,” where citizens are primarily exposed to like-minded political views, my findings demonstrate that most social media users receive information from a diversity of viewpoints…I have provided empirical evidence from a panel design showing that exposure to political diversity on social media has a positive effect on political moderation, and that it reduces mass political polarization.

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LINK: knightfoundation.org  ➚   |   Posted by: Joshua Benton   |   October 20, 2014

The Knight Foundation (disclosure: a funder of Nieman Lab) gives money to a lot of journalism and journalism-adjacent projects. But they often work through a variety of contests and programs that aren’t always clear to outsiders. (Most famously, the Knight News Challenge, which has “news” right there in the name, has lately been funding projects around libraries, online freedom, and open government. Worthy causes all, but often confusing to people who are looking for financial support for their news startup.)

That makes this post by Knight’s Andrew Sherry useful — it outlines the various routes to funding currently available. The three most important to journalism types (emphasis mine):

If you have a news or information idea you want to develop and test, the Knight Prototype Fund may be for you. This Media Innovation initiative provides $35,000 to turn ideas into prototypes. There are several cohorts of winners each year; the most recent winners can be seen here. The next application deadline is Nov. 1…

The Knight News Challenge, which will next open for applications in early 2015, is Knight’s best known way of funding media innovation. Challenges usually have a theme — libraries, strengthening the Internet, Open Gov, networks — and the number in a year may vary. Increasingly, though, we’re emphasizing the Prototype Fund as the gateway for news and information projects

Separate from Knight’s grantmaking, the Knight Enterprise Fund provides early-stage venture funding for media innovation. The fund invests in for-profit companies that can strengthen the news and information ecosystem. Along with investment, the fund brings Knight’s media industry network and knowledge to the table. The fund is drawn from Knight’s endowment, not its grantmaking budget.

In other words, if you’re a typical Nieman Lab reader, unless you’re a for-profit of the sort that looks for substantial venture capital, the Prototype Fund process is probably the best way to seek funding from Knight. The positive side of that is that the turnaround time is much shorter than the News Challenge used to offer, and the number of projects funded is higher; the downside is that the dollar figures are smaller than the News Challenge used to offer. But a successful Prototype Fund grantee could certainly move up to bigger funding down the road.

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LINK: blog.twitter.com  ➚   |   Posted by: Joshua Benton   |   October 16, 2014

Back in May, we told you about how WNYC was using a Twitter Player Card to embed audio into its tweets. It was pretty nifty! But it came with a few technical hiccups:

It’s not a perfect experience. Twitter is all about the stream, scrolling through tweets — it’s not exactly optimized for having the same tweet in front of you while a 16-minute audio clip plays. (On the Twitter iOS app, for instance, the widget is only playable as a separate web page, which both is unattractive and means you can’t look at any other tweets in your stream for 16 minutes.) And I imagine many news orgs would much rather direct traffic to their website than share even more of their content on someone else’s platform.

Well, one of those problems is now solved, with a brand new Audio Card announced today.

With a single tap, the Twitter Audio Card lets you discover and listen to audio directly in your timeline on both iOS and Android devices. Throughout your listening experience, you can dock the Audio Card and keep listening as you continue to browse inside the Twitter app.

In other words, listening to an audio clip in a tweet no longer means you’re stuck staring at the same tweet for the next hour — at least if you’re using SoundCloud and are a pre-cleared partner.

So if you want to catch up on Serial (and you do, that Jay guy is super suspicious), you can listen while scrolling through your timeline:

Twitter says it plans “to make it available to more partners and creators in the future so that many more musical artists and creators will be able to share exclusive, in-the-moment audio to millions of listeners on Twitter.”

If it’s your goal to make audio more sharable — more social, more viral — a better Twitter experience is a pretty big deal.

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LINK: www.apple.com  ➚   |   Posted by: Joshua Benton   |   October 16, 2014

Apple just announced a brand new iMac with a Retina display — Apple’s term for a display with pixels small enough that they can’t under normal use be detected by the human eye. Retina started on the iPhone, graduated to the iPad, then moved to the MacBook Pro — but now it’s moving to Apple’s giant desktop screens. We’re talking 14.7 million pixels. (The original iPhone had 153,600 — 1/96th as many.)

imac-retina

It looks like a very nice piece of kit, but it’s worth note to publishers because the iMac is probably the single most common computer used by web designers. (I’m typing this on one.) And the downside of a Retina display is that your old website graphics, designed for one-fourth as many pixels, will look a little fuzzy. So a lot of designers will be tempted to replace their existing images with ones 4× as large so they’ll look “right” on their screens. Even more important, their bosses will someday soon get these glorious screens and ask a dev: Why is my website fuzzy on my computer? You saw some of this when the Retina MacBook Pro, but this is the next step. (And of course, non-Apple desktop and laptop computers will continue to get more pixel-dense displays, just as phones and tablets have.)

Bigger images are nice in every way except file size. The weight of the average web page has been on a steady march northward, sitting now more than 15× that of a web page 10 years ago and 50 percent larger than just a year ago. Most of that page weight is images. And this new iMac will push a lot of nice 125K images into 500K bandwidth-cloggers. That’d probably fine on your beautiful new desktop on a fat broadband pipe, but it’ll mean your website will get substantially slower on a phone — just as even more of your audience switches to phones.

growth-average-web-page2014

This doesn’t have to happen, of course. CSS media queries allow you to serve different images to devices with different pixel ratios. And solutions for responsive images are in various stages of progress. (We use Picturefill all over this site and have been happy with it.) SVG gets better all the time, and icon fonts can solve problems in a pinch. (This book, coming out soon, will tell you what you need to know.)

But those methods rely on coders using best practices, and not everyone does. So watch your site and see if page weight starts to creep up not long after a few large Apple boxes get dropped off in graphics.

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LINK: nieman.harvard.edu  ➚   |   Posted by: Joshua Benton   |   October 15, 2014

I’m very happy to point you toward the new group of Visiting Fellows here at the Nieman Foundation, of which Nieman Lab is a part. Regular Lab readers will spot several people who’ve appeared in (or written) stories here in the past. Go here for the full press release; the winners are listed below.

A reminder: The Visiting Fellowship program exists “to invite individuals with promising research proposals to advance journalism to take advantage of the many resources at Harvard and the Nieman Foundation.” And it’s not just limited to journalists: “Those who are welcome to apply include publishers, programmers, designers, media analysts, academics, journalists and others interested in enhancing quality, building new business models or designing programs to improve journalism.”

We’ll open applications for the Visiting Fellowships again next year — watch this space. And if you are a working journalist interested in our year-long fellowships, which are amazing, it’s time to start thinking about applying. The deadline for non-U.S. citizens is December 1; for Americans, the deadline is January 31.

Dean Haddock, director of web and information technology for StoryCorps, will design a system for recording, editing and accessing user-generated interviews online that will extend StoryCorps’ proven interview methodology to the Internet and mobile devices. The project will offer new ways to produce high-quality, well-organized audio content that journalists, communities, families and the public at large can freely use and share.

Melody Joy Kramer, an editor and digital strategist at NPR, will develop a new model for public media membership to include non-financial forms of contributions and use of local stations’ physical space for community building. The goal of the project is to instill a sense of ownership and identity among listeners, allowing them to feel more connected to and invested in public media’s content, work and mission. She will also be working with MIT Media Lab graduate students to investigate new ways for audiences to tag audio.

Donna Pierce, a contributing editor at Upscale Magazine who writes about food in a syndicated column for the Chicago Defender, will research papers at the Harvard University Archives and elsewhere for a publishing project on the migration of African-American cooks and recipes from the South to the Midwest, West and Northeast. She also will work on a companion project to teach journalistic skills to young people through interviews with senior citizens about their food traditions.

Jack Riley, the London-based head of audience development for The Huffington Post UK, will research the future impact of smartwatches and wearable devices on journalism and content. His work at Harvard will include research, interviews, case studies and surveys about product potential and likely adoption, as well as monetization. Riley also will work on a prototype of a smartwatch publishing app.

Freek Staps, the head of the business news start-up NRC Q in the Netherlands, will research a set of issues related to journalism’s digital transformation, including leadership skills, newsroom buy-in and how content producers can work hand-in-hand with reader-oriented departments on the business side of media companies. His goal is to identify best practices in the United States order to introduce them to European markets.

Amy Webb, founder and CEO of Webbmedia Group and co-founder of Spark Camp, will develop a program to reform journalism education by researching and publishing a blueprint that can be adapted within universities. Webb has developed seven key areas for change, as well as new metrics and key performance indicators to measure outcomes, and will spend her time in Cambridge advancing her research.

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