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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: mobilemediamemo.com  ➚   |   Posted by: Joshua Benton   |   November 18, 2014

You may known Cory Bergman as the cofounder (and now general manager) of the innovative mobile app Breaking News, or as the cofounder of Seattle hyperlocal network Next Door Media. But now he’s got a new email newsletter, Mobile Media Memo, that I suspect a number of Lab readers will be interested in. (Subscribe here.) The first issue just went out and features some smart thoughts on a pet peeve of mine: Journalists’ obsession with equating length and quality.

In the world of media, longer content is heralded as higher quality. A six-minute piece is more prestigious than a minute-twenty package. Full-length features trump shorts. Shows beat webisodes. Two-thousand words are better than two hundred. There are lots of reasons for the industry bias toward longer content. Legacy platforms and business models. Prominence and awards. Creative freedom and journalistic context. Ask just about anyone in the content business, and they prefer longer work.

[…]

That doesn’t mean there’s not a market for longer-form content on mobile. I read books and watch movies on my iPhone while flying back and forth from NYC. Tablet users, especially in evening and nighttime hours, read longer-form stories and binge on Netflix. But on average across the mobile universe, shorter content is consumed more. It’s also the gateway to longer forms of content: social apps act as recommendation engines for your attention. That’s how Facebook’s app became the “home page” of mobile, accounting for more time spent than all mobile browsers combined.

[…]

Part of the problem is the industry’s fixation on “time spent” as an engagement metric. I remember a Poynter study a couple years ago that discovered the average “bail out” point on a tablet is 78.3 seconds of reading. The recommendation? Write the story in such a way that gets users to keep reading. The obvious solution: write a shorter story.

It’s often better to maximize “time saved” rather than time spent, especially on a per session basis. Imagine, for example, that you can get the nugget of a 2-minute video in a 24-second clip, or 80% of the value in 20% of the time. For most mobile users, that’s more delightful than watching the full 2 minutes. The more delighted the users, the more frequently they’ll return, which all adds up to a lot of time spent/user at the end of the month.

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LINK: ww2.cfo.com  ➚   |   Posted by: Joshua Benton   |   November 17, 2014

CFO magazine has an interview with Victoria Harker, the chief financial officer of Gannett, which is one of a number of news companies in various stages of splitting off its print properties (newspapers, mostly) from its broadcast and digital ones. The positive spin is that it’ll let each type of company pursue the best approach without strategy tax; the negative spin is that it’s sending print off onto an ice floe where its continued decline will no longer infect the other side of the business. This question would seem to position Gannett as a candidate for the newspaper industry rollup (or mop-up) many have been anticipating (emphasis mine):

Q: Some people praise Gannett because it isn’t burdening the newspaper spin-off with debt, as other media companies have done. Others criticize Gannett for not including, say, Cars.com in the spin-off to provide more advertising revenue. How do you respond to these views?

A: Relative to the debt, we felt very strongly that the publishing segment — which has its own digital properties, by the way — needed to have the kind of capital structure that will enable them to be a consolidator in the industry, should that be the strategic decision they make. They have produced a very efficient model for running the newsroom of today and tomorrow. So we didn’t want to saddle them with a lot of debt. We wanted to enable a good revenue stream, a good cost structure, and good cash production, so they can do the kinds of things they need to do to create longevity within that business.

Relative to Cars.com, we will have affiliation agreements with the publishing business for five years after the deal closes. In our way of thinking it’s the best of both worlds, in that Cars.com will live in the broadcast and digital company, where it will have the right type of capital structure and investment, while the publishing side will continue to be able to leverage that relationship.

You know, we spent a lot of time with investors during the last 10 days, and a number of them asked how they can become an investor on both sides of the house once we spin. So it’s not that everybody wants to go into growth and be in broadcast and digital. We have a number of investors saying, “We’re very interested in publishing, this is an interesting story for the value side of our investment house.” And it’s a dividend-producing entity, which is very attractive to them.

Getting external capital for that sort of move will likely only get tougher, so flexibility on the balance sheet is important.

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LINK: blog.pastpages.org  ➚   |   Posted by: Joshua Benton   |   November 13, 2014

Hopefully you know about PastPages, the tool built by L.A. Times data journalist Ben Welsh to record what some of the web’s most important news sites have on their homepage — hour by hour, every single day. Want to see what The Guardian’s homepage looked like Tuesday night? Here you go. Want to see how that Ebola patient first appeared on DallasNews.com in September? Try the small item here. It’s a valuable service, particularly for future researchers who will want to study how stories moved through new media. (For print media, we have physical archives; for digital news, work even a few years old has an alarming tendency to disappear.)

Anyway, Ben is back with a new tool called StoryTracker, “a set of open source tools for archiving and analyzing news homepages,” backed in part by the Reynolds Journalism Institute at Mizzou.

It offers a menu of options, documented here, for creating an orderly archive of HTML snapshots, extracting hyperlinks with a bonus set of metadata that captures each link’s prominence on the page and visualizing a page’s layout with animations that show changes over time.

The potential uses for researchers are obvious, but I could also imagine plenty of realtime uses. Tracking your own homepage over time, you could get good data on how the granular movement of stories there correlates with traffic over time. (To ask questions like: Is the top slot more or less valuable on weekends or overnight than during the day Monday to Friday?) You could track your competition’s homepages to get hard data on what stories they’re pushing hardest. And unlike the base PastPages, which saves screenshots of homepages, StoryTracker gets at the HTML to determine what stories are where. It’s all open source, so have at it. (Here’s a sample analysis to see what sources the Drudge Report links to most.)

Ben presented StoryTracker at a conference at RJI earlier this week; here’s the video and his slide deck.

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LINK: www.nber.org  ➚   |   Posted by: Joshua Benton   |   November 10, 2014

Interesting new study (PDF) from Stefano DellaVigna of UC Berkeley and Johannes Hermle of the University of Bonn. From the abstract (emphasis mine):

Media outlets are increasingly owned by conglomerates, inducing a conflict of interest: a media outlet can bias its coverage to benefit companies in the same group. We test for bias by examining movie reviews by media outlets owned by News Corp. — such as the Wall Street Journal — and by Time Warner — such as Time.

We use a matching procedure based on reported preferences to disentangle bias due to conflict of interest from correlated tastes. We find no evidence of bias in the reviews for 20th Century Fox movies in the News Corp. outlets, nor for the reviews of Warner Bros. movies in the Time Warner outlets. We can reject even small effects, such as biasing the review by one extra star (out of four) every 13 movies. We test for differential bias when the return to bias is plausibly higher, examine bias by media outlet and by journalist, as well as editorial bias. We also consider bias by omission: whether the media at conflict of interest are more likely to review highly-rated movies by affiliated studios.

In none of these dimensions do we find systematic evidence of bias. Lastly, we document that conflict of interest within a movie aggregator does not lead to bias either.

(For an interesting and somewhat contradictory perspective, you might enjoy this great piece from the summer on the history of Entertainment Weekly and its role within the various iterations of Time Warner.)

So why don’t movie reviews get skewed to support the corporate parent? DellaVigna and Hermle suggest it’s the high degree of competition: “We conclude that media reputation in this competitive industry acts as a powerful disciplining force.” In other words, there are plenty of voices available on any given movie, so readers who think the fix is in for Horrible Bosses 2 would find it easy to switch to some other source of reviews.

(I’d argue another factor is that inaccurate movie reviews exact a more concrete cost to readers — a wasted movie ticket and a lame night out — than most other news products. You generally don’t lose money and time if a city council story has a fact wrong. That direct tie to consumer behavior probably incentivizes more ready switching.)

If competition on a given subject discourages bias, you can imagine the opposite would be true too — less competition, more bias. You can certainly read that as discouraging: After all, there are many beats that have fewer professional reporters covering them than 10 or 20 years ago. But you could also read it as encouraging, since social media and personal publishing can bring corrective voices to the fore. In all cases, it seems to be a critical mass of interested voices that can help tamp down (or at least surface) bias.

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LINK:   ➚   |   Posted by: Joseph Lichterman   |   November 6, 2014

News video aggregator Watchup just announced a new funding round, a $2.75 million investment led by Tribune Media, the broadcast arm of the former Tribune Company. With this round, Watchup has now raised $4.25 million since its launch in 2012. McClatchy along with prior funders the Knight Enterprise Fund, the Stanford-StartX Fund, and businessmen Ned Lamont, Gordon Crovitz, and Jim Friedlich are also investors.

“We are so excited about this round because we have brought together a select group of media innovators who are willing to contribute their industry knowledge and their content to help us reinvent the video news experience,” Adriano Farano, Watchup’s co-founder and CEO said in a statement.

Watchup (which started as a Knight News Challenge winner) is an app that allows users to build personalized newscasts by pulling video from dozens of global and local news outlets. Most of the video is pulled in through public YouTube channels, but Watchup also has agreements with The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, PBS NewsHour, and other organizations to directly provide video to the app.

This round marks the latest in a series of investments legacy news organizations are making in news startups. In September, Vice Media received $500 million in funding, including $250 million from A&E Networks, which is owned by Hearst and Disney. Last month, The New York Times Co. and German publishing behemoth Axel Springer said they were investing $3.7 million into Blendle, a Dutch news reading platform where readers pay by the article.

Tribune Media, for its part, is investing in Watchup because it “extends our vision of expanding the reach of quality local news content,” Larry Wert, Tribune’s president of broadcasting said in a statement. Tribune Media owns or operates 42 different local broadcast stations.

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