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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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Last month, BuzzFeed’s executive editor for news Shani Hilton stopped by the Nieman Foundation, where the Nieman Fellows and I had the chance to ask her a few questions.

Hilton was just promoted to her current role this September, a position which makes her responsible for, among many other things, developing a set of newsroom standards for BuzzFeed’s ever growing staff. In addition to talking about that, we touched on hiring strategy, diversity, how you know when a new project isn’t working, international expansion, and more.

Our sister publication, Nieman Reports, has the highlights reel in text; for true devotees, the full audio of the interview is below.

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Earlier this year Spanish lawmakers passed a law requiring Google and other aggregators to pay local publishers for snippets or links to stories. As Europe continues to turn up the heat on Google, the company decided today to shut down Google News in Spain.

While it’s still uncertain how much companies like Google would have to pay every time an article appears, the penalty for not paying the fee is almost $750,000. That was apparently more than enough reason for Google to take its ball and go home. Richard Gingras, head of Google News writes:

This new legislation requires every Spanish publication to charge services like Google News for showing even the smallest snippet from their publications, whether they want to or not. As Google News itself makes no money (we do not show any advertising on the site) this new approach is simply not sustainable. So it’s with real sadness that on 16 December (before the new law comes into effect in January) we’ll remove Spanish publishers from Google News, and close Google News in Spain.

According to Mark Scott of The New York Times, Google plans to remove all Spanish publishers from its “global news aggregating products.” What effect Google’s decision will have on traffic for the Spanish news sites remains to be seen. As SEO consultant Adam Shrek’s recent analysis showed, the amount of traffic a site gets from Google News can vary.

All across Europe publishers have been demanding that Google start paying for content. Media companies in France, Spain, and Germany have led the fight, accusing the search company of becoming rich off copyrighted work from publishers. A similar law was passed in Germany, but rather than paying the fees outlined in the law Google gave publishers the choice to opt in to show up in search results. By opting in companies would waive their right to get paid. As Catherine Stupp wrote for the Lab earlier this month, there were immediate results:

To avoid paying the collection agency, VG Media, which represents the publishers that chose not to opt in, Google stopped showing snippets from their news articles on Oct. 23. Shortly after that, the publishers in VG Media gave Google a license to restore snippets to their search results — for free. Berlin-based Axel Springer, one of Europe’s largest publishers, announced on Nov. 5 that it had caved to Google’s pressure after traffic to its websites from Google dropped by 40 percent and from Google News by 80 percent when snippets were left out of search results.

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LINK: www.adamsherk.com  ➚   |   Posted by: Joshua Benton   |   December 9, 2014

There’s Google and then there’s Google News. One tries to soak up the entire Internet, the other a curated selection of news sites. It’s easy to confuse the two, since you’ll often get “Google News” results at the top of a standard Google search page even if you never go near the url news.google.com. But they’re distinct parts of Googleland.

Google and publishers have a fraught relationship, and plenty have given thought to what it would be like to pull out of one or both Google corpora. (Axel Springer found out.) But how important is each to your overall search traffic? Is it your site’s presence in Google that’s driving it, or its presence in Google News?

That’s the question asked in this interesting piece by SEO consultant Adam Sherk. He used a tool to try to determine how much of 80 news sites’ search traffic came from general search and how much came from Google News. The answer: It depends.

On the high end, you had Reuters and the Christian Science Monitor, which each get more than 40 percent of their search traffic from Google News — either from the Google News site itself or a search onebox. (Update: Sherk now says oneboxes aren’t included here, which means the real impact of Google News is understated here.)

adam-sherk-google-news-top

At the very bottom? BuzzFeed, with less than 1 percent coming from Google News.

adam-sherk-google-news-bottom

It’s hard to generalize too much from the data. The Christian Science Monitor, despite its somewhat old-fashioned reputation, is actually something of a SEO powerhouse, quite good at staying on top of Google Trends and posting webby copy that matches what people are searching for in the moment. It makes sense that Reuters, as a wire service, would do well for in-the-moment news searches. And that BuzzFeed’s search traffic comes overwhelmingly from the non-news side of Google makes sense, given its abundance of evergreen listicles.

But you also have sites like Mashable (4%) and Business Insider (5%) in the low-from-Google-News category, and Bloomberg Businessweek (29%) and Newsweek (19%) on the high-from-Google-News end — each of which is the opposite of what I would have expected. So it’s more complicated than it might seem. But the broad majority of sites seem to be in that 5 to 25 percent range — meaning Google News makes up a significant but not overwhelming part of most sites’ search traffic.

Check out Sherk’s post to see data on 80 major news sites — both raw totals and the News/non-News split.

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Recent media news headlines have briefly sucked the digital discourse around new and legacy media back into the reductive binary of pro- and anti-Internet.

While asking whether the Internet helps or hurts journalism is about as useful as asking if technology is good or bad, the Pew Research Internet Project does have a study out today that comes down pretty clearly on one side.

The survey of 1,066 internet users shows that 87% of online adults say the internet and cell phones have improved their ability to learn new things, including 53% who say it has improved this “a lot.” Internet users under age 50, those in higher income households, and those with higher educational attainment are especially likely to say the internet and cell phones help them “a lot” when it comes to learning new things.

Asked if they enjoy having so much information at their fingertips or if they feel overloaded, 72% of internet users report they like having so much information, while just 26% say they feel overloaded.

[…]

News: Substantial majorities also feel better informed about national news (75%), international news (74%), and pop culture (72%) because of these tools.

Not only do individual Americans feel more personally informed because of the Internet, but a majority also believe that society at large is better informed. Interestingly, survey respondents generally felt that the Internet improved their knowledge of distant topics — pop stars and international news — more than it increased their understanding of things like local news or civic issues. 60 percent of those surveyed said they felt better informed about local news after the Internet, while 74 percent and 75 percent felt mobile phones and the Internet made them better informed about international and national news, respectively.

Media news tends to focus on the national narrative — BuzzFeed versus The New York Times versus whoever’s spending millions of dollars to build a huge new website this week. But despite efforts of programs like the Knight Foundation’s Community Information Challenge, the tougher nut to crack for the Internet seems to be disseminating information on a more granular level.

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A new report out today from the Pew Research Center’s Journalism Project takes a look at how partnerships work in journalism by way of five case studies. Rick Edmonds and Amy Mitchell write about collaborations between Charlottesville Tomorrow and The Daily Progress; I-News Network, Rocky Mountain PBS, and KUSA-TV; five Texas newspapers; The Lens and WWNO Public Radio; and The Toronto Star and El Nuevo Herald. It’s worth noting that these examples include both nonprofit and commercial partnerships.

The report finds that, broadly, the majority of these partnerships are born out of economic necessity, and that, despite their increasing prevalence, they can be difficult to manage successfully. Interestingly, the authors say that many of these collaborations are easier to execute in legacy media — namely print and broadcast — than digitally, because of technological barriers such as incompatible content management systems.

Also of interest is the observation that few of the partnerships are financial in nature. For the most part, the goal is to work more efficiently, reach a broader audience, and tell a better story, rather than for one side or the other to increase revenue. For example, the Texas Front-Page Exchange has been sharing content gratis for five years now. From the report:

What stood in the way of this sort of cooperation for decades was industry prosperity, big newsroom budgets and a tradition whose definition of quality began with running only the work of your own staff along with wire stories.

But particularly after papers scaled back any statewide circulation ambitions as hard times set in, there came to be very little competition for audience among the five.

Other editors share Mong’s view that the cooperation, while not central to editorial strategy, is a distinct plus. Nancy Barnes came to the Chronicle in October 2013 after years at the Star Tribune of Minneapolis and began as a skeptic. “I was surprised—giving away all that content for free? But in fact these are all very distinct markets. The exchange helps us avoid redundant effort. It seems a very innovative solution.”

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