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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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Andrew Sullivan — perhaps the archetypal news blogger, one of the earliest traditional-media journalists to embrace the then-new form — is calling it quits. The reasons: burnout, stress, health issues, and a general desire to do something else.

…I am saturated in digital life and I want to return to the actual world again. I’m a human being before I am a writer; and a writer before I am a blogger, and although it’s been a joy and a privilege to have helped pioneer a genuinely new form of writing, I yearn for other, older forms. I want to read again, slowly, carefully. I want to absorb a difficult book and walk around in my own thoughts with it for a while. I want to have an idea and let it slowly take shape, rather than be instantly blogged. I want to write long essays that can answer more deeply and subtly the many questions that the Dish years have presented to me. I want to write a book.

Sullivan, editor of The New Republic back in the 1990s, blogged on his own, for The Daily Beast, Time, and The Atlantic, and most recently under the independent brand of The Dish, launched two years ago as a test of his anti-advertising, pro-paid-content ideas for supporting online journalism. He got about 30,000 people to pay up, which generated around $1 million a year in revenue.

To understand Sullivan’s place in the blogging firmament, you should check out the lengthy interview he gave the team behind Riptide in 2013, in which he dove deep into his history with the medium, his views of its strengths, and why he (at least at that time) was still doing it. There’s a transcript on the Riptide site; I’m embedding the two-part videos below.

I knew it in an intellectual sense by the end of the ’90s. You just saw. At the same time, the ’90s was a time when there was this huge crash. I wanted, as a writer with a bunch of materials, to have a website. I thought I should have a website. Everybody else has a website. I had a good buddy. I didn’t know anything about it, so I said, “Would you please put my pieces up on the website so that there’s a resource I can build up?”…

Every time I called him up to say, “Could you post a new piece of mine?” He would be, “Fine,” but it wasn’t his day job. Eventually, he said, “Here’s this new platform called Blogger.com. Why don’t you put up your own pieces?” Politely. I was like, “Cool, sure!”

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LINK: reporterslab.org  ➚   |   Posted by: Joshua Benton   |   January 20, 2015

A new census from Duke’s Reporters’ Lab says that fact-checking sites are on the rise worldwide:

The 2015 Fact-Checking Census from the Duke Reporters’ Lab found 89 that have been active in the past few years and 64 that are active today. That’s up from 59 total/44 active when we did our last count in May 2014. (We include inactive sites in our total count because sites come and go with election cycles. Some news organizations and journalism NGOs only fact-check during election years.)

Bill Adair, who runs the Reporters’ Lab, used to run PolitiFact — hence his interest.

The survey also found that the use of true/false ratings scales was on the rise, though “Pants On Fire” hasn’t become the universal synonym for lying:

Many rating systems use a true to false scale while others have devised more creative names. For example, ratings for the European site FactCheckEU include “Rather Daft” and “Insane Whopper.” Canada’s Baloney Meter rates statements from “No Baloney” to “Full of Baloney.”

There’s also True to Huckster Propaganda, True to Rubbish, Verdadero to Ridículo, and an array of Pinocchios.

The full list of sites is here.

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You may remember a year ago I posted this short piece that detailed the decline of free daily newspapers in Europe. (“Remember how, a few years ago, some thought that Metro and others of its free ilk would sweep into the space paid dailies were leaving behind? It didn’t work out exactly that way.”) I included this chart by Piet Bakker, perhaps the world’s top analyst of free newspapers:

free-newspapers-chart-piet-bakker

Another year, another chart: Bakker has just updated with 2013 data:

free-dailies-europe-1995-2013-piet-bakker

In other words, more of the same. WAN-IFRA did a brief email interview with Bakker about the state of affairs:

Since free dailies have only one source of income — advertising — the economic crisis hit this sector harder than other print media. Apart from that, there is a general decline in print circulation, probably because younger generations don’t use print that often. This generation was always rather interested in free dailies but now increasingly uses mobile phones during the time that they used to read a free newspaper. And just before the crisis, many free titles were launched (in 2005-2007), which resulted in fierce competition among free papers, hurting the business model even more.

Bakker is also reviewing the situation for free dailies across the world in a 67-part series — the man has stamina! So far, he’s run through Albania, Andorra, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, and Denmark. (Estonians: Get ready!) He expects to finish Europe by mid-February, then move to the rest of the world.

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LINK: betasurvey.com  ➚   |   Posted by: Joshua Benton   |   January 15, 2015

nytimes-logoFor two decades, The New York Times has had a reader insight panel — a subset of its audience that it occasionally surveys to “better understand the reading habits, lifestyles and interests of Times readers. (They’re far from alone in this; here’s The Washington Post’s, for instance.) If you’re on it, as I am, you get occasional questions about whether you read a certain section, whether you’d be interested in a particular new Times product, and so on.

But now the Times is using its reader panel for journalistic purposes. For the first time, the results will be published in The New York Times Magazine. I got an email earlier this week under the name of new magazine editor Jake Silverstein (emphasis mine):

Dear New York Times Reader Insight Panel Member,

Whether you are a new Insight Panel member, or have been with us for years, we want to thank you for the invaluable feedback you provide as valued New York Times reader.

Today we have a very special survey. For the first time, results of this Readers Insight Panel survey will be published in The New York Times Sunday Magazine.

The survey covers a number of topics, but it’s all about you. Please note that some of the questions are very personal. In these instances we have provided a “Prefer not to answer” option. If, at any point during the survey, you feel that the questions are too personal, please feel free to stop and close out of it completely. We understand if you are not comfortable answering any or all of our questions. As with all NYT Reader Insight Panel surveys, all answers are strictly confidential. Answers will be reported in the magazine only in aggregate.

The survey should take about 10 minutes to complete. Just click on the link below or copy and paste the URL into your browser.

[link omitted]

Thank you very much for participating in our survey.

Sincerely,

Jake Silverstein
Editor, The New York Times Sunday Magazine

I won’t spoil the future reveal of this package for the magazine, other than to note that among the questions were “Who is the best American President ever?,” “Do you have any close friends of a different political party?,” “Have you ever had dinner with your neighbors?,” and “Let’s say you are at a party and people are talking about a particular book that everyone has read except for you. Do you admit you haven’t read it, or do you fake it?”

(Oh, and “Do you believe in God?”)

But I did want to note it as an example of a business-side operation (reader research) and editorial working together, in a way that shouldn’t anger any but the most vitriolic church/state scolds. Why engage an outside polling operation to find out what your readers think — when you’ve already built one in house? The Times’ Innovation report specifically called for more of this sort of collaboration:

The very first step, however, should be a deliberate push to abandon our current metaphors of choice — “The Wall” and “Church and State” — which project an enduring need for division. Increased collaboration, done right, does not present any threat to our values of journalistic independence…

We have an army of colleagues who are committed to helping deliver cutting-edge journalism and growing our audience. [For example?] The Analytics groups use data to learn about our readers’ changing habits as well as the effectiveness of our advertising and marketing. They also gather direct feedback from our readers about what they want from our apps and websites. This group translates those needs for Product and Design.

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Since its launch in 2012, the Solutions Journalism Network has worked with dozens of newsrooms by holding training workshops, helping journalists on individual stories, organizing longterm partnerships, and more.

Today though, SJN is taking its particular brand of journalism to the journalistic masses with the release of a 48-page guide on how to use the solutions journalism method at all stages of reporting a story, from pitching an editor to promoting a finished piece on social media.

Solutions journalism calls for reporters to showcase potential solutions along with the problems they’re reporting on as a way to produce more informative and impactful stories. As the report puts it:

It is increasingly inadequate for journalists to simply note what’s wrong and hope for society to create better laws or provide proper oversight. The world’s problems are just too complex and fast-changing. People must learn about credible examples of responses to problems in order to become empowered, discerning actors capable of shaping a better society. In this context, journalism must augment its traditional role, spotlighting adaptive responses to entrenched social ills.

SJN has previously published tools for practicing solutions journalism on its website, but the new guide, which can be downloaded as a PDF, is meant to be a more comprehensive document that can “answer some of the most common doubts journalists have about this practice — like how to write about failure in a solutions — oriented way.”

The guide gives point-by-point explanations for how to identify what makes a good solutions journalism story, the best way to pitch an editor, the types of questions to ask sources, and how to approach writing a story. There are also annotated stories from The New York Times, The Seattle Times, PRI’s The World, and Kaiser Health News that highlight how the pieces demonstrate solutions journalism.

Here’s a link to the full report.

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