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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: www.buzzfeed.com  ➚   |   Posted by: Joshua Benton   |   February 26, 2015

It’s what qualifies as an age-old debate in the digital media business: Web or native apps? The question isn’t really either/or — for most news outlets, the answer is “both” — but since the iPhone arrived, publishers have debated how much emphasis to put behind publishing on the open web vs. building native app experiences for iOS and Android.

Focus too much on apps and you risk being ignored by the social web. Focus too much on the web and you end up being a lonely webview inside someone’s Facebook News Feed. Focus too much on apps and you risk getting lost on the fifth homescreen of someone’s phone. Focus too much on the web and you lose out on tools like push notifications that can drive attention.

For a number of years (and to broadly generalize), it was traditional publishers that ran to apps — think of all the magazines who poured money into building iPad Newsstand apps, trying to reclaim their old paywalled gardens — and the digital natives who bet on the web and winning on social. Again, it was always more nuanced than that — HuffPo had an app or two — but your Gawkers and BuzzFeeds were broadly betting on the open web and social distribution.

But now things are more complicated. On one hand, Circa debuted a full website today, breaking further out of its app shell. Earlier this month, Flipboard did the same.

On the other hand, Gawker is now building a native app, 12 years into its existence. And BuzzFeed is going app-happy too, releasing a Tinder-for-cute-animals app, preparing a specialized news app, and more. Product VP Chris Johanesen:

We see the App Store as a platform, and it makes sense for us to be experimenting there the same way we experiment on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat etc…

I’m often asked why we believe in apps when many media companies are ditching their apps and focusing on pure-web experiences. Another building block of our DNA is to make the best experience for our readers on whatever platform they are on, whether they are finding us on the web or downloading one of our apps directly.

We’re excited about native apps because we can provide deep experiences that aren’t always possible on the web. Providing rich features like notifications, personalization, home screen widgets, offline access, and wearable features can bring huge enhancements to your experience.

There has been a lot of talk about unbundling in the tech industry. At BuzzFeed we’ve thought a lot about our apps and our audience and have spent a lot of time thinking about what makes the most sense for us…

To some people, BuzzFeed is about reading fun lists, taking quizzes and sharing and discussing them amongst their friends. To others, we are a source for vital news and groundbreaking journalism, or for ways to get more out of your life. And to some, we are a source of hilarious videos they love to binge watch.

As we thought about what the best experience for each of these things would be, it became increasingly apparent that shoehorning all the ways to experience BuzzFeed into one app doesn’t make sense. We don’t see it as “unbundling” as much as focusing. Instead of having one baseline for all types of stories and media we need to build apps that can excel at providing the best experience for each.

We’ll see how this works for BuzzFeed, but I think there are a few things underlying this broader shift:

A broader victory for app use on phones. comScore data: “The average U.S. smartphone user now spends 88 percent of his or her time when using a mobile phone within an app and just 12 percent using the web browser.” (That’s a gap that is widening over time.) Forrester data: Smartphone owners “use an average of 24 apps per month but spend more than 80 percent of their [in app] time on just five apps.” Of course, some of that time in apps is spent on the web — the links you click on Twitter, for instance — but the broad trend is clear: A small number of homescreen icons are increasingly dominating attention, and Safari and Chrome are losing out.

A recognition of the power of social platforms. (And by “social platforms,” I really just mean Facebook.) As Bloomberg’s Justin Smith put it this week: “The list is a lot longer than is publicly known of those that have Facebook delivering half to two-thirds of their traffic right now.” Facebook’s rumblings about wanting sites to publish their content straight to the platform has reawakened publishers’ desire for greater control of their own destiny than social distribution allows.

A shift in business strategy. It’s increasingly clear that banner advertising isn’t going to be big enough for most online publishers to sustain their businesses. And it’s clear that the user-data advantage that Google, Facebook, and maybe a few other giants have over publishers isn’t going away. That’s pushed differentiation and the desire to built an environment where engaged users are more easily sold to premium advertisers.

(You could actually read each of those forces as good reasons for the boom of email newsletters too; email is an open platform that most people still have to spend some time in, and the the act of subscribing to a newsletter creates the same sort of engaged, committed relationship that a good app might.)

There are also two complementary forces at work here: the move to apps, and the move to lots of apps. That’s the unbundling bit Johanesen references. Some BuzzFeed readers want cats; some want news; some want videos about how their generation has totally lived a unique and special experience that can only be understood through 90-second videos. The news people will look down on the cat stuff, and probably vice versa — so you give them separate points of entry.

That’s not always an easy bet, though. The New York Times has been quite successful with a unified paywall model, getting around 900,000 people to buy what amounts to an all-you-can-eat package. But its attempts at siphoning off chunks of Times content — NYT Now and the late NYT Opinion — have had less than stellar uptake.

Who knows if these attempts to cloister off user attention will work — the competition is very fierce, and most of the alternatives don’t have the burden of being, you know, news. (Think games, chat apps, Facebook.) And this shift still leaves out most smaller and local publishers, who don’t have the technical game to build good native experiences. But it’s a logical next salvo in the ongoing battle for mindshare.

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LINK: medium.com  ➚   |   Posted by: Caroline O'Donovan   |   February 24, 2015

Medium announced some new updates to its publishing platform today. They include a tagging system (which means more structured data), a redesign of post presentation called The Stream, and an inline editor that’s supposed to make it easier to start writing. This last feature has received the most attention so far, with the general consensus being that Medium is getting “bloggier” (or is it Bloggerier?) and “more like Twitter.”

When I met with Evan Hansen at Medium headquarters in October, he talked about how the site had grown a reputation as a home for longform writing. While Medium loves longform, Hansen said, they were also actively looking for ways to lower the barrier of entry for writers, trying to compel more writers to write more stuff more casually. That’s why, for example, they introduced a commenting format that encouraged readers with something to say to “write a response” in the form of a Medium post. Here’s how Medium (and Twitter) founder Ev Williams put it:

It was not our intention, however, to create a platform just for “long-form” content or where people feel intimidated to publish if they’re not a professional writer or a famous person (something we’ve heard many times).

We know that length is not a measure of thoughtfulness. The quality of an idea is not determined by the polish of the writing. And production value does not determine worthiness of time investment on the web any more than it does at the movie theater.

We also know that sometimes you need to get a thought out in an incomplete form in order for it to grow — by bumping into other brains and breathing in fresh air.

That’s why, today, we’re making some pretty big changes to how Medium works and feels.

Venture-backed sites like Medium need lots of content and lots of users. While being known for free, elegant, digital publishing has worked for Medium so far, it hasn’t brought the hockey-stick user base growth that early investors typically seek. It’s also worth noting that Matter, the digital science magazine that Medium bought and turned into a sort of flagship for what it’s possible to build on Medium, is currently filling a senior editor position that reflects this pivot.

short form

By showing that Medium can be a destination for both the long and the short, the high brow and the low, the goal is to lower the stakes and get more fingers tapping away on Medium.com.

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LINK: fredrikdeboer.com  ➚   |   Posted by: Joshua Benton   |   February 23, 2015

If you’re a weekend denizen of Media Twitter, (a) my apologies and (b) you’ve already seen this Friday blog post from Fredrik deBoer, a doctoral student at Purdue and a smart critic of contemporary media. He’s riffing off of some time spent reading Fusion and noting the sameness of the 2015 News Web:

But [Fusion] just isn’t about anything in the way that the site’s founders and editorial people clearly want it to be…you’re still another site publishing people writing about news and politics and culture and sometimes sports. And in that, you’re joining every other website that publishes about news and politics and culture and sometimes sports.

The mix changes… [here deBoer has a lengthy and funny and telling riff about the various 10-percent-different boxes that online publishers slot themselves into — it’s not fair to excerpt it, go read it all.] But one way or another, you could take 90% of what each of these sites publish and stick it on any other, and nobody would ever know the difference.

I’m sure some people will think I’m talking poop and saying these sites aren’t good. That is not the case. I’m saying that they are all as good or as bad as whatever piece I am reading at the moment. Writers are good or bad, and much more, writing is good or bad. But I no longer know what a website means as an identity, unless that identity is a specific subject. I know what Guns and Ammo is. I know what Road and Track is. (I know what Redtube is.) I don’t know what Fusion is.

I think he’s onto something here, but I want to put a slightly different twist on it. What unites these outlets? (Fusion, Grantland, Slate, The Atlantic, New York, The New York Times Magazine, The New Republic, BuzzFeed, Salon, The Awl, Gawker, Vice, Vox, FiveThirtyEight.) Two things:

They are not local. (New York, Gawker, and The Awl might in some moods claim to be local to New York, but they’re really more about the state of being (or aspiring to be) a New Yorker, which is universal.) This is both deeply obvious and historically strange. Before the Internet, journalism in the United States was intensely local — local newspapers, local television, and local radio, with only magazines really slicing up the market psychographically rather than geographically.

Today, with the Internet taking distribution out of the physical world of broadcast towers and delivery trucks, the media world is even more centered on New York (with honorable mention to D.C./L.A./S.F.) than ever. Add in younger (and cheaper) staffs at most places and you end up with content that is highly shaped by its context — the sort of broad editorial middle that 20something and 30something graduates of good universities like to write. (You’ll also note that these outlets are much more willing to be open about taking left-of-center stances — on, say, same-sex marriage or immigration — than a more geographically dispersed media ecosystem would be, because in that world, there really is only one side to those arguments.)

Most are funded by venture money (Vox, Vice, BuzzFeed), backed by giant corporations (538, Grantland, Fusion), or traditional media companies trying to adjust to the digital world (The Atlantic, The New Republic). In each of those cases, the operative business model of choice requires scale — scale to support national advertising buys. Of the 14 outlets deBoer mentions, only The New York Times Magazine has a paywall of note. Despite what you may hear about events strategies, digital advertising is still very much the big kahuna in their models. And you don’t get sort of scale by being quirky or playing on the culture’s edges.

It’s also worth remembering that this was not The Dream of The Internet from what seems like not that long ago. The power of personal publishing was supposed to be about empowering the little guy — everyone on an equal platform, subcultures to the fore, the crowd and those who make it up given expressive power heretofore unseen. Not a bunch of good but same-ish websites bound by most of the same boxes.

When I talk about digital media, I often fall back on an accordion metaphor: The playing field of any medium takes turns expanding out and crunching back in. The early days of newspapers were filled with handfuls or dozens of papers per city, each attached to a specific audience or political point of view. But over time, they compressed down to a single, establishment daily in most places. The early days of radio were filled with amateur and experimental stations, operating under the regulatory radar. But they quickly divvied up the dial and, through many years of conglomeration, turned into your Clear Channels and Cumulus Medias. It’s a regular pattern — a new format opens up a wide space for experimentation and audience targeting, and then business forces compress it down into a few big players.

We’ve already seen a version of this online in the political blogosphere (that quaint word), which a decade ago was a lively place with many thousands of blogs, some big, some small, all operating and interlinking on the open web. That’s mostly been subsumed by a much smaller set of large political sites on both left and right that are both professionalized and monetized. The formation of the broad content middle deBoer describes is a logical next step in that process. There’ll still be the little magazines and their equivalent, but they’ll enter the broader conversation insofar as they get aggregated up the food chain. (And of course “personal publishing” has long moved to the biggest players I haven’t mentioned yet: Facebook, Twitter, and the other social platforms that are even more all-encompassing — and aim to stake even further claim to their domain.)

The image of the accordion crunching back in doesn’t have to mean a financial crunch; lots of people made lots of money in the consolidation of readers and outlets in newspaper and radio. What deBoer is really describing is the re-creation of mass media — a little younger-skewing than the last one, sure, but the same sort of broad zone of uniformity.

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LINK: www.vox.com  ➚   |   Posted by: Joshua Benton   |   February 13, 2015

Vox Sentences is Vox’s evening email newsletter, designed to be a wrapup of the day’s top news — we wrote about it back in October when it entered the ever-crowding arena of news-roundup emails. Vox Sentences’ major differentiators are its timing (evening rather than morning) and its format — a series of scannable one-sentence bullet points with links. For example, here’s a screenshot of Tuesday’s email. (I’ve shrunk down the type size so you can see more of it; it arrives at a much more readable size, I can assure you.)

vox-sentences-screenshot-1

On Wednesday, Vox tried out a different style in its email and asked for feedback. The change: The bullet points were turned into meaty paragraphs, rich with context, links, and something closer to traditional narrative prose. Another screenshot (also with the type shrunk down):

vox-sentences-screenshot-2

Who doesn’t like context and narrative prose? Well, the readers of Vox Sentences. Last night, Vox ended the experiment when the response was fierce.

Format update: The votes are in, and man, you guys really did not care for yesterday’s Sentences format! It wasn’t even close. 177 people wrote in, and 169 expressed a clear preference one way or the other (many thanks to the very sweet people who said they’d read it in any format). 32 preferred the new version, while 137 liked the old one better.

That’s an 81 percent to 19 percent margin. Dictators win elections by smaller margins than that. We’ll keep experimenting with how we do Sentences — today’s the first day we’ll have pictures in the email version, for example — but for now, it’s back to bullets all the way through.

I’d side with the majority here. If you asked me what morning email newsletter about journalism has the most and best content, I’d probably go with the American Press Institute’s Need To Know. But at the same time, some of its formatting and style is so dense that it can be offputting. It’s hard to scan a paragraph like this one from this morning’s edition:

api-need-to-know-screenshot

More broadly, it’s a reminder that, for all the buzz around The Email Newsletter Renaissance, we’re still figuring out the formats — length, structure, content — that work. There’s still a lot of space for evolution and experimentation.

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LINK: twitter.com  ➚   |   Posted by: Joshua Benton   |   February 11, 2015

One question that’s been asked a lot since Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post is how involved he is in the newspaper’s evolution. Bezos hasn’t spoken in much detail about the subject. (One of his relatively few public comments about his ownership starts at 42:45 of this Business Insider video.) Media references to the Post’s real successes of the past year sometimes seem to give credit to his magical touch — but how engaged is he, really, given that other pretty big company he owns?

Joey Marburger, the Post’s director of digital products and design, precipitated a tweetstorm last night that opened a small window into Bezos’ involvement in the development of the Post’s Kindle Fire app:

Two quick thoughts. First, the Kindle Fire app they built is an nice piece of work, with an interesting UX and a twist on the linear-reading model a print newspaper offers. But you probably haven’t heard much about it since its release — because it’s locked on the Kindle Fire, a tablet not that many people use, but which Bezos’ other company happens to make.

In business, they call it a strategy tax when something makes a product less likely to succeed but advances larger corporate goals. (Think Microsoft refusing for so long to release Office for iOS, where it likely would have been a success, because it wanted to prop up its own Windows mobile platforms.) I don’t think it’s a stretch to say there is zero chance this would have launched exclusive to the Kindle Fire if Jeff Bezos was not the owner of the newspaper. It’ll be worth watching to see to what degree future interesting Post work gets constrained to Amazon platforms.

Second, if you haven’t already, read this Fast Company piece from last month — on what went wrong with the Amazon Fire Phone — for a different vision of Bezos’ involvement in product development.

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