With BuzzFeed and Upworthy reporting eye-popping traffic growth and planning to hire teams of reporters, many people are wondering whether sharing is the new currency of media success.

The idea is that if you give readers enough top-ten lists and animated GIFs they’ll do all your marketing for you. You don’t even have to worry about search engine optimization because nothing ever went viral on search. This philosophy has even given birth to a new style of headline writing that’s intended to stimulate sharing (“Why’s This Kid Throwing Coins? The Reason May Or May Not Blow Your Mind, But Something Does Blow Up,” reads one recent Upworthy example).

Henry Blodget

But maybe sharing isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. In a recent case study on USA Today, Michael Wolff looks at Business Insider, the hyper-caffeinated new-media brainchild of exiled Wall Street bad boy Henry Blodget. Business Insider is notorious for its fixation on being first and for driving its reporters to exhaustion. It’s a content mill – albeit with higher quality than many of its peers – that churns out large volumes of information in the quest to earn shares on Facebook and Twitter.

And it’s generating traffic: 25.4 million unique visitors in January, says Wolff. The problem is that Business Insider has low reader loyalty:

Only a small percentage of Business Insider’s traffic actually seeks it out and regards it as a worthy destination and a source with particular brand authority. Most other readers land on a Business Insider article because of search-engine results, or because of an engaging — tabloid-style — headline in a Facebook feed and other social-media promotions, which generate 30% of Business Insider’s traffic.

Wolff asserts that this drive-by traffic has little value because readers don’t identify with the brand. Worse is that the drive for big numbers becomes a race to the bottom.  As advertising rates continue to drift lower, publishers must seek ever-higher traffic volumes to stay in the same place. This means resorting to gimmicks like contests, cheesecake photos and celebrity gossip. That attracts poor-quality traffic which has low brand affinity and little value to advertisers. It’s a vicious cycle.

Digital Dimes

Blodget disagrees. In a response on Business Insider he says that the very problems Wolff cites are actually opportunities. New media companies don’t have legacy businesses to protect and so are free to disrupt mainstream competitors and steal revenue, he says. “We are better at serving digital readers than many traditional news organizations, so we can thrive on these ‘digital dimes,’” writes Blodget. His post displays a photo of what are presumably a group of happy young reporters in the company’s New York offices (Wolff says Business insider has hired 70 full-time journalists at a cost of more than $15 million a year. Do the math).

We think Wolff is on to something. Take a look at the chart below from the Pew Research Journalism Project. It depicts traffic to the 26 most popular U.S. news sites over a three-month period. It shows conclusively that visitors who reach a site directly (via a bookmark or typing the address into a browser) stay much longer, read much more and visit more often.

This isn’t surprising when you think about it. Typing “nyt.com” into a browser is an act of brand affinity, whereas headline-clickers on Facebook don’t really care where the headline comes from. The BuzzFeeds and Upworthys of the world must compete headline by headline. Is that a problem?

Attracting readers with gimmicks is nothing new. One of the myths of the news business is that people read newspapers primarily for the news. The reality is that they read for all kinds of reasons. Any veteran of the pre-digital publishing days will tell you that an embarrassingly large number of traditional newspaper readers bought copies for the coupons, Ann Landers, comics, the Jumble and the daily horoscope.

But at least in those days readers knew what brand to buy. Today’s audience has more affinity to the content than to the publisher, and aggregators like Flipboard are constantly looking for ways to supersede publishers’ brands with their own. Brand still matters. A click is not the same as a reader.

 

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Marc Andreessen, internet pioneer and founder ...

Marc Andreessen, internet pioneer and founder of Netscape at Web 2.0 Expo in San Francisco, CA (Photo credit: TechShowNetwork)

Pretty much anything Marc Andreessen writes is worth reading, and his latest treatise on the future of the news business should be required reading for any publishing executive.

The man who arguably started all the trouble with the invention of the Mosaic browser in 1993 isn’t just an optimist on the future of the news business; he’s positively bullish about it. But the future he sees is much more like the newspaper market of the turn of the 20th century than the one that dominated the last 30 years of the 21st.

His 3,000-word prescription boils down to a few basic points, not all of which are new:

Run the news business like a business. Take advantage of the many new revenue sources that are emerging, in particular native advertising and subscriptions.

Take advantage of media democratization. Sure, anybody can be a publisher today, but that’s an opportunity as well as a problem. Universal media access creates noise, which presents opportunities for aggregators to simplify the cacophony. It also creates the possibility of much larger audiences than we have known the past. “The big opportunity for the news industry in the next five to 10 years is to increase its market size 100x AND drop prices 10X,” Andreessen writes. In other words, throw out the business model that relied upon scarcity and replace it with one that values abundance.

Stop playing defense. The good old days of news monopolies and oligopolies are gone forever, so get over it and focus on the future. The few organizations that have successfully crossed the chasm – he mentions The Guardian and The New York Times – began thinking digital-first years ago. What are the rest of you waiting for?

Find new revenue models. Bitcoin is going to make micro-payments feasible, so study up and start experimenting. And tear down that Chinese wall. It defeats too many new business ideas. Outlets like the Atlantic and the Times are finding ways to make blended advertising and editorial work and actually growing their influence in the process.

Andreessen provides numerous examples of new and traditional media enterprises that are succeeding and growing. They include several that we’ve talked about here previously as well as a few that we haven’t, including Anandtech, The Verge and Vice.

On the subject of investigative reporting, Andreessen is almost sanguine. “The total global expense budget of all investigative journalism is tiny —  in the neighborhood of tens of millions of dollars annually. That’s the good news; small money problems are easier to solve than big money nightmares.” He believes a combination of crowd funding and philanthropy can more than cover the costs of the necessary Baghdad bureaus and investigative teams.”

The future of news will see fewer large media empires and many more small, focused enterprises. These organizations will take advantage of improved economies that enable them to reach vastly larger audiences at much lower cost than in the past. The mainstream media survivors will be those that move the quickest to tear down old infrastructure and seize every opportunity to reinvent themselves.

Can Technology Save the News?

Pierre Omidyar

eBay founder and news investor Pierre Omidyar

A considerably less optimistic but more diverse perspective is contained in an article from the excellent Knowledge@Wharton service. Technology Can Save the News — If Readers Change How They Consume It consolidates the opinions of several Wharton faculty members about how mainstream media can be saved. They agree that standalone, for-profit news organizations are unsustainable but that that independent journalism is too valuable to sacrifice.

The professors see promise in the interest of billionaires like eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos in owning media companies. Omidyar recently committed $250 million to a startup media venture run by journalist Glenn Greenwald and Bezos ponied up the same amount to buy the Washington Post last summer.

No one believes these investors are buying traditional media properties for their growth potential. Rather, they think media companies are undervalued and they may see synergies with their other businesses. For example, targeted advertising delivered by Amazon’s impressive recommendation engine could yield immediate sales for advertisers and drive up Amazon revenues.

Many rich people also have an interest in advancing political agendas out of either self-interest or ideology, and media companies provide an ideal bully pulpit. The risk is that these media come to reflect the politics of their owners too closely and contribute to the “echo chamber” problem in which audiences choose to listen only to the outlets that reflect their beliefs.

On this question, Wharton marketing professor Pinar Yildirim is cautiously optimistic. She believes that the proliferation of slanted outlets like Fox News will create a backlash as consumers seek independent voices. “Technology can bring us perspectives other than our own, if the ones designing it build that into the architecture, and the ones consuming the news are open to it,” she says.

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We did a double-take when we saw this headline on Bloomberg last week: “BuzzFeed Said to Expect 2014 Sales of Up to $120 Million.” If you haven’t paid much attention to BuzzFeed, now is a good time to start, because this seven-year-old dark horse may have figured out the secret to making money in an environment of brutal competition and plummeting advertising prices.

The story relates some impressive statistics:

  • BuzzFeed expects to book $60 million in revenue this year, up from an initial budget of $40 million.
  • Year-over-year traffic is up fourfold.
  • The site attracted more than 130 million unique visitors in November.
  • BuzzFeed expects to field more than 600 ad campaigns this year.
  • It has raised $46 million.
  • It’s profitable.
Image representing Jonah Peretti as depicted i...

Image via CrunchBase

Casual visitors to BuzzFeed might be tempted to dismiss the site as just another collection of top-10 lists. That’s understandable, given that top stories bear names like, “The 28 Funniest Notes Written By Kids In 2013,” but there’s more to BuzzFeed than mouse candy.

The site was founded by Jonah Peretti (right), an MIT Media Lab alumnus who also co-founded Huffington Post. Peretti has made a career of figuring out how to make stuff that people want to share, and his latest venture appears to have cracked the code (For more on the new journalism discipline of writing for maximum share appeal, read this article).

Everything on BuzzFeed is optimized for sharing because that’s the secret to building traffic. BuzzFeed eschews traditional search engine optimization. “We don’t spend that much time thinking about search,” Peretti told Fortune in this interview. It focuses instead on the psychology of sharing: What content do people instinctively want to tell others about? In the long run, Peretti thanks sharing by humans will be a more important factor in online success than search results.

Unlike some other content farms, BuzzFeed has designs on serious journalism. Peretti has said he plans to hire 200 professional journalists, and the site’s news section is beginning to look more and more like what CNN used to. In essence, the cat videos and wet T-shirt slide shows bring in visitors s

o serious reporting can happen.

BuzzFeed is perhaps best known for its novel approach to native advertising. Sponsored content appears in line with staff material (it’s lightly labeled) and uses the same format as everything else on the site: lots of lists, photos and captions. Sponsors are encouraged to come up with creative ideas that will fit the look and feel of the site. Intel has 10 Pieces Of Vintage Technology We Couldn’t Wait To Have and Ruffles came up with 12 Reasons Dogs Really Are Man’s Best Friend. Peretti told Fortune:

We told brands, “You have to tell a story.” This is actually something the magazine industry has been great at over decades — making advertising that actually adds to the product. It’s something that websites have completely failed to do…If you take all of the ads out of a fashion magazine, you lose half the photography, you know? So we really took the approach of, “Well, why can’t the web be like that? Why can’t we make great branded content, advertising, that has its own page that people want to click on and engage in and share and interact with?”

This may sound like heresy to journalism traditionalists, but BuzzFeed is breaking a lot of molds in an attempt to find a model that works.

In fact, the site’s basic content model isn’t all that different from traditional newspapers’. The reason most newspapers carry horoscopes, crossword puzzles, comics and gossip columns is because large numbers of people read newspapers solely for those features. If BuzzFeed’s 21st-century version of Dear Abby can provide some serious journalists with gainful employment, then we all owe Jonah Peretti a debt of gratitude.

Media Boomlet

BuzzFeed isn’t the only new media entity that’s benefiting from the aggregation craze, but there are questions about how far this business can scale and whether there’s much money to be made.

Henry BlodgetUSA Today‘s Michael Wolff writes that Henry Blodget (left) is shopping Business Insider, reportedly asking a cool $100 million. Not bad for a site that’s less than five years old with just 62 editorial staff members listed on its masthead. Wolff runs the numbers, makes a couple of educated guesses and figures that Business Insider is probably getting a  CPM (cost per thousand) of between $1.50 and $3. That compares to $30-$40 CPMs that were common in the business magazine world just a few years ago.

Wolff sees the mass-market digital media landscape as being a race to the bottom, with publishers frantically searching for viewer eyeballs, regardless of their appeal to advertisers. “The digital traffic world, with techniques and sources and results that are ever-more dubious, is, as I’d guess the astute Henry Blodget has ascertained, not a sound long-term play,” he writes. Hence, it’s time to get out.

But the venture capital community, which is flush with stock market cash, apparently doesn’t agree – yet. CNN Money’s Dan Primack and Jessi Hempel say Flipboard is set to raise another $50 million, bringing to $160 million its total venture funding since 2010. Flipboard doesn’t even produce any original content. It’s a mobile platform that aggregates content produced by other media companies, and its licensing policies have raised some hackles.

The new high-volume aggregation model that’s attracting so much attention was outlined in The New York Times last year. It’s a caffeinated rush to get it first, and very little content comes from traditional journalistic shoe leather. Reporters are skilled at finding, assimilating and repackaging information in eye-catching packages. The assumption is that citizens are already doing a lot of the reporting on their Facebook timelines and Twitter feeds, and the media company that can be filter the noise adds significant value.

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Brian Stelter“There is no longer a defined final destination for talented journalists,” writes Emily Bell in The Guardian. “The New York Times is surprised to find itself a stepping stone.”

Bell is writing about the sudden and surprise defections of a number of top Times journalists to other media outlets, often for substantial amounts of money. The Times lost three prominent editorial staffers in one day last week: Brian Stelter (right) quit to go to CNN, Sunday editor Hugo Lindgren is off to places unknown and chief political correspondent Matt Bai will join Yahoo News. Last month, gadget specialist David Pogue left to go to an unnamed Yahoo startup. In an unrelated move, Jay Rosen has also joined an unnamed startup founded by Pierre Omidyar of eBay fame.

All of a sudden media is cool again, or at least some media. While traditional publishers continue to struggle with declining revenue, money is flowing into new media companies. Buzzfeed has raised $46 million. AOL is investing in a big overhaul and expansion of Engadget. Snapchat just turned down a $3 billion offer from Facebook, indicating how frothy the social networking market has become. B2B community Spiceworks has raised more than $50 million for its novel media model that uses software and a community as delivery vehicles. Even the Washington Post is expected to get an infusion of cash from its new owner, Jeff Bezos.

This is translating into career opportunities for some accomplished journalists whose brands now arguably transcend the publications they work for. Bell suggests that the star-making apparatus of the media world is shifting in their favor. Not long ago a job at The New York Times was considered the ultimate career plum for news journalists, but belt-tightening has hit the Old Gray Lady just as it has everywhere else (although not as hard). With all-digital operations suddenly flush with cash, the appeal of working for publishers whose survival strategy is to wall off content from non-paying visitors is diminishing.

In many ways, traditional media companies dug themselves into this hole. In their rush to produce more content and add more advertising inventory, they turned some of their best reporters into rock stars. Thanks to blogs, video podcasts and branded talk shows, journalists now get unprecedented visibility. That makes them prime targets for new media firms who want to trade on their personal brands.

Turnover may also be an unplanned consequence of paywalls, which will soon be in place at 41% of US newspapers. The problem with paywalls is that they shut readers out, and readership is what journalists live for. The Times‘ famous Times Select paywall was abandoned six years ago in large part because the paper’s signature columnists complained that their readership had evaporated. The models have improved since then, but no paid-access plan comes without some loss of audience.

So while newspapers  erect barriers to readership, new media entities like Buzzfeed figure out novel ways to get people to share their sponsored content. Is it any wonder that ambitious journalists with growing personal brands are seeking opportunities to spread their work to wider audiences instead of hiding it behind credit card forms?


Even reporters who don’t have million-eyeball reach may have new ways to monetize their audiences. A startup called Beacon has launched a service that enables journalists to derive revenue from their most loyal fans and share a little bit of the spoils with fellow contributors. Mathew Ingram sums up the model succinctly:

Each of the site’s journalists (there are currently about 50) has a page where their content lives, and a discussion forum. When someone subscribes to them for $5 a month, Beacon takes a cut — the amount is in flux, but writers keep around 60 percent on average — and then the reader gets access to all of the site’s other writers. Some of the proceeds from each subscription also go into a pool that is shared by all of the journalists on the platform.

It doesn’t sound like anyone will get rich from this business, but at least there is a direct correlation between work and reward. And we suppose Beacon could be a launchpad for a few new superstar journalists who build their audiences there. Like the crowd funding site Kickstarter, Beacon builds and manages the community. It’s then up to the participants to give the audience something of value. May the best journos win.

 

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Google has arguably been the worst enemy of working journalists for the last decade, but now the tide is turning and the search giant is trying to repair the damage it  has done. It deserves our patience and understanding as it continues on a course that hopefully will revitalize journalism as a career and rescue hundreds of thousands of freelancers who have seen their livelihoods damaged by the monster Google unwittingly created.

Early Lycos home pageA little historical background: Google changed human behavior, which is a pretty big deal when you think about it. Before it burst upon the scene in the latter days of the first dot-com bubble, people mostly browsed for information. Today we default to search because it’s a better way to find stuff. Thank Google for that.

But one of the weaknesses of all search engines going back to Lycos is their dependence upon keywords. Spammers have always used keyword tricks to game search engines, but Google’s enormous influence gave birth to large companies that do nothing but vomit forth keyword-laden text, the sole purpose of which was to drive traffic through Google search results. We’re looking at you, Demand Media.

The Ascendance of ‘Top 10′ Lists

The growing influence of keywords has diminished the importance of content quality. Why pay for professional writers when you can get the same or better results by employing interns or offshore body shops that write to formulas defined by keyword frequency? The reason you see so many “top 10″ lists and tip sheets online is because they perform well in search results, people click on the links a lot and they’re cheap to produce. We don’t think Google intended for this to happen; it just worked out that way.

Many capable writers have seen pay rates plummet by 75% or more over the last five years as publishers have pushed quantity over quality. The only way you can make a living at 25 cents a word is to churn out a lot of them. These journalism serfs are the real victims of the collapse of print media. They’re skilled professionals whose livelihoods have been stolen by publishers who make no distinction between writing and typing.

Serfs Up

google-hummingbird-algorithm-seo-tips1Now Google is throwing them a lifeline. With the release of its Panda search algorithm last year, Google made its first strong statements that it’s cracking down on keyword farms. Last month’s release of the Hummingbird algorithm continues a campaign to elevate the value of quality content in search results and penalize formulaic gamesmanship.

For example, officials sent the PR industry into tizzy by stating that press releases can no longer be used to juice search performance, calling them “link schemes” and “advertisements.” Executives have made it clear that their mission is to deliver search results that most closely match what the user is looking for, not just those that have the right  keyword combinations.

Writing on Forbes.com, Joshua Steimle summed up Hummingbird thusly:

If you’re the best at what you do, these updates Google has been rolling out are opportunities to separate yourself from your competition. [Your competitors] may have been engaging in spammy tactics to get good rankings, but if you’ve been focusing on creating content that provides real value to potential customers, their days are numbered.

People like Mike Moran, who really understand search engines, have said for years that the only true search optimization is quality content. Google is finally speaking the same language.

It’s Good

So what does this mean for journalists? We think it’s all good. Marketers, who are hiring increasing numbers of journalists to stoke their content marketing efforts, are going to have to step up their game. They’ll need better content, which means hiring better writers who charge higher rates. Publishers will also need to re-examine the merits of paying for quality content instead of publishing anything turned in by someone with a pulse.

Does Google’s strategy point to the rebirth of traditional news organizations? Sadly, that horse is already out of the barn. But it does indicate that the days of search engine gamesmanship are numbered and that quality is going to count for something again.

Google can’t change the way search has commoditized news and diminished the value of media brands, but that’s only partially its fault. In any case, it’s hard to feel sorry for the rich executives who have seen their bonuses cut amid falling profits.

The victims we feel sorry for are the career beat reporters who couldn’t anticipate the seismic shifts in their field and who were ill-equipped to adapt. Perhaps their fortunes are finally about to change.

 

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By Paul Gillin | August 2, 2013 - 8:10 am - Posted in Best/Worst, Education, Future of Journalism, Journalism

Journalism Degree.org  just posted a list of 100 Exemplary College Newspapers for Journalism Students. The ranking isn’t in any particular order and there’s no explanation of what methodology (if any) was used to assemble the list, but we clicked around to some of the candidates are were impressed to see that good journalism is being nurtured on college campuses around the country. If you or someone you know is considering journalism school, consider this list because campus newspapers are where you’ll be practicing a lot of your craft.

 

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How are the experiments in reduced frequency that began in Detroit more than four years ago and have since spread to Cleveland, Syracuse, New Orleans and now Portland working out? Not so well, says author and J-school professor John K. Hartman.

Writing on Editor & Publisher‘s website, Hartman says the most from seven-day to three-day home delivery has caused massive subscriber flight and forced publishers to quietly backtrack. Newhouse, which is cutting frequencies across its line of dailies, has already had to introduce a new tabloid to produce on the days the Times-Picayune doesn’t publish.

Hartman blames greed. He accuses Newhouse of sabotaging journalism at the papers it own in the name of maximizing profits for the Newhouse family.

Newhouse is saving big money by eliminating news staff, eliminating office staff, eliminating delivery staff, and eliminating delivery expenses. In other words, Newhouse is getting out of the daily newspaper business and into the tri-weekly advertising shopper business.

We didn’t know this, but Hartman says the Detroit Free Press and News have re-introduced daily delivery to about 15,000 homes. The experiment, which was positioned as a “bold transformation” in December, 2008,

lost so many readers they had to beef up their non-delivery-day newspapers and restore limited seven-day home delivery. The Free Press now offers home delivery to 15,000 households through independent contractors the other four days a week. Nonetheless, hundreds of thousands of readers of the print products were lost in Detroit, and the projected switch of readers and advertisers to digital sites has not taken place.

Paywalls continue to spring up across the news landscape while new-media enthusiasts warn that gated news is a throwback to a bygone age.

Britain’s Telegraph and Sun announced plans to erect paywalls almost simultaneously after successful tests. The Telegraph, which claims to have the largest circulation of any U.K. daily, will give away 20 articles free every month and charge £1.99/mo. thereafter for unlimited access to the website and smartphone apps. The Sun‘s move is timed to make the most of parent company News International’s £20M deal to show near-live clips of Premiership football highlights on its websites beginning in August.

In Canada, Postmedia Network will roll out paywalls across all 10 of its properties, including the National Post. The move completes an experiment that began two years ago and has been deployed in stages. Digital-only subscribers will have to ante up $9.99/mo. for reading more than 10 articles in any title within a month.

Perhaps most indicative of the surging popularity of paywalls, though, is Politico’s decision to experiment with the idea. The Washington, D.C.-focused news service, which was once personified the new breed of digital-only publishers, has given in to the reality that advertising rates continue to fall and subscriber revenues must become part of the business. “We believe that every successful media company will ultimately charge for its content” said a memo signed by several of the Politico’s top executives.

Circling the Wagons

We continue to be more interested in experiments that break new ground in publishing economics than efforts to resurrect old models. There’s plenty to report there, as well.

Ken Doctor kicks us  off with a fine analysis of where NewsRight went wrong. NewsRight was a consortium of 20 publishers that sprung out of the Associated Press in early 2012 with the mission of tracking down copyright violators while also creating a subscription model that would permit digital publishers to license quality content for redistribution.

“Publishers have seethed with rage as they’ve seen their substantial investment in newsrooms harvested — for nothing — by many aggregators…” writes Doctor on the Nieman Journalism Lab, “…but rage — whether seething or public — isn’t a business model.”

Bingo. Consortia are good for only two things: setting standards and raising awareness. They’re a terrible way to create new products. The idea of pursuing copyright violators individually is ludicrous, anyway. It’s like trying to stamp out ants. There are always more where the first batch came from.

The only anti-piracy tactic that works is a public awareness campaign, and the newspaper industry has shown little interest in that. NewsRight died because the members inevitably had conflicting priorities, and it was impossible for everyone to find common ground when everyone had something to lose.

Does BuzzFeed Have it Right?

Sponsored Post on BuzzFeedDoctor points to the work being done at NewsCred, BuzzFeed and Forbes, among others, as examples of new ideas worth developing. “In 2013, we’re seeing more innovative use of news content than we have in a long time,” he writes. We’re particularly interested in BuzzFeed, the viral content engine started by Jonah Peretti and others in 2006. At first glance it looks like any other new-age news site, with a bottomless home page stuffed with a jumble of seemingly unrelated content ranging from the profound to the ridiculous.

As New York magazine points out in a lengthy profile, though, there’s a lot more going on there than cat photos. BuzzFeed is tuned to create content that people want to share, and it could care less who the authors are. The home page blithely mixes contributions from staffers and advertisers with minimal labeling. Every element within every story can be shared on every social network you can imagine. Every page is designed to maximize audience interaction with the content.

BuzzFeed makes little effort to segregate advertiser contributions from the work of its own staff. A photo essay on “12 Tips to Have An Amazing Barbecue” from Grill Mates sits next to “Just The London Skyline, Made Out Of Sugar Cubes” by staffer Luke Lewis. Some of the branded stuff is actually pretty good, like, JetBlue’s “The 50 Most Beautiful Shots Taken Out Of Airplane Windows.”

Is this serious journalism? Well, no. We don’t think corporate brands will ever produce that. But if they want to run their grilling tips next to similarly lightweight content from professional editors, why not let them? The genie that goes by such names as “brand journalism” and “content marketing” isn’t going back in the bottle. A recent survey concluded that corporate marketers and agencies consider branded content to be among their most effective branding tactics, and that 69% plan to spend more money on it in the coming year.

The bigger issue is whether sustainable publishing business models can be found that don’t rely entirely upon display advertising or subscription revenue. BuzzFeed and NewsCred are making some progress there. We don’t believe they produce serious journalism, if sex, gossip and voyeurism can attract a large enough audience to support real journalism, then we’re in favor of it. The idea isn’t new. It’s worked in the U.K. for decades.

Content Marketing Effectiveness

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The Pew Research Center’s annual State of the Media Report paints a dismal picture of the condition of mainstream media – in particular broadcast and magazines – but Slate’s . Which side are you on?

There’s no question that Pew’s annual media audit and survey of 2,000 consumers is about as depressing as any of the 10 annual reports that the nonprofit media watchdog has completed. Among the lowlights:

  • Nearly a third of U.S. adults have stopped using a news outlet because it no longer met their needs.
  • That’s not surprising when you consider that low-cost sports, weather and traffic information now account for 40% of the content produced on the average local newscast.
  • The population of full-time professional newsroom employees fell below 40,000 for the first time since 1978. It’s down nearly 30% from its 1989 high.
  • In an election year, the declines in coverage were particularly evident. Live broadcast reports fell from from 33% of the news hole in 2007 to 23% in 2012. And 2007 was not an election year. Commentary and opinion, which are cheap to produce, now make up 63% of  news airtime on cable channels, while straight news reporting comprises only 37%.
  • An examination of 48 recent evening and morning newscasts found that 20 led with a weather-related story. Weather coverage is cheap.
  • Only about a quarter of statements in the media about the character and records of the presidential candidates originated with journalists, while twice that many came from political partisans. The report runs down a list of informational websites that political parties and advocacy groups have set up to influence media, but some are now actually becoming the media. Pew notes several examples of major news magazines that have carried partisan reports as part of their branded news stream.
  • In that vein, Pew notes a 2008 analysis of Census Bureau data by Robert McChesney and John Nichols that found that the ratio of public relations workers to journalists tripled from 1.2-to-1 in 1980 to 3.6-to-1 in 2008. That gap has likely grown since then.
  • In summary, “News organizations are less equipped to question what is coming to them or to uncover the stories themselves, and interest groups are better equipped and have more technological tools than ever,” Pew states.
  • Incredibly (to us, at least), the public is mostly unaware that the news media is struggling. Only 39% of the 2,000 consumers surveyed said they have much awareness of the industry’s problems.

Mainstream media percentage change in ad revenue 2011-2012

Newspapers actually come off pretty well in this year’s report. Thanks to paywalls, which are in place or in the works at one-third of U.S. newspapers, circulation held steady year-to-year. The New York Times said its circulation revenue now exceeds advertising revenue for the first time.

Warren Buffett speaking to a group of students...

Warren Buffett (source: Wikipedia)

However, the long-term trends are still negative. Newspapers lose $16 in print ad revenue for every $1 in digital ad revenue gained, and that figure is up from $10-to-$1 in 2011. Equally ominous is that Facebook and Google are doing a better job of figuring out how to target digital advertising locally, which threatens one of the few pockets of revenue strength newspapers have left.

Because the long-term outlook is so bad, newspapers have become an attractive investment vehicle. Pew notes that value investor Warren Buffett has been snapping them up at a rapid clip because they are so cheap. The Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News were bought for $55 million last year, which is 1/10 of the price they commanded in 2006.

Out of Mind

Perhaps the most surprising finding is the low public awareness of the news industry’s crisis, and that’s where Yglesias’ analysis on Slate is most interesting. “American news media has never been in better shape,” he states at the outset, using the Cypriot economic crisis as proof. We’re not sure the media itself is in great shape, but readers are doing fine.

Yglesias cites a “bounty” of online resources that provide context, analysis and even an interactive calculator that lets visitors try out different ideas for solving the island nation’s financial problems. It’s easier than ever to produce news using public sources and simple publishing tools, and the Internet makes boundless background information available in seconds.

Assessing the state of media by looking only at the health of traditional outlets creates “a blinkered outlook that confuses the interests of producers with those of consumers,” he writes. “[T]oday’s readers have access to far more high-quality coverage than they have time to read.”

The finding that only four in 10 Americans are even aware of the media’s struggles can be interpreted in several ways. The pessimistic view is that Americans are basically dumb, lazy and happy with the partisan screaming matches that characterize a lot of broadcast news.

A more positive view is that Americans have already moved on to using other sources and haven’t noticed the loss of their once-trusted brands. It’s impossible to know without further research, but we have to acknowledge Yglesias’s point that the decline of mainstream media certainly hasn’t resulted in a dearth of information.

No Expiration

One important point the Slate business writer makes is that news no longer carries an expiration date. Traditional media assumed that news would be consumed within a few hours or days. Archival or background information was tedious to find, so readers were mainly limited to whatever the newspaper or broadcast provided within its limited space.

Now everything is part of a grand, searchable archive, which permits people to go as deep as they want whenever they want. Those who don’t have the time to come up to speed on the banking crisis in Cyprus can put off learning about it until later. Then they can go to a resource like Wikipedia’s coverage and spend hours digging into background for more than 40 sources cited there.

We prefer the glass-half-full perspective. While the loss of the media’s watchdog function is troubling, the power of having timeless access to resources we didn’t even know existed is energizing. The challenge is to find ways to fund the valuable services that media has provided in the past so that the information that doesn’t attract search engines and sponsorship dollars still has a platform.

 

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By Paul Gillin | March 1, 2013 - 8:13 am - Posted in Future of Journalism, Journalism, Newspapers, Solutions

Occasionally a tool comes along that is so drop-dead useful that it causes you to change the way you work. We encountered such a tool a couple of weeks ago via an interview with Craig Silverman, founder of the Regret the Error blog (now hosted by Poynter) and the new Director of Content and Product Strategy at Spundge.

Spundge is a tool for content curation, a discipline we’ve written about in the past that helps readers cope with information saturation by aggregating and summarizing relevant material by topic. We think there’s a lot of value in curation, and if publishers can get over their not-invented-here mentalities, they can take advantage of it.

It’s hard to describe Spundge; it’s best to try it. If you consume content by reading RSS feeds – as we do – then its value is immediately obvious. The basic Spundge service includes RSS feeds from more than 45,000 sources that it calls the “fire hose.” It also has publicly available feeds from Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google Plus and several other social networks. You can add your own RSS feeds by pasting in individual URLs and uploading OPML files.

Users create a “notebook” for each topic and specify keyword combinations that are either required, optional or excluded. We created a simple one for this site that you can see here. You can create as many workbooks as you want and optionally share them. Other people can contribute to your notebook or just watch.

Spundge from Spundge on Vimeo.

Once you specify your keywords, Spundge goes to work filtering the fire hose to deliver items that match your query. Results consist of headlines and the first 500 characters or so of each article. This is usually enough to get a sense of what the piece is about. You can accept or decline each result. Accepted results go into a workspace for later use, while declined results disappear. Spundge is supposed to learn from your decisions and deliver more targeted results over time. That particular feature is a work in progress that will get better with time.

The items you save can be published as embeds on any site that accepts Javascript. Embeds don’t actually live on the target site, but are hosted on Spundge and displayed there. YouTube videos are commonly shared via embeds, and Storify is an example of a popular curation service that uses embedding. We’ve included an embed below that shows you how it works. One cool feature is that embeds are updated every few minutes, so the content actually updates even after you’ve published it.

Everything we’ve described so far is part of the free Spundge service. If you pay $9 a month, you get a WYSIWYG editor that enables you to customize content, write your own headlines, add comments and generally munge content however you want. The resulting HTML can be posted on any website or blog. At that price, it’s a no-brainer.

Love at First Byte

We love Spundge, and we’re recommending it to everyone who’s tired of picking through RSS feeds or filtering tweets looking for nuggets of information. We’ve long used an RSS reader to monitor the sites listed in the lower left sidebar of this site. That’s more efficient than visiting each site individually, but the lack of filtering is still a problem. We have to scan each headline and summary manually.

With Spundge, we imported our favorite feeds from an OPML file, specified some keywords and were off to the races. Plus we got to take advantage of those 45,000 feeds that the Spundge developers had already found for us, not to mention Twitter and LinkedIn. Our reading time has been reduced dramatically and we’re discovering stuff we didn’t know existed before.

Spundge is still in development, and it’s not perfect. The workspace can’t easily be customized, so you can’t selectively display items without jumping through hoops. Spundge lets you specify how many items to embed, but not which ones. The service makes it easy to share items from your workspace on social networks, but links go to a copy of the content on Spundge rather than to the source. We think content providers will have a problem with that.

The biggest shortcoming we’ve seen so far is the recommendation engine, which is supposed to “learn” from your choices and deliver more targeted content over time. We haven’t noticed that the quality of our feed is improving, but let’s be fair: Machine learning is devilishly difficult to implement. If Spundge is successful, the investments will come and the quality will improve.

For now, we give the basic Spundge service an unqualified endorsement as a leap forward in technology to filter and organize information. We’re going to experiment with the paid service, and you’ll see the results here. In the meantime, our recommendation is to get thee to a Spundgery.

If you need that link again, Spundge is here.

 

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