News for Digital Journalists

Posts tagged with: Knight Foundation

September 07, 2011

Digital First: What’s next for this news biz coup?

This morning the news broke that a newly created company called Digital First Media Inc. will “take over management” of both MediaNews Group and the Journal Register Company.

This intriguing deal could end up heading in a bunch of different directions, both good and bad. Here are some key bits of context and possibilities…

The structure of this deal is, as Nieman Journalism Lab noted, “something like a merger-without-merging. Journal Register is creating a new company, Digital First Media, which will ‘manage’ both chains. The two companies will maintain separate boards, but JRC CEO John Paton will take over as boss of both.”

Digital First Media is so new, in fact, that as of this writing it doesn’t even have its own website. (The domain currently forwards to the JRC site.)

(UPDATE OCT. 25: Digital First Media has announced its initial lineup of top executives, as well as its new advisory board.)

According to JRC’s official announcement of the deal, Digital First Media will be a division of JRC. That press release also omits any mention of Alden Global Capital—the hedge fund that in July bought JRC outright.

Alden is so secretive that its web site can only be accessed by clients with login privileges. In July, Poynter’s Rick Edmonds explained exactly how hard this new media giant works to maintain a low profile.

Alden has been investing in several distressed newspaper companies, including major players such as Gannett and McClatchy. And in January, Alden also partially took over MNG. Since Alden owns JRC, that also makes the hedge fund the behind-the-scenes owner of Digital First.

Why does Alden’s role matter? As Ken Doctor observed back in July, “hedge funds don’t want to be long-term operators.” They specialize in earning above-market returns by shouldering high risk—such as by purchasing distressed companies, fixing them up, and sell them. But Doctor also predicted: “Before that happens, though, expect the next shoe to drop: consolidation.”

Even though this deal is not being called a merger, Digital First’s management takeover of two major U.S. newspaper chains is clearly a consolidation move.

In July, former MNG publisher Martin Langeveld offered some keen insight into Alden’s strategy. In short, when Alden took three seats on the MNG board in January, “That move was important because it enabled Alden to use MediaNews as a platform from which to drive consolidation in the still-fractured U.S. newspaper industry. ...Under SEC rules, by taking a position on the board, Alden was no longer allowed to speculate in MediaNews stock; hence, their assumption of board seats signaled an intent to use their MediaNews holdings strategically rather than speculatively. ...The Alden takeover of JRC gives it a second operating platform for its consolidation goals.”

Now, through Digital First, Alden is effectively combining these platforms. More importantly it could probably extend this third-party strategy to take over the management of additional distressed news chains. (Note: I contacted JRC for comment on this and other points, but did not hear back by my deadline.)

In recent decades, the news business has had a mixed history with consolidation. It has generally has been criticized for leading to fewer papers, less local coverage, and less competition. But news industry consolidation also has yielded some benefits through expanded infrastructure, access to capital, and economies of scale. This kind of dichotomy was most eloquently portrayed in Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

The catch, of course: What if the news properties managed by Digital First don’t show the kind of return Alden wants quickly enough? Hedge funds generally aren’t long-haul investors, and they haven’t generally been noted for their sense of civic duty. They may not be easily persuaded by organizations like the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which seek to promote and enhance media’s role in preserving democracy.

Today JRC/MNG/DF CEO (how’s that for alphabet soup?) John Paton contended that embracing digital and social media can make a huge difference in the fortunes of news.

“Since implementing our Digital First strategy in mid 2010 our digital audience has doubled to more than 12.3 million uniques and our entire audience has grown from 14.9 million monthly customers on all platforms to nearly 21 million customers,” he wrote. “In Q2 of this year, 10 of JRC’s 18 dailies are up year over year in advertising or within 2% of last year’s ad revenues because of digital advertising growth. JRC newspaper digital revenue grew more than 81% year over year in Q2. That’s against an industry average of less than 10%. ...And if our dailies continue on the trend they are on right now, by the end of the year they will have brought in more digital revenue than the costs of running their newsrooms.”

Sounds nice, but is it sustainable and will it scale? Might local news get shortchanged in the process—even though JRC bills itself as a “leading local news and information company”?

Could this attempted transformation falter on the rocks of entrenched culture, practices, financial woes, and prior commitments at MNG? What will Alden do if Paton’s current approach doesn’t pan out across a larger playing field? How long will Digital First have to prove itself?

Keep an eye on Calfornia’s Bay Area—home to several MNG papers operating as the Bay Area News Group. In the near term, this is where the prospects of Digital First may shake out.

On Aug. 23, BANG announced that on Nov. 2, 11 of its existing East Bay papers will be consolidated into two new regional papers—effectively killing several long-established local news brands. Many BANG employees have already received “warn” notices of impending layoffs, which are likely coming in the next couple of months.

This kind of move toward regionalization is notably different from the strategy Paton has pursued at JRC—which mostly has involved preserving news brands and reporting jobs, while doing consolidation and upgrades to production and revenue operations, and while emphasizing social and participatory media. (Part of this has been happening under Project Thunderdome, currently headed by Jim Brady, former head of and

So: Might Digital First try to steer BANG back toward localization, before it lays off those employees and kills those local papers? Stay tuned for that, and more.

Noted media critic Jay Rosen, who has been serving on JRC’s advisory board (so far, Digital First has not formed an advisory board), and who will also serve on the Digital First advisory board, observed that, on the upside, “Probably the biggest thing that Paton has going for him is a plausible strategy for the future. How many of those do you know of in the newspaper biz?”

Speaking of the future, Rosen noted: “What I would like to see is some plan to make everyone in MNG aware of what is meant by ‘digital first,’ so they don’t see it as a buzzword or hip slogan but as a coherent direction companies like theirs can move in to find a more sustainable future.”

Jane Ellen Stevens, director of media strategies for the Lawrence Journal-World WellCommons, said: “If they put their minds to it and shake off their attachment to print, Digital First has a real opportunity to out-Patch Patch, in a profitable and sustainable manner.”

The News for Digital Journalists blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

September 12, 2011

Code for America partners with cities: Detroit, Macon, Philadelphia

This week the Code for America program announced its first 2012 partner cities: Detroit; Macon, GA; and Philadelphia. Teams of three CFA fellows will be deployed in each city to help local government officials “brainstorm and implement innovative applications to engage citizens…”

Each team will include a software developer, a designer, and a product manager. Here’s what they’ll be doing while deployed:

This effort is supported with funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation’s Technology for Engagement initiative. Additional 2012 partner cities will be announced later.

These initiatives represent an opportunity for news organizations and info/community venues in the partner cities to assist with, and amplify, civic engagement efforts. This can not only help your community—it also can speed your own digital learning process and help build awareness of the local news and information you offer.

The News for Digital Journalists blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

September 26, 2011

Online Journalism Award winners: Great projects but no hyperlocal sites

Yesterday the Online News Association announced the winners of this year’s Online Journalism Awards. It’s a great list of exemplary digital media projects. This roster is also remarkable for what it does not include: work by any of the nation’s thousands of hyperlocal news sites…

Perusing the list of awards, most of the winning projects were produced by major daily news brands with a strong print or broadcast presence (such as the BBC, CNN, NPR, The Washington Post and Al Jazeera) or by well-funded commercial production companies.

The size category of ONA awards is determined by site traffic, not the size of the organization in terms of budget or staff. Consequently, the winners of this year’s “small site” prizes may not really seem so small:

  • Voice of San Diego. This leading nonprofit news site has received several large grants and has a staff of about a dozen people (including a development officer). VSD won the “General Excellence in Online Journalism, Small Site” prize.
  • OWNI. This European digital news magazine, which offers original and aggregated news content, is owned by a web development firm that received an initial venture funding round of €340,000, and as of November 2010 was seeking up to €1.5 million in series B funding. They won the “General Excellence in Online Journalism, Non-English, Small Site” prize.
  • WNYC Radio. This flagship public radio station serving the New York City metro area, has a news staff of 32 and a web staff of five. They won the “Breaking News, Small Site” prize.
  • ProPublica. This nonprofit news initiative has received millions of dollars in funding from the Sandler Foundation and other sources. It maintains a reporting staff of 34. ProPublica won the “Gannett Foundation Award for Innovative Investigative Journalism, Small Site”
  • Mediastorm. This commercial production studio creates multimedia projects, applications, and web sites for big-name clients such as MSNBC, Starbucks and National Geographic. They won the “Multimedia Feature Presentation, Small Site” prize for a feature they created for their client, the Council on Foreign Relations—a think tank that in 2010 had nearly $320 million in net assets.
  • This national political news site tracks “the influence of money on U.S. politics, and how that money affects policy and citizens’ lives.” It’s operated by the Center for Responsive politics—a “nonprofit, nonpartisan research group” which has received over $1.5 million in grants plus several “general support” grants from various philanthropies. It has a staff of 16. OpenSecrets won the “Online Topical Reporting/Blogging, Small Site” prize.
  • News21 at the University of North Carolina. This is one of the investigative reporting incubator projects funded by the Knight-Carnegie Initiative at a eight journalism schools and four “associate schools” around the U.S. This year’s UNC News 21 team included 11 fellows and several coaches and consultants to produce its Powering a Nation package—which won the “Online Video Journalism, Small Site” prize.

This year’s ONA awards did include one “micro site”—NJ Spotlight, which has a staff of seven and which has received grants from the Community Foundation of New Jersey, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the William Penn Foundation. NJ Spotlight won the “General Excellence in Online Journalism, Micro Site” prize.

No winner was named for the “Online Commentary/Blogging” in the small or medium site category.

What’s missing from the ONA winners list? Any of the thousands of genuinely small hyperlocal startup news/community sites—the vast majority of which receive relatively modest amounts of grant funding (if any), and also scramble to sell ads and develop other revenue streams. Many of these venues are staffed by part-time employees (or at best 1-3 full-time staff), plus volunteers.

(Full disclosure: I am the co-founder of Oakland Local—a two-year-old hyperlocal site. Last year our budget was under $120,000 for editorial and training. We have no full-time staff. Our team includes 14 part-time paid staff and contributors plus dozens of volunteer contributors. Our funding comes from a patchwork of grants, individual donors, ad sales and sponsorships.)

For context, according to founder Lisa Williams, there are currently around 4100 independent hyperlocal news sites in the U.S. Plus there are about 800 sites in AOL’s Patch hyperlocal network. By comparison, there are about 1200 U.S. daily newspapers.

Since hyperlocal sites vastly outnumber mainstream news organizations, why were they so conspicuously absent from this year’s Online Journalism Awards?

Ruth Gersh, ONA’s awards co-chair, confirmed that this year’s ONA awards program received over 900 entries, representing about 320 news organizations and individuals. She wasn’t sure exactly how many hyperlocal news sites were represented, but she observed “I wouldn’t say they were rare, but I wouldn’t say there were lots of them, either.”

She noted that in past years some hyperlocal sites have won OJA awards—such as the West Seattle Blog, which won the 2010 OJA for Community Collaboration.

ONA has been struggling to figure out a fair way to include hyperlocal sites in the annual OJA competition, said Gersh. She also noted that this year ONA dropped the OJA entry fee to $50 for “individual owners,” half the rate for organizations. The group also used social media, especially Twitter, to encourage entries from all kinds of organizations.

“Right now our categories are based on traffic size, which often doesn’t correlate to budget size, the number of staff, or other resources,” Gersh explained. “We’re trying to devise some other way to appropriately determine categories. We definitely want ideas about how we could do this. So far we’re just not getting a critical mass of hyperlocal entries. But we want our awards to represent the entirety of the environment in which people are doing news online.”

People with ideas for how the OJA might be more inclusive of hyperlocal sites are encouraged to e-mail ONA.

The News for Digital Journalists blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

October 10, 2011

Video: FCC hearing on Community Info Needs

On Oct. 3, the FCC held a public hearing to explore the recent report Information Needs of Communities: The Changing Media Landscape in a Broadband Age.

Video of this session is now available online…

The panel featured FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, Commissioner Michael Copps, Chief of FCC Media Bureau William Lake and report author Steve Waldman, They heard testimony from a panel of media experts on the future of U.S. media. Journalists, academics, businesses, and the public discussed how to innovate and strengthen journalism and other forms of newsgathering to meet community needs and support democracy.

Genachowski noted three key findings of the report:

  • Opportunities. new tech is creating a new world of opportunity to empower journalists and citizens, and to keep the public informed
  • Disruption. The internet and economic pressures have had a disruptive impact on local newsgathering. “There’s an emerging gap in local news reporting that’s not yet been fully filled by digital media.” FCC is moving forward on report’s recommendation for transparency by broadcasters, and to remove obstacles to nonprofit news organizations.
  • Universal broadband access. “This is an economic imperative for the U.S.,” said Genachowski. “Broadband is a bright spot in the current economy.” He noted broadband offers benefits for for both new and existing businesses, including the news business. Larger broadband audiences will better support the business models for all kinds of news and information ventures.

Waldman noted: “We don’t have a content crisis; we don’t have a news crisis; we have an accountability reporting crisis.”

Watch the video.

October 19, 2011

Could Apple’s Newsstand spell the demise of iPhone/iPad news apps?

Apple’s new iOS 5 mobile operating system, iOS 5, was just released last week—and while it may increase digital subscriptions, there are also some signs that the company is gaining more power over publishers’ distribution channels and revenue potential…

Apple describes the iOS 5 Newsstand this way: “iOS 5 organizes your magazine and newspaper app subscriptions in Newsstand: a folder that lets you access your favorite publications quickly and easily. There’s also a new place on the App Store just for newspaper and magazine subscriptions. And you can get to it straight from Newsstand. New purchases go directly to your Newsstand folder. Then, as new issues become available, Newsstand automatically updates them in the background—complete with the latest covers.”

This offers digital subscribers a more seamless experience than navigating through a fragmented landscape of news brand-specific apps on their iPhones and iPads. So it’s not too surprising that the earliest results indicate that this approach might be gaining traction with Apple mobile users.

According to PaidContent, Exact Editions (which digitally packages several popular news brands such as The Spectator for purchase over the web and as iOS native apps) says “downloads of freemium sample editions jumped by 14x in just a few days, and some titles’ actual sales have more than doubled.”

Also: “Consumer magazine publisher Future ...has sold more digital editions in the past four days through Apple’s Newsstand than in a normal month.”

If Newsstand becomes popular with consumers, it’s possible that there might be a decline in standalone iPhone and iPad apps created and marketed by publishers through Apple’s App Store.

Standalone news apps may look cool, but cumulatively they’re also a hassle for users who mainly just want access to content, not special interactive features. Users must find an app, download and install it, and remember to use it. That’s a problem, since recent Localytics research found that 26% of apps are only opened once—and only 26% are ever opened more than 11 times.

Right now standalone iPhone and iPad apps are hugely popular with news organizations largely because iOS users have so far been trained to look for an app in the App Store whenever they want access to mobile content or services. But if this key consumer habit changes, and most Apple mobile users start turning to the Newsstand when they want news, there may eventually be little point to developing and maintaining a standalone iOS app that mainly just delivers your free or paid content.

Sonya Quick of the Orange County Register noted on Twitter that the “issues” delivered via the iOS Newsstand are really a kind of app. She suggests: “This would actually be a reason to build issue-based apps.”

The emerging, fast-moving tablet market could further undermine standalone news apps. A new Pew report found that so far getting news is one of the most popular activities for tablet users, and about two thirds of tablet users have installed a news app. Nevertheless, the vast majority of tablet users actually get news via their browsers, not via news apps.

Meanwhile Apple is also flexing its muscle to curb renegade subscription apps.

PaidContent also reports that The Economist has finally caved to Apple on iPad subscriptions.

Originally the U.K. magazine’s iPad app accepted subscription and single-copy payments directly from consumers via “browser jumping” to the web, rather than via iTunes (as Apple began requiring this summer). This strategy flouted Apple’s controversial rules which require publishers to surrender a 30% cut of subscription revenue, as well as total control over subscriber data, to Apple.

But with the iOS 5 release, popular features in the Economist iPad app (sharing, bookmarking and swiping) stopped working. The publisher had to quickly release a new iPad app which complies with Apple’s subscription terms.

There is a penalty: Paying Economist’s subscribers who switch so far are getting much less for their money. PaidContent notes: “The Economist is facing a challenge to migrate readers to a separate app rather than just upgrade their existing old app. When readers do migrate, they apparently will lose their back issues.”

The News for Digital Journalists blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

October 25, 2011

Most tablet users prefer browsers, not apps, for getting news, Pew study finds

Getting news is one of the most popular activities for users of tablet computers such as the iPad—but the vast majority of tablet users get news via their web browsers, not apps from news organizations.

This is according to a new in-depth study from Pew about how tablets are shaping the news landscape…

The research behind the new Pew Project on Excellence in Journalism report, The Tablet Revolution and What it Means for the Future of News, is extensive and fairly current. It involved interviews with 40,000 U.S. adults, plus additional surveys and interviews with 1,159 tablet users and 894 tablet news users, conduced earlier this summer.

Some key findings:

News is hugely popular with tablet users—so far.

“Consuming news (everything from the latest headlines to in-depth articles and commentary) ranks as one of the most popular activities on the tablet,” said the report, “about as popular as sending and receiving email (54% e-mail daily on their tablet), and more popular than social networking (39%), gaming (30%), reading books (17%) or watching movies and videos (13%). The only activity that people said they were more likely to do on their tablet computer daily is browse the web generally (67%).”

That said, at the time this survey was conducted, most tablets in use in the U.S. were iPads—which are fairly costly devices (starting at $500, or more for more memory or an optional wireless data plan). PEJ noted that iPads have so far been popular among demographics which were already especially likely to “follow the news more closely and more frequently than the population overall.”

This dynamic could shift in the coming months. The tablet market is changing fast. Just now several smaller, lower-cost tablets are hitting the U.S. consumer market in time for the holiday seasons. While these devices (notably the new wifi-only Kindle Fire and Kobo Vox, both costing $200, as well as the Nook Color, which costs $250) are marketed primarily as e-book readers, they are actually modified Android tablets with access to web browsers, apps, and other advanced functionality.

This means that smaller, inexpensive tablets could expand the market appeal of tablets far beyond iPad early adopters. In particular, tablets might become a key internet access tool for people currently on the wrong side of the digital divide—those who face financial and other barriers to acquiring or using computers and smartphones.

Whether these emerging tablet demographics would show the same propensity for news consumption as iPad users remains an open question.

Browsers are far more popular than apps for tablet news.

PEJ found that about two-thirds of tablet news users currently have a news app installed on their tablet. But that’s not where they get most of their tablet news.

“The browser, carried over from the desktop experience, is still the more popular means of consuming news. A plurality of tablet news users (40%) say they get their news mainly through a web browser. Another 31% use news apps and the browser equally, while fewer, 21%, get their news primarily through apps.”

This indicates that many news orgs, which have thus far focused their tablet strategy on iPad apps, may need to refocus on tablet-friendly web offerings, especially using the capabilities of HTML5. The Boston Globe’s new HTML5-based mobile site is a good example of this strategy. Another recent development that may accelerate the move away from standalone news apps is the Apple Newsstand, unveiled with the release of iOS 5 earlier this month.

One key advantage that browser-based news has over apps is that content in a web brwoser is more universally accessible on any device, including tablets. This means it’s easier for people to link to and share, especially via social media or personal means like e-mail or text messaging.

Ease of sharing is especially important to tablet news users because…

Word of mouth is a key component of tablet news sharing.

“Fully 85% of those who get news on their tablets said they had talked with someone about a long article they had read there. This is more than twice the percentage who say they had shared articles electronically.

“Some 41% of tablet news users say they share news through e-mail or social networking at least sometimes. And when a select group was asked specifically about their behavior in the last seven days, again about four in ten say they had shared news content through social networking sites or e-mail.”

News organizations should pay close attention to the value of how their audience shares or recommends their content, including on mobile devices. This may be an increasingly valuable metric to advertisers, as a recent Gallup poll indicated.

Apps are for power users

According to PEJ: “Those who rely mainly on apps for news—21% of all tablet news users—represent a kind of power news consumer. Close to half of this group say they now spend more time getting news than they did before they had their tablet (43%). That is more than twice the rate of those who mainly go through a browser (19%).

“App users are also more than three times as likely as browser news users to regularly get news from new sources they did not turn to before they had their tablet (58% versus 16% for browser users).”

Power users are always a small portion of any technology user group, but they can be extremely influential, especially in terms of recommending content to others. Therefore, a good tablet news app should be backed up by a strong mobile web site—so links shared by tablet app users are accessible to anyone.

Tablets offer “limited revenue potential” for news

The bad news, so far: “The revenue potential for news on the tablet may be limited. At this point just 14% of tablet news users have paid directly to access news on their tablet. Another 23% get digital access of some kind through a print newspaper or magazine subscription. Still, cost is a factor, even among this heavy news consuming population.

“Of those who haven’t paid directly, just 21% say they would be willing to spend $5 per month if that were the only way to access their favorite source on the tablet. And of those who have news apps, fully 83% say that being free or low cost was a major factor in their decision about what to download.”

This means that paid or subscription-oriented models for tablet news publishing face special market challenges. This is especially true of app or subscription offerings for iPhones and iPads—since Apple takes a 30% cut of those revenues off the top and totally controls the relationship with those consumers.

Therefore, news orgs that want to offer tablet apps that require direct payment (for download or subscription)—should offer clear and immediately demonstrable value to users. Mere content shovelware won’t cut it with power users. Thinking more specifically about “use cases” rather than “the audience” might help news organizations better target app offerings for mobile devices.

The News for Digital Journalists blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

October 31, 2011

Could ugly, cluttered news site design drive visitors to the mobile web?

The rush to create news apps for smartphones and tablets has spurred great creativity—and occasional elegance—among mobile designers. But meanwhile, news websites have been suffering from advertising clutter that sometimes reaches bizarre proportions.

This analysis, with some vivid examples, was offered this week by Frédéric Filloux, general manager of France’s ePresse digital consortium…

In his post Proof by Mask, Filloux notes: “Web design is in bad shape. In the mobile applications boom, news-related websites end up as collateral damage. For graphic designers, the graphics tools and the computer languages used to design apps for tablets and smartphones have unleashed a great deal of creativity. Happily, we just stand at the very beginning of a major evolution in news-related graphic design for apps.”

But there’s a tradeoff, says Filloux: “This new [mobile] world proves to be a killer for the traditional web which, in turn, seems to age fast.”

According to Filloux, despite the promise HTML5 offers to improve the design of news sites and display advertising, so far it hasn’t really taken off. “Reasons are many:  backward compatibility (not everyone uses the latest web browser), poor documentation making development uncertain, stability and performances issues.”

Filloux showed several national daily news sites from the U.S. and Europe, with ads and other non-news content masked out by bright red rectangles. This is an exercise that every news site publisher can—and probably should—duplicate.

Of course, the proliferation of space-hogging and often ugly digital ads isn’t news to anyone who visits news sites. As news organizations scramble for revenue, advertisers have gained leverage to demand more—and more prominent—digital space.

The resulting ad-heavy homepages make business sense—but the result is visually “appalling,” said Filloux. He also showed how article pages often cram even more ads and promotions ahead of news content.

Filloux notes the disconnect that has emerged between the news web design environment and the news website user experience: “The weird thing is this: On the one hand, web designers seem to work on increasingly large monitors; on the other, the displays used by readers tend to shrink as more people browse the web on notebooks, tablets or smartphones.”

As an avid user of mobile media, especially the mobile web, I’ve noticed that when I’m looking to catch up on the news (rather than find a specific story) I often reach for my smartphone first—not my laptop.

This is because most daily news sites now default to a mobile-friendly layout when accessed by mobile devices. And while most of these mobile news sites are blind shovelware that leave considerable room for improvement of content and usability, they are less cluttered and easier to scan. When I want news fast, they’re often my first choice—even if my laptop and wifi are handy.

On most news sites designed for the mobile web, ads are conspicuously absent. Banner ads generally range from useless to awful in a smartphone environment, and most news organizations apparently haven’t figured out other types of ad placement to offer for the mobile web.

Many mobile news site home pages show no ads at all, and only one or two network-fed banners on article pages. The mobile article pages of the Spokane, Wash. Spokesman Review are a noteworthy exception—click on their ads, which are sold in-house, to get advertiser info that’s actually useful to mobile users.

Filloux is hopeful for the future: “Thanks to the rise of mobile internet, the pendulum is likely to swing back: smaller screens will result in fewer ads carrying more value. Today’s ugliness won’t last forever.”

It’s possible news publishers may have no choice but to redesign their websites, including ad delivery, primarily for mobile users.

Recently the market intelligence firm IDC predicted that “by 2015 most U.S. Internet users will access the Internet through mobile devices than through PCs or other wireline devices.” Also, comScore data indicate that in about a year, most U.S. handsets in use will probably be smartphones capable of offering a decent web browsing experience.

Also most U.S. feature phones now either come with, or will support, better web browsers such as Opera Mini. And new sub-$200 e-readers such as the Kindle Fire and Kobo Vox (which are really modified Android tablets that support web browsing, apps, and more) may help more people cross the digital divide, growing the potential audience for digital news (and ads).

So rather than cluttering news sites with more and more display ads, news orgs might do better to learn from mobile design sooner than later and find ways to focus on the user experience for the delivery of both news and ads.

Making news sites uglier and uglier serves no one.

The News for Digital Journalists blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

November 09, 2011

Adobe abandons Flash for mobile web browsers

If you hope to offer a good mobile web experience, it may be time to ditch the Flash on your site. Today Adobe announced that it’s stopping development on the Flash Player for mobile browsers. The company is refocusing on HTML5 for mobile delivery…

Many news sites use Flash to deliver features such as audio slideshows (especially via the popular tool Soundslides), data visualizations, video, interactivity—and ads.

Apple has never supported Flash on the iPhone and iPad, so apps and web content offerings developed specifically for the iOS operating system won’t be affected. However, Flash is often used in offerings for the Android mobile operating system.

This is also a concern if you use Flash on the full version of your site, which is intended to be displayed on a computer screen. That’s because many news sites either don’t have a mobile web theme, or don’t default to it for mobile visitors. Also, many smartphone and tablet users prefer to see the full site on their device—even though this may require a fair amount of zooming and scrolling to navigate.

Adobe VP Danny Winokur wrote:

“HTML5 is now universally supported on major mobile devices, in some cases exclusively. This makes HTML5 the best solution for creating and deploying content in the browser across mobile platforms.

“Our future work with Flash on mobile devices will be focused on enabling Flash developers to package native apps with Adobe AIR for all the major app stores. We will no longer continue to develop Flash Player in the browser to work with new mobile device configurations following the upcoming release of Flash Player 11.1 for Android and BlackBerry PlayBook. We will of course continue to provide critical bug fixes and security updates for existing device configurations.”

UPDATE: Nieman Journalism Lab has more details about how this shift will affect news sites. They note:

“One thing certain to draw an advertiser’s ire is the knowledge that his ads aren’t being shown to potential customers, and ads are the most prominent use of Flash on most news sites. Most publishers, though, have been smart enough to deal with this upfront with advertisers, having policies like this one from The Boston Globe requiring a fallback image that can be served to readers who don’t have Flash installed.

“The biggest driver here is news sites’ creation of mobile-optimized websites, which take different ad units than do desktop/laptop sites, and for which no right-thinking ad salesperson has ever allowed Flash ads. Apple’s iAds were an early force for using HTML5 to build an immersive, rich-media, Flash-like experience for mobile ads, but it’s limited to in-app ads and has generally been viewed as something less than a roaring success.”

The News for Digital Journalists blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

November 15, 2011

News orgs missing out on social media engagement? Pew studies

This week Pew published two new studies which explore how social media gets used by news organizations and by individuals. Taken together, they indicate the power of personal engagement—and how several major news orgs may be missing that opportunity…

The big takeaway from the first study, How Mainstream Media Outlets Use Twitter, from the Pew Research Center’s Project on Excellence in Journalism, was this:

“The vast majority of the postings promoted the organizations’ own work and sent users back to their websites. On the main news feeds studied, fully 93% of the postings over the course of the week offered a link to a news story on the organization’s own website.”

...Not exactly capitalizing on Twitter’s conversational or engagement potential. Or, as Nieman Lab’s Megan Garber said, it’s a “glorified RSS feed ...pretty much a vehicle for self-promotion.”

For context, the sample of PEJ’s study was roughly representative of the larger end of mainstream news—but still limited.

PEJ examined 37 different Twitter feeds across 13 news organizations (ranging from CNN and the New York Times to the Toledo Blade). This included the main accounts from the news brand (such as @washingtonpost), as well as the accounts of certain sections, beats or writers. In total this comprised 3,646 tweets, gathered on a single “typical news week” from February 2011. They did not include Twitter feeds from hyperlocal or niche/community news outlets.

Garber observed: “These would seem to indicate ...a general insularity in news outlets’ Twitter feeds. ...In fact [as PEJ points out] organizational Twitter feeds pretty much mimic the general link-o-phobia that plagued news organizations as they first tried to figure out the web.”

News brand link-o-phobia can be a problem, as KDMC noted earlier. But 10,000 Words observed some nuances of linking and social media:

“Linking [away from] your website is commonplace now. ...But with Twitter, the search engine optimization benefits aren’t the same. ...Perhaps an algorithm change ...[could help] create incentives for news organizations and other brands to send tweets that include links to sites other than their own. That will probably only take place when we move [away from] using followers as the most important metric of measuring a feed’s influence.”

The second study came from the Pew Internet and American Life Project: Why Americans Use Social Media. Its big takeaway was: Of the two-thirds of Americans who use social media, two thirds do so mainly to maintain or rekindle personal connections.

When people are using social media to maintain personal connections, link sharing is a popular social activity. So if your news organization is going to use social media, you might as well keep in mind the kind of value that most people get from social media—and make sure you’re supporting that value.

In social terms, sharing links is a type of personal recommendation. And a recent Gallup poll found: “Consumers are far more likely to rely on personal recommendations from a spouse or from close friends or family in making decisions than a company’s sponsored online ads.”

This poll concerned brands for consumer products, not news brands. But some lesson might apply to news brands.

Regarding Gallup’s research, KDMC observed: “The real benefits from social media come not from when you post your own headlines on social media, but when people in your network re-share your content to their networks. Such personal recommendations are far more valuable to brands, including news brands. So rather than tracking your number of followers or fans, keep an eye on how often items get retweeted or otherwise shared.”

Specifically on Twitter, a key way to gain someone’s attention and goodwill is to retweet them. This demonstrates not only that you are listening to others, but that you consider what they have to say worth sharing. This encourages them to listen to, and share with their networks, your tweets.

PEJ noted: “Fox News and MSNBC tweeted less overall, but they were far more likely than the other news outlets to retweet content (44% of Fox’s tweets and 27% of MSNBC’s tweets were retweets).” By comparison, the New York Times retweeted apparently never.

Social media analytics tools, such as Tweetreach or the newly launched ThinkUp, might help news organizations consider their social media presence in a more organized—and perhaps more useful—way, taking network effects and user preferences into account.

PEJ concluded that news organizations’ generally outside link-averse behavior “resembles the early days of the web. Initially, news organizations, worried about losing audience, rarely linked to content outside their own web domain. Now, the idea is that being a service of providing users with what they are looking for—even if it comes from someone else—carries more weight. It bears watching whether Twitter use for mainstream news organizations evolves in this same way.” (Emphasis added.)

The News for Digital Journalists blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

November 22, 2011

Women Media Entrepreneurs grant program gets new funding

J-Lab recently announced that its New Media Women Entrepreneurs initiative has been awarded $250,000 from the McCormick Foundation to fund eight innovative women-led news startups over the next two years…

Under the grant, eight winners (four in 2012 and four in 2013) will each be given an initial $12,000 to launch their ideas. The winners will receive an additional $2,000 in the second year if they match it with $2,000 from other sources.

Deadline for 2012 proposals: Jan. 27
Learn more and apply now

So far this program (which started in 2008) has funded 14 digital media projects led by women.

According to Jan Schaffer, executive director of J-Lab (which administers the program) the 2012 NMWE winners “will be the first group required to raise a small match. The change is designed to encourage women entrepreneurs to reach out for advertising, donations, sponsorships, events and other revenue streams that can help make their ventures sustainable. Matching dollars will be awarded as soon as winners document the match.”

The News for Digital Journalists blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

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