News Leadership 3.0

August 29, 2012

Curating Twitter? Watch out, the rules are changing

By Amy Gahran

News outlets of all kinds increasingly have been aggregating or curating Twitter content to augment news coverage and liveblogs—but Twitter is changing the rules. If you plan to keep using Twitter content on your website (or hope to start), it helps to understand what’s changing at Twitter, and where things are heading…

As Twitter gets more serious about its search for a long-term business model, it’s started limiting how third parties are able to access and use Twitter content. On Aug. 16 Twitter announced upcoming changes to its application programming interface (API), the “firehose” which supplies Twitter content to third-party tools such as Storify.

In particular, Twitter’s existing guidelines for how Tweets can be displayed will become requirements.

They sound pretty serious about it. According to Twitter: “If your application displays Tweets to users, and it doesn’t adhere to our display requirements, we reserve the right to revoke your [API access].”

Yes, they can do that. This would be more likely to directly affect popular Twitter-powered tools (applications) and perhaps large media outlets, but indirectly it would affect any news publisher using these tools.

If you use Storify a lot, don’t panic, yet. Storify is saying everything is fine, because Twitter platform chief Ryan Sarver tweeted that Storify is a “good example” of how to adhere to Twitter’s new requirements.

...At least so far. But the catch is that Twitter can change its mind at any time. Users and journalists may have come to think of Twitter as a kind of public utility, but in fact it’s a private organization that can pretty much dictate how its service gets used.

This underscores the risk involved in investing too heavily in any one social media tool or system. It’s always possible that someday Twitter might not be so happy with Storify, or ScribbleLive, or Facebook, or Tumblr, or any other tool that’s become important for storytelling and engagement.

At the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, Zach Dyer wrote: “Beyond the recent API announcement, Twitter has seen a progression of censorship as the company matures that may threaten its credibility as a news source. ...These events highlight the conflict between the ideal of Twitter as a natural extension of journalism’s democratic goals and the profit-driven business reality.”

What could this mean for journalists and news outlets that use curation platforms?

Hypothetically, if someday Twitter decides that it doesn’t like how Storify is accessing, handling, and displaying Twitter content, Twitter could completely shut out Storify. Were this to happen, Storify founder Burt Herman says that tweets would not vanish from existing curated stories. “Those Tweets are saved in Storify stories and are still there even if a user deletes them. We treat them as quotes in the public sphere, so just as you can’t erase something you’ve said in public, the same goes for public Tweets or any other public quotes online.”

Also, it’s not really so clear whether curation tools like Storify and ScribbleLive truly do adhere to Twitter’s requirements. Alfred Hermida, associate professor at the Graduate School of Journalism of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, explains why Twitter changes should concern journalists:

“The guidelines on the timeline say that ‘Twitter tweets that are grouped together into a timeline should not be rendered with non-Twitter content. e.g. comments, updates from other networks.’ In other words, don’t combine tweets with material from Facebook, YouTube or anywhere else. Yet this is exactly what many news organizations do when they cover breaking news, using tools such as ScribbleLive or Storify.”

On GigaOm, Mathew Ingram observed that Twitter’s relationship with the media has gotten “complicated”—especially for big news outlets, but this might also trickle down to cause problems for small community and niche news sites that use Twitter for aggregation or curation.

This year Twitter formed apparently lucrative partnerships with MTV and NBC to present special Twitter-powered tools to augment events coverage such as the video music awards and the Olympics.

“Given the way that the network has changed its modus operandi recently, by closing off external services such as Tumblr and Instagram and removing referrer links [denoting third-party Twitter apps which generated specific tweets], it’s difficult to know how long that stay of execution might last for something like Storify,” Ingram wrote. “If a newspaper or media outlet has made that a key part of their journalistic process, they could be in for a rude awakening.”

How can news publishers of any size adapt to this shifting curation landscape?

First, recognize that Twitter isn’t just a platform; it’s a media company that published tons of content, and it has its own competitive concerns regarding media. So enjoy Twitter while it’s useful and playing nice, and look for ways to work around Twitter if it cuts off one of your favorite tools.

For instance, it helps to have enough basic tech skills to know how to grab a screenshot of a tweet, manually link to it, and insert it as an image into a conventional article or post. This wouldn’t replace the ease of curating with a tool like Storify, but in a pinch it’s better than nothing, and it can help you highlight the most crucial tweets related to a story.

Second, watch for Twitter to release its own aggregation and curation tools—or perhaps to acquire some of the most successful ones. Twitter has already been buying some of the most successful third-party Twitter-based tools, such as Tweetdeck. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Twitter make a move to buy Storify or other platforms.

Whichever curation and aggregation tools Twitter acquires or builds, be sure to learn how to use them—because someday you may have no choice.

Third, screenshot your curations. When you create curated works that include content from platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram, etc., always screenshot the finished product, so you have a record of it. If need be, you can refer to this in the event of a failure or shutdown. As with manually embedding tweets, this isn’t as easy or functional as simply embedding the output from a curation platform. But it saves a record—which is crucial to the mission of any news organization. You can’t be the first draft of history if you don’t possess a copy of it.

Finally, Test and examine the export functions of your favorite curation tools, to make sure you have your own copy on your own machines in case of a service outage or API. Earlier this summer, archivist Ben Fino-Radin wrote:

“Storify does not let you locally save and archive any of the content you create with it. They do provide an ‘export’ feature, which embeds your Storify on a site powered by WordPress, Drupal, Tumblr, (and a few other platforms). While at first glance this looks great, it is entirely misleading. ...Taking a look at what Storify actually posts to your site, every last bit of it (from js, to images, and css) is hotlinked. Meaning: when Storify goes down, so will the content you’ve “exported.” ...If they were to provide a true ‘export’ feature that allowed users to locally backup their Storify content, they would be in the position of being one of the most comprehensive personal digital preservation tools for Twitter.”

Storify founder Herman counters this: “We do have open APIs so you can export all the data from your stories if you want to preserve it elsewhere.”

Herman doesn’t believe screenshotting your finished Storify stories has much value, because those images would lack metadata. This is a fair criticism—but at least this would give you some record of the content you published ,on your own computer and under your own control. It’s a minimal backup, but it’s probably better than nothing unless you confirm that you can archive your curated content completely through other means.

NOTE: This story has been updated to reflect technical clarifications from Storify. Thanks to Burt Herman for supplying that information.

The News Leadership 3.0 blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

The Knight Digital Media Center at USC is a partnership with the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism. The Center is funded by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

August 23, 2012

This Is True: Profiting from niche news

By Amy Gahran

If you regularly publish content on a theme, rather than just about a place, you might add some niche news revenue streams to your news business model. Independent publisher Randy Cassingham shares some insight from how he built an e-mail newsletter about “weird news” into a small publishing empire with multiple revenue streams…

This is True is not community news per se, but community is an important part of what makes this a successful publishing venture—with a mission that transcends mere entertainment, which Cassingham finds personally rewarding.

TRUE’s tagline is “thought provoking entertainment.” Cassingham says, “The whole point is, it’s weird news that actually makes people think! Now, more than ever, people really need to think critically. I feel great about helping them do that.”

The core of this business is a weekly e-mail newsletter: a free shorter edition and an extended subscription edition. For 18 years, Cassingham has curated weird news stories from around the world, summarized them, appended his signature pithy comments to each item, and carried on thoughtful discussions with his thousands of readers worldwide via the newsletter.  The premium edition sells for $24/year and has thousands of paying subscribers.

Here’s an example of the kind of stories found in TRUE:

Disquieting

Librarians are protesting a new “action figure” being released by Archie McPhee and Co. of Seattle, Wash. The $8.95 doll, complete with “amazing push-button shushing action!”, is “a lovely idea and a lovely tribute to my chosen profession,” says librarian Nancy Pearl, 58, whom the doll is modeled after. But other librarians don’t like it one bit. “The shushing thing just put me right over the edge,” says Diane DuBois of the Caribou (Me.) Public Library. “It’s so stereotypical I could scream.” (AP) ...Hey! What part of “shush” don’t you understand?

The free edition of TRUE contains some ads, and there also are Google ads on the TRUE website. “But if I had to live on site ads, I would have starved long ago,” said Cassingham.

Subscriptions comprise 85% of TRUE’s total revenue. In addition, Cassingham self-syndicates TRUE as a column to several smaller print newspapers. And he repackages his content into self-published print and e-books. So far these books are annual compilations of TRUE stories, but Cassingham plans to branch out into topical books, since he has published many TRUE stories about some of his favorite themes, such as problems with zero tolerance policies.

“All TRUE stories are stored in a SQL database, so I can slice and dice this content however I want,” he noted. “My business mantra is: write it once, sell it multiple times. I used SurveyMonkey to poll my readers about which themes they enjoy the most; zero tolerance and stupid things governments do were right up top.”

Cassingham finds original weird news stories from news venues large and small around the world. Often his readers send him links to stories they noticed, too. “It’s classic filler material that news organizations have always run: stupid criminals, out-of-touch politicians, and so on. With rare exceptions it’s evergreen content, so it holds its entertainment value over time.”

In addition to directly monetizing his content, Cassingham also profits by selling products that promote and advertise his business. He has a line of Get Out of Hell Free cards, mugs, t-shirts and other products, which started in 2000 based on an exchange with a reader.

“I ran an 80-word story about feng shui. I think people have a mystical view of feng shui, that it’s about metaphysical “energy flow,” but I view it as commonsense way of making people feel good about their surroundings—which is what interior designers do. But one of my readers took such great exception to it, she wrote me and said I am definitely going to hell.

“At first I thought she could be reasoned with. I asked a Christian minister about story, and he said he thought it was funny. She replied: he’s going to hell too. It was obvious that reason doesn’t matter to this person, so I came up with the idea of a card you can hand to those people, to show that you can get out of hell free.

“I printed up 2000 cards and told my readers: if you’re tired of people telling you what to think and how to believe, send me a dollar and I’ll send you 10 cards. The dollar covered printing and postage; I wasn’t making money on that, but that was fine because these cards got my URL out there. Essentially, people were buying ads for TRUE that they could personally distribute to other people. And it self-sorted the audience—anyone who’d be offended by a card like this wouldn’t like my newsletter.

“This was before I had a online shopping cart, so people were sending me dollar bills—even fives and twenties—in the postal mail! Just four days later I had to print more cards. Then I saw a real business opportunity.”

Since he started TRUE in 1994 (while employed as a software engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.) Cassingham has constantly been experimenting with new ways to monetize TRUE content, create spin-off products, and launch related publishing ventures. Experimentation is the key to exploiting opportunities.

Not all experiments succeed, or have long lives. While his Get Out of Hell Free products have been selling well for over a decade now, Cassingham no longer operates two separate curated-news-with-commentary publications he launched. In 2003 he transferred Heroic Stories (“examples of people being good to each other, to inspire similar heroic actions in others”) to another publisher. Also in the 1990s, TRUE began publishing Stella Award stories about ridiculous lawsuits. Cassingham spun these off into self-published book compilations, and in 2005 a major publisher released a mass-market Stella Awards print book.

In recent years, Cassingham’s publishing efforts have focused mainly on TRUE. He also runs a separate business to mentor and support online entrepreneurs.

He’s also discovered business value in what might at first appear to be adversity. “After running TRUE for several years I decided to change e-mail list service providers. When I did that, I made everybody resubscribe again because even with good software it’s very difficult to track which addresses have gone bad,” he said. “Almost overnight my free list dropped from well over 100,000 subscribers to just 43,000. But those were 43,000 people who were sufficiently engaged to go to the effort of resubscribing. That helps build my business, because the free TRUE is the main way I keep finding new subscribers to the paid edition.”

According to Cassingham, having a strong mission that matters to you personally is a key to business longevity. TRUE’s mission as a fun way to spur critical thinking emerged within a few years of founding the publication in 1994, but it has become a driving force behind the business and it continues to keep him excited about his work.

“It wasn’t my explicit goal right up front, but it became more obvious that that’s what TRUE is really about. Early on, my goal was simply to get as many paying subscribers as possible. Numbers were everything. To maximize the numbers I tried to walk the line to not offend anyone. But I found that I couldn’t do that and also make people think. Some people are really angered by being prompted to think.”

Angry or thoughtless comments are the bane of many community publishers, but Cassingham relishes them.

“Since TRUE is an e-mail newsletter, two-way communication is built in; readers can just hit “reply” and talk back to me. I’ve always gotten useful reader feedback, but the angry feedback is the most interesting. Readers who are angry are either thinking, or they are spectacularly not thinking. That starts a very engaging dialogue. Also on the TRUE blog, my posts often spring from discussion about stories. It’s not uncommon for one of my blog posts to have more than 100 comments.”

How can publishers that focus on a geographic region or community benefit from the niche news strategies that have built Cassingham’s business?

“First of all, understand that even if your niche is geographic in nature, not all your readers will be local. People from all over the place may be interested in your stories even if they live somewhere far away. When you’re online, you automatically have a potentially global audience,” he noted.

“Pay attention to your analytics to see where your audience is coming from. Write a really clear “about” page that’s linked from every page of your site, that explains where you are (if you have a geographic focus) and what your mission is. It’s amazing how many local news sites don’t offer that context, and that makes them less engaging to a broader audience.”

Cassingham also recommends, where relevant, publishing a fair amount of evergreen content (including humorous stories or backgrounders) alongside conventional news coverage. “Evergreen content is easier to sell over and over, in various packages and channels,” he said. “That’s not rocket science. I worked at JPL—so I would know.”

The News Leadership 3.0 blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

The Knight Digital Media Center at USC is a partnership with the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism. The Center is funded by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

August 15, 2012

Ad rates, events, and crowdfunding: Community news sites get innovative about revenue

By Amy Gahran

Community news is a challenging business; which is why making money is a key theme at next month’s Block by Block Community New Summit. And there’s growing room for optimism: as Groupon’s business model crumbles, more local advertisers may now be smarter and more willing to work with community news venues.

Here’s a roundup of some ways that community news publishers have diversified their revenue streams beyond display ads and grants…

Recently on the Block by Block resource network website, Sally Duros discussed how hyperlocal sites are rethinking their approach to local online advertising.

According to Duros, some hyperlocal sites are changing how they price and position online ads.

For instance, David Boraks, founder and editor of two hyperlocal sites in North Carolina, discussed how his sites simplified their ad value proposition and pricing by selling all ads across the entire site. Previously they’d offered separate rates for section-specific runs such as ads on the front page, the inside page, the health and fitness page, etc.

“We had four dozen ad slots across the site and about as many prices. It just got so complicated,” Boraks told Duros. “Most advertisers wanted to be on the front page.”

Now Davidson.net and its sister site Cornelius.net sell ads by size and page position, not by section. According to their media kit, “Ads run on every page of the site and will rotate within like ad slots. A minimum of 30,000 impressions guaranteed per month.”

Boraks said their ad are prices are determined by working backward from how much revenue the site needs to earn each month, in order to meet operational expenses. “If we sell 60% of ads on the site then we are at break even. Everything above that is profit and below that we are in the red a little bit,” he told Duros.

Duros also discussed how the Connecticut-based site CTNewsJunkie is taking a different approach, by offering advertisers more premium options—including site takeover, a “big block” 300600 banner slot, geotargeted ads, and exclusive advertising in their e-mail blasts. But like Davidson.net, they also sell ads on a run-of-site basis.

Meanwhile, Nieman Journalism Lab recently covered how Technically Philly (a news startup covering the Philadelphia tech and startup scene) is earning substantial revenue from events and other elements in a diverse revenue strategy:

Technically Philly’s flagship event is Philly Tech Week, an eight-day conference that’s free for tech companies to participate, and for attendees. According to Nieman Journalism Lab, all revenue comes from event sponsors. In April 2012, the second Philly Tech Week drew more than 10,000 attendees—more than double the inaugural 2011 conference.

Technically Philly cofounder Brian Kirk told Nieman that he estimates this year about 40% of their revenue pie will come from events. Consulting will supply a further 40%. And advertising and grants will supply only about 10% each. In contrast, in 2011 events delivered only about 12% of Technically Philly’s revenue.

Technically Philly also partners with local institutions and organizations for this conference, such as Temple University’s new Center for Public Interest Journalism, the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, and the Science Center (which provides lab and office space for local businesses). Several partners provided venues for conference events and other services, in addition to funding.

Technically Philly is a niche site with a geographic slant, which may position it better than more typical hyperlocal community news sites in terms of running events. However, community news publishers might consider partnering with local niche news sites on events. In most cases there’s probably enough common interests and potential mutual benefits to make it worth trying.

Crowdfunding for specific hyperlocal coverage has received mixed results, but it can be a revenue stream worth pursuing. For example, Charlottesville Tomorrow recently ran a successful Kickstarter campaign which slightly exceeded its goal to raise $7000 to fund development of 3D online models to help local residents understand the implications and impact of a planned major highway project.

But crowdfunding isn’t easy. Homicide Watch DC is a community news site that decided to turn to Kickstarter to fund a one-year student reporting lab. Editor Laura Amico recently explained on the Block-by-Block Facebook page what this sort of effort requires:

“It took us about six weeks to get from ‘let’s pitch on Kickstarter’ to having a pitch up. I think it’s a much longer, more involved process than many people realize,” she said. “It took us several rounds of edits (on rewards and the video) to get approval. We tried a Kickstarter campaign to fund our year-in-review package but couldn’t get approval for it, so I went ahead and did the package without funding.

“In short, my advice is this: plan early, plan often, submit early and be prepared to revise. We launched our new campaign at 6:30 p.m. last night and so far have raised $7,581, which is 18% of our goal.”

Mobile: the next revenue frontier. So far few community news sites have experimented with revenue from mobile ads or services, beyond running ads on their mobile sites or apps supplied by networks such as AdMob. There’s ample potential for community publishers to capitalize on the mobile market, and I am currently researching that topic to for my session on mobile monetization in at Block by Block 2012 next month. If you have ideas or examples of mobile revenue options for community publishers, please e-mail me.

The News Leadership 3.0 blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

The Knight Digital Media Center at USC is a partnership with the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism. The Center is funded by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

August 09, 2012

Journalism training and the digital revolution

What a difference a decade makes. A new survey of journalists trained in Knight Foundation-funded programs makes it abundantly clear that the digital tsunami that upended the news industry is remaking the journalism training landscape as well.

The survey of 660 trainees or fellows in Knight-funded programs is part of a report. “Digital Training Comes of Age,” which I co-authored with Eric Newton, senior advisor to the president of the Knight Foundation.

We sought to gain insight into the state of professional development for journalists through the survey and by looking at emerging training practices as well as the impact of training.

We wondered what skills journalists thought they needed, whether e-learning might provide some solutions, and whether news organizations were providing training to help newsrooms meet today’s digital challenges.

The report is the fourth in-depth look at journalism training in the past decade by Knight Foundation, which has invested more than $150 million in journalism education during the last 10 years. It focuses on the work of nine Knight-funded training or fellowship programs, including Knight Digital Media Center at USC Annenberg.

Key changes: Demand side

Fully 85 percent of the journalists surveyed this year said they would benefit greatly or very greatly from more staff development. Ten years ago, when Knight surveyed journalists for a study called “Newsroom Training: Where’s the Investment,” that number was 54 percent.

Digital-tools training is the most sought after training.  The journalists saw the greatest benefit in training in multimedia, data analysis and technology. Demand for these skills has soared compared to another Knight survey in 2006. This year, 60-70 percent of journalists want one or more of these skills; five years ago, 40 percent wanted more digital training.

Training remains a top source of job dissatisfaction - 24 percent said they were dissatisfied with training opportunities and only four in 10 gave their news organizations good grades for providing professional development.

(Not surprisingly, dissatisfaction over job security doubled, from 11 percent to almost 21 percent, another reflection of the crisis in the news industry.)

Supply side

Online distance learning, or e-learning, is growing in popularity. Seven in 10 journalists who participated in online learning said it was as good or better than in-person training. Those ratings were drive by strong approval from international journalists - eight in 10 liked e-learning. In the United States, only about a third of the journalists said it was as good or better.

Key factors in this shift? Training organizations are producing better e-learning today and most people, including journalists, are simply more comfortable doing things digitally and virtually.

Training organizations are adapting. Notably, the online News University has some 215,000 registered users and about 275 online classes. The Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas trained 2,500 Latin American and Caribbean journalists online in 2010 and 2011.

A recent report from the Pew Research Center reinforces the idea that academia is a next frontier for e-learning. The survey of technology stakeholders predicted that by 2020 opportunity, economic concerns and student and parent demands would cause university-level education would adopt new methods of distance teaching and certification, driven by opportunity, economic concerns and student and parent demands.

A “do-over moment”?

In our report, we ask whether growth in acceptance of e-learning suggests a “do-over moment’’ for news industry training. News organizations have been notoriously stingy when it comes to funding training - a situation that cannot have improved recently at most organizations.

But e-learning offers a lower cost option for training in many topics and skills. Will news companies take advantage of that?

It appears that some are, but most are not. Fewer than four in 10 journalists in the new survey gave their newsrooms good marks for providing training and professional development. The grades have declined steadily in Knight surveys of the past decade.

Time and time again, we’ve seen the impact of training - raising skill levels and helping organizations and teams become more adaptive and innovative.

As we note in “Digital Training Comes of Age,” participants reported a wide range of impacts from their training:

“Some deepened their reporting on important topics and drove change and reform. Others built or revamped websites or started new sites that fill gaps in community news. Some developed new understandings of the digital media environment and used them to shape the strategy of their news organization. Others developed multimedia skills that enriched their reporting or learned social media techniques that help them deepen their connections to communities.”

The report makes clear that training works and that it helps journalists and journalism organizations find their footing and move forward across a dynamic news landscape.

Training won’t answer all the woes of the news industry. But it is clear that news organizations that are not training are trying to adapt with at least one hand tied behind their backs.

The News Leadership 3.0 blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

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Exploring innovation, transformation and leadership in a new ecosystem of news, by journalist and change advocate Michele McLellan.

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