Monthly Archives: December 2014

Why Foursquare failed to reach escape velocity


By the time I finally signed up for a Foursquare account, sometime in early 2013, it was like arriving at a party that was already winding down. Sure, I could find several of my friends on the platform, but their accounts had been inactive for months. Still, there were a few hangers on so I dove into the app with relish. The benefits of such a tool seemed obvious: Living in Washington, DC, a geographically small city, I could see when friends were at nearby bars and restaurants and then stop by if I was free. Upon visiting a new business, I could view tips users had left about what dishes or cocktails to try. I could get ideas for new places to visit by watching my friends’ check-in activity.

But as the months wore on, I found myself using Foursquare less and less. Sure, some of my friends used it, but not enough close friends whom I’d feel comfortable barging in on if they were nearby. And of those I’d found active on the app, they slowly became inactive, until the number of friends who were consistently using it was vanishingly small.

These aren’t just my anecdotal observations; Foursquare’s userbase, after massive early adoption, has stalled out at fewer than 50 million users, which may seem like a lot but is nothing compared to its more-popular peers like LinkedIn, Tumblr, and Instagram, each of which has users numbering in the hundreds of millions.

So why did such a bright star burn out so quickly? Why did Foursquare fail to reach escape velocity?

In 2008, Nicholas Carr published an essay on what he called the “centripetal web.” Carr noticed that Technorati, a once widely-used blog search engine, had become less and less of a website destination for him as he slowly replaced it with late-comer Google Blog Search. This was also around the same time users began abandoning Bloglines, an early RSS reader, in favor of Google Reader. In both cases, an early innovator that had been first to dominate in an emerging market was usurped once a much larger player, i.e. Google, moved in and applied its superior servers and much larger engineering base to create a competitor.

Even though Technorati offered more precise tools for searching the blogosphere, it was often slow to return results, or it would just fail outright. When it came to handling large amounts of traffic, Technorati just couldn’t compete with Google’s resources. But it wasn’t just a matter of responsiveness and reliability. As a web-services conglomerate, Google made it easy to enter one keyword and then do a series of different searches from its site. By clicking on the links to various search engines that Google conveniently arrays across the top of every results page, I could search the web, then search news stories, then search blogs, then (if I was really ambitious) search scholarly papers. Google offered the path of least resistance, and I happily took it.

As Carr later argues, “on the web as off it, things gravitate toward large objects,” and so even when a company has the first-mover advantage with, say, a geosocial social network, there’s still a very large hurdle the company needs to overcome in terms of providing an adequate social graph. The utility of Foursquare isn’t just based on its technology, but is also reliant on having enough users so that new adopters can find friends with whom to interact. Foursquare had been on the path of amassing that core social graph, but much larger social networks, sensing that there was value in geosocial, stepped in and began offering their own check-in tools.


So just as Google eclipsed Bloglines and Technorati with its resources and massive reach, nearly every major social network from Facebook to Instagram added the ability to check in to a location. Suddenly, you didn’t have to worry over whether your friends would use the tools, because the tools had been integrated into a space on which your friends already were. Because Foursquare didn’t have much else to offer other than geosocial (its tips were useful, but already available on platforms like Yelp), users gravitated to the larger objects. Being first wasn’t good enough.

This is the same fate that Spotify may be facing. The Swedish company was the first to provide a proof of concept that millions of people would be willing to pay $9.99 a month to stream music, just as Netflix proved possible for video streaming. According to a recent feature in the New Yorker, Spotify has amassed 50 million users globally, with 12.5 million paying for subscriptions (the rest use the free service, which is interspersed with ads). It arguably dominates the paid music streaming market, and one would think it has the first-mover advantage that would shield it from competitors. But now that it’s proven that users will pay for music streaming, much larger stalwarts, which already have millions of credit card numbers on file and have primed their users to pay for content online, may launch their own streaming services:

James McQuivey, an analyst with the Boston-based Forrester Research, is less optimistic about the company’s prospects. “Spotify has shown people value streaming,” he said, “and that means somewhere someone could use that value in a bigger chess game. Someone like an Apple or a Google is already realizing how valuable music is as a customer-engagement tool and will offer something quite similar to this, without making you pay for it, the way Amazon has included video in the Prime membership without expressly charging. And then suddenly you’ve disrupted Spotify.” He added, “If I have to say yes or no will Spotify be as big and strong as it is five years from now, the answer will be no.”

Currently, YouTube is the largest music streaming platform in the world. And while Spotify CEO Daniel Ek believes Spotify’s user data has allowed it to develop an unbeatable service, it has nowhere near the user data available to YouTube, especially since YouTube is owned by Google, which tracks hundreds of millions of logged-in users daily. Apple, with its iTunes store, has access to millions of iPhones and Macs across the world and already maintains strong sway with music companies.

So while we’d like to believe that being first to innovate ensures one a fighting chance of maintaining dominance — isn’t that the primary allure of being an inventor? — the web’s history would suggest that any first-mover advantage can be rendered moot. Though with its 50 million users, Spotify may be a formidable force, there are much larger objects moving in on its turf. Put another way, there’s a reason the moon orbits around the Earth and not vice versa.


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Why advertisers are flocking to interior design blogs

design blogs

Like many of the home decorating bloggers who have amassed thousands of daily followers, Jennifer Flores was a reader of interior design blogs before she launched one herself. Back in 2007, she and her husband had been planning to purchase their first home and ultimately settled on a “fixer upper,” and it was while researching ideas for renovating the house that she became invested in the lives of dozens of other home owners just like her who were engaging in DIY projects and uploading their photos to Blogspot and WordPress accounts. “Home blogs interested me because these were everyday people doing things with their home,” she told me. “So I thought, ‘Why not start a blog?’”

Jennifer Flores

Jennifer Flores

So she launched Rambling Renovators that year in a market that wasn’t yet all that crowded. Back then, there were only a couple well known home bloggers (the largest of which, Apartment Therapy, has grown into a mini-empire with several spin-off sites and products), and there were even fewer who resided in Canada, where Flores lived. Her readership growth, she said, was completely organic. “It really was a matter of reading other people’s blogs and leaving a comment, and they’d look at your comment and find their way back to your blog,” she recalled. “And blogrolls — it used to be common to have a sidebar that listed the blogs you read. They were really popular, and that’s how you grew your community at that time.”

These early blogs had an amateur feel to them, with clunky designs often using just the standard themes that came for free when you signed up for Blogspot or WordPress. And the photos were mostly of the point-and-shoot variety, not necessarily well-lit or indicating that the person who took them had any particular skills in photography. That all changed, Flores said, in about the last two years. “Now the photos are all stylized,” she said. “Now it’s sort of that monetized machine.”

There’s been an interior design blog boom in recent years, and it’s difficult to tell whether it was caused by increased advertiser interest or preceded it. These days, there are hundreds of such blogs, often run by either one person or a married couple, with names like Yellow Brick Home and The Art of Doing Stuff. Long gone are the inelegant Blogspot themes; they’ve instead been replaced by custom designs and wide, high-resolution photos. More important, these blogs are dotted with modular display ads and sponsored posts in the main content stream. Clicking through several of them calls to mind the late aughts, when advertisers and marketing companies decided en masse that fashion and so-called “mommy blogs” attracted affluent and purchase-hungry readers and so began to send free products to them by the truckload. Suddenly, fashion bloggers began to ink deals with management agencies and were appearing in glossy magazine ads. It reached the point when newly-launched parenting blogs that hadn’t yet gained readerships were publishing “product pages” — which gave instructions for companies that wanted to send them stuff to review — from day one.

Nicole Balch, the blogger behind Making It Lovely, also counts herself among the first generation of home design bloggers. She had owned a stationery shop in Chicago and had originally began blogging as an effort to promote that business, but as its readership grew she later abandoned the shop and focused almost entirely on the blog.

Nicole Balch

Nicole Balch

For Balch, the renovations and DIY tutorials only partially account for the appeal of design blogs. Readers are actually attracted to the larger narrative, of being able to follow this person as she navigates the challenges and triumphs of owning a home and raising a family within it. It’s not uncommon for these bloggers to include photos of their spouse and children, and their readers can watch as the family matures. “I think a lot of people have been reading because they’re in similar life stages,” she explained. “A lot of people were getting into their first house around the same time I was and their family has grown around the same time that we were having kids, so there’s a connection there.”

This idea of mutual experience was one I encountered consistently when interviewing home bloggers. Jessica Hansen started her first blog in 2009 when she enrolled at Iowa State. “I was going to have a single dorm, and I was trying to find ways to decorate it and make it my own on a budget,” she told me. “And at the time there were a few decorating blogs out there, but there weren’t many dorm decorating blogs.” It turns out there were lots of other people, both college students and their parents, who were looking for ways to decorate dorm rooms on a budget, and they quickly found their way to Hansen’s blog while Googling for ideas. But Hansen noticed something interesting when she moved on from a dorm to an apartment and began blogging about her new experiences there: her original readership followed her. “My audience was growing with me,” she said. “I wasn’t necessarily getting a lot of new readers so much as the ones that were there at the same stages as me were sticking with me. As I stopped doing dorm decor, they weren’t really interested in reading that anyway because they were moving into apartments too.”

Jessica Hansen

Jessica Hansen

Unlike other niches (like tech) where bloggers are expected to serve as hyper-aggregators, churning out a dozen posts each day, it’s unusual for an interior design blogger to post more than once a day. Though roundup aggregation posts aren’t uncommon (for instance, a gallery of amazing bathrooms), much of the content is of the DIY variety, often featuring a first person narrative of how the blogger built a table or arranged her living room. A recent post for Making It Lovely, for instance, detailed Balch’s attempts to save an ailing houseplant. It currently has 47 comments. “I think that that’s really the hook of home blogs, that you get to see people living in their spaces,” said Flores. “You get to see things they DIYed, you get to see their kids grow up, you see their homes, which is a really intimate space, and you feel like you know these people.”


In the early days of home design blogging, most readers found their way to a particular blog either from reading other blogs or when Googling for inspiration ideas for their own homes. But just as the rest of the media industry, starting in 2012 or so, saw a sharp increase in social media referrals and became increasingly reliant upon them, home bloggers had to begin heavily investing in these platforms. But though much of the rest of the news industry has seen much of its traffic gains through Facebook, another social network reigns supreme within the interior design sphere: Pinterest. “Most of my traffic comes from Pinterest,” said Hansen. That isn’t to say that she ignores other social networks. “Twitter is not super huge for me. My posts do get fed into it and sometimes I use it, but I would say I use Facebook and Instagram more.” Because their blogs are often so personal, these bloggers often debate with themselves whether they should merge their personal and professional social media accounts. On Facebook they often maintain separate pages from their personal accounts, but on Instagram they usually only maintain one profile.

Because these blogs focus on home improvement, a multi-billion dollar industry, it shouldn’t be all that surprising that brands have come knocking. While other news niches are slowly phasing in native advertising, sponsored posts have long been a staple at interior design blogs, and I found it fascinating how some played with the form. A recent post on a blog called The Inspired Room, for instance, offers a brief disclosure that it was “created in partnership with Pottery Barn” before launching into a list of quilts and other home accessories the blogger has used to decorate her home for the holidays. Unsurprisingly, each item includes a Pottery Barn link where one can purchase it. It begs the question as to whether these recommendations, which are written in the first-person voice of the blogger, Melissa Michaels, are authentic, or merely a result of the sponsorship. “I’m very picky with sponsored posts and advertisements,” said Hansen. “Since it’s not my full time job and it’s my hobby I want to keep the blog really true to myself and my readers.”

This was a consistent theme I encountered when I asked about these sponsored posts — that the bloggers only choose brands they actually like and turn away sponsors that don’t fit their tastes. “If I get contacted by a company, I try to only take sponsored posts if I want to share it,” said Kimberly Smith, who runs a blog called Turning It Home. “Not just advertising for the sake of money. And I always try to fit it in a way that’s natural, not just, ‘Here’s this. Buy this.’” I heard variations of the phrase “I say ‘no’ more often than I say ‘yes’ to sponsorship opportunities” during my interviews. It made me wonder if readers treated these ads the same way readers of say, Vogue, regard the full-page fashion ads in the magazine, as just as entertaining and important as the traditional editorial content. Certainly when native advertising is done well then it becomes more than a necessary annoyance and at least strives to be entertaining.

Flores was somewhat skeptical of this notion that sponsored posts contain just as much quality as the non-sponsored content. “If you talk to other people who have been reading blogs for a long time they’ll say, ‘Yeah, I stopped reading some blogs because they’ve become so commercialized.” In fact, the hyper-monetization and high-octane marketing necessities, where each blogger is not only required to produce regular longform posts on their blogs but also maintain consistent presences on multiple social media platforms, has caused some burnout among bloggers who have been in the game as long as she has. “A lot of people are saying, ‘I’m going to slow down,’” Flores said. “‘Instead of posting three to five times a week, I’m going to post two to three times per week and really bringing it back to why I started it in the first place, which is that I’m blogging for myself.’”

Others have decided to give up on the game entirely, walking away from blogs they’ve maintained for years, not to mention the thousands of avid readers and the book deals and other high-value benefits that come with running a successful blog. Ez Pudewa, the blogger behind Creature Comforts, announced she was stepping away from blogging after nine years so she could focus on a new business venture. And then a month later, the couple who write Young House Love announced their own blogging retirement. “The blogosphere as a whole has become increasingly sponsored/corporate lately,” they wrote. “We can see from the outside perspective as a reader, or even a fellow blogger, that it’s hard to read a blog post without suspecting some ulterior motive or money-making system behind it.” The audience they left behind was gargantuan; they had 150,000 Facebook likes, 30,000 Twitter followers, and a whopping 1.1 million Pinterest subscribers. Their goodbye post has over 5,000 comments.

Of course there are many bloggers, each brandishing their social media subscription icons and their sponsorship instructions pages, ready to take their place. And as the housing market begins to heat up again there are likely fresh readers on the horizon, searching Google and Pinterest for inspiration and ideas as they plan to tackle their kitchen or bathroom renovations. The question now is whether this section of the blogosphere can keep its personal touch, the authenticity that allows one to vicariously follow the lives of real-world married couples and their children as they embark on new adventures. If they can, then readers will probably endure a sponsored post or two if it keeps the lights on. After all, who can begrudge a family whose lives you’re invested in for trying to make an honest living?


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Images via Rambling Renovators,  Making It Lovely, The Lovely Side

Why the rise of native advertising will make the internet a better place


For a generation of internet consumers who have become anesthetized to the completely-ubiquitous world of banner and interstitial advertising, the story of how a clothing retail company called Brandy Melville has been using Instagram and other social media platforms as its only form of online marketing should be uplifting. We’ve been trained to think of advertising as merely a barrier to entry, a pop-up image where your near-instantaneous response is to look for the “close” icon so you can access the content you came to consume. This in-your-face approach to advertising was invented by a man named Ethan Zuckerman who, 20 years ago, dashed off a bit of code that would become the first pop-up ad. On a recent episode of the podcast Reply All, Zuckerman apologized for the invention, not just for the rage-inducing intrusion it caused for all of us, but how it desensitized us to the idea that we were just an amalgam of data to be sold to advertisers by units of 1,000.

Brandy Melville, though, will not be chasing your computer’s cookies from website to website. You won’t suddenly hear its auto-play video ads in one of your open browser tabs. As detailed by BusinessWeek’s Lisa Marsh, the clothing retailer has placed significant investment in creating engaging social media content, and for its efforts it has earned 2.2 million followers on Instagram, 65,000 followers on Twitter,  and 218,000 Likes on Facebook. “Millennials want to tell stories and curate what they see,” WGSN’s Sarah Owen told Marsh. “This group is looking for something more editorial.”

These references to “editorial” and a brand’s desire to “tell stories” fit within the larger narrative of where marketing and advertising are heading in the second decade of the 21st Century: away from commoditized ad units and more toward native advertising. Which is to say that advertising will no longer be contained at the periphery of the website, but right in the content stream, and, when done well, it will be just as entertaining and engaging as the non-advertising content.

Last week, I wrote about the mini-scandal that hit the podcasting company Gimlet Media when an email miscommunication led to a 9-year-old being interviewed for a Squarespace ad when he thought the interview was for an episode of This American Life. As I argued at the time, this episode was cautionary but shouldn’t be blown out of proportion, and that Gimlet Media, with its storytelling approach to advertising, had created some of the most engaging and clever marketing I had ever come across.

The rise of native advertising shouldn’t just make you feel good about the future of the internet because it’ll be more entertaining; it will also fundamentally change the incentive structure for how news producers create and display content. The tyranny of the CPM banner ad, after all, has led to absolutely abhorrent web design norms that have made the internet a worse place. Everyone knows the frustration of landing on a top 10 list and finding a slide show they have to click through, each slide preceded by yet another load of the entire page. Or perhaps you follow a link on Facebook and find yourself on the third page of a six-page paginated article, and you have to scroll down in order to navigate back to the first page.

Banner advertising hasn’t just affected website design, but also the content we create to populate those websites. Because the media company is rewarded solely based on the number of pages loaded, it’s incentivized to generate clicks with little regard to longterm engagement or return readers. This is why we’ve experienced the hyper-aggregation that has led to hundreds of news sites embedding the latest John Oliver rant, each competing to generate the most hyperbolic headline imaginable in order to trigger whatever signal in the Facebook algorithm that propels you to the top of everyone’s newsfeeds. “Maybe my cynicism has taken over, but the internet’s race to try to suck up any spare pageviews on whatever slate of viral videos that happened to emerge that day is something I find utterly depressing,” I wrote earlier this week. “Especially when I think about the opportunity the web has given us and how much we’re squandering it.”


Well perhaps the next decade will be one in which we squander that opportunity less often. Because native advertising, while not completely divorcing us from our proclivity for clickbait, at least incentivizes us to attract deeper readers. The success of a native advertising campaign won’t be predicated on how many people saw the ad, but how many read to the bottom and then were compelled to share it with their own social media followers. BuzzFeed, which has built its entire business on native advertising, doesn’t even charge its clients based on the number of views its sponsored posts have received. Which is ironic given that BuzzFeed has been painted as a pageview-sucking vortex that has been released to consume and regurgitate the entire internet.

The rise of native advertising will also be great for the economic state of the news industry and the journalists it employs. A consistent worry has been that the commoditization of advertising has depressed ad rates and led to the destruction of journalism. But native advertising, if it truly becomes dominant, will always require a human touch and penchant for storytelling, i.e. the work of creative people who have honed the research and writing craft and can utilize it to tease out interesting trends and anecdotes from brands. There’s an amazing opportunity for these brands to provide their own form of journalism (as we’ve seen with the Marriott-sponsored travel blog at Medium), and though yes, that journalism should always be viewed with a skeptical eye, there’s no reason it can’t be informationally valuable and advance human understanding of certain issues.

So while some, like Andrew Sullivan, see native advertising as a dangerous blurring of the lines between journalism and corporate-sponsored advertising, I see a trade-off that will give media companies the breathing room needed to create a truly valuable and user-centric experience on the web. Ethan Zuckerman, the inventor of the pop-up ad, realizes probably more than anyone how the web has been partially ruined because of the norms he put in place. Only when those norms are finally shattered and done away with can we truly forgive him.


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Yahoo’s failures can be blamed on its shareholders, not Marissa Mayer


There comes a time in every young CEO’s life when she will be tempted to compare herself to Steve Jobs, and it’s advisable that she resist this temptation as there will be no shortage of pundits who will line up to mock her. Still, one can forgive Marissa Mayer for giving in to the Jobsian mythology given the monumental task at hand and how much it parallels Apple’s own history: she must take a company, Yahoo, that has seemingly plateaued into its sunset years a mere two decades after its founding and kickstart a new era where it can once again achieve tech titan status in Silicon Valley. Faced with this challenge, the former-Googler has donned the figurative black turtleneck:

At a board meeting in April, Mayer admitted that she had not yet identified a “breakthrough product,” but she reminded those in attendance that Steve Jobs didn’t come up with the iPod until five years into his second tenure at Apple. At an F.Y.I. around that time, she read a speech that Jobs gave to Apple employees at the beginning of his turnaround. Afterward, channeling Jobs, Mayer told hundreds of employees sitting at URL’s, “Our purpose is to inspire and delight our users, to build beautiful services, things that people love to use and enjoy using every day, and that’s our opportunity.”

These anecdotes come from Nicholas Carlson’s book, Marissa Mayer and the Fight to Save Yahoo!, which was excerpted this week in the New York Times Magazine.  Mayer was hired as CEO in July 2012, and Carlson details with blow-by-blow, behind-the-scenes reporting how Mayer, riding high on her success at Google, quickly burned through her honeymoon period — a period when she was hailed as Yahoo’s savior — before she then descended back to earth to face hostile shareholders who have accused her of wasting assets and resources pursuing money-losing ventures.

At surface level — which is to say without context — her results so far are uninspiring. Quarterly revenue has dropped since her hiring. After the IPO of Alibaba, the massive Chinese company Yahoo had presciently invested in prior to her tenure, Yahoo’s stock took a nose dive, an indication that the market considers Yahoo’s core business to be faltering. She’s spent massive amounts of money on shiny new playthings — $1 billion for Tumblr, multi-million dollar contracts to lure talent like Katie Couric and David Pogue, as well as $109 million for a COO who was fired after 15 months on the job — that have yet to make much money.

But if you actually comb through the complaints launched by the activist investors who have formed in opposition to Mayer, you can see why Yahoo has faltered in previous years and why she must hold these naysayers at bay for as long as she can: the company’s top shareholders strive for nothing more than mediocrity and are merely interested in a short-term payout rather than the continued longevity of the company.

The fact that Yahoo has cycled through four CEOs in five years is a testament to the continued impatience of Yahoo’s shareholders, an impatience that doesn’t beleaguer CEOs at tech behemoths like Google, Facebook, and Amazon (try to imagine Mark Zuckerberg giving one iota of attention to a Facebook shareholder’s demands).  Here’s a company that’s been directionless for at least half a decade, and rather than giving breathing room to a woman who helped build Google’s gargantuan $55 billion annual business, investors are more interested in chopping up Yahoo, which still brings in $5 billion in annual revenue, and selling it for parts. Just look at the demands of Eric Jackson, a hedge fund manager who’s been the ringleader of the anti-Mayer brigade:

Smith published an open letter calling for Yahoo to divest itself of its Alibaba assets, return the money to its shareholders and then merge with AOL. Redundancies could be eliminated, thousands of people could be fired and two former Internet superpowers would be downsized into a single and steady (if uninspiring) entity that sold ads against its collective online properties — news, blogs and Web products like email, maps and weather. “We trust the board and management will do the right thing for shareholders, even if this may mean accepting AOL as the surviving entity,” Smith wrote.

These are not the words of someone who’s even pretending that his interests lie in Yahoo’s return to dominance, or anything besides quickly lining his own pockets. His justifications for declaring Mayer a failure are ludicrous when you place Yahoo’s struggles within the context of how other Silicon Valley companies have continued to dominate within their respective industries. Facebook purchased Instagram for $1 billion and WhatsApp for $19 billion long before they showed much revenue potential because Zuckerberg recognized the shifting demographics that could quickly turn his company into another Myspace. For years now Jeff Bezos has accepted razor thin profit margins at the expense of building out massive infrastructure so that Amazon can cement itself as the delivery mechanism for both digital and physical products. And Google has spent billions snapping up startups and engaging in “moonshot” products, adopting what can only be considered extreme paranoia that its near-future is threatened by some unforeseen disruption.


Yahoo’s investors, on the other hand, have already declared the $1 billion spent on Tumblr to have been a waste of money a mere year after its purchase, which is nothing short of ludicrous. In fact, Tumblr shows every sign that it has enormous potential, and so far Yahoo has been a much better steward of the platform than it was for other companies it purchased and then later neglected (e.g. Flickr and Delicious). Currently, Tumblr is the quickest-growing platform among those in their teens and early 20s, and, because its content is hosted on the open web, it has the potential to monetize both logged-in and more casual users in ways that would be difficult for closed platforms like Facebook.

Mayer, recognizing the tremendous potential on video and native advertising, has made significant investments in Tumblr’s video player in the hope of competing with YouTube. She purchased a video advertising company and has begun to lure YouTube stars onto the Tumblr platform.

Perhaps her biggest setback so far has been the state of Yahoo when she took over; Mayer has had to spend a significant amount of her two years on the job streamlining the business so it’s more focused. The most shocking detail I read in Carlson’s piece is that Yahoo Mail, a tool with which users send 30 billion emails a day, didn’t even have a standalone mobile app. When an internet company you take over is failing to meet even the basic requirements for existing in a smartphone-dominated world, you can be forgiven if you don’t spring out of the gate with a paradigm-changing new product. Expecting Mayer to turn Yahoo around in such a short time period is as silly as conservatives’ criticisms aimed at Obama for not immediately fixing an economy that was on the brink of collapse when he took office.

The truth is, it’s much too early to decide whether Mayer’s bets will pay off, and to pretend otherwise, especially when you stand to cash out from a Yahoo merger with AOL, suggests you’re either naive or intellectually dishonest. Many of these activist investors who are ready to dust off the guillotine a mere two years after Mayer’s hiring will also pretend to worship at the altar of Steve Jobs, but their impatience belies their supposed understanding of Jobs’s longterm vision and his risky bets. When Jobs regained the throne at Apple in 1997, the struggling company’s annual revenue stood at $7 billion. In 1999, two years after his hiring, revenue had fallen to $6.13 billion. I’m sure that Apple’s current shareholders can be thankful that Yahoo’s impatient activist investors didn’t hold the same kind of sway for 1999-era Apple as they do at Yahoo today. If they had, Jobs’s deity-like status might never have come to pass, and a line of revolutionary products that forever changed the trajectory of technological progress would have remained merely an idea sacrificed at the hand of those who don’t have the patience or imagination to maintain the courage of their convictions.


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Stop using BuzzFeed to argue small news sites can’t make money

Gawker CEO Nick Denton

Gawker CEO Nick Denton

Beware whenever any major news escapes from the media industry, because pundits will automatically take that news and use it to develop sweeping conclusions about where the industry is heading. Case in point: Over the last few weeks we’ve witnessed some seismic shakeups at several widely-watched companies, and if squinted at the right way, one could conclude that a news company that doesn’t succumb to clickbait scalability is doomed to failure.

There seems to be four major events that have led pundits to this premise. The first two are massive cash infusions at both BuzzFeed and Vice, both of which have reignited investor interest in media companies and, especially in the case of BuzzFeed, pulled ahead of the competition in terms of reach (BuzzFeed is now serving 150 million monthly users). The third is the firing of Franklin Foer and the mass resignation of much of the staff at The New Republic, as well as the hiring of a CEO who uses Silicon Valley buzzwords to explain how the magazine can become a “vertically integrated media company.” This came as a result of owner Chris Hughes’s reported frustration with losing millions of dollars a year on the publication and a desire to scale the website beyond its 10 million or so monthly users. And finally, we have a 4,000-word memo from Gawker owner Nick Denton, who announced a new board of directors for the media empire and that it would return to its blogging roots. In it, Denton envisions a Gawker with “less pandering to the Facebook masses,” and he acknowledges that in the previous year “we were slaves to the Facebook algorithm.” Instead, Gawker would turn its attention to breaking blockbuster news, not just react to it.

Four news events — that’s one more than what’s needed to declare a trend. And first out of the gate was media critic Michael Wolff, who used his USA Today column to declare that “in the BuzzFeed era … a media company is really a technology company, with its highest resources devoted to automating and increasing the efficiency of audience aggregation.” Using this thesis, he estimates that The New Republic will have to “transform its 50,000 print readers into 50 million monthly digital visitors” in order to become profitable. Meanwhile, Felix Salmon, a senior editor at Fusion, wrote in the Guardian to argue that these recent news events don’t bode well for news websites with “second and third tier” traffic. “The result is real problems for the owners of companies which shouldn’t aspire to massive scale,” he wrote. If you don’t have millions of dollars of investments and a minimum of 50 million or so monthly visitors, he posits, then it’s not even worth playing the game.

Of course it doesn’t take much effort to find media companies that haven’t received millions in venture capital funding and have relatively small audiences, and yet are playing the game quite nicely. Gigaom’s Mathew Ingram names several in response to Wolff and Salmon’s claims:

The cost of starting a digital-media entity, even a potentially successful one, has never been lower. Ask Jessica Lessin, who left the Wall Street Journal to start The Information, or Lara Setrakian of News Deeply, or Andrew Sullivan of The Daily Dish, who is now making close to $1 million a year from his readers — or blogger Ben Thompson, who went from being a relative unknown to running his own self-financed blog company.

In fact, there are thousands upon thousands of content websites that have achieved profitability with relatively low traffic. Choire Sicha launched The Awl from scratch with very little investment (other than his savings) and eventually built it into a profitable enterprise, one now staffed with writers and editors. John Gruber manages to sell one sponsored post a week at $9,250 per post, presumably raking in at least $481,000 annually.


Even Nick Denton, if you read his memo closely enough, recognizes that massive traffic really doesn’t add much to the bottom line in and of itself. Advertisers don’t advertise on Gawker because it has 100 million monthly uniques, they advertise in it because they want to reach Gawker readers, an affluent millennial set that is highly educated and lives in urban areas. As I’ve argued previously, an over-reliance on aggregation, or, as Denton would put it, “pandering to the Facebook masses,”  actually depresses ad rates because it serves up a fly-by audience that advertisers don’t find particularly appealing.

I think Salmon and Wolff are correct in one way: It can be very difficult to scale a general news company, one that focuses on all topics ranging from politics to fashion to finance, without very high web traffic. But if you’re willing to either go niche or appeal to a highly selective, educated audience and don’t generate massive overhead costs, then yes, there’s plenty of profit to be had for “second and third tier” news sites. Just because it’s not the kind of profit that would attract a venture capitalist doesn’t mean that sites like these can’t collectively sustain thousands of journalists and content creators. The mom and pop news site, at least for the immediate future, is here to stay.


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Chuck Johnson and the catch-22 when criticizing online trolls

charles johnson

There’s an old and well-known internet adage that you “should never feed the trolls.” It recognizes that there’s a certain contingent within internet culture that feeds on attention and extracts that attention by writing the most incendiary and hateful things imaginable. The resultant mass condemnation, rather than shaming the troll into an apology or silence, merely fuels it and often times attracts even more attention to his inflammatory rhetoric. The theory goes that if you simply ignore the troll, then the food on which it subsists, outrage, goes away, and the troll goes away along with it.

There’s been constant worry lately that Charles Johnson, a rightwing blogger who wrote for several conservative publications before branching off on his own, is a troll who has been given too many turns at the feeding trough. For the uninitiated, Johnson has posted some of the most incendiary “journalism” one can imagine. In just the last month or so, he published the addresses and phone numbers of two New York Times journalists, inciting death and rape threats that drove them from their homes. Within the last week, he published what he claimed was a photo of “Jackie,” the UVa student at the center of the unraveling Rolling Stone article on campus rape, trying to use the photo as proof that Jackie had lied about her rape. Within hours it was shown that the woman in the photo was almost certainly not Jackie, and though Johnson eventually printed a “correction,” most of that correction was so tone deaf — he congratulated himself on making the correction and claimed he still liked his “batting average” — that it left little doubt as to Johnson’s sociopathic underpinnings. To paraphrase a line from The Dark Knight, some people just like to watch the world burn, and Johnson is one of those people.

Naturally, Johnson has generated enough mass outrage that it’s caused interest from the mainstream media, and that interest has then led to significant backlash from those who believe any attention from the media merely provides a larger audience for Johnson’s antics. When the Washington Post’s Terrence McCoy profiled Johnson, for instance, the Daily Caller’s Matt Lewis accused McCoy of “romanticizing” Johnson. “Johnson can move on when his exploits cause harm, and claim victory when he ends up being right,” Lewis wrote. “And then repeat it. That’s fine for him, but the question is whether or not the Post should be in the business of incentivizing this sort of behavior.” Other journalists have grappled with this question of whether condemnation of Johnson is merely playing into his overall strategy of creating attention. In his recent column on Johnson, New York Times media critic David Carr definitely struggles with this dilemma. “I’d ignore him if I thought he would go away, but I get the feeling he won’t,” Carr wrote. And then later: “My worry is that people who have made it this far in the column will click over to [Johnson’s blog] to see what all the fuss is about.”

I’d argue, however, that Johnson’s trolling has reached a large enough audience that columns like Carr’s have become necessary. Yes, the media attention helps Johnson attract the racists and homophobes that make up his core fanbase, but it also effectively marginalizes him, thereby decreasing the chances that his poison will spill too far into the mainstream.

We’ve seen this happen with James O’Keefe. O’Keefe, if you’ll remember, shot and posted the infamous ACORN videos purporting to show the organization attempting to help a pimp and prostitute — played by O’Keefe and a female friend of his —  avoid paying taxes. The videos received immediate mainstream attention, not only from Fox News but also the New York Times, whose ombud famously chastised its reporters for not covering the story quickly enough. Because the videos were given such mainstream legitimacy, Congress quickly used it as an excuse to defund ACORN — an organization that’s been a fervent advocate for low income and minority citizens.


But in the months following the posting of these videos, much of their content was determined to be highly misleading, with multiple attorneys general concluding that the videos were “heavily edited” in ways that portrayed ACORN’s actions out of context. New York Times ombud Clark Hoyt, now with egg on his face, significantly backpedaled and admitted that many of the underlying claims in the videos were misleading. These revelations led to increased skepticism from the mainstream media when O’Keefe released further videos, a skepticism that likely reached a crescendo when O’Keefe tried to lure a female CNN reporter onto a boat filled with sex toys and sexually harass her (the plan was thwarted when one of O’Keefe’s female employees warned the reporter ahead of time).

O’Keefe is continuing to release his undercover videos, but they have increasingly been met with skepticism and are often outright ignored by the mainstream media. Don’t get me wrong, O’Keefe, like Johnson, is still able to generate attention for his antics, but much of it is confined to the conservative echo chamber, and very little of it has spilled out into mainstream America, at least nowhere near the extent of his ACORN videos. His brand has been significantly marginalized, even though it was at the expense of giving him more attention.

We also saw this effect with #GamerGate, the online movement that claimed to be concerned with gaming journalism ethics but was mostly a misogynist cudgel aimed at feminists and their supporters. Early on in the controversy, traditional journalists who covered the movement would offer a throwaway sentence something along the lines of “the movement does have some legitimate concerns with gaming journalism.” Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff, for instance, made reference to  “those who genuinely want to use #GamerGate to talk about ethics and the changing face of gaming.” But as the media continued to cover the trollery, it became quickly apparent that no legitimate criticism was found in the bowels of the internet where #GamerGate supporters congregate, and as a result the mainstream media’s coverage of the movement became universally negative. Because of this, any further attempts from the movement to attack feminists will be met with either indifference or condemnation.

So yes, Johnson will continue to gain an audience as a result of media coverage, but because of such harsh criticism, not only from columnists at the New York Times and Politico, but also from many rightwing pundits — including conservative pollster Frank Luntz — Johnson’s work has been confined to the same intellectual realms as World Net Daily and Alex Jones. That’s not to say that he can’t still inflict significant damage, especially when he goes after rape victims and minorities, but it’ll hinder his reporting from slipping into mainstream discussion, and will in many ways blunt his impact. Charles Johnson may never ever go away, but at least he has alienated those who might have otherwise promulgated his reporting. That’s about as close to a glass-half-full scenario as we’re going to get.


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What happens when a campus newspaper covers a national story

cavalier daily

Rebecca Lim first realized that the kidnapping of Hannah Graham, the 18-year-old University of Virginia student who went missing on September 13, had become a national story when she began receiving emails and phone calls from major media outlets. “I had CNN calling me,” Lim, the editor of the Cavalier Daily, UVa’s campus newspaper, told me. “And that’s not something that usually happens. CNN doesn’t call me about the latest student council meeting.”

On a typical day, the Cavalier Daily, founded in 1890 and originally called College Topics, covers stories that rarely resonate outside the college campus — everything from graduates clerking for the Supreme Court to coverage of UVa’s sports teams. But occasionally an event relating to the university will suddenly capture the attention of the world at large, and Cavalier Daily’s staff finds itself beholden to millions of news consumers searching for any new developments in the story. Recently, UVa has been at the heart of two blockbuster stories: the kidnapping and murder of Hannah Graham, and then the Rolling Stone article depicting a brutal gang rape and the administration’s alleged failure to properly investigate it. With television networks and major newspapers descending upon the college town, the Cavalier Daily, with a staff of about 250 volunteer students, faced intense pressure to cover and break news.

If these events had occurred only 20 years ago, when the news industry was focused much more heavily on print, the Daily’s coverage might not have had much impact outside Charlottesville. A reader in Portland, Oregon who was interested in a UVa-related story would have either had to learn about it on the nightly news or through an AP story in the local paper. But with the emergence of web editions of college newspapers — according to Wikipedia, the Cavalier Daily launched online in 1995 — readers from afar could get on-the-ground information from student journalists who were closest to the source material.

We saw this most prominently in 2007 in the wake of the Virginia Tech shooting in which 32 were killed and 17 injured. The Collegiate Times, the campus newspaper, was the first to report, in a brief web update, that there was a shooter on campus. In the days following, the newspaper achieved several scoops and was the first to release the list of names of those killed once the families had been notified. The New York Times linked to it on its website’s front page and the campus paper’s own website crashed underneath the traffic. Some argued it deserved a Pulitzer for its breaking news coverage.

The Cavalier Daily used to be a daily print paper back when Lim began writing for it the first semester of her freshman year of college. “Two years ago we switched from five days a week to four days a week,” she recalled. “And then the next year after that we went from four days a week to two days a week. We now print on Mondays and Thursdays.” But the web version is updated daily, publishing around 100 new stories a week. On a normal day, it receives between 10,000 and 15,000 visits, about 30 percent coming from social media. While it was covering the Graham kidnapping its traffic more than doubled, but that’s nothing compared to what happened when the Rolling Stone piece landed on November 19. “On November 20, we had 156,452 page views, and 165,000 November 21,” said Lim. “We averaged more than 100,000 views for three days after that.”

Because there’s so much competition and more pressure for immediacy when covering these national stories, the Daily’s normal editorial process can be upended for a more streamlined approach. Usually, writers are assigned to specific beats, and their stories are subjected to an editing process before they’re then copy edited and published. For the Graham and Rolling Stone stories, most were assigned to just a handful of senior writers. When those more experienced writers aren’t available to cover a piece of breaking news, the editors will step in. “You’ll have top level editors making calls to police and administrators, interviewing students, and cranking it out in the moment,” she said. “And then one or two people will look at it and then it goes online. So the process and turnaround is a lot quicker.”


In the case of Hannah Graham, the newspaper’s staff first heard rumors that she had gone missing from friends and classmates. Once the disappearance evolved into a kidnapping case and then later an active manhunt for her kidnapper, a staff writer named Kelly Kaler, who had a longstanding rapport with local police, took over the bulk of the reporting. One of the main challenges the paper faced was resisting the urge to retweet and report on apocryphal rumors swirling around the case and the police investigation. “So rather than just jumping on the bandwagon, we waited it out,” said Lim. “We asked police sources to confirm, asked them to independently verify, and that ended up counting in our favor, because we didn’t tarnish our credibility. We managed to maintain our high standards while keeping up with these national media outlets.”

The paper was performing a constant juggling act, not only covering new developments but also focusing on the campus response, both at the administrative and student level. This kind of coverage has been especially important in the weeks following the publication of the Rolling Stone article, as it triggered significant backlash not only against the Greek fraternity culture but also the university administration’s response to reported rapes and sexual assault. This was then further complicated by the continued unraveling of the Rolling Stone article, which began when it emerged that the article’s author, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, never reached out to or knew the names of the alleged rapists, and then further metastasized when the Washington Post and others found discrepancies in claims made by Jackie, the student at the center of the story.

“For the Rolling Stone article, we actually knew it was going to happen before it dropped,” said Lim. “We didn’t know what the reaction was going to be prior to the article coming out. We didn’t know if it was just going to fall under the radar or become as huge as it has been.” Obviously, it was the latter, and so then the staff had to decide on how to approach the fallout. I wondered if there was any discussion as to whether to seek out other victims who may have wanted to speak out about their own stories. But Lim said the staff didn’t want to start putting pressure on students to come forward. “It is really difficult to pester them for that when you’re a student here as opposed to when you’re an outside reporter coming in for a story. There’s something much more personal about this” for reporters who also happen to be students.

The Daily published one particularly important piece once the Rolling Stone story was falling apart and far-right conservatives used the revelations as an excuse to accuse Jackie of fabricating her entire experience. Emily Clark, Jackie’s suitemate freshman year, wrote an editorial stating that “Jackie’s story is not a hoax,” and she detailed the dark depression Jackie fell into after whatever happened to her that night in 2012. It was shared thousands of times on social media and cited by dozens of national news outlets.

Neither story is over, of course. The man charged with kidnapping and killing Graham still faces a trial and we’ve yet to get to the bottom of Rolling Stone’s journalistic failings. I asked Lim, who said she has no current plans to go into journalism once she graduates, whether her experience over the last few months had opened her eyes to the potential of journalism in ways that weren’t readily apparent to her when covering student council meetings and local sports. “How can you not see the power of journalism through this?” she replied. What [college student] can say they’ve had a story that’s been read by 50,000 people on the internet? It’s incredibly empowering, but also comes with a lot of responsibility, and a desire to do it right, and to maintain that level of quality, and prove we’re capable of doing this. I’m really proud of the way our staff has come together so far.”


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Why Facebook’s new search features don’t go far enough

facebook search 2

Back in October I visited social discovery company Storyful in its New York offices to learn about its partnership with Facebook in trying to discover and surface the most newsworthy content that appears on the giant social network. They sat me down and showed me how they discovered a drone video of the Hong Kong protests and dozens of celebrity Ice Bucket Challenges before anyone else.

What struck me was how inefficient their system was — not through any fault of their own, but because Facebook’s own ecosystem made it that way. Storyful had to rely on creating pre-populated lists on various regions and subjects and hope that the lists were comprehensive enough that they would surface something newsworthy. For instance, Storyful had created a list of activists and influencers in Hong Kong, so when reports of protests began to erupt Storyful could then consult the list and search for newsworthy images and video.

The reason for this front-heavy approach, where prep-work needed to be done before discovering the content, is that Facebook has always had bad search functionality. For years, plugging a word into the search bar would only search for pages, groups, and people that had that word in their names or titles. Compare this to Twitter, where I can plug in any handle, keyword, hashtag, OR URL and get back results of every user that’s used it (I find this tremendously valuable when trying to find who’s shared my content on Twitter. Valuable for my ego that is). Twitter doesn’t need a company like Storyful to surface content for journalists because the discoverability on Twitter is much more efficient. It was tremendously easy, for instance, for me to find tweets from on-the-ground protesters in Ferguson, whereas on Facebook I wouldn’t have even known where to start.

And so I was overjoyed when I read the headline that Facebook would begin allowing you to search through public posts, but as soon as I started reading the details I grew dismayed. Reporters who used the new feature said that, while it did search posts, it only searched through posts within your network of friends. This is a step in the right direction, but far from the robust search offered up on Twitter and the rest of the open web via Google.


The new search functionality became available to me on desktop today, and I eagerly checked it out. Sure enough, most of the content that it showed me came from friends and pages I followed. I did a search for #torturereport, a widely-used hashtag, and only received four results, three from pages I followed (not sure why the fourth one surfaced).

facebook search

What’s more, I had no control over how the search results were displayed. On Twitter search, I can toggle between “top” results, which first displays accounts I follow and accounts that have a lot of followers, or “most recent,” which shows me keyword results in reverse chronological order. Searches on Facebook would yield photos that were years old at the very top of results, and so it was sometimes difficult to find recent developments on a topic.

Of course, that was just the desktop version. Some people who have gained access to the mobile version said that searches on the mobile app turned up results from friends and pages they don’t follow, though they weren’t able to search by most recent.

This might all sound like nitpicking, but I think it’s important. Facebook is one of the largest websites and certainly the largest social network on the planet. Billions of pieces of content, a good percentage of it valuable, is being produced every month there, yet discovering most of that content is near impossible. As both a marketer and journalist, I truly hope that there comes a day when I can plug a URL, a keyword, or a hashtag into Facebook search and see every mention within a public post. Until then, most my research and source gathering will remain on Twitter.


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Should web journalists be allowed to write native advertising?


At first listen, it can be easy to construe the latest episode of Startup, the podcast hosted by This American Life alum Alex Blumberg that recounts his attempts at starting a podcasting company, as evidence of the perils of native advertising. Blumberg’s podcasting company is called Gimlet Media, and a few weeks ago Gimlet launched its first show, Reply All, which produces stories on internet culture and the way it impacts our lives. Those who have listened to Startup since its debut know that Blumberg uses a quirky approach to advertising. He first begins playing a distinctive music beat to signal to the listener that he or she is listening to an ad — a unique approach to disclosure — and then Blumberg, rather than playing a standard radio ad, will interview someone at the company that purchased the sponsorship about something interesting related to that company.

The email marketing company Mailchimp, for instance, sells miniature hats for cats, and so Blumberg interviewed the woman in Asia who single-handedly makes the hats for Mailchimp. He’s essentially using the storytelling techniques he developed for This American Life and applying them to advertising, and in the process it’s much more engaging to the listener. If I were an advertiser, having a much-loved radio host employ his craft on my company would outweigh any other form of advertising I could spend my money on.

But in the recent episode of Startup, Blumberg detailed how this process went awry. The inaugural episode of Reply All was sponsored by Squarespace, a website-building platform and frequent podcast advertiser, and Gimlet tasked one of its young producers to find interesting websites built on Squarespace so Blumberg could interview them. One of those she approached was a 9-year-old boy who’d built a website about Minecraft, and when the producer corresponded by email with the boy’s mother, the mother somehow came to the conclusion that her son was being interviewed for This American Life, not an advertisement. Understandably, she was furious when the ad ran, and so she set off a mini internet tweet storm that, for a 24-hour period, gained some traction.

The issue diffused relatively quickly, concluding with Blumberg interviewing the mom about her perception of the entire fiasco, but it sent Gimlet Media into introspection about the policies it put in place for its advertising. What Gimlet was essentially doing was employing native ads, which is advertising designed to look like the editorial content that appears within the same outlet. Some have been warning of the dangers of blurring the lines between editorial and business, and how this can lead to an erosion of trust with the consumer. Looked at in a certain way, this blunder from Gimlet Media can be considered proof of concept.

But in reality, this was a  singular episode that can easily be avoided in the future, and the producer who books the interviews for advertisements will be clearer in her wording that her inquiries pertain to sponsorships. What this episode hammered home to me was the effectiveness of this kind of advertising, and how podcasts have developed new approaches to native advertising that have not been adopted on other mediums.

For most web and print publications that have waded into native advertising, there’s still a distinct line drawn between those who create the sponsored posts and those who write the editorial content. BuzzFeed employs an entire team of separate writers who just focus on writing creative sponsored content for advertisers. This divide doesn’t exist within podcasting.

For nearly every podcast I listen to, those who host the show are the ones who also narrate the sponsorship section. In many cases, the person does little more than recite the tagline and describe, with mid-level enthusiasm, what the product does. But other podcasters have had fun with the form, incorporating it into the rest of the content in ways that are just as entertaining as the non-sponsored sections. The comedy podcast My Brother, My Brother, and Me, for instance, is consistently sponsored by a bondage gear and sex toy company called Extreme Restraints. The hosts’ riffs and jokes about Extreme Restraints — in many cases making fun of the company — produce some of the most laugh-out-loud moments in the podcast. It would be difficult to put a price on that kind of branding.


So let’s say you have a traditional web or print publication with big-name reporters who have amassed devoted followings. Why not set them and their storytelling skills onto your advertisers, allowing them to draw out facts and weave them into an article that your readers will actually want to, you know, read?

Though no established publication would think of doing such a thing, there are independent writers who have done this with very little negative feedback. John Gruber, the blogger behind Daring Fireball, has long employed the use of sponsored posts, running one such post a week for $9,250. Because he’s the only one who writes for the site, it’s easy to conclude that he plays at least some part in crafting the sponsored posts. Single-author interior design and parenting blogs have also employed sponsored posts, in some cases performing home renovations or decorating while using materials provided by the sponsor (I’ll have more about this in an upcoming article I’m working on).

There have been some instances where outlets using more traditional reporting have dabbled in allowing their reporters to write sponsored content. TAPinto, a successful local news company I profiled a few months ago, agrees to write profiles on any advertiser who signs a year-long contract. Because many of their advertisers are local business, this content is highly relevant to the readers.

It may be only a matter of time before a larger media company decides to tear down that wall between its writers and sponsors, and I can only imagine the outpouring of think pieces about how this is just one further step toward the death of journalism. But while navigating the steps of native advertising is tricky, advertising is a form of media, and it would be nicer, as a consumer who has to consume advertising whether I like it or not, if that form of media is at least entertaining. So why not employ the most entertaining storytellers to carry it out?


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The rise of the news aggregation mobile apps

news aggregation

For a brief time, starting in 2010, the news industry convinced itself that it could put the toothpaste back in the tube, and Josh Quittner counted himself among the most optimistic. In April of that year, Apple began shipping the first model of the iPad, and before even the first unit sold it was already being hailed as print media’s savior. With the iPad’s high-quality screen and app-based ecosystem, publishers were actually going to have a platform on which to charge for content. And readers, unaccustomed to this new device, could be retrained to pay for their news. The consensus on this was so strong that Rupert Murdoch, owner of News Corp, announced that he would invest millions in launching an iPad-only publication called The Daily. Public relation flaks for magazine companies, after years of no good news to promulgate, furiously launched press releases announcing shiny new magazine apps that readers could soon purchase and download.

At the time, Quittner was the Director of Digital Editorial Development, News, Sports and Business at Time, Inc, and he was placed in charge of leading the stable of magazines into this new digital frontier. “The first iPad magazines were Time magazines,” he told me recently. “I’m very much one of those people who believed that apps would give us another bite at the apple, that we could control the user experience to a far greater degree than we could on the web and that we could bring high quality advertising back.”

But even before the first issue arrived on the app store, he began to grow worried. Within Time, Inc, there was a heated debate between the editorial product team and the business side over how to price the app. The business side, which ultimately won the argument, wanted to charge $4.99 per download, the newsstand price for the print issue. “What I believed was that we should totally charge for it, but we should charge the smallest amount possible,” he said. “Because this wasn’t even a beta technology, it was an alpha technology. We didn’t know which ways pages should turn, whether there should be a scroll or pagination. There were so many questions we didn’t know the answer to, and they were compounded by the fact that the download sizes were huge.”

Readers, Quittner believed, would treat these news apps as a novelty, and though Time could probably sell a fair number of $4.99 issues early on, that novelty would soon wear off and normal market forces would apply. It would then have to compete with every other available app, magazine or otherwise. “We were also competing against Angry Birds, which was popular at the time. Angry Birds was hours of entertainment, and a magazine, even a great magazine, offers maybe a half hour of entertainment. It just didn’t seem like the math worked out.”

The iPad wouldn’t just allow publishers to charge for content; it also offered an opportunity for more ambitious design, something that the web, where the focus was geared toward generating clicks on more content, had denigrated. At first, magazine designers were delighted that they could work on a print-like product. “Initially what happened was that the magazine would put in the extra hours to conform Time to the iPad,” Quittner recalled. “It was just another 15 percent effort, 15 percent more time to make an iPad version.” But then they decided to launch a version for the iPhone, and then device makers launched the first Android tablets, and soon they were having to adapt each issue to multiple screen sizes and operating systems. Eventually, Time needed to hire more designers to meet the demand, which then placed more pressure on the apps to generate revenue.

In 2011, Quittner took a job as editorial director for Flipboard, the news aggregation app that pulls in content from hundreds of media partners, and it was then that he came to the conclusion that Time’s attempts to build and maintain its own mobile app was futile. “It was like a lightbulb went off in my head,” he said. “Why are we in the publishing business spending so much time doing technology when what we should be doing is what we’re great at, which is finding and packaging truth.” A news company attempting to innovate within tech, he analogized, was akin to CNN deciding to build HD televisions just because it happened to be a television network. “This stuff is just moving too fast, and it’s really hard to do … My god, I work at a company with the smartest technology people in the world, and it takes every bit of intelligence and skills on their part to keep up” with the fast-moving mobile ecosystem.

It would seem that much of the news industry has evolved to agree with Quittner’s assessment. Though it’s still not uncommon for a news company to produce and maintain a mobile app, there’s certainly been less emphasis on these individualized products in recent years (I remember a few years ago attending the New Yorker Festival, which constantly broadcast a commercial, starring Jason Schwartzman, that promoted the magazine’s iPad app). According to the Alliance for Audited Media, digital replicas of magazines made up only 3.8 percent of paid circulation in 2014, up slightly from 3.3 percent in 2013. Not exactly exponential growth. And in December 2012, less than a year after the launch of The Daily, News Corp announced its shutdown, citing lackluster sales.

Meanwhile, news companies are consistently inking deals with aggregation apps like Flipboard, agreeing to allow their (expensively produced) news content to live within its app in exchange for a cut of ad revenue. Last year, the company announced it surpassed 100 million users, and even the Wall Street Journal, which maintains one of the few successful newspaper paywalls, has inked a deal to appear on the app.

Traditional publishers have always leveled a skeptical eye at aggregation outlets, and many within the industry openly balked at the news that Facebook hopes to host news content on its mobile app for a share of advertising revenue. So why are they suddenly risking losing control of their content — and brand — by appearing on these outside apps? “I think that publisher after publisher is seeing that the user does not want to go to one single source for all their information needs,” said Rich Jaroslovsky, the VP of content at SmartNews. “They want to take advantage of the greatest diversity of voices available.” Mobile apps, unlike the open web, do not allow for frictionless discovery, and therefore publishers are forced to place their content where the users already are. And in 2014, many of those news consumers are opening up aggregation apps, not individual mobile versions of magazines and newspapers.

SmartNews, which only recently launched in the States, originated in Japan and has built up a base of 5 million active users. As detailed in a recent Fast Company article, its cofounder, Ken Suzuki, noticed while riding the subway that his fellow passengers were glued to the mobile games on their phones. Because internet access is near-impossible when you’re traveling underground, these passengers didn’t bother trying to access the news. SmartNews solved this problem by allowing you to read a version of the story within the app.


Jaroslovsky, who was a longtime managing editor of the Wall Street Journal’s website, was hired to forge agreements and partnerships with U.S. publishers. The draw for users and publishers, he argued, is SmartNews’s selection algorithm, which sorts through 10 million URLs a day and chooses about a thousand stories, based on a number of social and other algorithmic cues, to be displayed. In fact, smart personalization and the ability to tailor what’s seen to the user’s interests, is a prized feature on many of these aggregation apps.

Roman Karachinsky, the CEO of News360, told me that his company conducted research a few years ago, prior to launching its app, on user news consumption. “They spend half the time filtering and half the time reading and consuming,” he said. “And we thought that was completely lopsided. People don’t want to spend half their time looking at headlines and deciding’ ‘Do I want to read this or not?’ They want to see headlines that are all interesting. The research showed that only about 20 percent of the headlines in your feed during the day are something you’re interested in, while 80 percent was stuff that you needed to filter out.”

Allowing the user to pick what topics she’s interested in, he said, is only half the battle, because users are notoriously bad at articulating their preferences. With News360, every action you take, whether it’s more passive signals like opening and scrolling through a story, or more active indications like giving an article a thumbs up or thumbs down, affects what content you see. And it’s the ability to serve up the most relevant content to an individual user, Karachinsky believes, that will differentiate one aggregation app from the other. “Once you get past the initial hurdles of having a great [user interface], having enough content partners, those are not super difficult to achieve,” he said. “The thing that’s going to set each of us apart is the algorithm.”

Karachinsky may have been underestimating the role of which content these apps have access to and how that content is displayed in determining how valuable the app truly is. Because most of these companies are only a few years old, there’s still no standard approach to how a news aggregation app handles content and how it pays for it.  Some host nearly all their content within the app itself, while others just produce headlines and summaries and link directly to the news website. Others straddle the line between copyright infringement and fair use by allowing the user to choose a stripped-down version of an article within the app.

Nearly all the apps I researched for this article offer some kind of revenue share to their partners, rather than paying a set fee to license it. SmartNews, for instance, turns over 100 percent of ad revenue that appears on article pages to the publisher and plans to make money for itself by placing ads on the channel sections (where the headlines are displayed) of the app. News Republic, a France-based company, offers a 50 percent cut of ad revenue to publishers.

Sasha Pave, vice president of marketing at News Republic, told me that, because the user experience is better in these mobile aggregation apps, they can offer much higher engagement numbers than a publisher can achieve in its own standalone app. News Republic has about 10 million monthly users, a relatively small number compared to the desktop audiences of many major news outlets, but these users consume over 300 million pages a month and most flip through 15 to 30 pages per session, on average. Most publishers consider themselves lucky if they can get their website bounce rate below 80 percent.

Pave explained how working within the app stores, where every change, no matter how minor, must be approved, makes it difficult to iterate and test out new ideas. The Huffington Post, in its early days, was famous for rolling out new features the same week they were thought up. A site built on WordPress is extremely easy to modify and test out new features on the fly. Not so for mobile apps. “The app market is really unique,” he said. “There are a million apps on iTunes and many more on Google Play. It’s a tough tough environment. You can have a huge outlet like TechCrunch develop a mobile app, and it just gets buried. They can be the top of the world on the web but on Google Play and iTunes, it’s hard to get visibility, and it’s hard to retain users. It involves a lot of coming back to very iterative development where you have to publish and deploy QA” — quality assurance testing — “whereas on the web you can do things much more quickly.”

But for those that have managed to develop that audience, it doesn’t take much arm twisting to make publishers understand the value of it. “Let’s put it this way,” said Quittner. “I don’t have to do very much convincing in my job. I can’t remember the last time I had to actually convince someone to come on to Flipboard.” To be sure, publishers haven’t completely given up on developing their own apps, as evidenced by the Washington Post’s big announcement that, under the encouragement of owner Jeff Bezos, it had developed an app that will appear pre-installed on all newly-shipped Kindle Fires. But even in cases where outlets are developing new apps, they’re doing so with aggregation in mind. In an interview with Nieman Lab, Stacy-Marie Ishmael confirmed that BuzzFeed’s future app will definitely link to outside sources. But even BuzzFeed, which has mastered the art of viral marketing, is a content partner on Flipboard. It seems the king of listsicles can’t resist Flipboard’s massive audience. As Jaroslovsky put it to me, “You can’t sit back and say the world will beat a path to my site. I think those days are gone and I don’t think they’re coming back.”


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