Tag Archives: journalism

I spent several weeks using chatbots for news and they suck

With the growth chat apps like Facebook Messenger, Whatsapp, and Snapchat, we started to hear a lot of buzz last year about the rise of chatbots, which are accounts you can subscribe to within Facebook Messenger and chat with an AI that’s geared toward a specific task. Several news organizations launched their own chatbots, so a few weeks ago I subscribed to bots from the Wall Street Journal, TechCrunch, and Complex Magazine. They all sucked. I explain why in the video below.

 

Has Medium lost its way?

If you’re a longtime Medium user like I am, you’ve likely noticed a number of drastic changes to the platform in recent years. At first, the site put significant resources toward producing original journalism on the platform. Then it spun off its homegrown publications and started focusing on luring established media companies to adopt its CMS. It also launched a native advertising program, only to abruptly shutter it and lay off a third of the company’s workforce. Just recently it launched a paid subscription service and drastically revamped its homepage feed. So what is with all these changes? Has the company figured out where it fits in the marketplace, or is it flailing about, still looking for a sustainable business model? To answer this question, I interviewed Renan Borelli, director of audience development at MTV News. Enjoy.

How I leveraged my journalism skills for a career in content marketing

typing

From time to time I’ll be speaking to someone I’ve never met before, and the “What do you?” question comes up. I’ve always struggled to answer. If I tell the person I’m a journalist, then invariably the next question is, “What publication do you work for?” Simply telling people I work in marketing could mean a variety of things depending on how familiar the person is with that industry. Well, though I haven’t thought up a more concise way to sum up my career, I now at least have an article I can point them to that discusses it at length. MediaShift asked me to write a first-person essay on how I leveraged my journalism skills for a career in content marketing. Here is the end result:

Why Freelance Journalists are Shifting Their Careers to Content Marketing

Silicon Valley once steered clear of original content. What changed?

apple tv

By the time news outlets began reporting that Apple is actively negotiating with Hollywood executives to produce exclusive programming for its fledgling television platform, none of us seemed surprised that a major tech company would invest so much money in original content.

If anything, Apple is late to the party. In 2011, Netflix, which until then had been just a tech platform that allowed one to stream already-released movies and old seasons of television shows, plopped hundreds of millions of dollars into the creation of premium shows, greenlighting them before even seeing a pilot. Amazon wasn’t far behind, launching a bevy of shows to mixed reviews. In 2012, YouTube shelled out $100 million to both lure established media companies onto its platform and allow its already-existing stars to up their games. These days, not a week goes by without a major tech company announcing a major content play, whether it’s Yahoo’s resurrection of the show Community or Facebook’s offering of huge advances to YouTube stars in order to entice them onto its native video platform. Twitter recently attempted to purchase the millennial news site Mic, and prominent venture capitalists have bought huge stakes in companies like BuzzFeed, Vice, and Vox, valuing these news outlets in the billions of dollars.

Viewing all this activity, it’s hard to believe that, a mere decade ago, the tech sector considered original content anathema to everything it stood for, a vestigial hangover from the days when the barrier to entry for content production and distribution was relatively high and therefore lucrative.

Circa 2007 – 2008, the practice of creating original content seemed to be a dying profession. The music industry had been completely eviscerated in the wake of Napster and other file-sharing programs. Newspapers were well into their decline, already kneecapped by Craigslist and facing a print advertising exodus. Magazines weren’t far behind them. The book industry, while not exactly suffering, wasn’t thriving either, with most sales coalescing into a handful of conglomerates who were already bracing themselves to have their asses handed to them by Amazon. The television industry seemed relatively sturdy but most assumed its day of reckoning would eventually come.

This is when we saw the rise of platforms that were fueled primarily by user generated content. First Myspace, and then later Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. Media companies that were suffering looked at Keyboard Cat and assumed that this was the future of content, and Silicon Valley didn’t seem to disagree. Original content was expensive and difficult to scale effectively; why hire 60 journalists to create content when you could spend that money on 30 engineers who would then build a platform on which millions of users would generate content for free?

So what changed? Why are we seeing the sudden emphasis on premium programming in a world where everyone with a GoPro seems willing to upload their videos for no payment?

Well, it turns out that original content actually is scalable, particularly when it’s hosted on the right tech platform. Netflix just announced in July that it had reached 65 million subscribers, a number that would have been difficult to attain when it was merely licensing reruns, especially as other low-cost streaming services have entered the market. And sure, it’s possible that your amateur video of cat could hit the viral stratosphere, but most don’t, whereas YouTube stars can guarantee millions of views for each video posted. The majority of BuzzFeed listicles reach at least a million views, which means that your average BuzzFeed staffer can reach an audience that’s similar in size to The Daily Show’s.

And though viewers have flocked to user-generated content, advertisers still prefer premium programming, especially if it attracts hard-to-reach demographics. The critically-acclaimed USA Network show Mr. Robot only attracts about 3 million viewers per episode, a mediocre turnout when compared to the network’s other hit shows, but it’s having to beat away advertisers with a stick. “It’s a hot property right now,” network president Chris McCumber told New York Magazine. “We have more demand than we can handle for Mr. Robot, and it’s bringing in new advertisers.” And with brands increasingly shifting budgets toward native advertising and away from display, it suddenly behooves tech platforms to have in-house content expertise.

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Finally, tech companies have discovered that exclusive content is a great way to lock users into a platform. A decade ago, there were only a handful of social networks that had the millions of users needed to effectively scale user generated content. Now let’s consider the number of platforms today that have at least 50 million active users: Facebook, Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Instagram, Snapchat, Tumblr, WhatsApp, Foursquare, YouTube, Flipboard. I’m likely just scratching the surface.

We now have dozens of networks competing for our attention, and our loyalty to any one platform is tenuous at best. Exclusive content, even if it makes up a relatively small percentage of the content posted to the platform, gives us that much more incentive to choose one platform over the other. Medium, the blogging platform launched by Twitter co-founder Ev Williams, employed this strategy well when it hired top-tier freelance journalists to write on its network before opening it up to the masses (I and call this the “mullet strategy”). Of course, nobody has capitalized on this approach better than Netflix, which is now spending north of $700 million on content you can’t watch without a Netflix subscription.

The question now is how traditional media companies, many of which have been producing original content for decades, will respond. Already we’re starting to seeing seismic shifts in the media landscape, whether it’s HBO launching a standalone app or magazines like Forbes transforming themselves into platforms. News companies are also inking content distribution deals on platforms like Facebook and Flipboard with promises of revenue sharing.

Perhaps the late David Carr was right when he said, in 2012, that “big news is still the killer app,” by which he meant original content. Given how much we keep hearing about the current “golden age of television” and the rise of millennial-focused news companies that are reaching billion dollar valuations, I can’t help but agree. A new dawn is upon us, and if you’re a content producer like myself, then take a few moments to rejoice.

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Lessons I learned during a year of self-employment

simon blogging

July 31, 2014. That’s the day I walked away from my PR and marketing job with a steady paycheck and into a life of self-employment and uncertainty. It wasn’t that I disliked the people with whom I worked; I still remain good friends with many of them today, and there are times when I see their office Instagram photos and miss the daily camaraderie that was always a cubicle away.

But the truth is that I was bored, and by being the middle cog in a small bureaucracy I knew I wasn’t stretching myself to my full potential. My background is in journalism, and even though I now made my living in marketing, I wanted the greater freedom to write more regularly and then leverage my journalistic brand to advance my career.

I was also in a unique position that allowed me to capitalize on my content marketing background. I’ve spent roughly half my career in journalism and the other half in marketing, so I’ve watched firsthand as brands have grown hungrier and hungrier for high-quality storytelling and thought leadership. With display advertising becoming increasingly ineffective, companies and executives are desperate to find journalists who know how to leverage their reporting skills to reach and inform the core demographics a brand wants to influence, whether it’s on a company blog, through social media, or via an established media brand that publishes guest columns.

Well, it’s been a year. And during that time I’ve managed to 1) generate a steady stream of clients, many of whom pay me to ghostwrite thought leadership articles for their executives, and, more important, 2) make enough money so that I’m not currently in danger of eviction.

I also learned a few lessons about self-employment, many of which I hadn’t anticipated when I put in my notice a year ago. So I thought I’d collect a few of them here in case a person reading this is thinking about striking out alone and could use a good reality check:

Self-employment is incredibly lonely

There’s a reason why many self-employed people try to create a facsimile of office life by joining a coworking space, and that’s because rolling out of bed every morning and walking the 10 feet to a desk in your apartment gets old pretty quickly. Unfortunately, I didn’t have much client work lined up when I quit my job and didn’t feel comfortable shelling out an additional $500 a month for a coworking desk when I was living entirely off savings. So instead I endured entire workdays in which I didn’t come into contact with a single human being. This was only exacerbated when winter set in and I had even less incentive to leave my home.

Eventually, I started making more of an effort to get out, whether that meant going to a coffee shop twice a week or meeting colleagues for lunch. But both of these options have downsides. It can be incredibly difficult to be productive in a coffee shop; it only takes one screaming toddler to ruin your concentration, and it turns out moms really love taking their screaming toddlers to coffee shops. Meeting colleagues for lunch is great because you get to squeeze both networking and socializing into one meeting, but the time it takes up during your work day, including traveling both to and from the lunch spot, often makes it difficult to get much else done on those days.

You don’t get paid for a lot of the work you do

I charge many of my clients by the hour, and when I started out I assumed I would eventually reach a point where I was logging nearly 40 hours a week in client work. In reality, even on a busy week, I’m lucky if I can fit in 20 to 25 hours of actual client work on top of everything else I have to do as part of my job.

It turns out that self-employed people have to put up with a lot of bullshit they don’t get paid for. For instance, in the month of July I spent hours and hours talking on the phone or meeting with potential clients, and then many more hours crafting proposals for them. But only a small number of those phone calls and proposals convert into actual client work, meaning much of that time was completely wasted.

I also try to squeeze in as much time as possible for my own writing, but many of these articles (like the one you’re reading now) I don’t get paid for. So why spend so much time on them? Well, for one, I love writing, and one of the reasons I quit my job was so that I’d have more time to do it. But also my writing serves as a form of marketing; many of my clients have come in after reading articles like this one.

Then there’s the administrative stuff that doesn’t count as client work. Think invoicing, visiting the bank to deposit checks, going to Kinkos to print and scan contracts. That adds up to a lot of busy work.

Finally, you have your general “screwing around” time you always take for granted at a salaried position. You know, that half hour you spend every day surfing Facebook and Reddit? Turns out you still want to do that stuff when you’re self-employed, only you feel a lot more guilty doing it because it’s detracting from the time spent doing things you actually get paid for.

You have to take on every facet of the business

You know the administrative stuff I mentioned above? The nice thing about working at a firm with dozens of employees is that different people handle different parts of the business so you can focus more on your actual core job. For instance, whenever a client didn’t pay the firm we had a team of accountants and lawyers who would hound the company or person until they paid up.

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Working for myself, I have to take on this ugly work myself. At one point, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur hired me to do some marketing work for his mobile app, but when I billed him and then later sent him reminder emails about payment, he always had an excuse. It became clockwork; I’d email him a reminder gently asking him about payment, he’d offer up an excuse about cash burn-rates and then promise to send a check. Flash forward a month later, then repeat. Eventually he stopped even bothering to answer my emails, so I had to figure out how to file a small claims lawsuit, print up all the documents, and then travel down to the courthouse to hand them to the clerk. But then, a few days before a judge was set to hear the case, I learned the court date was canceled because they hadn’t been able to find the guy and serve him the papers. Finally, I just sent the guy an email threatening to contact ValleyWag and convince the publication to do a story on how the startup guy and his investors were screwing employees. Lo and behold, the money was wired to my bank account within 24 hours, but of course I didn’t get paid for all the additional time I’d spent trying to collect the money I was owed.

Self-employment is an emotional rollercoaster

Friends and family who have known me for a long time would never describe me as an optimist, but for the most part I’ve managed to maintain a healthy outlook on life. But for the past several months, I’ve rapidly vacillated through an entire kaleidoscope of emotions, including confidence, doubt, depression, stress, relief, anger, and despair. There are times in which I experience all these feelings in a single day. For the most part, these emotions have been completely irrational, seeing as how I’ve been able to make ends meet without too much trouble, but they still plague me anyway. I have a feeling this situation will become more subdued as time goes on, but I doubt it’ll ever completely go away.

You don’t have as much freedom as you’d think

Quitting my day job wasn’t just about improving my career, I also envisioned it improving all other aspects of my life. Because I’d be mostly working from home I could fix my own food and therefore eat healthier (and lose weight in the process). I’d set my own schedule, meaning I could take time during the day to clean my apartment, go grocery shopping, do laundry, or the dozens of other things we always have to put off until the weekend. In all, I planned to become a more well-rounded adult.

Flash forward to 12 months later. It turns out that all that stuff I’d had to put off until nights and weekends still didn’t get done until nights and weekends. I still only clean my apartment about once a week, usually on Saturdays, and because I spend more time in it now it actually gets dirtier. I’ve somehow managed to gain weight despite eating from home more often and getting plenty of exercise.

Basically, even though you can technically set your own schedule, you still end up working normal business hours. That’s because most of your clients work during those hours and friends and loved ones want to hang out at night. Usually if I end up working at night, it’s only because I spent too much time during the day screwing around on Facebook, not because I took the opportunity to tackle chores.

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You’ve probably noticed all the “lessons” I listed above are mostly negative. Well, I think that’s because most people are overly optimistic about what it would be like to work for themselves, and it’s better to understand all the downsides before taking the plunge. Would I still have gone the self-employment route if I knew everything I know today? Definitely; I still maintain that I had stagnated at my old job and was in need of a good jolt. I also would have done a lot of things differently, like focusing on securing clients earlier instead of spending so much time (and savings) building up my journalistic brand.

Overall, I think I’m lucky in that I’m self-motivated enough to force myself out of bed every morning and I have a good support system of friends and family to help me get through the more difficult parts. I can’t say whether a year from now I’ll still be self-employed, but I do know that if I take a salaried position it’ll be from a better vantage point, one that will allow me to utilize my entire skillset, including the learnings I’ve picked up while fending for myself. I’ll always be glad I took the opportunity to wander off into the wilderness, even though I got snagged in a few thorn bushes along the way.

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The problem every news aggregation app faces

circa

Back in the December, I profiled the cadre of companies — ranging from Flipboard to SmartNews to News360 — that aim to be your one-stop mobile destination for news. While interviewing their founders and marketing teams, I listened as each company made claims as to the level of customization it offered, customization so refined you wouldn’t waste time scrolling through headlines that didn’t interest you. An app’s machine learning algorithm would monitor your browsing habits, and through this accumulation of data it could discern the unique elements of your taste and information needs.

But as I downloaded and tried out each app for myself, I found it difficult to detect any differentiating factor that led me to conclude the app had truly gotten to know me. Sure, I came across headlines that interested me, based in part on the broad categories I checked off when first launching the app, but the signal to noise ratio wasn’t any better than if I had visited the homepage of any major news publication. None of the apps became a daily habit in the same way that apps like Facebook, Twitter, and email compel me to open them whenever I’m staring at my phone.

The problem is that news tastes go beyond mere categories and keywords. Sometimes I read a piece not because it’s on a certain topic but because it was written by someone whose writing I admire. Other times I might be interested in coverage of a particular company, but only for specific aspects of it. I could care less about Apple hardware news but gobble up information about its various content and software plays on mobile. But clicking on an article about Apple’s streaming music service merely signals to the app I care about Apple and music (I actually hardly listen to any music). I’m not sure that any nuance beyond those broad categories is actually possible at this point.

The chief problem I have with many news apps is they don’t deliver the level of customization that I can get on Twitter, Facebook, and other social networks. I launched my Twitter account in late 2008. In the intervening years I’ve accumulated a list of over 700 people whom I follow, and for a significant portion of those people I wouldn’t be able to remember my reasoning for following them. In some cases they’re colleagues I’ve worked with. In others they’re writers and journalists I admire. But there are still plenty more I followed because something in their profile caught my eye or they authored an article I enjoyed but have long since forgotten.

But despite not having a complete understanding of all my follow choices, my Twitter feed is a well-oiled machine, one that produces a rich tapestry of news and commentary (and plenty of jokes) every time I open it. In addition to providing an excellent source of news aggregation, it also allows the people I follow to offer a layer of commentary over that news. They can improve upon headlines and unearth interesting stats that are buried deep within an article. These are features a machine algorithm, no matter how finely tuned, can’t duplicate.

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Since I wrote that article, a number of new news aggregation apps — including one from BuzzFeed — have entered the market. At least one major player, Circa, has ceased operation. And Apple itself is launching its own standalone app, this one likely to be featured as a default on the homescreen. It seems clear that Silicon Valley has convinced itself there is a market need for these news apps. But I find myself agreeing with Paul Cantor, who wrote a piece recently arguing that “nobody goes on the internet to read.” What he means is that nobody opens up an internet browser the same way they open a book or a magazine. They go to the internet as a point of reference, to seek out specific information or to be entertained. Yes, in the process of this browsing they may come across news articles and videos, but these are simply byproducts of a larger ecosystem that includes your friends’ baby photos, dispatches from Weird Twitter, and YouTube videos on how to install kitchen tile. To divorce news from these other offerings is to ignore the very reason we open apps or log on to social platforms. And no algorithm, no matter how personalized, can supersede that.

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Image via ReadWrite

Stop acting like the Facebook Instant Articles tool is something novel

facebook trojan horse

This is the week when independent journalism finally died. Or so you would think, given the reaction to Facebook unveiling its “Instant Articles” tool, which will allow select publishers to host their content directly within the Facebook mobile app, thereby speeding up load times and reducing friction between the massive social network and the content its users link to. Not since Neville Chamberlain ceded Czechoslovakia to Germany have we seen such dire warnings of the consequences of appeasement.

From the moment the late David Carr reported that Facebook was courting publishers for in-app posting we’ve been inundated with proclamations of a Faustian bargain, one in which Facebook, already the dominant force in web traffic for news publishers, gains final control over distribution and then uses that leverage to squeeze publishers dry. By giving preferential treatment to its initial partners, it would quickly force all other publishers onto Facebook Instant, a scenario that would eventually allow it to control all content delivery on the web. Heeding these warnings, initial partners like the New York Times aggressively negotiated the terms to ensure they retain valuable user data and receive 100 percent of the revenue for ads they sell themselves and 70 percent for ads Facebook sells.

This has done little to assuage the doomsayers. Writing in The Awl, John Herrman predicted that “almost any arrangements, formal or informal, between Facebook and publishers could be declared invalid or irrelevant whenever Facebook chooses, especially if Facebook’s macro internet situation changes.” Contently declared that “This isn’t just a Trojan horse; this is a Trojan horse draped in gold chains and being ridden by Beyoncé.” A widely-distributed web comic depicts Mark Zuckerberg as a spider luring unsuspecting publications into his web.

spider

Lost in all these hyperbolic predictions of the coming apocalypse is that there is absolutely nothing novel or new about a company handling the distribution and placement of content created by another company.

Let’s start with the pre-internet days. For more than a century, the New York Times and other newspapers have relied on newsstands, convenience stores, and other places of business in order to sell a sizable portion of each day’s newspapers. These papers have no say as to where their publications are displayed within, say, a 7/11, nor do they retain any data about who is actually walking into the 7/11 and purchasing the paper. Yet if the New York Times were to suddenly announce it was inking a detail to have its print papers distributed in CVS stores all across the country, nobody would accuse it of making a deal with the devil.

Or take newspaper syndication, which adopts basically the exact same structure offered by Facebook Instant. For decades newspapers have been syndicating columns and wire content from other sources, placing that content in their own publications. The content creators — whether it’s Dear Abby or the Associated Press — supply writing to these newspapers and magazines with the full knowledge that the newspapers will place the columns wherever they see fit, whether it’s the front page or the back of a subsection.

This isn’t a new concept for the web either. When I was an editor at US News & World Report, we regularly syndicated our content to Yahoo News. As far as I knew there was no actual revenue exchanged for this transaction; we received value by placing “related” links within the body of the articles with the hope that a small portion of Yahoo’s massive readership would click over into our other articles. When it comes to mobile, Flipboard and other apps like it have ongoing partnerships with hundreds of publications that allow them to repackage content in an aesthetic, easy-to-load format. Like Facebook Instant, these apps offer up revenue share on ads sold. Combined, they have hundreds of millions of users.

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In nearly all these cases, the publications syndicating out the content are ceding control to distributors and in return they receive almost no data on the users consuming their content, outside maybe raw traffic numbers. Why then are we holding Facebook to a double standard and treating it as anything other than a syndicator of content?

The only difference between Facebook Instant and the examples above is that Facebook has reached a scale never seen before, and there’s this ongoing worry that it will one day crush the open web and envelop the entire internet within its closed, tightly-regulated garden. It also doesn’t help that the Facebook newsfeed, by picking winners and losers, has instilled a high level of paranoia and distrust within in the news media.

But it’s worth remembering that Facebook, while remaining a very large component of the internet, by no means encompasses the entirety of our online lives, and there’s still a lot of media consumption that happens outside of it, whether it’s browsing articles on the open web, perusing through Flipboard, watching television, or reading a print book. I’ve argued before that social media editors have become too obsessed with Facebook reach and I’ve also praised BuzzFeed for how it has diversified its distribution so that it’s not too reliant on Facebook. Ultimately, I think that Facebook, while not completely benevolent, has genuine interest in serving up high quality content to its users, if only to ensure that they stay engaged and coming back to Facebook. Letting Facebook host some of your content will not be the end of independent journalism and it won’t prove the downfall of your company. That is, as long as you continue to provide true value to your readers by serving up what we all crave: good content.

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