Tag Archives: journalism

The problem every news aggregation app faces


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.


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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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.

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Why are tech companies scrambling to create original content?

Hand Drawing Content Flow Chart

For the longest time it seemed major tech platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Google wanted nothing to do with professional publishing, and by that I mean hiring professional content creators, i.e. journalists, to create polished media content. Why? Because Silicon Valley hates anything that doesn’t scale. Original content creation is labor intensive, expensive, and can’t be automated with code. The content created has a limited shelf-life, thereby decreasing the longterm ROI for the labor devoted to it.

You can see this philosophy reflected in how media companies have framed themselves to Silicon Valley investors, and by that I mean they’re attempting to pretend they aren’t media companies at all. BuzzFeed, when announcing a $50 million investment from Andreessen Horowitz, described itself as a company with “technology at its core,” and one of the investors compared it to Tesla and Uber. We’ve also seen the rise of the “platisher,” which is a media company that tries to create a platform for user-generated content (for instance, Forbes’ massive contributor network) so it can scale well beyond the limits of its paid editorial staff.

Why, then, have we recently seen tech behemoths, most of which already boast hundreds of millions of users, trying to enter the original content game? In some cases this has meant merely opening up their platforms so media companies can host longform content directly to them, as is the case with Facebook and Snapchat. Both have entered into partnerships with major news orgs to host content directly within their app ecosystem in exchange for a share in revenue for any ads sold against that content.

But other tech companies are wading expressly into original content creation, either by hiring journalists and artists to produce exclusive work for these companies’ platforms or by outright buying up entire media companies. The most obvious example is Medium, the blogging platform headed by Twitter co-founder Ev Williams. Though anyone can create a blog on Medium (and many do, including me), the company also employs editors and freelance journalists to produce magazine-like publications (my favorite is Backchannel, edited by Steven Levy).

A few months ago, Reddit launched a professionally-produced podcast, then followed it up with a curated email, and is now employing a team of videographers to produce original video. Business Insider recently reported that Twitter has made attempts to purchase Mic, the policy-oriented news site that’s geared toward millennials. Facebook and YouTube, both at war for top video talent, have dished out millions of dollars to entice creators into producing video exclusively for their platforms. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos decided it was worth $250 million of his own money to buy up the Washington Post and now Verizon is purchasing AOL, which has transformed itself from a platform to a media-oriented content company, for $4.4 billion.

So why are tech companies suddenly interested in labor-intensive, unscalable content creation? My guess is that it has something to do with a combination of the 80/20 rule and the 1 percent rule. Both embrace the idea that the most influential users on any platform make up a tiny percentage of the overall user population. It’s no secret that the media represents disproportionate influence on major social media sites like Twitter, both in terms of branded news org accounts and the personal accounts of their reporters.


As I’ve written before in regard to Medium, tech platforms will sometimes use what is called a “mullet strategy” (business in the front, party in the back) by commissioning high quality content to attract readers with the hope that some of those readers will stick around to launch and run their own user accounts on the platform.  As I wrote in November, “You’re essentially paying those early influencers to populate your network with content with the hope that the masses will come clamoring to join the club.”

This is why YouTube is shelling out money to keep its stars under its own roof. One could argue that losing a few YouTube personalities wouldn’t matter for a platform that has over 1 billion users who upload 300 hours of video to its platform each minute, but YouTube realizes these stars are the foundation on which the entire network stands. If they were to suddenly leave for Tumblr or Facebook’s video platform, then many of their fans will also begin uploading video content to these platforms, thereby planting the seeds that could grow into a massive user base. Influencers matter, and these tech platforms realize that sometimes you need to pay to keep the influencers from decamping.

So perhaps the notion that original content creation can’t scale is outdated. Instead, it is a means to an end, a way to keep the business flowing in the front so that the unwashed masses of amateur users can be lured into joining the party in the back. Old media isn’t dead after all; it’s just now used as bait.


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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.

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Most PR flacks are terrible at their jobs


Look at the email inbox of any reporter and you’re likely to see a graveyard of bad pitches from public relations specialists, the detritus that comes as a result of a low barrier to entry and a fundamental misunderstanding of the very people they’re pitching. Having spoken to other journalists about this phenomena, I know I’m not the only one who, upon opening such pitches, feels a small sliver of pity for these robotrons and their overpaying clients before I send their neutered, lifeless copy to the trash bin.

Perhaps I’m naive, but I feel like there are few industries other than PR where there’s such a concentration at the bottom, a nine to one ratio of bad to good. Most of this poor quality, I think, comes from outright laziness, an unwillingness to put in the actual research to understand the journalists these flacks are pitching before they hit the send button.

Many don’t even take a moment to check to see what you actually cover. Instead, most of them subscribe to massive databases that collect reporter contact information and sort them by broad categories like tech, energy, or finance. Though I often write about tech, an even cursory look at my article output would reveal that I don’t ever write about new product launches, and yet I receive dozens of pitches each week from flacks representing products I would never cover.

The very worst flacks decide to place you on mailing list you never asked to be subscribed to and blast out every press release they produce. Over the past 10 days I’ve received three emails from the same marketer trying to get me to write about a device that cracks coconuts. Coconuts!

Of course for most journalists, these pitches are little more than a minor annoyance (though god forbid your phone number gets circulated on these PR databases. Then you start getting phone calls asking if you received their press releases). The real victims are the clients. Unlike most other industries that create concrete deliverables — an advertising agency, for instance, actually produces a finished ad and places it — the only deliverables in PR are when they secure media placements. This makes it extremely difficult for potential clients to vet the firm prior to hiring them, meaning these clients must rely on the firm’s claims as to what relationships and success it’s had in pitching stories.

And hiring a PR firm is expensive. For any account you’re hiring at least one senior executive and a low-level minion who will do the brunt of the work.  For a small firm you need to pay a minimum of $10,000 to even make it worth their time, and for a larger firm they won’t even pick up the phone for less than $30,000.

Even when they do get placements it’s not a terribly efficient use of a client’s money. Oftentimes, a media placement means that a company executive gets interviewed and quoted for a sentence or two in the middle of an article. Sure, it strokes the client’s ego to be quoted, but how much brand penetration are you getting when you contribute 10 words to a 1,000-word article, and were those 10 words worth $10,000?


This is why we’ve seen a growing shift toward content marketing. Rather than clamoring for journalists to cover you, you can actually compete with those journalists as an informational resource. Instead of getting a brief mention in a long article, you’ve authored the entire piece of content yourself and it’ll appear alongside your branding. There are much more concrete deliverables and measurements associated with content marketing. You not only have a completed piece of content, but it’s much easier to measure its impact in terms of traffic driven and lead conversion.

Meanwhile, the state of PR pitching only continues to get worse. It used to be that, at the very least, the product being pitched to you actually existed. But now with the rise of crowdfunding websites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo our inboxes are flooded with pitches for half-baked ideas and products that aren’t on the market and may never be. Whatever abuse my email inbox has received in recent years, the worst is still to come.


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Will the FTC soon rain on native advertising’s parade?


In late March, CUNY journalism professor Jeff Jarvis reached into his own pocket and paid for a Google Consumer Survey, the results of which should concern anyone who works within the journalism or advertising industry. He did so after browsing the viral aggregation site Upworthy and noticing a miniscule “promoted” tag on the righthand corner of one of its posts. You and I know what that word means — that it’s a form of native advertising, which is paid-for content that appears alongside and resembles editorial content — but does the average news consumer?

No. In fact, a majority of those surveyed, 56 percent, had no idea that any money had exchanged hands for the post’s existence (most thought it was some sort of recommendation, either by algorithm or from the site’s editors). “Wouldn’t it be a helluvalot simpler just to call it an ad?” Jarvis asked rhetorically. “Why don’t they? Why doesn’t any publisher of such promoted/native/sponsored/brand content just call it an ad? Because busy people don’t want to click on ads; if the web proves nothing else, it proves that. So they—publisher and marketer, united—want to fool the reader into clicking.”

Jarvis isn’t the first to notice this obfuscation. Last year, Augie Ray pointed to several studies that shed light on the opacity of native advertising, including an Interactive Advertising Bureau survey that found only 41 percent of the general news audience was able to identify native advertising and a 2013 study revealing that over 50 percent of respondents “didn’t know what the word ‘sponsored’ actually meant.”

These studies come to us as we continue to contemplate whether native advertising is the news industry’s “savior,” here to rescue news orgs from ever-diminishing display ad rates. Over the past few years nearly every major news company has launched an in-house “creative agency” that works directly with sponsors to craft promotional content it thinks will appeal to the publication’s readership. Yahoo CEO’s Marissa Mayer has reportedly staked the future of her company on native advertising and the format now makes up 10 percent of the New York Times’s digital advertising revenue.

Thus far, the industry has galloped into this new frontier, treating it as a sort of Wild West where the chief concern is delivering value to the paying advertiser, even if it’s to the detriment of the consumer. As AdAge reported last year, the New York Times “shrunk the labels that distinguish articles bought by advertisers from articles generated in its newsroom and made the language in the labels less explicit,” all because “several marketers have bristled at all the labeling, suggesting it turned away readers before they had a chance to judge the content based on its quality.”

But just as the Wild West eventually reached a saturation point that required more strident law and order, native advertising, in its near-universal application, may be soon facing its own reckoning, in this case from the Federal Trade Commission.

Many mistakenly believe that a piece of advertising meets FTC requirements as long as there’s some form of disclosure, but that’s not true. In fact, the burden is much higher: the disclosure must be sufficient so that the average consumer recognizes it as paid content, and such recognition occurs prior to them consuming it. As I’ve documented previously, the agency has a long history of stepping in and ruling a disclosure insufficient, and it sometimes offers specific guidelines on how the disclosure should be presented.  Barry Cutler, who was director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection from 1990 to 1993, recounted to me last year how the agency cracked down on infomercials in the 80s and 90s that purported to show man-on-the-street interviews with satisfied customers and scientists in lab coats endorsing products. As Augie Ray explained, the FTC requires infomercials to include the words “‘THE PROGRAM YOU ARE WATCHING IS A PAID ADVERTISEMENT FOR [NAME OF PRODUCT]'” at their start.

Over the last decade, the FTC has slowly waded into internet advertising, issuing several guidelines ranging from how a disclosure should be presented in a sponsored tweet to the requirement that bloggers disclose when they’ve received free products in exchange for reviews.

But so far it has remained reluctant to issue any firm guidelines for native advertising. A workshop conducted in late 2013 with several major news orgs left the agency “with no clear direction about how to police” the format. Considering that one of its earliest cases, in 1917, was against a vacuum cleaner company that placed misleading newspaper ads, the agency certainly has precedent on its side when wading into such issues, but the 2013 meeting merely led an FTC representative to conclude that “this has raised more questions than it answered.”


Well, it may need to answer those questions sooner rather than later, given that in recent months we’ve seen strong evidence that native advertising is not only making it difficult for consumers to differentiate between editorial and sponsorships, it’s also eroding the wall between the editorial and business divisions of news companies.

In October, a former Vice editor published emails sent from higher-ups in which he, the editor, was repeatedly reprimanded for publishing stories critical of Vice’s native ad partners. And then recently, BuzzFeed, considered to have one of the most successful native ad models in the industry, came under fire for removing a post critical of Dove, a BuzzFeed sponsor. Though editors initially argued the post was removed for other reasons, an internal investigation revealed several instances in which editorial staffers were pressured by the business staff into removing posts.

Is it possible that this could have happened had the sponsors simply purchased standard display ads? Sure. But it’s not difficult to see how creating sponsored content that so closely resembles editorial content erodes the differentiation not only in consumers’ eyes, but in the eyes of newspaper executives as well. And with these companies facing increasing pressure to make up for lost print advertising dollars, the erosion of that wall may prove too tempting to overcome. While no industry welcomes the oversight and enforcement of the FTC, I can’t help but wonder if many editors and reporters would breathe a sigh of relief if the agency suddenly stepped in and ensured that their journalism would continue to retain integrity in a world where marketers are concerned with anything but.


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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.

How a hobby foreign affairs blog became a paywalled news destination

Hampton Stephens, founder of World Politics Review

Hampton Stephens, founder of World Politics Review

Like many journalism startups to emerge in recent years, World Politics Review came about simply because the kind of reporting its founder was interested in didn’t really exist at most traditional media outlets. “I was trying to publish op-eds in various newspapers,” Hampton Stephens told me in a phone interview. “And I was struck that there weren’t many outlets for the kind of analytical writing about international affairs I wanted to do.” He launched the site in 2006 when he was earning a graduate degree in international affairs, and though he had no initial business model, he also wasn’t a newcomer to professional journalism; Stephens took a job out of college in the marketing department at the National Journal and, after getting the reporting bug, went on to write for several publications, including a newsletter for the defense industry.

In those early days, Stephens populated World Politics Review with his own writing, as well as contributions from people he knew from his reporting background and grad school. By 2007, however, he had decided he wanted to turn the fledgling site into a mature business, and so began commissioning pieces for about $100 a column. “We had great success early on attracting a lot of contributors, which kind of validated my idea that there was a dearth of outlets for these people who wanted to do this kind of analytical writing.” But he was also “incredibly naive,” as he put it, because he initially thought he could achieve profitability by simply selling ads. This was before the Great Recession had eviscerated newspapers across the country. It was back when many news executives assumed they could eventually sell online display ads at the same rates as they had in print.

But the limitless supply of content on the internet drove down ad rates to such an extent that only websites with massive scale were able to sustain themselves. Though World Politics Review audience was growing, it quickly became clear that Stephens would never see the level of traffic needed to break even, much less turn a profit. He realized he would need to erect some kind of paywall, but he also knew that such a measure would inhibit his ability to market the site’s content. So, several years before the New York Times introduced the concept of a “leaky paywall,” one that’s being widely emulated by other news companies, Stephens began to roll out his own porous subscription service.”A lot of our traffic is coming from search engines, and we want people to get a taste of the first article,” said Stephens. “So for that first click [from Google] they get the whole article, and if they click to another article then they hit the paywall.” The same goes for any inbound referrals from Twitter or Facebook. “We do know people who abuse that. We know there are people who are following us on Twitter on a daily basis and probably clicking through to every article we publish and reading it for free, but basically we decided that’s the tradeoff you have to make.”

In 2009, armed with an investment from family members, Stephens hired an editor-in-chief and then stepped back to begin focusing solely on the business side of the company. Because World Politics Review was more niche in focus than, say, the New York Times, he understood that his core customer base would consist mainly of people who worked in some realm of international affairs — like, say, academics or NGOs — and so there was enormous potential in selling subscriptions to large institutions that employed these kinds of professionals.

Though WPR does offer individual subscriptions, at about $60 a year, more than 60 percent of the site’s subscription revenue comes from these institutions. In late 2010, Stephens signed a partnership deal with EBSCO, an information services company that sells bundled digital subscriptions for scholarly journals and other publications to universities, companies, government agencies, and nonprofits. “They have a sales force that’s calling on [these organizations], so our partnership allows us to focus on the content while they have the sales force, and we have a joint venture where we share the revenue.”

This partnership has allowed WPR to vastly expand its subscription base (the State Department, one of its largest customers, has made the site’s content accessible to 45,000 employees), but recently Stephens has begun to focus more on diversifying the company’s subscriptions so it’s not so reliant on a single partnership for distribution. He hired a part-time salesperson to begin targeting smaller institutions that aren’t on EBSCO’s radar. “If I sent [EBSCO] a hot lead, they’ll go out and call them, but for the most part they’re pitching World Politics Review to their existing customers and they’re not going out of their way to make sales calls to sell us specifically. That’s the nature of the agreement with them. We realized there’s this whole universe of smaller institutions that they’re not currently hitting.” WPR recently signed up several small NGOs and nonprofits (most of which have fewer than 50 employees) in both the US and the UK.

Stephens has also focused significant effort toward securing more individual subscribers; his goal is that they eventually make up at least 50 percent of his subscription base. To do this, he’s sought to understand who his core subscriber is and what kind of information she would need to do her job. “There are some hardcore news junkies whose job is completely unrelated to foreign affairs who subscribe, but those are definitely the exception,” he told me. “The way we approach producing the content is as though we’re producing it for people who have a professional interest in this stuff — access is an asset for doing their jobs. Whether they’re a policy maker, a risk analyst for a multinational corporation, or they’re an academic who’s teaching students or doing original research.”


WPR, Stephens argued, fits somewhere between mainstream publications like the Economist, which are writing for a more general audience, and international affairs journals that are only published quarterly and might not run a longform article until two years after it was originally submitted. “There are mainstream readers who can get something out of what we publish,” he said. “But we’re assuming a certain amount of knowledge on the part of our readers. What we’re trying to do is combine the best aspects of those mainstream publications in terms of writing shortform stuff, but also having the depth and thoughtfulness of an academic journal, but one that’s publishing daily.”

The site has four full-time editorial employees, most of whom are based in New York (the editor-in-chief, Judah Grunstein, lives in Paris) and responsible for writing one piece per week. The vast majority of their workday is spent commissioning and editing content from a network of contributors who have a wide range of subject matter expertise and live all over the world. “We pay them per piece, they’re contractors,” said Stephens. “We don’t have long-term contracts with any of them. At any given time there’s a stable of regular contributors, maybe 100 people who are contributing more than once a year.” Because most of them already have full-time jobs and are mainly focused on gaining access to WPR’s readers, Stephens only needs to pay a small honorarium to receive high-quality contributions. “I’d guess that if you compare our costs to other publications that aren’t just [aggregating content], they would be very favorable. We get a lot of bang for the buck in terms of the money we spend on content.”

Because WPR doesn’t have a “US-centric focus” — meaning international affairs aren’t covered through the lens of how they impact the US — it has strong international appeal, both among contributors and readers. “Our traffic is always a slight majority outside the United States,” said Stephens. “On any given month it’ll be 52 percent from non-US readers. Our subscribers break down probably about the same way — between 50 and 60 percent non-US and between 40 and 50 percent US-based.” This has, of course, allowed the company to target overseas NGOs and other institutions, vastly expanding its potential revenue base.

Though WPR is not yet profitable, Stephens said he hopes to be in the black by the end of this year. The question he finds himself contemplating now is how to expand once the site becomes self-sustaining. “Do we remain a niche publisher, or do we try to go big and add other services, maybe come out with regional sections and have more newsletters, and have an African service and an Asian service? I don’t know the answer to that. I’d be lying if I have a grand vision. Right now we’re just so focused on getting to profitability, and I think at that point the options really open up for us.” I asked him if he’d considered a metered paywall like the one rolled out successfully by the New York Times? Or perhaps a Wall Street Journal model where some of the site content is placed in front of the paywall? “We don’t publish enough content to have two separate tiers,” he replied. “We’re publishing basically 70 to 80 new original pieces a month, which is a significant amount, but it’s nowhere near the output of the New York Times or BuzzFeed. “If we did two tiers, would someone be willing to pay for, instead of 80 articles a month, would 40 be enough to justify a subscription?” Stephens didn’t think so.

A few hours after we got off the phone, Stephens emailed me with further thoughts on the future of World Politics Review. One of the benefits of relying on reader subscriptions rather than advertising is that it has allowed the publication to focus 100 percent on delivering value to the reader, and any future expansion must adhere to this core value. “The fact that they pay us for the service ensures that they are our real customers and that everything we do, from the integrity of our content to the usability of our site, is done with them in mind,” he wrote. “We could not build the kind of service we want to build if the majority of our revenue came from advertising. In this case, our real customers would be our advertisers and our readers would just be a product we are selling to advertisers.” For those who worry about the rise of native advertising and its potential for blurring the lines between independent journalism and sponsored content, this fidelity to readers should provide some welcome optimism for the future of journalism. The question now is whether a profitable market exists for such journalistic integrity. Stephens’s bet, to which he’s dedicated nearly a decade of his life, is that it does, and this is the year he aims to prove it.


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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.