The Guardian Mobile Lab’s latest experiment targets public transit commuters with an offline news app

Over the summer, the Guardian Mobile Innovation Lab hinted at its next experiment: improving the experience of consuming news when offline. Now it’s revealed the trial product, a news app that incorporates location sharing, content and time customizations, and user data transparency — but is only available for the next few months.

The Lab introduced LabRdr — which can apparently be pronounced like “lab reader” or “Labrador” or another general squish of consonants — on Wednesday. Designed for the public transit commuter who may lose cell service on the subway, for example, and then be left with nothing to read, the app prepares a “package” of Guardian content based on the user’s previous reads in the app and the current stories of the morning or evening. It’s delivered twice a day via push alert, at the times the user has specified they’re commuting; each package contains an amount of content that the app determines will be readable within the duration of each user’s commute.

And yep, location factors in. “We’re experimenting with making offline news reading easier and more relevant, through automatic personalizations of your reading package based on signals like your interests or, possibly in the future, your location and what’s being read nearby,” Mobile Lab editor Sasha Koren noted in the Medium announcement:

LabRdr’s approach to offline news reading is experimental, and different from existing offline news apps in a few ways: Rather than give you all current stories on every topic, it delivers only a self-contained package of Guardian articles keyed to your interests, twice a day just in time for your commute, at times you can specify.

As you use it, it learns what you like to read and delivers you content keyed to your interests. (We’re setting aside important conversations about filter bubbles for now to learn something about personalization.) In addition, we show you how we use the data you share with us, in an effort to enhance trust through transparency…

What we’re looking to learn

What makes a good content recommendation system for news? A lot of the existing work about content recommendations are around e-commerce and we’re interested in what signals are particularly good for news organizations and news reading.

We’re also looking to gauge readers’ reactions to the utility of having a short package of news defined for them for a set period of time. Without the option to read a full spectrum of articles on many topics, will they feel better informed with those they do read, or have a sense of achievement at completing a few articles in a set?

As with all our experiments, we’ll report on what we learn in follow-up posts after the app has been running for a while and we’ve collected and analyzed data and reactions.

LabRdr isn’t the first attempt at improving offline news. Way back in 2012, reading apps News.me and Instapaper both endeavored to serve the offline reader and relied on location to do so, but News.me didn’t survive a Twitter API update. Other apps like Pocket or Evernote require the readers themselves to do the legwork of saving the content for later perusing, rather than having relevant material presented to them.

Another difference is that the Mobile Lab is making an effort to share the data it collects through LabRdr. In a section of the app called the Log, you can view the tracked reading and commute patterns. “The app is a really good first step for gathering information, using it in a respectful way, and seeing how people feel about that,” said Sarah Schmalbach, co-leader of the Mobile Lab with Koren and its senior product manager. She pointed out that readers might feel different about sharing personal information with a news organization than they do about sharing it with, say, Google Maps or Amazon.

“If we can deliver news in more contextually relevant moments, then [will] that content be more valuable to the user?” wondered Connor Jennings, the app’s developer, who came up with the idea during his own frustrating experience reading offline news during his commute.

The team hopes to share its findings about reader trust, habit formation, and more with news organizations; the Mobile Lab is funded by the Knight Foundation (disclosure: Nieman Lab also receives funding from Knight) to explore solutions for the mobile news experience. But its sample will likely be restricted to those who commute using public transit, rather than people who drive, bike, or walk to work.

“It’s pretty narrow. We’re not targeting people who don’t commute; we’re not targeting people who commute by car. There’s a whole range of people we’re not gearing this toward,” Koren acknowledged.

LabRdr provides a “targeted product until we get better and deeper insights,” Schmalbach said. “We’re confident that the audience is big enough to get a big read on this content.”

Like the Mobile Lab’s other experiments — such as real-time Guardian commentary on a U.S. presidential debate via push alert; live push notifications with the Wall Street Journal — LabRdr is a temporary project. It will be removed from the App Store (it’s iPhone-only) after a couple of months.

Subway commuters by Susan Jane Golding used under a Creative Commons license.

From Nieman Reports: The powers and perils of news personalization

A new era of personalized news products began, in earnest, as a reaction to horrific global news.

Today, a Google search for news runs through the same algorithmic filtration system as any other Google search: A person’s individual search history, geographic location, and other demographic information affects what Google shows you. Exactly how your search results differ from any other person’s is a mystery, however. Not even the computer scientists who developed the algorithm could precisely reverse engineer it, given the fact that the same result can be achieved through numerous paths, and that ranking factors — deciding which results show up first — are constantly changing, as are the algorithms themselves.

We now get our news in real time, on-demand, tailored to our interests, across multiple platforms, without knowing just how much is actually personalized. It was technology companies like Google and Facebook, not traditional newsrooms, that made it so. But news organizations are increasingly betting that offering personalized content can help them draw audiences to their sites—and keep them coming back.

Personalization extends beyond how and where news organizations meet their readers. Already, smartphone users can subscribe to push notifications for the specific coverage areas that interest them. On Facebook, users can decide — to some extent — which organizations’ stories they would like to appear in their news feeds. At the same time, devices and platforms that use machine-learning to get to know their users will increasingly play a role in shaping ultra-personalized news products. Meanwhile, voice-activated artificially intelligent devices, such as Google Home and Amazon Echo, are poised to redefine the relationship between news consumers and the news.

While news personalization can help people manage information overload by making individuals’ news diets unique, it also threatens to incite filter bubbles and, in turn, bias. This “creates a bit of an echo chamber,” says Judith Donath, author of The Social Machine: Designs for Living Online and a researcher affiliated with Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society. “You get news that is designed to be palatable to you. It feeds into people’s appetite of expecting the news to be entertaining … [and] the desire to have news that’s reinforcing your beliefs, as opposed to teaching you about what’s happening in the world and helping you predict the future better.”

As data-tracking becomes more sophisticated, voice recognition software advances, and tech companies leverage personalization for profit, personalization will only become more acute. This is potentially alarming given the growth of websites — news-oriented and otherwise —inhabiting the political extremes, which on Facebook are easy to mistake for valid sources of news. When users can customize their news, and customize to these political and social extremes, civic discourse can suffer. “What’s important is how people use the news to have a discussion,” says Donath. “You may have friends or colleagues, and you read the same things in common. You may decide different things about it. Then you debate with those people. If you’re not even seeing the same news story, it leaves you with a much narrower set of people with whom you share that common ground. You’re losing the common ground of news.”

Keep reading at Nieman Reports →

U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Elisa Labbe [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Six years later, the Financial Times is back in the App Store. (Apple still won’t get a cut of subscriptions.)

“Six years is a long time in product,” said Martin Fallon, the Financial Times’ product manager for apps. Six years ago was the last time that the FT’s main app was in Apple’s App Store. In 2011, the company introduced a web app and, a couple months later, pulled its dedicated iOS apps because, reportedly, it did not want to give Apple a 30 percent cut of in-app subscription revenue and wanted more information about subscribers than Apple was willing to provide.

More than half a decade later, you can find the FT app in the App Store once again (alongside some of the company’s other apps, like FTChinese, that never left.) Apple will not, however, be getting a cut of subscription revenues; as The Wall Street Journal reported Monday:

The new iOS app will therefore only be accessible to existing FT subscribers. New readers won’t be able to purchase subscriptions from within the app itself, but must instead do so from the FT’s website before logging in.

This model means the FT can avoid giving Apple a cut of subscription revenue and will allow it to collect payment information and other valuable data directly from its subscribers. Spotify and other subscription-based services have taken a similar approach in recent years.

“We identified an iOS app as a key way to drive engagement,” Fallon told me. “We saw that readers who used our existing apps were much more engaged than those who didn’t. We also saw that we had a much higher app adoption rate on Android, where we had a native app, than on iOS.” (Engagement became a bigger part of the discussion in 2015, when the FT created an audience engagement team.) He also mentioned other benefits of an iOS app over a web app: Improved offline reading, persistent login, easier sharing, and — ultimately — push notifications and automatic update downloads, things that readers have been asking for but that weren’t possible with the web app.

“Another motivation is simple — customers asked us for it,” Fallon said.

Right now, the FT’s iOS app is aimed only at existing subscribers. When you open it, you’re prompted to sign in; if you don’t, you can see a homepage but can’t read a single story. The web app will continue to exist for now, but the FT intends to move the majority of its readers over to the iOS app. (As of Monday, I couldn’t find anything on the FT’s site to alert readers to the existence of the iOS app; it was still only promoting the web app.)

The Financial Times has nearly 870,000 total paying subscribers (up 9 percent from this time last year); of those, 666,000 are digital-only subscriptions (up 13 percent from this time last year). More than 50 percent of the FT’s digital subscribers already use its apps, and with the launch of the iOS app, that percentage is expected to increase.

The Wall Street Journal tested live push notifications, with some help from the Guardian’s Mobile Lab

When the Bureau of Labor Statistics released its jobs report at the beginning of the month, news organizations unleashed their push notifications.

On Friday morning, the Wall Street Journal tested live mobile push alerts for their jobs coverage, working closely with the Guardian Mobile Innovation Lab, which has been for the past year tirelessly testing a range of ideas for distributing news that make the most of people’s phone-reading preferences.

Readers who arrived at the Journal’s mobile site or its Android or iOS apps were able to read its live coverage of the jobs numbers for July — but were also alerted with preview push notifications on updates as they read the existing analysis on the page (readers could dismiss and keep reading, or jump to the update from the push alert).

Journal developers built the infrastructure for the live notifications, and its markets team reported on the event and sent the pushes. The Mobile Innovation Lab provided guidance — based on learnings from its own past experiments and user testing — throughout the process, from evaluating design prototypes for the alerts to crafting an effective survey for users who encountered the Journal’s experiment.

The Journal has its own internal live coverage tool, built ahead of the Iowa Caucuses coverage in time for last year’s elections, but hadn’t dealt with live push notifications, according to Jennifer Hicks, deputy managing editor of digital at the Journal.

“We had a highlights feature where we could pin key posts, but we couldn’t notify readers within the live reading experience,” she said.

The Guardian’s Mobile Innovation Lab had been hosting some get-togethers and roundtables with various news organizations after the November 2016 election around news notifications, and the Journal expressed interest in trying out an experiment with the Lab. Work on this project started in June.

“There were lots of experiments the Guardian group was doing, so we talked about what we could bite off and pull off in a short amount of time,” Hicks said. “For us, it was also an opportunity to change our culture and talk directly to readers about testing a new feature.” (The Journal and Mobile Lab teams had a joint Slack channel going morning of the live notifications project for potential troubleshooting in implementation.)

The Journal plans to use the live notifications feature in future live coverage (with tweaks as necessary), according to Journal mobile editor Phil Izzo: “From jobs reports to the Olympics to terrorist attacks, we use live coverage a lot, and that’s one of the reasons we really wanted to build this out, since we knew there were so many use cases for it,” he said.

Both the Guardian and Journal teams emphasized the project’s experimental nature; it’s the first partnership of this kind for both organizations. The Lab is welcoming similar partnerships with other interested outlets.

“In the Lab we’re working for the industry and not just for ourselves — if we were to experiment in silence for two years and not share tips and tricks that we’ve experimented with, that wouldn’t be fulfilling the mission of the Lab,” Sarah Schmalbach, the Lab’s senior product manager, said. “We have been flexing our notifications muscle, then when we felt more confident in what we’d learned, we began to host events to ask other organizations what they were doing, where we’d then make a point to say, please come talk to us if there’s anything we can do to help, any data we can provide. Maybe we can launch something together.”

“We really relied on Sarah and [Mobile Innovation Lab editor] Sasha Koren to provide expertise in terms of, how do you talk to your audience directly, how do you conduct a real-time experiment, how do you offer a survey to audiences that gets you useful and actionable feedback,” Hicks said. “We had a lot of guidance on how to set up an experiment, which is not something we’ve done regularly at the Journal.”

Data points the Journal will evaluate for this jobs report experiment center around engagement, and include time spent on the live coverage, whether readers dismissed the notifications or clicked into the post, and bounce rate during the live event.

“Another thing we’re thinking about is, does this tell us anything about experimentation at the Journal?” Izzo said. “Did we make the job reports live blog better, because we put more attention to it, and should we push to do more things like this in the newsroom in general?”

It’s time to apply for a Knight Visiting Nieman Fellowship

How would you finish this sentence? Journalism has never been more _______.

If you answered essential or exciting or precarious or imperiled — and have ideas for how to make it more of the first two or less of the last — you may be a candidate to join our next group of Knight Visiting Nieman Fellows. We are looking for ideas to advance journalism — ideas that would be helped by up to 12 weeks of project work here on Harvard’s campus. We’ll be accepting applications through September 29, which you can submit online.

In nearly six years of supporting visiting fellows, we’ve embraced an exciting array of innovative ideas and journalism influencers. We’ve welcomed editors and academics, reporters and developers, veterans and junior practitioners. Fellows have come from the U.S. and abroad, including India, Egypt, South Africa, Mexico, and throughout Europe. Recent fellows have included:

  • Sandra Barrón Ramirez, product designer at Borde Político and Transparencia Mexicana, who worked on constructing a central index for the disappeared and missing in Mexico, data that will help journalists.
  • Trushar Barot, London-based mobile editor for the BBC World Service, who researched AI assistants, a project that included a convening of news and tech industry leaders to share developments in voice AI.
  • David Barboza, a reporter for The New York Times, who is creating a business and financial database of Chinese companies to aid investigative journalism in China.
  • His colleague Nina Lassam, director of ad product at the Times, who studied how to foster greater participation in comments and distributed news content, with a focus on more engagement among female readers.
  • Raheel Khursheed, Twitter’s head of news partnerships for India and Southeast Asia, who examined micropayments for news content.

Many of our visiting fellows’ have made their resulting work public, which we hope further encourages innovation in journalism. Futurist Amy Webb published a Nieman ebook on her proposal for rewriting the future for journalism schools. Jack Riley came as a visiting fellow from The Huffington Post U.K. to study the future for news on wearables, and wrote about his findings for Nieman Lab. Tara Pixley, an independent photojournalist and photo editor, authored this cover story for Nieman Reports about the importance of diversifying news imagery and the ranks of visual journalists, the subject of her visiting fellowship.

Along with her excellent report on an alternative vision for public radio membership, visiting fellow Melody Kramer created something even more valuable for visiting fellowship applicants: a short video about her proposal, her application, her interview, and how she approached her eight weeks at Harvard. In reflecting on her advice, one additional question to consider is whether your goals would be best met by this project-based fellowship or by our year-long Nieman Fellowship, an opportunity for broader inquiry and professional development. A couple of visiting fellows discovered that their ambitions were grander than their brief time on campus allowed and wished they had applied for the full academic year. (Applications for that fellowship are due December 1 for international journalists and January 31 for U.S. applicants.)

I recently met with Nieman colleagues to review the status of the visiting fellowships and they all underscored the importance of two fundamentals: first, a focused project is better than a broad one; second, plan ahead. Whether you come to campus for two weeks or 12, the time will go quickly. You are unlikely to complete your interviews and research if you don’t narrow them to what’s achievable and identify important campus and Cambridge-area resources before arriving — including those at the Nieman Foundation.

We’re bullish on journalism at Nieman, and know its future depends on innovation. These visiting fellowships are one way we invest in that future. If you have questions, please contact us at nieman_applications@harvard.edu. We’re eager to read your proposals.

Ann Marie Lipinski is curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard.

The Wall Street Journal shutters eight blogs: “The tools for telling” stories have changed

On the heels of ending its news digest app and fine-tuning its push notification strategy, The Wall Street Journal shut down eight blogs on Monday. Their topics ranged from legal news to the Chinese economy to arts, culture, and entertainment. The shutterings were another condensation of platforms in the Wall Street Journal’s digital strategy, folding coverage of the topic areas into the Wall Street Journal’s homepage.

One of the Wall Street Journal’s oldest blogs, the Law Blog launched in January 2006 with a “simple name but a novel approach to legal news in the pre-Twitter era,” the paper’s law bureau chief Ashby Jones wrote in the blog’s farewell note:

Law Blog was the first of its kind at the WSJ and was an immediate hit, attracting readers from all corners of the legal world. Its success helped usher in a sort of Golden Age for blogs at WSJ and encourage the growth of a wider, legal blogosphere.

China Real Time, launched before the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and India Real Time, which came along in 2010, chronicled life in the growing economies for both local readers and an international audience. Beijing-based reporter Josh Chin noted the changing times in his blog’s farewell letter:

When this site was born, China’s GDP growth was in double digits, Beijing building toward the triumph of the Olympics and China-themed blogs were proliferating across the internet. Nine years later, China’s government is struggling to keep the economy growing above 6%, the Olympics are a fading memory and many a China blog has fallen silent.

The China story has changed, and so have the the tools for telling it. Regretfully, the time has come for China Real Time to end its run. We plan to transfer the same energy and insight that animated the blog to covering China on WSJ’s other platforms, including the main English and Chinese websites.

Wall Street Journal spokesperson Steve Severinghaus said that a total of eight verticals have been shuttered as part of the WSJ 2020 project, an internal operations review launched in October 2016. The other affected blogs are arts/culture/entertainment blog Speakeasy (last updated in March), Off Duty Daily (last updated in May 2016), breaking news hub Dispatch, sports blog The Daily Fix, and data review blog the Numbers (last updated in July 2016). “We’ll continue to cover these areas robustly through other storytelling formats and our digital platforms,” Severinghaus said in an email.

The statement sounds similar to things that New York Times staffers said around the shutdown of the City Room blog (2007–2015). “If it were 100 years ago, this would have lasted for 50 years, but the way technology changes and the way reader nature changes every five years now, its lifespan was just so much shorter,” New York Times metro editor Wendell Jamieson said at the time. “That doesn’t mean it wasn’t an important bridge, but it’s a different industry than it was when City Room launched. It’s truly the post-blog era, and I barely had time to get into the blog era.”

While the Wall Street Journal’s China and India bureaus and lead legal writers won’t be posting to the blogs anymore, the sites will remain live as archives. The social media accounts for the blogs will continue to be updated with relevant content from the Journal’s reporters, according to the blog posts announcing the closures. But for some followers, that’s not enough.

The corporate decision to shutter these blogs is another streamlining of the Journal’s platforms, days after the What’s News digest app ceased publication. Mobile editor Phil Izzo told my colleague Joseph Lichterman that the Wall Street Journal is aiming for flexibility with platforms while still maintaining autonomy over their content.

“What we’re trying to do is set up a place where we can make changes. We’re never going to be a tech company. We’re never going to be Google or Facebook. But what we can do is have more control over our product and more control over what we put out,” Izzo said last month.

As South Asia deputy bureau chief Eric Bellman said in the note announcing Real Time India’s end, the content will keep coming — just not on the blogs.

India Real Time started in 2010 as the first attempt by a global newspaper to offer a news product for Indian readers through the internet. Seven years and crores of clicks later, The Wall Street Journal is winding down the successful blog. We will continue to offer the content Indian readers want through the more popular paths of distribution: WSJ subscriptions, apps and social media.

The Wall Street Journal will continue to maintain some blogs, such as Real Time Economics, MoneyBeat, and the Health Blog.

This paper has a text marketing editor (who compares the job to picking people up at a bar)

Every day as the clock ticks toward the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung’s 5 p.m. print deadline, Jenny Buchholz sits at her desk in the heart of the paper’s Munich newsroom and reads through the stories that will be posted online that evening and in the next day’s print paper.

Buchholz is hunting for stories to highlight in a section on the paper’s homepage called Das Beste aus der Zeitung: “The best of the newspaper.”

Buchholz is SZ’s text marketing editor. Her mandate is to decide which stories will only be available to the paper’s premium subscribers, and which might appeal to potential subscribers if they’re packaged in a way that will convince people that they’re worth paying for. She works with Andrea Landinger, who helps refine the coverage to improve SEO and clickthrough rates.

SZ created the text marketing role to coincide with the launch of its digital subscription model, which it calls SZ Plus, in 2015.

The paper’s paywall strategy is somewhat complex. General interest stories from wire services are freely accessible on SZ’s site. A meter allows free access to 10 staff-written stories per week. Premium stories and digital editions of the paper, however, are only available to paying subscribers.

A full-access digital subscription costs €34.99 (about USD $40) per month. Readers can also purchase €1.99 day passes that give them access to the stories behind the paywall. A two-week trial is free.

The “best of the newspaper” section on the SZ homepage features four stories that are only accessible via SZ Plus. The stories Buchholz chooses for those slots are generally from that day’s paper, and go live at 7 p.m., coinciding with the release of SZ’s digital edition.

A separate SZ Plus page collects all the premium stories. The site features older stories that were popular and also lets readers search for stories or sort them by topic.

Buchholz looks to highlight longer stories that will be worth readers’ time nd that cover a variety of topics. She then writes a headline and chooses an image that will help the story stand out on the busy homepage. “I need this one article to be convincing and worth their while,” she said.

“I’m very interested in having people return. When I type in a teaser to stories, I’m not at all interested in overselling or in clickbaiting them into reading it, because the worst thing that can happen is that they buy the article because it sounds interesting and then they read it and go, ‘Well that wasn’t worth it.’ I’m really not interested in that happening. We’re not an Autobahn stop where people come and eat and the quality of food doesn’t matter because they’ll never be back.”

From the beginning, SZ viewed the text marketing role as one that needed to be in the newsroom. Buchholz sits near the paper’s top editors and regularly consults with them about what the newsroom has planned.

At WAN-IFRA’s Digital Media Europe conference in Copenhagen in April, SZ digital editor Stefan Plöchinger told me SZ purposefully structured the text marketing position in the newsroom so that it would fit into the newsroom’s workflows.

“If you start a subscription model, you have to have someone in the newsroom who is identifying with the subscription model,” he said. “We are trying to get the evolution of it going in the daily business of the newsroom.”

Buchholz works with staffers to write short teaser versions of SZ Plus stories that she also posts on the homepage to entice readers to buy access to the full version.

The job has a marketing aspect to it, as its name implies. Buchholz works closely with staffers on the business side of the organization, said Johannes Hauner, SZ’s head of digital marketing.

The budget for promoting stories on social platforms such as Facebook or via email campaigns comes from the marketing department, and working with the editorial team, Hauner said they’ll determine the best way to utilize that budget and which audiences they want to target.

SZ, for instance, will target stories to users with specific interests and also resurface timely archival content.

Buchholz also chooses up to 15 evergreen premium stories that are shown on rotation to un-logged-in readers when they try to read an SZ Plus story.

“One big difference between Jenny and me…is that she is a journalist who thinks very much in a marketing way, and I’m a marketer and I think in a journalistic way,” Hauner said. “She can write teasers in a very good way for marketing the articles. I couldn’t do that. That’s not my profession. That’s her quality. That’s very important. On the one hand we have to do it from the same point of view and the same way, and on the other hand it’s important that there’s a journalist who looks on the things we do and that there’s a marketer also. It has to be a very straightforward and together approach.”

SZ Plus had 55,247 subscribers in the first quarter of 2017, and while he provide specifics on conversion rates or how many daily passes the paper sells, Hauner said the paper looks at metrics both from outside platforms and its own website to analyze how it can improve how its pitches to would-be subscribers.

On Facebook, for instance, it wants to be able to target as many interested users as possible, without breaking the bank. “The cheaper it is in the target group you want to reach, the better,” he said.

But on its own site, SZ looks at how readers navigate its conversion funnel and interact with the paywall. The most important metric, Hauner said, is the number of subscribers, but another key data point the paper follows is how many people actually click on the subscription offers.

“If somebody pushes the button on the offer page to come into the funnel, that’s a very important click, in relation to the paid article’s total pageviews,” he said. “It represents the first attractiveness of that article.”

As part of this process, SZ regularly conducts A/B tests. For instance, it tested out different formats for the best-of section that highlights SZ Plus stories. It ultimately decided just to feature four stories a day, but Buchholz picks up to seven different stories to test out in that area, ultimately winnowing them down to four.

“We need A/B testing on a daily basis,” digital editor Plöchinger said. “That’s what e-commerce platforms do all the time, and that’s what we need to do as well.”

SZ ultimately sees the text marketing position as a way to reach readers and help maintain a sustainable digital business.

Often, the way that newspaper title and tease pieces is just “the equivalent of a person standing at the bar and just standing there, because they made their presence known,” Buchholz said. But there’s a better way to attract people: “I much more believe in eye contact, looking around, being a little more outgoing and trying to engage the audience.”

Photo by Felix Ro used under a Creative Commons license.

You can now use social audio app Anchor to publish podcasts

The social audio app Anchor is on Thursday introducing a new feature that allows users to easily publish podcasts to major podcasting platforms, including Apple Podcasts and Google Play.

Users can initially set up the podcast through the app by choosing a name, art, and more, and then subsequent episodes will be automatically added to the feed.

“They’ll be able to control everything about the podcast that they need to control from Anchor,” cofounder and CEO Michael Mignano told me. “Our hope is that we can remove all of the technical and difficult aspects of the process to the end user. If we had it our way, the user would never even need to know what an RSS feed is. It’s an older piece of technology that we think most creators need to even be aware of.”

Even though users will be able to upload podcasts through the app, they’ll still be subject to the requirements of each of the podcast platforms, and Mignano said podcasts created through Anchor should be available on the various podcast apps within a day or two of the initial upload.

While Anchor wants users to create audio and listen within the app, Mignano said the company was adding the ability to export audio as podcasts because it wants to encourage users to create longer stories that might be better suited to listen to as a podcast rather than in the app, which was designed for shorter audio.

“For us, anything that removes friction or enables creators to make something is a win for both the creator and for us,” he said. “If we can bring people over to the platform by offering them tools they can’t get anywhere else, than we feel we’ve done our jobs.”

Anchor launched in 2016 and was designed to try and make it easier for users to record and share audio while also fostering discussions. The app was incubated at the New York startup accelerator Betaworks, and it has raised more than $4 million in venture funding.

Anchor has yet to begin monetizing the app, but Mignano said the app will likely introduce advertising or subscription offerings. He declined to offer a timeline, but said the company is committed to eventually sharing sharing revenue with users.

In March, Anchor relaunched the app with an array of new features, including integrations with Spotify and Apple Music that lets users import song and tools that simplify the interview process and enable listeners to call into shows.

At the time, Nick Quah wrote in his Hot Pod newsletter that the additions put Anchor in competition with Bumpers, an audio creation app founded by Ian Ownbey and Jacob Thornton, formerly of Twitter:

In my head, I’ve come to place Anchor and Bumpers in one bucket, given both these apps’ focus on serving as the mediating space between users and other users, while establishing another bucket specifically for short-form audio app 60dB and the AI-oriented Otto Radio which seems, to me at least, primarily occupied with developing a firm grasp on the interface between professional publishers and listeners.

Mignano wouldn’t say how many users Anchor has, and it remains to be seen if social audio can take off when apps such as Facebook and Snapchat already dominate many users’ time and homescreens. Still, a number of outlets, including The Verge and The Outline, are publishing on the platform, and as the app continues to evolve, Anchor wants to ultimately make it easier for users to create and share audio clips.

“People can both create and listen freely, much like open platforms for other mediums like photos, text, or videos,” he said. “We want it to be a conversation, we want it to be multidirectional, just not one way like broadcast. I think a way for us to get there is by opening up tools, creating utilities and tools that empower creativity.”

The Toronto Star, “surprised by low numbers,” is shutting down Star Touch, its expensive tablet app

The Toronto Star announced on Monday that, “after much research,” it’s shutting down Star Touch, the expensive ($23 million invested!) tablet-only app it launched in 2015. The app’s shutdown is accompanied by layoffs of 29 full-time employees and one part-time employee.

“The overall numbers of readers and advertising volumes are significantly lower than what the company had forecast and than what are required to make it a commercial success,” John Boynton, president and CEO of TorStar and publisher of the Star, wrote in a memo to employees. (The previous publisher, John Cruickshank, stepped down last year after it became clear Star Touch was underperforming.)

A Star spokesman told The Globe and Mail that “the tablet’s monthly audience peaked at 80,000 unique readers, a small percentage of the Star’s monthly online readership, which hovers around 550,000 in the Greater Toronto Area alone.” It had originally aimed to be at 180,000 daily users by the end of 2016; it was at only 26,000 by March of last year.

Star Touch shuts down July 31 and will be replaced by a new universal app that, well, sounds as if it does what any news app should do now and it’s crazy the Touch app didn’t do these things: “operates both on smartphones and tablets…offers more of the features that you, our readers, have told us you want: breaking news, constant updates, more content, easy searches and navigation and the ability to share items much more easily on social media.”

“We need to simplify our business and having three downloadable apps, namely a tablet app, a mobile app and PDF, confuses consumers and is resource intensive, complex and costly. Having just two apps will simplify this,” Boynton wrote in his memo, printed in full at Canadaland along with a memo from the Star’s editor-in-chief, Michael Cooke. (The two apps will be the universal one and this print replica.)

Star Touch was supported by advertising and entirely free to readers. It was modeled on Montreal’s French-language La Presse+, which is digital-only via iPad app (and website) Monday through Friday and has a print edition on Saturdays (though that too is expected to go away later this year).

La Presse “remains, by accounts as recently as last week, a success,” editor-in-chief Cooke noted in his memo. “Throughout the diligent work before, at and after launch, Star executives and managers, and really all of us, knew there was significant risk that the Montreal experience might not translate to the [Greater Toronto Area] — arguably the toughest, most saturated media market in North America.”

Ken Doctor wrote about Star Touch’s “one time a day” model for Nieman Lab in 2015:

Star Touch, like La Presse+, won’t be a breaking news product. Readers get one edition a day, seven days a week. The breaking news function, The Star believes, remains with free smartphone and desktop web; Star Touch will link to The Star’s site for live files. Why? Research showing readers want editions — the old Economist bookends theory — and, in any event, the complexity of tablet presentation would require even more labor for a continuously produced product.

While the Star gradually built other updating features into the Touch app — a “live news” panel for real-time updates; breaking news notifications — it clearly wasn’t enough to convince readers that a tablet app updated once a day was the best way to get their news.

Canada’s Postmedia also made a bet on tablet editions which it shut down in 2015. It announced last week that it is launching new mobile apps for the National Post and the Financial Post, as well as a new digital replica of the National Post.

Star Touch closing notice from this tweet.

With its new Reader Center, The New York Times wants to forge deeper connections with its readers

When it comes to hearing from readers, The New York Times wants to go a lot further than just letting people chime in at the bottom of some articles.

Last week, the newspaper announced The New York Times Reader Center, a new initiative focused on finding new ways to connect with Times readers and deepening the connections it already has. The team, whose “exact size is still taking shape,” according to a Times spokesperson, will be staffed by a handful of journalists who will work with various Times departments — including interactive news, social, and even marketing and branding — on various reader-centered projects.

“Our agenda is not for our little team to make a splash. Our agenda is for The New York Times to have stronger connections with readers,” said Hanna Ingber, an editor on the international desk and the project’s lead. “In order for us to be successful, we need to work with everyone. The Reader Center will be a way to convene all those people to make the most of all the work that’s already happening.”

The Reader Center has already pushed out a handful of projects. Last month, it invited a small group of Times subscribers to receive text messages from White House correspondent Michael Shear as he travelled with President Trump on his first international trip. (The project is similar to a Times effort last summer that let readers receive texts about the Rio Olympics from Times deputy sports editor Sam Manchester.)

In another project, as part of a story by Times reporter Claire Cain Miller about how parents can raise feminist sons, the Reader Center asked readers to share their own experiences raising boys, and included many of their comments in a follow-up piece. That project was modeled in part after an initiative Ingber helped run in conjunction with “Ladies First,” a Times documentary about women in Saudi Arabia who were able to vote and run for office for the first time. After the Times ran the piece, Ingber made a call out to Saudi women, asking for stories about their lives. Over 6,000 of them replied, and the Times used some of their responses in a follow-up story. “That was good journalism,” Ingber said. “We used these voices to better understand what their lives were like and what their hopes were.”

With the Reader Center, the Times is the latest news organization to make deeper reader engagement more core to its editorial processes. Some organizations (The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, the Times itself when it comes to podcasts) have turned to Facebook groups, while other efforts (the Civics 101 podcast, The Texas Tribune’s community editor) are using reader input to influence their editorial decisions. While these efforts go beyond article comments in an effort to engage readers, comments, too, are a big part of the equation. As my colleague Shan Wang reported earlier this week, the Times aims to open 80 percent of its articles up for comments this year, up from 10 percent, using algorithmic tools to help evaluate them in bulk. The Times also plans to amplify reader voices by regularly producing comment roundups.

“We want to do everything we can to hear more of those voices and amplify them,” Ingber said.

It isn’t clear yet how much overlap the new Reader Center will have with the responsibilities formerly assigned to the Times’ public editor, a position the newspaper eliminated this month. Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. said in a memo to Times staffers last week that readers around the world “collectively serve as a modern watchdog,” and are “more vigilant and forceful than one person could ever be.”

Ingber said that while the Reader Center isn’t designed to replace the public editor, the new initiative is similarly built around the mission to create greater transparency into how Times stories are produced, and to hear directly from readers on how it can improve its processes.

“Our goals are to make journalism more transparent and to change the relationship between readers and journalists, by empowering journalists to do more to connect with readers, to respond to readers, and to be more engaged with readers,” Ingber said. “Ultimately this will not just lead to better journalism, but also to more accountability and to the elevating of the position of our readers.”

Photo of a woman reading the New York Times by Eflon used under a Creative Commons license.

Apple’s new analytics for podcasts mean a lot of change (some good, some inconvenient) is on the way

“It may look obscure,”tweeted Gimlet’s Matt Lieber, “but this is the biggest thing to happen to the podcast business since Serial first went nuclear.” Lieber was talking about a major announcement that came out of the podcast session at WWDC, the Apple developer conference, which took place on Friday. It was a piece of business delivered with relatively little fanfare — par for the course, I think, with the nature of Apple’s historically chill relationship with podcasts —  and Lieber’s right. This is a very big deal, and a lot of change is on the way.

Here’s the headline: Apple is finally opening up in-episode analytics for podcasts. The data will be anonymized, consistent with Apple’s general stance on privacy, and the new analytics layer is scheduled to arrive with the iOS 11 update this fall. This means that podcast publishers will, at long last, receive data that tells them just how much of their episodes are actually being listening to — within the Apple Podcast app, at least, which is still largely understood to serve the majority of listening. (Estimates, however sampled, tend to range between 60 and 80 percent). Previously, podcast consumption was chiefly conceptualized based on downloads, a black box metric that’s criticized as lacking the level of granularity that are table stakes for advertisers buying on digital platforms in 2017. With this announcement, that measurement issue — long articulated as the defining problem of the medium — can finally be meaningfully interrogated, with many believing that the hurdle impeding advertisers from committing more dollars to the space can be thrown out the window.

But some are also arguing this change will bring a mixed bag of consequences, and in some ways, the new data puts the space at risk of snuffing out various dynamics that make it special. Which is to say, while there’s a hope that this will finally lead to podcasting realizing its full economic potential, the shadow of Web 2.0 looms large.

The WWDC session also contained a few other useful announcements, including a design overhaul for Podcasts app and new extensions to feed specifications that would give publishers more control over how they can present episodes within RSS feeds. Among other things, publishers will now have the ability to bundle episodes by season and signal which episodes are actual content versus extras like trailers. Noted Apple writer Jason Snell has a good rundown on this over at his blog, and you can check out the spec document here. And as I mentioned last week, this is probably what the redesign looks like, courtesy of this Reddit thread. (Once again, your mileage may vary with sourcing Reddit.)

But let’s get back to the analytics stuff. Since Friday’s announcement — which you can watch in full at this link, but only on the Safari browser, because Apple — there’s been a ton of writing appraising the matter, and in case you’d like a quick primer, I recommend this write-up by Recode’s Peter Kafka, which also contains screenshots of the upcoming analytics dashboard. (I’m going spelunking in some rabbit holes here, so a primer this is not.)

Here, we’ll attend to wonkier questions: What does this new analytics universe portend? How will the podcast business change? If so, who wins and who loses?

I wasn’t born a prophet, so I don’t know how exactly this will play out, but I do have some notes and assessments on a bunch of the key issues. This write-up is by no means comprehensive, and I’ll be exploring more questions in future issues as we deal with the consequences of announcements. For now, let’s jump in, and we’ll move through a bunch of topics.

Just double-checking: Is this really a big deal?

Yep, I’m pretty certain it’s massive, but it’s worth weighing the counter-argument. Even if Apple serves a majority of all listeners, the argument goes, it doesn’t account for the whole listening universe, and as such there might be muted effects to how this ends up moving the way business is being done. I’m not sure I’d buy much stock in that view: first, not only does most listening quantitatively happen on Apple, the company is qualitatively synonymous with the space. Second, there still doesn’t appear to be a strong alternative to Apple with a big enough consolidated market share that could meaningfully challenge (or avoid) the way Apple defines audience measurement. Which means that, in June 2017, it’s still feasible to think that whenever Apple says jump, most folks are still pretty much going to make like Durant.

How will the new analytics layer change the way we currently understand podcast audiences in the aggregate?

A couple of parts to this:

(1) Many believe that an ecosystem-wide audience resizing is in the cards. Because the vast majority of podcast audience appraisal is conducted based on downloads — and because we don’t actually know what happens to an episode after it’s downloaded — the way podcast audiences are represented, understood, and sold is almost certainly going to change. Just about everyone I spoke to frames this in terms of some form of downsizing, which makes intuitive sense, because there will always be some percentage of episodes being downloaded that are left unlistened (and ads left unserved). But the positive spin I’m given is that this change nevertheless comes with a higher level of accountability, and the gains in trust from advertisers will likely lead to much greater gains over the long term.

As Matt Turck, Panoply’s chief revenue officer, puts it, “I’m assuming we will see listener numbers fall short of download numbers; however, the benefit to making analytics far less mysterious should vastly outweigh the concern.”

(2) That said, there remains the possibility that the new in-episode analytics layer might reveal inconvenient truths about audience behavior. I’ve been told there are a few non-Apple tools and platforms (like Spotify and some third-party listening apps) with in-episode analytics already in the market, and while they only supporting a minority share of listening, the consumption data they’ve been collecting suggests there’s nothing especially revolutionary hiding in those new numbers.

Aaron Lammer, of Longform and Stoner, is one among the skeptical. “I would push back against the idea that there is some great insight lurking in these analytics,” he said when we chatted over Twitter. “As people who’ve set up elaborate app-based analytics hooks where you can track everything will tell you-there isn’t that much interesting… I’d rather look [at] it as standardization rather than revolutionary shift.”

That point on standardization, I think, is really important to file away in your head.

(3) Bryan Moffett, the COO of National Public Media, made a good observation on how the proliferation of dynamic ad insertion technology might mean the transition to an in-episode analytics world would still contain tricky imprecision.

To quote him in full:

A dynamic ad server will serve up many different versions of a single episode. They could vary in length by a few minutes or even more. For example, if one user gets an episode of TED Radio Hour with four dynamic :30 sponsorships and a :30 promotion block in its hour of content, but another user for some reason gets the same episode with just two :30 sponsors, the length difference is over a minute and the content is not aligned minute by minute for each episode.

Apple’s analytics rolls up all listening to a given episode and averages, so there is bound to be some imprecision. It’s not a lot, and it’s certainly a better world than the one we live in now.

It’s never easy shifting gears.

How will the podcast business be affected?

Time will tell, obviously. But here’s the range of the thinking out there:

(1) As I mentioned, there is a sense from some bigger publishers that this new analytics layer will finally allow them to kick open conversations that may meaningfully unlock long coveted brand advertising dollars. Contrary to direct response advertisers, whose intended outcomes (and measurement methodologies) additionally revolve around conversions off promo codes, brand advertisers are generally thought to require a higher level of trust in the impressions being reported back to them. Podcasting’s black-box download-oriented measurement universe has long been described as the primary hurdle preventing brand advertisers from allocating more dollars to the medium, and it is believed that Apple’s in-episode analytics are a significant first step forward in opening up conversations between brand advertisers and podcast publishers across the system (conversations that have to do with perception as much as actualities).

(2) But how does this development affect the direct response side of the podcast advertising business? There’s a general belief among the folks I’ve talked to that direct response advertisers, or performance-based advertisers, will likely be stable, though there appears to be suspicion that the new analytics layer presents yet another horizon of opportunities for those advertisers and their respective agencies to haggle more over prices. I’m also being told that there are expectations of some oncoming turbulence/fluctuations in price points, as those advertisers go through the process of figuring out how to integrate this new data layer into their current practices.

(3) There are two versions of the apocalyptic view on the business end. The first takes the shape of some worries about ad-skipping, and what the new analytics layer is going to reveal about the extent of this behavior. (For more background on this, read this Wall Street Journal from last summer). The end-times scenario is said to be one where it’s discovered that podcast ads are skipped over at such a volume and intensity as to kill their value. On this front, the responses seem to generally track along the built-in split between brand advertising and performance-based advertising; there is a sense that, even if there is a problem, it would mostly affect the former, while the latter would remain somewhat stable, because conversions are still taken to be more important than impressions. Again, the positive spin I’m served ties back to a sense of greater accountability that the new analytics layer brings into publisher-advertiser interactions: we’ll know who is actually providing value to advertisers, and we’ll know who isn’t doing so as much. As Midroll chief revenue officer Lex Friedman said, “Podcasters who are confident that people are listening to their ads should be very happy about this.”

The second apocalyptic argument presents a scenario where podcast CPMs plummet, ultimately leading to the collapse of the market. This view generally draws on a parallel between podcasts and what happened to blogs once the format started experiencing waves of ad tech development. Personally, I can’t quite see the specifics of how this move by Apple could bring those dynamics to podcasting just yet. My understanding of the plummeting blog CPMs pegs the phenomenon to the continuous structural devaluing of blog advertising real estate brought on emerging ad technologies that gave advertisers (and ad tech companies) unchecked leverage. And while I think the broader risk of podcasts possibly going down the road of blogs is absolutely real, I don’t have a sense that this new analytics layer alone automatically leads to a devaluing of podcast advertising real estate. If anything, Acast’s recent rollout of a programmatic podcast advertising product is more likely to incur those types of effects, should the tool ever get traction — this development from Apple strikes me as a step forward that’s small enough to stop short from these effects.

Who wins, who loses?

(1) Obviously, publishers who have made a practice of inflating download numbers will get checked — though the counterargument that all metrics, without active third-party verification, can be gamed over time is certainly a prudent one.

(2) An argument can be made that this system-wide shift to a new analytics standard would usher in a weeding-out period. Podcasts delivering strong ad value will get additional data to strengthen their appeal for more advertising dollars, and podcasts not doing so will be flushed out of the ad market. It would mean that high-performing podcasts would be in a better position to extract more value, while not-so-high-performing podcasts would have a harder time accessing advertising dollars.

(3) It should be considered that whatever audience readjustments happen will probably disproportionately and negatively impact smaller podcasters’ ability to derive advertising revenue. Which is to say, just as how every publisher experiences the turbulence of discovering that its meaningful listening audience size is probably going to be smaller than its downloads, smaller podcasts will be whipped around harder, and in some (if not most) cases, that could lead to those shows falling beneath a certain threshold for advertising consideration. That’s bad for podcasts with already relatively small but meaningfully engaged audiences. In these cases, there are presumably two available moves: first, lean deeper into a niche that maintains a specific appeal for relevant advertisers, and second, pursue other non-advertising revenue streams.

I suppose, generally speaking, it’s worth keeping in mind that advertisers need to be served value too, and also, advertising isn’t necessarily the only business model available to publishers.

Content considerations. Metrics and measurements have long informed the way programs are created, and we should probably expect to see the dynamic express itself further with the new analytics layer. A couple of threads to consider:

(1) Knowing just how much of episodes are being listened to presents a much better feedback loop to improve not just editorial products, but also advertising products. And there is also the likely effect that we’ll see the blossoming of new formats, genres, and show structures that come from playing toward what the new metrics tells us.

(2) On the flip side, there should also be room for the more general worry that we’re sliding into a world where metrics outweigh creative decisions. I think there’s always room for that concern, regardless of whatever metrics are available — there will, to some extent, always be operators looking to play to the numbers rather than actually use the numbers to make better work.

(3) I’m pretty drawn to the question, raised here on Twitter by The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal, of whether increased data granularity within a medium would lead to the detriment of experimentation within that medium. Instinctively, I feel as if there is some truth to this, but I also suspect experimentation has less to do with the available metric universe and more to do with the ways in which compensation is structured off those metrics. (A quick tangent: I also find myself wondering how “experimental” material is defined; personally, I tend to grade experimental-ness relative to however the medium currently behaves, and think experimental programming will exist in any format regardless of where it is in its life cycle. I think the more interesting question here is about the conditions under which “experimentation” can exist within high-budget and high-scale productions.)

I’m not even close to being done, but I’ll leave it here for now. Obviously, this enormous and complex development contains many, many layers, and I’ll continue to dig around and write about them in future issues. (I mean, that’s why Hot Pod exists, right?)

Here are some of the questions I’ll be thinking about:

  • To what extent will podcasting go down the road of blogs, and what does that even mean? And should podcasting end up experiencing those same dynamics, what are the differences based on audio as a media format?
  • How will the podcast industry change? Will the professionalizing publishers benefit as they hoped for? What will happen to smaller and indie podcasters?
  • How will podcasting change for audiences?
  • Will we see the industry create more jobs for producers, developers, and assorted media folk?
  • How will the development impact what I’ve described as the bifurcation of the space, with podcasts as extension-of-blogging on one side and podcasts as extension-of-radio on the other?

As for my own normative view on all of this, I’m still figuring it out. I do think that the podcast industry is indeed still comparatively tiny, as Recode’s Peter Kafka points out, with podcast ad spending projected to only be about $250 million this year. While it’s growing at a solid and steady rate, it’s still peanuts compared to where radio (about $14.1 billion) is today, and there’s more to be gained and lost from changing how business is being done today. And like Kafka, I do think change was going to happen no matter what.

Also, as I mentioned on Twitter, I find myself skeptical about the nostalgia and privileging of the status quo. But that’s a story for another day.

Roman Mars, Esquire. New Hampshire Public Radio’s Civics 101 has some new competition in the form of a somewhat surprising side project from the 99% Invisible chief: “What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law” is an explainer podcast that features Mars being taught the basics of constitutional law by UC Davis professor Elizabeth Joh based on ongoing developments in the current iteration of the White House. I’m told that the podcast is officially produced under the Radiotopia banner, which brings the number of Radiotopians with two podcasts up to two (the other is Hrishikesh Hirway, who makes both Song Exploder and the West Wing Weekly for the indie podcast collective). Mars’ new podcast comes mere days before the launch of another new Radiotopia podcast, Ear Hustle. That’s scheduled to roll out later this week.

Career spotlight. Spend enough time in the New York podcast scene — or any major city with a podcast scene, really — and you’re bound to bump into someone who came up through WNYC, which was once the city’s only major institution dealing with narrative radio. In this week’s Career Spotlight, we’re bumping into Leital Molad, who currently leads podcast development for the Pierre Omidyar-backed First Look Media.

Hot Pod: What do you do?
Leital Molad: I’m the executive producer of podcasts at First Look Media. In a nutshell, I develop and produce podcasts for The Intercept (First Look’s investigative news site) and Topic (our entertainment studio). Right now we have two podcasts in production, Politically ReActive and Intercepted. I oversee those shows week to week, working with the producers, giving editorial notes, and liaising with our business team on the marketing side. The other big part of my job is taking pitches for new shows, creating pilots, and bringing projects to launch. Since I got to First Look last October, we launched three shows: Maeve in America, Intercepted and Missing Richard Simmons.
HP: Where did you start, and how did you end up in this position?
Molad: I started as an intern at WNYC in 2000. The next year I got a full time job as a production assistant for Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen, and spent the next 15 years working on that show, ultimately running it as senior producer. My last year at WNYC I launched and EP’ed a health podcast, Only Human. I started thinking about my next career move and figured that this podcast renaissance was a great time to break out of my cozy public radio cocoon and try something new. So I took the leap and went to First Look — a media startup that was just getting into podcasting.
HP: How did you learn to do the job?
Molad: WNYC was an amazing place to learn everything I know about radio and audio. I got to wear many hats, ranging from basic show production — booking guests, writing scripts, cutting tape — to reporting my own stories, producing documentaries, and running live events. And I learned a ton about launching new shows after working on Only Human, which has been very helpful in my new job. Also, having been in the trenches with audio production (which I love), I can be a better manager of producers and engineers. Getting new shows off the ground at a startup often means being able to jump in on production when needed, and that’s been invaluable.
HP: When you started out, what did you think wanted to do?
Molad: After college, I didn’t land on what I wanted to do until I was brainstorming with a family friend who offered to help with some career advice. He asked me, “If you could have anyone’s job, who would it be?” Right away I said, “Terry Gross.” He said, “Well, that’s what you need to do!” I had been a DJ at my college station and an avid listener of public radio, and those two things just clicked. I wasn’t sure how to become the next Terry Gross; eventually I figured I should go to journalism school. So I came to New York for grad school at NYU, and then, very luckily, landed the internship at Studio 360. My dream of hosting evolved into an appreciation and desire for producing, which I fell in love with.  Maybe I’ll still host a show some day, we’ll see!  (You know, they say anyone can start a podcast with a laptop and a microphone…)

Molad adds that she’s on the lookout for more female voices, and that interested parties should get in touch. You can find Leital on Twitter at @leitalm.

Bites

  • ESPN has rolled out the podcast feed for its upcoming 30 for 30 audio adaptation. The first episode is set to drop on June 27. (website)
  • Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History is coming back on Thursday. (NY Times)
  • WBUR is launching a storytelling podcast aimed at kids. (WBUR)
  • Looks like the Chapo Trap House team has bagged themselves a book deal with the Simon & Schuster imprint Touchstone Books. On a related note, I’m hearing that the podcast channel is increasingly fruitful prospecting ground for book publishers. (Twitter)

When certainties fade: The changing state of academic research into the changing world of news

Innovation everywhere. Innovation in the news business. Innovation in social media. Innovation (and creative destruction!) in presidential political communication. Innovation in the topics and methods of scholarly research. Innovation as a keyword and a buzzword. Innovation as an ideology and a sign of the times.

Things are different, to put it mildly, than they used to be. When we talked over lunch at a 2013 symposium on “Data Crunched Democracy,” organized by Daniel Kreiss and Joseph Turow at the University of Pennsylvania, we could not help but shake our heads at how much had changed since we had started our research into news and journalism. We marveled at how a domain of inquiry that until recently was seen as a somewhat specialized area within the larger field of communication was generating an unprecedented amount of scholarship. All the while, the questions, theories, and methods for studying journalism were also changing, spurred in part by the challenge of the evolving news environment. Yet the frantic pace of knowledge production had somewhat prevented scholars to engage in a collective process of sensemaking about what had been accomplished and what might lie ahead.

Four years later — while much in academia has changed, what has barely been altered is the time it takes to get a book conceived, written, revised, edited, and printed! — we edited Remaking the News, a book that tries to make sense of the past couple of decades of journalism scholarship and imagine new pathways moving forward. We approached some of the most accomplished people we knew who were researching news and asked each of them to write an essay about an aspect of the changes in journalism and the new scholarly opportunities afforded by these transformations. We also asked them reflect on why their arguments mattered to news professionals, scholars, and the public at large. In this article, we share three key lessons we learned as a result of this four-year journey:

  • Alternative modes of telling the story often afford novel arguments while rekindling the passion for the craft.
  • Diversity and conflict are a source of strength and innovation for both newspeople and researchers.
  • Nostalgia, in either journalism or the academy, is not productive; the present moment is ripe for reflecting on the past as a way to imagine new futures.

Expanding the storytelling toolkit

For over a decade, media organizations have been experimenting with alternative modes of presenting information and telling stories. From The New York Times’s exemplary “Snow Fall” to Politico’s recent article on media bubbles, taking advantage of the resources available in the digital environment has become a mantra of the news business. It has pushed journalism in some great directions.

One thing that we learned in the process of putting together Remaking the News is that scholars also ought to find new ways to present information and make a case. In particular, we discovered the renewed potential of the essay format that this edited volume embraces. We do not propose that this become the default genre for scholarly communication. But we found out that it fostered intellectual creativity and joy in ways that we do not normally see in the process of writing the dominant genre, namely the journal article.

These types of articles are to academics what the straight news format is to journalists: effective and easy to write templates that convey the essence of complex arguments to audiences increasingly swamped with information. But like all good formulas, they run the risk of becoming, well, formulaic, and sapping creativity and enjoyment from the craft. They can become, to use an exercise analogy, the treadmill option for runners.

Living in Brooklyn and Evanston, we are both familiar with the pleasures of winter, and know all too well that during the colder months, in order to stay in shape, you have to take the running inside, into the gym and onto the treadmill. Writing a peer-reviewed journal article, in our experience, has increasingly become the treadmill running of scholarly writing. It is necessary, practical, beneficial, generates valuable information exchange, and often invites a form of argumentation that serves the process of analysis well. Not doing it would leave you incapable of getting off the couch once winter has drawn to an end.

But it is often overdone. The corporatization of the academy, like the increased bottom-line concerns in the news business, has led to an ever-expanding pressure to publish larger and larger numbers of articles. New journals pop up from one season to the next like wild mushrooms in the forest, and the existing ones move from publishing four times a year to doing it eight times a year. Concurrently, search and promotion committees expect longer lists of publications from scholars. All of this has turned a whole lot of academic life into what Dean Starkman called, referring to the news business, the hamster wheel: It keeps you in shape but takes the fun out of exercising the mind.

Which is why, in part, in the process of editing Remaking the News, we found that writing an essay has become more like a long run through the woods, particularly one you take in the sun on one of the first days of spring. Without getting too maudlin about it, we discovered that by virtue of its fewer genre constraints and its implicit openness, essay writing clears the head, generates creative new approaches to old problems, and gives authors the freedom to draw on our earlier exercise regimen — that is, the journal articles that have been put through their disciplinary paces — in order to push scholarship in new directions. As editors, it was remarkable to see the level of enthusiasm, commitment, and risk-taking among our authors — something which is quite different from what we experience and hear about the journal publishing process.

Just as journalists are embracing new ways of telling the story, then, we encourage academics to think about new ways of making a case and communicating their ideas. We encourage hiring and promotion committees to adapt their practices accordingly. The digital age has seen an explosion in different communication modalities and platforms. Much of this work goes beyond the essay format, of course, ranging from social media writing to the interactive visualization work increasingly common in the digital humanities. We would like to see more of all of it.

These alternatives should not be seen as subservient to the journal article genre — in the same way that interactive storytelling is not subservient to straight-news, inverted pyramid storytelling. We are not saying that academics ought to dispense with their treadmill workouts…er, with their journal articles. But we are saying that it is important to take alternative modes of communication seriously and value their contributions in their own right. Different forms of academic, and journalistic, writing complement each other in unique and productive ways. There is much intellectual creativity and personal engagement that can arise from expanding the storytelling toolkit.

Embracing diversity

We live in diverse societies and therefore conflict is to a certain extent unavoidable. This applies to both the academy and journalism. Reporters and editors routinely choose between different stories. Even within a single story, they often hear different sides of it; sometimes the versions are complementary, while other times they can be polar opposites.

To cope with this diversity, research on newsmaking conducted since the 1970s has documented a tendency among journalists to privilege certain stories over others, as well as certain sources and accounts within an article. Social scientists are not different: We have our preferred topics, theories, and methods. We sometimes accept alternative approaches as equally productive, but on other occasions think ours is the best and even that the alternatives are plainly wrong.

To counter the shortcomings of a tendency to narrow down diversity that he observed in his landmark studies of news work, Herbert Gans proposed in 1979 the notion of “multiperspectivism.” Gans offered a very concrete set of proposals back then, and he updated them in a thoughtful essay published in 2011. But beyond the specifics of both texts, Gans’ idea is that journalists would do well by incorporating an orientation towards broadening the set of topics and voices represented in the news. By implication, this also meant housing competing viewpoints within the news report in inclusive rather than agonistic manner. In our approach to the volume, we were inspired by the notion of multiperspectivism and tried to include a broad spectrum of intellectual orientations. We also thought that any potential conflicts and disagreements that could arise were a potential source of intellectual innovation.

Two areas of diversity and disagreement in the book are worth highlighting for this article. The first one has to do with the tensions between disciplinary and interdisciplinary approaches to the study of news — this is mirrored, to a certain degree, in the tensions between journalists and technologists in contemporary newsmaking. The second is between knowledge generated primarily with applied goals in mind, or mainly for scholarly purposes.

Regarding the tension between “disciplinary” and “interdisciplinary” approaches, scholars in the first group (to generalize broadly) often frame their intellectual arguments in relationship to other pieces of scholarship that also focus on journalism. They often attempt to generalize about their findings in ways that allow them to build a common theoretical apparatus and advance the state of knowledge about the news. These scholars are building a discipline while making knowledge; thus they have an investment in the institutional vitality of the news media as a source of legitimation of their scholarly enterprise.

The second group of scholars in the book, conversely, seemed more interested in “studies of journalism” rather than in journalism studies. These writers usually framed their journalism research as a case of something else — new media, political communication, cultural studies, and so on. Often, the chapters addressed other literatures as much as they addressed scholarship on the news. They also tended to include arguments for outward disciplinary connections rather than inward disciplinary growth, using journalism as a way of shedding light on cross-cutting social processes and phenomena.

Instead of fostering confrontation or falling into the trap of adjudication, we favored a stance of welcoming these diverse approaches. We tried to make visible their different assumptions and fostered productive conversations among the various perspectives. In the academy as much as in journalism, the goal of multiperspectivism is to turn what David Stark has called “creative friction” into new ways of seeing the world.

A second area of diversity and conflict present in the volume is between scholars who produce action-oriented media research and thinkers who conduct what some philosophers of science call “basic research.” This area cuts across the professional worlds of academics and journalists, since the former type of research is sometimes done either in part to engage professionals or wholly within industry and think tanks. It is also an old area of disagreement among both social scientists and journalists.

In our book, it is addressed primarily in the chapters by Talia Stroud and Matt Hindman. Stroud focuses on the distinction between studies that help the bottom line and those that help the quality of democratic life. She argues that the tension between “democratically-useful and industry-useful research is often overdrawn, and even when it exists, that this conflict can be productive,” thus concludes by offering alternatives that satisfy both research aims. In a related vein, rather than bemoaning journalists’ use of reader metrics or claiming that this use somehow debases or diminishes journalism, Hindman accepts metric deployment as a given and tries to discover an ethical use for them. Both Hindman and Stroud problematize critical and practical approaches to the study of news, therefore showing how diversity becomes a source of conceptual innovation.

Dispensing with nostalgia

Social scientists, like journalists, are in the business of sensemaking: finding out information about important phenomena and accounting for what happens in ways that are truthful and relevant to our publics. Academics, unlike journalists, study these phenomena but also build theories trying to find the logic behind them. The topics we choose and how we explain them tend to be shaped by the times we live in. So during the third quarter of the 20th century, when the industrialized mass media system was at its peak, scholars focused on issues such as the ability of the press to tell citizens which news stories to talk about, and the commingling of mass and interpersonal communication in shaping the effects of media on society. What emerged from that scholarly focus were both knowledge about media, culture, and politics and theoretical notions like agenda setting and the two-step model of influence.

In the social sciences, theories tend to have an inertia of their own by helping frame the process of inquiry long after the historical conditions that led to their development change. During periods of historical discontinuity, and especially at the beginning of them, this leads to a nostalgic reflex that is both scholarly and normative: The new phenomena are made sense with theoretical approaches from the past — they are the only ones we have at our disposal at the time, after all — and their implications are assessed, often negatively, in comparison to what was the norm before. Thus a sizeable portion of the scholarship on online news has applied notions like agenda setting and the two-step model to the current environment and has found that it is much more difficult for the press to set the agenda now than before, and that the ascent of social media to the pinnacle of power in the new media ecology has added layers of complexity to the relatively simple two-stage process of influence. This has been tied to common normative assessments yearning for the glorious Watergate days, when the press could supposedly focus people’s attention on what was important and Facebook and Twitter did not pollute the public sphere with a tsunami of fake news.

The problem with this kind of nostalgic stance is that it obliterates both theoretical imagination and practical possibilities. Overcoming nostalgia does not mean doing away with the conceptual tools and normative ideals of the past. It means not taking them for granted, and instead revisiting them in ways that do justice to the unique characteristics and potentials of the contemporary moment. For instance, how does the fact that most people access digital news from social media platforms and search engines affect the power of agenda setting by news organizations? Does the rise of personal publics on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter affect the influence exerted by co-located interpersonal networks and, if so, shouldn’t we think about a three-step flow, instead of the two-step process outlined by Katz and Lazarsfeld 60 years ago?

Yes, the golden days of the industrialized mass media system played a part in Watergate. But would that system have contributed to the Black Lives Matter movement with the same efficacy that the use of social media platforms by activists and the public at large did? And while it is possible that the contemporary mix of news and social media contributed to a rise in the volume of false information during the 2016 electoral cycle in the United States, this mix has also been credited with contributing to loosen oppressive information regimes as in the case of the Arab spring. We need to assess both sides of the coin concurrently.

Nostalgia provides reassurance and self-gratification, but it is also intellectually and socially stultifying. It is time to move on, make sense of the present by learning from history, not by clinging to it, in order to help shape more productive futures.

When certainties fade

If there is a common thread that cuts across these lessons about the value of diversity, the vitality of expanded storytelling options, and the importance of dispensing with a nostalgic stance is that they all challenge the certainties associated with homogeneous viewpoints, writing genres, explanatory models, and normative ideals. There is nothing inherently wrong with certainty; it can be quite productive, in particular during a period of historical stability.

But, going back to the opening of this article, the contemporary context is marked by rapid and widespread innovation, including in the research about, and practice of, journalism. In the words that Michel Foucault penned for The Order of Things and that anchored the introduction of our volume, this context “restor[es] to our silent and apparently immobile soil its rifts, its instability, its flaws; and it is the same ground that is once more stirring under our feet.” This feeling of great transformations can be unsettling and paralyzing, yet also exhilarating and liberating.

Above all, it reminds us that we are in the driver’s seat, and that perhaps we might not have the luxury of relying a whole lot on the routines and institutions that served us so well during the second half of the twentieth century. A renewed sense of agency might actually be the ultimate beauty of writing about our digital age.

C.W. Anderson is an associate professor at the College of Staten Island (CUNY) and the CUNY Graduate Center. Pablo J. Boczkowski is a professor in the School of Communication at Northwestern University.

Photo by HAT Triathlon used under a Creative Commons license.

Membership programs are paying off for news outlets — and so is helping them set up their programs

If you want readers to donate, you have to ask — often. It sounds obvious, but it’s a strategy many news organizations have been forced to become more comfortable with, and one that takes a lot of resources to really get right.

Before Hawaii’s Honolulu Civil Beat went nonprofit in late June of last year, it was charging $4.99 a month for access to its paywalled site, already significantly lowered from the $19.99 price point it tried out at launch. It had 1,100 recurring subscribers.

Since going nonprofit and starting a membership drive, average recurring monthly donations to the Pierre Omidyar-backed online news site rose to $12 — that’s $144 a year versus $60, even with all the stories free to read. It now has around 1,500 members.

“We haven’t reached our ceiling in terms of the number of donors, which continues to go up month after month,” Ben Nishimoto, director of philanthropy for the Civil Beat, said. “We’re seeing all the metrics of a healthy membership program, and a lot of that has to do with the structure and advice that the News Revenue Hub has offered.”

Civil Beat was among the first five organizations to join the News Revenue Hub, which for a fee takes on the heavy lifting of setting up membership programs — the software, the recruitment and retention, the messaging and maintenance — and facilitates an exchange of insights among participating outlets. The Hub, the brainchild of Mary Walter-Brown, first began last fall as an initiative of the nonprofit news site Voice of San Diego, an exemplar of sustainable digital news membership.

After helping the five pilot news organizations together raise more than a million dollars in half a year, News Revenue Hub has spun off into its own standalone organization, led by Walter-Brown (who’s now its CEO) with digital manager Tristan Loper (also previously of Voice of San Diego). It launched at a time when many news organizations were trying to rethink their mission and messaging post-U.S. election. Walter-Brown is now hoping to continue its early successes, adding five new organizations. (We’ve written separately about The Marshall Project and The Intercept’s challenges; the full list: InsideClimate News, NJ Spotlight, Honolulu Civil Beat, The Lens, PolitiFact, The Marshall Project, The Intercept, CalMatters, Youth Radio, and Rivard Report.) The Democracy Fund will continue to support some of the overhead costs for participating outlets.

“It’s been great from a couple of perspectives: The first, basically learning how to do this kind of fundraising, and then also, realizing there’s a definite benefit to asking often of people, more often than I think as organizations we previously felt comfortable doing, and that’s been gratifying,” Beth Daley, director of strategic development at InsideClimate News, said. “The support we have from individual members is dwarfed by support we get from foundations, for instance, but foundations also like to see that we’re diversifying our funding.” (In addition to money from memberships, InsideClimate News is also looking to raise $25,000 from readers to fund one reporting trip exploring the impacts of climate change across the U.S.)

“At first, I thought, gosh, I hope this wasn’t just this weird enigma. It’s starting to become more predictable, which is what I’m excited about,” Walter-Brown said. “We’re starting to see that membership can work for a PolitiFact, an InsideClimate News — organizations with national and global readers — that it can work for The Lens, NJ Spotlight, Civil Beat. And we’re now seeing the same thing for The Intercept — an international site focused on privacy and surveillance issues — when we weren’t sure how that was going to resonate with readers.” There’s already a bit of a waiting list of organizations eager to join, Walter-Brown said, and the Hub is looking to bring several more into the fold this year.

“We evaluate each client based on whether they have a base big enough and diverse enough to make it worth their while, whether they have the internal staff willing to dedicate the amount of time and energy to this that’s needed, whether they have the buy-in from the top, whether hey support the principle of building a true relationship with your audience,” Walter-Brown said. “It’s clear when you go through these conversations. There are some where I just say, ‘You’re not ready, but here are some tools you can use to build your audience, and let’s talk in six months.’ We don’t turn people away with a blanket ‘no.’”

While most of the organizations currently in the Hub are nonprofits, it’s not a requirement: PolitiFact, one of the five original pilot outlets, isn’t a nonprofit. It launched its program just before Donald Trump’s inauguration in January, and has since raised $200,000 in contributions and pledged donations. Three quarters of its members are part of the “informed” or “involved” tiers ($50 to $150 and $151-$500); only “a few dozen individuals have contributed $500 or more,” according to Emily Wilkinson, PolitiFact’s then-business development director.

Nor, of course, is a large national following a requirement. NJ Spotlight has added 470 members since it started its membership program, raising $86,000 most at the “engaged” or “informed” levels (a minimum $35 to $100; then $101-$500), Paula Saha, who oversees events, audience, and donor development at New Jersey state-focused nonprofit news service, told me.

“Most of them came in during our winter drive, but we’ve had a steady trickle since,” Saha said, crediting a well-tailored email campaign that starts with soft asks that get stronger as readers become increasingly familiar with the work NJ Spotlight does. “It’s been really nice to see the steady trickle; with recurring donors, it’s obviously a gift that keeps on giving, quite literally.” NJ Spotlight has worked to impress upon readers the value of memberships: happy hours, coffees, an intimate event for members with Senator Cory Booker (from the dedicated Slack group for News Revenue Hub organizations, it’s also gotten some ideas for events like trivia nights).

The News Revenue Hub, especially by facilitating technical setup and helping organizations understand and use better metrics (syncing Eventbrite with Salesforce, for instance), has freed up outlets to actually get to know their most dedicated readers. Honolulu Civil Beat has been able to host regular community events, such as taking groups out to neighboring islands or continuing its storyteller series, Mariko Chang, the Civil Beat’s membership and events manager, told me.

“Ben [Nishimoto] and I try to call all of our new donors as well, which takes people by surprise,” she said. “We let them know they can come to us if they have concerns. We ask them ways we can do our jobs better. It’s been helpful to have the time and resources now to make those personal connections while we can.”

The Hub itself will remain a small staff through the rest of 2017, but it also receives additional foundation support and is looking to raise half a million more to help with expansion.

“We’re hoping to be able to scale accordingly — eventually there may be different tiers of service, maybe a full-service option where they only need someone part-time and we’re providing more of the copywriting and execution. Then others may want to bring on a full staff like we had at Voice of San Diego, with an events manager, a digital manager,” Walter-Brown said. “I’m excited to explore what the service will look like in the long term, whether it’s an incubator for some organizations, a centralized place where they outsource tasks, for organizations that only want to focus on editorial.”

Chairs of different colors, by Steve, used under a Creative Commons license.

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