On platforms like Snapchat and Instagram, Stories are cute — they’re perfectly designed for your phone’s screen, they can feel more narrative than disconnected posts, you can be pithy while still including more information than a regular post, and you can communicate more directly with your audience. But they also have drawbacks: the public can’t really see them after 24 hours, and they’re accessible only by users of those apps. Continue reading “Can social Stories work for news organizations — without putting them on a platform?”
The great paywall tightening of 2017 continues. The New York Times said Friday that it will cut the number of free articles available to “most” non-subscribers each month from 10 to five, Bloomberg reported. The change is the most significant one the Times has made to its pay model since 2012, when it cut the number of monthly free articles from 20 to 10. (According to Bloomberg, “The Times may eventually offer a different number of free articles to non-subscribers based on how they arrive or their reading habits.”) Continue reading “The New York Times has halved its free monthly articles to 5, its most significant paywall change since 2012”
Five years is a long time, especially in the media business. It was five years ago this week that Mark Thompson took on the top job at The New York Times Company. It was an enterprise still wobbling from the effects of the Great Recession, its new paywall only a year old. The Huffington Post was trumpeting that it had surpassed the Times in digital traffic — a recognition of Google’s market power and of Facebook’s emergence. The Times was a shrinking enterprise. It had shed revenues, profits, staff, and share price. It had also shed its previous CEO, Janet Robinson. Publisher Arthur Sulzberger’s pick of Thompson to replace her surprised many; despite having led the BBC’s ongoing transition to the increasingly digital world, Thompson had no publishing management experience. And he was a Brit, plucked out of London to head America’s flagship newspaper company.
Democracy dies in dankness.
That’s not a typo in the Washington Post’s Reddit profile: The Washington Post account is an avid poster of some pretty good memes and gifs. It’s got jokes. It’s also a sharer of everything from polling stories to breaking national security stories to lifestyle columns to geeky features to fact-checks, and a facilitator of, and participant in, AMAs. The official publisher account has been live since April of this year, shortly after the platform began allowing public profiles, and appears to have broken through Reddit’s tough anti-brand, anti-paywall shell.
It’s been a year since The Washington Post started using its homegrown artificial intelligence technology, Heliograf, to spit out around 300 short reports and alerts on the Rio Olympics. Since then, it’s used Heliograf to cover congressional and gubernatorial races on Election Day and D.C.-area high school football games, producing stories like this one and tweets like this:
— WashPost HS Sports (@WashPostHS) September 2, 2017
As The Washington Post continues to make investments in video, the publisher is ensuring that its video journalists can handle everything from short-form vertical videos to live broadcasts to longer news documentaries.
The Post has big plans for its video business in 2017. Earlier this year, the publisher opened a new outdoor studio at its K Street headquarters and announced plans to nearly double its video team to 70 people by the end of 2017. Key content initiatives include doing more longer-form documentaries, personality-driven shows, scripted series and even a Snapchat Discover channel. This sort of effort requires video creators that have expertise in multiple types of storytelling and video formats — a skill set that is still hard to find today, according to Phoebe Connelly, deputy director of video for the Post.
“When we were sitting down for open positions and looking at hundreds of resumes, we were seeing candidates who were coming from top news organizations, who had incredibly impressive resumes, but were still narrow in their focus and skill set,” Connelly said.
For instance, some candidates who were talented when it came to shooting and editing videos were only familiar with shooting and editing for mid-form videos or a traditional broadcast news package. On the other end, interviewees that had more of a web background could easily demonstrate their knowledge about what kind of video makes sense for Snapchat or Instagram — and understood the audiences that watches videos on those platforms — but did not have the shooting skills required to create those videos.
To fix this, the Post started to cross-train its video team across all of the different video platforms and storytelling formats it focuses on. “Cross-training came out of our realization that the talent that we needed just wasn’t out there,” Connelly said.
The video polymath is a necessity in the current environment, where platforms like Facebook often drive video strategies. One minute the algorithm favors short videos, then long ones the next, then virtual reality.
Today, the Post’s video team is broken down into several different units: There are video editors embedded within desks across the newsroom; a universal news desk, which focuses on breaking news videos for the homepage, apps and Snapchat Discover; and a third team focused on long-form storytelling. More recently, the Post has also built out an on-camera team for personality-driven shows and a scripted team, which is working with the Post’s opinions desk to create shows.
The Post regularly rotates its video staffers from one group to the next: Video staffers embedded within various news desks will spend some time every month doing shifts on the universal news desk, where they can become more familiar with breaking news and live video. “When they go back to the politics or world desk, they’re taking that sensibility back with them — should something be a quick edit or a more thought-out package?” said Connelly.
The approaches other news publishers take vary. Reuters, for instance, is primarily focused on mid-form and live video within its mobile and TV apps, which means having its producers focus on more traditional video formats. Both Vox and Quartz prize video polymaths. NBC News, meanwhile, has a 30-person original video team that’s organized into several units: an “enterprise” team focused on longer form features and documentaries; a news team creating shorter breaking news and human interest pieces; and a couple of staffers focused on emerging video formats. NBC News also just launched a new 12-person digital studio — similar to CNN’s Great Big Story — that focuses on longer, less newsy and more cinematic storytelling. There is very little criss-cross between these divisions.
At The Washington Post, the broader newsroom is also getting involved with its video efforts. Reporter David Fahrenthold and other journalists will frequently do video interviews and field pieces, which require working with different parts of the video team. “The idea that maybe we can do a short vertical video piece [for a story] becomes part of their vocabulary and how they pitch story ideas,” Connelly said.
Supporting all of these efforts is a database of guidelines for different video formats and features. Routinely updated, these guidelines cover everything from how to upload 360-degree video to the assets any video staffer needs for publishing short videos to Facebook.
“It’s bananas as an industry if we expect and teach our talent to think, edit and report for a single platform,” said Connelly. “We have to set the expectation that the platform you’re using is going to change based on assignments, months or the audience you’re targeting for the story.”
The post How The Washington Post is training video polymaths appeared first on Digiday.
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Those three words — a request as old as the web — now drive the strongest strategy of our news era: reader revenue.
Today, The New York Times announces and starts to rollout the most significant redesign in its digital history. That redesign, 18 months in the arduous making, won’t turn heads or surprise many eyes, but its underlying thinking aims to empower the Times newsroom to deliver more timely, more nuanced, and more dramatic products to its readers — and thus for the Times to get more readers to pay for more of them. With this move and others, the Times aims to provide more and more reasons for readers to log in and get a constantly improving product offering as they move from phone to desktop to tablet to audio-on-demand and, eventually, to the new TV. Though the changes may not be flashy, they represent a significant change in strategy.
The Times calls the new system Vi — pronounced “vie”, not “six.” (Times watchers will note that an earlier redesign team was called NYT5.)
“People are inundated, surrounded with information 18 hours a day, and we understand that they get it from a variety of sources. So the question is: How do we, at any given moment across the day, across the globe, present the report in the most meaningful and easily accessible way that we can?” says Kinsey Wilson, the Times’ editor for innovation and strategy and executive vice president for product and technology. “That shift from platform to reader is what I would say is emphatically the pivot that we are making here.”
2015 and 2016 were all about platform for major news publishers — social discovery, distributed content, feeding Facebook — and this return to reader-centricity happens even as Facebook finally plans more publisher-friendly, subscription-supporting features. For the most part, the money in digital news is in attracting and retaining paying subscribers. Facebook, Google, Twitter, and other platforms can acquaint readers with top news brands, but it’s the on-site, on-browser, on-app experience that’s got to seal the deal.
“This year is the year for us to deliver on both our journalistic and our business ambitions,” Wilson says. “We not only have to create what we feel is one of the finest news reports in the world, but we have to deliver an experience that is the equal of the journalism.” That experience is based on product and service. It’s not the stream of news, as impressively as it has gushed this year; it’s how usable, convenient, and accessible publishers can now make it. Make no mistake, every slide from Mary Meeker, comScore and more confirm how much news reading has become a multidevice adventure. One goal here then is to make that journey more seamless.
“We know from our research that multi-platform/device subscribers retain better,” says Wilson. “A key differentiator is that readers who read broadly across a variety of subjects are more likely to subscribe and retain.”
He says the Times has overhauled its end-to-end digital publishing system “with the goal of being able to move with much greater speed, to do a better job at serving our audience, to create a systematic experience across all platforms…It lays the foundation for a much more rapid system of iterative development.”
That process includes moving the Times from running six platforms to a singular, responsive publishing system. “If I want to adjust a feature on the site today,” says Wilson, “I’ve gotta touch six different stacks of code to do that. What we’re moving to is pretty much a single stack.”
Ironically, the work, led by Wilson’s teams, should make life easier for the new product teams to be redeveloped as just-promoted COO Meredith Kopit Levien assumes responsibility for them, and Wilson leaves his position.
Readers will notice some changes — on the desktop NYTimes.com, on the mobile app’s display, in slow-moving personalization — over time, but Wilson says that only 10 to 20 percent of the impact of what’s possible will be seen soon by readers: “This is really just a huge investment in the next couple of years of product development.”
Let’s consider how this all fits into the Times’ subscriber-first strategy — which parallels similar strategies now being pursued by big players on both sides of the Atlantic. Take, for instance, Schibsted’s major second-generation platform initiative. In offering a bevy of tailored reader benefits (touts to stories of personal, contextual usage), “we will have 100 percent logged in users,” Terje Seljeseth, Schibsted’s chief product officer, told me last month. Quid pro quo: sign up, sign in, and get more — or stay anonymous and get less.
Within the last year, Schibsted’s popular daily VG has seen a 27 percent increase in digital subscriptions, and the company intends its technology to glue those payers and entice more of them into the fold.
Of course, The Washington Post’s Arc platform both meets and anticipates next-generation publishing technology needs as well and can claim partial responsibility for the Post surpassing 500,000 digital-only subscribers this year. News Corp — its technology strategy now led, in part, by two former New York Times executives, Marc Frons and Rajiv Pant — likewise looks to how its technology will build on reader loyalty and payment on three continents. News Corp’s Wall Street Journal can count 1.2 million digital-only subscribers.
All these companies emphasize the greater value of getting readers logged in. Their newsletter strategies have served as the newest weapon in that offensive, with the Times noting it has 13 million subscriptions to 50 email newsletters. As I’ve dug into both the Times and Post newsletter strategies, the new value of a registered, signed-in reader has become clear. It leads to greater engagement, increases conversion to subscription, and will power efforts toward that holy grail of personalization. While the Times won’t say how many registered readers it now counts, those millions — gained by subscription, by newsletter signup and more — are the ones this redesign most wants to please. Engage ’em. Log ’em in. Engage ’em some more. Get them to subscribe. It’s the new virtuous circle.
So, what will Times’ readers notice most, and where?
The Times believes that desktop readers will see the most change. In the screenshot below, you see a representation of what some desktop readers will see beginning today.
Clearly, the new desktop design borrows from the Times’ highly successful mobile products. I was glad to greet that arrival last year here at the Lab and would love to do the same with the new desktop one — but I can’t. The Times is acting on the research-driven understanding that “our home screen effectively communicated the news of the day, but was not as effective in communicating the full breadth of content offered by The Times,” says Paul Werdel, product lead on the home screen redesign and replatforming. It’s clearly more visual, and its top-right real estate resembles the top of the phone product: Morning Briefing, “The Daily” podcast, and New York Today, replacing the large current Opinion block. (The demotion of Opinion might seem odd at this political moment, but maybe the Times’ research backs up that decision.) “Latest” — breaking news — is now emphasized.
But overall it lacks the vitality and the informality that the Times mobile product embraces, still seeming more like an artifact of the 20th century than its in-our-pocket cousin. Perhaps it will evolve over time, or perhaps — as we’ve almost proven in 20 years — no one’s yet figured out how to translate the serendipity of print (and phone) to the deadweight computer.
The phone products will benefit from the redesign, too, of course. Wilson believes the greatest difference will be seen on the Times’ apps. Its two iOS apps — for iPhone and iPad — now will exist on a common codebase. “You’ll see only subtle design changes, at first, but you should see enhanced performance — and what we really get is the ability to publish web pages into it that are beautiful and fluid and include the vast majority of the features that we’ve been developing into our story pages, but have always had difficulty getting into our apps because we had to rebuild them in our apps.”
App users have come to become more and more meaningful for the Times — and for their peer competitors. In May, the Times’ iOS and Android apps represented 27 percent of its daily active user and generated 37 percent of its overall pageviews.
As of today, the Times will have released the new mobile browser version of the redesign to about a quarter of its users, with the new app iterations deploying soon.
Perhaps no potential impact of this redesign may be as important as “personalization” — a term some in the news business complain has now lost all meaning, given both its immense possibility and vagueness. For the Times, personalization so far has meant mostly a little geolocation — tailoring newsletter and other delivery by continent and more.
Since at least the introduction of My Yahoo (which required active selection of user preferences) two decades ago, personalization’s been a fraught word in the news business. Remember the debates about “one to many” and “many to one” and “one to one”? They’re still in the air, but the technology — and the analysis of reader data — has clearly matured. Personalization — a harder or softer tailoring to signed-in readers’ preferences — is now much more doable. And it will be part of what the Times, along with those other advanced tech players in global news, will test out this year. But their caution remains.
“We have to be very careful that people don’t feel that we’re any way limiting or restricting or filtering the news report,” Wilson says. “One of the things Times readers value most is the serendipity of the Times. What they get from the Times, and the knowledge that what they see, other people are seeing, and that the judgment of Times editors is being fully applied to things. So we’re not gonna mess with that.”
Quite true — that’s part of the brand promise of the big publishers who have generated hundreds of thousands of paying digital readers.
Still, we all want a little more of what we like most. So the pages we get — over time — will reflect that, a game of percentages that I believe will be imperceptible but agreeable to most of us.
As the new desktop NYTimes.com rolls out to 1 percent of the audience today, this redesign also marks a major departure in how the Times debuts its technology changes.
“Last year, we were still very much in the waterfall mode, where design had a high degree of control over how the redesigns were being executed — things were finished to within a pixel of their lives, and the redesign was pushed out the door to pretty much 100% of the audience,” says Wilson. Today, as that desktop audience tests out the new tech, the Times believes it can adjust to needed changes on the fly. “You get it in front of people, see how they react, get their feedback. We will notify people that they are in the test, and we’ll give them the ability to flip back to the current site. It’s the best way to do development and understand what’s really working for the audience and what’s not, rather than doing endless research and testing and trying to survey people and get stuff in front of them.”
There are a half billion other reasons for avoiding flip-the-switch changes. Says Wilson: “We now are running a $500 million digital business, and you don’t want to be making big, disruptive changes without understanding the economic consequences.”
When I was first a reporter in a radio newsroom in Spain in the late nineties, typewriters and reel-to-reel tape machines were still the norm. A few decades later, a single person in front of a touch screen can run a whole radio station like a one-man band. But even more than they have affected the profession, technology, digital publishing, and emerging media platforms have complicated the business of journalism beyond recognition.
The strategies developed by traditional and digital media serve as a model—in some cases to survive the digital transformation and in others to disrupt the news market. The way I see it, however, brands don’t need to stick to a single template. The structure of a brand newsroom or a content team is more agile than that of a media newsroom, their needs more diverse, and their stories more varied than news stories. It stands to reason that they would cherry pick the best ideas for every circumstance.
There is one condition. Content hubs have to be digital publications capable of creating value by themselves. If they are able to do that, companies can personalize their digital publishing as much as they want, and that’s why they need to know their options. Here’s how Lydia Polgreen, who in December succeeded Ariana Huffington as head of the renamed HuffPost, is revitalizing the digital news company.
A Redesign in Search of Tabloid Roots
To date, the Huffington Post has seventeen editions globally, and more than half of its monthly unique users are international. That’s reason enough for global brand publishers to keep an eye on the ideas the digital newspaper is putting in place to regain some of the 30 million monthly users lost over the past two years while still keeping it true to its tabloid-inspired origins.
1. The Splash
As Julia Beizer, HuffPost’s head of product, told NiemanLab, “When we sat down to think about what we wanted the site to look like, we did all the things we usually do—looked at user data, analyzed traffic patterns. But we also asked ourselves, what do we think makes us who we are? The answer was: our splash.”
The HuffPost’s most popular splashes, with their punchy short headlines, work well both in the webpage and across platforms.
The concept refers to the way a newspaper splatters a story or picture on the page to make it noticeable, much like a tabloid’s front-page stories. Marketers should be aware that this carries all the qualities commonly associated with the tabloid press: popular in style, with eye-catching layout, big headlines, plenty of images, and a focus on sensational stories. Splashes don’t provide much actual content; they only work as a hook to get visitors interested.
Beizer describes splashes as “funny, immediate, bold, [and] of the moment.” In brand publishing, they can get a lot of shares and serve to visually connect the company’s homepage and its activity across different distribution platforms. Splashes could be especially useful in a real brand newsroom—that is, a team with the ability to react in real time and with confidence that their readership is familiar and comfortable with the format.
2. The Readers’ Participation
Beizer previously served as the director of mobile product at The Washington Post, where Amazon founder Jeff Bezos encouraged a spirit of radical experimentation after he bought the newspaper in 2013.
Beizer has instilled some of the same values and passion into the HuffPost. In January 2016 she told NiemanLab that “what’s interesting about the brand is that […] it has a really active voice. I want to extend that sensibility throughout our products. That’s a big challenge—how to make news articles feel as active as the writing on the page is.” In October they launched Action Button as part of a collaboration with the technology company Speakable, fellow news outlets Vice and the Guardian, and a group of nonprofits including Amnesty International, CARE, and UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency).
The Action Button enables the audience to act on the stories they care about by signing a petition, taking a poll, donating to an NGO, or emailing a policymaker. A tool like this can give marketers a great starting point for advancing a more customer-focused culture. Often the readers of brand content, much like the readers of newspapers, feel compelled to respond to a story but are frustrated when leaving a comment doesn’t take them as far as they would like to go. They want the active voice that Julia Beizer talks about, and something like the Action Button makes it possible for those interested to change headlines instead of being passive consumers and spectators.
3. Third and Foremost—the Story
Editor-in-chief Lydia Polgreen took charge of The Huffington Post after a fifteen-year career with The New York Times. Her experience in two very different media settings gave her insight as to how to reach an audience outside those who are willing to pay for their news. In her view, there seems to be nothing better than finding a story that resonates with them. When asked how she wanted to approach Obama voters who became Trump voters, people who are in her own words “passive consumers of news,” Polgreen considered her own experience.
“Did you read de Tocqueville in college? So de Tocqueville talks about how what makes American democracy possible is this idea of ever-expanding opportunity and optimism. And the fact that our optimism is built on the premise that you could in one generation go from—take my story. My mother was born a daughter of a coffee farmer in Ethiopia. One generation and here I am running this big news organization, right?”
Choose the right story in order to reach the audience you’re aiming for. Digital publishers can certainly take that away from journalism, but they have to gain the reader’s trust first. In order for stories to be effective, storytellers need credibility.
Building Trust and Authority in the Era of Fake News
Post-election studies have shattered many commonly-held beliefs about fake news.
The BBC reported that fact-checking websites are noticing a rise in anti-Trump, “left-wing fake news,” but their evidence is merely their own experience. CBS, on their side, took a more technical approach and asked the Internet advertising company Trade Desk to investigate for them using specialist software. They were surprised to find that liberal fake news readers are more likely than the general population to be affluent and college-educated, and on the conservative side are more likely to be among the top 20 percent of income earners.
But regardless of demographics, everyone agrees that most fake news sites just care about generating clicks. So how can readers protect themselves against unscrupulous broadcasters and their own appetite for bias-confirming stories? Brooke Binkowski from Snopes, the same fact-checking website that the HuffPost uses for trustworthiness ratings, told the BBC’s Trending team, “[A]sk yourself, by reading the headline, what emotions do I feel? Am I really angry, scared, frustrated, do I want to share this to tell everybody what’s going on? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then check your sources.”
Corporate publishers definitely care about clicks and they often appeal to emotions, so many are certainly wondering if it’s possible to be both trustworthy and popular at the same time.
The HuffPost answer is called The Flipside.
Headlines for The Flipside are a reflection of the previous two hours of Twitter feeds from fourteen publications. They are displayed in an interactive graphic designed using Snopes.com trustworthiness rankings and the 2016 Public Opinion Quarterly study for ideological rankings. Readers can explore different topics and tap the bubbles to see headlines from each publisher.
Content marketers can surely see here all the possibilities of curated headlines or news stories as they relate to their field of activity or to the interests of their audience. Being able to display different points of view on a topic that matters to customers shows expertise and will certainly help to build authority and engagement.
How to Plan a Strategy Using Journalistic Models
Brand publishers can afford to be more flexible than a news organization, as their company’s primary business is not information. This can be seen in the distribution alternatives available to firms.
Content distribution no longer relies solely on corporate websites. Distributed content is consumed on Facebook’s Instant Articles, on Snapchat’s Stories stream, on LinkedIn’s long-form posts, through Twitter Cards, and in numerous other ways. It means that digital publishing no longer has control over distribution, but it also means that content ends up finding the public anyway—if brands choose the right strategy.
A recent report from the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University shows the different ways that organizations like The New York Times and The Huffington Post use the platforms available to them. While the former utilizes more networked posts, aimed to draw in readers willing to pay for their news, the HuffPost prefers native content that maximizes their reach, since they don’t depend on subscriptions.
This is what I mean by flexibility. A business may find that the tabloid format of the HuffPost suits its content best, but if the goal is to link back to a main site, then The New York Times distribution choices are certainly a better fit—and it’s no problem to adopt them. Whatever combination digital publishers decide to use, they must strive to keep their content recognizable, wherever it appears.
Brand journalism can be every bit as innovative as traditional journalism, and there is nothing wrong with taking hints from media companies from time to time. The greatest discovery for marketers, anyway, is the realization that they too can inform and entertain their audience—instead of walking in front of the screen when the movie has started.
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Featured image attribution: Jon Ottosson
The post How the Huffington Post Redesign Can Inspire Digital Publishing appeared first on The Content Standard by Skyword.
Jarrod Dicker, head of commercial product and tech at The Washington Post, joined members of Digiday+ on Slack for Town Hall Thursday. Digiday editors and Digiday+ members discussed with Dicker the Post’s investment into ad tech, integrating technology into all aspects of the newsroom and how Jeff Bezos influences the Post’s approach to everything from platforms to ad tech.
Become a member of Digiday+ here. We hold Slack town halls every two weeks, and in between, we’ll have editorial chats and group discussions on industry topics. Please join us.
Here’s what you missed from our discussion with Dicker.
Experimentation is key.
“It may sound cliche, but we want every technology arm at the company to feel comfortable with taking risks inside and outside their scope of work. For us, the main thing was integrating tech throughout our entire organization; newsroom, sales, research. And through that, having technology influence how we execute in each pocket of business.”
Owning ad tech has several advantages.
“By building our own ad tech, we differentiate [ourselves] in the marketplace and we create that’s not currently out there. It allowed us to: one, save money on vendor costs and two, control the tech that powers our revenue. While it’s necessary to leverage outside tech, it’s actually insane how much dependence publishers had on third-party ad tech to drive their revenue. They forfeit too much control. [Having control] has allowed us to actually define what ‘good’ ad tech is; we build faster rendering systems, we have lighter experiences, we build tech that lets brands build publisher-style executions, etc.”
These technologies are not limited to the Post.
“Speaking for [Post R&D arm] Red, not one of those technologies are limited to the Post. For display (PostPulse), video (FlexPlay), performance (Zeus), instant (Fuse) et al, they are independent of the WP platform. For Red, think of WashPost as the breeding ground for building and stress testing these products. The goal is to influence the market and make everything available to anyone. The arc publishing suite has licensable technology built by Post development teams across organizations for white label use. The products are newsroom specific, brand specific, revenue specific, analytics, etc. We have 80-100 million UVs a month at a given time; it’s an excellent venue to test all product and see how we can change the market in multiple ways.”
The Bezos Effect is focus.
“There are a lot of Jeffisms (internal term for Jeff quotes) we use to motivate our focus. [Investing in ad tech] is a Bezos influence. Publishers need to invest in different teams in order to excel in this space. You don’t want it to distract your core business. While influenced by the organization, it needs to have its own arm in order to actually be valuable.”
Platforms are more than just immediate returns.
“The common theme is Jeff’s influence, and I think that’s allowed us to take an educational approach to platforms over an operational one. 90 per cent of the publishers are looking for immediate returns from Amp and Instant (usually greater than CPM). While we obviously care about those things, what’s more important to us is what we can learn from them and how we leverage those learnings to make our product and environment better. For example, PWA, Fuse, Zeus; all these products were influenced by platforms. And yes, we’re still on them and experimenting. The goal is to drive subs while leveraging FAN [Facebook Audience Network] and backfill to drive revenue on that extension.”
It was late April and the staff of the Coral Project was “on tenterhooks” as The Washington Post was conducting its first public test of Talk, the project’s new commenting platform, Andrew Losowsky recalled recently.
The Washington Post — which launched the Coral Project along with The New York Times, Mozilla, and the Knight Foundation to improve communities around journalism — invited about 30 commenters who were active on its Capital Weather Gang blog to try out the platform and offer feedback. The callout attracted more than 130 comments, which included Post staffers probing commenters for more details and specifics, and additional reactions submitted through a form and email.
“We were expecting people to be quite negative,” said Losowsky, the project lead. “Initial change isn’t something that people tend to welcome. It looks a bit different, it has a few different features, and the responses we got were actually very good and very respectful and thoughtful. That’s, of course, what can happen when you openly make clear that you are listening to and engaging with your readership.”
The Post plans to make the Talk platform its primary on-site commenting system, and it’s now working to further integrate it into its site with plans “to launch as soon as is practical,” said Greg Barber, the Post’s director of digital news projects.
The Coral Project, meanwhile, is taking that feedback from the Post’s users and integrating some of the changes they suggested into the platform.
Talk will replace the Post’s current commenting platform, which it calls Reverb, internally, Barber said. “It was born of necessity because our commenting vendor went out of business and we needed a solution, so we made one,” he said. “It was created during a time after the Coral Project had been announced but the Coral software wasn’t yet ready, so we needed an interim solution…it was never intended to be a permanent solution to our commenting needs. Coral was.”
The Coral Project launched in 2014 with a three-year, $3.89 million grant from the Knight Foundation that was set to expire this summer. The project has been able to secure additional funding from Mozilla and the Rita Allen Foundation to continue its work, Losowsky said, adding that they’re in conversations with additional funders, including Knight. (Disclosure: Knight also supports Nieman Lab.)
Along with Talk, Coral has also released Ask, a platform that enables newsrooms to ask specific questions of their audience, and it’s planning to release guides to journalism and engagement later this year.
While the Post will be the first news organization to use the Talk system, the Coral Project is in talks with a number of other outlets who didn’t want to be among the earliest adopters, Losowsky said.
Talk was designed with the idea in mind that a commenting platform should be more than just an empty box at the bottom of a story. As journalism business models become increasingly reliant on direct reader revenue — digital subscriptions are all the rage right now — Losowsky said commenting systems should work to proactively engage readers and build community around the news:
Almost everybody online knows how to post something on Facebook or Twitter. The barriers to entry to being able to publish your thoughts online is [low]. As a result of that, news organizations need to think about what is the kind of dialogue they want to host versus the kind of dialogue that will appear elsewhere. I think it’s perfectly fine to say that there are rules here that are different from rules in other spaces, and if you want to do some other form of interaction, you can go and do it over there — but this is the kind of thing we’re looking for here. These are the baseline assumptions that we have here. Here are the things we’re trying to do with it. This is what this space is for versus that space.
Being able to really define that, I think, is going to be really important. On the one hand, news organizations are not going to win in a battle with Facebook to create the best social network. But what news organizations can do is create a space which gives direct access to the journalists, that has the ability to bring the community into the process and be part of the process, manage interaction on the news organizations’ terms rather than Facebook’s terms about what is visible, what moderation tools you have, about the ability to focus and highlight on different conversations and so on. And news organizations can be transparent about how they’re using people’s data and really safeguard the privacy and transparency around the data of every interaction that they’re having with the community.
On every article, news orgs using Talk can set an opening prompt at the top of the box to try guide the discussion and keep the conversation on-topic. Other features meant to facilitate productive discussions include the ability to add context to reports of inappropriate comments, banned words that are automatically rejected and suspect words that are flagged for moderation, and badges for staff members so they’re easily identifiable.
Outlets can also personalize the way users can respond to comments. The default, based on research from the Engaging News Project, is a “respect” button instead of a “like” button.
Moderators are able to ban users directly from the comment, and the moderation dashboard automatically highlights banned and suspect words. They can also pin their favorite comments at the top of the feed, to highlight the best comments and also set the tone for the conversation.
“There are a lot of things that we’re focusing on — first of all, from the commenter’s perspective, really thinking about how do we indicate what’s wanted in the space and use subtle cues to encourage and improve the behavior,” Losowsky said. “Then, from the moderator or journalist’s side, how do we create tools to make it fast and easy to be able to do the actions that they need to take — remove the bad content, ban users who are abusing the system, suspend those who in some way are perhaps redeemable or having a bad day and give them a time out, and then be able to not only approve but highlight really good comments so that you’re indicating the kind of behavior you want to encourage.”
Talk, like everything The Coral Project has produced, is open source, so outlets can build upon it as they like and the entire Talk system is built around plugins, with the idea that publishers can tailor the system to their needs. The Coral Project also offers hosting services, which could be useful for smaller newsrooms.
For its part, the Post has been conducting quality assurance testing and also making sure the code in Talk doesn’t interfere with any of the other Post’s services. It was also tested on the Post’s development and staging servers to make sure everything worked properly before it was rolled out to users.
Barber said the test in late April was unusual because the Post conducted it before it was able to hook Talk up to its own authentication system, which is one of the ways that it’s customizing the platform to hook up to its infrastructure. The Post is also connecting Talk to the systems it uses to monitor its servers and hooking it into its CMS so comment streams can automatically be created for stories.
“The Coral Project group is continuing to build core features onto Talk and to take some of its features and turn those into plugins that are more accessible to organizations like the Post, so that we can tinker with them, as we’re often wont to do, to customize in different ways,” Barber said. “Other organizations that are interested in customizing in the same way that we are — or in ways that are different from what we want to do — will have that capability as well. The Coral team, of course, is critical to this. They’re building the main software, they’re building the main functionality, they’re giving us the spaces to customize the bits and pieces we want to work in specific ways. But then what The Washington Post team is doing is working on specific plugins that might not fit Coral’s overall strategy, but are things that we want to do here.”
The Coral Project team is also working on adding new features based on the feedback it received from Post commenters who tested out Talk last month. The current Post commenting system, for instance, allows readers to edit comments. Talk didn’t. They’re now working on adding an edit feature to Talk. Outlets will be able to set a time limit for — maybe five or 10 seconds — for commenters to read over their post and edit it before it goes live.
“If you change your mind, if you regret it, if you see a typo you still have a window in which you can edit and change it,” Losowsky said. “That was something that was requested by a number of different Washington Post people.”
Barber and Teddy Amenabar, the Post’s comments editor, were active in the comments for the test last month, thanking users for feedback and asking questions such as “Anything missing that you’d like to see in a new system?” They collected that feedback and created a spreadsheet with the information that they then shared with the Coral Project. The Coral Project plans to take that feedback and continue to build out Talk while also looking for ways to help news organizations develop their engagement strategies and define what kind of conversations they want to host on their own platforms.
“What do you want from us in this space from the perspective of the audience? And from the perspective of the journalist, what do we want in this space? What do we want to happen here? By outlining and making clear what your expectations are for the space, you’re already creating a greater likelihood of success.”
Publishers aren’t just offering a few free articles per month. They’re building in sweeping exceptions that allow tech-savvy readers—and often simply those entering through search or social media—to access most or all of what subscribers pay for.
But there’s another factor that probably plays into how deluged we seem to be with news: Every time something happens, major or minor, our phones vibrate with an update — often from multiple outlets. How often does that happen? The Post has been tracking those alerts from multiple outlets for some time. Save a data error earlier this month, this is what those alerts look like over the past 30 days.
The Washington Post is launching an augmented-reality series today, the start of a push into AR-enhanced storytelling this year.
The first series uses AR to let people explore innovative buildings around the world, starting with the Elbphilharmonie concert hall in Hamburg, Germany, whose structure lets visitors hear and see the same thing no matter where they sit. Readers can access the story on the Post’s app on iOS devices, then point their smartphone’s camera at the ceiling of any room they’re in and tap play. The real ceiling is transformed into the concert hall ceiling while an audio narration by Post art and architecture critic Philip Kennicott plays. Users can also tap a prompt to read an accompanying article by Kennicott.
With AR’s obvious application to visual stories, Kennicott said there’s a question of whether AR will replace the need for critics like him. To him, the answer is that AR can enhance, rather than replace the experience, and hence make criticism more interesting and relevant to readers. “It’s a great way to get people a lot more than what they’re getting from a photographer or video,” Kennicott said.
The series will continue with at least two more installments through the end of the summer. The Post hopes to do around six AR series total this year and plans to expand the AR stories to Android and its Rainbow app.
The Post deliberately started small, with the first video in the series only running about 10 seconds, said Joey Marburger, the Post’s head of product. “With that quick experience, you get more out of the story,” he said. “But we didn’t want it to be the only way you can experience the story. We didn’t want to overdo it.”
Audi is sponsoring the series. Its first ad will appear as a visual, and future ads will take the form of AR branded stories in upcoming installments.
AR is still a new experience for most people and requires prompts to get people to try it. It also doesn’t make sense for every story. But the Post made it a priority this year because unlike virtual reality, it’s less expensive, doesn’t require a headset and advertiser demand is there, Marburger said. The series took six people in editorial and engineering to produce, which is comparable to the size of teams it puts on other projects.
Companies are investing in AR, which suggests the potential for more widespread adoption, and when that happens, the Post wants to be ready. The other argument for AR is that it’s a way to keep people engaged with a publisher’s native app, which has higher engagement than a publisher’s website.
“We think it’ll be more widely adopted — you can really see it bubbling up — and we wanted to be at the forefront of that so by the time it takes off, we’re really good storytellers there,” Marburger said.
Image: Orgelbau Klais Bonn
The post The Washington Post is diving into augmented reality appeared first on Digiday.
Editor’s note: Last weekend was the latest edition of my favorite journalism conference, the International Symposium on Online Journalism in Austin. You can catch up on what you missed through these two epic YouTube videos of the two days’ livestreams.
But there were two talks in particular that I thought Nieman Lab readers might be interested in seeing, from America’s two top newspapers, The New York Times and The Washington Post. Both Andrew Phelps, an editor on the Times’ Story[X] newsroom R&D team, and Joey Marburger, the Post’s director of product, spoke about how they were using bots in their news operations.
Today, we’re publishing transcripts (lightly edited for clarity) of their two talks. Below is Joey’s talk; Andrew’s is over here.
Where basically, like, robots aren’t supposed to kill you — until they try to kill you. Hopefully, a conversational journalism won’t ever try to kill you.
So I developed basically three quick laws. But they’re they’re pretty spot on to the Laws of Robotics, which is: We don’t want to spread false information. It should follow what a human journalist tells it to do, unless the human tells it to spread false information.
We’ve done a lot of experiments on bots. And we’re very excited about it, because it’s this great, simple experience, and the technology is getting so much better for it: AI’s getting better. big data’s more accessible. So we knew we wanted to try a bunch of things and see what’s out there, because it’s kind of hard to have a ton of successes when you’re on the bleeding edge.
I’m going to go over three bots, which are kind of our favorites, but we actually have almost 100 bots actually. Like 99 percent of them are internal, though.
So this is our most successful reader-facing bot: It’s called the Feels Bot. About 30 days prior to the U.S. presidential election, if you opted into it on our politics Facebook page, we would message you in the evening and ask you how you felt about the election. And it was just five emoji responses, from super angry to happy — and we would curate all that. Then in the morning, we would show you a graph of how people were feeling.
We knew that we had to have a cadence in alerting people but not annoying people, because we had already built a bot for that. It was just a general news bot which didn’t do very well — which we figured would happen. Even though there are a billion people on Facebook Messenger, I don’t think anyone’s built a bot that has that many users.
So this was really fun to work on — and it was curated by a human. It had a low user account — like less than 10,000 people. But the engagement — meaning people actually answered the question every day for 30 days — was greater than 65 percent, because it’s simple. It asks you a simple question; it was a very charged election. And, you know, if you ask people how they feel, turns out they’ll tell you, which is great.
So we’d generate these social cards from it and highlight a few. Some of the best responses we’d share on Twitter, put them up on our site. We generated these little graphics out of it were really fun, and we did this every day for 30 days, which is a great exercise. Empathy is a powerful driver in conversation.
Another thing we call our Virality Oracle is a Slack bot in a Slack channel — a public channel inside the Post — that is powered by a really amazing algorithm from our data science team. From the second that a story is published, it starts monitoring it and it knows within the first 30 minutes of publishing if it’s basically going to be viral. (It’s really “popular” — “viral” is kind of a loaded word.) And it notifies the channel, so we can maybe go in and add something of the story, or start writing off of it a little bit. We get about three to five stories like this in a day. And then it also models out a 24-hour traffic window, and then the bot also emails us to digest, so we can see like the lifecycle of stories. This is really a bot as a tool — so it’s like a service bot or utility bot. It’s very handy.
So this is actually the data behind the bot, which I’m not going to go into in super detail. Our prediction model is taking in all these data points — this bot is just eating and gobbling up. We ran it for a long time, almost a year, for the machine learning to get really accurate. And we ran it on every story published — about 300 stories a day.
And we found we’d add in a new metric and it would get a little better. And now we’re at about 80 percent competency.
Whenever a reporter starts a story, they actually put in when they plan to publish it. So what is the deadline — which can always be changed. So if you’re behind, it will tell you: Hey, you’re either really close to deadline or you missed your deadline. It personally messages you — it doesn’t, like, shame in a channel or anything. And it’s really funny when it messages Marty — which I think has maybe happened once.
So this is a pretty cool thing too, called Heliograf, which is another way to think of a bot. It’s not a conversational bot, but it takes in data points from a feed and can basically craft stories very simple short stories, based on templates. Anybody every play Mad Libs? You know, put in a noun, pick an adjective, whatever? This is kind of what that does.
So we used this for the Olympics and for elections. We published a story on every single Olympic event, because of Heliograf. And then for elections, we posted a story on every single race in the U.S. on Election Night, and generated newsletters, generated tweets. We did all sorts of fun stuff from it. So it was a bot that was helping us do better journalism.
Audio bots are super, super huge right now. Amazon doesn’t call Alexa a bot, even though pieces of it inside are a bot. They like to refer to it as like it’s an operating system, as audio AI.
Our politics Flash Briefing was one of our fastest-growing products last year. We caught the wave just right — there’s a reason that the Echo is out of stock on Amazon all the time. They’re actually outselling a lot of their other hardware. Jeff Bezos, our owner, is personally driving this road map, which also gives you an indicator of how successful it is. And it’s super fun.
But what we’re thinking about bots and how it plays into your day-to-day life and your habit is: Bots can do very simple tasks. It shouldn’t do everything, because then you’ve got a lot of cognitive overhead, it’s a lot of work. Sometimes you don’t know what to ask a bot, other than, like, “What’s the news?” So we’re thinking about — the future’s here. You can build these things — and actually now there are a lot of tools, you can build them pretty easily. Amazon has a tool called Lex, which — point-and-click, you can build a pretty robust bot without any code. So the future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed — which is a quote from William Gibson, another science fiction writer. And I think this is super true for bots. Bots aren’t totally new — they’re just getting more accessible. It’s almost becoming a household name.
So we think bots can fill all these spaces between platforms — like, on different platforms, but also they fill in these gaps a little bit between things. A bot could notify you to catch you up on where you left off in a story while you were listening to it on the train into work. You sit down your desktop, and it’s like: “Hey buddy, here’s where you were in that story.” It like fills that space a little bit. This is what we’re starting to work on a lot right now; we’re calling it a handoff bot.
I remember bringing this up in the newsroom — nobody really understood it. “Why would we do this?” Especially when you do the first one and it gets like five people that use it — you’re like, “We got to keep doing it!” And it turns out that you learn a lot from experimenting. When things are really simple and really hard, it’s very attractive to a designer and a product person. So we’ll be we’ll be iterating on bots for a long time to come.