New Model Journalism

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Content farmers’ harvest proves hard to collect

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Analysis by Tim Dawson

“When you pay nothing, you are the product” goes the saying.  As a truism it might pre-date the internet, but it is a sentiment whose perfect expression occurs in the relationship between content farms and their users. Cheaply-generated material on search-engine-optimized pages, surrounded by advertisements seemed, a year ago, as though their rolling progress would soon see them dominating the internet and reduce search engines to the status of satellite states.

In January, the biggest of these operations, Demand Media, was launched on the New York Stock Exchange with 8.9m shares successfully offered at $17 each.

On balance, that launch might represent the high-water mark of so-called content farms.  In February, Google announced that it was launching “a pretty big algorithmic improvement to our ranking”.  It quickly became evident that the target of these changes was “the proliferation of low quality sites”.  Of course the search giant did not specify which sites it had in mind – but it has become known at ‘the farmer update’, it immediately made it more difficult for low-quality pages to achieve higher rankings.

As it turned out, the farmer update was simply the first part of a year-long roll out of algorithm changes that Google has introduced throughout 2011 (known collectively at Panda), all intended to keep the search engine ahead of sites such as Facebook and the Twitter.  The search algorithm itself is one of Google’s most closely guarded secrets, and is thought to contain over a1,000 tests that can be applied to sites that it ranks.  At least 200 are thought to be applied to every search.

And Google were by no means the only organization that was beginning to cast a critical eye on content farms.  The Internet Content Syndication Council has been around since 2007 and includes such bastions of journalism as The Associated Press (US) Thompson Reuters and the Tribune Co.  It issued a press release saying: “an issue that is causing concern among its members: the rising tide of poorly produced informational content, specifically designed to score high on search”.

There was disquiet at the other end of the industry too.  Demandstudiossucks.com, started by Patrick O’Doare, a Demand Studio freelancer provided both a critical focus on the company, and a forum where others who worked for them but felt ill-treated could make common cause.  It is precisely the sort of initiative that on one or two occasions has allowed freelances to take control back of a negotiating situation in which publishers assumed that they held all the power.

That is not to say, of course, that a case cannot be made for content farms.  There are serious and successful journalists such as Julian Marszalek who argues that the crumbs of cash that can be made from content farms are a useful to generate income while you might otherwise be idle.  And, for anyone who has ever tried to do something as esoteric as change the brake light on a 15 year old Volvo estate (to take just one example), there are few things more useful than the answers to be found on sites such as Demand’s eHow.

Whatever one thinks of such operations, however, as the year end approaches, it is clear that they are no longer having it their own way.  Where once they appeared to be a column of tanks, inexorably pushing their way across cyberspace, they now look as though they will have to scrabble to hold their current position, just like everyone else.

As I write, Demand Media’s shares are trading at $7.90 each, having been as low as $5.24.  Not Stalingrad by a long chalk – but surely evidence that Google’s Marshall February is not to be dismissed lightly.

 

Written by Tim Dawson

December 5th, 2011 at 9:17 am

Patch takes on the ‘hood’

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Case study by Tim Dawson.

When Alex Trebek, the host of US tv show Jeopardy fell chasing a burglar last week he gave Patch.com one of their biggest stories of the year.  The San Francisco site of the national hyperlocal news network got the story.  News of the silver-haired 71 year old taking up chase and then snapping his Achilles tendon made newspapers across the States, most of whom credited Patch.

Scanning the cuttings over the past few months, it is curious, however, that the 800 or so sites that make up the Patch network have not broken more big stories.  With rumours that revenue from Patch is unimpressive, it begs the question, is the multi-million dollars that are being invested in Patch annually money well-spent on the part of owners AOL?

Patch was formed in 2007 by Tim Armstrong, who had been an ad executive at Google.  He was inspired by his frustration that he could not find volunteer opportunities in his area.  His local paper rejected his suggestion of a hyper-local news site, so he set about creating one himself.  In 2009 he sold the company to AOL for around $7m, and in the process Armstrong became AOL’s chief executive.

Today the company employs hundreds of local editors, each running a community-specific site.  They earn between $38,000 and $45,000 for which they are expected to file around five stories a day from home.  A report in the New York Times, however, suggested that at the start of 2011, each story was averaging only 100 views a day.   A story that clocked up 500 views was considered a ‘wild success’.  One ratings agency puts Patch’s annual unique visitors at three million – a significant rise on the previous year, however.

The quality of the sites is variable.  Some carry genuinely meaty stories.  Others read like they have been filled in a hurry to make up the numbers.  Most sites are based on relatively prosperous towns, rather than major urban areas, the idea being that these will be more attractive to advertisers. 

Bill Lynch, the editor in chief of the Sonoma Index-Tribune, a biweekly paper in California, told The New York Times that he doubted whether many people in his town had even heard of Patch. 

In 2010 AOL is understood to have invested $50m in Patch and it has yet to release figures showing revenue.  The Observer recently reported, however, that: “leaked accounts from California show early struggles availing very little, if not almost no, (revenue)”.

Perhaps if a few more celebrities suffer injuries in sight of Patch reporters, the sites will start to generate the attention and critical mass that it needs.  Until then, the jury remains out on the economics of nationally co-ordinated hyperlocal sites.

Written by Tim Dawson

August 1st, 2011 at 8:48 am

Back to the future with Huffington Post UK

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Comment by Alex Klaushofer.

The much-heralded Huffington Post UK last week appeared amid a fanfare as quiet as, well, the one that greets a New Model Journalism launch. Even before the announcement of the death of the News of the World stole its thunder, the response on Twitter (#Huffpouk) consisted of a few cheerfully self-promoting tweets from its newly-recruited bloggers and the odd comment from seasoned media-watchers.

So far, the consensus among the latter seems to be that the new site is underwhelming. It’s generally acknowledged that the line-up of bloggers – which includes culture minister Jeremy Hunt and comedian Ricky Gervase – is impressive, and there are rumours that Tony Blair is to join the crew. But the resulting content doesn’t seem to add up to that distinctive, must-read British version that made HuffPo such a phenomenal success on the other side of the pond.

It may well be to do with the way the UK edition has yet to produce an unmistakeably British feel. The site has a decidedly American look, and signs that readers in Blighty may find this off-putting have been manifesting in irritated comments about capitalised headlines, and the over-large sensationalised banner over the lead story.

Matters of font and case may strike as trivial, but they are key to conveying a brand, and so to creating that relationship widely seen as the path to survival for media organisations in the digital age. And the wisdom of coming across as irremediably American is questionable, raising the possibility that HuffPoUK is raising anti-colonial hackles in the cultural battle that endures subliminally between the US and the UK.

The issue that has dogged the Huffington Post in recent months – the fact that it doesn’t pay its bloggers – may be another contributory factor. The practice was relatively trouble-free until the sale to AOL earlier this year netted Arianna Huffington and founders a cool $315 million, precipitating a strike among its US contributors which is still ongoing.

Arianna’s line, when she appeared on Woman’s Hour the day of the launch, is that the operation employs a healthy editorial staff of 1300, while providing a ‘platform’ for unpaid bloggers to ‘write when they want’. Others come to her defence with the argument that publications have long made use of contributions from organisations and individuals writing on a quid-pro-quo basis, while paying professional journalists to produce material that needs objectivity.

But the problem – just as anyone knows who’s worked on a magazine where slashed budgets herald a sudden injection of puff pieces – is that writers who write for nothing do so to further their interests in other ways. A glance through the blogs of Huffington Post UK suggests that the site may already be afflicted by the same problem – many of the blogs are by think-tankers and NGO directors, along with the odd Lord and actor. The Ricky Gervais offering is a case in point: the short piece marking the 10th anniversary of The Office ends with the injunction to – excuse our language – ‘Now buy the fucking anniversary DVD Box set’.

All of which rather makes me inclined to answer the trenchant question raised by Arianna in her launch editorial – what will the next stage of capitalism be like?’ with a sniffy ‘Rather like the old one’. It seems that HuffPo’s famed brand of leftish netizenry rather loses its sparkle when absorbed into Britain’s political elite and celebrity culture; instead of tapping into the new political zeitgeist where people are looking for alternatives beyond banker’s bonuses, the editorial vision trades on an outdated neo-New Labour attachment to status and power.

In the months to come, it looks as if one of the useful functions that a specifically British HuffPo might fulfill is to act as a testing ground for how far its brand of ‘open journalism’ can succeed here, and how willing British writers are to build its success for free.

In the meantime, my favourite response to the Huff Po so far has to be one ordinary reader’s review on YouTube. (Who says you can’t play ‘Boo?’ on the internet?)

A laugh courtesy of HuffPo UK might have come from ‘Dove Ruins Cat Nap’ – had the video not been almost immediately taken down ‘due to a copyright claim by Charles Mantha’. Wry laughter to that one.

Written by Alex

July 11th, 2011 at 3:49 am

IPC’s cautious embrace of digital

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Case study by Tim Dawson.

As publishers fall over themselves to unveil iPad editions, IPC has the quiet satisfaction of being well ahead of the game.  The magazine publisher has been offering online subscriptions through Zinio for seven years.  Today nearly all of its 60 titles are available through the multi-platform American distributor.

“Initially we offered online subscriptions to more tech-oriented brands, such as Webuser and Digital Camera Pro, ” says Lindsay Greatbatch, who manages IPC’s relationship with Zinio, as well as acting as publisher of Decanter.  “It is not a significant revenue stream at the moment, but it is one that we expect to grow”.

The online product’s role is probably best expressed by Keith Foster, the publishing directory of Cycling Weekly – which has around 29,000 subscribers and around 1,000 who read the magazine digitally.  “It is a useful service, particularly for overseas subscribers for whom postage is prohibitive, but we have never pushed it in the UK because online subs don’t count towards our audited circulation figures – and thereby contribute to what we can charge advertisers.”

That is expected to change next year, at which point online might become more of a priority for the company.  But, given the dramatic price differential in subscription costs, it is possible that subscriber migration might start to ring alarm bells somewhere within IPC.  A regular subscription to Cycling Weekly costs £137 – online 52 issues costs a mere £38.  The differential is not so great on other titles, but nevertheless, if readers to get the iPad mag bug, they could quickly recover a device’s cots in savings.

Zinio, which is based in San Francisco, has been in business since 2001 and offers device independent online subscriptions to around 2,000 magazines.  More than 5 million customers have so far used the service. The company is owned by Gilvest LP, an investment firm which is owned by David H. Gilmour, a hotel and real estate entrepreneur who also founded the Fiji Water beverage firm.

Publishers supply print-ready files to Zinio, which turns them into a digital product.  Interactive material and download buttons can be added, or not, as a publisher chooses.  The publisher also sets subscription costs.

The end product nicely replicates a magazine’s pages which, on an iPad, readers can turn by sweeping their finger across each page.   The IPC magazines lack the bells and whistles of Richard Branson’s Edition, for example, but are a neat substitute for space-hungry paper products.  Sales are unlikely to amount to much while the company affords its digital editions so little priority, but that is likely to change as advertisers wake up to the potential of the measurable quality of online ads.

Written by Tim Dawson

March 28th, 2011 at 4:53 am

Hyperlocalism – the next landgrab?

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Comment by Alex Klaushofer.
foto.bulle (Flickr) If the rhetoric is to be believed, hyperlocalism is the most promising trend the digital age has brought journalism. There are now hundreds of websites around the country, bringing local communities unprecedented levels of news gathered by newly-empowered citizen journalists. With their scrutiny of the local and celebration of the particular, it’s tempting to see hyperlocals as a new form of democratic journalism driven by a synergy between readers and writers.

For media-watchers looking for an answer to journalism’s money troubles, hyperlocalism may provide the beginnings of some reasons to be cheerful. It shows, at least, that there is still an appetite for local news, prompting the hope that where there is demand, money must follow.

But a bit dig deeper, and a different story emerges. Most hyperlocals are run by volunteers and activists – a feature which, according to evangelists like William Perrin and Networked Neighbourhoods, is part of their beauty. But it’s not a recipe for sustainability. The husband-and-wife-team behind the award-winning Ventnor Blog admit to ‘constantly wondering how they’re living’ despite running a site that’s become central to life on the Isle of Wight since it started five years ago.

Meanwhile, Tony Walley, the founder of Pits n Pots, the hyperlocal known for its hard-hitting coverage of Stoke-on-Trent, says the site’s development has run aground on the problem of monetisation. Even possible counter example start-up Preston, which has been notably successful in securing grant funding from NESTA, is hardly a model that could be widely replicated by others.

The common thread running through all these cases suggests an unpalatable possibility: it could it be that what we’re seeing is a movement with a limited life-span rather than the emergence of a new form of grassroots journalism.

The developing relationship between the grassroots hyperlocals and their bigger counterparts provides an indication of the direction things could take. Last summer, Trinity Mirror announced the launch of a network of hyperlocals working ‘in partnership’ with established sites like the Lichfield blog. In exchange for allowing Trinity Mirror sites to feature their material on their sites, contributing hyperlocals get to showcase their work and be properly credited.

The deal is symptomatic of the way the big media organisations are responding to the hyperlocal conundrum, reluctant to let such a promising new media trend pass them by, but unwilling to invest much in something that isn’t profitable. Northcliffe, Trinity Mirror and the Guardian all have modest hyperlocal operations, and it’s likely to be a while before they get any return for their investment. ‘It’s going to take a long time. Whether they’ll have the patience, I don’t know,’ says Sean Kelly, founder-director of NeighbourNet, the UK’s only fully commerical hyperlocal operation.

It’s hard, with the row about the Huffington Post profiting out of unpaid bloggers and aggregated content rumbling on, not to see an element of parasitism in the big media companies’ relationship with community-based hyperlocals. Neither Trinity Mirror nor Guardian Local, which shares a similar model, are thieving copy, as publishers have to sign up for the deal. (There are examples of outright theft in hyperlocal land: earlier this year MyVillage.com had to take down content it had posted without permission, while Pits n Pots’ Walley claims his stories are frequently used, without attribution, by mainstream media organisations.) But it’s possible, further down the line, to see weary community publishers selling to big players seeking aggregation.

While everyone eagerly awaits hyperlocalism’s moment at the bank, it’s worth keeping an eye on the States, which is ahead of the UK in the new-models-for-journalism-game. Last week it emerged that Twitter co-founder Biz Stone is to join Huffington Post to develop a platform for community journalism, fuelling suspicions of a new media strategy based on free content now, profit later. The chief exec of local news aggregator Topix recently observed that – with a resurgence in local advertising now taking digital form – a land-grab is underway in hyperlocal media. So – to transplant the western analogy here – if the big media companies are the cowboys and the grassroots hyperlocals the Indians, what will happen when the landgrab comes here?

This article was first published on the New Statesman’s website, where it has generated a lively debate.

Written by Alex

March 21st, 2011 at 5:16 am

Foundation funding reveals murky world of farm subsidies

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Case study by Tim Dawson.

Michael Heseltine always enjoyed being considered one of the ‘big beasts’ of British politics.  Less well known, until recently, is that he has long been a recipient of around £90,000 of annual funding from the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).  Lord Hesseltine, who founded the magazine company Haymarket, is thought to be worth around £200m, farms around 1,255 acres in Oxfordshire and Northamptonshire.  

That it is possible to find out about these payments – and those to other farmers all over Europe – is thanks to farmsubsidy.org, one of the few examples of successful foundation-funded journalism outside the United States.  For the past six years it has been publishing details of where the European Union’s €55 billion farm subsidy budget is spent. A parallel project, run under the unberella of EU Transparancyfishsubsidy.org does the same for the €6 billion Common Fisheries Policy.

Since its establishment, farmsubsidy.org has received approximately $800,000 from foundations, the largest portion of which has come from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.  This has been used to pay a small team of journalists, researchers and website authors in countries around Europe to fund freedom of information requests, and to develop the website on which details of farm funding are published.

The initiative is the brainchild of Jack Thurston, a former special advisor in the British Ministry of Agriculture and Nils Mulvad a Danish journalist.  Inspired by the US Environmental Working Group, Thurston wrote a pamphlet in 2002 suggesting that the recipients of CAP funding should be made public.  This led to a Fellowship with German Marshall Foundation, during which time Thurston made a successful FoI request for the British subsidy data.

“Around that time I convened a meeting at the offices of the German Marshall Fund”, he explains.  “We realised that few media organisations had the time or resources to do this kind of FoI work or to analyse such big data sets.  The Danes were a bit ahead of me, but we agreed to work together to establish a network to help journalists and researchers make effective requests for the data and to provide a publication platform.”

Since then FoI requests around Europe now mean that nearly every territory is covered, and the organisation’s easy-to-use online website makes it simple to find out who has received what. 

With the raw data on tap, farmsubsidy.org has also worked with journalists from the traditional media to make sense of the great gush of information.  In the UK this has produced a steady steam of stories about subsides paid to the well-known and the well-heeled like Heseltine.  In the US, reports on the Washington Post and the New York Times – and here and here – have undertaken significantly more radical work on how US agricultural multinationals have moved into east European farming – in part, with funds provided by the EU.

farmsubsidy.org makes it clear that while it is in favour of transparency, it does not adopt a particular stance on the desirability of particular funding decisions. “We do have to operate a kind of Chinese wall between data provision and more work that is more policy-based,” says Thurston.

He attributes the organisation’s success in fundraising to a pre-existing relationship with the main funders. “I sense that foundations fund people as much as they fund projects – which could be the worst kind of old-boys network – but it has meant for us that we have not had to devote all our time to chasing funds … It has made a difference having funders who trusted us for a few years.”  Although there are some foundations that will fund journalism in Europe, there are far fewer than in the US, he adds.

But despite its success, the future of farmsubsidy.org is in doubt.  Last November, a group of German farmers took a case to the European Court of Justice which ruled that publishing the names and addresses of CAP payment recipients breached the farmer’s privacy. 

Thurston believes that the judgement can be overturned, but even if the ruling stands, Thurston and his colleagues have directed a considerably shaft of light in the hitherto murky world of EU agricultural subsides, and shown that foundation-funded journalism can work in Europe.

Written by Tim Dawson

March 14th, 2011 at 2:27 am

Is it payback time for the free culture?

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By Alex Klaushofer.
Signs of a growing backlash against the journalism-for-free culture come from – yes, you’ve guessed it – the States.

Like many others who have been supplying the Huffington Post with free material, Visual Art Source is disaffected with the translation of their goodwill into the $315 million that the sale of the HuffPo’s to AOL has made its founders. The publishing company is calling on the HuffPo’s other unpaid writers to join them in a strike until their demands for payment for all contributors are met.

News of the sale has inspired much comment about the HuffPo’s business model, which has been described by Tim Rutten in the Los Angeles Times as a ‘galley rowed by slaves and commanded by pirates’. Adrianna Huffington responded to accusations of exploitation in an interview in the Media Guardian with a blithe: ‘We’re hosting people who express their ideas and if they want to write, fine, and if they don’t, fine.’

Meanwhile, Bloomberg reports that the New York Times is to start charging for content soon, using a model close to that of the Financial Times.

Written by Alex

March 3rd, 2011 at 7:15 am

US hyperlocal fails to monetise

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By Alex Klaushofer. Leading US hyperlocal TBD is downsizing, slashing its staff and dumping its news coverage in favour of local entertainment and lifestyle content.

The decision by the Washington-based site will come as a disappointment to watchers of the hyperlocal model. Launched last summer as a pioneering model for local newsgathering, the site quickly gained impressive viewing stats – 1.5 million unique visitors – but has failed to translate the numbers into $$$.

Links to the some of the wave of comment inspired by the news can be found at Poynter.

Written by Alex

February 28th, 2011 at 6:01 am

Has the Huffington Post hit the big time?

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Is the surprise sale of the Huffington Post to AOL a sign that blogs can make the big time? Or is it more a case that comely newcomer of modest means hopes that getting hitched to a struggling media tycoon will help her to face an uncertain digital future?

Following the money leads to no clear conclusions. On the one hand, the $315 million deal – the highest price paid to date for a blog-based website – is a tidy sum for a pet project started by Arianna Huffington and Kenneth Lerer just five years ago. At first sight, it seems to be a sign of a trend that everyone wants to see: where innovative journalism leads, the finance will follow.

Yet, with each party struggling in different ways, the union is clearly a gamble for both sides. Despite having 25 million monthly visitors, the HuffPo only went into profit last year, while AOL has been struggling to maintain its revenues and credibility for some time. It remains to be seen whether combining HuffPo’s reach with AOL’s corporate infrastructure will translate into a digital media model that is sustainable in the long term – and one that doesn’t compromise the liberal, internationalist stance that has made the HuffPo what it is.

Highlighting the implications for quality journalism in the Los Angeles Times, Tim Rutten thinks not.

And, with the HuffPo’s reputation built on the labour of unpaid bloggers and a controversial practice of linking freely to outside content, some of the contributors to its success may be quietly wondering when they will get their share in this new media universe. One unpaid contributor declares his hand here. And this prolific New Yorker is positively revolting.

Written by Alex

February 7th, 2011 at 6:30 am

Murdoch’s Daily doesn’t cross the pond

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Much as we would love to bring you a review of Rupert Murdoch’s iPad newspaper The Daily, we cannot.  It is not available in the UK app store, nor is there any indication that it will be.  There is a cheat to get hold of a copy – detailed here, but we are not going to admit to such chicanery.

There has been a relatively enthusiastic response from those who have seen it – thenextweb.com note that the news is a shade lightweight and it more closely resembles a magazine than a newspaper.  Ian Beteridge, in The Guardian opines that at less than $1 a week, he would subscribe.  And, Neiman Journalism Lab thinks that its success will depend on how well it meets its readers’ desire to interact with stories.

Written by Tim Dawson

February 3rd, 2011 at 3:09 am

Posted in iPad apps,News,US