Walt Mossberg’s advice for journalists

Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher are taking the digital media franchise, AllThingsD, from its relationship with the Wall Street Journal to a new independent phase. Walt and Kara have built up a great brand through great journalism, and he’s given an ‘exit interview’ to Mashable. He’s pretty tight lipped about what AllThingsD will morph into as it ends its relationship with the WSJ, but what I found really interesting was his own personal history.

While he has been known for more than 20 years for her personal technology column for the Journal, before that he covered national security. He has some excellent advice for ‘young journalists entering the industry’:

I would tell them quality over quantity, which is one of the biggest sins on the web, particularly today. I would tell them that it is enormously important to earn the readers’ trust by being ethical, another problem that some websites are guilty of. I would tell them to keep in mind who your reader is. Never talk down to that reader.

Know your audience and show them a little respect. It’s a winning formula no matter what stage your at in your journalism career.

Note, I first read this on Zeit and shared it on Pocket. I’m using Pocket and IFTTT to grab snippets I want to blog about. You can read the full interview at Mashable.

By Lance Ulanoff, Mashable
At an age when some may consider spending more time practicing their golf swing or perfecting their poker face, tech journalist Walt Mossberg is about to embark on what may be his biggest adventure yet.

from Pocket via IFTTT

Facebook likes vs Twitter shares: What The Atlantic’s graphs really tell us

The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson has published a handful of graphs which he says tell us about the popularity of “viral publishers” on Facebook and Twitter, and how important Facebook is compared to Twitter based on volume of shares/likes. It’s true that the graphs do give us some very interesting insights, but they aren’t the ones Thompson thinks they are.

Thompson’s graphs are based on data from Newswhip’s Spike database. The first problem is Thompson’s sloppy use of terminology. His first graph says that it shows Facebook likes, but in the text he uses the word shares, but likes and shares are not the same thing. Liking something on Facebook is basically just giving that thing a thumbs-up, it’s a very lightweight interaction. A share is much more emphatic and gives you the opportunity to comment on the item you’re sharing. Both apparently show up in timelines, although Facebook is, as usual, spectacularly unclear on the precise differences regarding when a like will show up and when a share will, but either way, they aren’t the same kind of action.

Newswhip’s graph shows total likes and shares for each content source, whereas Thompson’s graph says that it shows “overall likes” and provides significantly higher figures than Newswhip: ~27,000,000 vs 20,878,994 for The Huffington Post, for example. This is because he has actually plotted “Total FB Interactions”, a figure from Newswhip that includes likes, shares and comments on Facebook.

This might seem like nitpicking, but when you have words like “like” and “share” being used to designate very similar but different actions, with different social meaning, you cannot just use the words interchangeably. And you can’t just chuck in comments to the mix without saying so.

Here are the two graphs for you to compare:

Thompson's Facebook graph
Thompson’s Facebook graph
Newswhip's Facebook graph
Newswhip’s Facebook graph

The next pair of graphs are for Twitter. Thompson’s say they are for Twitter mentions, whereas Newswhip’s graph is for “tweets and retweets of articles”. This time, Thompson’s figures appear to be about the same as Newswhip’s, so must refer to both mentions and retweets.

Thompson's Twitter graph
Thompson’s Twitter graph
Newswhip's Twitter graph
Newswhip’s Twitter graph

Thompson then goes on to take Newswhip’s total article count for each publisher and use it to calculate the total shares per article on each platform. Upworthy‘s article count is just 225, so its shares per article is ridiculously high compared to every other source. Even TwentyTwoWords, which is in second place after Upworthy, has significantly more shares per article than other, bigger sites.

That’s a big red flag for me, indicating that something odd and statistically dubious might be going on. Looking at their Facebook pages gives you a sense of how many shares, likes and comments their articles are getting. Upworthy’s are highly variable, from 51 shares, 322 likes and 10 comments to 11,934 shares, 32,800 likes and 1,260 comments. TwentyTwoWords timeline posts vary from 2 shares, 17 likes and two comments to 75 shares, 66 likes, and 15 comments. So what we’re looking at, as one commenter on Thompson’s piece says, is a few runaway hits pulling up Upworthy and TwentyTwoWords’ figures.

Thompson gives us the mean recommendations (shares/likes/comments and tweets/retweets) per article, but to draw more robust conclusions we would need to know the median number of recommendations for each site. We also need to see the range, so that we can see how runaway hits are statistically skewing the distribution.

But still, given the meme-y nature of their content, it’s no surprise that Upworthy is popular. Pointing out that internet meme-based content is particularly popular with internet audiences isn’t an insight, it’s a tautology.

Thompson concludes his piece with a huge non-sequiteur, that “Facebook is huge. Much bigger than Twitter. […] Even the biggest sites on Twitter are much, much, much bigger on Facebook.”

Well, duh! Anyone who didn’t know that Facebook is bigger than Twitter has to have been living in a cave for the last few years. Facebook has 1,189 million monthly active users whereas Twitter has 232 million monthly active users. More users means more potential for sharing. We would expect Facebook’s activity to be some five times larger than Twitter activity but we don’t, we see that it is ten times larger. That is at least in part because Thompson is comparing apples and oranges.

Facebook likes, shares and comments are not equivalent to Twitter tweets and retweets. It’s not even clear to me that it’s meaningful to compare them, because of the different levels of engagement required to complete each action. An original posting to Facebook or Twitter is about equivalent in effort, because usually these days it’s just a matter of clicking a button on the original source post or copying/pasting an URL. Resharing that within Facebook is more akin to retweeting on Twitter, and neither liking nor commenting on Facebook has an equivalent on Twitter.

In order to properly compare activity types on Facebook and Twitter, we need to compare similar behaviours, so we can compare originating posts, or sharing or retweeting, but have to cut out likes and commenting on Facebook. Newswhip’s numbers don’t allow us to do that.

What this data does tell us is, however, much more interesting than Thompson’s  analysis might lead us to believe. Knowing what kind of content plays well on Facebook and Twitter gives us a fascinating insight into the tastes of their users. Facebook likes polarised, outrage-inducing or meme-y content, and is rather uninterested in sports. Twitter likes non-partisan news, tech news with a bit of polarised news, a few memes, and a lot less of the outrage. Twitter is also not massively keen on dedicated sports sites.

And if the shares per article data has any grounding in reality – which at this point I don’t have enough data to assess – then you can also see how well highly partisan, fringe content plays on both platforms in comparison to those sites’ sizes. Russia Today, Breitbart, Alternet and The Blaze are far from being balanced or neutral news outlets, but their bias allows them to punch above their weight compared to more moderate sources such as The Atlantic, CNN and the New York Times. That too is fascinating as it points to very vocal, politically partisan subcultures within both platforms.

If we wanted to, we could look at the demographic research for all these sites and get a much deeper insight into the psychographics of users than you can get from the usual Twitter/Facebook analyses. However, that takes a bit more effort than is required to chuck a few graphs up and draw superficial and suspect conclusions from fuzzy data.

Finally, what this data doesn’t and can’t tell us is whether Facebook is driving ten times more traffic to content sites than Twitter, given that content is being recommended ten times more often than on Twitter. Indeed, it’s well known that people are happy to re-share content without clicking on the links, and in my own experience, there are differences between how willing people on different platforms are to click on links and the dwell times and bounce rates for traffic from different platforms. On one project, oddly, LinkedIn provided the best traffic with dramatically longer dwell times and lower bounce rates.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if Upworthy has ten or a hundred times more shares on Facebook than Twitter if that doesn’t translate into traffic and revenue.

Newspapers: Community, priorities and platforms

I’ve been having a cracking conversation via blogs, Facebook and Twitter about how newspapers can rethink what they cover and, in doing so, cover more of the lived experience in their communities. When I said ‘cover more’, some journalists felt as if I was adding another bale of straw to their already breaking backs.

Andrea Gillhoolley, the community engagement team leader and reporter for the Lebanon (Pennsylvania) Daily News said this to me on Twitter:

After years of declining readership and revenues that have led to savage cuts, to say that local journalists are stretched thin is an understatement. They are stretched to breaking point. I understand that. I was with the BBC for eight years, and half of the time I was there, there were cuts. I was with The Guardian three and a half years, and half of the time I was there, there were cuts, and deep ones.

When the cuts started, the talk was about ‘doing more with less’. It was about finding efficiencies and cutting out the duplication of effort, but after years of cuts, newsrooms now find themselves able to do less with much less. Editors have had to become a lot more creative on how they work with the staff they have left, with other resources if they are in a group, and with their communities.

John Robinson started this conversation when he challenged newspapers to break out of their traditional paradigm. In that post, he asked:

Is the disconnect between how I live and what the news covers unusual?

And he added:

What would happen if the newspaper or TV station compared their typical content with the day-to-day interests and activities of their readers/viewers? And what if they took those results and changed the way they report the news? Would that make their products more relevant to the people they aim to serve?

John was talking changing the mix of coverage to increase relevance, not simply doing more, an idea which really resonated with me.

For years, I have been talking about how journalism competes in the attention economy. In an age when content, information and entertainment are not scarce, people’s time and attention is the scarce resource. Newspapers aren’t just competing against other newspapers, magazines or TV and radio outlets that produce news. Newspapers in particular, and journalism in general, are competing against every other thing that can capture people’s disposable time and attention. That’s the competitive challenge, and it is daunting when one considers that we join this fight with smaller staffs and fewer resources.

Creating a community platform

Journalism can win in this hyper-competitive fight for people’s attention, and we’re starting to see digitally-savvy media organisations succeed such as PolicyMic and Buzzfeed (my jetlagged brain originally wrote Buzzworthy – the merger of Buzzfeed and Upworthy). It’s a new mix of internet memes, content and commentary. Newspapers have always been a package of hard news, lifestyle and comment, something that is much clearer outside of the US (where I’m from) than inside, where a particular model of non-partisan media, an anodyne AP-style with little voice, has come to rule.

For local media, I don’t really see the option to become partisan like the British press or US cable news. Local media became non-partisan in the US because it was the only way economically to appeal to a wide enough cross-section of the community with a single publication. I also don’t see local newsmedia becoming regional versions of Buzzfeed. However, I do see the opportunity to become the voice for the community.

Steve Yelvington, a friend and someone I look up as a true journalism pioneer, has been speaking about a “new kind of people’s journalism” for more a decade. In a post last year, he expanded on what he meant, specifically saying that “people’s journalism isn’t ‘citizen journalism'”. He said:

We can apply traditional definitions of “newsworthy” and “journalism” if we like, but there’s really not much point. This new news will flow of its own accord, propelled by people’s interests. There are no gatekeepers in this environment. … Professional journalism has had years to think about how to adapt to this new reality, and on the whole, it’s failed. [This people’s journalism is] not a replacement. It’s a new, complex model that obsoletes some of what pro journalism did in the era of mass media but creates new opportunities for adding value.

The key is focusing on the “new opportunities for adding value”. I still believe that there is an opportunity for local newsmedia to become community platforms. This goes far beyond simply monitoring social media and using it as voxpops (man-on-the-street quotes) for stories.

Steve’s thinking led to Bluffton Today, “a blog-centered community website”, which is still going seven years after launch. In 2007, Steve was interviewed by IFRA about the project, and it is worth reading in full, and this is the thinking behind the project:

The important thing to recognize about Bluffton Today is that it’s a multimedia operation that endeavors to exploit the unique strengths of each medium.

The newspaper is free and home-delivered, taking advantage of print’s advantages in browsability and discovery. The website engages people in a conversation through blogs and photo-sharing, taking advantage of the Internet’s advantages in human interaction and immediacy. These two sides come together through a professional news staff that uses the Web as a listening post. We pick up some blogs and photos for the print product, but the real “secret sauce” is that the community conversation helps the professional journalist connect with the real interests and passions of regular people, and not just the agendas of the institutions and newsmakers that pro journalists usually cover. Our own research shows that the professional news staff of Bluffton Today is closely aligned with members of the community when asked about community issues and problems, while there is a big gap at most other newspapers. We think that tight alignment is one of the big factors contributing to the extraordinary readership success of the newspaper.

It is a community platform in which professional news staff play a slightly different role by amplifying the real interests and passions of the community, things that people “groove on”, as Dan Conover said in a comment on John’s original post.

How does a community platform scale?

The challenges for many larger media companies is how to use their scale effectively against an army of digital insurgents that don’t share incumbents’ cost base. I think that local media face a slightly different challenge, even if they are part of a larger group. Yes, they can draw on the group’s resources for regional coverage, but that regional coverage will most likely be done reasonably well by other media than a local newspaper. The real place to add value is local content and conversations that no one else is providing.

This gets us back to the original issue I touched on: How do you scale local content with greatly reduced staff?

This is where the community platform is key, and the concept of a local platform is different in 2013 than when Bluffton Today launched in 2007 in part because most local audiences are probably already interacting online on a social network. Here are just some ideas on how to create an economically viable, scalable community platform. 

• Sharing photos

Steve and his group, Morris, were smart. They created a local photo sharing service, Spotted, which you can see on Bluffton Today. In 2007, Steve told me that at some of the newspaper sites for Morris, up to 40 percent of traffic was to local photo galleries.

The best photos can be highlighted not only online but also in the newspaper. People still like to see their words and their pictures in print. 

What shocks me is that many newspapers developed the ability for their audiences to share photos only to abandon these efforts. My guess is that they feel the efforts cannot compete with Instagram, Facebook or Flickr, but I’ll wager that there was a ‘build it and they will come’ attitude. Communities take effort, and this is especially true these days with so many social media services competing for people’s online attention. 

• A true community forum

“A good newspaper, I suppose, is a nation talking to itself,” playwright Arthur Miller said in 1961. Journalism has always been about more than simply providing information, and for me, the greatest opportunities remain for newspapers both national and local in becoming a platform for real conversations. I mean much, much more than comments on the bottom of articles or staff produced columns. ‘Community’ on most news sites is an entirely passive, technology-focused effort that manages to suck the social out of social media. 

USAToday has long had head-to-head pieces on major issues. There should be much more of this on local issues. 

Josh Stearns, with the Freepress project, has also  contributed to this blog conversation. His concern is that as news media struggle for survival that they will only focus on affluent audiences that premium advertisers want to reach. He referred to a 2006 talk that “editor Tom Stites gave at UMass Amherst in 2006. ‘Why is it that less-than-affluent Americans are being zoned out of serious reporting?’” This is even more important today as inequality is on the rise in many countries across Europe and North America. 

However, it comes back to the same question as above about resourcing. How do weakened news organisations cover a wider range of society? Again, a community platform strategy can help with this, providing a place for groups and people to provide perspectives that might not be covered. This is not an effortless or resource-free strategy – a mistaken assumption made by many media organisations – but a platform strategy is about multiplying your resources through outreach. 

• Engage super-users

When I was on the launch team of the BBC’s World Have Your Say, one of my strategies was to engage our most passionate users. At conferences, I often give the example of a listener that I simply referred to as “Steve from Utah”. I asked him to test an audio commenting technology that we wanted to use. He not only tested it, but without me even asking, he recorded a promo for the new service. If you engage your most passionate members of your audience, you’ll be amazed at what they’ll do. 

Journalism.co.uk recently reported on how Swedish Radio has been engaging its super-users:

In addition to four people within a dedicated social media team, local super-users generate ideas and inspire teams at the various radio stations. The super-users are themselves organised by a Facebook group, and have annual masterclasses.

These active social media strategies go far beyond passive comments on articles, which don’t attract much engagement on many local newspapers anyway. These are active strategies that require active outreach, and if I were an editor of a newspaper, I would lead these efforts. 

To me, redirecting some of the scarce resources remaining to these strategies would be a much more strategic use of staff time and effort. I believe that it would deliver a newspaper and digital services more in touch and more engaged with the communities it serves, and that for me is a good place to start rebuilding local journalism.