The Guardian and Social Reader

One of the more interesting trends to which I’m trying to better understand is the trend away from search-driven referrals to news sites and an simultaneous increase in social-driven referrals.

This morning I had a chance to read the speech that Tanya Cordrey, director of digital development, Guardian News & Media, gave recently at the Guardian Changing Media Summit in London.

She was speaking about the positive effect that The Guardian’s Facebook app launch in September 2011 has had on its audience numbers.

At the time of the launch, Cordrey said, “search represented 40% of the Guardian’s traffic and social represented just 2%.”

  • 4 million people installed the app during the first two months.
  • Another 4 million installed the app over the subsequent four months, for a total of 8 million installs.
  • Of those 8 million installs, an average of 1 million people use the app each week.
  • At least during the first two months, the app was generating 7 million page views per week. (It’s not clear how those page views are counted. We don’t know whether that’s 7-million single-page visits or 1 million seven-page visits. Overall, gets 1.5 page views per visitor each week. The Facebook post also calls the page views from the app “extra” page views, but to prove that we’d need to look at the overall site traffic for The Guardian to see if its bottom-line traffic numbers were up by at least a million. Some might argue that Facebook “cannibalizes” other readership, similar to arguments that online cannibalized print audience. Frankly, to me that distinction matters little as I’d rather eat myself than have someone else eat me. )

Cordrey noted that it was not just the app that was driving social traffic. She said that during the previous six months there were 1.3M average weekly visits to The Guardian that started with a click from Facebook.

See also said that “Facebook drove more traffic to than Google for a number of days, accounting for more than 30% of our referrer traffic,” but be sure to look at the helpful graphic for details of this opaque statement. Note that the claim is backed by a spike in Facebook referrals for a short period of time, as well as a general upward trend of FB referals and downtrend of SEO that is years long. It looks to me like Facebook accounts for about 15 percent of visits to the site.

That’s 15 percent from Facebook alone. Six months ago, traffic from all social media was just 2 percent.

Cordrey also said that “the largest group of users for the Guardian Facebook app are between 18-24”. During the first two months, “over half” of the app users were under 24.

Two other comments that caught my eye:

  • “Content is much more likely to go viral on Facebook when users actively comment on and recommend content rather than just passively reading an article.”
  • “Only a small percentage of people have chosen to [remove a read item from their newsfeed] since we launched.”

Should I Use Twitter Before My Story Is Posted?

Rebecca Putterman, reporter at The Clayton News Star, asked me yesterday whether tweeting bits of reporting as you go along might take away from a story’s potential readership or whet appetites?

The flat answer is that while I’ve heard anecdotes I do not know, but I’m looking for an excuse to conduct some rigorous research into that question. In the meanwhile, here’s how I would think about whether to tweet or not. As in all things, professional judgment is required:

  1. Is the information of immediate use to the audience, especially their safety? (Being useful is not the same as being immediately interesting, although that can also be something to consider.)
  2. Is the tweet a discrete and complete piece of information? Tweets don’t have to tell both sides of the story, but they must be able to stand on their own without further context or explanation. They must have the relevant “who, what, when, where,” but probably not all of those. They almost never have “how” or “why”. (Although that’s just a guess. Another topic that is worthy of research.) Completed actions are probably the most likely pieces of information to be discrete and complete. And assertions by prominent people — “Newt Gingrich just said…” , for example — can certainly be tweeted in some cases, but they require more careful consideration:
    • Avoid tweeting anonymous assertions.
    • Is the assertion from the source about himself or herself? Or is about another person, or something the source purports to have seen?
    • Is the assertion opinion or is it asserted as fact? Assertions of fact require special care.
    • If a fact, how quickly are you likely to be able to confirm to the information with another independent source? Or, if an assertion, how quickly do you expect the other side to respond?
    • How well do you know and trust the source? Have they been truthful in the past? Are they in a position to know?
    • If the assertion turns out to be false, how much damage will be done to the audience? (Your reputation is always damaged if you report incorrect information.)
  3. What is the competitive environment? If you don’t tweet it, is your audience likely to hear the news from a friend or another professional reporter or from the source directly? If you do tweet it, will it tip off competitors or sources and give them the chance to tell the story in an way that may be incomplete or inaccurate before you can get around to writing your own comprehensive article?

When journalists do tweet discrete facts before a full story is fleshed out, they can sometimes do it in ways that add context and whet appetites:

  • Add context — and raise readers’ awareness of missing context — by describing why the fact caught your eye, and what else you plan to report.
  • Invite questions about “tidbits.” Twitter is better if it is a conversation and not a lecture. Questions from readers via Twitter before an article is complete can help make your story more relevant.
  • If a topic has a particularly high level of reader engagement, post that you’ll be offline to write, edit and fact-check your complete story.
  • Tell your followers when and where they can get the complete story: “Film at 11.” (And, of course, deliver on every promise you make.)

The 7 Key Presentation Elements of a News Story

I’ve been looking over a lot of news stories lately — as an award judge, as a grant recipient and a journalism professor — and I’m realizing there are a few items I want to see on every story. I may be unique in this. But, boy, gimme these and I’m a happy judge/editor/professor/reader:

1. A lead. The who, what, when where at minimum. Add the how and why if needed. One paragraph. No anecdotes.

2. Links from every relevant proper noun to a very brief reference card about the person or organization.

3. A timeline. How’d we get here? Where are we going?

4. A map.

5.  An FAQ. 

6. A search form. Backed by a relevant database.

7. A hosted, asynchronous discussion. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Twitter, Facebook or article comments. Just make sure it’s truly hosted by a knowledgeable human being adept at using conversation to clarify and verify rather than merely amplify assertion.

Now, I know from watching site metrics and studying award patterns that these aren’t the seven elements that most people prefer. Maybe four.

1. A number — or the words “How to…” — in the headline.

2. Breaking News. Often of relatively small increment.

3. Photos.

4. Something to click.


How about you? What presentation elements do you find yourself seeking out? Are there elements you see showing up repeatedly in award-winning pieces or audience favorites?

[Updated:] If you give a pig a Python …

As part of the Knight News Challenge grant for OpenBlock Rural, I’d like to build capacity of North Carolina journalism students to contribute to the application’s code. It’s not the main point of the project, but it’s an element that will help the longterm sustainability of the community — both the OpenBlock community and the rural communities we hope to serve.
But building that capacity from scratch is no short task. As I’ve begun to map out a class or workshop on it, I was reminded of a book that I read to my kids.

  • If you’d like to learn how to use OpenBlock, you need to know Django …
  • If you want to work with Django, you’re going to need to understand how to edit files with nano or some other text editor, and you’ll need to know PostgreSQL, and you’ll need to know some Python
  • If you want to use Python in any meaningful way, you’re going to need to install some Python packages, or modules
  • If you want to install Python packages, you have to know how Python works on your computer’s operating system (Mac, Windows, and Unix)  …
  • If you want to know how Python works on your system, you have to be comfortable using the command line of Windows or Unix. You need to be able to list directory contents, change directories, read and change file permissions, manage Linux users, download and decompress files using gunzip and tar commands.
  • … and you’ll need to know HTML and CSS

The paradox of teaching these things to students is that as the user interfaces of Web applications and computers get easier, and their use becomes more ubiquitous the proportion of students with the hacker ethic they need to approach projects like this is reduced. That’s not a dig on students. The better something works out of the box the less the need to tear them apart, fix them, improve them. It’s like me and my car. Wheels turn. Radio works. Doors open. I couldn’t care less how the gears actually shift or how the “snow” traction works.

But I hope we’re not just training college students to be users of technology. College journalism students need an entrepreneurial mindset. It’s not just about teaching the technology. It’s about cultivating an entrepreneurial spirit, a way of skeptical knowing, and a hacker ethic.


Online Ads Aren’t Annoying Enough

To publishers — trying desperately to make money by selling more inventory of advertisements that have a plummeting CPM — the only value of online ads seems is to make them annoying enough that the audience will pay to turn them off.

The problem seems to be that there’s very little online advertising that has annoyed me enough that I will pay to turn it off. I will grumble as I chase “click to close” across the screen. I’ve seen people resize their browser windows to remove banner ads from their field of view. Now ask me to name some of those ads I spent chasing across the page? I dunno. A liquor brand maybe? Auto insurance?

But this week I paid for the the first time to turn off ads. I’ve been trying out the TextPlus app on my iPad. It allows me to send and receive SMS messages to an iPad, iPhone and Android phone. The app displays ads inside the app and embeds a little self-promotional message at the bottom of each outgoing SMS.

The banner ads didn’t bother me, but it’s a little tacky for each of my recipients to see “-Sent FREE from” at the bottom of every message. So when I saw for $3 a year I could remove ads, I made one click to remove those little buggers. The transaction was seamlessly handled through iTunes’ in-app purchase feature. (Now, unfortunately, I failed to read the not-too-small print and I only turned off the tolerable in-app ads. The in-message ads are still there and can’t be bought out.)

So GOGII, the company that makes textPlus, got my $2.10 (Apple got the other 30 percent of my purchase) but they lost the ad inventory. So GOGII must think that’s a good trade-off, right?

TextPlus says it has 8 million active users a month, according to TechCrunch. Those 8 million people send 15.6 billion messages a year via their textPlus apps, which averages 1,950 SMS messages per year. I’m going to make the (probably incorrect, but close enough) assumption that a new ad is served with each message. So, in GOGGI’s estimation, my $2.10 is worth more than 1,950 ad impressions it expects me to generate during my ad-free year. For what it’s worth, that’s a $1.08 CPM.

But the only reason I paid my $3 is that I thought — wrongly, as it turns out — that it would remove something that I found annoying; that it would improve my user experience. But EVERY other ad-supported app and Web site I use has a user experience that is good enough for me to save my $3 to remove the ads.

On the other hand, I pay $6 a month for my DVR service — partly so I can skip TV ads.

Of course, I’ll pay for content that is superior. And if I need it for my job, or I can use it to make wiser purchasing decisions, or if it entertains me. But, otherwise, you’re going to have to annoy me into submission. That means interrupting my time. Put up a wall, don’t let me over it or around it until I pay or until you get me to agree to buy into the timeshare condo.

News organizations — newspapers — have been long accustomed to earning about 80 percent of their revenue from ads. As a comparison, Pandora gets about 87 percent of its revenue from ads. That just doesn’t seem healthy to me. Too many eggs in one basket. Are the ads not annoying enough for people to turn them off? Is the content so commonplace that annoying ads would drive the audience elsewhere? Is the service and experience of Pandora not satisfying enough that it would be fatally marred by more annoying ads?

As ad inventory continues to climb, it becomes a tough game to sell that infinite real estate. Now, of course, some real estate — The New York Times — is more exclusive than other real estate — The Huffington Post — but all properties are going to have a hard time keeping their ad revenue stable. For companies with superior content, a paywayll or service-based revenue model are going to become important replacements for a falling ad line.

I think this portends a real shift in our media consumption and a possible division in media culture and civic knowledge. There will be the news and information products: those that are annoying and free, and those that are paid and efficient.

People who have more time than money to spend on hard news will suffer through the ads to get to the free content, which may or may not be junk. People who have more money than time will pay for convenience or quality of information. As a journalist, I’d rather get my paycheck from a news organization that gets a high percentage of its revenue from subscriptions. Those organizations will be able to pay for quality reporting and editing. And the free, ad-driven sites will happily repeat that reporting to an audience that’s willing to stand on the shore and wait for the arrival of the ripple of news.

Bracken’s right: Print IS the new vinyl

It might have been an offhand comment, but the idea that “print is the new vinyl” is a rich analogy. It was made last week by the Knight Foundation’s John Bracken speaking at the Asian American Journalists Association conference.

After getting pulled down for a bit in the undertow of Twitter, Bracken expanded on his comment.The last few graphs are the key point:

“Bands … have recognized that vinyl encourages exclusivity, maximizes design potential and creates a depth of involvement that 0s and 1s cannot.  Vinyl’s renaissance is not due to nostalgia — it’s due to the fact that musicians, labels and fans have built a creative and consumer experience based on what the format does well.

“I don’t want to beat this metaphor to death. Here’s the core of the comparison: as more and more of the content we consume is based on bits, the ability to engage with atom-based media will, for some, gain value.”

That’s an idea I’ve been thinking about since March when Bon Jovi accused Steve Jobs of killing music. And it’s not uncommon to hear from music fans this same love for the tangible.

Based on a lot of time talking with people who prefer print to digital, the tangibility of it must be the top reason people prefer print.

The analogy is good because it not only deals with consumption habits, but also production.

Albums — in vinyl or CD —  are a product, a good, a widget. They are a complete package. Digital music is disaggregated. It’s becoming increasingly a social experience. I suspect that one day soon we’ll be paying more for the service of digital music storage and delivery than we do for the content itself. This is going to be the same for news. Maybe its always been the same for both news and music businesses.

In any case I do think that print is going to be primarily for “hipsters.” The presence of high quality print is going to become a social signal — “I’m considerate. I invest time and money into my collection of knowledge. I enjoy learning about the world around me, not because it helps me make or save money but because I enjoy being aware of the world. I’m not a news junkie; I’m a news connoisseur.”

Vinyl signals the same things. Both the person with 100 records and the person with 10,000 digital songs can legitimately say “I’m REALLY into music.” But they mean different things.


OpenBlock Setup/Matintenance Costs

As I wait for the Knight Foundation to give OpenBlock Rural the official “Go!” I’ve been talking with developers and working on nailing down an estimate of what it would take to get OpenBlock up and running. For that conversation, please tune in to this discussion thread on the eb code Google Group for developers.

Annotating the News

I’m working this fall’s common syllabus for “JOMC 153: News Writing,” the introductory class at UNC’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication. I’ve created a custom RSS feed for students in all 14 sections to use. But I’m also adding this paragraph:

If you are like most Americans, most of your news consumption comes from television. You may also get much of your news via Facebook or other online news sources. In this class you will learn to become a more critical consumer of news from all sources. As you begin to study journalism and mass communication, you may find it particularly useful to read the print edition of a national newspaper like USA Today or The Wall Street Journal as well as a local paper. If you read news critically, you will be circling words, writing notes and highlighting passages.

Is anyone out there using a tool for annotating digital content that you actually find useful? You don’t need to necessarily be able to share the notes but the notes preferably would be persistent from device to device.

How to do article comments, make UI decisions. Firefox style.

Data — which were once know casually in newsrooms as “facts” — are invaluable when making decisions about your site’s user interface, and when explaining your decisions to an often impolite customer base. Here’s a great example from Alexander Limi of the Firefox Web browser’s user experience team.

I’ve been wondering why Firefox 3 doesn’t have that cool little RSS subscription button in its address bar anymore. It used to be there. Now it’s gone. A quick search for rss address bar firefox 3 brought up a link to the Firefox support site. There another Firefox user had posted an obscenity-laced version of the same question I had. And the question yielded this reply from Limi:

“Because the RSS button is the least clicked button in our UI. When you want to use it, you know that you want to use it, so we don’t need to show it all the time. It’s still available, but in the bookmarks menu instead. Unfortunately, most people don’t use RSS. I am a big RSS user myself, but I’m in the minority. — Alexander Limi, Firefox UX Team “

Brevity. Politeness in a response to rudeness. And… facts. (Alexander: if that whole “working at Google/Mozilla/creating your own internationally known open-source CMS thing doesn’t work out for ya, you’ve got a job in my imaginary newsroom anytime.)

1. Unlike too many newsrooms I’ve seen, Mozilla appears to be making user-interface decisions based on … well, data about the users’ experience. If you’re making decisions in your newsroom based on an editor’s war stories, a designer’s favorite color palette, or even an expert’s advice, then stop. Use smart guesses for decisions that can be easily reversed, but base your big decisions only on cold, hard, relevant, current data.

2. Note the empathy. “Brother, I’m with you on the RSS thing. But you and I are weirdos and/or not everyone is as smart as us. So, we do things for them.” I tell my students that newswriting isn’t about self expression; it’s about selfless express. Same with user experience.

3. This should be point 1. But this is a real response, from a real person, with a real name, and with some level of authority and responsibility. This isn’t from the “Department of People Who Deal With User Complaints”. So I trust it, and am more likely to trust the brand.

4. No whining. There’s no “You get the dadgum browser for free, so eat your vegetables and like it. “There’s no deleting the obscenity from the original question. No scolding. Just a factual, brief and polite response. And all of those things increase my trust in Limi. He’s a social Big Boy and that causes me to presume that he is a Big Boy in his work product as well.

If comments aren’t working on your news site, following Limi’s formula will start you back on the path to success.