Posts Tagged ‘brand/reputation’

A quick note: Chris Dixon of Hunch has posted the full text of a memo sent by BuzzFeed’s CEO, Jonah Peretti, to his staff listing what he sees as the strengths of BuzzFeed. The site has plenty of detractors – not a few of whom added their comments and criticism onto Dixon’s post. It is not overall a site that the typical news organization could or should try to duplicate on a local level. But there is much in the memo that resonated with me as philosophically sound approaches to media, at all levels, in the digital age, and just because a whole thing is not something to try to duplicate doesn’t mean there aren’t parts and practices you could learn from.

How I would summarize the parts of the memo that resonate with me: The goal is building something sustainable in the long term. To do this, you pursue practices that build your credibility with your audience. Driving traffic is nice, but if it undermines what you want your audience to associate with you, it’s not sustainable.

What BuzzFeed wants its audience to associate with it is “the most talked about items” on the Web. You can argue about the choices the site’s staff make in that pursuit, but being in the thick of the buzz of your community has to be one of your main goals. If you aren’t in it, you’re on the periphery of everyone’s attention, and it’s hard to build a sustainable business out there.

Highlights of what stood out to me:

“When you compare web publishing today with what Hearst and Conde Nast built in the last century, it is clear that online publishing has a long long way to go. As sites like Facebook and Twitter mature, the moment is right to build a defining company for a world where content is distributed through sharing and social media instead of transitional print and broadcast channels.”

“We care about the experience of people who read BuzzFeed and we don’t try to trick them for short term gain. This approach is surprisingly rare.

“How does this matter in practice? First of all, we don’t publish slideshows. Instead we publish scrollable lists so readers don’t have to click a million times and can easily scroll through a post. The primary reason to publish slideshows, as far as I can tell, is to juice page views and banner ad impressions. Slideshows are super annoying and lists are awesome so we do lists!

“For the same reason, we don’t show crappy display ads and we make all our revenue from social advertising that users love and share. We never launched one of those ‘frictionless sharing’ apps on Facebook that automatically shares the stories you click because those apps are super annoying. We don’t post deceptive, manipulative headlines that trick people into reading a story. We don’t focus on SEO or gaming search engines or filling our pages with millions of keywords and tags that only a robot will read. We avoid anything that is bad for our readers and can only be justified by short term business interests.

“Instead, we focus on publishing content our readers love so much they think it is worth sharing. It sounds simple but it’s hard to do and it is the metric that aligns our company with our readers. In the long term is good for readers and good for business.”

“[D]oing something hard can actually be an advantage for a business. It means that there are not that many other people trying to do what we do or capable of doing what we do. … There are lots and lots of things that random, unpaid web users suck at doing. In particular, the best reporting and the most entertaining media is usually created by people who do it for a living – that means us!”

“BuzzFeed is unique in that we are equally obsessed with 1) entertaining content, 2) substantive content, and 3) social advertising. The teams that focus on each of these areas are equally important which is a key part of our success. We want our cute animals, humor, and animated gifs to be the best of their kind on the web – they aren’t just a cheap way to generate traffic. We want our reporters to have the best scoops, the smartest analysis, and the most talked about items – they aren’t just a hood ornament to lend the site prestige. And we want our advertising to be innovative, inspiring, and lead the shift to social – and not just be a necessary evil that pays the bills.

“Some companies only care about journalism and as a result the people focusing on lighter editorial fare or advertising are second class citizens. Some companies only care about traffic which creates an environment where good journalists can’t take the time to talk to sources or do substantive work. Some companies only care about ad revenue and actually force editors to create new sections or content just because brands want to sponsor it.”

7/26/12 UPDATE: The Nieman Journalism Lab has a related article on BuzzFeed’s experiments to reinvent the wire story for the social Web. I think the key thing for others, especially local media organizations, to keep an eye on is the principal of looking for the best way to convey the information at hand, not just defaulting to a traditional, paragraph-based story:

“[O]n any given day news on the site doesn’t have to take a predictable shape. It could be a collection of photos, a dominant photo with links, or a collection of quotes.

“ ‘It’s something that does the work of a wire story and informs people about this very important piece of international news in this way that was authentically in the language of the social web,’ Smith said.

“While Smith wants BuzzFeed to tinker with wire stories and try new ideas, that doesn’t mean the site won’t be producing more traditional looking stories. He told me one reason he wants his reporters to think smarter about wire stories is to free them up for original reporting.”

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Clearing my email this morning after a week away on vacation — during which I managed for the first time in 11 years to stay off the Internet (well, except for my 2-year-old non-smartphone’s minimal connectivity) — I found a link to an Editor & Publisher article about how to increase the number of young people who subscribe to a newspaper. There are some good nuggets from the two contributors in that article, but I remain skeptical that many newspapers are geared for this effort, for the simple reason that when push comes to shove, they are still putting out print products aimed at an audience that doesn’t watch TV or read anything on the Internet. Last week’s massacre at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., provided the latest, but surely not last, major example. I woke on vacation, checked my phone and found a Washington Post news alert sent overnight about the shootings. We turned on CNN and watched coverage for several hours, until it seemed that little new detail was likely to come out soon, and then turned it off and went about our vacation day. The next morning I went out and bought a newspaper — a major regional newspaper based in a metropolitan area. The shooting coverage was the centerpiece, the top headline, and took up the majority of the page — and there was NOT ONE SINGLE WORD on the front page that told me anything I had not heard on TV before noon the previous day. Turning inside, there was a sidebar of new information — new to me, at least, who had not been watching TV or reading the Internet since before noon. The experience angered me, both as a reader who expected better and as an editor.

My patience with newspapers was tried again when we returned home to find that our newspaper carrier had either not gotten word of our “vacation stop” or had ignored it and continued to deliver our paper. Why does anyone want to pay to have a daily alert to burglars piled up by the front door?

Older readers who are already newspaper junkies may brush these off and keep their subscriptions, but a combination of spotty service and old news is no way to win new readers.

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Newspaper columnists always seem to remember that Thomas Jefferson once said, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” What I’ve never seen in a newspaper are any of the other things Jefferson said about newspapers, such as:

“Advertisements … contain the only truths to be relied on in a newspaper.”

“I do not take a single newspaper, nor read one a month, and I feel myself infinitely the happier for it.”

“The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers.”

“Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.”

I’m not the first to notice this (among others, in 2009 Jay Rosen discussed the first quote and why it is the only one you ever see in newspapers), but it came to mind today in a copyediting context (yet another columnist citing the first quote).

6/28/12 UPDATE: Googling that last quote led me to the full text of the letter that it came from, which included a suggestion for a better way to section a newspaper:

“Perhaps an editor might begin a reformation in some such way as this. Divide his paper into four chapters, heading the first, Truths; the second, Probabilities; the third, Possibilities; the fourth, Lies. The first chapter would be very short, as it would contain little more than authentic papers and information from such sources as the editor would be willing to risk his own reputation for their truth. The second would contain what, from a mature consideration of all circumstances, his judgment should conclude to be probably true. This, however, should rather contain too little than too much. The third and fourth should be professedly for those readers who would rather have lies for their money than the blank paper they would occupy.”

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The crude yet brilliant online comic The Oatmeal had a recent strip related to online piracy – inspired by the artist’s frustrated attempts to find a legal source for a show he wanted to buy – that actually had a moral highly relevant to traditional media companies trying to make their way in the new-media world: If you put all your focus on control instead of what your customers want, your customers will go elsewhere for what they want.

I thought it was great, and I wanted to post about it here, but it gets a bit far from the ground I usually stick to – but then the universe once again came through for me and showed me Jim Romenesko’s item about a Forbes piece that excerpts a much, much, much longer New York Times Magazine story and got a huge amount of traffic online. THIS IS EXACTLY WHAT I NEEDED! A journalist-level parallel!

From what Forbes writer Kashmir Hill sent Romenesko about her story on the Times story:

“Charles Duhigg’s piece is a masterful look at how Target gathers information about its customers and mines it to keep them loyal and better market to them. But as a writer who has covered the privacy beat for four years, what leaped out at me as the gold mine of the piece was the anecdote about Target data-mining its way into customers’ wombs so effectively that it picked up on a teen’s pregnancy before her father did. I ran with that anecdote and the sexy privacy issue Duhigg dug up — Target’s use of predictive analytics — distilling that from the larger piece for my privacy-interested audience. This is not a new or surprising practice in the world of online journalism – what has caught people’s attention is Forbes’ transparency. Thanks to our analytics being public, you can see the avalanche of social media love it triggered and the enviable million page views it garnered.”

So essentially, buried inside a nine-page story was a juicy nugget that had the potential to draw a huge audience. But that’s the thing – it was buried. And it had a dull headline, “How Companies Learn Your Secrets.” It’s information people would want, if only they knew it was there. Enter Hill:

“I suspect I drove a ton of traffic to the New York Times that they wouldn’t have otherwise gotten because they hadn’t sold their story quite as well as I did and didn’t create a short version of it that was easy to share and digest online. (Advice the NYT should consider is having their own bloggers tackle long pieces like this and chunk them up for the online crowd – a tactic the Wall Street Journal has effectively employed.)”

The difference between the comic strip and the Times/Forbes story is the artist knew what he wanted and the people who read the privacy story did not, but in both cases the originator of the content screwed up – in the comic strip, HBO made it impossible for the artist to find a legal source for “Game of Thrones” on DVD, limiting its audience to people willing to subscribe to the entire HBO universe; and the Times buried its best information in a story so long and dense that only its existing dedicated magazine customer base was likely to find it.

As journalists, we often don’t control a lot of business aspects of our industry, including whether our sites have paywalls or home delivery is available to everyone who wants it. But we are in charge of our own stories and photos — and making the best of it easy to find.

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I wasn’t going to post anything on Michael Kinsley’s post about a Felix Salmon article on the New York Observer, which (the Kinsley piece) focuses on the issue of whether the quality of writing on the Web matters. But I keep talking to people about it. At least five people in the past 24 hours. So it seems worth pausing and posing this question: Whether or not Kinsley is serious (I’m pretty sure he’s joking, but don’t ask me to put money on it), might the point of the following sentence be true?

“Never did it occur to me, until I read Felix’s blog post, that it might be possible, without seeming insane, to argue that all aspects of good writing — accuracy, logic, spelling, graceful turns of phrase, wisdom and insight, puns (only good ones), punctuation, proper grammar and syntax (and what’s the difference between those two again?) — are all overrated.” (And yes, it says “all aspects … are all overrated.” Move on.)

You can read Salmon’s piece here, which may help in the details if you don’t get exactly what is meant by this from Salmon:

“When you’re working online, more is more. If you have the cojones to throw up everything, more or less regardless of quality, you’ll be rewarded for it — even the bad posts get some traffic, and it’s impossible ex ante to know which posts are going to end up getting massive pageviews. The less you worry about quality control at the low end, the more opportunities you get to print stories which will be shared or searched for or just hit some kind of nerve.”

So the question raised here — again, whether or not Kinsley is serious — is how close is this to being correct? Undoubtedly, quality control in the media universe as described in the Salmon piece is lacking, but that quality is transitory anyway, as is the audience. If you as a publication are largely reliable, does it matter if you carry writers who really stink? In the online world, the Washington Post’s columnists and Cagle’s can appear side by side under the same set of links, and how many online reader really notice — or care — that the Post’s are better edited and cleaner? I don’t have answers to that yet.

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John Robinson fooled me. He started a post about the need for innovation with questions that seemed geared to curmudgeonly, 20th-century answers. For instance:

What would you do if:
* Half of your employees — including those in circulation — don’t subscribe?
* Half of your employees — including those in the newsroom — don’t read the paper (except for their own stories)?
* Half of your employees don’t subscribe to your e-newsletters?

I worked up a good, frothy dudgeon and was thinking to myself, “What has happened to John since he left newspapers that he is taking such a troglodyte approach?” — and then I got to the end of his post. So, spoiler alert, he was not writing in inverted-pyramid-style. It was more like pyramid-style. The end held the answers to my questions.

The “troglodyte” approach would be to require employees to subscribe and read (maybe quiz them, to test whether they really read), but, as John writes, a better idea is to ask your employees why: Why don’t they subscribe? Why don’t they read? If the only thing they read is the stories that carry their byline, then the only thing they care about is what was changed between writing and publishing, which means they don’t care about the content. If the reporters don’t care, why should anyone else? Ask them that. Ask what they SHOULD be writing about to make people read.

Related to this, Peter Osnos had an article in The Atlantic resurrecting the idea that aggregators should pay for the news they aggregate, which ignores the fact that no one pays the aggregators, except advertisers, which are not at current ad rates a source of revenue that would sustain news organizations. Paying for aggregation is an idea that traditional journalists love, but if most news organizations started charging with a hard paywall, almost all aggregators would stop looking and aggregating — just as most people do not subscribe.

Get to the basics: Whether or not your site has a paywall or a metered paywall, it’s important to ask what people will pay for and what will make them keep coming back. The same things that make your site worth aggregating are the things that make someone consider subscribing, so in the end whether you go the free model or the paywall model you hit the same capitalist question: Is it worth it?

And you can’t change what people want to read. Among the gathering evidence: a Washington Post story.

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image from everythingpr
Couldn’t have said it better myself — a portion of what Liz Heron, social media editor for the New York Times, told Poynter’s Steve Myers about whether reporters should use Twitter to break news before it appears on the Times’ own website:

“Encouraging individual journalists to use social media for reporting is a key part of our journalistic strategy and an important part of our future success as a news organization. … If our staff uses social media well, it only serves to enhance our journalism as a whole.”

The question to my mind is what constitutes using social media well, and I would say it’s making your newsroom known as the go-to place for news that’s relevant to your community (whether that community is oriented to a place or a topic) and helping drive traffic to where your full stories appear, whether that’s in print, online or on the air. Certainly breaking news via Twitter can build the reputation of delivering news fast; whether it also drives traffic depends on how you follow up after those initial tweets — send a link, refer to details that will appear in the paper or on the air.

Having said that, know what your boss wants and expects. I don’t sign your paycheck.

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Following last week’s tempest over the word “branding” in journalism, Steve Buttry has written up something that would be hard for anyone to argue against: tips for how to develop a brand as a journalist (call it a reputation, if branding makes you uncomfortable). Key point for why the term “brand” should cease to bother anyone:

“The opposite of brand is generic. And no one looking for a job wants to be generic, unless your strategy is to land a low-paying job.”

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Dear Leslie:
I was set to say I was sorry that you chose Gene Weingarten to ask about building a personal brand because, instead of a helpful answer, he supplied a curmudgeonly rant attacking what he imagines the word “brand” represents, which appears to be everything evil in the world of journalism. I also assumed it was partly your own fault for not realizing ahead of time that such a response certainly is consistent with Weingarten’s “brand.” How wrong I was. As your paper, published on Steve Buttry’s blog, makes perfectly clear, you knew his reputation well, even if you didn’t anticipate his exact reaction. As you note, Weingarten “certainly qualifies as a recognizable brand and reaps the benefits that come with textbook brand equity,” even if he himself refuses to recognize how those terms are now commonly used. You even appear to know Weingarten better than he knows himself, pointing out that interaction is the new-media currency, that “Interaction is a hallmark of the Weingarten brand,” and “he was an early adopter of interactive web technologies and fully embraces Twitter.”

I was all set to sit down here and rant myself. But everything I was going to say appears to be in your paper. Excellent work.

Also well worth reading is Steve Buttry’s own take on branding.

I can sympathize with those who don’t like the use of “brand” in journalism conversations because it originated in marketing and advertising. It still makes me a little uncomfortable, but I recognize it is in common use. There’s a better chance of getting people to stop saying, “I could care less,” than of stopping the use of “brand.” The language evolves, and as media changes so too does the language involved. What’s important is the idea and the application. If you get hung up on specific words, you will spend all your time just ranting. But maybe that isn’t the end of the world. Maybe it actually helps you. Maybe it’s your brand.

UPDATE: I had looked earlier for this example from last year of Weingarten’s take on the new media landscape, just stumbled across it.

UPDATE: Dammit. I like to think I’m original, but Google brings this post with the same title and basically the same point: “the word ‘brand,’ really boils down to one thing: the expectation your fans/friends/consumers have about you.”

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