While others shut down comments, the NYT says it wants to expand them

If there was a ranking of popularity for online behavior, internet comments would probably wind up somewhere just below pop-up ads or auto-play videos. Seen by many as a haven for trolls and spam, a number of sites — including Popular Science and Bloomberg — have gotten rid of them. But there are still those who believe allowing readers to comment is a worthwhile endeavor, and the New York Times appears to belong to this group: instead of getting rid of them, the paper says it plans to expand comments and invest more resources in them.

Community editor Bassy Etim told public editor Margaret Sullivan that in contrast to some other organizations, the Times sees the readers who leave comments on its site as a “celebrity class” of users, and wants to give them more features and recognize their contributions. How exactly it plans to do that isn’t clear, but Etim also said that the number of Times stories that are open to comments will also increase — from an average of about 20 each day to more than twice that (opinion columns are almost always open to comments).

Unlike many of the other organizations that have chosen to kill off their comments — including Re/code, Reuters and The Week — the New York Times apparently doesn’t believe that social-media networks such as Twitter and Facebook can take the place of reader interaction directly on the Times site. As I’ve tried to argue before, the fact that those tools exist should be seen as an addition to traditional commenting, not a replacement for it. In addition to the Times, sites like Quartz, Medium and Gawker have been experimenting with ways of improving comments rather than killing them.

Those are real readers

One common argument made by sites that have chosen to kill their comments is that the people who post comments aren’t a publication’s “real” readers, and/or make up such a small proportion of the readership that they don’t really matter. Bloomberg’s online editor Joshua Topolsky, for example, said that the site would not have comments after a redesign because the number of people who would be served by them was so minuscule:

“You’re really talking about less than one percent of the overall audience that’s engaged in commenting, even if it looks like a very active community. In the grand scheme of the audience, it doesn’t represent the readership.”

This kind of comment ignores a number of things, however: One is that an active community of readers should never be ignored, even if some of them behave badly from time to time (and in fact that kind of behavior only increases if you ignore them). And the second is that even if the number of people who comment is low, the number of readers who pay attention to comments is arguably a lot higher — given the traditional social-media rule of thumb that says 90 percent of people read or lurk, with only one percent taking action.


New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan, who spent part of her column discussing the problems that readers have with the NYT’s comments — including having comments not show up, or not being able to post them because a story has already been closed to new comments — said she believes that comments are a key part of the newspaper’s relationship with its readers. While the Times system is not perfect, she said, “reader commenting is one of the best ways for The Times to stay close to its readers and what they care most about.”

Comments have value

The NYT isn’t the only major publication that believes comments have value: Aron Pilhofer, the head of digital for The Guardian in London — and the former head of the digital team at the New York Times — said at the recent News:Rewired conference that he believes media organizations who choose to shut down their comments are making a huge mistake:

“I feel very strongly that digital journalism needs to be a conversation with readers. This is one, if not the most important area of emphasis that traditional newsrooms are actually ignoring. You see site after site killing comments and moving away from community – that’s a monumental mistake… readers need and deserve a voice. They should be a core part of your journalism.”

The audience-development team at the Times is said to be working on a number of potential enhancements to the commenting function at the paper, changes that are expected to build on some earlier features and experiments with added functionality — such as the introduction of “verified commenter” status. Verified commenters are selected by the Times based on their previous behavior and can post comments without having them be moderated before they appear (the paper has a moderation team of about 13 people).

As I argued at the time, the verified-commenter feature could have been the first step in getting some devoted Times readers to “level up” or become more involved in a community of readers at the paper, a relationship that could then be monetized in a number of ways. The Times is also a partner — along with a number of other media organizations such as the Washington Post — in a project being run by the Mozilla Foundation, called The Coral Project, which is building an open-source platform for reader interaction, including comments.

The $19-billion question: Is Snapchat the new television?

Not that long ago, Snapchat turned down a massive $3-billion acquisition offer from Facebook, and almost everyone thought the company had lost its mind. Now, the startup is reportedly raising money in a financing round that will value it at a staggering $19 billion. Is there anything that could justify putting that kind of market value on a company that is only four years old and has almost no revenue?

Technology analyst Ben Thompson thinks there is — and it’s more than just the fact that Snapchat has a huge audience of millennials and younger users, although that’s clearly part of it. Thompson argues in a recent post at his Stratechery blog that one of Snapchat’s strengths is somewhat counter-intuitive: Namely, the fact that its model is a lot more like television than it is anything else.

“Mark Zuckerberg, earlier than just about anyone, clearly saw just how much money is going to be made on mobile. And, rumor has it, Snapchat’s investors completely agree: Bloomberg reports the company will soon be valued at $19 billion. To understand why you need to look not at other social networks, but rather TV.”

Ephemeral advertising

I confess that I found this idea jarring at first. How could a brand new mobile app that offers disappearing messages be anything like the massive market that is the conventional television business? But Thompson makes an interesting case, and one that supports the idea that Snapchat’s revenue from advertising — if it is handled properly, of course — could be substantially more than most are expecting.

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This argument rests on the idea that television is being disrupted, but not just because younger viewers are cutting the cord and streaming more video through other means (something Thompson doesn’t believe is quite as widespread as many analysts assume, thanks to cable’s lock on things like sporting events, etc.). From a revenue perspective, the real disruption is that advertising is increasingly moving away from TV, and one of the places it is going in search of new viewers is mobile.

Old media ad model

So what makes Snapchat so appealing? One thing is that its media model — at least what we have seen so far, with the new feature Discover — is relatively old-fashioned: instead of just having a bunch of user-generated content and then some native advertising mixed in, the way Twitter and Facebook do, Snapchat offers a selection of content created by a handful of media partners like CNN and Vice.

It’s true that this content is made up of short video clips and in some cases deals with unusual topics, but one of the surprising things about Discover is just how traditional it is: A lot of it is news organizations talking about the weather or ISIS or whatever is in the news — and best of all, because of the way that Snapchat works, users have to hold their finger down the whole time they are watching it. This means advertisers know for a fact that someone actually sat through their entire ad.

“Here is what Snapchat offers: Nearly 200 million monthly active users, including greater than 50% penetration among users 18-24 (33% among users 18-34), and those numbers continue to grow rapidly. Very immersive ads that can only be viewed by holding your finger on the screen; brands can have a very high confidence their message is being viewed.”

The new couch potato

Thompson offers a quote from Slate TV critic Willa Paskin that puts it well: Snapchat channels, she says, “are a throwback to the couch potato mode of passive consumption,” with stories selected for you by Cosmo, CNN, etc. All of that is available on the web as well, but using Snapchat makes it even easier because it’s in one place: “You don’t have to search for anything, click on anything, seek out anything. It has already been picked out for you. Everywhere you and your phone are has become the proverbial couch.”


Obviously, Snapchat is not alone in this market. There are other video players who are a major force in mobile video, or getting there, including YouTube and things like Amazon Prime Video. And Facebook is not just going to sit around and watch Snapchat take over a market like that — which is why some are talking about (or perhaps hoping for) another WhatsApp-style $20-billion acquisition offer for Snapchat.

I’m also not as convinced as Thompson is that the lack of information on Snapchat’s viewers (apart from them being young) is going to work for a majority of big-brand advertisers. Thompson argues that this makes Snapchat more like TV, where figuring out who is actually watching your content is a game of smoke and mirrors — and that’s true. But in a world where Facebook can offer hyper-targeting of individual users based on a vast range of demographic and interest-based vectors, is a mass-media style offering of undifferentiated users really that appealing?

Thompson’s main point, however, seems unassailable: advertising is moving away from traditional television — in part because the audience is moving, but also because TV is becoming more about subscription-based models rather than advertising — and that money is going to have to go somewhere. And one of the places it is going is definitely mobile. Whether that means Snapchat is worth $19 billion or not remains a rather large question mark.

Medium gets a little more Twitter-like, and a little more blog-like

One of the interesting things about Medium — the combination platform and publishing company that former Twitter CEO Evan Williams launched in 2012 — has been watching it evolve in real time, as it tries out new features and changes existing ones. In its latest evolution, Medium has added several new tools that feel very similar to the two things that Williams is probably best known for: namely, Twitter and Blogger.

When it first emerged, and for most of the time since then, Medium has been seen as primarily a place for long-form posts or articles, in part because the site has a clean and flowing design that encourages large images. Most of the content that the site itself commissioned and paid for has also tended to be long-form, and Williams has often talked about his vision for the site as being similar to a magazine.

Short and long

On Tuesday, however, Medium announced a number of new additions to the service, including a very Twitter-like instant post-creation tool that appears on the front page of the site, with a simple box and the phrase “Write here,” and allows users to publish quickly. In a blog post, Williams said he wanted to make it easier “to start writing whenever you have an idea — and also to make it feel like less of a big deal to do so.”


Another feature is more of a redesign of the individual author pages, profiles and tag pages — the latter being the new name for what used to be called topic “channels.” Now authors and editors can add tags to their posts and those posts show up in a feed that is arranged by tags such as Tech or Media or Photos, and then filtered by an algorithm based on how many users shared or recommended each post.

The redesign of tag and author pages turns them into more of a stream, Williams said — in fact, a very blog-like stream, with a mix of the shorter posts that the site is trying to encourage and longer posts that readers have to click through to view. Much like tweets, the shorter posts can be read within the stream in their entirety, and readers can click to recommend or share them without leaving the stream.


Although Williams didn’t say this, it seems fairly clear that Medium is trying to lower the barriers to creating content on the site — in much the same way that Twitter has been trying to decrease the friction between new users and the service, in order to increase engagement. Although Medium doesn’t really talk about numbers, it seems likely that it wants to broaden the reach of the site beyond just people who feel comfortable writing a 1,000-word blog post, choosing multiple images, etc.

A home for all kinds

In his blog post, the Medium founder suggests that the changes were made to counter the impression that Medium was just for long-form publishing, rather than a home for publishing content and ideas of all kinds, regardless of length:

“It was not our intention, however, to create a platform just for long-form content or where people feel intimidated to publish if they’re not a professional writer or a famous person (something we’ve heard many times). We know that length is not a measure of thoughtfulness.”

Given Williams’ experience with creating — or helping to create — both Twitter and Blogger, it shouldn’t be a surprise that he might want to take the best qualities of each of these platforms and build them into Medium somehow. But can a service be all things to all people? Can Medium support both long-form and short, Twitter-style content at the same time? Quartz editor Gideon Lichfield raised that question in a Medium post, entitled “Is Medium now >140 Twitter?” In a response, Williams says he believes it can do both:

“We go back and forth from the meaty to the light weight all day long on the web. Commentary and reporting. Snapshots and long-form posts. Our brains jump from one thing to another all day long, and we figure it out. Is it a challenge to do this under one system? It is?—?both from a design and brand standpoint. But we don’t think it’s impossible.”

The main differences between the new Medium and Twitter, Williams said, are that Medium isn’t intended to be for “status updates,” and it’s not really about social interaction (it does have comments, but they are called “notes” and they have to be approved by the author before they appear). And it’s also not real-time. The Medium founder said the changes were made because he believes “there’s a wide open middle-ground between what happens on social media and what happens in more formal publishing.” And that, Williams says, is where the site believes its home will be.

In the age of niche media, everyone still really wants to be mass

One of the best things about the web is that it allows almost anyone to start up a website, and that has meant an explosion of choices when it comes to media, especially recently — with the rise of BuzzFeed, the launch of sites like Vox and Fusion, and blog networks like Gawker. And of course we still have all the old places too, like the New York Times and Washington Post and The Atlantic. If anything, we have too many places publishing great content for anyone to keep up.

And that brings up a related problem, which Purdue University doctoral student Frederik De Boer wrote about in a recent blog post. In a nutshell, De Boer said that his problem with many of the new-media sites that have popped up over the past year, such as Fusion — which was launched recently by the Fusion network, a cable channel co-owned by Disney/ABC and Univision that caters to millennials — is that they share a certain sameness of content. They all want to believe they are different, but they aren’t.

“It just isn’t about anything in the way that the site’s founders and editorial people clearly want it to be. You can write a manifesto, and you can have some sort of goofy TV channel side-piece going on, and you’re still another site publishing people writing about news and politics and culture and sometimes sports. And in that, you’re joining every other website that publishes about news and politics and culture and sometimes sports.”

A striking sameness

De Boer goes on to talk about other sites such as Slate and The Atlantic, the revamped New York Times magazine, the New Republic, Vox and several others, and his point (as I take it) is that each of these is producing something very similar to its competitors — the names may be different, and each site has something or someone that might stand out from time to time, but for the most part they are each covering the news in politics, culture and sometimes sports in a very similar way.


Some of De Boer’s criticisms of different sites feel a bit like a drive-by-shooting: the New Republic, for example, consists of “the same stuff, written by every non-white male [new editor] Gabriel Snyder could find to exorcise the vengeful presence of Marty Peretz,” while Vox has “a new-fangled invention called the card-stack — an innovative approach which allows webpages to link to other pages.” The Awl is described as “a lot of the same stuff, brought to you by the emotion sadness.”

Those sarcastic descriptions aside, however, I think De Boer makes a good point, which is summed up in the title of his post: “Unless your site is about one thing, it’s about everything.” I think his point is that if your site doesn’t have a unique focus, or a theme or defining vision when it comes to what you cover and when, then you are going to look like everyone else. And that’s not a good thing.

“I no longer know what a website means as an identity, unless that identity is a specific subject. I know what Guns and Ammo is. I know what Road and Track is. (I know what Redtube is.) I don’t know what Fusion is.”

That’s not to say everything is mass-oriented, of course. Sites like Search Engine Land and Skift are aimed at a niche market, and while they may not get as much publicity, they are arguably better businesses in many ways. Other sites such as The Information — which charges $400 a year — are clearly aimed at niche readers as well. But most of the attention in the media sphere seems to go towards the sites with the really big numbers, like BuzzFeed or Gawker.

A drive for revenue

It’s ironic in many ways, but there’s a tension within the online media industry right now: Even though the web theoretically allows individual writers or groups of writers to target very specific audiences and be successful doing so — as the tech blogger Ben Thompson has been able to do with his site Stratechery, for example — there is still a huge amount of pressure (both perceived and actual) for sites to be as broad and encompassing as the mass media they have replaced.


Much of that pressure comes from an advertising-driven revenue model, which is driven by the need for large numbers, of pageviews or unique visitors, etc. My friend Josh Benton at the Nieman Journalism Lab is right that some of this comes from the fact that BuzzFeed and Vox are VC-funded and therefore need scale. But on top of that, there is internal pressure for a broad or large audience, because it makes those who are writing and publishing feel as though their work has more value. Says De Boer:

“These places run good writing. I’m not disputing that. I’m just saying that they are always launched with fanfare about what makes them different, but I’m not sure that you can ever maintain that kind of vision as an actually-existing publisher unless your site has a very specific, subject matter-based focus. When you’ve got to find enough writing to run, and you’ve received some great pitch that might not reflect your mission statement, what are you gonna choose? The abstraction of sensibility or the reality of good writing?”

The risk is that because you can write about anything, you feel like you should write about everything. But De Boer’s point is a good one. To the extent that your content feels as though it could have appeared at any one of a dozen different sites, that’s bad — it makes it dramatically less likely that anyone will a) remember your site or b) deliberately choose to go back there.

With more and more people finding content through social networks and sharing, there’s already a declining likelihood that they will remember where a specific piece of news or commentary came from. Do you really need to make it even harder by writing about all the same things every other site is? That leaves you chasing the drive-by, click-through audience, and that is the worst business in the world. Anything you can do to differentiate yourself is good. But too many are chasing the mass audience because that’s what advertisers want and that’s what investors want.

Upworthy says native advertising is working better than expected

The conventional view of Upworthy is that it is just one of a number of sites that specialize in viral “click-bait,” but the site’s founders have always maintained that it is different because the content it chooses has a larger social purpose behind it, as opposed to just driving clicks. And that’s partly why its native advertising program is working better than expected, the company says — pulling in more than $10 million in revenue in the first nine months of last year.

Upworthy’s version of native advertising or sponsored content — something almost every media entity both new and traditional is experimenting with, including the New York Times — is called Upworthy Collaborations, and involves the site partnering with major brands to create content that looks and behaves exactly like the rest of the content Upworthy posts, most of which is designed to be uplifting or socially conscious in some way.

This makes the program a good fit for advertisers whose message is also designed to be uplifting or socially conscious: for example, one of the early participants was Unilever, which used the platform to promote its “Project Sunlight” initiative — a program aimed at helping feed needy children. Unilever executive Marc Mathieu said the partnership with Upworthy had far better results than the firm expected.

“In less than 8 months, we’ve sponsored and promoted dozens of pieces of content, and have reached over 175 million social impressions, and 6 million social interactions, from over 15 million viewers. We’ve also seen a 17% increase in brand perception among users engaging with the series recognizing Unilever as being committed to protecting the planet.”

Other advertisers who have participated in the program include Whirlpool, Gap, Holiday Inn, Virgin Mobile and Universal Pictures. Universal set up a native ad campaign around its feel-good film Unbroken, about an Olympic runner who is sent to a concentration camp during the Second World War. Marketing executive Doug Neil said the partnership resulted in a lot more engagement with potential viewers than other types of campaign.

“We created a strategic bundle of content — some that we provided, and some that Upworthy curated — that centered around perseverance of the human spirit in the face of adversity, which is the core of Louis’s story. We also asked people to tell their own stories as part of the #IAmUnbroken movement. The campaign exceeded expectations by generating over 60,000 social interactions in just a few short weeks leading up to the film’s release.”

Upworthy said that according to NewsWhip — which measures how content from a variety of media sites performs on social networks such as Twitter and Facebook — the site’s sponsored content performed 38 times better than the industry standard for social interactions involving content at the top 25 social publishers.

Two great examples of how journalism has changed for the better

Are we living in a golden age for journalism, or is it the Dark Ages? There’s nothing that gets a group of media types going like that question, which is kind of an updated version of a perennial favorite: “Are bloggers journalists?” Obviously, the kind of upheaval that leads to mass layoffs at papers like the Chicago Sun-Times or the loss of $500 million in ad revenue for the New York Times is nothing to sneeze at. But it’s important to take note of the good things as well — and the best is that journalism has been freed from its confines, and is available to anyone, anywhere, at any time.

Everyone likes to point out when this state of affairs fails in some way: like when Reddit users identified the wrong man as the Boston bomber in 2013, for example, or when a network of media sites perpetuate obvious hoaxes and misinformation because they care more about clicks than the truth, something Craig Silverman described in detail in his recent report for the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia.

But I think it’s also worth pointing out when “citizen journalism” — or networked journalism, or whatever we want to call it — really works, and a couple of great examples of that have come to light recently. One of them is related to a project that I’ve written about: namely, the Ukrainian Vehicle Sightings Database that British investigative blogger Eliot Higgins and his team have been putting together, which tracks the movements of Russian troops and machinery in and around Ukraine.


Eliot, as I’ve mentioned before, has no formal journalistic training and no background in media whatsoever. But starting from his flat in Leicester, England in 2011 — where he blogged under the nom de plume Brown Moses — he became an expert in Syrian weaponry and terrorist activity by studying YouTube videos and networking with other self-taught experts. His research was cited by New York Times writer C.J. Chivers, and helped confirm that the Syrian government was using banned weapons.

In a similar way, the open database of vehicle sightings in Ukraine that Eliot and his team at the Bellingcat site have been putting together — using photos and videos and eyewitness reports of vehicles, blast craters and burn marks that have been posted by residents — has produced some fairly strong evidence that Russia has been firing missiles and other weaponry into Ukraine from inside Russian territory, despite repeated Russian denials that it is doing any such thing.

The second example comes via a piece in the New York Times magazine, which will be published in print this weekend but is already available online. It tells the story of a group of residents who live in one of the worst slums in Rio de Janeiro — a group that calls itself “Papo Reto,” meaning “straight talk.” Armed with cellphones and nothing more, they have been documenting police and government violence in Rio favelas, at great personal cost, because the Brazilian media apparently isn’t interested.

Ribeiro predicted that at some point the police would turn on the crowd. They wanted to be on hand when it happened. “Tonight, this protest will be on the news, but I doubt any of the big television stations will show the police doing anything wrong,” Ribeiro said. That was what his camera was for.

In both of these cases, there is a key reason why amateur journalism is required: in Ukraine, it is difficult for media outlets to devote the kind of resources that would be required to document every sighting of every Russian vehicle, or spend weeks analyzing different types of missile, or the blast marks that they leave when they are fired from a truck. Crowdsourcing of the kind Bellingcat does isn’t just a nice addition to existing coverage, it adds a crucial missing element.

NYT magazine Rio feature

In the case of the Rio favela, the existing media doesn’t seem interested if a few people happen to die suspiciously, since that happens all the time — but it is of extreme interest to the residents of the Complexo do Alemão slum, and also to human-rights groups like Witness, which is trying to help more “citizen journalists” document that kind of behavior in similar situations around the world.

In a similar way, Twitter and other forms of social media have become crucial pathways for information in countries like Turkey, where most of the traditional media are either uninterested in the activities of the government or censor themselves because they don’t want to rock the boat. Twitter has become so important that Turkey has tried to ban it, and has pressured the company to block content — including the account of an alternative newspaper (to its credit, Twitter refused).

Are there flaws in citizen journalism? Of course there are. Is there a downside to giving everyone a video camera and a Twitter account and telling them to become reporters? Definitely. But there is also a massive upside to doing so, and examples like Bellingcat and Papo Reto in Rio de Janeiro make that point better than I ever could.

It’s not just about quizzes and listicles — it’s about experimentation

As NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen likes to say, you can tell a lot about people and their views on media based on what they say about BuzzFeed. And one of the things that critics often focus on is how much of the site is devoted to listicles or quizzes or other ephemeral content (as though newspapers don’t devote a lot of their space to similar pursuits, such as crossword puzzles or the comic section).

As a new report published by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University points out, however, there is a serious purpose to much of this game-playing by BuzzFeed that more media companies could learn from. It’s about more than just driving traffic, as some of the site’s critics seem to suggest — it’s about encouraging an atmosphere of experimentation, and then learning from what works.

Gamification of news

The report was written by Columbia PhD student Maxwell Foxman, and looks at what some like to call the “gamification” of the news, or the use of playful approaches to conveying information. As the author notes in his paper (the full PDF version of which is here), the engagement value of this kind of approach can be huge: the most-viewed piece of content the New York Times published in 2013 wasn’t an investigative news story, but a quiz based on the distribution of different American dialects. Says Foxman:

“Despite stigmas and fads surrounding play and the news, we can draw vital lessons from their complex relationship. Many of the tools that online newsmakers use are similar to those applied in games. Even the fervor with which we share information on social media can be considered playful. British broadcaster Charlie Brooker put Twitter at the top of his list of the twenty-five most significant video games.”


As Foxman points out, the criticism of shallow features aimed at entertaining an audience didn’t start with BuzzFeed and its listicles or quizzes — when newspapers first started including crossword puzzles in the early 1900s, they became a public sensation, with Broadway songs written about them. But the New York Times (which now has one of the most popular puzzles in the world) called it a “sinful waste” and said those who filled them out got “nothing out of it except a primitive form of mental exercise.”

The Columbia student also describes how crossword puzzles evolved over time thanks to input from users, a test-and-response method that he encourages newspapers and other media companies to adopt for more things than just puzzles. This approach is also the subject of a book by game designer and academic Ian Bogost, called “Newsgames: Journalism at Play,” which was published in 2010. In one example of an early news-game, readers were encouraged to pretend that they were living in the Darfur refugee camp.

Run, test and repeat

Unfortunately, as Foxman notes, the trend of “gamification” on news sites that started several years ago quickly veered into a fascination with giving readers meaningless things like badges and other alleged “rewards” for participation on the site, as the Huffington Post did with a major initiative it rolled out in 2011. Since there was no real incentive for accumulating these rewards or engaging in the behavior they were meant to encourage, however, they had little effect.


During his research, Foxman talked to a number of people at BuzzFeed, including Jack Shepherd, who was employee number eight and now runs the Buzz entertainment vertical, as well as members of the site’s gaming team. Shepherd points out that the site’s entire editorial approach is a kind of game-playing, saying the idea was not to “sit around [and] assign stories based on what we thought were the important stories of the day” but to see what people were actually sharing and build on that:

“We do the equivalent of play testing with our posts. We’ll try a bunch of different things and then the stuff that is doing well and getting shared is the stuff that we start showing people more, and the stuff that isn’t really working, we won’t show people as much.”

In the end, one of the most important aspects of BuzzFeed’s approach — as I tried to point out in a post about what it and other new-media companies like Quartz and Gawker are doing right — is that it is based on experimentation, and iteration. In that sense, it looks at the news or at content generally as a product or a service. Is it working? Why not? What do people respond to better? That’s not the way most traditional media companies look at what they do, but it probably should be.

At long last, the New York Times decides to become digital first

It’s been several years now since The Guardian and other newspapers and media entities started talking about being “digital first,” meaning the web and digital platforms were the most important home for their content, with print as a secondary offering. But the New York Times resisted any such sweeping statements, even as it invested more in online. Now, the paper’s executive editor has announced what — for the Times at least — amounts to fairly momentous change: the daily news meeting will be about digital, not what is going to appear on Page One of the print version.

The Page One meetings at the Gray Lady are somewhat legendary, both inside and outside the building — seen by many as a kind of crucible in which the best Times journalism is forged, like the blacksmithing operation that the Greek god Hephaestus used to run on Mount Olympus. Now, however, executive editor Dean Baquet says the morning news meeting will be devoted to pitches by the various section editors about which stories they think deserve to get the best play on the paper’s website.

In a memo that was widely circulated (I got it from different sources), Baquet described the move as “a small but significant step in our digital transformation,” and an attempt to “elevate the primacy of our digital platforms in the daily life of the newsroom.” So in addition to its functional purpose, the move is a signal to the rest of the newspaper about what he sees as important.

“These changes are intended to ensure that our digital platforms are much less tethered to print deadlines. We need to be posting more of our best stories not in the late evening, but when The Times’s digital readership is at its height: between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. This new system will, in particular, give us more flexibility in targeting readers on mobile… and on platforms like Facebook.”

It would be easy to criticize the Times for being late to this particular party, but at least they have decided to show up. And while the morning meeting change might seem like a cosmetic adjustment, such signals can have an over-sized effect on the insular culture within a newspaper like the Times, where every tea leaf and perceived slight in the lunch-room is pored over for what it signifies.

And the ripple effect of those meetings could be significant: for all the newspaper’s talk about wanting to adapt more quickly to the web, and all the great suggestions in the widely talked-about innovation report that got leaked last year, those morning news meetings with their traditional pitches for Page One continually reinforced the fact that print was what really mattered at the end of the day.

The latest move is the next step in a process that started about six months ago, in the wake of the innovation report: Baquet said that the Page One discussions would be de-emphasized in the morning meetings, with digital getting more stage time. But now he has removed the print discussions from those meetings altogether, and made it clear that digital — and multi-platform — needs to be the focus. Welcome to the party, Dean.

The platform-publisher race is heating up and LinkedIn is gaining

Everywhere you look, a social platform of some kind is either looking to become a publisher or has already done so, whether it’s by hiring writers and editors, as Medium has, or by encouraging media companies to allow their content to live on its platform, as both Snapchat and Facebook do. While other platforms get most of the publicity, however, there is one player on the field that seems to be consistently underestimated as both a platform and a publisher, and that’s LinkedIn.

Maybe it’s because the site is somewhat ugly to look at and often difficult to use, or because the bulk of the activity that occurs there is utilitarian — people looking for jobs, people reviewing candidates for jobs, professional networking and so on — but its appeal and power as a publisher is often overlooked.

That might be a mistake: As Ad Age magazine noted earlier this week, LinkedIn has been hiring journalists from places like Fortune (where executive editor Dan Roth used to work before he joined the company) and the Wall Street Journal to create, edit and manage content. Those who just joined include former Fortune reporter Caroline Fairchild, former WSJ social-media editor Maya Pope-Chappell, and veteran journalist **, who is based in India.

From platform to publisher

The hires mark another step in the site’s gradual evolution from being just a static place where people put their curriculum vitae to being a content destination. The first step in that process was the launch of LinkedIn Today several years ago, a daily news offering much like the email newsletter round-ups that many traditional media entities put out. Then LinkedIn bought the news-recommendation service Pulse so it could make better recommendations for users.


After that came the LinkedIn Influencer program in 2013, which attracted celebrities like Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson by offering them a platform to express themselves. Medium has taken much the same approach, and recently convinced the White House to post both President Obama’s budget and his State of the Union address there. And like Medium, LinkedIn eventually opened its platform to everyone.

As the Ad Age piece points out, these kinds of efforts make LinkedIn look a lot more like a competitor for existing media companies than a partner — and a competitor that is doing better at the business that those media entities used to think they owned, which is advertising: last year, LinkedIn sold almost half a billion dollars in ads, which is more than all but the top tier of media companies.

Content is a sideline

Much like Facebook, what LinkedIn offers to publishers and to individual writers — and to brands who advertise on the platform as well — is reach: in Facebook’s case, it’s the ability to target and reach huge numbers of users who are in the right demographic. In LinkedIn’s case, it’s the ability to reach large numbers of readers or users who are interested in professional topics, business-related issues, etc. It’s like a collection of trade magazines, where the content is curated by people who work in those fields.


I spoke to a woman recently who was uncomfortable about using Facebook and Twitter, and said that LinkedIn was the social network or platform where she spent the most time, and got the most value. For her, the fact that the site was boring and professionally-oriented — which some users see as a negative — was actually a good thing, because she could catch up on links or content that was worthwhile a lot faster.

At a time when business publications like Forbes are becoming more and more like platforms in an attempt to monetize their audience, and in some cases straying a lot closer to the grey areas of sponsored content and native advertising than many would like, it seems natural that platforms like LinkedIn would try to become more like business publications. And the thing that makes them a fearsome competitor is that content is a sideline business for them — even if it doesn’t work, they still have a pretty good business. Their traditional media competitors, however, are fighting for their lives.

With David Carr’s death, we have lost a unique and generous voice

Writing about death is never easy. But it’s especially hard when it involves a close friend, and when you feel as though they left the party too soon, with so much undone, and unsaid. It says a lot about New York Times media writer David Carr that even though I wasn’t one of his close friends, he made me feel as though I was — and I know many people who felt the same way, because they poured their hearts out on Twitter and Facebook after finding out that he passed away suddenly late Thursday.

As more than one person at the Times mentioned, it was fitting that he was in the newsroom when he collapsed that night, because he loved the paper and his colleagues and his job so much, and often talked about how it hardly seemed like work at all. His defence of the Times and its journalism in the movie Page One — when he chewed out Vice Media founder Shane Smith — became legendary almost as soon as the movie aired.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iLmkec_4Rfo?rel=0&showinfo=0&w=640&h=360]

That incident made him sound like the crusty old defender of everything traditional about journalism, and I bugged him more than once on Twitter about it (he called me “future boy” at one point, as I recall). But David was actually much more inclined towards the experimental side of the business, which makes sense when you remember that he started with a scrappy weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, and only later managed to elbow his way onto a national stage with a job at the New York Times.

David was one of the first at the Times to really adopt Twitter, and often talked about it removed the barriers between journalists and the people they served, and how that made journalism better. He loved experimenting with things like video and blogs, which he did for the inaugural Carpetbagger Oscars blog, and he was fascinated by almost every new-media thing that came along, even if he didn’t really understand it. The curiosity and passion for his work is one of the things I remember most.

Whether he was writing about the arrival of something new like Vice or Vox, or covering the decline of something old like the Chicago Tribune, David managed to find something human in the story he was writing — and he had a way with a phrase that made his pieces enjoyable even if you already knew all the details. He had no sentimental attachment to print, per se, but he definitely had an attachment to journalism, and the need to dig for the truth and not be distracted by the noise and lights.

When we talked about the evolution of newspapers, he said he liked to think of there being a print “room” and a digital “room,” joined by a long, dark hallway. Since papers couldn’t turn the lights out in one room and move en masse to the other, most were stuck in that hallway, he said — without knowing how long it would take to get to their destination, or whether the people they bumped into were friends or enemies.

David and I only met a few times. We never shared any of the personal moments that Circa’s Anthony De Rosa recalls in his memorial post, or the kind of relationship that he had with CNN’s Brian Stelter, who Carr often joked was a robot designed to replace him. But every time we saw each other, he made me feel as though we were the best of friends, and that all he cared about was catching up with me on what I’d been doing, or downplaying his own work in that “aw shucks” way.

The first time we met, at a media event in Toronto that I later wrote about, we talked about Twitter and the future of newspapers and paywalls — and when I went to shake his hand as he was leaving, he pulled me in and gave me a bear hug. For someone who could be caustic in his judgements when writing about media executives and other people he saw as venal or mean-spirited, he was unfailingly kind and generous.

As Slate editor Jacob Weisberg noted on Twitter after David’s passing, it felt as though at least some of his warmth and generosity came about because his earlier life before the Times was so bleak — a subject he wrote about in his biography, Night of the Gun, where he described being a cocaine addict. He managed to survive that period, and it seemed as though he wanted to make up for all that cruelty by being as kind as possible to everyone he met afterwards. As he put it in his book:

“Here is what I deserved: hepatitis C, federal prison time, H.I.V., a cold park bench, an early, addled death. Here is what I got: the smart, pretty wife, the three lovely children, the job that impresses… I have lived most of the last two decades showered by those promises that recovery delivers, with luck, industry and fate guiding me to a life beyond all expectation.”

Cocaine addiction wasn’t the only battle David fought: he also had to deal with Hodgkins lymphoma, which affected his lymph nodes, and the radiation as a result of that cancer was what gave him the thin-necked and slightly stork-like posture he had for the rest of his life — something he tried to cover up by wearing scarves whenever possible (he also lost a spleen, a pancreas and half his gall-bladder). But he never complained about being uncomfortable or in pain, even when he clearly was.


If recovering from both of his physical challenges could be seen as a second or even third chance at life, David definitely made the most of it. But unlike some who pretend their jobs are the most important things on the planet, he was unfailingly humble — often describing himself as the luckiest guy in the room, someone who got to do what he loved and call it a job, someone who had gotten away with a “great caper” as he liked to say. His joy at the gift of just being alive was infectious.

David’s death has taken away a wonderful voice, a media writer whose skill and commitment and insight made his work a pleasure to read and impressed everyone who knew him — even those he criticized. But more than that, his death has taken from the world a true Southern gentleman, a rapscallion, a kind and generous soul, and an occasional badass motherfucker. Rest in peace, David. You will be missed.