The Pew Research Journalism Project released its State of the News Media 2014 report Wednesday, and if you’re interested in where the content business is headed, it’s worth digging in to.
Disclosure: I haven’t even scratched the surface of it myself.
Alan Murray of the Wall Street Journal has, though, and he found Seven Reasons For Optimism About the News Business. Note: The story is behind a paywall. If you’re not a subscriber, you can try googling the headline, then clicking through.
Bleacher Report participated in the survey by providing some employment figures. Murray cites “a spate of hiring in the digital world” as one of those reasons for optimism: “Pew counted nearly 5,000 full-time editorial jobs in 468 digital-only news organizations in the U.S. That doesn’t offset the 16,000 jobs lost in traditional newsrooms, but it’s a start.”
- Smart money is coming in to the business, including Jeff Bezos buying the Washington Post and Pierre Omidyar starting a media company
- The rise of mobile device use is leading to increased news consumption
- Young people are using social networks to get their news
- Online video news is growing, which may offset some of the losses in television news
- Digital tools are creating new ways to engage with users—such as the dialect quiz that was the most popular thing on the New York Times website in 2013
- Paywalls are providing some new revenue
What I like about it is that it’s based on solid reporting. Abebe asks a lot of good questions and clearly spent a lot of time talking to and observing Upworthy’s founders and staff. He could have used the ubiquitous criticism of Upworthy’s methods, especially its headline style, as a starting point. Instead, he seemed to go into the enterprise with an open mind, without having sketched out his story first.
Upworthy, if you’re not familiar, is a site that uses “lowest common denominator” methods to, in the words of its About page, “make important stuff as viral as a video of some idiot surfing off his roof.” While rocketing to monthly unique figures in the high eight figures, Upworthy has become a target for its sometimes cloying headlines, often spoofed with the tagline “you’ll never believe what happens next.”
Full disclosure: I’ve met one of Upworthy’s founders, Peter Koechley, and its editorial director, Sara Critchfield. I liked them both. Abebe describes Critchfield as “a firm handshake of a person,” and Critchfield’s Twitter bio includes that phrase—just what you’d expect from a firm handshake of a person.
More disclosure: I admire Upworthy’s success and like its mission, but the headline style sometimes wears on me and I’m not above lampooning it. You know, all the cool kids do it.
Abebe could have written it from that point of view, from squarely within the media world he and I both live in, which rolls its eyes at Upworthy as a matter of course.
One of the critical stories I linked to above begins:
So, most people dislike Upworthy to some extent. The aversion to it ranges from the cusp of indifference to a psychotic, visceral hatred. But no one likes Upworthy—probably not even people who work at Upworthy.
Evidence mustered for any of those assertions: None.
Abebe didn’t take that route. Here’s a key passage that fairly describes what Upworthy’s up to:
Much of Upworthy’s content does feel like reality TV. A lot of it also feels like advertising. This isn’t an accident; the site’s built, tactically and deliberately, to appeal to what skeptics once called the lowest common denominator. Its choices are the ones you’d normally associate with a race to the bottom—the manipulative techniques of ads, tabloids, direct-mail fund-raising, local TV news (“Think This Common Household Object Won’t Kill Your Children? You’d Be Wrong”). It’s just that Upworthy assumes the existence of a “lowest common denominator” that consists of a human craving for righteousness, or at least the satisfaction that comes from watching someone we disagree with get their rhetorical comeuppance. They’ve harnessed craven techniques in the service of unobjectionable goals.
The evidence for all of that appears in quotes throughout the piece—from the people who work at Upworthy, who, shockingly, seem to like Upworthy. The things you can find out by talking to people, rather than using your imagination.
A writer approaches an upstart website with an open mind rather than relying on assumptions, and you’ll never believe what happens next.
Couldn’t resist. A good piece is what happened.
We’ve talked a lot about access over the last few years here on the B/R Blog.
We’ve talked about the pros and cons of access. It can lead to great, detailed storytelling and analytical insight. It can also be used as a carrot or stick by those controlling it, thus allowing them to control the message.
Sometimes, both can be true. The Columbia Journalism Review has a piece about coverage of the Target stores data breach that provides a great example of why access isn’t always a recipe for great writing.
In a piece headlined “For the WSJ, access doesn’t pay off,” CJR’s Ryan Chittum details how the Wall Street Journal had gold-plated access to Target’s C-level executives as they dealt with the crisis, while Bloomberg BusinessWeek was completely shut out by the retailer. Yet it was BusinessWeek that got the story:
The Journal story presents an executive team as action figures under siege through no fault of their own, fighting valiantly to serve their customers and save the reputation of their firm. It’s reminiscent of Andrew Ross Sorkin’s upside-down view of the financial crisis in Too Big to Fail. The Journal says that the hack was “highly technical and sophisticated,” according to the Secret Service and dutifully reports [Target CEO Gregg] Steinhafel’s claim that “it would be hard for any retailer to withstand this.”
Cue high fives from Target’s crisis PR team. Page one of the Journal!
But wait. Turn to the second story. Bloomberg BusinessWeek reports that the hack “wasn’t particularly inventive, nor did it appear destined for success” and that it was “absolutely unsophisticated and uninteresting.”
More problematic: BusinessWeek finds that Target’s security systems flashed red for more than two weeks before anything was done about the hacking.
Chittum notes that the Target story is packed with color, with details. But he writes that they’re of “dubious relevance.”
“One person’s color,” he writes, “is another person’s irrelevancy.”
Access can be a great tool. Lack of access can be a great hindrance. That part’s easy to understand. Where things get complicated is that it’s also true the other way around.
Whenever there’s a big event—and I think the first weekend of March Madness counts—I like to review the best of Bleacher Report’s content. It’s a great chance to appreciate how far we’ve come. I’ve been saying this for about a year now: I’d put the best Bleacher Report content up against anyone else’s.
Let’s start with video. B/R has four “franchises” around the NCAA tournament. Here they are with a representative piece.
WSU’s Ron Baker Fires Back at Critics and Impersonates Cleanthony Early: One of six player profiles B/R ran. Baker really opened up and the content was shared almost 6,000 times.
Relive Chris Webber’s Timeout: The Worst Moment in March Madness History: One of 10 top moments since 1980, this look added a fresh contemporary voice in Ric Bucher. A mix of history and opinion.
Crunching the Numbers to Reveal Biggest Potential Upsets in the West Region: Professor Sheldon Jacobson of the University of Illinois gave us a mathematical look at the match-ups. His study looks only at seeding to see where and when the upsets are most likely to occur. This Smart Bracket was on the site the Monday morning after Selection Sunday. There were four videos in the series. The North Dakota State pick was pretty good.
No. 1 Florida vs. No. 9 Pittsburgh: March Madness Preview: One of 63 game previews B/R will post by tournament’s end. Team Stream Now host Adam Lefkoe and B/R writers C.J. Moore and Jason King break down the games in these insightful, quick, engaging videos.
Here is more of the best of Bleacher Report’s March Madness coverage, as identified by B/R editors.
NCAA Tournament Player Rankings 2014: Real-Time Updates, March Madness Tracker: This ranking of the players in the tournament, updated in real time, is a fresh way to look at an event that’s seemingly covered from every angle.
Aaron Craft’s Place in Ohio State Basketball History Safe Despite Shocking Loss by Scott Polacek: Nice job weaving in history with game analysis following Craft and OSU’s last-second loss to Dayton.
Kansas Point Guard Conner Frankamp Coming Up Big After Unexpected Opportunity by Jason King: Frankamp is not a big name but he made a huge difference in that game. This is an example of a writer finding the story as opposed to focusing on the standard story lines.
Harvard’s at It Again: Ivy Darling Downs Cincinnati in Another Round-of-64 Upset by Thad Novak: A ton of depth for what we call a Wave 2 postgame article. Wire services would call it a writethru. It’s a gamer, but with quotes and analysis on top of the result and the details of the game.
Duke’s Stunning Upset to Mercer Shows Jabari Parker Isn’t Invincible by Tom Weir: Clever, entertaining writing in a thorough, forward-looking exploration of all the issues caused by Jabari’s flop in Duke’s loss.
10 Overrated Seeds Most Likely to Bust Your Bracket and Where to Take Your Biggest Gambles in Picking Your 2014 NCAA Bracket by Kerry Miller: Two great tourney previews by a slideshow ace. As usual, Miller’s writing is believable and interesting in these pieces, and he even crunched his own numbers for split stats.
I know there were more great pieces. Did you see any? Share in the comments.
Bleacher Report has taught me a tremendous amount about writing concisely, attracting readers and creating content that inspires further discussion. But the most valuable skill I’ve learned as a member of the Advanced Program in Sports Media involves what happens after my writing is complete.
How do I best engage my readers once they start commenting on my articles?
That was a question I began asking myself early on. I had no previous experience interacting with readers, so my initial plan was to respond to as many comments as I could and do so punctually. That meant the second I got a notification telling me someone had commented on my article, I went right in and replied to them with my own insight.
I quickly realized this wasn’t the best route. Almost every time I replied to a comment, the thread died. It was as if readers felt like it was pointless to chime in if the original writer of the article was going to get involved.
In many cases, I was responding to comments with the same information I included in my article. I was repeating myself. Why would my readers want to read the same argument twice?
It’s just as important to pick and choose which comments you reply to and which threads you let run their course as it is deciding what you’ll say in your response. Our work is intended to further discussion among readers. We’re not in that category ourselves.
When someone’s comment is a direct question to me, then I absolutely respond, and I try do so punctually since that increases the likelihood the commenter will reply. But I’ve learned to leave the majority of comments that are just disagreeing with me alone.
The type of comment I steer clear from is one that suggests an alternative answer to the one I provided without directly addressing my arguments.
For instance, I wrote a piece predicting an exciting season for the Baltimore Orioles. One commenter disagreed and said the Orioles are set to have a dismal season. I chose not to respond because I had already given my point of view in the article.
The result was a fairly long thread with people choosing sides in the debate. It wasn’t a thread I would’ve been able to add much to.
Sometimes, you have to trust your readers to engage in meaningful conversation without you.
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One Thing You Need to Know is a series in which we ask members of the Bleacher Report Advanced Program in Sports Media to write about just that: One thing they’ve learned that they would pass along to other aspiring writers.
You have to know your audience if you want to speak intelligently to them. That’s why reports like The Personal News Cycle: How Americans choose to get their news by the American Press Institute’s Media Insight Project can be so fascinating.
The report, released this week, is based on a “nationally representative telephone survey of 1,492 adults conducted from January 9 through February 16.”
The survey finds that a lot of cherished ideas about how people consume news is obsolete. Here’s a big chunk from the overview:
Contrary to the conventional wisdom about media consumption dividing along generational or political lines, a new survey finds that the nature of the news itself — the topic and speed of the story — largely determines where people go to learn about events and the path they take to get there.
The findings also suggest that some long-held beliefs about people relying on just a few primary sources for news are now obsolete.
In contrast to the idea that one generation tends to rely on print, another on television and still another the web, the majority of Americans across generations now combine a mix of sources and technologies to get their news each week … Where people go for news, moreover, depends significantly on the topic of the story — whether it is sports or science, politics or weather, health or arts — and on the nature of the story — whether it is a fast-moving event, a slower-moving trend, or an issue that the person follows passionately.
The data also challenge another popular idea about the digital age, the notion that with limitless choices people follow only a few subjects in which they are interested and only from sources with which they agree — the idea of the so-called “filter bubble.”
And one more quote, because I think this is the real take-away: “The data from the survey, which was designed to probe what adults distinguish most in their news consumption in the digital age, offer a portrait of Americans becoming increasingly comfortable using technology in ways that take advantage of the strengths of each medium and each device.”
What that tells me is that we have to think about the strengths—and weaknesses—of each device that we’re creating content for as we create that content.
The report is huge. Full disclosure: I haven’t read the whole thing yet, though I do recommend the first section after the overview, How Americans get their news, which talks about behavior of news consumers: How often they look for news, how often they delve deeper than headlines, when they do those things, and so on.
Today’s version of Our Changing World of Sports Media comes to you from spring training, where the Washington Nationals, unlike certain fellow citizens of our nation’s capital, have agreed to stop using drones.
Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon reports that the club had used a quadcopter to take aerial photos at its complex in Florida. NBC Sports used similar vehicles at the Sochi Olympics, after obtaining permission from Russian officials. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration bans the commercial use of unmanned aircraft, and the Nationals didn’t get or even seek any kind of exception.
“No, we didn’t get it cleared,” an unnamed team official told the Associated Press. “But we don’t get our pop flies cleared either and those go higher than this thing did.”
I would think that the quadcopter would have to go higher than pop flies if it’s going to be used regularly. Otherwise, it might get hit by a pop fly. What’s the ground rule on a batted ball hitting a quadcopter? Betcha Henry Chadwick never thought about that one.
MLB can contemplate it while we on the media side think about how quadcopters and whatever’s next fit into our coverage. You may be off the hook for never figuring out how to edit photos with your phone.
Meanwhile, a federal judge has ruled that the FAA has no jurisdiction to ban the use of commercial drones. The agency is appealing that ruling, Beaujon writes. According to the AP, the FAA argues that there are safety issues that need to be addressed for unmanned vehicles before they can fly alongside manned aircraft.
We’re going to stay all-basketball for this edition of Shoutouts. Let’s start with one of my favorite subjects, the ridiculously stupid press release issued every year by some publicity-seeking firm that presumably does something useful the rest of the year. This release uses made-up numbers and false assumptions to supposedly estimate how much the tournament costs American business.
I regularly lampooned this nonsense in my Salon.com column years ago, and this year Tom Weir picked up the baton in Bleacher Report with a piece asking, “Is the NCAA Tournament Really a Bad Thing for the US Economy?”
Spoiler alert: Ha ha! What an idiotic question!
Skipped work time predates Internet streaming by decades. The NCAA version is merely a first cousin of last-minute Christmas shopping, parent-teacher conferences and the April anxiety rush to get taxes filed on time. The only difference is no one celebrates buying a gift for Aunt Mildred the way they do a buzzer-beater.
Here’s a crazy thing Weir does to counter the press release’s silly assumptions: Looks at the data. If the tournament causes this horrible annual downturn in productivity, wouldn’t that show up in economic figures?
Spoiler alert: Ha ha! What an idiotic question!
Jason King, who made an appearance in the last Shoutout with his profile of Wichita State guard Fred VanVleet, checks in again with a look at the growing phenomenon of Nebraska basketball. His piece Look out for Nebraska, a Budding B1G Power and Dangerous NCAA Tournament Sleeper centers on coach Tim Miles, who may have “librarian glasses and the big smile,” but has now galvanized two programs.
I think I could spend quite a bit of time listening to Howard Beck and Ric Bucher argue about the NBA. Thanks to the Team Stream Now videos they make together, I can do that. Two recent examples: Can Phil Jackson Help Deliver a Championship to New York Knicks? and Should Tracy McGrady Make the NBA HOF?
Spoiler alert: Levy thinks the greatest of all time is … Billy Packer!
OK not really.
If you’ve got a little time, here’s some heavy reading that I think you’ll find interesting. It’s a keynote speech by Steve Buttry, Digital Transformation Editor at the news publishing company Digital First Media, at a Digital Journalism Ethics Symposium last week at the University of Colorado.
Buttry, whose wisdom is often quoted in the Bleacher Report Blog, argues that as society changes and technology transforms communication, journalism ethics must evolve. He notes that the ethics behind such revered documents as the U.S. Constitution and the Hippocratic Oath have changed over the years. The former originally considered blacks subhuman, and the latter required doctors not to take money for teaching medicine.
An important thing to remember about a code of ethics is that it’s nothing more than a set of rules. Rules can be broken. So having the rules doesn’t guarantee ethical behavior, and, as with the Constitution and the Hippocratic Oath, there’s no guarantee that what the rules say are ethical will always be considered ethical. Buttry writes:
I want to note that efforts in this nation to outlaw abortion or marijuana or alcohol or marriages by gay and lesbian couples didn’t come close to stopping people from ending pregnancies, altering their moods or expressing commitment to their lovers. That’s something to keep in mind if you’re drafting an ethics code for your news organization … Good journalism ethics don’t grow from strong rules. Good journalism ethics grow from strong conversations about our values and about making good decisions based in those values.
Buttry notes that while many organizations agree on the core principles of an ethics code—usually some variation of the Society of Professional Journalists’ “Seek truth and report it; minimize harm; act independently; be accountable”—there are often shifts in emphasis over time. Buttry writes that in his own writing, he has changed his view to value transparency (“be accountable”) more than independence (“act independently”), as he often blogs “about matters in which I’m intimately involved.”
I disclose those involvements and my readers can decide whether that involvement influences my judgment or heightens my insight or both. Or neither. But if you read my blog, you know my experiences and connections.
The teeth of Buttry’s speech is his “thoughts about the guidance we need to offer journalists today about accuracy, attribution, confidential sources and social media.”
I won’t go over it here. It’s 5,000-plus and worth the read. But as one example, I’ll mention that Buttry writes about the continuing refusal of many outlets to link to digital sources, and how ethical codes have been slow to require linking. “Anyone striving for relevance in ethical leadership needs to address the issue of linking in digital content,” he writes.
We at Bleacher Report, which has long required its writers to link to any digital source of information, obviously agree.
Do you agree with Buttry? Should ethics change over time or are they fundamental and unchanging?
Superstar athletes are a lot less accessible to the media than they used to be. There was a time a writer could cover a football (soccer) match in London, file their report on the whistle and then share a few pints in a pub with the players afterwards, but not anymore.
Agents and teams fiercely control their most valuable assets in today’s world, which makes any exclusive access the media can procure all the more precious. To get one-on-one with a truly global sports star is no easy thing to achieve and can take months to broker—even for a brand as powerful as Bleacher Report on home turf.
All of which makes our B/R UK Google+ Hangout this week particularly remarkable, and something none of us involved with will forget. Just a week after first discussing the opportunity, we were joined live by none other than Lionel Messi—the greatest footballer on the planet and arguably the finest ever to lace his boots.
Messi is as big a “get” as they come. His cameo might have been brief, but to have him address our Hangout guests and Bleacher Report readers was a major coup for our world football coverage and B/R’s profile globally. He was only too happy to offer up a signed Argentina shirt for a competition and to pay his respects to our marquee columnist Stan Collymore.
— Bleacher Report UK (@br_uk) March 13, 2014
It was fleeting, but it was class personified. Flanked by B/R writer, and Messi biographer, Guillem Balague, Messi came across as he’s always been portrayed by those who know him—as humble, gracious and appreciative of his millions of fans worldwide.
To think that just four years ago our world football coverage would have barely registered outside of the U.S. Here we are now, building towards the 2014 World Cup, and the game’s biggest star—or at least those who manage his time—considered it a worthwhile exercise to attach himself to Bleacher Report’s brand.
Messi’s appearance is added to a number of other world football exclusives we’ve managed to broker this year—including interviews with Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers, their forward Daniel Sturridge and Barcelona’s Gerard Pique.
It’s becoming harder and harder to make these things happen in today’s sports landscape, which makes it all the more special when they come to fruition. Sometimes it’s timing, sometimes it’s luck. In the case of Messi’s appearance, it owed everything to the increasing strength of Bleacher Report’s global brand.
Messi on Bleacher Report. Now that’s a “get.” Here’s to more of the same.
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