Journalism needs better tools

Om Malik:

If technology has upended the media ecosystem, then it should also be the solution for that ecosystem to adapt to the new hyper-speed reality of news and information. What we need is a set of tools that basically are a way to help the information-gathering process at network speed. Instead of reporters asking questions — if you don’t have historical context you can’t really ask some key questions — we need tools that help augment the process.

Right now, we're not even good at the publishing end tools, let alone the research end ones. That has to change.

Maria Popova

Here's a fascinating interview with Maria Popova, curator of the truly excellent Brain Pickings blog.

Some choice highlights:

I can’t speak for others, but I’ve found in myself a tendency to retreat deeper and deeper into my existing interests as a form of self-defense against the abundance of demands for my time and attention. Again, it takes a certain discipline not to do that and to continually expand one’s ideological comfort zone, as it does not to scatter oneself too chaotically across a multitude of diversion.

And, on journalism, this:

Every nonfiction writer is essentially a curator of ideas – whether this means the selection of academic and clinical studies to be cited in a Malcolm Gladwell-style pop psychology book or the snippets of articles highlighted and contextualized in a day’s worth of Andrew Sullivan’s blog. At their best, journalists – writers, editors, “curators”, or whatever we choose to label them – help people figure out what matters in the world and why. The label under which they do it is irrelevant.

One of the most thought-provoking interviews I've read in a while.

Photo by Ryan Lash for TED conferences, and used under a Creative Commons licence

Another reminder of the dangers of building your business on one company's platform:

Gawker web stats

Those are Gawker's figures - and why did that valley happen?

Read and his co-workers think that this is the result of some algorithm changes Facebook made in May. But just like everyone else on the Web who doesn’t work at 1 Hacker Way, they can only guess at what those changes are. Even when Facebook announces it is making changes, it doesn’t do a whole lot to explain what it’s really doing and why.

Previously: Surviving the Facebook clickbait algorithm change

Social media gurus are breeding like rabbits roaches:

The June 2014 What’s Next Blog social media guru Twitter Bio list (researched on FollowerWonk) has grown to epic proportions. The list now tops 297,897 – up from a mere 16,000 when we first started tracking them in 2009.

Well over a quarter of a million people are self-declaring themselves as social media experts on Twitter now. Pause. Consider that. Despair for humanity.

Here's why you should immediately discount anyone who describes themselves in this way: no-one is a social media expert.

This is a new field, and a dynamic one. The services, approaches and tools are changing by the minute, and what you know now can be wrong in a month's time. Plus: it's a social field - and thus the answers tend to be different in every social group.

Look at it this way: social media is a communication tool - like the telephone. How many self-proclaimed "telephone gurus" are there? And how seriously would you take them?

[via Brent Simmons]

Serving the Twitter Elite

The Tweet Elite


Similar to how we help businesses make advertising simple and effective on Twitter, we occasionally build features that enable these public figures — verified users — to engage more easily with the world through Twitter.

Interesting to see Twitter developing an effective Elite, with tools and services the rest of us don't have access to. The Blue Tick Elite seems to be mapping pretty closely to to existing media power strutters, too. It's the big media, celebrities, and their ilk.

From disruptive to assimilated?


One of the most dangerous things you can do on the internet is start depending on one other company almost entirely for your traffic. A few years ago, I ended up working briefly with a business that was built on search, and was almost wiped off the internet by the Panda update to the Google search algorithm. It was an SEO-driven business, but the change was so profound that SEO tactics couldn't recover it - it needed long-term content development that nobody in the business was geared up to deliver.

That business was eventually sold on, in much diminished form. Live by the algorithm, die by the algorithm.

Facebook Algorithm changes

All of which brings us to Facebook, which has become the dominant force in traffic generation for a new wave of online sites. This rather famous graph of Buzzfeed traffic sources illustrates that well:


The Facebook news feed is sorted via an algorithm; you don't see (by default) everything your friends and brands you've Liked post. Facebook makes a guess as to what is most interesting to you, based on a mix of your own actions and those of others, and then shows you that content. And they've just made a change that will impact some of those sites:

We’re making two updates, the first to reduce click-baiting headlines, and the second to help people see links shared on Facebook in the best format.

This is interesting, because they are two quite different situations, and worth exploring in depth.


One of the big trends of the last year has been the rise of the "curiosity gap" headline, a headline that teases you with what you're about to get, but without making it absolutely obvious. It uses emotional manipulation - "you won't believe what happened next" - to get you to click through. This is almost the diametric opposite of the traditional search-driven approach of making the headlines as clear as possible. In fact, it's almost a reversion to the "clever" headline writing of print, but turned up to eleven.

It was a great idea - a headline format optimised for social rather than search. And it's been widely copied, and diluted as it spreads. Every last cheap'n'fast content site is using some variation of it, and the content the other side rarely lives up to the headline billing. Facebook can see that as it tracks user behaviour in detail:

One way is to look at how long people spend reading an article away from Facebook. If people click on an article and spend time reading it, it suggests they clicked through to something valuable. If they click through to a link and then come straight back to Facebook, it suggests that they didn’t find something that they wanted. With this update we will start taking into account whether people tend to spend time away from Facebook after clicking a link, or whether they tend to come straight back to News Feed when we rank stories with links in them.

This is interesting - because this is now a common behaviour with Google which does exactly the same thing. If people bounce back quickly from your site to the search result page after following a search link, then your ranking will decrease over time.

As Mary notes, this is not fabulous news for the traditional - short - news story:

Increasingly, news sites are using stub articles – a few sentences or shorter – to break fast-moving stories, atomising them into smaller and smaller pieces. Those pieces might take seconds to read. If they’re promoted on Facebook, how does a news reader clicking through, reading the whole thing then backing out look different from someone clicking on a curiosity-gap headline then backing out because it wasn’t what they wanted?

There's certainly an argument here that the shift to stub articles is a mistake, and a misapplication of print values to a digital environment - but that's fodder for another post. The core message is that short news snippets are now unlikely to perform well in either search or Facebook-driven social media. And make no mistake, however obsessed we journalists are with Twitter, Facebook is still the really mainstream, big traffic site.

So, there's a pressure here towards longer or growing articles - or at least articles where we always give the reader a related next click or two - both from search and social.

It's interesting to note that, at the very least, Upworthy have been shifting away from the curiosity gap for a while. Why? Because it's been over-used by competitors, and is becoming noise. That's pretty much exactly why Facebook is making this change.

Link Formatting

It's been relatively well-known for a while that you can often get a link to perform better on Facebook by attaching it to a photo post - or a standard status update - rather than using the full link format:

Facebook Link format

Indeed, the general drift has been towards using the status update rather than the photo post in the last six months, as Facebook seemed to be down ranking links attached to photos.

Now, they're clamping down hard.

With this update, we will prioritize showing links in the link-format, and show fewer links shared in captions or status updates.

The best way to share a link after these updates will be to use the link format. In our studies, these posts have received twice as many clicks compared to links embedded in photo captions.

Pretty clear message here: stop trying to game the algorithm. If you want to share a link, use the link format. Sure, photos get more engagement, but that's because people like interacting around photos, not because they like interacting around photos and swallowing a link too, by mistake.

I suspect the net effect of this will be to decrease the organic reach of many poor quality pieces of content in the broadest sense. In many cases, organic reach was already plummeting, because people were focusing too much on their brand pages, and not enough on encouraging Facebook users to share things themselves. For one thing, it places much more importance on you having good Open Graph metadata on your pages, so you can effectively control how your link appears when published in Facebook.

(I've been publishing Open Graph metadata here for three years now. How are your sites doing on that?)

It means you have to work harder at picture choice and description text to encourage people to click through. And it means you need to craft the sharing post to "sell" the story. But, frankly, you should have been doing that anyway, if you wanted good traffic results from Facebook.

And you do want good results from Facebook. The Telegraph recently revealed that they'd boosted traffic by putting more effort into Facebook than Twitter, because more of their traffic was already coming from there:

“We have found that for every minute put into promoting something on Facebook, we get a significantly larger traffic boost than we do from Twitter. We still put energy into Twitter, but since there is a bigger bang for effort we put more into Facebook.”

Facebook is mainstream in a way Twitter just isn't right now. And that means that we have another ever-shifting algorithm to deal with, not just Google's.

And that's why you should never make your entire traffic acquisition strategy dependent on one - or even two - services whose behaviour you don't control.

Forced vacationing

Down by the lake

Life seems to be determined to make me take more time off than I'd planned. I was just - just - getting back into the swing of work after my holiday, when my daughter gets sent home from nursery, which was plagues with a vomiting and diarrhoea bug. Thankfully, whatever had made her throw up a little, wasn't the bug, but a 48 hour exclusion meant I lost the majority of the last working week. And then - I'm on holiday again.

Except I'm not, I'm back at home for a little while, catching up on what needs to be done while my family continue to enjoy the Cotswolds.

Still, that doesn't mean I can't find a little time for some light blogging…

Half-drunk black Americano at Tom Foolery

Five recent reads you might have missed, and are well-worth your time:

It's a 24/7 social media world out there

Friends of the blog Brilliant Noise have done some research into the difference between "always on" Twitter presence and more sporadic approaches:

Always-on is a more strategic and customer-focused approach: it acknowledges that the relationship with customers is always in development and that there should always be avenues open for conversation. In comparison, a campaign-based approach is more tactical, and more geared to short-term business priorities (e.g. boost sales now!) than customer needs.

Twitter has featured the research, too.

In good Company

Company magazine takes the well trod path to online-only:

Hearst announced on Wednesday that after Company’s final issue, October 2014, goes on sale on 5 September, it will focus its efforts on targeting 16-24 year old women via the title’s website,

The major concern? That the next well-trod path is to complete closure…

A bitter tablet to swallow

Talking of digital magazines, one of the pioneers of tablet magazine design has walked away from the market:

“From my experience in working with Fast Company and other magazines, if you put a digital magazine on an iPad and you hand the iPad to somebody, you have the opportunity to make them say wow. If you expect the same person to find that magazine, pay for that magazine, and download that mag, that’s asking for a lot!” he says. “But that’s what businesses can do, put an iPad in your hands at the points of sale or a meeting room, and get your [attention]. That’s the game changer here.”

Ironically, of course, most B2B magazine companies are still locked into dingy page-turning replicas on tablets.

The next wave of LinkedIn spam

The tidal wave of LinkedIn content is coming. And they've release more details about their platform:

LinkedIn today outlined on its engineering blog a series of recent technical updates to improve distribution for new posts on its publishing platform. The three improvements include integration with the Feed-Mixer algorithm for ranking posts in LinkedIn’s member feeds, mobile notifications for first-degree connections and inclusion in daily or weekly Pulse news emails.

I still don't have access to the publishing platform - but as my contacts start pushing our more and more spammy self-promotional content through it, I'm losing interest fast.

The pulse of Wikipedia

Fascinating account of Wikipedia vandalism, correction and participation:

Now, notice: It had been eight minutes since the original wrong info had been posted, and three people had edited that sentence. But nobody had checked the facts and fixed the problem. This was the Reign of Error—the period during which I, and presumably dozens or hundreds or even thousands of other people, stumbled by and read the page. (It would be cool to have a long German word for this informational interregnum.)

He eventually finds the person who did do the correction…

Any suggestions out there of good articles we should read? Feel free to share 'em, old or new…

When advertising goes native

So, this happened while I was away:

Yes, we need new sources of income in digital. But I'm deeply unconvinced that "native" advertising is the future. We're essentially running a huge experiment to see if the old view - that compromising editorial values with paid content would erode the trust of the reader, and eventually destroy the relationship the advertising was paying to access - was accurate.

The problem for the companies doing this is that, if the old view is correct and they've just destroyed a relationship, it's almost impossible to get back from there.