Archive for March, 2016
Steve Buttry, Director of Student Media at Louisiana State University, identifies the most successful online media products in both terms of content and popularity.
With 40 years experience in news, and recently 4 years as a Digital Transformation Editor with Digital First Media, Steve agreed to share his knowledge of the online publishing environment.
I asked him which are, in his opinion, the most successful online media products at the moment. He explained:
Many of the best projects are privately owned, so we don’t necessarily know how they are doing financially. For instance, I thought GigaOm was successful until it folded (and, I think it was, but even successful products don’t necessarily last forever.
His list includes names such as Mashable and Buzz Feed, but also big traditional outlets going digital, such as New York Times and Washington Post.
What are, in Steve’s opinion, the best online media outlets at the moment? He does not give a chart of the best, from 1 to 8, but a list:
- Business Insider
- Bleacher Report
- SB Nation
Let’s look into each of these websites and their success.
BuzzFeed spins on the numbers of views
Who hasn’t heard about BuzzFeed?
Storming Facebook with everything from lists to news and quizes (a favourite pastime for many), the online media outlet boasts over 6.6 million followers for the main page only. Nowadays it has separate Facebook pages for sections such as BuzzFeed Food, BuzzFeed Video, BuzzFeed IRL and so on.
Founded in 2006 by Jonah Peretti, it has attracted a $50 million investment in 2014. But what does BuzzFeed owe its success to? Is it lists, quizes or food videos?
According to The Guardian, it gives users the things they want to know in a fun, user friendly way:
No, BuzzFeed didn’t invent the “listicle” and it didn’t invent quizzes. But since it launched in 2006, BuzzFeed has changed the digital landscape considerably.
From regional to national and international media, everyone’s trying to imitate it for one simple reason – what BuzzFeed does really does work.
Mashable offers users content on social media, tech, business, entertainment and world news. With a focus on digitalized media, it currently has 6.8 million followers on Twitter and over 3.5 million followers on Facebook.
Since then, Mashable quickly grew to be one of the top 10 and most profitable blogs in the world. Pete was named one of Ad Age’s 2011 influencers, a Time Magazine 100 in 2010, and a Forbes magazine web celeb 25. He was also named a Briton of the year by the Telegraph in 2010.
Its success has been explained as standing on the social media news it provides about the big giants in the industry, from Twitter to YouTube.
Besides, pandas are always fun.
Politico pledges for “fair and fun coverage of politics”
Started in 2008 by John Harris and Jim VandeHei, two reporters who had just left Washington Post, Politico publishes a manifesto type presentation:
We created POLITICO with a simple promise: to prove there’s a robust and profitable future for tough, fair and fun coverage of politics and government. To do this, we cling to a simple principle: always hire the most talented editors, reporters and newsroom staff and then set them loose on many platforms for modern media consumption: print, online, mobile, video and events.
Politico has over 1.3 million followers on Twitter and over 830,000 on Facebook.
However, it was never meant to be a mainly online project, as the founders wanted to circulate 24,000 free print copies, 3 days a week, from the very beginning. The print version is available in Washington DC.
Vox sets out to explain the news
Vox is yet another website started by a former Washington Post journalist, blogger and columnist Ezra Klein. The blogger joined Vox Media on January 2014, and 3 months later he launched Vox as editor-in-chief.
With over 600,000 followers on Facebook and over 350,000 on Twitter, Vox presents a type of journalism which is more opinion orientated.
Vox has a basic credibility problem, one resulting primarily from its boldly-stated mission to “explain the news.” Turns out that it’s harder to do that than they thought.
Business Insider hits big numbers in the UK
Started in 2007 by Internet entrepreneur Kevin P. Ryan and Wall Street analyst Henry Blodget, Business Insider did not hit success straight away. According to The New Yorker, by 2013 it got to the point of having 24 million unique users monthly, which placed the website at the top of business sites, with the big names of Wall Street Journal, Forbes and Bloomberg.
The website became the best business site in the UK, outrunning them.
Bleacher Report gets the community involved
Founded in 2008 by Bryan Goldberg, David Finocchio, David Nemetz and Zander Freund, Bleacher Report reached 20 million unique visitors by 2011. The website specialized in analysis type content as well as multimedia and amateur written sports content.
The success of the website has been explained exactly by getting the community involved, according to Times:
At Bleacher Report, the sports reporting isn’t performed by a tiny staff of full-time journalists — it’s done by thousands of fan-contributors, which is why it feels so deep and so passionate. The standard of quality is markedly higher than at some community-created news hubs, where “citizen journalist” can be a synonym for “poorly paid amateur.”
SB Nation stands on 300+ blogs
SB Nation started as Sports Blogs, in 2005, and involved amateurs blogging about sports. By 2010 it reached over 300 blogs attracting 8 million unique visitors a month, and it was aquired by Vox Media in 2011.
With its long standing history, the website has known a few relaunches and redesigns. The most recent change of face was last September. According to Vox Media CEO, Jim Bankoff, the design weighs heavy in its success:
“I think content trumps all,” says Vox Media CEO and Chairman Jim Bankoffwhile we discussed the company’s SB Nation property, “but design and interactivity can really help tell a story in a more powerful way.”
TMZ takes celebrity news to another level
Celebrity news website TMZ was founded in November 2005 and broke some good stories by the following year. Its name standing for “thirty miles zone”, a term used in the 60’s in Hollywood, due to industry growth, it got Paris Hilton’s hit-and-run on the web, as well as Mel Gibson’s arrest and anti-semitic statements back in 2006.
Featuring page after page of content on big celebrity names, TMZ brought the news of Michael Jackson’s death online before the coroner’s statement. However, the website has been criticised for its tactics, as well as for not respecting people’s dignity and ethic issues over publishing sensitive content.
There are a few examples of successful local websites which Steve Buttry names, as well as of big traditional outlets which broke the web. A blog post on these will follow shortly.
Multimedia journalists today have the opportunity to publish without being dependant on a traditional media platform. But does it really work? What are the chances for a free lance career?
Success stories out there show that journalists can take freelancing a step further. Mashable expanded to the point where it was named one of the top 10 most successful and profitable blogs in the world. BuzzFeed attracted $50 million investment in 2014 and boasts 200 million monthly unique visitors, among other figures.
But can one freelance journalist achieve the same?
I have asked Xaquin Gonzalez, head of Guardian Visuals, and Steve Buttry, Director of Student Media at Louisiana State University, about freelancing. They both pointed to the difficulty of managing a freelance career in digital journalism today.
Strong digital skills come first
Xaquin Gonzalez has always worked as part of a team. His experience includes being the Director for Interactive Graphics at El Mundo, in Spain, then being a Graphics Editor for New York Times and a Senior Editor with National Geographic.
Xaquin highlights what the pros and cons of a freelance career are:
It may be a beautiful thing not to have the pressures of an editorial line, more flexibility for experimentation, but different deadlines, some good, some bad, and often less resources. I know that getting enough resources and financing projects is tough for freelancers, but there’re plenty of successful examples out there.
Steve Brutty seems to be more optimistic about it. First, the digital journalist has to know the industry very well in order to succeed. Steve explains:
Freelancing has never been easy. Staff cuts in TV operations and the proliferation of digital sites using video may present new opportunities for multimedia journalists. Certainly a freelancer today can add value for potential clients by developing strong video and multimedia skills.
Would you choose freelancing?
What is your opinion on this?
Would you rather strive to turn your own blog or YouTube channel into a success story? Or would you rather follow a career path with a big, already established media outlet?
What would you base your chance on?
What is the next step for video journalism? This broad question might find its answer in projects such as 6×9 by The Guardian.
The new media project 6×9 will take users into the experience of solitary confinement by using virtual reality technology. Francesca Panetta, multimedia special projects editor, gives more details about it:
“6×9” is an immersive experience of solitary confinement in US prisons, which places viewers in a virtual segregation cell which they can explore and interact with. It aims to tell a story of the psychological damage that can ensue from isolation.
The public app 6×9 will launch on April.
The psychological effects create reality
According to The Guardian, 80,000 to 100,000 people are kept in solitary confinement in US prisons. This means 22-24 hours a day within concrete walls, with minimal or even no human contact at all. While for some inmates this experience can last for days, some live under these circumstances for years or even decades.
Psychology specialists were consulted for this project to give feedback on what solitary confinement means for both human body and mind:
Leading academic psychologists Dr Terry Kupers and Dr Craig Haney explain the physiological effects viewers experience – such as vision blur, sensations of floating and apparitions in the peripheral vision of viewers.
Campaigners protest against solitary confinement criticising it as a form of torture, and not rehabilitation. Albert Woodfox, the US prisoner who lived the longest known solitary confinement, for 43 years, was released recently and spoke publicly about it. He now campaigns to ban such practices.
What to expect from VR solitary cell
The 6×9 project aims at giving the users the possibility of seeing the experience from within. Such an ambition would be difficult to achieve with any other current technology than VR. Since it is solitary confinement, one could hardly interact in any other ways to an inmate who lives under such circumstances.
But then how do you create a project like this? How do you document it? How do you get the accurate content you need?
The virtual reality is created based on the stories of 7 former inmates. They talk the viewers into the film, guiding them through what is happening and telling them what to expect.
The makers of the project intended to create an experience which places the viewer in the middle of the video content. They are the ones who experience it as closely as possible, instead of watching it from an outside perspective.
Technology takes journalism one step further
According to the team, the viewers will be able to create and experience their own story in solitary confinement circumstances. They say this will not be a “one size fits all” type of content.
Expectations for this project are high, due to its innovative technology. The Guardian team working on this say:
6×9 is breaking new ground in journalism. Most non-fiction documentaries are 360 videos with the audience as observer. 6×9 places the audience as protagonist, able to interact with the environment.
Using VR technology for journalism and film making might have sounded like something out of science fiction movies a decade ago. Nowadays, with the development of media, as well as neuroscience, filming techniques and digitalization, it becomes a distinct possibility to be explored.
VR projects draw more and more attention in the movie industry, as well as fascinate the audience. Read about 5 VR installations presented at Sundance Film Festival 2016.
When you lead the visual team for a big media outlet such as The Guardian, you might have one or two things to say about multimedia journalism. Xaquin Gonzalez, the head of Guardian Visuals, gives advice to journalists who want to specialize in this type of work.
Xaquin (middle) discusses a few Guardian projects with students from Birmingham City University, together
with Paul Bradshaw and Helena Bengtsson, editor for the Data Projects team
Where can a multimedia journalist start today? Find inspiration in different visual forms, work in a team and place themselves first in the users’ shoes.
Xaquin lists the following as the best advices he can give an aspiring journalist:
- Put yourself in the user’s shoes. And the question to ask, says Xaquin, is:
Why would I waste my time consuming this story?
With the why comes the how as well.
- Edit your piece until you leave every loose, unnecessary piece of information out. The allure of giving everything we had the pleasure to discover about a story temps everybody:
As authors sometimes we get blinded by our attachment to every piece of our work, it’s really good to leave things out.
In my experience, it has been much easier to edit other people’s texts than to cut my own ruthlessly.
- Experiment with non-journalistic forms of story-telling. Xaquin names artistic installations and experimental games as possible inspirations.
A few visual project from The Guardian can serve as example of what the head of the visual team is talking about. I am going to use the visual/multimedia projects from the online version of the newspaper later.
Now I want to give two examples from two movies, each involving techniques from different visual fields to add to the story. Both capture the deep setting of what happens to the characters, giving a more first-hand impression than the traditional third person narrative.
Leonardo DiCaprio in The Beach hallucinates when isolated in the jungle by the other members of the small island community. The hallucination scenes gain strength from using video games like techniques, which also makes them very familiar to a number of viewers.
Edward Norton’s monologue in The 25th Hour stays memorable because of the technique used. Such monologues come from a strong theatre tradition. The images inserted give a documentary-style view of what the character is talking about.
Journalists can approach their video projects the same way, combining techniques from different fields. We can study and experiment until we can bend that technique to the needs of reporting or visualising our stories.
- How are you going to set the narrative structure? Xaquin says:
Really think about the narrative structure, like non-linear storyline in a linear story form (Memento, Rashomon, Reservoir Dogs), or a linear storyline in a non-linear story form (most timeline-based step-by-step guides).
Let us go back to The 25th Hour (spoiler alert).
What director Spike Lee does here is take the last day in this guy’s life before he goes to prison for drug dealing. The character spends time with his friends, tries not to think about the next day, and then get a lift with his dad to prison. Despite going with a very linear type story (what a certain man does before getting locked away for a few years), the storyline is filled with scenes from the recent past, showing how the character got here.
Also, Spike Lee twists the whole plot with the 25 hour of the day: what if his father did not take him to jail, but across the border, in Mexico, how will this choice change his life?
I have talked to a few people about this movie and some of them do not agree the man accepts his fate and goes to jail. They believe he actually goes for the alternative. I remember it otherwise.
Interrogative techniques of seeding the question in a non-evident way are also to be taken into consideration.
- Know what you want your work to show. As Xaquin explains:
Think of the purpose, the mission of your work. Is it to reveal something hidden to a general audience? Or do you want to help a community heal through storytelling? At any rate, don’t think the story belongs to you, but to the audience or the subjects, you’re the messenger.
This brings us to the necessity of being impartial and not bending a story as to express what we think is right. We, as journalists, are reporting, not fabricating stories or filling gaps with what we think should be there.
It is the reason why you are required to have as many sources as possible, and at least 3. Your reporting needs to be accurate and cover all sides of the story so it makes sense to your readers/users.
- Team work makes the difference. Xaquin explains why:
If you want a nuanced, multi-layered, rich, visual experience, you need multiple skills. You’re likely not going to have them all. And no skill should be held as more important than another.
So being democratic in your team approach is also an absolute must.
A good example to illustrate Xaquin’s words on this is the Unafordable country project. The Data team collected and provided the information, they found the actual story, which the visual team brought to life with their work. Would any of the two sides of this project worked if the two teams did not work together?