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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.