To innovate, to replicate or to buy. Any other suggestions?

by Vincenzo Marino – translated by Roberta Aiello

From “Snow Fall” to “Snow Fail”

Snow Fall, the longread and multimedia post of the New York Times which we have already discussed, is back in the online debate after having been a starting point for many discussions on the future of web journalism in the early days of its release and in the following months. This week Cody Brown, the founder of Scroll Kit – a New York startup specialized in graphic layouts for websites – has launched a video to show how it is possible to reproduce that kind of article in a very short time. The post entitled “The NYT spent hundreds of hours hand-coding Snow Fall. We made a replica in an hour” certainly caught the attention of the newspaper which contacted the author through its legal team, intimating that he should remove the video and, later, eliminate any reference to the New York Times for copyright issues (the video, still offline, contained pieces of Snow Fall useful for practical demonstration).

Brown told the whole story on Medium, explaining his position. The video was meant to be a tribute to that type of journalism which everyone wants to replicate and which Jill Abramson, executive editor of the NYT, also admitted. It was to be a kind of homage to the product, to make it a model to which to refer. The position of the NYT was evidently different, probably disturbed by the demonstration of how easy it can be to reproduce its latest highly-praised ‘jewel’. As many believe, the strength of Snow Fall lies in the nature of its origin at the New York Times, a unique model of newspaper with a strong brand, time and money to produce such content. This argument was irreparably compromised in the Cody Brown video. A controversial case which puts a groundbreaking newspaper of publishing innovations and business models to the test of critics.

“More curious now about how @codybrown re-created the design of “Snow Fall” than I was before @NYTimes lawyers got involved”, Anthony De Rosa, social media Editor of Reuters, admitted on Twitter.

NYT’s business model, criticism and satisfaction

It was a ridiculous situation according to Matthew Ingram of Paid Content, who is unable to explain the blind reaction of the Times. In a Twitter exchange reported by Sara Morrison in the Columbia Journalism Review, Paul Carr, editor in chief of NSFWcorp, replied to the blogger of GigaOM and Paid Content. Carr defends the NYT, emphasizing that to reproduce somebody else’s product –  obviously copyrighted – to advertise one’s own brand and products could be an operation that is not right. In a post titled “Everyone Secretly Hates Snow Fall“, Choire Sicha of The Awl examines another aspect of the story. Snow Fall is not in itself a successful model, rather the result of a hype that generated contacts, not full readings (as proof, the average of 12 minutes on the site is too short for a complete reading of the piece). Furthermore, it eclipsed the phenomenon of data journalism of Nate Silver, who in less time and with fewer resources had obtained comparable results. Sicha adds “We all like Snow Fall, we’re just tired of having to hear about it at conference after conference”.

In recent years, the business model of the New York Times has been characterized by the choice of the so-called paywall, which led to satisfactory results for the group. We have analyzed this on RoundUp on more than one occasion. A few days ago Mark Thompson, CEO of the group, explained to Columbia students that it was a winning, revolutionary choice of which they are very proud in New York. “The launch of the pay model – Thompson stated – is the most important and most successful business decision made by the New York Times in many years”, affirming that they have around 700,000 paid digital subscribers reached through the company’s products. At first the skepticism among industry experts was palpable, he admitted, but it was a risk that the newspaper decided to run in order to maintain a level of income able to ensure the independence of the newsroom.

Yahoo buys Tumblr

In the hybrid landscape inhabited by web companies and media, the news of the week is the acquisition of Tumblr by Yahoo for $1.1 billion – considerable sum to which David Karp, CEO of the microblogging platform, could not resist. In a post on the official blog of Tumblr, Karp raassured all members, explaining that the site will not change (“We’re not turning purple”) and that the control and the management will remain with the old team. Meanwhile many members feared, more or less jokingly, that the arrival of the web giant would represent – as happened for Geocities and Delicious – the death of the service. Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, decided to reply by using the typical language of Tumblr users, giving the news of the acquisition on Yahoo’s tumblelog with a GIF. A cool way to introduce herself and try to calm the waters.

The lost coolness of a portal has been one of the key points of this commercial operation, as noted by Peter Kafka and Kara Swisher of AllThingsD. Tumblr is a hybrid between blogging and a social network and very popular among the young (mostly North American). As can be seen from this table elaborated by Quantcast, the demographic index of Tumblr users shows an clear disproportion of young people aged between 18 and 24, making the platform an attractive product for the young market and the use of their data that Yahoo can use to optimize the other services of the group. 300 million young people, mobile users, captured in a stroke – Felix Salmon of Reuters notes – who represent the future of internet users and a perfect index of consumption to be used in a commercial key. Tumblr is “the perfect platform for Yahoo’s brand advertisers to use if they want to start building up relationships with consumers, rather than just bombarding them with banner ads”.

Is it a success? Not necessarily. According to Jake Lodwick of PandoDaily for example, “big companies aren’t just big versions of small”, but other entities, with their rhythms, that end up being killed by the purchaser. There are those who argue that the $15 million per year in revenue guaranteed by Tumblr (according to the data of 2012) risk not being able to justify the “desperate” outlay of Mayer.

For young people Facebook is a problem

The portion of the social market in the hands of young people is certainly the most attractive; new consumers who take for granted some online services, using them as an extension of real life. A research project by the Pew Research Center confirms this figure. It analyzed the relationship between young people aged 11 to 19 years and Facebook. Scrolling through the data, it turns out that most teenagers look to social networks with concern. Facebook is seen as source of stress more than a relaxing activity, an extension of public relations that leads to approximately half of the interviewed teens to delete posts and comments, to dose and choose carefully the content to publish, more for reasons of social reputation than for the evaluation of data and content to share with others on a proprietary platform. Only 9% of those interviewed, in fact, were ‘worried’ about  any third party access to personal data.

A major concern is the presence of parents (‘friends’ of their children in 70% of analyzed cases), which leads many of these young users to migrate to other services where they feel able to express themselves much more freely. According to the data, Twitter is to benefit from this transfer; 24% of users aged from 11 to 19 have signed up compared to 77% on Facebook, with a significant increase of 8% compared to last year.

The research summarizes that the real concern of teenagers on Facebook is the growing presence of adults, the uncontrolled use of other users and the unnerving management of their own ‘public’ reputation (the so-called “Facebook drama“) that could lead to a loss of interest in the platform and the signing up to new services (but not to a permanent abandonment).