Social media, data science, mobile and digital video: welcome to the era of the publisher

by Vincenzo Marino – translated by Roberta Aiello

A new type of publisher (and journalism)

“Journalism’s biggest competitors are things that don’t even look like journalism,” Mathew Ingram wrote a few days ago. In September, Christine Lagorio-Chafkin of Inc. Magazine authored an article titled “Meet BuzzFeed‘s Secret Weapon.” The writer referred to Dao Nguyen, a 40-year old employee of BuzzFeed, who had the role of “vice president of growth and data.” Dao Nguyen is described in the post as one of the reasons why the outlet was able to quintuple its traffic in two years (from 28 million to 150 million unique monthly visitors), thanks to an interpretation process of data collected by the website system – which translates preferences and accessible information of the users in content and social strategies. This week, Nguyen has been promoted to ‘publisher’, and the news, as Peter Kafka of Recode notes, is not the professional advancement but the name, the role and the related powers. Dao Nguyen will not be a “publisher” in the traditional meaning of the role, “like the Sulzbergers at the New York Times“, BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti points out in an internal memo.”Instead – Peretti explains – she’ll lead publishing for the social web, in the most modern sense, where data science, the CMS, technology, and a deep understanding of social networks, mobile devices, and digital video matter most.”

Why is it so important to emphasize the advancement of the career of a journalist (for a much read, criticized and imitated website)? As explained by Mathew Ingram, it is because “it does say a lot about how the company thinks about media.” As if the professional recognition for a woman (of Asian origin) at the head of a hundred people in a world of “white males” was not enough (the gender issue is always – properly – much debated in the media world, and this week broke out with the #gamergate complicated case), the role that Nguyen will perform is an example of how the website conceives the editorial process, of how the approach with the reader and journalism works, and which capabilities are actually needed in digital publishing to think about an evolution for both the individual worker and the entire publishing group in trade and editorial terms. “Head of platform” or “head of product” are titles quite similar to that of “publisher” which is intended by Peretti, but it is not enough (regarding the platform, it is interesting to read the article of the Washington Post about the experimental CMS, which has revolutionized the publishing production of the website). It is something more: the simultaneous management of content, platform and data, managed by a single person with a title generally given to executive members – someone with an economic and financial background, not a social data expert. It is not a coincidence, however, that according to Ingram the reading of the data and social trends is “a crucial skill for the current media economy.”

Meanwhile, in London, BuzzFeed is creating a team of specialists who will focus solely on the search “to look at new ways of telling stories and engaging audiences”,  according to

Ebola Deeply and WhatsApp updates

For months, Syria Deeply has been aggregating news on the Syrian crisis, on an ad hoc platform and on Twitter. Ebola Deeply wants to do the same. “Ebola is hyped, but then also misunderstood,” Lara Setrakian explains to Rebecca Greenfield of FastCompany. Setrakian is the founder of News Deeply, a series of monothematic websites which uses a “transmedia narrative approach” in telling the news and exploring the themes. It is a platform that aggregates news of other websites and original content. Ebola Deeply will host about 25% of new stories from the 34 freelance reporters in Africa and the U.S. who will update readers about Ebola. The idea was created from the way traditional media are facing the issue (in some cases, in a particularly worrisome way), in a context in which it is hard “to separate authoritative coverage from the junk. That’s where Ebola Deeply comes in.” It wants to cover topics with “authority and clarity,” for Syria and health crises, with reports as close as possible to the object of the story (the website has started interviewing the presidents of Liberia and Guinea).

In the light of the intentions and the adopted method, how does this project work? How will it continue to survive? And, above all, does it work? Greenfield tries to give answers. The website – which won the 2013 Excellence in Online Jounalism Award of the National Press Foundation – achieves a 60% return rate (ie the average number of people who once having visited the website then come back), and an average time of eight minutes on the website. Which means there is ‘long read’, concern for other content, “longer than readers remain on the New York Times, according to Alexa,” Greenfiled notes. The website claims, however, not to depend on metrics that are traditionally used to determine the success of a project, or to offer space to advertisers. It rather depends on “a combination of live events, membership services, and advisory projects.” Meanwhile, the BBC has launched a service for users in West Africa to receive news via Whatsapp on the epidemic in the region (journalism via Whatsapp, previously discussed here). There are three daily updates, in English and French, to inform readers through the most used chat app in Africa.

Reaching the reader

Reaching readers to remind them of the existence of (journalistic) services on their own devices is the key of the latest digital innovations. The mechanism of WhatsApp messages, or the daily brief of Circa – recently implemented on the smartphone platform managed by Anthony De Rosa – is not very different from those of the newsletters, a product which in the last few months has returned to the spotlight (David Carr of the New York Times spoke of the instrument given up for dead too soon), analyzed and reviewed as the star of a ‘second life’. This week it is the turn of Vox of Ezra Klein. With Vox Sentences the aim is to encapsulate the essence of the website (providing readers with news they believe to be fundamental, explaining it with a simple and incisive style) in a daily e-mail, sent in the evening, which aggregates internal and external content on the main issues. “You’ve had a long day, and we want to give you something that is the easiest way anywhere to get caught up,” Ezra Klein explained to Justin Ellis of NiemanLab. News for people who want to stay informed but do not have time or “the inclination to stay on Twitter all day.”

Vox and other explanatory journalism websites have been discussed since the birth of the so-called “bubble” (here a presentation of Felix Salmon on the issue in the latest edition of the International Journalism Festival). According to Ellis, in seven months, has steadily grown with 22 million unique visits during the month of September. Nevertheless, Klein does not seem to be interested in numbers, or at least he says: “I don’t care if it drives traffic back to the site. I care if the people who read it feel well served by it,” promising a constantly changing format, for emails, which will be re-invented each time. The intention of reaching the readers wherever they are (but also to analyze the data, as for BuzzFeed) is also the engine – in a sense – of the unique initiative of the California Sunday. It is a new magazine which ‘pays’ newspapers for readers. 400,000 “demographically appealing” readers were selected, to send the new magazine to their homes for free, with the hope of convincing them to buy the next issue. In particular, the magazine’s publisher explains, they want to involve people that tend to be younger, live in more urban than suburban areas and have a good relationship with technology.