Lydia Polgreen is the new Huffington Post Editor-in-Chief

22c88a2

Lydia Polgreen

Lydia Polgreen, a former New York Times associate masthead editor and editorial director of NYT Global, is succeeding founding editor Arianna Huffington at the Huffington Post. In an interview she gave the news and opinion site, Polgreen indicated how she plans to steer the content focus in the wake of the media echo chamber the 2016 election exposed and exacerbated. She said HuffPo has the “potential and the possibility of really meeting this populist moment that we’re living in and meeting people where they actually are.”

Polgreen added, “just as there were moments when the Washington Post or The New York Times or the Times of London during World War II had a huge mission, we, too, have a huge mission. And that is to listen, to report, to tell stories, to seek out the stories and voices that aren’t being heard, even ones that might feel uncomfortable to us.”
lydia-polgreen-is-the-new-huffington-post-editor-in-chief In a 2014 report commissioned by A.G. Sulzberger, son of Polgreen’s former employer New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger, the Times’ Newsroom Innovation Team acknowledged that HuffPo “in just a few years has eclipsed The Times in total readership.” The report cited advice from “a former leader of The Huffington Post… [who] told us that if we want to improve our reach, we must think differently about what it means to publish a story: ‘At The New York Times, far too often for writers and editors the story is done when you hit publish. At Huffington Post, the article begins its life when you hit publish.'”

Advertisements

Election Post-Mortem

It’s been almost a month since candidate Donald Trump became President-Elect Donald Trump, and among the many other things his win has exposed, it has revealed how easy it is to exploit our balkanized news media to selfish ends. In principle, journalism is about enlightening the public with “information that is accurate, fair and thorough,” but, many news articles today amount to extended Facebook posts or Tweets–heavy on opinion and personality, with less concern for fact.

Opinion columns (by unpaid contributors) are arguably integral to the business model of news outlets like The Huffington Post, and opinion sections take up more and more real estate on sites like TheGuardian.com. Cable news shows are populated by hosts and pundits unabashedly affiliated with right- or left-wing agendas, and cable news stations are either run by outspoken supporters of the right or left, or billing themselves as stations that will deliver news stories in a way that appeals to supporters of the right or left.

fox-news-host-sean-hannity-appears-in-heartland4trump-video_peoplewhowrite

Fox News Host Sean Hannity appeared in a pro-Trump political video, a conflict of interest considering he was reporting on the election for the network. In response, a network spokesperson told POLITICO.com: “We were not aware of Sean Hannity participating in a promotional video and he will not be doing anything along these lines for the remainder of the election season.”

Then there’s Facebook and Twitter. With most Americans consuming or learning of breaking news via social media, and these outlets serving up only the content their mysterious and ever changing algorithms believe we want to see based on who and what we most interact with, engaging with the news has become a masturbatory exercise.

We are only exposed to the ideas and stories we either already agree with or want other people to know about. But if we are reading or watching only the outlets that reflect our persuasion or only following people we agree with online, we block the opportunity to broaden and inform our perspectives with legitimate points of opposition, and we lose basic human empathy for one another.

People who don’t agree with us are dismissed as “liberal elites” or “wing nuts”–us vs. them. We calcify in our respective corners, not speaking to or hearing each other, which makes us easy pawns for interests and individuals that don’t care about us or them. The truth becomes less important than “message,” and whosever message is most seductive wins.

Watching many of the political analysts on both Fox and CNN at points during the campaign cycle, it seemed clear their sole concern was delivering their candidate’s message. Period. Message for the sake of message, even when their message was inconsistent.

For example, in one breath, a Trump supporter would leverage a scathing critique of Bill Clinton’s treatment of women, championing their candidate’s trotting out of Clinton’s female accusers–then, in the next breath, dismiss Donald Trump’s bevy of accusers as pawns of the liberal media. Likewise, a Hillary Clinton supporter would rail about Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns, but ardently defend her refusal to release transcripts of her speeches to Wall Street firms or her infamous deletion of multiple emails. Ironically, far right outlets seemed to express little alarm at the fact that the Russian government was alleged to be behind the leaks of DNC and Hillary Clinton campaign emails–but cited her handling of classified emails and their potential exposure as criminal.

This faction impulse is understandable. As Ann Friedman wrote in a pre-election post for New York Magazine entitled “Supporting Hillary While Reckoning With Bill’s Sexual Past”:

With an openly racist accused rapist running as the other party’s nominee, it doesn’t seem like the right time to voice any of my concerns with Hillary as a candidate. Certainly not now, in the final weeks of a campaign that offers no room for nuance. And certainly not when it’s apparent that most of Trump’s defenders care more about defeating Hillary than about ensuring survivors’ voices are heard.

But faction mentality is easily duped by exaggeration and outright fiction.

teen-creator-of-fake-news-or-satire-site_peoplewhowrite

“I don’t like fooling people,” said Yaman A., creator of three fake news sites including Hot Global News. His motivation? “It’s really just the money.” 

This summer, Buzzfeed posted an interview with a teenage creator of three fake news sites who admitted that many of the stories he creates mislead and incite fear, and influence political perception, but says he actually has no political affiliation. “It’s really just the money,” he admits, that motivates him.

We need Google to adjust their algorithm to clearly identify fake news sites. We need our news sources, including Facebook and Twitter, to segregate actual news from fake news and opinion/editorial pages, as they (still try to) do with news and advertising/sponsored posts.

If there aren’t already, we need laws in place to ensure that unbought, unaffiliated journalists are delivering the news, not people with financial or career interests tied to specific individuals or corporations. We need our newsrooms to keep pushing to reflect diversity of backgrounds and perspectives so the news is balanced and corrected for implicit biases.

Additionally, we need to talk about money.

The internet has created a bottomless desire for content, but since there is no bottomless source of money, online news outlets are paying far less than they pay print journalists, and, as a result, less experienced, sometimes untrained writers are taking more of these jobs. Additionally, since internet journalism is even more dependent on nabbing a scoop before a competitor to increase their Google search rank and, ultimately, the amount of revenue they can charge advertisers, fact checking is de-prioritized, added to the writer’s plate rather than a professional’s, or non-existent.

We need publications with healthy fact-checking teams to ensure the news we get is accurate. We need some sort of protective provision for news gathering publications so they don’t have to be profitable or account to shareholders, and, thus, be beholden to clicks and shares in the same way as a blog or retail site.

If we believe our news media is rigged or biased, we need to hold them accountable. We need to burst our own bubbles.

Let's Take a Coding Class

let's take a coding class_peoplewhowriteTechnology is increasingly dictating how people discover and consume stories, and even how (SEO, anyone?) and why we write. We know this already.

It’s been happening since at least the printing press, and likely before it. I’m sure the advent of fire radically changed the storytelling and consumption experience for those who were used to story time in the dark. This said, it continues to interest me that the technological innovation around storytelling is being driven almost solely by technology companies versus storytellers (us writers) and entities whose businesses are founded on storytelling (publishers, agents).

It makes sense to some extent regarding writers. Writing is a specialization and a dedication, as is technology development and innovation; and most writers don’t have the interest, skill, or frankly, bandwidth, to develop storytelling platforms. But with telecommunications companies focused on providing customers with mobile specific story content and powerhouses like Apple and Google using their considerable muscle to determine the forecast of media consumption, it would behoove writers, in addition to seeking litigative clarity on the boundaries of tech and how copyrights are protected in our open access age, to develop at least a working knowledge of how to write code as a first step in making technology part of our creative tool set so we can eventually become comfortable in using digital platforms as an extension of our storytelling capabilities.

The brilliance of Aziah King‘s recent internet-breaking story about a stripper’s wild weekend in Florida was that she told it on Twitter, and that she knew how to tell it on Twitter. Understanding that she was limited to sharing the story 140 characters at a time, and that her tweets would be served up amidst a feed that could feature anything from New York Times headlines to inspirational quotes, each sentence King tweeted was spiked with provocative language intended to leap off the timeline.

As for book publishers, I have no clue why they do not have whole digital divisions at this point. After what they’ve gone through with Amazon and Google in the past, I would think they would have created and staffed up Business Development and Digital divisions the way the New York Times seem to have done, but I guess, as seemingly always, money is the issue.

Even Ratliff, publisher of The Atavist Magazine, told The New York Times he had to shut down the Atavist app because he simply couldn’t afford to create duplicate content for web and mobile apps. As the NYT piece points out, “The Internet was supposed to be a place where billions of potential users could be reached in one place, simply and inexpensively. But as Apple focuses on apps and Google pushes the mobile web, businesses are grappling with a fragmenting online world.”

The writers of the article, Kate Benner and Conor Dougherty, add:
“That situation has been made even harder by some recent moves by Apple and Google. Last month, Apple enabled ads to be blocked on mobile websites on iPhones and iPads, which threatened to hurt publishers that relied on such ads for revenue. And next month, Google will start penalizing websites that use pop-up screens to promote their apps by placing them lower in search engine results, a move that some have called ‘app blocking.'”

The Atavist is too small to fight this fight, but shouldn’t the big players in magazine and book publishing be proactively investing serious material and human capital in creating systems, platforms, and/or partnerships that don’t leave content providers and distributors so naked to the mercies of tech?

Anyway, Writers, there are some free, self-paced intro level coding classes you can take online. Check out EdX’s “Think. Create. Code.“. Google to find more.

As E-Book Sales Slip, Publishers Invest in Print Over Mobile

Kindle users can switch between reading and listening without leaving the app - peoplewhowrite

Kindle users can switch between reading and listening to a book without leaving the app

Yesterday’s New York Times features a story that indicates publishers are no longer “seized by collective panic over the uncertain future of print.” In “The Plot Twist: E-Book Sales Slip, and Print is Far From Dead“, writer Alexandra Alter reports that publishers are, in fact, investing more in print:

Publishers, seeking to capitalize on the shift, are pouring money into their print infrastructures and distribution. Hachette added 218,000 square feet to its Indiana warehouse late last year, and Simon & Schuster is expanding its New Jersey distribution facility by 200,000 square feet.

Penguin Random House has invested nearly $100 million in expanding and updating its warehouses and speeding up distribution of its books. It added 365,000 square feet last year to its warehouse in Crawfordsville, Ind., more than doubling the size of the warehouse.

This outsize investment in shoring up print seems to ignore another finding in Alter’s piece—that “a growing number of people are reading e-books on their cellphones.” Shouldn’t publishers be investing in mobile; particularly in ways readers can seamlessly transition from print to mobile without losing their place in a book—same way they can with an e-reader and certain audio reading apps?

Anything could change as far as our collective dependence on our mobile phones. Yet another study could come out that details how the diodes of light our cellphone screens emit are searing our optic nerves, followed by a campaign to #lookaway or #shutdown and #spendtimenotselfies. But right now, telecommunications companies are investing heavily in content that can be pushed from mobile devices. It’s no coincidence Nigerian internet and phone data company Etisalat sponsors an eponymous literature prize. This in mind, shouldn’t publishers be paying closer attention to these trends and figuring out how to get in on or ahead of them?

Simon and Schuster President and CEO Carolyn Reidy is quoted as asking: “Will the next generation want to read books on their smartphones, and will we see another burst come?” I hope publishers are actively seeking and leading the charge in arriving at the answer.

Young People Say They'll Pay More For Print than E-Books

Millennials prefer print books to digital reads_peoplewhowrite

Part of the results Adweek yielded from a straw poll of 18-34 year olds in New York City.

Last week, Adweek.com posted results from a millennial-on-the-street poll that contradict the cliché of the “smartphone-addicted twentysomething who spends her free time posting selfies on Instagram, sharing BuzzFeed lists on Facebook and creating socially conscious hashtags on Twitter”. Nearly two weeks earlier, The Bookseller announced findings from their own poll. Both showed that young people (in the US and the UK) prefer reading print books to digital. Perhaps more telling for the future economics of book writing and publishing though, is that the millennials surveyed said they are not willing to pay print book prices for e-books.

“In our research,” explained Luke Mitchell, Director of Voxburner, the company that conducted the survey for The Bookseller, “70% said that £6.99 was a reasonable price to pay for a paperback but only 10% were prepared to pay the same for an e-book.” Mitchell added, “Online retailer Amazon was the most popular sales channel, used by 75% of respondents, but high street bookshops were also in favour, with 73% of young people choosing to buy their books through this channel. Some 37% purchase titles at supermarkets, 37% go to charity shops, 34% use independent bookshops, and 13% use online retailers other than Amazon.”

In their ongoing dispute with publisher Hachette over e-book prices, Amazon has said selling e-books to readers at lower prices than print books could actually be a boon to writers and publishers.

In an open letter to the industry via their website ReadersUnited.com, the Amazon Books Team explains:

For every copy an e-book would sell at $14.99, it would sell 1.74 copies if priced at $9.99. So, for example, if customers would buy 100,000 copies of a particular e-book at $14.99, then customers would buy 174,000 copies of that same e-book at $9.99. Total revenue at $14.99 would be $1,499,000. Total revenue at $9.99 is $1,738,000. The important thing to note here is that the lower price is good for all parties involved: the customer is paying 33% less and the author is getting a royalty check 16% larger and being read by an audience that’s 74% larger. The pie is simply bigger.

Margaret Atwood is Working on a Book that Won't Be Released till 2114

Margaret Atwood - peoplewhowrite

Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood is the first author to sign on for the The Future Library project. Created by artist Kate Paterson, The Guardian writes, “Each year, the Future Library trust, made up of literary experts–and Paterson, while she’s alive–will name another ‘outstanding’ writer who will be contributing to the artwork.”

The trust is banking on readers of the next century consuming these stories in print. 1,000 trees were planted in Nordmarka, Norway to be used for the paper on which each book will be printed. “A printing press will be placed in the library to make sure those in charge in 2114 have the capability of printing books on paper,” the article explains.

As part of the contract, invited writers cannot reveal what they will be writing for their 2114 readers. Atwood said of the project, “I think it goes right back to that phase of our childhood when we used to bury little things in the backyard, hoping that someone would dig them up, long in the future, and say, ‘How interesting, this rusty old piece of tin, this little sack of marbles is. I wonder who put it there?'”

Some Industry Insiders Say It's Too Easy to Vilify Amazon

Amazon.com logoIs Amazon Really the Devil?” A number publishing industry pros told Publishers Weekly they think the satanic characterization has been oversimplified, especially with respect to the etailer’s current stalemate with Hachette. The Amazon-Hachette dispute is allegedly over failure to agree on ebook pricing.

Citing the Authors Guild position that publishers are offering unfair ebook royalty rates to authors, and  the less impassioned industry response to Barnes and Noble’s reduction of Simon and Schuster orders last year, Guild President Roxana Robinson told PW it’s  “a question of who’s being the biggest bully at the moment.”

An independent publisher who was quoted anonymously asserted that Barnes and Noble is the bigger antagonist.

“[I]t’s B&N that’s really evil,” the publisher said. “although now they’re supposed to be so great. They make us change covers, editorial, all kinds of crap, and the returns. B&N used to be just under a quarter of our sales but with massive returns.” By contrast, the publisher said, Amazon generates about the same percentage of sales with far less returns.

Porter Anderson, director of the AuthorHub at this year’s BEA, placed the onus on publishers.

“[P]ublishers need to start selling directly and reach out to readers,” Anderson prescribed, using BEA’s consumer event and BookCon as examples. “Find the readers rather than bitch about Amazon.”

I place the onus on writers. As the industry shifts, writers must seize the opportunity to take more ownership of the retail and distribution of our work.

Hachette Announces Layoffs

Hachette Book Group announces layoffs - peoplewhowriteToday, Publishers Weekly reported Hachette Book Group is eliminating 3% of its U.S. personnel, or 28 employees. A company statement quoted on PW called the cuts “essential to our company’s continued growth, and our ability to carry out our primary goal: to publish our authors’ work with passion, originality, and impact.”

The layoffs come amidst news of the publisher’s tense negotiations with Amazon. Hachette, the subsidiary of French multimedia company Lagardère, is allegedly at loggerheads with the etailer over e-book profit margins. In a statement released last week, Amazon expressed that, until the dispute is resolved, it is “buying less (print) inventory and ‘safety stock’ on titles from the publisher, Hachette, than we ordinarily do, and are no longer taking pre-orders on titles whose publication dates are in the future.”

Comedian Stephen Colbert, whose new book America Again is published by Hachette, is among a number of authors including J.K. Rowling and Malcolm Gladwell caught between their publisher and the retail giant that commands more than 30% of book sales. Colbert is asking his fans to temporarily boycott Amazon until they cease delaying orders of Hachette, while Gladwell told the New York Times “if [the standoff] keeps going, the authors are going to have to get together.”

Are We Writing for Readers, Ourselves, or Pageviews?

Reader-focused journalism, or pageview-focused journalism? - peoplewhowriteMy newsfeed has been blowing up with reports and thinkpieces about New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger’s dirty dismissal of Executive Editor Jill Abramson. But buried in all the links and sublinks going out is the report Sulzberger’s son Arthur Gregg put together as part of a “Newsroom Innovation Team”.

Do yourself a favor and read it. It’s peppered with Times Jeopardy answers–“The number of URLs The New York Times produces on an average day.” “What is 300, Alex?”–but more importantly, it’s a window into how this respected behemoth is coping with the challenge of relevancy in the 24-hour news cycle.

As the report points out, the new normal requires agility and flexibility–constantly:

We cannot simply become a web-first newsroom or a mobile-first newsroom. We must become a flexible newsroom that continuously adjusts to the needs of the moment. Changes in technology require us to constantly reimagine what is possible. Changes in reader behavior require us to continually assess what’s working. And these exercises shouldn’t be treated as chores: They can elevate our journalism, extend our reach and enable us to better serve our readers.

Making mention of competitors like The Huffington Post, “which in just a few years has eclipsed The Times in total readership,” The Guardian, and Buzzfeed, the report recommends the paper put as much focus on “audience development” i.e. finding readers and getting them to click, as they do on producing world class journalism. The younger Sulzberger also suggested “creating a permanent strategy team in the newsroom” made up of “a mix of backgrounds in journalism, technology, user experience, and analytics.”

All of the recommendations seem right on, and it’ll be interesting to see how the New York Times will evolve as they implement them, but it brings up the question of how writers, editors, and publishers of digital outlets can navigate the increasingly thin line between “reader-focused journalism” and the misleading pageviews metric. Pageviews are often confused with audience, but they are not one and the same.

Anyone with a blog can see how many pageviews they generate by post, where the traffic is coming from, if there are repeat visitors, etc. And anyone with a blog also knows the pieces that get the most clicks may have nothing to do with the core content offering of site, and that those outlier posts may not be a true reflection of the blog’s audience. For example, now and then, I click over to Buzzfeed for their addictive quizzes, but I don’t consider myself a part of their “audience” because I do not visit the site for anything else.  An advertiser might not care about this semantic because my visit to the site means my potential engagement with their banner ad or sponsorship of a quiz, but it’s an important distinction when it comes to audience loyalty, which I would argue is a more important metric.

But if digital journalism or blogging is your business, audience numbers–no matter how or why they come–are necessary as they keep editors assigning you stories or advertisers paying for eyeballs on your site.

They also set up a tension when it comes to motivation:

Should you write for pageviews (e.g. pen a thinkpiece about The Solange Knowles-Jay Z elevator fight)? Should you write for your reader (e.g. take the time to investigate what really happened on the elevator, interview vetted sources, and write an informed piece about what happened  that adds to the knowledge the reader is amassing clicking around to different stories on the elevator dust-up)? Or should you write for yourself (e.g. about something that may have little or nothing to do with Beyonce’s sister going off on Jay Z in The Standard Hotel’s elevator, that you are passionate enough to invest time and think power into)?

The specifics may be different, but it’s a classic human conundrum. Players in every industry have always had to grapple with working for love, money, or more money; and the resolution has always been far from neat and tidy.

If you choose door number Love, it’ll likely take forever to build an audience sizable enough to be relevant (unless you Love writing about celebrity and scandal), and may require you to invest money and resources you don’t have in abundance. If you go for the money, there’s some real or imagined sense you are bartering some part of your soul. Hence, the steam release of watching, re-watching, pausing, laughing at, pontificating about, emailing, and sharing video of celebrities brawling (sans audio, dammit) in an elevator.

The irony is, the internet has made it possible for readers to discover the most niche forms of content, which means there is some reward for work that may not drive tons of clicks. But the issue is who has the time to create content for these seeking souls?

Interesting times at the Times, and in the times, as we work to figure this all out.

Amazon Wins Patent to Enhance E-Books

Amazon wins patent to enhance e-books with "extras" - peoplewhowriteAmazon now has the patent to add extras to e-books, Wired reports. The e-tailer apparently applied for the right to enhance e-books with complementary content on November 24, 2010, but the patent was just approved.

This could be the beginning of Amazon and publishers making nice as the supplementary content needs to come from publishers and/or “trusted sources.” Or, it could further sour the contentious relationship between publishers and Amazon as the online discounter will have even more control of the reading experience.

Considering that we’ve all gotten used to reading online texts “enhanced” with links to content that offers context or subtext, I’m surprised e-books were barred from being enhanced till now. That said, as a writer, I see the ability to add layers of content to a book as a double-edged sword. On the one hand, enhancements can make the reading experience much more dynamic — something that’s missing from the current reading experience that can be seen as a disadvantage in an increasingly ADD world where intaking multiple and simultaneous streams of content has  become the order of the day.

Augmented reality, for example, offers infinite possibilities to deepen the reader’s connection with the story in their hand. However, for the same reason, it’s not that appealing — especially if the writer does not have explicit control over what the enhancements are. For many readers, the kinds of enhancements will be critical. While some may want a chorus of voices and stimuli as they read, other readers prefer the quiet solace of reading without commentary and using their imaginations to envision the characters and stories.

I’m eager to see what Amazon will do with the patent.