Damon Kiesow


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Google’s new +1 social search could be a vote in favor of news publishers

Google’s integration of social recommendations into its search results, rolled out Wednesday, could have a significant impact on the way publishers work to attract Web visitors.

Google’s +1 tool will add a recommendation button next to every search result.

Google’s new +1 initiative places what amounts to a “like” button next to each of its search results. Voting up a result (by hitting the +1 button) will help Google further refine its search results to favor popular pages.

Those +1 votes will be directly visible to any friends signed in with a Google Profile, and in aggregate the ratings will be used to help improve overall search results by including user preferences.

For publishers, the result is that pages given a +1 by readers will appear more prominently in Google searches, and will be highlighted as recommendations by friends within the reader’s social network. That network only extends to Google products currently, but it is expected to include Twitter and other services in the future.

The key, reports Danny Sullivan, is that publishers soon will be able to display the “+1” button on their own websites, much like Facebook’s now ubiquitous “Like” button is displayed.

Sullivan writes that Google expects to roll out the feature in “months not weeks” as it is currently focused on integrating the new ranking tool into its core search results.

When that does happen, it has the potential to swing the balance of power in the traffic referral battles back toward Google. In the past year, the search giant has seen Facebook increase its influence as a source of Web traffic.

Some media websites, such as Philly.com, have reported that the visitors they receive from Facebook, while fewer than those Google sends, are of a higher quality.

Lois Beckett wrote about that effect, measured by engagement calculation used on the site:

“While Google and Yahoo provide a lot of traffic, the visits that they send to Philly.com don’t tend to be engaged. Only 20.34 percent of visits that come through Google are engaged visits. In comparison, 33.64 percent of visits that come via Facebook are engaged.”

In theory, this increased engagement is due to the trust that readers place in the recommendations made by friends and acquaintances. A suggestion from someone you know on Facebook is likely to be more highly valued than that provided by an anonymous algorithm on Google’s servers.

So, while Google has cornered the market on making search results mathematically relevant, Facebook is gaining momentum when it comes to filtering suggestions that are socially relevant.

Journalists have been the beneficiaries of this shift. It’s difficult for an algorithm to quantify news for personal relevancy, and news also has a velocity that is difficult for a search engine to track. These are two reasons Twitter — which combines social networking and intense delivery speed — is such a powerful news distribution platform. It is also why Facebook, with its 600 million users, is a great place to discover news.

With +1, Google is hoping to add some of that social signal into its calculations.

For publishers, this is a win-win. If it works, no one will abandon Facebook as a valuable source of visitors, but websites definitely will look to optimize their sites for the +1 program.

What will that look like? Well, +1 buttons will pop on news sites everywhere. Watch for Google logins to be used increasingly for commenting and other authorization purposes alongside Twitter and Facebook, since the social recommendations function require users to be signed into Google.

There is a risk here of confusing readers with too many login options and sharing tools, but with three billion Google searches per day, publishers will be eager to capture even a sliver of that potential traffic.

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Replica editions dominate recent newspaper iPad apps

In the newspaper tablet app race, the replicas are winning.

My informal review of news iPad apps released in March reveals that the majority are PDFs or PDF-like recreations of the print edition, dominated by a few vendors and newspaper groups.

Tecnavia developed apps released by four different newspaper chains this month, while Presteligence, NewsSynergy and Paperlit backed another handful of offerings. Among the apps I found, only the Tulsa World and The Daily developed their apps in-house.

The Daily is an outlier because its new Elizabeth Taylor Tribute Magazine paid app is meant as a one-time offering and was built using the framework of the daily publication.

Among the other 20 apps I found, the trend toward vendor-supported replica apps is both promising and troubling. Only the Greensboro News-Record and the Brainerd (Minnesota) Dispatch could be classified as “interactive” — resembling a traditional Web experience as opposed to a static representation of a printed page. Some replica apps also include breaking news updates and other limited Web-like features.

But, it is good that papers smaller than the New York Times and Wall Street Journal – among the early tablet adopters — are pursuing tablet audiences.

However, the use of PDF apps also points to an industry-wide failure to capitalize on the new opportunities mobile touch-screen tablet devices allow. Replica apps have their place in a portfolio of mobile offerings, but they cannot and should not be viewed as anything other than niche and transitional models.

Some segment of the current print audience will want and value replica apps on tablet devices. Using a vendor to serve those readers is fairly easy and a worthwhile strategy.

But to attract new consumers to local journalism, newspapers will need to develop more interactive, tablet-native experiences, including digital-only features and content.

And, more importantly, mobile and tablet platforms will soon be core to the news distribution business. To understand these devices, how to create engaging experiences on them, and how to create content for them, requires newspapers to develop new competencies in-house. Outsourcing these efforts to a vendor is a short-term solution that could have long-term negative consequences if an organization fails to learn these skills now.

Certainly, in some cases these replica-only apps are only a first step for newsrooms. I know several organizations have launched replica editions because of the low development costs and speed-to-market, and they are already planning more interactive versions.

The Tulsa World is one. According to president John Bair, the paper started planning its next iPad app the day the current version was approved in the iTunes store.

“Nothing we have ever done or are currently doing represents a final outcome. We are always evolving, as will our apps,” he wrote in an email. “To believe our first app on this device represents a final presentation is incorrect. The feedback we get from users, coupled with new technological offerings and capabilities, will dictate future offerings.”

For the month of March, here are the news apps I discovered, arranged by publisher and vendor or developer. This is not a comprehensive list. If I missed any, please leave a comment below.

These first three apps are interactive or Web-like offerings, the rest are more replica or PDF-like:

The Daily
Elizabeth Taylor Tribute Magazine

Landmark Media Enterprises (Xtern Software)
Greensboro News-Record

Morris Communications (NewsSynergy)
Brainerd Dispatch

World Publishing Co.
Tulsa World

MaineToday Media (Paperlit)
Kennebec Journal
Morning Sentinel
The Portland Press Herald

GateHouse Media (Presteligence)
The Repository

Lee Enterprises (Tecnavia)
Arizona Daily Star

Media General (Tecnavia)
The Tampa Tribune
News & Messenger

SourceMedia Group (Tecnavia)
The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette

MediaNews (Tecnavia)
San Gabriel Valley Tribune
Pasadena Star-News
Whittier Daily News
Inland Valley Daily Bulletin
Redlands Daily Facts
Torrance Daily Breeze
Long Beach Press-Telegram
Los Angeles Daily News
St. Paul Pioneer Press
Broomfield (Colorado) Daily Enterprise Read more

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Cost, subscription process irk users of New York Times iPhone, iPad apps after paywall

Judging by early reviews, The New York Times subscription plan is not a hit with users of its iPad and iPhone apps. At least, it’s not a hit with users motivated enough to leave comments in the iTunes App Store.

A flurry of comments have been posted for the Times’ iPhone and iPad apps in the last 24 hours. Most of them are negative, and the vast majority assign a rating of one star out five.

If you pay attention to app reviews (like app developers do) you know that it’s not unusual for people to respond negatively to an app update; unhappy consumers are more likely to leave comments than happy ones. (There was an increase in comments for the iPhone app after it was updated last week, but reviewers started to focus on price once it went subscription-only yesterday.)

Still, the comments do tell us something about consumer response.

iPhone app

The Times iPhone app is averaging 3.5 stars. But 35 of the most recent 40 reviews (as of Tuesday morning) have given it a single star. According to users, it’s too expensive:

Nathan Francis
Not worth it
$10/month for all access (iPad, iPhone, website) and I’d happily oblige, but this pricing is unworkable. First, charge by the month not by the four week increment. Second, $455/year for iPad and iPhone access is not worth it when many other high quality news sources are free.

As I noted yesterday, the Times has a few months before Apple requires apps to offer in-app subscriptions, of which Apple will take a 30 percent cut. Right now, users of the Times apps are taken to a Web page, where they must enter their credit card information.

Some customers prefer the simplicity of one-click purchasing, as with other products in the iTunes Store:

Brandon Walker
Great app but…
I am reporting this app for not using Apple’s built-in subscription model. The developer rules state all subscriptions must be made through Apple’s subscription API. [The Times actually has until June 30 to implement this.] That being said it’s a poor app without one click purchasing.

Sean Rabitt
I thought subscriptions were handled by Apple
Why is this app asking for credit card information? I thought all in app purchases and subscriptions were handled by the app store. Why should I need to reenter billing info or trust a third party to my billing info.

To be fair, some users are happy with the iPhone app update:

KatyDidNot
I LOVE the portrait orientation lock!!!
Yes, I lost a number of saved articles! Very unhappy about that!
But oh my gosh, the update is fabulous! Better visual quality, photographs, more content, etc. I LOVE this update! More than ever, access via this app is worth paying for!…

iPad app

The iPad app, which has fewer comments and ratings, is averaging 2.5 stars. However, that rating also has dropped in the past 24 hours, as 17 out of the most recent 20 reviews (as of Tuesday morning) gave it one star.

Again, the main issue is price:

Diana21
Bye, Times…
This one star rating is only due to the extremely high subscription fee. I don’t mind paying for the excellent content of the NYTimes, but $20/mo is not worth it when there are so many other options. How about a Sunday only sub option? Lower the price and you won’t have so many people running in the opposite direction.

Cyro
Subs
Trying to charge for content. Have they heard of the Internet?

The people posting these comments are current or past users of the Times app — a self-selected group of people interested enough in news to download the app. Whether they’re interested enough to pay for Times journalism, well, that’s the ultimate question. People like this are exactly the audience the Times and other newspapers would like to convert to paying digital customers.

As easy as it is to dismiss anonymous ratings and comments, some of these users do appear to understand the economics of print and digital media:

Fahrvergnugen

It isn’t just a slow app anymore…
Now it is slow AND Expensive
When I buy a print edition paper, the price rarely covers the printing and distribution costs. The paper makes money by selling me ads.
In a digital format, don’t charge me a premium for content and serve me expensive ads. Delete.

Disclosure: In May I will start a job at The Boston Globe, which is owned by the New York Times Co., as a product manager for mobile. I haven’t had any access to discussions regarding the paywall. Read more

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New York Times rolls out paywall for mobile apps

The New York Times has begun rolling out changes to its website and mobile apps in advance of its digital subscription plan, which launched Monday afternoon.

Unlike the metered Web paywall, which provides 20 free articles per month and allows linking from search and social media, content on the mobile apps is more tightly controlled.

A house ad at the bottom of the Times’ iPhone app takes readers to the paper’s March 18 letter explaining the changes:

“On our smartphone and tablet apps, the Top News section will remain free of charge. For access to all other sections within the apps, we will ask you to become a digital subscriber.”

On NYTimes.com, several FAQs concerning the paper’s stable of mobile apps have been updated to reflect the new subscription requirement. (Times subscriptions on the Kindle, Nook and Sony Reader e-readers are covered by separate subscriptions.)

Top News, videos and most emailed stories are still available to non-subscribers on the Times’ iPad and iPhone apps. Blogs, however, are available only on the iPhone. On the iPad, individual blogs are located within their related subscription-protected sections.

Both platforms provide a brief glimpse of protected articles, with a prominent notice inviting readers to subscribe to the paper for unlimited access.

The Times is offering an introductory rate of 99 cents for four weeks of digital access for the Web, smartphone and tablet apps. When I tested the subscription process on my iPad, I was given instant access to each of these platforms.

The sign-up process itself, while not onerous, is a bit tedious. It requires users to enter a credit card number, security code and billing address via the touch screen keyboard; it’s not as quick as Apple’s one-click subscription process.

It’s convenient, then, that the Times is implementing subscriptions for its mobile apps before Apple’s June 30 deadline for publishers to offer in-app subscriptions via iTunes. So the Times has three months to sign up subscribers via its own e-commerce system before it must offer Apple’s payment system — and give up 30 percent of the revenue.

The Times strategy has been in the works for 14 months, so the timing may be coincidental, but it does give the paper a head start on acquiring customers outside of Apple’s eventual involvement in the process.

Disclosure: In May I will start a job at The Boston Globe, which is owned by the New York Times Co., as a product manager for mobile. I haven’t had any access to discussions regarding the paywall. Read more

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In Kansas, Twitter puts court reporter in touch with the community

In an elevator in a Wichita, Kan., district court in 2008, Ron Sylvester realized Twitter was changing how he practiced journalism.

Sylvester, a longtime court reporter for The Wichita Eagle and Kansas.com, had just finished covering a murder trial. It was the second time Sylvester had covered a trial live, and the first time he had used Twitter to do so.

As they rode down in the elevator, the mother of victim Chelsea Brooks turned to him and asked, “How is your knee?”

It was not a random question, and it showed Sylvester how he had changed the way readers viewed him in the community.

Sylvester posts professional and personal updates on Twitter. One of those personal tweets mentioned his need for a post-trial knee surgery.

The mother had been following his coverage. On the elevator ride, she opened up the conversation based on the human, not journalistic, information Sylvester had shared online.

Creating a personal connection

“The worst part of the job,” Sylvester told me, “is having to talk to victims’ families.” He now thinks an active presence on Twitter and other social media networks can help in such encounters.

Readers “like to know I am a dad … not just someone who covers grisly murder trials.” The more readers “know about me, the more they can decide if I am trustworthy or not.”

That echoes research I wrote about earlier this month. Engaging on social networks, and even posting reporters’ photos with stories, increases media credibility and trust, according to research by Doreen Marchionni at the University of Missouri.

Sylvester’s courtroom tweeting boosted his credibility in the courthouse, too. Early on in his coverage of that trial, he was interviewed by the ABA Journal, a publication he figures every lawyer and judge in town must read.

The next day in court, everyone wanted to know, “What is this Twitter?”

Fast, frequent updates key to trial tweeting

Sylvester had live-blogged a trial a few months earlier. He emailed updates to the office, where they were edited and posted by an editor. That process was too cumbersome, he said.

The feedback boiled down to readers wanting faster, more frequent updates. For the next trial, of accused murderer Ted Burnett, Sylvester and his editors decided to try Twitter.

He began by tweeting jury selection. By testing out the process during an early phase of the proceedings, they figured it was a good opportunity to “fail quietly” if it didn’t work.

At the time Sylvester had a few dozen followers, but readers quickly took notice. He started seeing replies on Twitter in which people told friends that the Eagle was covering the trial live.

“They know me”

The feedback from regular readers has been the most fulfilling, he said. As a reporter, “usually you only hear from people when you make them mad,” he said. “I have really started hearing the good stuff” since he’s been tweeting trials.

That goes back to the nature of the relationships on Twitter and Facebook. He notes that on social networks, people aren’t called “readers” — they’re “friends” on Facebook and “followers” on Twitter.

That’s a significant change for journalists. Rather than writing for an audience, he said, “I am sharing information with the community.”

Many people, he said, “never pick up a paper or go to a news website.” But they are on Twitter, or more likely Facebook. They learn about riots in Egypt or happenings at school board meetings through those social channels.

Sylvester advocates being where your community is, and Twitter is one of those places. In the past he might have been an anonymous byline in the newspaper. “Now,” he said, “they know me.” Read more

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The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times compete on newsstands in New York. (Mark Lennihan/AP)

The New York Times subscription plan doesn’t protect print, it promotes the mobile Web

The New York Times’ new digital subscription pricing has been characterized by some as a backward-looking effort to protect print revenue. But after comparing the Times’ subscription prices to The Wall Street Journal’s, I see a different goal: promoting the mobile Web over native apps on digital tablets.

The Times announced last week that it will charge $455 a year for digital-only access to its content, which includes Web access and smartphone and tablet apps. In comparison, a weekday print subscription – which also includes full digital access – is available for $385 a year, and a Sunday-only subscription is just $5 more.

That caused pundits to argue that the Times is creating an incentive for consumers to choose a print subscription (which includes digital access) over digital-only.

There is one problem with that argument: A Web subscription to the Times is $195 a year, and the Times’ website works just fine on the iPad.

Rather than favoring print, perhaps the Times is moving to de-emphasize native mobile apps and the stranglehold Apple has over that ecosystem.

The thought occurred to me while reading coverage of The Wall Street Journal’s new “single copy” offer within its iPad app. The app now includes an option to pay $1.99 to read a single issue of the Journal. Before Wednesday, its iPad app was subscription-only.

Michael DeGusta suggests that The New York Times digital subscription prices are too high.

Earlier in the week, Michael DeGusta posted a chart on The Understatement comparing the Times digital subscription rates with the Journal and other online services. He suggests that the Times’ prices are too high and will drive readers to other publications.

Frédéric Filloux at Monday Note questions the entire approach:

“The New York Times paywall is like the French tax system: expensive, utterly complicated, disconnected from the reality and designed to be bypassed.”

The price comparison from DeGusta, who has published a collection of similar charts recently, caused me dig into the subscription rates of The Journal and The Times to get a more complete pricing picture.

My initial question: As a smartphone and tablet consumer living outside New York City, what is the cheapest way to access these two national newspapers on the Web and via iPhone and iPad apps?

On the surface, the numbers reinforce DeGusta and Filloux’s assertions, but they also point to a deeper strategy by the Times.

Let’s start with the Journal.

The Wall Street Journal Pricing Plan

If you want to subscribe to The Wall Street Journal, here are your options:

Full print and digital access: $37 a month or $441 a year
Print only:
$30 a month; $363 a year
Digital Plus (Web and mobile devices):
$18 a month; $216 a year
Tablet edition:
$1.99 per day single copy; $17 a month; $207 a year.
Web only:
$13 a month; $155 a year

(The note at the bottom of this post explains how I calculated these.)

The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times compete on newsstands in New York. (Mark Lennihan/AP)

The Journal’s pricing structure seems pretty straightforward. The Web is by far the cheapest subscription option. Mobile access costs about $5 more per month than basic Web access. Accessing print and digital editions costs $7 more a month than print alone.

As a consumer, those are clear choices. Though I may wish for a lower price for digital and mobile access, the structure makes sense.

So my cheapest option to access the Journal online and via iPad and iPhone apps would be the Tablet edition package, which would cost me $207 a year. I can read the paper online, on my iPhone or on my iPad, and I don’t need to have the print edition delivered.

The New York Times Pricing Plan

The Times is not so straightforward in its approach. There are more print subscription packages for the Times, which publishes every day compared to the Journal’s six days a week. And the delivery rates are higher for the rest of the country outside the New York metro area.

As with the Journal, any print subscription includes full access to the website, iPad and smartphone apps.

Home delivery outside of New York
7 Days: $64 a month or $770 a year
Friday-Sunday: $45 a month or $541 a year
Sunday: $33 a month or $390 a year
Weekday: $32 a month or $385 a year

Digital only
Web and smartphone apps: $16 a month or $195 a year
Web and tablet apps: $22 a month or $260 a year
Web, smartphone and tablet apps: $38 a month or $455 a year

So, as a consumer in New Hampshire who values mobile access to news, my absolute cheapest price for access to the Times app on my iPad alone is $260 per year.

But if I want to read the Times on my iPhone too, I may as well get the paper delivered five days a week. That beats the “Web plus mobile apps” package by $70 a year.

That just does not add up. The Times said last week that its pricing plan was the result of extensive consumer feedback. But which consumers said the problem they wanted to solve was how to pay a $70 premium not to receive the print newspaper?

The average iPad owner likely has a smartphone, and he probably wants to access the Times there as well. Putting those devices into two different pricing tiers, and charging a significant premium to access them both, is perplexing. The customer is being forced to decide what it’s worth to get the Times on her iPad app as well as her iPhone app.

Assuming the Times does things on purpose, what is the thinking behind this?

A different strategy at work

This is the true choice for people who want these publications on the Web, tablets and smartphones:

Wall Street Journal Tablet edition (tablet and smartphone apps and Web): $17 a month; $207 a year.
New York Times Web and smartphone apps: $195 a year

What about the Times’ iPad app, you say? I’m not alone in saying that one of the best apps on the iPad is the Web browser. What if the Times is encouraging people to pick its cheapest mobile plan — $195 a year for Web and smartphone apps — and let Safari be the platform of choice on the tablet?

I have no inside information to back up this theory, but it would be a good strategy. I asked the Times if this is part of their thinking and will provide an update when they respond.

The Times does have a mobile website designed for smartphones, but its iPhone app is better. The design and usability advantages of a native app are more valuable on a smartphone than a tablet because of the smaller screen size. For the Times app, this means finer control over font sizes, better navigation and better use of photography.

In comparison, for most news companies, a tablet app might be functionally and visually identical to a tablet-optimized website. In that case, the primary advantage of a native iOS app is the marketing and distribution of the iTunes Store.

But the primary disadvantage is Apple. The computing giant has the power to dictate terms and little incentive to negotiate with publishers. Newspapers must decide if it’s worth it to give up a 30 percent royalty, in perpetuity, for each subscriber who uses the in-app purchase option.

If the Times were to create a pricing scheme aimed at countering Apple’s influence, it would look almost exactly like what they are doing:

  • Build free-to-download smartphone and tablet apps.
  • Implement a subscription service for all digital content.
  • Tie app access to print subscriptions.
  • Do not offer mobile-only subscriptions.
  • Price the packages to encourage Web and mobile Web use.
  • Offer a smartphone app subscription at a premium, and an iPad app subscription at an even greater premium.

All that is missing:

  • Develop a tablet-specific, touch-friendly HTML5 website to decrease the incentive for people to pay more to view content on the tablet app.

The Times site now looks fine on the iPad; its video and interactive graphics are largely compatible with Apple’s non-Flash requirements. But it is not yet a tablet-optimized site like npr.org/tablet, with large, touch-friendly navigation and similar refinements.

If we see the Times roll out such a tablet site in the next few months, that is all the proof I would need that the company is targeting Apple, not protecting print.

Here’s how I calculated these rates: I took the weekly subscription rates for each plan, multiplied by 52 to get an annual cost, and then divided that by 12 to get a monthly rate. I rounded to dollars and arranged them here from most to least expensive. These numbers are not based on introductory rates and exclude taxes. Read more

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On Twitter’s 5th birthday, users and media consider its impact

Five years ago, according to Twitter, co-founder Jack Dorsey sent out the first tweet: “inviting coworkers.” Ev Stone tweeted for the first time within a minute: “just setting up my twttr.”

Co-creator Dom Sagolla had it right when one of his first tweets that day predicted, “oh this is going to be addictive.”

The anniversary has prompted a number of analyses and retrospectives:

9 Newsworthy Twitpics That Captivated the World – Mashable
> Five years since the first tweet: a Twitter revolution in breaking news – Frontline Club
Happy 5th Birthday, Twitter! 10 Top Tweets of the Past 5 years – ABC News
The history of Twitter, 140 characters at a time – The Globe and Mail
Twitter: tweeting louder than ever – The Guardian
Twitter at Five: Bringing out the worst in journalists – National Post
> How Twitter changed our media habits – The Media Blog
Happy Fifth Birthday Twitter! Five Milestones from the Past Five Years – AllTwitter
#numbers – Twitter Blog

And of course, Twitter itself is bustling with people talking about Twitter:


[View the story "Twitter turns five" on Storify] Read more

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For New York Times paid content, not all digital platforms are created equal

For The New York Times, not all digital platforms are apparently equal. The paper’s long-awaited digital subscription plan, announced Thursday, creates three pricing tiers, with smart phones and digital tablets split between two different packages, each of which also include Web content.

The plan, which begins March 28 in the U.S., limits free access to the NYTimes.com to 20 page views per month, with some exceptions including search and social media referrals.

Beyond those free page views, readers will be asked to pick a digital subscription package, which includes Web and mobile platforms:

  • $15 for NYTimes.com and smart phone app access
  • $20 for NYTimes.com and tablet app access
  • $35 for full access to smart phone, tablet and Web content

While the paper’s website will be metered at 20 page views, its mobile apps will not be metered. But, non-subscribers will be limited to articles in the Top News section.

Print subscribers will have “read anywhere” access to the paper’s content in print, Web and mobile. The Times’ offerings on e-reader devices such as the Kindle and Nook are not included in any of these packages.

As Rafat Ali pointed out in a tweet following the announcement, the cheapest available print subscription is the weekend package, which also provides full digital and mobile access:

“TIP: Buy *any* NYT print pckg, even just Sat-Sun at $12.6 month & get all access digital free. http://nyti.ms/h3kIk8 #nytdigisubs”

I asked the Times why they decided to split smart phones and tablets into different packages and spokesperson Kristin Mason answered by e-mail that the structure was based on reader studies.

“We found that readers placed different values on the various reading experiences — smart phone, tablet and access across digital platforms — and we are pricing our packages accordingly.”

She noted that the subscription plan was intended to grow their new digital platforms while “maintaining our large audience and robust advertising business.” Read more

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Highlights from SXSW: 7 steps to building trust and credibility with an online audience

Doreen Marchionni spent the last four years studying how journalists can boost their credibility and engagement with digital audiences. She found the simple secret: Interact online and be human.

However, she says, it takes more than simply having a Twitter account and posting story links. “When your audience is able to participate and influence the outcome of a story,” that is conversational journalism, she told me by phone last week.

Marchionni, who studied the topic for her Ph.D. at the University of Missouri in 2009, now teaches at Pacific Lutheran University, and is an editor at The Seattle Times. She discusses the findings of her doctoral dissertation Tuesday at SXSW.

Her presentation will focus on practical tips newsrooms can take to increase interaction, trust and audience for news websites. Below are her suggestions for journalists.

Use the tools of the Internet to commit journalism.

Reporters need to be on Facebook, Twitter and other social networks. Taking simple steps such as crowdsourcing story ideas or encouraging feedback increases a reporter’s credibility with a digital audience, Marchionni found in her research.

And, having a Twitter account that mixes appropriate personal messages along with work-related tweets can let the audience see the “person behind the news,” which also builds trust.

“This is a very uncomfortable idea for mainstream journalists,” she said. But it is a critical element in reader engagement online.

Provide online bio pages with photos.

Many news websites have inadequate “contact us” pages, and Marchionni suggests that staff directories should be improved to include both photos and short biographical sketches.

Providing photos, as columnists often do, allows readers to measure their “perceived similarity” to a journalist. This analysis includes both intellectual viewpoints on a topic as well as demographic factors. Audiences subconsciously use this information to judge the news they receive.

Marchionni said that in her studies, this factor was the most influential in determining the trust and credibility readers attributed to a news source.

Readers, she said, “perceive news in which they can sense the person behind the news as highly credible and highly expert.”

Produce reporter-focused short videos.

Similarly, journalists need to present themselves in videos on their websites. Even more than a still photo, video communicates to an audience that a reporter is a real person, not a “data spewing automaton,” Marchionni said.

In her studies she refers to this as having a “social presence” and it is another key to building trust with readers.

Marchionni reports past studies have shown TV news surpasses print in credibility ratings due to TV journalists appearing more human by virtue of their media.

“If news people want to sustain and build credibility with audiences, especially in the multi-platform world of news websites,” she said,  “they need to put themselves out there in videos.”

Look to columnists and the Sports Department for cues.

Columnists, often take a conversational tone, use fact-based analysis and portray a strong public persona. This approach provides  a roadmap for other reporters to look to, Marchionni said.

She is not suggesting opinion-based reporting, but rather bringing more voice and perspective to typical news writing. According to her findings, a news column is very similar to the narrative style that engages online readers.

Marchionni also suggests looking to sports departments as role models of reader engagement. They are “are often at the vanguard for innovation in newsrooms and they never get credit for it,” she said.

Due to the rabid fan bases involved, Marchionni says sports reporters have been thrown into contact with readers more than other news reporters are. As a result, they have been ahead of the curve in learning to “navigate relationships with audiences.”

Marchionni highlights the efforts of reporters such as ESPN’s Mike Sando, who she worked with at The (Tacoma) News Tribune. Sando covers the National Football League’s NFC West division and blogs prolifically on the topic, including using short video segments to answer reader questions.

Bring audiences into the process.

Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr and other online networks can be used to reach out to readers for story ideas and sourcing. But, Marchionni also points to the example set by Minnesota Public Radio with its Public Insight Journalism (PIJ) initiative.

The PIJ website allows listeners to fill out a biography that highlights their individual areas of expertise. Members of the group are then available as sources to be contacted by the network’s reporters. The site reports more than 99,000 people have registered to be part of the project.

Don’t forget to close the loop.

When a newsroom does engage with readers, and invites early participation in the newsgathering process, Marchionni says it is important to publicly note that interaction.

“You must tell audiences that you did it,” she said, and that you will continue to gather information via those digital networks.

In her studies, Marchionni said she put an editor’s note at the top of stories that were crowdsourced, explaining how that process worked. And she recommends including the appropriate attribution – “contacted though Twitter” – within the text of the story as well.

She found that readers respond very positively to that audience involvement and transparency of process.

Balance formal and informal tones carefully.

Readers are accepting of a more informal, friendly tone in online writing, but it is a fine line to walk.

Marchionni found that humor, even snark, can be well regarded by digital audiences when applied appropriately. That helps enhance a sense that a “real person” is behind the news.

However, being too informal or conversational in a more serious story leads readers to question the authority and expertise of the journalist.

“You still want to maintain some level of authority and formality,” she said. Audiences can be very sensitive to that.

She points to the Seattle Times weather blog, led by Jack Broom, as an example of how to strike that balance. A recent brief with the forecast was lead with:

“The forecast is plain: We’ll get rain and then rain.”

But, a story predicting potentially damaging winds followed standard AP style more closely:

“The Puget Sound area could be battered by gusts of up to 50 mph, and sustained winds of 20 to 30 mph, in a storm expected to hit the area Thursday afternoon, creating the potential for widespread power outages.”

Marchionni believes that as reporters take on publishing responsibilities, via Twitter or on the Web, it is crucial they appreciate this balance and learn to correctly target their style of writing appropriately.

She said the best reporters will pick it up it quickly, but, “they are going to have to learn how to be extraordinarily nuanced self-editors.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled Jack Broom’s last name. Read more

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State of the News Media 2011: The 3 things people want on their mobile devices and how you can provide them

The Project for Excellence in Journalism’s eighth annual “State of the News Media” includes new survey data that confirms mobile apps need to serve consumers’ immediate needs for local information, including weather and restaurant listings.

The findings reveal that weather and business data, along with local news, traffic and public transportation information, are key interests of the local mobile audience.

The Pew survey, “How mobile devices are changing community information environments,” is based on landline and mobile phone interviews with 2,251 adults. Only a small percentage of respondents rely on a mobile device as their primary news source, but 47 percent say they get some local news from a smart phone or tablet.

The audience searching for local information on mobile devices is significant and that percentage will continue to grow.

The leading mobile needs are “practical and in real time,” the report says:

“Forty-two percent of mobile device owners report getting weather updates on their phones or tablets; 37 percent say they get material about restaurants or other local businesses. These consumers are less likely to use their mobile devices for news about local traffic, public transportation, general news alerts or to access retail coupons or discounts.”

In each category there are opportunities for local media, but also challenges posed by more recent, but already entrenched digital competitors. To develop a local app strategy built around these topics requires both delighting readers with quality content and design and serving their basic information needs.

Some news outlets are already doing this well, but the Pew report provides a clear road map and an added sense of urgency.

Forty-two percent of mobile phone and tablet users surveyed check weather on their mobile devices.

Challenges
Three words: The Weather Channel. Local media cannot hope to compete with a TV network devoted to weather — especially one with a strong mobile strategy. Last year, The Weather Channel app for iPhone topped 10 million downloads.

Opportunity
I have not done an audit of every available mobile phone news app, but from a spot check it looks to me like broadcasters are more likely to have decent mobile weather offerings than newspapers. Generally, weather features in newspaper apps are more common among outlets using larger mobile vendors such as Verve.

Local Weather
Local news apps need to provide at least a minimum of useful weather information.

Mobile managers — especially at newspapers — should work to get the fundamentals into their apps: current temperature, short-term forecasts, severe weather alerts and local radar maps. If you can serve that basic need, readers will be satisfied even if they turn to competitors for more in-depth information when a major weather event is on the way.

But for really local differentiation, try integrating a local weather blogger, columnist or short video forecast into the experience. That type of narrative content may not appeal to every mobile user, but it will help develop an identity for your app.

Unanswered Questions
The Pew report indicates weather is a popular topic, a fact that has been born out in both app downloads and past surveys. But a few more details would be helpful in developing a mobile strategy. At a minimum: What weather information is enough for the typical reader on a typical day?

Thirty-seven percent of mobile phone and tablet users look for restaurant and other local business information.

Challenges
Yelp has a national scale and a critical mass of reviews. That makes its service good enough at a local level to be useful to many readers. Other directory services, from Google Maps to Foursquare, are also active in the local market.

Opportunity
In-depth local business information is a service that cannot be provided by national competitors. Yelp and others depend on directory services, coupled with user-submitted reviews. Local media outlets, newspapers especially, have an archive of stories, photos and reviews for many restaurants, along with other businesses. Local knowledge beyond reader-submitted reviews can make a media app competitive against a national provider.

The Scoop
The New York Times’ app supplements a business directory with the newspaper’s deep archive of staff-written reviews.

The key to success is not simply to purchase the same business directory information every website already uses, but to curate and supplement it to make the data feel expert and local.

The New York Times took this approach with The Scoop, a niche app targeting restaurants, bars, coffee shops and other entertainment and leisure venues. Each listing provides staff comments and reviews when available. One section contains a list and review of each of the top 50 restaurants in the city, as determined by staff critic Sam Sifton.

Unanswered Questions
Pew did not ask about the specific information consumers most frequently accessed. Was it a phone number, directions or a user-submitted review? That behavior is critical for local media to understand before building an app.

Thirty percent of cell and tablet users check their devices for local news, 24 percent for local sports scores, and 22 percent for local traffic and transportation information.

Challenges
Smaller newspapers may not be providing traffic reports online much less in a mobile app, but local news and sports are core competencies for every news organization.

Mobile consumers expect these updates to be both timely and data-driven. In many newsrooms that calls for putting mobile first, the Web second, and print third when it comes to publishing priorities. So, internal processes and technology are a larger concern than national competitors such as CNN or ESPN.

Opportunity
Everyone does breaking news in a mobile app, but what about taking a page from msnbc.com’s Breaking News and aggregate statewide or regional news in a niche app?

WRAL
WRAL.com partnered with a local radio station to provide comprehensive coverage of local high school sports.

Or for sports, consider the partnership between WRAL.com and a local ESPN affiliate. They built the High School OT app that covers nearly four dozen high schools in the Raleigh-Durham area. It includes schedules, photos, videos from WRAL-TV, and live game scores.

For traffic and transportation, TBD.com does both well. The site’s mobile app includes general news and sports, but traffic and Metro (subway) updates are also highlighted, and both sections are designed to be information-rich but easy to navigate.

Unanswered Questions
Not every market has a need for traffic and commuter rail updates, or a passion for high school football updates. But the Pew report indicates consumers increasingly expect this information to be available on their mobile devices. More local research and knowledge is necessary to decide which niche topics are of most value to your audience.

Mobile users are younger, more diverse

The survey provides the latest snapshot of the typical mobile phone news consumer. Users of local news apps are disproportionately younger, better educated and more likely to be black or Hispanic. Not surprisingly, the youngest demographic studied, 18-29, is the most likely to access local news and information via their mobile devices – across almost every content category.

This is good news for newspapers with an aging subscriber base. However, the report finds that local news apps are only used by 13 percent of adults who own mobile devices. Worse, only 1 percent of the U.S. adult population has paid for a local news app to date.

To some extent that is a chicken-and-egg problem. As smart phone and tablet ownership grows, and news organizations improve their mobile strategies and offerings, the paid options available to audiences — and we hope, those who choose to consume them — will continue to grow as well.

Bring any “State of the News Media” questions to a chat with me and Rick Edmonds at 2 p.m. ET on Monday. You can also join PEJ director Tom Rosenstiel for a webinar on the “State of the News Media” Monday, March 21 at 2 p.m. ET

<a href=”http://www.coveritlive.com/mobile.php/option=com_mobile/task=viewaltcast/altcast_code=c28d54cc45″ mce_href=”http://www.coveritlive.com/mobile.php/option=com_mobile/task=viewaltcast/altcast_code=c28d54cc45″ >State of the Media: We’ll Answer Your Questions</a> Read more

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