Tips on managing a website, from measuring traffic to understanding new platforms for news and information.

Read what happens when a bunch of over 30s find out how Millennials handle their money   Quartz

Storytelling experiment: Quartz publishes internal conversation

Your newsroom surely has been through the drill: an editor reaches out to some folks with an idea for a story. The cc line grows and grows as “stakeholders” chime in. By the end of the thread (or the day), you have a treatise on proposed subject.

But no story.

I thought of all those unpublished pearls today as we ran this story yesterday and promptly saw it soar to the top of our “most popular” list. As the ideas editor at Quartz, the 2-year-old global economy site of the Atlantic Media Co., it didn’t surprise me that we were pulling back the curtain and letting readers into our process and thinking. But as a reader (age 38, if you must know), the message of the transcript — that millennials are very public about their spending habits — did surprise and inform.

Screengrab of article from Quartz' site.

Screengrab of article from Quartz’ site.

I wondered what would happen to a chat like ours in a legacy newsroom. Would it have been given to a personal finance reporter as an assignment about “kids these days?” Would it have yielded a feature on the service Venmo? Or would it have — as so many of those great ideas that get ruminated and marinated over email or chat — stayed in our inboxes to die?

You might say that your newsroom doesn’t have the ability or desire to offer such transparency into the sausage-making of ideas. That the white space on your printed page only has room for 700 linear words.

The popularity of this post begs a reconsideration of that thinking. What we offered here was insight and authenticity, a “trend” story that doesn’t talk up or down to readers, but lets them truly feel a part of the conversation. Read more


Wednesday, Sep. 03, 2014

Taking an Instagram Photo with an iPhone

Tips for broadcast journalists: When sharing breaking news on social, speed trumps beauty

Today’s multimedia journalists have to do it all on their own – report, write, edit, drive, set up live shots, and post to social media and the Web. Usually, that’s just considered a long list of stuff to do by deadline. But in breaking news coverage, the journalist has some tough choices to make.

The biggest challenge is getting the great video for the story that’s going to air on TV and being the first one to inform news consumers via social media. Here are some strategies to help serve both masters.

Let’s break down these tips into three categories:

  1. What to shoot
  2. Workflow
  3. How to distribute via social media

What to shoot

Shoot the most obvious thing news consumers will recognize right now. After all, we’re talking about breaking news and the situation may change by the time the newscast airs. This isn’t about beauty, it’s about social media speed – beat the competition and get back to using your broadcast camera for the newscast.

Because we’re talking about TV, video is a must. We want to give our followers a taste of the great stuff they’ll only see on TV later. Still photos are obviously another way to bring your followers in. Shoot one of each.

This video and photo are from a breaking news fire in the San Francisco Bay Area in June. The video gives social media followers a sense of what’s happening and confirms the reporter’s on the scene gathering information. The still photo is complementary.

Video of fire:

Photo of helicopter water drop:


Work flow

This is where multimedia journalists have a tough decision to make. Which is the priority: social media or the newscast? I’d recommend shooting the social media stuff first. Dedicate a few minutes to it – five minutes max – and then go back to your camera.

Don’t beat yourself up over what you couldn’t get out through social media. Remember, this is more about informing news consumers now and beating the competition, not having the prettiest shot. You want your followers to know you’re there. If you’re first, they’ll catch up with you again on the newscast or on the web when you’ve got your complete video story assembled.

In the end this is about making choices. You can’t be in two places at once operating two cameras at once and doing two jobs at once. Keep this in mind: the best pictures are for your broadcast story, the first pictures are for social media.

If there’s a scenario where you’re waiting and don’t want to miss it – say a building collapse – set up the broadcast camera, lock down the tripod, and then start rolling. With the camera rolling, get out your phone to shoot your social media video and photo. Then go back to the camera.

How to distribute breaking news video via social media:

— Use your phone to gather your social media video. Skip the tablets; even an iPad mini is too big to fit in your pocket. You want to be as mobile as possible, and being able to stuff your social media newsgathering and distribution tool into your pocket is the epitome of mobility.

— Upload your videos via YouTube. Cellphones have simple, already-established workflows that make the process quicker.

— Here are 10 steps to reporting breaking news via social media

1. Shoot your video.

2. Choose send.


3. Choose the YouTube option.


4. Write a simple description for the YouTube video description box that you can copy and paste into a social media post later when the video is published.


5. Choose SD. It’s faster, which is what we’re shooting for here.


6. Choose “Public” and then Publish (top right).


7. Wait for a few seconds and chose “View on YouTube.”


8. Once on YouTube, choose share.


9. Choose Twitter or Facebook to post there, or email to send the link back to your Web Team at the station.


Simon Perez is assistant professor of broadcast and digital journalism at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School Of Public Communications.

Related training: How and When to Shoot Video with a Smartphone Read more


Friday, Aug. 01, 2014


Apps that record phone calls are convenient, but can present confidentiality risks

Reporters frequently cite mobile apps that record phone calls as among their favorites, according to David Ho, The Wall Street Journal’s editor for Mobile, Tablets & Emerging Technology, who has trained some 1,500 journalists on how to use tech tools in their work.

But reporters might not realize that these apps often store the recordings of calls on their own servers or the cloud – and then send a copy to the user’s cell phone. This means third parties can access the information, which raises questions about who owns the recording and whether communications with sources are confidential.

“Once information gets into a third party’s hands, there is a risk that your protections could be minimized as a result,” said Bruce Johnson, a media attorney at Davis Wright Tremaine in Seattle.

Despite the risks, call-recording apps have benefits. They’re convenient, as people normally have their phone with them. They also offer easy ways to label, catalogue and share recordings.

Still, Ho recommends that reporters become aware of how these apps work before they use them.

“Journalists should be making informed decisions when they choose to use this kind of technology,” Ho said in an email. “They may not realize someone else is on the call with them.”

One way reporters can familiarize themselves with the ins-and-outs of call-recording apps is to read the terms of service, which are normally on companies’ websites.

Journalists should pay special attention to ownership clauses, and may want to avoid products that claim redistribution rights of recordings, NPR Associate General Counsel Ashley Messenger said.

Reporters also should learn the apps’ policies on subpoenas and confidentiality.

If the government or a private party wants to use the recording in a court case, it could try to get the information from the third-party provider. Journalists may want to find out whether the company will promise to always challenge subpoenas or whether it will reserve the ability to turn over the materials. They also may want to learn whether the third party will inform them if it is hit with a subpoena.

These concerns are not limited to call-recording apps. Any time reporters use technology that involves a third party – such as Google Docs or SoundCloud – it is wise to look at the company’s policies on confidentiality.

Messenger said it’s common for third-party apps to reserve the right to comply with subpoenas. Consequently, national security reporters or people writing about other sensitive topics might want to avoid these products.

“You do lose control unless you have actual contractual provisions or some other kind of certainty that they are going to fight a subpoena for you,” Messenger said.

One popular recording app, TapeACall, has a policy that it “may respond to subpoenas” by sharing customer information. But people can avoid this risk by using the app to record the call, immediately saving the interview to another device, and deleting the original from the app’s server, said Meir Cohen, president of TelTech, the parent company of TapeACall.

“If someone were to delete the call, it wouldn’t be an issue,” said Cohen, who added that TapeACall has had more than one million users in its first year.

Another curveball with third-party apps is that the law is “muddled” as to what shield law applies if interviews are subpoenaed, said Johnson of Davis Wright Tremaine.

About 40 states have shield laws that offer journalists varying degrees of protections against subpoenas. When a third party stores the information, it is unclear which law controls  – where the recording is stored, where the reporter is based, or where the source is located.

Even if their interviews are not subpoenaed, journalists who are promising confidentiality to their sources need to make sure that call-recording apps are keeping their information confidential. Reporters should consider what protections third-party companies have to prevent hacking or eavesdropping, Messenger said.

On top of these digital-age concerns, reporters must remember that consent laws apply to phone apps, just as they do to standard tape recorders. People must get consent of all parties before recording in some states, but not in others. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has a guide that lists the laws for all states.

Messenger encouraged reporters to weigh all of these factors when deciding whether to use recording apps. Sometimes, she said, it could be better to tape interviews the “old-fashioned way.”

“There are always trade-offs that have to be made between security, convenience and available technologies,” she said.

This story comes to Poynter from the Reporters Committee McCormick Foundation Legal Fellow Jamie Schuman Read more


Thursday, July 03, 2014


Case Study: Gannett’s monumental task — A content management system for all

(This case study, the fifth in an occasional series, was underwritten by a grant from the Stibo-Foundation.) Note: CCI Europe is a subsidiary of Stibo, whose foundation made a grant for this series. The funder had no editorial input on the study.

In 2011, Gannett Co. owned more than a hundred newspapers and television stations – each with its own website. To publish its online material, the company was supporting about a half dozen content management systems.

Journalists in most of the company’s broadcast newsrooms wrote and published their digital stories through a homegrown CMS called Newsmaker, while almost all of Gannett’s newspaper websites were powered with Saxotech. But the Arizona Republic had its own system known as Enigma, and the Des Moines Register posted some of its content through WordPress.

Meanwhile, Gannett’s flagship publication, USA Today, maintained its site with a proprietary system it simply called “CMS.”

The assortment of software left Gannett no easy way to share web content among its properties, and some systems lacked basic functions such as the ability to embed hyperlinks or multimedia into articles.

“None of these digital systems was far enough along or modern enough,” said Mitch Gelman, Gannett Digital Vice President/Product.“ Gannett was so far behind the CNN’s and the MSNBC’s of the world.”

So Gannett embarked upon a massive digital overhaul. It set out to design and build a content management system that would replace the existing systems and serve every Gannett newsroom – from USA Today to KHOU-TV in Houston to the Fort Collins Coloradoan – allowing them to post and share material more easily.

At the same time it was revamping its back-end content system, Gannett chose to update  the user interface for its more than 120 local and national news websites, bringing them all onto one company-wide design that would more prominently feature photos and multimedia and allow editors to customize the user experience for computers, tablets, and phones.

“What we’re doing here at Gannett is relatively unprecedented,” Gelman said in a May 2014 interview at Gannett’s northern Virginia headquarters. “The objective was to publish an interface that had never been done before.”

Plunging into one of the largest CMS transitions ever attempted by a media organization, Gannett hoped to succeed where other media companies have stumbled. Time Inc. and the BBC are among the media organizations that suffered through CMS transitions that didn’t meet their goals, ran over budget, or failed entirely.

“Everyone’s CMS gives them pain,” said digital media consultant Elizabeth Osder, who’s worked with AOL, The Daily Beast, and other media clients.

In the web’s early days, some media companies struggled with simplistic content management systems that forced them to retype or cut-and-paste every newspaper story or broadcast script.

New systems typically eliminate those annoyances. But they can introduce fresh problems as news organizations expect them to meet modern challenges, such as streaming video and audio, serving up fancier ads, and displaying specialized content on phones and tablets.

“There is no shortage of horror stories,” Osder said in a phone interview.

In the three years since Gannett began its transition, it has had its share of delays and hiccups. But it has avoided the catastrophic problems that doomed some of its competitors’ transitions. As it nears the end of the process of converting its properties to its new content management system, the company is generally pleased with the results.

“We didn’t get all the things we wanted,” said USA Today Executive Editor of Content Susan Weiss. “But what we did get was a much easier, faster, simpler publishing system.”


Gannett is a publicly-traded $6.5 billion company that claims its media properties reach more than 110 million people every month. Perhaps best known as the publisher of USA Today, the nation’s second largest newspaper by circulation, the company also has grown into a major force in local television. After several acquisitions, it now owns or operates 42 TV stations. Gannett owns more NBC and CBS affiliates than any company other than the networks themselves and ranks fourth among ABC owners.

It reduced its newspaper holdings over the past decade, but continues to operate 81 daily papers and 443 non-dailies in 30 states, including the Arizona Republic, Detroit Free Press, and Indianapolis Star.

Gannett says its digital division reaches more than 65 million unique visitors every month through, the websites of its local newspapers and TV stations, and a variety of other products, such as,, and the coupon site Gannett content also feeds a handful of unconventional news platforms, such as large touch screens in hotel lobbies and a digital portal called “The Point,” which is available to travelers who access the in-house wifi networks at Hilton hotels.

Gannett’s acquisitions left it with a conglomeration of media properties that employed various digital strategies and relied on different tools. Some of Gannett’s properties were saddled with older content management systems that required a good bit of manual coding or other workarounds to post content.

In addition, Gannett executives feared that many of their properties had by 2011 fallen off the cutting edge of technology and design. USA Today – whose flashy colors and bold graphics transformed the look of print newspapers a generation ago – maintained a website that was adequate but hardly groundbreaking. The design of hadn’t changed since 2008, and a 2011 Poynter analysis of comScore data concluded it was the tenth most visited news website in the U.S., well behind such sites as CNN, the New York Times, and Huffington Post.

By 2011, Gannett had experienced several years of disappointing financial results. 2011 was its fifth consecutive year of revenue losses, as newspaper advertising fell drastically. In addition, digital revenue, which analysts consider a key driver of media companies’ growth, increased slower than hoped – only about five percent in 2011. By the end of the year, Gannett’s stock was down 85 percent from its 2004 high.


As it embarked on redesigning both the user experience and the back-end of its newspaper and TV station websites, Gannett set ambitious goals that Gelman said were intended to “leapfrog” the competition:

  • On the user side, Gannett envisioned an interface that was more touch-friendly and “swipe able,” even for readers who were accessing the site on desktop computers. Unlike most desktop sites, which required users to click around menu bars and do a lot of scrolling, Gannett wanted a more horizontal design that emphasized photos, graphics, and headlines. “The objective was to publish an interface that had never been done before,” Gelman said. “What we wanted to achieve out of this was a more tablet-like experience.”
  • Gannett sought to customize the experience for users who actually did view its sites on tablets and phones. It wanted an easy way for editors to serve up device-specific content. For instance, a user of a TV station’s iPhone app might see different information from somebody browsing the station’s website on a desktop computer.
  • On the back-end, the company desired a content management system that would allow its publications and broadcast stations to better share stories. For years, Gannett had attempted to leverage the combined resources of its local and national newsrooms, but found that the lack of a unified platform hampered those efforts. “There were many different attempts to bring Gannett content together, and they did not meet expectations,” Gelman said. “That connective tissue that would bring everything together had to be established.”
  • The system would have to work for a variety of news organizations, from the large newsroom at USA Today to small, lightly-staffed newspapers and stations in places such as Staunton, Virginia and St. George, Utah. Furthermore, Gelman wanted it to be remotely accessible to field reporters – an attribute that was lacking in some of the company’s earlier content management systems. “You had to be able to open up a computer on a hood of a police car outside a hostage situation and be able to file and update your coverage in real time,” he said.
  • To drive revenue, Gannett wanted its redesigned websites to accommodate “high impact advertising”– larger, more colorful ads that would be integrated into the site design and harder for users to ignore. In addition, the company wanted its new back-end to support better “semantic tagging,” so that it would more accurately match advertising with the content on each page.
  • Finally, the company set an ambitious timetable to develop and roll out the new systems. The target date for the first conversion at USA Today was September 15, 2012, which was the publication’s thirtieth anniversary and also the date the newspaper planned to unveil a new design for its print editions. That gave Gannett about a year to develop, test, and implement both the back-end content management system and the new USA Today website.


During a two-day meeting in August 2011, Gannett began the process of remaking its digital personality. Early on, it made several key decisions.

First, it decided to start fresh by developing a totally new system for its back-end content management. It determined that none of its current content management systems – nor any existing off-the-shelf product – would do the job.

“Almost invariably, you’ll find in the industry when these projects get going, you’re forced to start with something that was in existence before,” said Steve Kurtz, Gannett’s Vice President for Product Development.

“We were afforded the opportunity to start from scratch,” Kurtz said in an interview. “And that really allowed us the opportunity to do it right.”

Second, to narrow the scope of the project, the company limited the technological revamp to only the digital side of its operations – the functions that directly involve feeding content to its websites and digital apps. There was no change in the software Gannett uses to publish the print editions of its newspapers, a program from CCI called Newsgate. Likewise, Gannett television stations would continue to produce their newscasts and feed their Teleprompters using AP’s ENPS software.

That decision had its pros and cons. On the negative side, it meant that every Gannett newsroom would simultaneously be using two software products to manage content – Newsgate or ENPS to produce their newspapers or TV newscasts, and the new CMS for online publishing. That would create an extra burden on editors and producers to assure that stories were properly loaded and updated in each system. But the decision also helped Gannett avoid a challenge that’s vexed other news organizations – trying to build an all-in-one content system that’s expected to do too much.

After the August 2011 meeting, a team of developers, journalists, and executives went to work building the new Gannett CMS, which they named “Presto.” Meanwhile, Gannett worked with the digital design firm Fi to overhaul the interface readers would see when they visited a Gannett newspaper or TV station web site. While the CMS transition and the website redesign were separate projects, they were inextricably linked because Presto would be the only CMS with the necessary functions to provide content to the new websites.

“It was an intense effort for about six months,” Kurtz said.

To help build newsroom support for the new system and assure it would meet journalists’ needs, a handful of editorial personnel were temporarily reassigned to work with the Presto team and provide feedback on the system as it was being developed. Reporters, editors, photographers, and others were embedded with the development team for stints ranging from two weeks to several months.

“I just really started banging on the tool and talking out the process with them,” said USA Today Mobile Editor Emily Brown. “Everybody’s workflow is just a little bit different, and when we were able to bang on the tool in our own special way, we were able to find things that needed to be tweaked.”

For instance, Brown was concerned that early builds of Presto wouldn’t handle breaking news well. The system’s design was oriented toward posting complete stories in which all the text and photos were ready to publish. Brown said the embedded journalists helped the designers better equip Presto for fast-moving news situations, when stories often are written and published one sentence or one photo at a time.

Gelman wouldn’t put a cost figure on the transition, but wrote in an email that Presto represented “a healthy investment” in Gannett’s digital future. He said the price was “less than most companies end up spending” on their content management systems, and he said part of the cost was offset because Gannett no longer will pay to use and upgrade its existing systems.


As planned, USA Today began publishing content with Presto September 15, 2012. At the same time, the public was invited to beta the redesigned USA Today website. For two weeks, the newspaper operated both its old and new CMS and both its old and new website. The old systems were turned off September 29, 2012, and USA Today transitioned entirely to Presto and the new site design.

“It was really hectic,” Brown said in an interview. “Work flow was changing. The tool was changing. The website was changing,”

USA Today switched to the new systems without any catastrophic problems, though the transition wasn’t painless. Brown describes a “war room” environment, as journalists struggled to report the news – less than eight weeks before the 2012 election – while also becoming familiar with Presto and its quirks. Read more


Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Screen Shot 2014-07-02 at 1.21.03 PM

As mobile ad revenue continues to soar, newspapers still struggle to catch the wave

Screen Shot 2014-07-02 at 1.22.19 PM

There was a double dose of good news in eMarketer’s mid-year ad forecast released today. Ad spending will grow more than 5 percent in 2014 for the first time in 10 years. And the mobile ad boom shows no sign of plateauing with 83 percent growth over 2013 expected.

Digital giants like Facebook and Google continue to dominate the category (together more than 50 percent), while newspapers and magazine struggle to offer competitive ad buys on their mobile products.

The Newspaper Association of America’s revenue report for 2013, released in April, found that mobile advertising had grown 77 percent for the year but still accounted for less than 1 percent of total revenue.  By contrast, as Facebook reported its first quarter earnings the same month, it said mobile had grown to 59 percent of its total ad revenue.

A newspaper publisher friend summarized the state of play in his industry this way — “2013 will be remembered as the year when mobile went from infinitesimal to insignificant.”

Doing better in 2014 remains a high priority for many newspapers, but more bumps in an already bumpy road are foreseeable.

The American Press Institute held a summit on mobile this spring and found that detailed personalized data is the key to sales.  That is a great strength of Google and Facebook as the digital giants continue to invest heavily to stay ahead of competitors

The creative side of effective mobile advertising is a work in progress for marketers.  The consensus seems to be that banners do not work well on smart phones and tablets and that video, GIFs and other entertainment along with location-specific messages are the better match to how customers use the devices.

The right sort of sponsored content/native advertising also fits with mobile, especially if it is the sort of thing users will share on social media.

In short, these are characteristics of the new generation of content sites like BuzzFeed (which does not take banners) but relatively unfamiliar to legacy operations which do.

Mobile news content is also in early stages of development except at the largest organizations like the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post and Boston Globe. They have put money into iterative improvement of apps that both display well on the smaller smartphone screen and are tailored to quick, on-the-move consumption.

My own hunch is that getting video right and getting stronger mobile ad performance will go hand in hand for news sites — challenging and frustratingly slow work but hardly impossible.

If the eMarketer forecast is correct, the imperative will only intensify. The research firm sees mobile advertising revenues passing the total ad revenues for newspapers this year and more than tripling them by 2018. Read more


Tuesday, June 24, 2014


Advance digital makeover of its newspapers — five years in and no turning back

It seems like only yesterday, but we are closing in on five years since Advance Publications shook up the newspaper business by stopping daily publication of the Ann Arbor News, dissolving the company and reincorporating as a web-dominant enterprise.

I was reminded to take a look back at the relentless, if controversial, strategy when Advance Local president Randy Siegel released one of his regular six-month progress reports to senior executives Friday and e-mailed me a copy.  (The full text follows at the end of this post).

In the manner of such communiques at Advance and other newspaper chains, the report was upbeat, noting big increases in web traffic and digital ad sales, spiced with mentions of journalism of note and editorial prizes.

As measured by comScore, Advance’s 31 properties were up 43 percent in visits year-to-year in April and 37 percent in May, Siegel wrote, and collectively comScore ranks the sites ninth among general news sites nationally.

“All of our local markets are generating significant year-over-year growth in digital revenues,” Siegel added, led by a 66 percent increase at its Pennsylvania properties.

This prompted me to ask (and not for the first time) how Advance’s digital revenue gains compared to continuing print advertising losses.

Advance, like most private companies, does not release revenue or profit numbers, but Siegel did reply:

Our goal from the beginning has been to offset our secular print revenue declines with digital revenue growth and lower overall expenses. We have made promising steps toward that goal, but we have more work to do, which is why we are so focused on building our digital audience and digital ad revenues.

He also confirmed that with the addition of Portland and Cleveland papers and the company’s New Jersey Group, all now have made the transition to a digital first emphasis.  The New Jersey papers and hometown Staten Island Advance did not reduce print frequency or home delivery as all the rest did.

So take that as evidence that whatever critics may say about the strategy, Advance and its Newhouse family owners are sticking with it.

Back in 2009, the changes in Ann Arbor (and parallel action at Advance’s other Michigan holdings) seemingly came from the blue and were jaw-dropping.  A highly literate university town the first to lose its only daily newspaper?  But Advance explained that the paper and its website had begun losing money, and that it saw no realistic way to reverse that without changing the publishing pattern.

Advance brought the same approach to New Orleans in 2012, reducing the Times Picayune to a three-day-a week schedule and touting its site as the substitute go-to place for a daily report. Laid-off legacy staffers — joined by some loyal print readers and local politicians — howled in outrage. Advance stuck with the plan, though, and said it would not entertain local offers to buy the paper.

The Baton Rouge Advocate began circulating in the city and later launched a New Orleans edition, prompting the Times-Picayune to restore print on some days of the week that had been eliminated.

My fellow media business analyst Ken Doctor and I expressed similar reservations about the New Orleans strategy at the time it was announced.  With digital ad sales disappointing and rates falling, the commitment to building that as a primary revenue source seemed quixotic.  And by keeping all its sites free, Advance also has been sitting out the bump in circulation revenue the majority of newspaper companies have achieved with paywalls and higher priced print + digital access subscription plans.

Very few have followed Advance’s lead. To me that does not necessarily mean that Advance’s long-term view of the industry and the need to pivot to digital is wrong so much as it is premature.  A pullback to Sunday print (and maybe one or two other days) is likely in the future, but most companies think print, accounting for about 85 percent of revenue at most papers, still pays the bills and needs to be kept as strong as possible.

In other ways, though, the last five years have been kind to Advance’s assumptions.  Print advertising has not stabilized as many had hoped.  I am hearing that this year, especially in the second quarter and especially with national advertising in metros, is nearly as bad as the last two, with print ad ad revenue declines approaching 10 percent in both 2012 and 2013.

Also we are are inundated with reports (recently the New York Times in-house innovation study) on how hard it is to break the habits of daily print culture — even when that is what top management aims to do.

So Advance just may be vindicated over time in thinking that the sooner you start on radical culture change, the sooner you get there.  But the transformation is costing some serious money (and upset in Advance communities) in the meantime.

The full text of Siegel’s June 19 memo follows:

Advance Local mid-year update

Read more


Monday, June 16, 2014


Top 8 Secrets of How to Write an Upworthy Headline

The best thing I’ve read about the story sharing network Upworthy was written by Katy Waldman for Slate and was republished in my local newspaper, the Tampa Bay Times. I had been alerted earlier by colleagues to a now famous trademark of Upworthy’s approach to information sharing: its three-line headline style.

That style…

See Why We Have An Absolutely
Ridiculous Standard of Beauty In
Just 37 Seconds

…has been praised for being irresistibly attractive and attacked for being cynically exploitative. For the moment, I don’t have a dog in that fight.

My angle is on the writing front. I spent some time on Upworthy and paid special attention to the headlines to determine not just what the writers were trying to do, but how they were trying to do it. If you, dear reader, want to master this mini-genre, take a look at the recurring moves and strategies:

Screenshot of’s page Monday, June 16.

1. Be outraged by injustice. A high percentage of the headlines I read signify a story or video describing an injustice, or showing an inspiring challenge or remedy to that injustice. It is an old move in journalism to attract eyeballs by provoking outrage. (Recently on the local news was a video of a bus driver slapping an autistic boy.) In some cases people do what the writer considers the right thing. Or they do the wrong thing. The key is that the reader recognizes that the writer feels a sense of injustice and invites readers to feel the same way.

2. Be amazed or inspired. There is a kind of traditional news story that goes by the crude title, “Holy shit, Martha, take a look at this.” It describes that moment at breakfast when one member of the family reads something bizarre, funny, or off-beat, as a recent case in which a family cat saved a toddler from an attack by a neighbor’s dog. Earlier in the morning my wife Karen is usually checking her Facebook page when she will call out, “Roy, come here, you’ve got to see this.” That is the Facebook-sharing instinct that Upworthy is determined to provoke.

3. Build an engine. Author and teacher Tom French was the first to use the word “engine” to describe a fundamental motif that energizes a narrative. By definition, the engine is a question that can only be answered by reading the story. The classic engines are “who done it?” or “guilty or not guilty?” But there are smaller engines as well, as simple as “You do not want to miss this video,” which inspires reader curiosity. What is in this video that I do not want to miss?

4. Use numbers to suggest the reader is getting a lot of stuff in a little time. If you want to write for Upworthy, you need numbers, numbers, numbers. The numbers can be big or small, but they have to predict the reading experience. What you will learn in 37 seconds. The six questions that will reveal something shocking about new moms.

5. Don’t be afraid of classic attractors: sex, celebrity, miracle cures. This is not the cover of Cosmopolitan with its inevitable lists and teasers about the dozen reliable ways you can please your man in bed. But Upworthy, in spite of its loftier mission and purpose, recognizes the universal attraction of certain Pavlovian stimulants. If you can combine these elements: a celebrity who, since he began walking his dog along the beach, has improved his sex life: Bingo.

6. Play with language and don’t feel squeezed by the traditional boundaries of headlines. None of the traditional headline taboos seem to matter at Upworthy. At three lines, these heads are longer than the standard. They ask questions. They use the first person. They repeat words. The play with language beyond the traditional tabloid puns. Beneath the content of the story is the underlying message: we are dedicated and curious people who really care about the world and want to share its wonderful diversity with you.

7. Put odd and interesting things next to each other. Elsewhere I have noted how authors will take two elements that do not belong together and juxtapose them, creating a tension that generates interest and light. Everything from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” to “The Glamour of Grammar.” Put the word Alaska in a headline about the Amazon. Put the word Doughnut in a story about the Homeless.

8. Tell the story in the headline. The three lines in an Upworthy head are often capable of explaining the narrative in a nutshell. That efficient use of language “tells” the reader what the story is about, then the video “shows” that story, fulfilling the promise of the headline.

What follows are 15 recent Upworthy headlines with my glosses underneath:

Most Of These People Do The Right Thing, But The Guys At The End? I Wish I Could Yell At Them.
Create an engine. Hint at outrage. Don’t be afraid to use the first person.

She Didn’t Think She Had A Problem With Gay People, But Anderson Cooper Cleared That Right Up

Use the name of a celebrity – either for good or for bad. Expose bias or hypocrisy.

This Is The Most Inspiring Yet Depressing Yet Hilarious Yet Horrifying Yet Heartwarming Grad Speech

Use pronouns provocatively. What is “this”? Never use one adjective when you can use four. Refer to a genre (a grad speech) that often creates interesting, outrageous, embarrassing, yet revealing effects.

When You Sexualize Men And Women Equally, It’s Amazing How Much Fun You Can Have

Sex sells. Amazing sells. Gender equality sells. Sex and Fun together sell.

WHOA: 4 Questions That Got 120 Rapists To Admit They Were Rapists
Lists work. Numbers work. “Rapists” is sensationalism, which is repeated. WHOA is demotic speech, the dialect of the common person. Holy shit, Martha, effect.

America Has A Dirty Little Secret, And This Congressman Just Exposed It
The word “secret” almost always works in a headline because readers turn it into an engine. What is the secret? “Dirty little” secret adds an outlaw element. We know that some Congressmen expose themselves, so those two words together feel like scandal. And what is IT?

A Man Slams Down A Bigoted Question So Hard He Brings Down The House

A little misdirection and double entendre helps. The first time I read this, I thought a man would ask another man an insensitive question, and that man would be slammed down by a witty or passionate rejoinder. But the man in question is a poet involved in a poetry “slam,” and he asked the question to himself as part of his routine. Just a hint of bait and switch.

A Dude Trying To Ban Abortions Is Asked A Question He Never Considered. It’s So Obvious It Hurts.

More speech of the common man by calling a politician “dude.” What is the question? We need to know.

Here’s What Happens When You Put A Few Little Kids In A Room With 2 Dolls In 2 Different Colors

Numbers seem to matter: a few little kids, a room, 2 dolls, 2 colors. We seem to like social experiments, candid camera exposes.

Matt Damon Asked A Cheery 13-Year-Old What She’ll Do With Her Free Time. Her Answer Gave Him Pause.

This may be the least successful. Story turned out to be much more interesting than the headline. Matt helped give access to clean water to a village in Haiti. The girl no longer has to hustle three hours a day for clean water. Her answer was “play.”

How about:
Matt Damon learns life lesson from cheery Haitian girl who no longer must hustle for clean water. What she will do with her free time with surprise and touch you.

1/3 Of The Fish We Buy And Eat Is Not What It Says It Is

Hint of scandal and outrage here. Numbers count again. If it is not fish, then what can it be? I love a head in which all 14 words are one syllable.

You Won’t Guess How One Ingredient In Your Doughnuts Could Be Leaving Thousands Of People Homeless

This is an old trick: put two things together that don’t quite belong, and then suggest causality between them. One thing in your doughnut leaves thousands homeless.

It’s Twice The Size Of Alaska And Might Hold The Cure For Cancer. So Why Are We Destroying It?
The answer to the riddle may be obvious to some: the Amazon jungle. Even so, there is a second part of the riddle that is not so obvious, and serves as an engine: How does something that’s bigger than Alaska provide an opportunity for a miracle cure? And how do you destroy something that big?. Question upon question.

Why Is a City That Can Barely Keep Its Schools Open Giving Millions to A Mega Corporation?
Outrage, generated by the seeming exploitation of a vulnerable institution (the schools) by a powerful one (corporation). City government to blame. Always hate the bully.

Watch This On A Day When The Earth Feels Broken. It Proves We Can Find Beauty in Broken Things.
Emotional, poetic language. Healing wisdom. Repetition of word “broken,” but shifting of context from broken to beauty. Which things? Read more


Wednesday, June 04, 2014


Doubling down on the Triple Crown, A publication’s gamble on Belmont pays off staff started planning for the 2014 Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes in January. Now, with California Chrome in position for a Triple Crown win, their work has paid off. The 12-person editorial staff has produced a remarkable online interactive website. The story behind this project is both instructive and inspiring. is the online site of The Blood-Horse Magazine, which started in 1916 as an authoritative newsletter to the racehorse world. The staff produces a weekly 65-page print magazine and updates its website around the clock. While the Daily Racing Form and The Thoroughbred Daily News speak the language of handicappers, Bloodhorse is more focused on the business of racing, training, breeding and sales.

“At the end of last year we looked at some of the big impressive projects that SBNation, The New York Times and others were doing,” Eric Mitchell, the Editor-in-Chief of The Blood-Horse told me. “We realized these kinds of robust pieces are the kinds of things we should do and the thing about horse racing is that it is full of great stories. We realized that there are so many photographs, so many videos available to tell the stories that we had the opportunity to really beef-up our visual presence online and tell great stories.”

The Plan and the Warm-Up Read more

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Wednesday, Apr. 30, 2014

Facebook and Twitter Applications on Ipad

How to make the most of sharing images on Facebook and Twitter

Twitter introduced inline image previews last October amid cries that the platform was becoming too much like Facebook. But the change had big implications for news organizations looking to increase engagement and get more readers to share their content.

Tweets with images get a 35 percent bump in retweets, on average, for verified accounts, according to Twitter. Another study indicates images uploaded directly to Twitter — and receiving a url — see 94 percent more engagement than other photo links do. That’s likely because Twitter allows inline image previews for those images, but not for other services like Instagram.

And it’s surely no coincidence that the two most-retweeted tweets ever have included photos:

So a picture can be worth a lot more than 140 characters — while only taking up at most 23 characters on Twitter! — and in fact tweeting charts and images of blocks of text is becoming a more common strategy for packing as much information as possible into each tweet.

Meanwhile, Facebook introduced a similar visuals-oriented change late last year, making image previews in link posts much larger. The goal: “to increase click-through rates on links as larger images are more engaging.”

What I’ve observed from managing Twitter and Facebook accounts is that compelling images seem to lead to more knee-jerk retweets, favorites, likes and shares. That doesn’t always translate into more clicks if you include a link to a story — and, of course, we know that people often share content without actually consuming it anyway. But viewing a photo on Twitter and passing it along to your followers takes a lot less time than reading a story and then retweeting it.

That’s perhaps a more superficial form of engagement than you’d like to see from your readers. But there’s value in providing experiences your followers don’t have to jump to your site to enjoy. That’s the big advantage of photos — you’re essentially publishing quick-hit content on these platforms, not just promoting more extensive content that lives elsewhere. News organizations can do a better job of making images effective on both Twitter and Facebook.

On Twitter, always ask, ‘Would this tweet be better with an image?’

Some major news organizations (like The New York Times) seem to never tweet photos. Others have been more liberal about photo-sharing (like The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post). Upstarts FiveThirtyEight and haven’t been shy in tweeting charts and graphs from their wonkish stories, and the Chicago Sun-Times (where I used to work) has started building shareable graphics specifically geared toward social media.

Here’s an example of a Poynter tweet that saw an uptick in engagement correlated with including an image well-suited to the story. The second tweet (the one with the image) received more retweets even though the news was newer in the first tweet:

This doesn’t mean you should look for a reason to include a photo in every tweet and pollute your followers’ timelines with stock images. But why not always ask: Would this tweet be better with a picture? Use the tool sparingly, but always consider it.

One thing to keep in mind: Aspect ratios differ for images in tweets depending on whether you’re using the desktop site, a mobile app, or a client like Tweetdeck, but it’s always easy to click a photo to see the full version. Still, it might be a problem if your image is vertical and you end up with an awkward Twitter autocrop in timelines. If possible, it’s a good idea to crop the image horizontally before uploading, but this is a bigger issue in Facebook link posts.

Here’s a side bonus of including images: It can spark your creativity even more by further restricting the number of characters you have to work it. And it can also make you more disciplined about not weighing down your tweets with too much text. One recent report by Buddy Media indicated “Tweets shorter than 100 characters get a 17% higher engagement rate.”

On Facebook, pay attention to sizing

Sometimes the sizing of photos on Facebook can seem like a mystery. The image preview when sharing links looks fine when the image is horizontal and you can afford to have Facebook shave some pixels off the top and bottom to make it fit the 1.91:1 aspect ratio window Facebook uses across platforms.

When it comes to vertical images that might result in weird, unexpected crops or charts and graphics that could lose axis labels and be rendered unreadable, it’s smarter to upload the image directly to Facebook as a photo. Uploading it directly means it will appear in full without being automatically trimmed (but it might be letterboxed by Facebook if it’s too vertical so that it doesn’t take up too much space in News Feeds):



(Top embed is a link post with the vertical image automatically trimmed; bottom embed is a picture upload.)

Facebook recommends using its Open Graph image tags and says images selected to be previewed should be at least 1,200 pixels by 630 pixels to look OK on high-resolution devices. Photos smaller than Facebook’s minimum appear as thumbnails to the left of the link instead:


You can see Facebook’s sharing guidelines here.

// Read more

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Twitter IPO

Who owns your Twitter followers?

This is the latest in a series of articles by The Poynter Institute and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press on legal issues affecting journalists. Poynter’s Ellyn Angelotti is an attorney and teaches social media issues.

Social media regularly blurs lines when it comes to journalists’ personal and professional lives. We often post pictures of our pets and children alongside posts related to our work. One unintended consequence is this can create ambiguity about who ultimately owns your Twitter account.

Organizations and brands seek employees who can effectively build an audience using social media. However, once an employee builds a healthy community of followers and then leaves the organization, who do the followers belong to?

Some instances are clearer than others.

Journalists who create an account associated with a beat and then exit the organization often leave their account and start a new one.

However, when Jim Roberts, who was the assistant managing editor of The New York Times at the time, accepted a buyout last year, he took his 75,000 followers with him. He tweeted from his (then) handle @nytjim, “My feed is my own.”

After leaving, he revised his handle, @nycjim, which endured his stint as executive editor at Reuters. Now as the executive editor and chief content officer at Mashable, his base has grown to 134,000 followers.

Legal issues of ownership are still in their infancy.

PhoneDog v. Noah Kravitz is the most notable case involving Twitter followers. Kravitz, an employee for the technology news and review site PhoneDog created the account @PhoneDog_Noah to post updates about his work. He built an audience of 17,000 Twitter followers. When he left the company, he changed his Twitter handle to @noahkravitz and took his followers with him. PhoneDog sued him for misappropriation of trade secrets, among other related issues.

The case settled out of court in 2012 for undisclosed terms and Kravitz kept the account. While PhoneDog provided little direction on ownership of Twitter followers, the discussion on this issue helps to identify several factors that the courts would likely examine to determine ownership of a social media account, including:

  • Who initiated the creation of the account?
  • Who directs and creates the content?
  • Did the employee have the account before taking the job, or create it because of the job?
  • Who has access to the passwords?
  • Is the account associated with the brand or the employee?

So journalists or employers can better protect their interests by showing their involvement in the account has been significant. But experts have suggestions for resolving Twitter account disputes before they end up in court.

Jasmine McNealy, an attorney and assistant professor at the University of Kentucky, recently published a law review article, “Who owns your friends?: PhoneDog v. Kravitz and business claims of trade secret in social media information.” McNealy explores the ownership of Twitter followers and offers useful suggestions for how businesses can avoid conflicts in this area by creating non-disclosure agreements, assigning the rights to social media content created, and encouraging employees to maintain separate personal and professional accounts.

Twitter followers are now valued as work capital, McNealy said. Some job candidates are hired based on their existing social media following. So it is important for both employers and employees to discuss the areas of potential dispute and work them out before disputes arise. Here are some suggestions:

  • Seek Clarity — When you take a job or when you create a potentially work-based social media account, have a conversation with your boss about your work on social media. Is that work part of your role with the company and therefore property of the company? Or, does your boss see your work on social media as outside of the scope of your employment. Come to an agreement regarding who owns the followers. This conversation will help you and your boss arrive at rational decisions at the outset rather than later when emotions may be running high.
  • Put it in writing – If you lead an organization or manage employees who use social media, create a social media policy that addresses specific questions about social media use. Update this document regularly to accommodate the changing technologies and remind everyone of the agreed upon expectations.

Even if you are not a manager, if you happen to be somewhat social media savvy, ask your boss if you can help draft an agreement that more clearly indicates who has ownership of you and your colleagues’ social media following. This could be an opportunity for you to help your organization understand the technology and the issues involved.

  • Strategically separate accounts — Maintaining separate personal and professional accounts may seem counterintuitive to the nature of social media. McNealy suggests a fundamental question to ask yourself if you have an account you use both professionally and personally — “why are people following you?” Is it because they want to engage with you personally, or because you represent an extension of the brand or company you work for?

This could be an opportunity to segment your social media audiences more effectively. If people follow you because you represent your company, consider creating an account that is more focused on that aspect of your work. You can still find a way to interject your own voice into your work-related tweets, and potentially feel less awkward about posting selfies with your friends.

  • Be Smart — McNealy said she tells her students not to censor themselves, but to keep in mind there are sometimes consequences for what they say on social media. “The First Amendment doesn’t necessarily protect you from getting fired for not representing your company in a way that they’d like you to,” she said. Remember Justine Sacco who was fired as a result of an offensive tweet she sent just before departing on a flight to Africa?

Unfortunately, we don’t really know how the courts are going to apply laws related to trade secrets, privacy and intellectual property to the issues we may encounter regarding our social media followings.

However, we can create some clarity and ground rules to help us avoid legal land mines in this area.

Related: Hyperlinking could help journalists in defamation lawsuits | How to use FOIA laws to find stories, deepen sourcing Read more