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Social media roundup: Gawker, USA Today, LA Times open up with tips and insights

Automated tweets get less engagement than handcrafted ones, WhatsApp is making inroads at a USA Today sports site, and sometimes all you can do when a years-old piece takes off on Facebook is shrug.

It’s been a good week for gleaning insights from media outlets, which seem increasingly willing to share which social strategies are working for them. Here’s a rundown of recent social media news you might have missed:

Human tweets RSS tweets

Los Angeles Times social media editor Stacey Leasca shared some tips on Twitter’s media blog this week.

Among her insights was the fact that moving from RSS tweets improved engagement. It’s no surprise that a human touch makes a difference, but it’s interesting to see how much the change seems to have increased the rate at which the newspaper’s accounts are gaining new followers:

A perfect example of this is, again, @LANow. We moved @LANow off of an automated feed in the summer of 2013. The account was then staffed by editors and reporters working in the section. They are our real local experts and the Twitter account quickly became richer with information and much more personal for Angelenos. @LANow quickly went from averaging about 1,500 fans a week to more than 2,500 fans a week.

Few big news outlets use automated tweets

Late last week, Nieman Lab’s Joseph Lichterman gathered a few paragraphs from seven major news outlets about how they manage their Twitter and Facebook accounts. Only one, The New York Times, indicated much reliance on automation. Here’s Daniel Victor, social media staff editor:

By most measures — including clicks, retweets, favorites, and responses — handwritten tweets outperform autotweets. But there are some not-insignificant areas where autotweets win: speed, reliability, and lesser time invested by staff. We aim to have a balance of the two that gives us the benefits of both; it allows us to be both timely and engaging, while still being able to spend time on additional newsroom priorities.

I’ve noticed Times tweets generally seem very by-the-book, to the extent that the occasional tweet with a human flair seems jarring (the tell is that they’re written down-style instead of up-style, as Times headlines are). The Wall Street Journal, perhaps its chief competitor, has embraced pictures and charts on Twitter, and is much more conversational at times. The Journal also liberally retweets its reporters. It’s fascinating to see how much the two newspapers — still somewhat staid in print and on their websites — diverge when it comes to social media.

Ryan Osborn, NBCUniversal News Group vice president of innovation and strategic integration, echoed most of the other outlets’ reasons for choosing not to automate social media posts: “While scaling a strategy 24/7 has taken time, we’ve found that engagement is greater when the accounts are manually curated.”

What’s up with WhatsApp?

After Facebook’s acquisition of the messenger platform in February, I wrote that WhatsApp could become a useful tool for “dark social” content sharing — in other words, an alternative to email for sharing links privately rather than publicly. BuzzFeed had already started experimenting with a WhatsApp button in stories on the mobile Web.

Now, Digiday’s Ricardo Bilton reports that USA Today’s viral, mobile-friendly sports site, FTW, saw 18 percent of its mobile sharing activity come from WhatsApp in its first week of using the WhatsApp share button. That’s more than Twitter:

Sites with sizable youth audiences and content built to be shared should take heed.

The mystery of evergreen Facebook stories

Finally, Gawker editor-in-chief Max Read explored a question today about his site’s traffic: “Why Is Gawker’s Top Story a Four-Year-Old Post About Vajazzling?” Of the post’s near-million page views this week, 96 percent came from Facebook, Read shows in charts and tables. And the traffic pattern for this type of second-life virality differs from what Gawker sees for its daily posts:

Regular, diversified traffic on a decent hit is a quick burst immediately after publication, tapering off throughout the day, a smaller peak for the next day, another valley and on until it flatlines. It hits its peaks around midday and early afternoon, when office workers are at the computers.

Facebook traffic, on the other hand, is a steady rise that doesn’t peak until around 10 p.m. eastern time (and drops off immediately). Weirder still, it gets bigger: Wednesday night, the post was receiving around 7,000 hits an hour at its peak; Thursday, it was hitting 8,000.

Tweets are ephemeral, disappearing from timelines almost as quickly as they appear. But Facebook posts often hang around, and some brands, like Mental Floss, have observed longer shelf lives for posts since the latest News Feed shakeup.

As far as determining what “patient zero” launched Gawker’s four-year-old viral sensation goes, Read wrote that all he could was shrug: ¯\(°_o)/¯

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Globe and Mail paid $10,000 for latest Ford crack pictures. Gawker got them for free

The Globe and Mail | Gawker

The Globe and Mail paid $10,000 for still images from the latest video that shows Toronto’s mayor, Rob Ford, smoking what a drug dealer described to the newspaper as crack cocaine.

This time, Gawker didn’t break the news, but they did run the photos and they got them for free. Editor-in-chief Max Read details how he got those photos in a story published Wednesday night.

“We haven’t paid Jermaine’s friend anything,” Read wrote Poynter in an email. “He emailed again this morning to say that the video was still in his possession and still for sale, but obviously its value has gone down a bit.”

Gawker did make the front of the Toronto Star on Thursday, however. Formerly the news home of reporter Robyn Doolittle, who broke the story for The Globe and Mail, the Star ran this as their front on Thursday.

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Publications aim to make debunking as popular as fake images

Adrienne LaFrance and Matt Novak live in different cities and write for different sites in the Gawker Media network. LaFrance is a freelancer who contributes to several other publications. Novak works full-time on his blog, Paleofuture, which is part of Gizmodo.

She often writes about tech and media. He writes about past visions of the future.

Despite the differences, LaFrance and Novak recently converged on the same idea: debunking hoaxes and misinformation as a regular feature.

LaFrance writes the Antiviral column for Gawker, which carries the headline “Here’s What’s Bullshit on the Internet This Week.” She identifies trending misinformation and new hoaxes and digs into them to reveal what’s fake.

Novak’s debunking effort, which appears roughly monthly, focuses on calling out fake images. He particularly likes debunking images from the many historical pictures accounts that sprouted up on Twitter, unleashing a stream of fake, Photoshopped and unattributed images claiming to be from the past.

Both efforts began at the end of last year, just before Charlie Warzel of BuzzFeed declared that 2014 would be the “Year Of The Viral Debunk.” Soon after that post appeared published, Paulo Ordoveza, who I previously profiled, decided to set up his @PicPedant account. It calls out fake and unattributed images on Twitter.

Aside from the two Gawker Media features and the Twitter image debunkers, The Washington Post now has its own “What was fake on the Internet this week” feature by writer Caitlin Dewey, which appears on the Post culture blog. It launched in March.

As of now, Warzel’s prediction looks prophetic in that we’ve seen the emergence of consistent debunking efforts that are picking up steam in 2014. These new debunkers also speak to how debunking can be integrated to a wide range of efforts, from highly specialized blogs and Twitter accounts to large traditional new organizations and edgier digital efforts.

Making it consistently viral, however, will take more work…

Debunking as a reporting lens

LaFrance pitched the Antiviral column to John Cook, then Gawker’s editor, because she saw it in part as an opportunity to tell stories that others miss. Novak debunks because it helps expose the tendency for people to glorify or condemn the past at the expense of truth.

Both apply a level of reporting and research to their work. After all, nobody wants an unreliable debunker.

“My goal is always to have reporting behind it because it’s very easy to Google the hoax and aggregate what people have already done,” LaFrance said. “I’d much rather go deeper. One reason so much gets shared is people not taking time to put out a call or do the emailing back and forth with PR people  — and we need to do that.”

LaFrance and Novak are using debunking as a lens to discover the true story behind a fake thing. That’s one of the promises of adopting the debunker’s lens — you reveal the things other people missed.

“Just saying something is fake isn’t as interesting as saying where it came from,” LaFrance said.

For Novak, debunking is also way to pursue a defining narrative of his blog.

“I decided to do the first post because my specialty is past visions of the future,” he said. “I tend to look at a lot of aspirational images … I think it’s interesting to look at how we can both romanticize the past and also judge it so harshly. I think that both are strains of when you see people passing around things from historical picture accounts on Twitter. It’s often, ‘Oh look at how awful things were’ or about how much better were.”

I asked him what the viral, fake image of Teddy Roosevelt riding a moose in deep water represented for people.

“I think that speaks to the great man myth of history we want so desperately to believe,” he said. “It’s about, ‘Look at how much more badass masculine our leaders used to be.’ ”

This is one thing to recognize about manufactured fakes and hoaxes: they often, though not always, are an attempt to expose something about society, to express a point of view or emotion, to get a reaction.

Real-time debunking

During breaking news situations and disasters, however, rumors and misinformation spread in part because of the tremendous uncertainly and sense of danger. People pass things along because the information seems urgent and important.

In that moment, all of us have an innate desire to share what we are seeing as a way to make sense of what’s happening. That gives rise to another type of debunking, where speed is needed to match the flow of false information.

Hurricane Sandy was an important moment for real-time debunking. Efforts at BuzzFeed, The Atlantic and the “Is Twitter Wrong?” Tumblr from U.K. journalist Tom Phillips came to the forefront.

A debunked image, from The Atlantic.

When Sandy hit, Phillips was working as international editor for MSN U.K. (He now works for BuzzFeed U.K.) He decided to test whether it would be possible to deliver real-time debunking, using a Tumblr and Twitter account.

“Part of the reason I did it in the first place was as an experiment to see if it was possible,” Phillips told me when we spoke by phone last year. “You know, would that fit into sort of a daily workflow in a newsroom, in that kind of context, or would it just become a massive, massive time suck? And the answer from that was basically yeah, you can do it. You can do an awful lot of it in a way that actually fits in with a daily workflow pretty well.”

Phillips said he’s seen debunking become more a part of breaking news coverage. By the time of the Boston bombings and Sandy Hook shootings, he said, “I saw an awful lot of journalists were actively going out doing debunking. Debunking is now part of reporting, basically.”

It’s become a regular part of his work, too. Earlier this year he produced a very BuzzFeed post, “14 Incredible But Fake Viral Images — And The Twitter Account Debunking The Picspammers.”

In a bit of debunking inception, the story called out fake images as a way to introduce people to @PicPedant.

But is it viral?

Nick Denton, the head of Gawker Media wrote in a memo to staff last year that, “the crowd will eventually choose the juicy truth over a heartwarming hoax.”

It was something of an endorsement of debunking. But he’s also expressed skepticism about the virality of debunking:


There can be home runs from debunking. Deadspin’s Manti Te’o story, published more than a year ago, is approaching 4.5 million views. Novak said his photo debunkings have done major traffic for Gizmodo, with one post garnering more than 700,000 views. LaFrance’s Antiviral column broke 100,00 views on the first attempt, but hasn’t done that again since.

Phillips told me that, “I think you’ll find that [debunking] can be, you know, it can actually be as popular and as viral as the untrue stuff.”

To truly get there, we’ll need to more journalists and others bringing different perspectives and applying different approaches to debunking. Tint the debunking lens in new ways. We’ll need to take lessons from the creators of viral fakes and from viral wizards like Upworthy, and to think about ways to get people to accept the truth rather than the lie.

For now, to get better debunking, we need more debunking. Read more

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Epic concept.

Gawker bans ‘Internet slang’

“We want to sound like regular adult human beings, not Buzzfeed writers or Reddit commenters,” new Gawker Editor Max Read says in a memo to the publication’s writers. Words like “epic,” “pwn” and “derp” are no longer welcome on the site. Read also says the word “massive” is “never to appear on the website Gawker dot com.”

He also asks staffers not to use strikethrough for corrections, preferring they “change the wording and link from there to a comment noting the corrected text.” He singles out a correction by J.K. Trotter that was done in “the proper spirit and is funny to boot.”

Full memo: Read more


Highlights from Nick Denton’s online company meeting

Gawker Media honcho Nick Denton held a company meeting Tuesday on Kinja, Gawker’s commenting and publishing platform. He wrote: “As its makers, we should use the software ourselves: its virtues should be evident in internal as well as external communication.”

Some pretty good stuff from the meeting:

“You seem incapable of keeping editors for any length of time,” one person — perhaps not an employee since s/he is using the name of Tony Curtis’ character in “Sweet Smell of Success”states, following it with a question: “Is that intentional or regrettable?” (First Look Media announced yesterday that Gawker Editor John Cook is leaving to become editor-in-chief of The Intercept; Max Read will take over Gawker.)

Former editor A.J. Daulerio is “one of the best and most loyal colleagues,” Denton replied, saying few people thought Cook could match Daulerio’s traffic, “and yet now has 20 times the audience (see chart) it had during the supposed golden age of 2007,” Denton wrote. “It will continue to grow under Max Read, and his achievements will owe much to the coaching and example of his predecessors.”

Also, he knocked back Gawker reporter J.K. Trotter’s request to attend his upcoming wedding:

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FOIA lessons from Gawker Editor John Cook

Last January, Ann Coulter expressed her anger about The (Westchester County, N.Y.) Journal-News’ gun-permit map, which it assembled from public records. “I want them for Manhattan!” Coulter told Sean Hannity. “I want to know how many rich liberals with their bodyguards have gun permits.”

John Cook, then the investigations editor for Gawker, was able to oblige quickly when that news hook fell from the sky. “I’d had those records in a filing cabinet for a year or more,” he said in a phone call. Cook posted a list of names of New York City gun-permit holders he’d received from the New York Police Department in August 2010. The filing didn’t include addresses, though Cook noted those were already online.

So now if you want to see a picture of John Cook’s house, it, too, is online, thanks to an irate blogger. Cook posted the story in the late afternoon of Jan. 8, 2013, and “by the time I got home the voicemail on our phone was already full with people phoning in death threats,” he said. Threats came in to the Gawker office as well. “My wife was pissed off but we were never really concerned,” Cook said of the calls to his house.

Cook, posing with a pretend crack pipe at Gawker’s party for Toronto Star reporter Robyn Doolittle’s Rob Ford book.

“It was tactically stupid for me to do it,” he said of publishing the names — not because of the blowback but because New York’s state government later tightened access to gun-permit holders’ names. “I had never really expected that they would actually kill that law but sure enough they did,” Cook said.

Two days after Cook published the gun-permit list, Gawker Media honcho Nick Denton announced he would be Gawker’s new editor.

Lesson 1: Be flexible

Cook has been filing public-records requests since he worked as a reporter for Brill’s Content in 2000 and 2001. (When he covered television for The Chicago Tribune from 2002-2005, he didn’t get to flex those muscles much, just the odd FCC request.) He’s got a folder on his computer with hundreds of open FOIA requests. When filing, he doesn’t use online forms “because Gawker would often get hassled by FOIA officers because they weren’t familiar with us.” He faxes requests from his computer, on Gawker letterhead.

Now that he’s running the New York-based publication, Cook said he tries to “instill that in my people: All you need is the thought, and you fire it off, and you forget about it.” Send off enough requests and eventually “you start getting them back two a week,” he said. “The downside of that is if they try to screw you or they deny it, it’s hard to remember and keep on them.”

“It is very much understood that that is part of my beat,” Gawker reporter J.K. Trotter said in a phone call, talking about records requests. Last summer, the former IvyGate editor sold Gawker a freelance story based on a FOIA request he made to the City University of New York to learn it was paying Gen. David Petraeus $200,000 to teach. Once CUNY, dazed by the bad publicity, announced it would pay Petraeus $1 instead, Cook made Trotter an offer.

Now, Trotter, says, he has about 100 open FOIAs. “I’ve learned a lot of patience,” he said. “Before, when I first started ramping up, it did not make sense to me why these things took so long. But now that I’ve filed a larger variety of requests, it’s much more apparent to me the diligence and pressure and the sort of agility that FOIA officers require to carry out all these weird requests.”

One case in point: A records request he made to Maryland Public Television for “Any and all records and/or correspondence” relating to Lauren Ashburn’s publication Daily Download, because MPT acted as a conduit for the funds Ashburn raised to launch the site. After a lawyer there told him filling the request could cost Gawker $1,000 or more (the site had offered to pay no more than $200), he agreed to pare it down to the correspondence of a dozen employees who were directly involved with the project. A month later he had documents that strongly suggested Howard Kurtz had lied about his compensation from Daily Download.

Lesson 2: Publish everything

When I asked Cook what he thought were the most Gawker-y kind of FOIAs, he said that since the “bones of the site is a New York media blog,” he loved “getting emails between reporters and flacks because you get to see how the sausage is made.”

(Gawker Media Editorial Director Joel Johnson told me in an email he didn’t think the company’s properties do “enough records digging in general, especially in the areas of finance and environmental shenanigans. It’s something on which I plan to turn up the heat.”)

I asked Cook why he thought such stories had the potential to pop online. “People get a kick out of seeing the original material,” he said. Before digital publishing, journalists were a necessary if sometimes arrogant intermediary between readers and public records: “It was all like, I’m allowed to have it because I’m a reporter, and I’m acting as a guardian of that info and determining what’s important for you, the reader, to know about.”

“I love Glenn Greenwald,” Cook continued, “but he’s basically keeping the same secrets the NSA was keeping” instead of “laying it all out there so people could look at it for themselves.”

I asked how Gawker would have handled Edward Snowden’s leaks, had he come to them instead of Greenwald, Laura Poitras and Barton Gellman.

“I would have read through everything,” he said. “I wouldn’t have put it up without reading it, but as quickly as practicable i would have put it all out there, and published every bit of it.”

Cook said the fact that The New York Times held James Risen and Eric Lichtblau’s story about the Bush Administration’s warrantless wiretapping for more than a year when “there’s no indication that disclosure would have hurt anybody” is why he “would always err on the side of the data dump.”

Gawker’s release in 2012 of internal auditor files from Bain Capital followed that script: “We don’t pretend to be qualified to decode them in full, which is why we are posting them here for readers to help evaluate,” Cook wrote. The publication launched the package with a few easily digestible stories — e.g., “Mitt Romney Is the National Enquirer’s Banker” — “but at the end of the day the value was just putting it all out there,” Cook said.

Lesson 3: Be patient

Gawker’s legal department assists the site’s reporters when a body denies a records request. Cook also highly recommends the work of the Yale Law School Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic, which is helping him with a lawsuit over a request for documents that show which files former President Bush and Vice President Cheney have accessed from their presidential libraries (oral arguments are due to begin next month).

But a bigger problem, especially in the news business, is time. Cook tells reporters that requesting public documents “really doesn’t work for an active story.” You’ve got to send a lot of requests and hope that a few come back heavy.

For Cook, moving into a managerial role means he has less time to drive FOIA officers crazy (he is on the FBI’s list of “vexsome filers”). The U.S. Department of State denied Cook’s request for all of Hillary Clinton aide Philippe Reines’ correspondence with reporters (Reines was not a shrinking violet when it came to the press).

“They gave me a ‘no records,’ which is obviously bullshit,” Cook said. But “the time for the appeal has lapsed because I’m too busy to follow up on that stuff.”

Correction: A photo caption on an earlier version of this story referred to Robyn Doolittle as “Robyn Ford.” Read more


Mistake means New York Times series debuts early in Las Vegas Sun

Las Vegas Sun | Politico | Gawker |The New York Times

A star-crossed New York Times story is back on the Las Vegas Sun’s website Monday morning. The Sun published the story early, then said it pulled it. You can see it now with a timestamp of 3:22 p.m. on Sunday, and many notes to editors at New York Times News Service clients:

New York Times editor Carolyn Ryan may have inadvertently caused people to notice the goof by praising an imminent new series.


Then Ryan said she was headed home to watch “Homeland.” Less than an hour and a half later, BuzzFeed reporter Andrew Kaczynski found a summary of the series on the Las Vegas Sun’s site.

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Joel Johnson named Gawker Media’s editorial director

Joel Johnson, who founded Consumerist and has edited Gawker Media properties Gizmodo and Kotaku, will be Gawker Media’s editorial director. Gawker Media honcho Nick Denton told staffers the news in the office Wednesday. Denton sent a quick memo:

A quick bulletin for those out of the office. Joel Johnson — former editor of Gizmodo and Kotaku — is coming back to the editorial department. He’ll be the editorial director, the position that has been unfilled since Lockhart Steele and Noah Robischon. Joel starts in the new year. More details to come!

Tweeted Gawker Editor John Cook:

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Readers will ‘eventually choose the juicy truth over a heartwarming hoax,’ says Nick Denton

In an email to staffers Tuesday, Gawker Media honcho Nick Denton said it was “bad news” that BuzzFeed beat Gawker in traffic in November. Upworthy, which he describes as “even smarmier than Buzzfeed,” is “nipping at our heels,” Denton writes.

But Gawker sites had 106 million unique visitors last month, he writes, and its Kinja platform will likely even the race. While Gawker is “not completely averse to crowd-pleasing,” Denton writes, Deadspin’s Manti Teo story shows “the crowd will eventually choose the juicy truth over a heartwarming hoax.”

Full memo: Read more

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A viral stamp (Depositphotos)

Is viral content the next bubble?

The Wire | PandoDaily | The Wall Street Journal

The website Viral Nova emulates sites like BuzzFeed and Upworthy, and was in October “already nearly half the size of the sites that inspired it,” Alex Litel writes. Its success suggests specializing in viral content “can be reverse engineered fairly quickly by anyone with a careful eye for emulation — which is to say everyone on the Internet.”

Viral Nova publishes articles with headlines like “This Puppy Taught Me More In 1 Minute Than Anyone Else Has Done In A Lifetime” and “Yes, This Is A Boy Chained Up Like A Dog. And The Reason Why Is Even More Heartbreaking.” Read more