South by Southwest


Upworthy co-founder at SXSW: ‘This is what media should do’

The cofounder of Upworthy, speaking at South by Southwest Interactive on Monday, called for traditional news organizations to find better ways to engage readers with important journalism that previously never had to worry so much about promoting itself.

Grilled by David Carr of The New York Times on Monday, Eli Pariser defended Upworthy’s viral headline tactics with free market language: “We don’t do well unless people like what we do so much that they share it.”

He emphasized Upworthy’s social mission, rejecting Carr’s challenge that some of the site’s content constitutes clickbait without a cause. The site is partnering with ProPublica and advocacy groups for climate change and human rights, and recently shared a video by Lean In about girls being called “bossy.”

Pariser also pointed to a video of aggressive stop-and-frisk tactics in New York that was viewed 17 million times in five days. The 13-minute video isn’t “anybody’s idea of viral content,” Pariser said, but it gave viewers a powerful glimpse into a world they might not be familiar with.

“For me this is what media should do, which is help us understand what life for other people is like,” he said. “In a democratic society that’s really important. … this makes me care about something that I only knew about in the abstract.”

(When Carr asked what the headline on the Upworthy post was, Pariser said he couldn’t remember. It was Meet The 17-Year-Old Who Blew The Lid Off Racial Profiling With His iPod.)

Headlines that oversell?

If you grant Upworthy’s claim that every piece of content can be defended on its merits as addressing an important social issue, it seems unfair to lump the site in with other viral sensations like BuzzFeed (where sideboob goes to “a whole new level”) and ViralNova (where what happens to Peruvian guinea pigs at a festival will make you go OMG), as Esquire did in its The Year We Broke the Internet piece.

Yet Upworthy’s headlines present an interesting question of whether the ends — consuming meaningful content — justify the means. One question-asker at the SXSW session remarked that, although he often likes what Upworthy shares, he thought headlines too often overpromise or are not representative of the content. (Carr summed up the feeling of some viral critics: “You’re not making the news more interesting, you’re making the news sound more interesting.”)

Pariser (a progressive who didn’t want to talk much about an Upworthy political mission) again said the invisible hand of the Web would take care of that: If people feel tricked, they’ll stop visiting the site.

How quickly might that happen? Quantcast data — short-sighted Business Insider reporting to the contrary — indicate Upworthy’s traffic has generally stabilized after its much-ballyhooed spike in November.

What can traditional news media learn?

If The New York Times shoots itself in the foot by underselling its content with bland headlines (see: Obama’s New Approach Takes a Humorous Turn), Upworthy could have the opposite problem: headlines that oversell content and possibly betray readers’ trust.

Still, the traditional news media has to recognize the important of people actually, y’know, reading its stuff (as Carr put it, analytics people in newsrooms often keep traffic data about painstakingly reported stories to themselves because “it would break our hearts”).

Quote-unquote important journalism used to get an “artificial leg up,” Pariser said, by virtue of its A1 placement at newspapers. Readers on their way to the home and garden section or crossword might have some incidental contact with the important news of the day (which is similar to how Facebook users come across their news; social media sites are the new bundlers).

Now, digital unbundling means news has to stand on its own. Bloggers have already started to learn from viral sensations — see the Washington Post’s “Know More” blog, which I’ve written about.

The Upworthy lesson: headlines and packaging matters, but no one wants to be manipulated into clicking. Maybe you get more hits in the short-term, but readers could start to think twice before following your links in the future. If I like a video but still feel a little disappointed my head is still intact, was it worth promising my head would explode just to get me inside the door?

Then again, 60 million monthly unique views and a feeling that you’re accomplishing something meaningful seems well worth some negative attention. And there’s always the chance that the Upworthy brand becomes so strong that it can tone down the hard-sell headlines now that it’s made such a big name for itself.

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Tuesday at SXSW: Sessions for news junkies

Editor’s Note: Poynter is at South by Southwest, the annual music, movie and interactive festival, March 7-16, in Austin, Texas. Look for our Poynter faculty members, Roy Peter Clark, Ellyn Angelotti and Kelly McBride, and digital media reporter Sam Kirkland. We combed through the interactive schedule to find the sessions journalists attending the conference won’t want to miss. Read more

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ONA introduces 5 ethical challenges of social news gathering at SXSW

A working group formed by the Online News Association has identified five key challenges facing those who gather news via social media. Board members Eric Carvin of AP, one of the working group’s founders, and Mandy Jenkins of Digital First Media explained the challenges at South by Southwest Interactive on Sunday.

Here’s a quick look at what they covered. Read more

n this Wednesday, March 9, 2011 photo, photographer Brandon Stanton, left, prepares to photograph a man on a New York City sidewalk as he works the streets of New York City seeking photos of people he finds interesting, for his project entitled “Humans of New York.” The photos go on his website, at, and are linked to the neighborhoods in which they were taken. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

Seven lessons from Humans of New York’s Brandon Stanton at SXSW

Standing in line to see Brandon Stanton, the man behind the Humans of New York blog and book, was like discovering his blog for the first time.

Because Stanton was scheduled to speak at 11:15 a.m. on the stage inside in the SXSW trade show, which didn’t open until 11 a.m., it seemed like something big was about to happen.

“Is this the line for Humans of New York?” people kept asking. “Yes,” someone in the line would say. Then three other people who were standing in the line would say, “What’s Humans of New York?”

Then someone would explain the simple concept behind the blog turned book: Some guy takes simple portraits of people in New York, tells a small story about them and people love it. Now it’s a book that’s “on the way to becoming the most widely sold photography book of all time,” which Stanton explained to his audience.

Stanton sat alone on the stage as the crowd filtered in, wearing jeans, a sweater and a green baseball cap turned backwards. He shared a little of his backstory during his packed session Sunday at SXSW Interactive. A fired bond trader, he moved to New York four years ago, with a goal of taking 10,000 photographs. He started publishing his photos on a Facebook page. From there he expanded to Tumblr, Instagram and ultimately his best-selling book.

He started his talk by admitting how nervous he was and asking for an audience volunteer to come on stage so he could demonstrate how he approaches a stranger and ask questions. He got 17-year-old Hannah, who wowed the crowd with a sophisticated understanding of fair use and copyright. Then he asked her if she wanted to stay on stage with him, because she alleviated his nervousness.

Ultimately Stanton offered a list of advice for budding journalists, citizen journalists and other entrepreneurs.

  • How to approach a stranger: “Getting a stranger to feel comfortable has nothing to do with the words that you use but the energy that you have,” he said. When he first started, he had a wordy pitch, with a high voice and lots of explanation. He still has the high voice, but he he eventually, he whittled it down to, “Can I take your picture?” He offers a follow-up explanation of the blog, for those who need more. When he started, two out of every three people turned him down.
  • Everyone has a story. Most of the time Stanton starts with a general question like, “What advice would give?” But he uses that to get to a personal story. He knows he has enough for his extended caption when he’s heard something that no one has ever told him before.
  • Work on the work, not the promotion. Stanton was focused to the point of tunnel vision on publishing 10,000 photos, not promotion. “I can’t tell you how many musicians I know who have two or three songs and all they do is promote those songs,” he said.
  • Once you have one true fan of your work, you’re on your way. Stanton still remembers the first letters from people describing how Humans of New York had emotionally impacted them.
  • Figure out what you do that’s different from everybody else. “I know I’m not going to be the best photographer out there,” he said. “It’s about doing the one thing I can do better than anybody else and that’s talk to strangers.”
  • It’s the story, stupid. Once Stanton had a little success, he tried to break into fashion photography. But soon he realized that it wasn’t the photography, it was the storytelling that was drawing in his audience.
  • Publish, then refine. “Humans of New York today is very different from what I set out to do,” Stanton said. But until you publish, you can’t get a lot of feedback. He’s skeptical of people with great ideas, who won’t share a rough cut of their work.

A cynic or a sophisticate might dismiss Stanton’s advice as clichés found in any column about entrepreneurs, but he arrives at his ideas honestly. While others try to attach a motive or a theme to Humans of New York, he resists. That’s part of the attraction. If he thinks much about the technical aspects of photography, he didn’t discuss it. He takes notes by sending himself texts. He still tries to post five new pictures and stories every day.

His favorite place to take pictures? Central Park. Read more

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Sunday at SXSW: Sessions for news junkies

Editor’s Note: Poynter is at South by Southwest Interactive through Tuesday, in Austin, Texas. Look for our Poynter faculty members, Roy Peter Clark, Ellyn Angelotti and Kelly McBride, and digital media reporter Sam Kirkland.

Sunday’s a packed day of sessions of interest to journalists and those in the news media. Read more


FiveThirtyEight to relaunch March 17

Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight will relaunch March 17, ESPN President John Skipper announced Saturday at South by Southwest as he introduced Silver and Grantland’s Bill Simmons for a panel on personal media brands.

While talking about leaving The New York Times and deciding to partner with ESPN, Silver criticized old media brands for being “being slow on their feet and not having entrepreneurial spirit.” They have no concept of return on investment, he said. Read more

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange sits inside the Ecuadorian embassy in London, Tuesday July 30, 2013. The conviction of Pfc. Bradley Manning shows that journalists must fight to keep their sources safe, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange said Tuesday, urging other media organizations to follow his group's lead in advocating aggressively on leakers' behalf. (AP Photo/ Sunshine Press Productions)

Assange at SXSW: “exodus of national security reporters”

National security reporters from the U.S. are a “new type of refugee,” according to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who addressed South by Southwest attendees via video conference Saturday.

“Glenn Greenwald, originally from New York, where is he now?” he asked. (Answer: Brazil.) “Laura Poitras … where is she now?” (Answer: Germany.) Assange himself has been living in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London since 2012.

His point: Feeling increasingly threatened by their own governments since last year’s NSA leaks keeps some journalists from reporting on government surveillance issues — especially those on the receiving end of classified documents — in the first place, and it forces some of those who do into “effective exile.” Read more

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SXSW’s big themes to follow: surveillance, social and rise of self

Editor’s Note: Poynter will be at South by Southwest, the annual music, movie and interactive festival, March 7-16, in Austin, Texas. Look for our Poynter faculty members, Roy Peter Clark, Ellyn Angelotti and Kelly McBride, and digital media reporter Sam Kirkland.

Earlier we looked at sessions journalists should plan on attending. Here are the media-oriented themes we expect to play a big role at the conference, which starts today. Read more

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Snowden to speak at SXSW

NSA leaker Edward Snowden will speak via videoconference at South By Southwest, the festival has announced.

Snowden in Moscow last July. (AP Photo/Human Rights Watch, Tanya Lokshina)

Snowden joins Glenn Greenwald, the former Guardian reporter who continues to break stories based on Snowden-provided documents at new site the Intercept, as a festival participant. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange will also be interviewed at SXSW via satellite phone.

Snowden will speak with Christopher Soghoian, principal technologist for the American Civil Liberties Union, on Monday. The Texas Tribune will provide a livestream of the session. Read more

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Poynter at SXSW: Schedule of sessions focused on the news media

Editor’s Note: Poynter will be at South by Southwest, the annual music, movie and interactive festival, March 7-16, in Austin, Texas. Look for our Poynter faculty members, Roy Peter Clark, Ellyn Angelotti and Kelly McBride, and digital media reporter Sam Kirkland.

We combed through the interactive schedule to find the sessions journalists attending the conference won’t want to miss. Read more


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