Journalism emerging technology showcase focuses on right time, right place content

Could 2011 be journalism's Year of Context? A showcase of emerging news technology in San Francisco highlighted four start-ups that specialize in placing content where it makes the most sense.

The show-and-tell was hosted by Hacks/Hackers, an informal group of journalists and coders who blur the boundaries between news and technology.

Attended by about 50 professionals, the start-ups sought to streamline the movement of information from the Web to apps, from video creators to consumers, from event calendars to event attendees, and from lengthy documents to simple summaries.

AppMakr Turns Web Content into Apps

It's a startling proposition: Turn your website's content into a functioning iPhone app in under five minutes.

"We hate when someone with something to say can't say it," said AppMakr founder Sean Shadmand. As co-founder of mobile developer PointAbout, he saw a way to lower the barriers to entry for organizations that sought to create iPhone apps. Rather than pay a developer to re-implement existing tech, he decided to automate the app-creation process.

With just a few clicks, AppMakr can slurp up RSS feeds, creating anything from auto-updating news headlines to photo galleries to maps. Add a customizable icon, splash screen, and color palette, and you've instantly transformed Web content into an attractive application.

AppMakr users include PBS' "News Hour," Newsweek and The AtlanticWire.

Of course, you can make any webpage look like an app simply by adding it to the Home Screen. But AppMakr  streamlines that process -- and doesn't charge for it.

Although Shamand credits altruism for AppMakr's price tag of zero, the tool serves another purpose. At each step in the creation process, users are presented with unobtrusive ads for assistance, from professional designers to phone-based support costing $120 per hour.

And though AppMakr is "free," there are plenty of costs along the way. The first hundred push notifications cost nothing, but additional messages must be purchased in packages starting at $50. Ning integration costs $24.95 per month. Submitting an application to the iTunes store requires an Apple Developer Account, which costs $99.

And of course, AppMakr would be happy to handle iTunes submission for you. That'll be $999, please.

The audience was generally impressed by AppMakr's potential. "Are you saying that next semester my students can make their own iPhone apps?" asked University of San Francisco journalism instructor Ed Leonard.

"I'm saying that next semester, they'd better," said Shamand.

VidCaster Streamlines Video Content

VidCaster started as VidSF, a local video-news site based in San Francisco. Founders Kieran Farr, Steve Cochrane and Ray Pawulich found video tools lacking, and began creating new technology to transcode, distribute, and manage video content. Before long, they had developed a fully-fledged suite of tools that they realized could be useful to other content creators.

"We want to give you everything that you need to power your video business online," said Pawulich.

VidCaster allows a company to create its own site and host its own videos, rather than relying on the limited control and customization offered by YouTube or Vimeo. Farr cited Airbnb as an example of a successful VidCaster client.

Like WordPress for Video, VidCaster customers can create sites tailored to their design and marketing goals. It integrates with video ad networks like LiveRail, and can automatically distribute content to social sites like Facebook, allowing publishers to reach audiences in a variety of contexts. The sites can also integrate with Google Analytics.

Tools to accomplish these tasks already exist, Pawulich said, but VidCaster's advantage is that it brings them all together into a single dashboard.

NextDigest Targets Tech Readers

The technology behind NextDigest isn't new, but the strategy is shrewd. It began as StartupDigest, an e-mail newsletter about tech entrepreneurs; it now commands high clickthrough and advertising rates.

StartupDigest recruited editors in 57 tech hubs around the world, from Silicon Valley to Capetown. Each editor is responsible for curating lists of events pertaining to the tech start-up industry, and each week the lists are distributed to geographically targeted e-mail lists.

Since it launched last year, 85,000 subscribers have signed up.

StartupDigest's big moneymakers are its advertorials: brief advertisements that run at the top of each newsletter. The advertorials attract unusually high levels of engagement, according to co-founder Chris McCann. One recent piece about "The Social Network" reached a clickthrough rate of nine percent. In contrast, banner ads rarely exceed one percent clickthrough.

As a result, StartupDigest can charge an impressive fee for advertorials. The average CPM -- or cost per thousand views -- is $300.

Editors are not paid for their work, which McCann said amounts to about a half-hour a week. They derive value from the free advertising that having their name on the newsletter provides, he said.

NextDigest is now planning its expansion into other areas with HackersDigest, MobileDigest, and GamingDigest.

So far, the key to their success has been the combination of relevant content, relevant ads and relevant audiences. There are no other sources for curated lists of start-up events on a global scale, McCann said, and that left an urgent need in the start-up community that only his company has filled.

Whether that strategy can be replicated for other professional communities remains to be seen.

Topicmarks Groks Information Overload

Roland Siebelink wants to rescue you from a tidal wave of too much information.

His company, Topicmarks, claims to be able to distill lengthy documents down to five key points and an associated database of facts.

Siebelink sees several applications for journalists. It could be used to manage large volumes of RSS, he said, merging multiple sources into a single "meta-article" that reveals connections among different stories.

It could also be used to quickly analyze lengthy reports, allowing journalists to zero in on important data with greater speed than was previously possible.

Similar technology has been attempted, particularly in the past year with the rise in popularity of semantic Web technology. But according to Siebelink, Topicmarks' is the most advanced, having undergone 20,000 engineering hours prior to launch.

But running documents through the Topicmarks system produced mixed results. The system was unable to recognize subheadlines, and smeared sentence fragments into the middle of paragraphs. A technical news article about water management yielded a confusing summary, but the system performed a relatively comprehensible abbreviation on a more straightforward article about corporate donation.

A crucial feature of Topicmarks is its ability to rearrange summaries around specific concepts. A summary of a New York Times article about Don't Ask Don't Tell could be focused around topics like "pentagon," "service member," "misperceptions," or "woman."

So far, Siebelink said, some reporters, academics, and lawyers have given Topicmarks a test run. And it has another, group of users: content farms, which attract search engine traffic by repurposing legitimate news articles.

Right Place, Right Time Context

No one can claim that the tech industry's emerging news tools lack diversity, from iPhone apps to micro-targeted advertorials to customized video platforms to semantic summaries. But there's one common thread: a careful, deliberate placement of content where it matters most to consumers.

News producers have learned that it's not enough just to release content into the world and hope that it finds an audience. Just as with developing software, users must be identified, their needs understood, and new products tweaked to find users where they live.

Whether it's on a mobile device, video sites, e-mail -- or even, believe it or not, in real life -- hacks and hackers are learning creating context for their content.

  • Matt Baume

    Writer and photographer in San Francisco, specializing in media, LGBT issues, and the environment.


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