While Jeff Bezos and Pierre Omidyar are putting serious money towards serious journalism, the professional news business seems more at risk every day. Yet the need for trustworthy information only grows. Meanwhile, every company wants to create “content,” since “ads” are increasingly distrusted, and expensive. Who will be the arbiters of accuracy? Will the public care? Could a new golden age of substantive journalism arise? Or is the future filled with cat videos?
Fox: So, let’s go ahead and start here. I’m Justin Fox. I will be your moderator for the remainder of the morning and a little bit of afternoonness.
A couple—I mean, this is supposed to be a Techonomy lab, so we’ll be doing experiments on human subjects here, which is all of us and all of you. And it’s a little—we’ve been—we, the panel, have been grouped together over here, and we have the power of lavalier microphones, but I look out, and this is just the people I immediately recognize across from me. There are a bunch of people in the audience who would be just as well placed on this panel as we are. So, I want to make this conversational, and there are a ton of us here, and I’m still—everybody on the panel keeps me asking me, so, how are you going to do this? And I keep saying, I don’t know, but we’ll figure it out. We’ve got the mics, but we will try to include you as much as possible, as soon as possible.
So, first of all, to focus it a little, it struck me that the kind of two interlocking themes here—and again, I’ll start with this and you guys and everybody else can push back if it turns out you’re much more interested in something else—but one is just, what is this journalism thing that we want to either save or celebrate? And is journalism even the right word for it? Because that sort of evokes a certain kind of activity of professional people with notepads, and it’s not clear that that’s what it looks like going forward, and it’s not clear that’s what it looked like a hundred years ago either. It’s sort of a phenomenon of the last half century, 75 years.
And then the other part of that is, how do we pay for it?
Simon: We’re going to solve that here today.
Leo: Are you offering?
Fox: Well, I mean, there are some wealthy people at this conference, so maybe we can just—so, yeah, what we’re out here to solve for now, and I will do quick introductions with a little bit of asking things of the panel.
Start with Kaela Worthen Gardner, is a marketing manager of reddit in terms of redditgifts, right?
Worthen Gardner: Yes.
Fox: But your background is in sort of magazine journalism, right?
Worthen Gardner: Yeah, I started out in journalism, gradually transitioned into marketing, and now I do mostly marketing and PR.
Fox: And Ashley Simon, who’s sitting next to her, is Director of Strategic Partnerships at Upworthy, which—it just—the fastest growing media startup ever, and I’ll let her describe it a bit later, and you were at foursquare before that, right?
Simon: I was, yeah, I was at foursquare for about two and a half years, working in business development, first on media partnerships and then on API partnerships. So, working with developers who use their API and their geodata to power their own products, and then prior to that, I was at MTV and Viacom for five years. So, a little bit of media experience, a little bit of tech experience, and now I’m at Upworthy.
Fox: Abderrahim Foukara is—and we get to call him Abim from now on, which is much easier—is the Washington, D.C. bureau chief of Al Jazeera. And this is Al Jazeera Arabic that you’re doing?
Foukara: Correct, it’s Al Jazeera Arabic.
Fox: But you were with the BBC before that, speaking English?
Foukara: I was.
Foukara: Yes, I was. I was with both BBC Radio—my original background was in radio and then I moved to television, but I’ve been with Al Jazeera since 2002 now.
Fox: Okay. Cindy Jeffers is the CEO and CTO, which is a pretty cool and very Techonomy-like combination at Salon, which was obviously one of the pioneering Internet journalism efforts and is plugging along there, which is kind of cool. And my favorite thing in your résumé is that one of your first jobs was robot maker?
Leo: She still owes me a robot.
Jeffers: I built five robots with a friend of mine for a play.
Fox: Okay. And your—was The Huffington Post, your previous job, was that your introduction to the media world pretty much, or?
Jeffers: There was some experience with it in the past. I worked at Women.com in the ’90s, but yeah, that was my first, more recent.
Fox: And Alex Leo used to work with Cindy at Huffington Post.
Leo: Yes, and when I interviewed her, I said, you can have the job, but I want a robot, and it has never been delivered.
Fox: And Alex is now—it’s Head of Product?
Leo: I’m the Head of Product for IBT Media, which just bought Newsweek. I was at—the Head of Product for Reuters.com before. I worked with Jim Impoco. Jim dragged me to Newsweek. So, you know, making money in journalism, I would like to hear everyone’s thoughts about that because it’s part of my job. And just to go back to Salon quickly. Salon has had this amazing history of almost closing every four years, you know, and Cindy’s turned it into a place that’s actually making money for the first time in 18 years. So, I think that’s sort of an awesome job there.
Fox: So, Cindy’s an avid solution?
Leo: Yeah, Cindy’s going to solve my problems.
Rieder: We could really shorten this up.
Fox: And Rem Rieder is the—you’re the media editor and the media columnist, but also the editor of —
Rieder: Page one enterprise stories.
Fox: At USA Today, which is a newspaper available in front of your hotel room doors at this hotel.
Rieder: USA Today Arabic.
But I’ve never built a robot, and I am an expert in running things that almost go out of business all the time. I spent more than 20 years as the editor of American Journalism Review. So, I can share Salon’s pain.
Fox: And you just got to USA Today but four months ago, right?
Rieder: Four months ago, yep.
Fox: Right, and before AJR—and as the editor of AJR, you were also a journalism professor at Maryland or how did that work?
Rieder: Off and on.
Rieder: And actually, one of the more interesting—the last couple of years, I did a course—and this is kind of my search for free content. They had me do a course, a capstone course for seniors, where I would basically teach them to write about the media and post the stuff on AJR.org. So, it was a great example of double dipping.
Fox: And before that, you were a newspaper reporter, editor, at various places?
Rieder: Various places.
Rieder: You know the Mae West line of “done places and been things”? Kind of that.
Fox: And I—yeah, I am a former newspaper reporter at various places, then a writer at Fortune and Time magazine, and now I’ve landed at the Harvard Business Review, which is this old journalism organization that through a combination of luck and the Harvard brand name, and I guess some level of reader demand for what we do, is actually this reasonably thriving enterprise right now, though I don’t know how duplicatable our model is for others who don’t have fancy universities in their name. Although, who knows, maybe the better.
So, I want to get to this question of what is valuable about this thing we’ve been calling journalism and what we want to keep having done going forward. I just thought I’d start with Kaela because you—a lot of people have been on both worlds here, but you, pretty dramatically, magazines and this very—this thing, reddit, that as you were saying before, people either don’t know about it or love it. There’s also this smaller group of journalists who whine about it a lot too. So there’s that group too. What—when you think about what you value in journalism, what is it? What do you think we need to be making sure still exists a hundred years from now?
Worthen Gardner: So, I think journalism—is my mic on? Okay.
Worthen Gardner: I think journalism does a lot of things that are useful for us, and good journalism is going to inform and educate us about what’s happening in our world, but it’s also going to kind of contribute to the spread and vetting of ideas in our society. It’s going to create a community of—a common space where we can share those ideas and connect with each other. It entertains us. It—you know, it does a lot of different things with promoting the economy and keeping those things running. And so, those things that journalism accomplishes are what defines what is good journalism and what that looks like. It’s not necessarily the form.
Reddit is something you would never look at and say, yeah, that’s journalism. It’s more akin to a social media platform in many ways. Twitter has been known as the place that does a lot of—has a lot of people doing civilian journalism as well, and so then you’ve also got bloggers and then traditional websites and newspapers, radio, things like that. And those can all be different types of journalism and contribute different things to that space in their different forms. Some of them focus really well on distributing information. Some of them focus really well on that discourse of what those ideas are that are good or bad or whatever, making sure those are accurate, but they all contribute different things to that.
Fox: Abim, your organization has played this really big role in the Arab-speaking world of introducing a kind of—providing a model for what journalism could be. So, when you think about what is it that you do that’s a value that you hope somebody’s still doing in the future, what is it?
Foukara: Well, I think it depends on the audience. It—when you’re among Americans, defer to Americans to talk about America. So, let me talk about the part of the world that I hail from. Part of—or at least the assumption is that a large part of the audience in the—
Fox: And where are you from originally?
Foukara: I’m originally from Morocco.
Foukara: The assumption is that a large part of the audience in North Africa and the Middle East wants hard news and it wants you to keep an eye on what governments are doing, and Al Jazeera has convinced itself that it has built a reputation being the platform for the people as opposed to other platforms in the region—other outlets in the region—which are platforms for government. But even within that, there are obviously a lot of Arabs today who are interested in entertainment, and they want journalism to be a tool of entertainment.
There’s one specific news outlet, which is called Al Arabiya, which is the immediate competitor of Al Jazeera, funded by the government of Saudi Arabia, as opposed to Al Jazeera, which is funded by the government of Qatar. And funding here by governments is very relevant to what we’re talking about. But there is another part of the audience which comes to us, which wants that sort of keep-an-eye-on-the-governments kind of approach, inform the citizenry, give them a platform where they will discuss ideas, the kind of ideas that would lead to the kind of thing or things that we began to see three years ago in the Arab—in the form of the so-called Arab Spring. So, it’s a highly politicized definition of what journalism should be is what we do.
Fox: Alex, what is valuable to you about journalism? What is it that it should be?
Leo: Well, you know, I was talking last night about if I could go back in time ten years, I would have suggested that we split the definition of what people do online from journalism into content production. And I think a lot of the strife we’ve had and a lot of the bickering and a lot of the name calling, especially of HuffPost and BuzzFeed and Upworthy and other places, has been about the fact that journalists are angry that—old-school journalists, boots on the ground, angry that they’re in the same category as people that are sitting in a place being content producers.
I was a content producer at The Huffington Post—you know, I did some interviews, but I was putting together things, I was making trend pieces, I was doing slideshows, I was doing whatever. That’s not an editor. It’s not a writer. It’s not a journalist. So, one of the problems—I mean, in my view, at least—so, one of the things that I think has shuffled out of in the journalism world in the past few years is there are a couple different things we want from the Internet that are in media and they’re in the written word and they’re in the visual sense—you know, we want entertainment, we want trend pieces, we want—but we also want long-form reporting.
I mean, you know, people complain about the journalism spectrum now and how many companies are closing, but there have never been more places doing online long-form journalism before in the history of the world. I mean, it’s amazing the number of outlets that do it and there’s a really amazing number of people invested in it.
So, I think that journalism, to me, I want everything. I want journalism to be everything. I want it to tell me gossip. I want it to tell me news I can consume quickly. I want it to tell me deep profiles about things. I want it to be my entire world, you know? And I don’t think that I should have to choose between any of those things. I believe they can exist in an ecosystem if everyone stops bickering about who does what.
Fox: Do they have to exist in the same organization?
Leo: They don’t have to. I mean, like, you know, they can. I mean, BuzzFeed hired Ben Smith and they started a long-forms channel and they are trying to do serious journalism. Does that get a quarter of the traffic of one of those slideshows about, you know, great TV stars from the ’90s? No, but that’s what funds those people, and the same thing that The Huffington Post, you know, we got the traffic funded the reporters that weren’t read as much.
Fox: Right. No, that’s—and with us, it’s the nine ways to be more successful—you know, to get up earlier and get more work done.
Fox: Brings in the traffic that all these other things don’t. I don’t want to get in this rut of going down—entirely down the row on everything, but if anybody else on the panel or elsewhere wants to—yes?
Audience Member: I have a question. I’m curious what you guys think of the state of the news on cable TV and sort of MSNBC on the liberal side and Fox on the conservative side and CNN in middle, or at least that’s my perception of it. But what I’ve found frustrating is I’ll sometimes watch 20 minutes of CNN, and I’m watching breaking news on a judge that’s about to make a ruling on a single trial, and surely there’s more important things going on in the world. I mean, it’s an important trial, but there’s a whole world out there, and I feel like a lot of Americans, they just get the news watching television and they’re reading less and less. It’s actually a risk to journalism as a whole. Just curious what you think.
Fox: I’m supposed to repeat things on the microphone—but that’s fine. I’ll say it quickly. What’s your name? What do you do?
Audience Member: I’m Michael Schneider. I’m CEO of a software company who built the app for this conference and many others.
Fox: Okay. Michael Schneider, who built the Techonomy app, is just kind of curious about cable TV and whether we think it matters that a lot of it is kind of not hyperinformative in a useful way.
And I mean, it’s really interesting, and you’re not directly involved in it, Abim, but Al Jazeera in America seems to be the whole goal, and I guess Bloomberg on the business side, is to get away from that.
Foukara: Well, let me—can I take that?
Foukara: When the trial of Trayvon Martin was happening and it was being heavily covered by American television in general, that was a time in August, I believe, when Egypt was literally ablaze. And it was baffling for us, Al Jazeera, at least on the surface of it, that at a time when Egypt was ablaze and Egypt being such a major strategic interest for the United States, American television was following in great detail the trial of Trayvon Martin. And I understand that. I understand why many Americans would be, at that particular point in time, much more interested in the trial than in Egypt.
If you circle back to 2011 when the Tahrir Square in Cairo was very busy with Egyptians trying to topple Mubarak, there was a lot of interest in that story here in America, on American television, and I was part of it. And one way I could explain that to myself was back then, it was very easy to explain what was going on in Egypt to all sorts of Americans, you know, the junkies and people who follow news, you know, on a daily basis, and not so—it was a simple story. It was a people against the dictator. They wanted to topple him. And more than that, they actually—the young people who spearheaded that fight, they spoke a language which most Americans could relate to: Freedom, democracy, and so on.
With what happened post-coup in July, it was such a convoluted story to explain, even for us, for our audience in the Arab region, let alone for Americans. I’m not saying I condone the approach of covering Trayvon Martin at the expense of other interests that are important to the United States, but sometimes the context obviously takes you in a different direction as to how you should cover a particular story, how much time you should give it. But we accepted—we, accepted—as a matter of—as an article of faith, perhaps stereotypically, that Americans are not interested in international —
Leo: Well, Abim—
Fox: I think—
Fox: You go ahead.
Leo: I was going to say, Abim makes a terrible—a wonderful point—a terrible point—a wonderful point about if there’s not a narrative, an American narrative, behind something, it’s really hard to get people’s attention for that story. And Trayvon Martin, that case had an incredibly—you know, it tapped into a deep American narrative and so did that Egypt revolution. I think what you’re getting at, though, is the Casey Anthony nonsense and when we’re sitting around hearing CNN speculate about the Boston bombers—
Audience Member: You came up with a good example. I mean, like, that was like 40 minutes of breaking news, watching the courtroom. Like, it’s an important case, but —
Leo: I don’t begrudge them that. I begrudge them the nonsense where they have to stand around pretending they’re not speculating about things that they’re deeply speculating about. And it’s the nature—I mean, they’re set up to fail. Like, “The Daily Show” cuts what they do every night into some nonsense package. And to be fair to these people, they’re probably earnest and hardworking people, but they do sound nonsensical because you have to be there for 24 hours a day, and when there’s no breaking news—when there’s breaking news, and you have no information about it, you stand there making things up or repeating things or saying, look, there’s a guy over there. He might be a suspect. And, like, you know.
Fox: Can I just—I just want to ask a polling question first. How many people here get—feel like they get a significant amount of their information from cable TV news channels?
Audience Member: Basically, a fraction of them said the purpose of journalism is to inform and provide communication (inaudible) NBC (inaudible) whatever it is, RT, Al Jazeera, and of all of them. They’ll be covering 80, 90% of the same exact things, and when I look at what’s covered here, it’s maybe 5% of that.
Audience Member: It just feels broader.
Fox: Let me do my job. And you are?
[Inaudible audience member comment.]
Rieder: I’m very interested to see what happens with Al Jazeera America and to see what kind of audience it can build. I spent about two days watching it shortly after the launch, and it’s so different than the rest of cable because I think—the rest of cable, if you step back, has been such a disappointment. Going back years, we’re going to have three cable channels, 24 hours of news, and it kind of evolved into a situation now where you have two that really are more kind of partisan engines. CNN’s kind of lost, and there’s this Trayvon Martin syndrome that we’ve talked about where they focus obsessively on one story, often a lot less worthwhile than Trayvon Martin.
So, it’s very interesting to me, you know, I was struck with it that watching Al Jazeera America was like—was a different form, because all of the things you get used to watching the other three were not there. So, I was glad to see that they—it’s now going to be shown on Time Warner Cable, which is an expansive range. The early numbers were very low, but it will be very interesting to me because it clearly is an attempt to cover serious news about America. You know, I’d love to see it work.
Leo: Also, on the Time Warner Cable note, I think the best cable news channel in America is New York 1. It’s amazing. They wear their own clothes, they don’t do fancy makeup, they do real reporting. It’s incredibly earnest. They’re really good reporters and they don’t try to do the fancy things where there’s 92 giant iPads around them and holograms of rap stars in the middle of the room. And as a result, the information you get from New York 1 is incredibly, incredibly valuable, but they also don’t try to fill 24 hours a day with new content. They do repeat things. They allow themselves that space to breathe, which I think allows them to put out a much better product than these 24 hour cable news networks don’t.
Audience Member: My name is Jennifer Bradley, Brookings Institution. I started my career in journalism and then went to an official nonprofit, so —
Rieder: Nonprofit on purpose.
Audience Member: It sounds like that what we’re talking about in the shortcomings or our frustrations with a lot of mainstream cable news is that cable news is not willing to do the subsidization that BuzzFeed is doing so that you get, you know, cats subsidizing long-form journalism—or the Harvard Business Review does, which is, you know, nine ways to be super productive before 7:30, subsidizing longer things. How long will these for-profit print companies be willing to do that kind of subsidization, right? We’ve seen it driven out in the TV marketplace. How long will print continue to harken back to this larger or this older tradition of journalism as a kind of public service, people who do journalism wanting to do something that’s a little more enriching and good? You know, what is it? Is it 10 years, 5 years, 15 years before it is 100%, you know, listicals and lolcats?
Jeffers: I think there are actually a number of models that are developing where longer-form content is being supported, not by listicals or cats. It’s one—like, for us, good journalism is fearless journalism that contributes to conversation. It really tries to stoke the conversation, be in the conversation, but also contribute in a valuable way. And make it just, you know, continue to make it smarter, and I think that we’ve at least seen, you know, through a change in our ad revenue model that that can actually be funded without compromising the way that we do our writing or reporting and analysis and opinion. But I think—so, and I don’t think we’re the only example of that. I think there are a lot of places that are finding their way through that. I think BuzzFeed’s a good example.
Leo: New York Magazine is making money with their online property and they—you know, they have fashion content and entertainment content, but they don’t do listicals and cats.
Simon: I would also say Upworthy’s a good counterexample to that. Upworthy is a hundred percent meaningful content. We’re one of the fastest-growing media companies in the world. We had over 40 million unique visitors last month alone. So, you know, and we are not using lolcats to subsidize the meaningful content. We are only doing the meaningful content and it’s not long-form journalism. Long-form journalism is a totally separate—
Fox: Could you, just for people that aren’t familiar with it, explain what Upworthy does?
Simon: Sure. So, Upworthy is basically a website that curates the best, most meaningful content from around the Web. It tends to be visual and engaging. So, videos, infographics, things like that. And we distribute it through social in a way that, you know, basically optimizes to be shared and clicked in the way that BuzzFeed is. So, we’re really—we are distribution first, as opposed to content first, as most of the people on this panel are. So, we’re finding the best content from around the Web, produced by a lot of the organizations that are sitting here on this panel and also produced by YouTube creators.
So, you know, for example John Green and the VlogBrothers do these fantastic five- to ten-minute videos where they break down a single issue. Sometimes that’s Syria, sometimes that’s health care, and it’s a video version of long-form journalism in a way. They are giving people all the facts that they think that they need to know about a single very complex issue in a way that’s entertaining and accessible. And so, we take that piece of content, we throw it on our site, we add what we hope is, you know, a headline that gets people curious about that piece of content. Whereas maybe, like, Health Care Broken Down wouldn’t make you, like, really want to click, something like, you know, You Wouldn’t Believe This Fact About Health Care, you know, might.
Fox: What’s the headline-writing rule at Upworthy? You’re supposed to write 25 versions before—
Simon: Yeah, we—so, you know, on the headline-writing process, like, we’re very data-driven—or data-informed, I guess, is a better way to put it. Every single one of our curators has to write 25 headlines, and then an editor picks the best five, and then they, you know, sort of relentlessly A/B test those five to pick the one that has the, you know, best chance of going viral, essentially.
So, there’s a lot of—there’s a little bit of—like it’s half—it’s half human and emotional and half data. So, there are human beings selecting content, you know, from around the Web to find things that they think are meaningful, informative, and engaging and that people will, at the end of the day, want—have some sort of emotional response to, because people tend to not share things unless they have some sort of emotional response to them.
And then, it’s data-driven in that we’re smart about how we package and distribute that to make sure that it can get in front of the most amount of eyeballs, because at the end of the day, the mission of Upworthy is to drive massive amount of—amounts of attention to topics that matter. So, you know, we want and we think, like, the—one of the biggest criterias for really good journalism is that people see it, right? That it gets in front of people’s eyeballs. You can have a great speech, but a great speech to an empty room isn’t useful. So, that’s really what drives the company.
Audience Member: You guys are making money from this model, but the content creators are not getting paid by you for what they (inaudible). So you guys are—so you’re—you have a model to be a for-profit company, whether that’s through advertising—it’s the—what’s interesting to me is the—certainly, places like Brookings benefit enormously from Upworthy because we’re creating content that’s paid for by foundations or other things. And when we get it on Upworthy, that’s a huge celebration for us because we don’t know how to optimize headlines, and you give us a way to talk about suburban poverty or other issues.
Coming from my journalism background, I think the idea of how you have a class of professional content creators who are able to make a living doing that, are they all going to move into think tanks or other places? Or what is that going to become? What is that job model going to look like? I’m very curious about that.
Fox: I think you’ve just switched us to topic two, and you can start with that, Ashley.
Simon: Well, I would say first, it’s not true that we don’t—that the content creators don’t benefit from the traffic that we push to them, so—
Audience Member: No, they certainly benefit, you just don’t pay them directly.
Simon: We don’t pay them directly, but let’s say we post the John Green video, for example, that had like about 50,000 views. So, 70% of our content is video, most of which lives on YouTube. You know, we then push 5 million views to a video which they monetize against through YouTube ads. We do not, actually.
I do think it’s an important topic, and I actually would love to hear other people’s thoughts on how content creators and essentially aggregators or distributors can, you know, live in a healthy ecosystem together, because it’s obviously super important to us that the people who are creating the amazing work that we lift up are going to be supported to do more of that in the future. You know, the future of Upworthy is dependent upon that, actually.
Fox: Have you guys figured out how you’re going to make money yet? And then we’ll go to Rem. I mean, because I don’t even know that’s true. What is—is it advertising? Is it—you’re Head of Strategic Partnerships.
Simon: Yeah, it’s funny. I was watching a speech earlier. It was like the stages of startups, and I was like, we’re definitely in that prelude phase. So, we are—we’re testing out a couple of things. Actually, right now, we just announced a partnership with the Gates Foundation where they are essentially underwriting a section about poverty and global health.
So, you know, they’re—when we define topics that matter, we define them a little bit differently than maybe journalists might in that we’re less driven by news cycles and more driven by evergreen topics that we think people care about. So, that might be immigration, income inequality, poverty, things like that.
And so, one of the models that we’re exploring and working with sponsors and foundations like Gates are, if they have a particular topic area that is, you know, obviously importantly to them as an organization or potentially with a for-profit company linked into their marketing campaign, can we work with them to—for them to basically subsidize an entire section around that? So, to get more media, whether it’s created by them or it’s curated from other parts of the Web in front of our audience to spark more of a conversation around that—specific topics. So, for them, it’s obviously global health and poverty. We’ve worked with AFL on work and labor issues. We worked with Skype, actually, on an ad they did that we felt was particularly Upworthy. It was about—obviously it was about the power of Skype to connect people around the world.
So, we’re always applying the lens of, is the content something we would have posted anyway and/or is the topic something that we would have posted about anyway and how can we work with sponsors to do that?
Fox: Well, Rem, I’m just thinking—Rem, you’ve been writing columns about the media for a quarter century, I guess, and I was a very regular reader for a long time of AJR, and I don’t think very many of those columns in the ’90s were about making money. They were all about journalistic standards or this guy—
Rieder: Right, it was deploring chain ownership and—
Fox: And now I read your column in USA Today and two-thirds of them are to some extent about what’s the business model.
Rieder: Exactly right. I want—before plunging in, that is kind of related, I want to go back to that original question, which was, how long will traditional mainstream news organizations keep supporting this kind of—the journalism we think—not the stuff that’s really fun or whatever, but that’s important for democracy? And the point of—the fact is that so many of them have backed off tremendously because of the huge disruption.
And so, I think there was a sense a number of years ago, there really is a crisis in areas like investigative reporting, foreign reporting, and local reporting, which is—which kind of underscores the importance of the—of kind of the newer forms of media that were—that are represented here that we’re talking about and the importance of nonprofits, whether it’s ProPublica on a large scale or a lot of these smaller outfits that, you know, cover Wisconsin, and there are all kinds of sustainability questions there.
To the point that was made earlier, too. One of the things I probably write too many columns about, but I’m fascinated, rather than kind of moaning over and over again about how terrible, is the new ventures, and BuzzFeed has fascinated me for a long time. Going back to their plunge into political reporting a few years ago, and I thought they did a really good job, and then it’s just kind of evolved into long form. And, you know, if you had told me four years ago that BuzzFeed was a long form, I would have said, yeah, right. And I happened to be interviewing Ben Smith for a column and he said, you know, one thing that nobody, none of these new outfits are doing is foreign. So next thing you know, they’re doing foreign news and now they just hired a guy from ProPublica to oversee investigative reporting. And I did a piece last week that Business Insider of all, which is kind of a BuzzFeedian-style business site, heavily trafficked, starting a long-form effort.
So, you know, with the crisis we’ve had, the importance I think as the new forms and new players going into the old, whether it’s Jeff Bezos—it’ll be fascinating to see what he does at The Post—Warren Buffett, after saying a few years ago, “I’d never buy a newspaper at any price,” buying tons of them—or this thing we have on the horizon, whatever, with Pierre Omidyar’s threatened nonprofit where he’s going to spend as much as Jeff Bezos spent for The Post, a quarter of a—$250 million, which is quite a startup. So, we’re kind of in that tension of, you know, we’ve had an old model that’s reeling and yet exciting things in the works with no guarantee.
Leo: So, I love what you just said because, you know, I think that every time things change drastically, which they certainly have in the past decade—I started out at ABC News right out of college, and it was still not sexy to work online, so I got to do all the things digitally that then made my career possible, so—but, you know, in the past—that’s been ten years now, so it’s really, really changed so much. And when that kind of change happens, whether it’s the newspaper industry at the turn of the—in the 20th—the 19th century or now, there’s a lot of freakout. There’s a lot of freakout before things fall out and come into place.
But I think we’ve seen amazing things happen this year with new business models and new benefactors, and there’s tons of models coming out of that. I mean, there’s, you know, there’s the type of thing where there’s a Bloomberg or there’s some rich guy—David Geffen’s always threatening to buy The L.A. Times. You know, like, Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post, and we’ll see how that works out. But, you know, there’s the Glenn Greenwald venture that you talked about.
But I honestly believe that there are so many new places not with these giant benefactors, but places like the Awl Network of blogs that do long-form journalism, are self-supporting, they’re not making bajillions of dollars, but they’re paying their writers. They do it through e-commerce, through Amazon affiliate programs, through ad networks. They don’t have real sales teams, but they’re supporting themselves. They’re doing real journalism. They’re doing long-form stuff. And I think it’s more widespread than anyone acknowledges in these conversations.
Foukara: You know, to me, one of the interesting paradoxes of at least television is that—you were talking about what kind of journalism, what is this kind of journalism that we’d like to preserve? In a democracy, we’d like to preserve the kind of journalism that informs the citizen and prompts the citizen to make democratic practice better. In a country which is not democratic would like to preserve the kind of journalism that makes the citizen aspire to democracy. But the paradox is that this kind of journalism is undemocratic in itself. It’s elitist.
American television, for example, may be superficial, but it gives a broad range of things that a broad of range of—that cater to a broad range of different people from different social and economic backgrounds. The other problem is that—I can’t believe I’m going to say this—but I find that of all the media, television is probably the biggest menace to democracy because, and this boils down to the cash nexus, because if you have—you mentioned—somebody mentioned the news cycle. If you have 24 hours to fill, there isn’t a chance in hell that you’re going to fill those 24 hours with worthwhile journalism that helps the citizen look deeper into why democracy is not working as it should be in America and why we don’t have democracy in Egypt. You just cannot do it, but what—but you still find yourself having to get funding to make 24 hours—24-hour television work.
For us, for example, it’s not a problem. Every year, we go to the Qatari government. They give us the money. We do the things that we think should be done and that’s an editorial decision right there. We do the things that we think should be done, not the things that the audience thinks should be done. But on average, so far in the 17 years that we’ve been in operation, we have found that our determinations of what should be done and determinations of the audience of what should be done sort of match.
Fox: Yeah, because I would imagine if nobody in the Arab world had watched, that the Qatari government would have gotten sick of funding after a while.
Leo: Can I have their phone number, by the way?
[ Laughter ]
Foukara: But that raises the issue, and we always go back to the kind of journalism that we want to preserve. If you have a government funding you, that raises its own problems—problems about your credibility, your independence, and so on. But the same thing happens if you’re funded by the private sector. I mean, you’re going to have—you’re going to have to grapple with the issue of the agenda of the person or the side that funds you no matter what, whether it’s a government or the private sector.
But I just go back to the issue that the main problem we have is that we have to fill 24 hours with sometimes a lot of junk, but what are the chances that we go back to the days when television broadcasts several hours a day anyway? We’re not going to go back to that.
Fox: Go for it.
Audience Member: Interesting. I work at NBC Universal and I think your clientele vision is—
Fox: They got a mic for you. Then, what’s your name?
Audience Member: Beth Colleton, NBC Universal. What was interesting is when you talk about television, because you think that the digital part of our news group is just an extension of our TV and that audience crosses over, and I was baffled to find out there’s only a 20% crossover between the people who are watching NBC News and the people online. So, to your point, the people watching on TV are really only getting it from TV and they’re not going for the more in-depth that you can offer them online, so. And I just think it was an interesting point just for this conference of trying to figure those things out.
We just hired a guy yesterday to take the head of our digital and his title is Head of Editorial and Innovation. I’m saying, well, shit, we got to figure this out, because there’s something different about those mediums, because we did find in research that the audience say they want from media more solutions and that that’s really that TV audience. It’s like hey, here’s four minutes. I’m going to tease that idea out, but they don’t go off that medium to necessarily look for more information. So, those are those bridges we’re trying to connect of how does journalism offer not just information, but the viewers on TV at least are asking for more utility to drive them to, and then what? So.
Foukara: Can I just—two very short tales. Just to epitomize the problems that television viewers face. One is from the election of 2000 in Florida, the scene of that van carrying chads on CNN for hours and hours, doing nothing but just cruising. I mean, what is the purpose of that if it’s not just to fill? And you can find all sorts of, you know, reasons why it was a wise decision, but at the end of the day, it was to fill.
Another one from Al Jazeera in 2004, there was a report that came out at the U.N. about the assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister. The report was in 45 pages. It was a four-hour read. It was read in full on Al Jazeera at 12 midnight. It took four hours to read. What is the purpose of that except to fill? And I think that’s one of the serious problems that television faces more than any other media.
Fox: Well, and I guess that’s sort of—and I’m curious the experience at NBC Universal, and then I’ll—is how much of this—is it this generational thing where—I mean, I just—other than on election nights and occasional big disasters or others, I don’t get my information from television of any sort. It just doesn’t seem efficient.
Leo: Neither do young people. Have you seen those numbers?
Fox: Yeah, and so I wonder, is this just—all this worrying about cable TV is just this transitional thing that will—
Leo: Fox Business Channel’s news, like their numbers, in the beginning, and I think it’s still true today, are lower than most websites, you know? Most news websites. Like, I don’t worry about that. In terms of MSNBC, I don’t watch MSNBC, but I love MSNBC.com—great redesign, by the way—and I think that that’s, you know, something that’s happening is—it’s—I’m more likely to watch video on the Web than I ever have been before, although I’m still—it’s still like pulling teeth. Like, I still don’t want to do it.
Audience Member: But that’s that interesting duel.
Leo: But it’s that duel.
Audience Member: It’s also—it’s—the viewer (inaudible) is that older activist, that person 50 to 60 who invested in this country early on and is disappointed in the direction it’s going, and they’re not going to move online to continue that experience. But the tonality of MSNBC, the idea of pushing the country forward, wherever your political bends are, but still that gut energy speaks to these young movers and shakers, these entrepreneurs, these visionaries. So, the online experience feels very much like a totally different generation than what our numbers show are the people on air. So, again, it’s those fascinating splits that you’ve got to move, but again, they’re not the ones tuning in during the day. And they’ll pick up the clips they want online.
Fox: That guy’s earned this mic. You get ten minutes.
Audience Member: This is actually a quick question for the panel.
Audience Member: Oh, my name’s Scott Duncombe. I work for a real small startup called ShareProgress, and I have a question for the panel, actually, about breaking news, and I was wondering where you guys go for breaking news. Is it cable news? Is it Twitter? Is it reddit? Where do you guys think the most accurate, up-to-date information is when something big, tragic, or amazing happens? And I would just, yeah, love to hear from all the journalists.
Worthen Gardner: So, I think that, you know, it used to be the AP Wire and Reuters were the ones that broke the news to the world and then all the other news publications would disseminate that. I think Twitter and reddit, places like that, have now become that place.
A really great example of that, you know, was during the shooting that happened in Aurora, Colorado. And the—it happened around like midnight, and the most up-to-date place where you could find information was on reddit. There was somebody who’s 18, he just barely graduated high school, but he heard what was happening and it was a place where everybody came together to share, hey, I heard this, or I was there. And all these things were coming together. And he just took what everything was bringing together and coordinated it into one timeline.
And so, I think that’s what’s happening more and more today is this civilian journalism can be more on top of things than other news organizations, because a traditional reporter has to get out to the scene. They’ve got to find witnesses. They’ve got to find people who’ve experienced these things, whereas these social media platforms have everyone coming to that place to give the information, and so it can happen much quicker and more effectively.
Fox: Well, let’s just answer his question by going down the list and just saying really quickly—I assume you go to reddit first?
Worthen Gardner: I go to reddit.
Fox: And Ashley?
Simon: Yeah, Twitter. I mean, I think mobile’s also changing the game on this stuff too, right? Like, I use Circa a lot. I love it. I don’t know if anyone uses it as a news app. It’s a news app. It’s just highly personalized and you can follow stories. So, you’ll get alerts if, like, there’s—if you’re, like, I choose to follow Syria, there’s now a new update on Syria. I’m sure there’s lots of competitors in that space as well, but I would say that it’s a combination of social but also mobile that will—that’s really changing the way that people consume breaking news content and how.
Fox: What about you?
Rieder: Twitter is invaluable as an early warning system. What I think—you know, I use it in conjunction, you know, firstly, a lot of—you know, a lot of links to really good material show up there. But I kind of use it to kind of—as a way to kind of, okay, this is going on. This is something I’ve got to focus on and then—and certainly, in terms of speed and immediacy, it’s invaluable. I just got to take it from there to look for context and broader coverage from whether it’s The New York Times—I mean, I spend an enormous amount of time on USA Today, mostly seeing who’s reading my column.
[ Laughter ]
I go to USA Today. I go to The New York Times, The Washington Post. I go to Politico a lot for different kinds of stories. Huffington Post would be in that group.
Fox: I start with Twitter, and one thing just made me think of with the Boston Marathon bombings, I remember someone saying at that point that Twitter, for the first half an hour, was absolutely the best source. Then for about half a day, it was absolutely the worst source because it was just all—there was so much nonsense thrown in. And then it got to be the best place to follow the whole debate about who screwed up.
Leo: I love that. There’s a Twitter life cycle where, like, things come out and then there’s the backlash to the thing that comes out and then there’s the backlash to the backlash, and it’s always the same every time. It’s hilarious. But, yeah, Twitter’s definitely the place I go first. I love The New York Times mobile push alerts. They’re like 20 minutes late, but if you’re in one of these things, in these conferences, and you’re not on your phone all the time, it’s a great way to get your news.
And, you know, what you were talking about in terms of context, I mean, like that I’ve been trying to make my catch phrase, tagline, a thing. I feel like the new generation of media, like the job of it, is there’s so much information. So, content is no longer king, context is king, and you really can’t get that on Twitter. So, you really have to go to the places that will put it all together for you.
Rieder: Twitter can sometimes direct you to it.
Leo: Exactly, it will direct you to it.
Rieder: If you use it right, but you’re absolutely right. I mean, context becomes so key to what’s—to preserving journalism on whatever platform, because certainly in the immediacy, you know, that’s just not going to—you’re not going to win that game.
Fox: How about you, Cindy?
Jeffers: I mean, I think what we’ve seen in the last ten years is that, you know, people are not going to one destination site, they’re going to many sites. And I think Twitter and Facebook are definitely part of that, but I do think that there are still limits, and I would—I think that there are challenges in terms of trustworthiness, looking just at reddit during the Boston bombing, trying to—just everybody trying to identify the Boston bomber. I think there are still best practices that need to be implemented. I think that there’s a lot of potential with citizen journalism, but I think that there are still destination sites that provide that investigative and more researched approach that I definitely still rely on.
Leo: But, to be fair, CNN—I mean, it wasn’t just reddit that accused the wrong people. CNN accuses wrong people all the time, just like people walking down the street.
Fox: I mean, I’d like to hear your answer, but also in Arabic, what do you—like, in the Arabic world, what do you look at first?
Foukara: I mean, first of all, I go to all sorts of sources for breaking news, whether it’s about the Arab world or about America, and if I can’t find any, I make it up—no.
[ Laughter ]
Somebody’s going to say, Twitter, Al Jazeera guy admits to fabricating—no, I go to all sorts of—but the interesting thing is that the definition of breaking news has changed. In the old days, you used to go to Reuters or AP. It was breaking news, and now if you watch television, it’s almost everything is breaking news. It has turned into a marketing gimmick for getting ratings. But I do agree that Twitter is a great source, and especially if they give you—if they refer you to the context of that particular piece of breaking news.
Fox: Now, you’ve got the—you’ve got the mic next, but I wanted—well, actually, you go ahead and ask it, and then I want to go back and talk to Cindy and Kaela about business models a little bit.
Audience Member: Okay. I just wanted to say—I’m Jackie Leo from The Fiscal Times, and I just wanted to make a comment about when you know you have some long-form journalism coming or it’s on its way or it’s even here, and it’s by looking at the jobs on Indeed or Gorkana or some of the other sites. And one of the top jobs by every news organization you know right now is a data reporter. Everyone is looking for a data reporter, including me, and the result is obvious because all the stuff is out there for picking. It’s all out there because transparency has been mandated for years now from the government and other sources, but getting it all together, analyzing it in a kind of Nate Silver way, and making sense of it is—
Fox: Well, just reading Nate Silver’s job postings for his site was this fascinating thing because it’s like, well, I’m kind of into data, but he wants people who are data first and then a journalist second.
Leo: Good point, Mom.
Fox: The Leo family, right. I wanted to back—first of all, just because I wanted to hear more from you two and also just to get to that business models discussion a little bit. What is it you sort of tantalized us before with there’s this new ad model that’s—what’s different?
And then the other thing I’d like you to comment on a little is, how important is it for somebody who knows the technology to actually have a seat at the table? Which I don’t think was traditionally what happened—I mean, obviously big legacy media organizations would have struggled no matter what, but one of the really dramatic things is that the IT people were always off in another room. And I just am curious at your experience at Huffington and now Salon.
Jeffers: Well, I think one of the key, you know, pieces to HuffPost success was that you had the editors and the programmers sitting together. There was no intermediary, there was no product person in between them. And having that collaboration and that sense of working together to figure out what the site would be, what the product would be, together was really, I think, critical to their success.
And so, I think that—you know, I think leadership can come from a lot of different places in an organization. I don’t think that, you know, it has to be from technology or from edit or from sales. I think that it can emerge from a lot of different places. But I do think that an understanding of the technology is imperative now and, you know, I don’t think that it has to be, you know, a deep knowledge, but the platforms I think necessitate an understanding of them in order to develop good products.
And in terms of, you know, what has led to our successes—you know, I’ve been at Salon 18 months. When I came on board, Salon had this amazing history of really great journalism that I wanted to make sure we were able to support and sustain long-term. And in order to do that, we really needed to find a route to profitability. And so what we’ve focused on are a couple of key opportunities. The number one opportunity was just in the available and sort of different ad models that we could shift to. Namely, we’ve been working very closely with advertisers on unique ad implementations. We build them in-house often with our, you know, our tech team builds them. And what they’re interested is contextual relevance, you know, just being situated near the topics, but a lot of the ideas come—they’ll come out of editorial. We’ll pitch them as—to advertisers. They’ll sometimes come out of sales, but we’ll work with a different team of writers for that.
So, maintaining that separation of church and state continues to be important to us, but I think at the end of the day, just having a good product that you take out to advertisers and show them all of the things that you can do, show them the—you know, all of the great products that you can build for them, I think is what has led to our success. We’ve also obviously focused on social and mobile, which are really key to the growth of a lot of publishers nowadays. We’ve seen a 140% increase in our social referrals, 145% increase in our mobile browser traffic as a result of, you know, building mobile apps for the first time, building a mobile-responsive design. But none of that would be possible without that long history that Salon has had, a really great writing.
Leo: Can I just add onto this?
Leo: So, I know there’s someone from Ogilvy at this conference and I don’t know if they’re in the room, so I’m about to offend you—hi. So, one of the biggest barriers I have found to making money online is the creative agency. And the problem I have with it is working directly with brands and the people that are paying you and not going through Ogilvy will make us a ton more money, and more and more places in-house are bringing in ad designers and product people specifically for ads and doing your own creative and doing your native and trying to cut out you—forgive me.
And I think that in all—we’re going to have to have a serious conversation about this at some point because, you know, the banner ad has been around longer than I’ve been alive or almost as long. And you’ve—these creative companies keep making standard ad units that they are beautiful, but they fit in this damn thing and you have to put these standard ads and no one uses them and, no, there’s no click-through rate and there’s too many metrics on the Web for that to make you money and this is a big problem. You know, publishers have to interact directly with their advertisers. We have to do that. It’s never going to get fixed if we don’t.
Audience Member: Well, if I can just—
Fox: Yeah, yeah. You’ve been called out, so therefore you get—
Audience Member: (Inaudible). I think that Ogilvy is not like a lot of the big global integrated firms in that they have had to evolve as well. I completely understand that the banner is not necessarily going to be the future, just as the CMO from Ford talked about it’s not necessarily going to be campaigns, it’s going to be newsrooms. So that’s why you see the agencies evolving as well. They’re helping brands appropriately create content that end users might actually want to consume or be provoked. It was noted on panel. Ogilvy hiring a chief data officer, right, and helping brands because some brands don’t know—they want some help with how they ought to mine that data. Everyone’s trying to solve these big problems at once.
So, I’d say we’re not unlike some of the larger integrated firms where we’re trying to put the new skill sets, the assets, in place because, you know, just as traditional journalism models may not persist, the banner is not going to save the integrated marketing industry.
Fox: Well, and yeah, and a lot of the old categories just aren’t going to—while we’re getting the mic back to Arun, who is waiting—tell us, redditgifts, what is that as—is that supposed to be something that’s going to end up being a big support to reddit financially or is it—
Worthen Gardner: Hopefully.
Fox: So what is it?
Worthen Gardner: So, you know, reddit makes money in three different ways. We are not profitable yet. We actually, like, probably could have been by now, but we’ve chosen to make decisions that stay true to our community and keep people happy and gradually try to work towards that in a slower way. One of the things, obviously, we do is ads. People also subscribe to the site and they can pay $4 a month to get what’s called reddit gold, and basically, what that is, is people who just really like reddit and want it to keep around. They subscribe—
Fox: Do they get extra stuff?
Worthen Gardner: They do. They get some perks, and a lot of those people really enjoy those perks, but a lot of people frankly don’t use them that much. It’s a way that they just keep the site going because they are passionate about this community and want it to be around. And I think if you are creating really good content or providing something that is unique, there are a lot of websites that are all trying to do the exact same thing right now. And, you know, as Alex mentioned earlier, there’s a lot of competition, a lot of people struggling, but there’s also more long-form journalism out there than there ever has been before. And so, if you are finding your niche and doing something that other people aren’t doing, people are going to be willing to support that and keep it around because you’re providing something that’s a value to them, that they can’t get anywhere else. So, that’s one of the ways we make money.
The other place is the—we started, last year, a marketplace where we sell stuff that we think redditors would like, and they tend to be a little bit more geeky products or just really fun, interesting things that you often aren’t finding a lot of other places on the Web. We’re not going to be an Amazon that has, you know, oh, I want to get new sheets and I’m going to find all the options I can. But if you want to find something really unique and fun that you can’t find anywhere else, you can come there. And we’ve found that that has been very, very successful so far, where it’s still just starting it going. That’s a lot of what I’m doing is helping trying to figure out the best ways to market that, but —
Fox: And that’s, I mean, like The New York Times. Every Sunday you get The New York Times, there’s this whole catalog of stuff.
Worthen Gardner: Yeah, and what I think is a valuable takeaway is that no longer are we necessarily just publications, but we are people who provide to a niche demographic that, you know, you can be a website that talks all about photography news and, like, the new cameras that are coming out and tips and things, and then you could also, you know, have a photography conference that you’re providing all different things for those people. We cater to a specific demographic and then we also sell products that that same demographic would like. And it’s—you don’t need to do just one thing. You can do all the different things that that demographic is going to care about.
Fox: Did you want to say something quickly, and then we’ll go to Abim?
Rieder: Just real quickly, this may sound a little like an advertisement but I don’t mean it to be. USA Today, if we’re talking about business models, is in the middle of a fascinating experiment in a way. About a year and a half ago, the paper hired as its president and publisher a guy named Larry Kramer, who created MarketWatch. He’s a digital innovator, sold it for a lot of money, and really didn’t have to work again. He’s coming —
Fox: And they were reporters together on The Trenton Times.
Rieder: Editors together.
Fox: Editors, okay, sorry.
Rieder: Kramer, you know, again, a digital innovator with a big background in print came in basically to bring USA into the digital age—even a year and a half ago it was very, very backward—and along with a guy who brought from—who was his manager—who was editor at—Dave Callaway is the editor of the paper now. There’s been an enormous emphasis in the last year and a half on digital, on quick response, on video, on social. And it’s really transformed the place, and frankly, that’s part of—that’s a big part of the reason I wanted to go there when I had the opportunity.
So there’s—and Larry basically listed it as a startup. I mean, a startup with a big name and with a brand that kind of needed re-energizing, but a startup. At the same time, in kind of a counterintuitive bet on print, he’s created an eight-page section of USA Today which will run—it’s now running experimentally in four Gannett papers, soon it will be about 35, which will free these papers that do their whole front section on local. They won’t have to worry about national, international. They’ll have a second section, which will be national or international, just business news and entertainment, plus two pages of sports. And the beauty part for the paper, it will count as page circulation versus USA Today, but it’s an enormous revolution that there’s a both digitally and print, and so it’s kind of a startup at a classic old media place.
Leo: To blurb your ad there, I got to say that I had never read—I will admit I never read USA Today.
Rieder: Pretty much till I went there?
Leo: Pretty much till you went there. No, but, you know, I have a really hard time reading sites with a bad product and bad UX and it’s, you know, out-of-play ads and nonsense like that, like whatever. I’m not going to be there. When you guys redid your site, it was a revolution. Like, it said to me that you’re committed to things that I believe in. So, that product did a lot.
Audience Member: Okay, so I’ll try and keep it on the—
Fox: Introduce yourself.
Audience Member: I’m Arun Sundararajan. I’m from New York University. So, it sounds to me like, you know, when—as I was sitting here with the mic, my question sort of morphed and changed and elongated and extended in my mind —
Fox: Okay, you got ten minutes.
[ Laughter ]
Audience Member: All right. So it, you know, I mean, to me, it sort of seems—the business model question sort of seems to come down to, I don’t know, trusting and improving the technology and trusting the crowd, right? And here’s sort of what I mean by that. I mean, I’m struck by the fact that you say that 24 hours a day is a long time to fill with content, because that’s sort of minuscule compared to the amount of content that’s out there.
It’s just that, you know, much like—you know, I was talking to someone yesterday. I was talking to Cara, I think, yesterday about the similarity between sort of journalism and sort of the business model challenges there and what’s sort of coming for universities in the future and, Justin, you’re probably sort of well positioned to see sort of both sides of that, right? But, you know, a lot of content and university courses is not that good because the professor has to fill, like, 40 hours or 50 hours, but that’s sort of based on the myth that somehow all of this content has to be self-created or sort of cannot be sort of crowd-generated.
So, it seems to me that that 24 hours would not be very long if you trusted the technology to sort of like find the right crowdsourced content for you and you trusted the data and sort of the—sort of experimentation, and Ashley talked about A/B testing and Upworthy. So, maybe that’s, you know, maybe the future is like, you know, sort of foundation funding, like universities. But for some of that other content—but for the stuff that, like, you know, sort of gets people there, that subsidizes the other stuff that we really want, do you think that, you know, actually sort of delegating what content is going to be served up on, say, a television channel or on something where—to a digital system that is actually pulling from, like, you know, a crowdsourced pool—do you think that that is sort of like, you know, a realistic part of like, you know, sort of mainstream journalism, business models, in sort of the near future? There, I sorted converted it to a crisp question.
Fox: I think as TV guy, you get to…
Foukara: I think when I talked about 24 hours in content, I was talking about worthwhile or what people may deem as worthwhile content. That’s where the problem is. The content, yeah, of course, it’s minuscule to any of the content you use to fill 24 hours, I agree with you, is minuscule compared to the amount of information that’s available out there. If you —
Fox: For a lot of it appears to be this sort of the definition of what is acceptable as TV.
Fox: So, you know, a car being chased by police on a road, that’s acceptable for 45 minutes, but talking about—
Foukara: Yeah, yeah.
Fox: —some complicated policy issue is not.
Foukara: Yes, something—exactly—that tells you something about the world, that gives you the context, that needs you to think about it and make a particular decision about it, that’s the kind of content that I’m talking about. I mean, if you take the channel that I’m very familiar with, Al Jazeera Arabic, it has news around the clock. It has documentaries. It has all sorts of really interesting stuff. But I circle back to the issue of funding. It has that luxury to know that at the end of the financial year, we’re going to go to a particular source and that source is going to fork out all the money that we need. We don’t depend on advertising. There’s very little advertising on Al Jazeera, as you know. So, the money is kind of guaranteed.
But when you’re talking about a television that doesn’t have that luxury, a television that has to get funding from, I don’t know, from advertising or from somebody else, at the end of the day, you’re forced to think about, you know, dollars and cents. And even after you’ve filled 24 hours with a lot of junk, you are actually forced to rerun that junk several times in the course of 24 hours.
Audience Member: But my point is that you’re not forced to do that, right? That’s—it’s got to be that there is better content than what is sort of self-produced—
Foukara: If you have the money—
Audience Member: No, that is available, that people are generating for free.
Leo: No, I mean, have you seen—I mean, like, a lot of companies have tried that. Have you seen iReport or HuffPost Live or any other places that take people who want to give you video? It’s not good. It’s not. We have not reached a point yet where people can produce things for us.
Fox: But at the same time, there are all sorts of great documentaries that people have produced that never get watched that they could get for pennies and put on. Well —
Simon: I think people, too, just have different content standards on different platforms. I think I have a different standard of the quality of content I expect from Al Jazeera than I might from a really awesome YouTube clip that we posted on Upworthy. But it’s just—I’m approaching it from a really different perspective on a different platform and I understand where it’s coming from.
I mean, I totally agree there is—it’s not that there isn’t enough good content in the world. There is a sea of amazing content, and I just think in terms of how that is aggregated or delivered varies based on the platform, and I think user-generated or YouTube-quality content wouldn’t fly on Al Jazeera in the way that it might fly even on Al Jazeera’s website, it might work better, or on some stand-alone mobile product, it might work better. So, I think the platforms matter.
Foukara: But it’s also—there’s also the issue of what you think your audience would be interested in. I mean, if you make a determination that your audience would be interested in 24 hours of documentaries, fine, you’ll do it, but that’s—the reality of it is that that’s not the case.
Fox: I want to—last question and then it’s lunch.
Audience Member: Hi, I’m Nancy. I’m part of the Techonomy team, but I’m still in college. And so, my question, I’m wondering if you —
Fox: Do you watch cable TV news?
Audience Member: No.
[ Laughter ]
Fox: Okay. Have you ever heard of it?
Leo: Wait, do you own a television?
Audience Member: I do. I do, but my roommate —
Leo: Oh, amazing.
Audience Member: No, my roommates use our TV for Xbox, so that’s that.
[ Laughter ]
But I’m wondering—so, I’m wondering if you guys value your users in different ways or if you guys have certain tiers for them in their interaction with you, because I know that users are going to—all of—everybody on this panel, like, I go to—I’ve been to all of your different sources at different times for something that I’m looking for. And do you guys kind of tier them or do you engage with these users in different ways or you feel like some are more valuable than others? I’m just curious on how that works with you guys.
Leo: Jeff Jarvis had a column that I thought was interesting, although it wouldn’t really work, but to your point. His idea was everyone has to pay for your newspaper and then you get your money back as you engage in a meaningful way with that newspaper. So, it’s a reverse payroll. Like, every time you put a meaningful comment, you get 60 cents back, and every time you tweet an article, you get 10 cents back or whatever, and I thought that that was kind of, like, an interesting—I mean, it’s not at all plausible—but, you know, it’s a kind of an interesting way of looking at it and I definitely—we definitely think of our users, the ones that engage with our content in a meaningful way, like, I really—we really value those people and we want to keep them happy, and I listen to them when they write me emails, you know?
Fox: I mean, we’ve got maybe just more traditional segmentations, people at different stages of their careers. We have—we think of them in different ways and think they hit us in different ways.
Jeffers: No, I agree. I agree, like, the—I mean, I think we value all of our users, but I think that the ones that are really active are often the ones that are commenting. We did a platform switch on our comments this summer and we saw an 85% increase in comments, and we realized that, okay, the technologies are really important, the tools that they’re using to comment are really important, but supporting that conversation—and also, we, you know, invested in moderators and getting our writers and staff more involved in the comments. And that total investment has really paid off in just a higher quality conversation that I think a lot of—I think everybody probably on the panel has seen, you know, that being online, being able to have an interactive space where you have a community that is—that’s commenting on the work and providing feedback is really invaluable.
Audience Member: But do you guys do anything specifically for those who are commenting? Like, do you guys think about how do you reach that? Because they’re clearly they’ve taken one step further. Do you do anything specific for them? Because I feel like reddit kind of does, like with reddit gold and upvoting and there’s more.
Worthen Gardner: So, with reddit, you know, we—our users are what makes reddit what it is, you know? If they weren’t on there posting things and commenting, we wouldn’t have a site that is getting 80 million unique visitors a month, you know? Because we don’t have a lot of staff to make that happen. It’s all about those users and we have people who are moderators who, you know, in their free time, they are monitoring comments, making sure there’s no, like, inappropriate stuff being posted on there. We don’t want child pornography, obviously, on reddit. So, things like that, spammers, you know, they’re doing a lot of stuff with that and also just helping to build that community and make it what it is.
We have thousands of small communities within reddit on anything from long exposure photography to “Game of Thrones” to the book series “A Song of Ice and Fire” about “Game of Thrones,” you know? They are all really unique niche things, and we don’t have the manpower to be able to interact with all those communities, but there are people who are there making those a really valuable place to interact, and we love those people.
We do interact with them a lot. We all have usernames, you know, and we post and comment on reddit just like anyone else, and so it’s very easy to interact with us. And then obviously, we have golden people who are subscribing. We have a specific, what’s called a subreddit community for them, and we post on there a lot more. We talk with them. There was one time the San Francisco office, a couple weeks ago, built a little robot using a camera and a Roomba and the laptop and it just, like, went around the San Francisco office, and they had a webcam on it and you could just watch it going around and see people in the office, you know, and —
[ Laughter ]
Worthen Gardner: It was a lot of fun. It was a lot of fun, and so there are lots of things like that where we very much value those people, give them a lot of extra perks and interact with them.
Fox: I think we’ve just been told that that was the last word.
Rieder: Very subtle.
Fox: Thank you to the panel and to all of you. This was easier than I thought it would be.
[ Applause ]