April 15, 2009

How the AP blew it

Filed under: google, iphone, journalism, media, newspapers, yahoo — Rakesh Agrawal @ 9:17 pm

In the most recent round of AP getting in a huff about search engines and aggregators stealing traffic that they feel rightly belongs to them, there’s a fundamental problem they’re ignoring: AP chose not be in the online news business. More than a decade ago, AP made two crucial decisions: to not create a destination site and to license its content to news portals. Either of these decisions on their own would have been damaging, but the combination of the two has been nearly deadly.

Screenshot of AP's iPhone app

Screenshot of AP's iPhone app

As a member-owned cooperative, the AP has catered to its members, which includes newspapers, radio stations and other media outlets. Even now, if you go to, news is a footnote. Contrast that with the front page of Reuters. Instead of displaying AP content on the AP-branded site, you get AP content in obscure brands like the Lake County Record-Bee, High Desert Daily Press, and AP is still hosting the content, but the strong national AP brand is subsumed by a large number of brands that have no meaning outside their region.

This might have worked if newspapers had assumed the role of the default home page and people sought out their local brands. Some papers, including the Washington Post and New York Times tried to create all purpose portals; those efforts have been abandoned.

AP also decided to license content to online media outlets. Yahoo! was an early licensee; Google struck a deal with AP more recently. Yahoo! was able to take the AP content and create a leading news destination site without employing hundreds of journalists.

Not only do Yahoo! and Google license AP content, they are doing a better job presenting it than AP. Compare this story on the AP’s site (branded with the same story on Yahoo! News. The Yahoo! story loads a lot faster and the layout is cleaner. On AP-hosted pages, I sometimes get pop up ads. It’s a much worse experience than Google or Yahoo! News.

The fact that AP doesn’t have a destination site presents another big problem in today’s PageRank driven environment: because the same story can be presented at hundreds of different URLs, they don’t rank highly in search results.

It’s not impossible for AP to get back in the game. But they have to play the game as it exists today, instead of trying to reset the calendar to 1995. They’ll need to focus on the things that any Web business needs to focus on today: simplicity, performance, community, analytics and search engine optimization. And they must do it under the AP brand.

One hopeful sign is AP’s Mobile News iPhone application. The app provides a solid user experience, incorporates photos and videos effectively, has acceptable levels of advertising and looks like it was designed this decade. You can even send in news tips. My only real complaint is that the AP brand is buried in favor of a generic “Mobile News Network” brand. (Probably to placate member companies.)

AP has a lot of assets that even now aren’t fully exploited by Google or Yahoo! With some creative thinking and Web-focused talent, they could use those assets to build a killer destination site. It won’t be anyone’s home page, but it can be successful nonetheless.

More on: newspapers.

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9 ways to improve the Facebook news feed

Filed under: facebook, search, social networking — Rakesh Agrawal @ 4:30 pm

As any designer knows, making a big change to a site with as many users as Facebook has is going to cause a lot of complaining. With that in mind, I’ve tried to get used to the new feed over the last few weeks — and I still hate it.

The new news feed is like watching CNN during a breaking news event: you can watch for hours and hours and only get two or three bits of interesting information amid the endless blather.

It’s a giant step backward and as more people get on Facebook and become more active it’s going to become worse.

Among the issues I have with it:

  • Feed items from frequent users drown out feed items from infrequent users.
  • Friends seem to be treated equally.
  • It rewards spammy applications, such as the quiz applications that seem to pop up every day and apps like PicDoodle.
  • It doesn’t eliminate duplicate items. If 10 people post the same item, it’ll be inserted multiple times. As much as I love the Twitter parody by, I don’t need to see it anymore. This is made worse by the use of URL shorteners that obfuscate the item you’re clicking on.

Snippet of Rocky's Facebook feedOne of my design philosophies is that you shouldn’t make users do work that computers can do better. Filtering and priortizing is high on that list. The old Facebook news feed algorithm and the current highlights section provided some level of this.

Here are some of the factors to consider when prioritizing:

  • Degree of interaction. Items from people I interact with regularly should be prioritized higher.
  • Number of friends involved. The greater the number of friends involved, the higher the priority.
  • Number of times shared. The more of my friends that have shared it, the more likely it is to be of interest.
  • Location. I’m more interested in things happening near me than on the other side of the country. Facebook will need to become aware of locations that are being embedded by applications such as Brightkite.
  • Posting frequency. If someone rarely posts on Facebook, the odds are good that when they do post, it’s something important.
  • Application usage. If I use the same app, I’m more likely to be interested in the content that the app generates.
  • Topic similarity. If the item is about a topic that I frequently post about, it should get a boost.
  • Been there, done that. If I’ve seen it already, it should be downweighted.

The ideal feed would adapt to visit frequency. Someone who visits every five minutes would see a feed very similar to today’s feed. Someone who visits once a week, would see a “best of” from the week.

Some of these things are harder to do than others, but any sort of this filtering is better than what I see today.Any algorithm will undoubtedly miss something that I care about, but the current endless river of unfiltered content ensures that.

Besides, there’s a trick I use when I want to bring someone’s attention to something: instead of hoping that they see it on my feed, I message them directly.

More on: Facebook

April 6, 2009

Anyone can be a journalist

Filed under: facebook, flickr, journalism, media, mobile, newspapers, publishing, social networking, twitter — Rakesh Agrawal @ 8:59 pm

In conversations with people in the news business, I regularly hear about the need for “professional journalists.” Ask them what makes a professional journalist and the answers get wishy-washy. Is it someone who is on staff at a newspaper? What about TV anchors? What about commentators? Do you have to have a fancy degree from a top-flight journalism school? Do you have to be able to write eloquently or briefly? (I know people who work for newspapers that can’t do either.)

Unlike medicine, law or plumbing, there is no officially recognized training program, licensing or accreditation process. Actors’ Equity has more stringent requirements for membership than the Society of Professional Journalists.

My answer is none of the above. A journalist is anyone who can report a story.

Just like the best camera is the one you have on you at the time something happens, the best journalist is the person who is there when news happens. At the same time that we have newspapers across the country drastically cutting their staffs, we have an increasing number of people with the tools to do original reporting quickly and easily. (See my earlier post on flickr vs. The Washington Post.) The cameraphone is replacing the reporters’ notebook and the printing press. Not only can it record notes, it can instantly disseminate that information across the globe.

Janis Krums was a journalist on January 15 when US Airways flight 1549 landed in the Hudson River. His tweet “There’s a plane in the Hudson. I’m on the ferry going to pick up the people. Crazy.” and picture were among the lasting memories of the day. The picture has been seen more than 442,000 times on TwitPic, which is greater than the circulation of all but 20 newspapers in the country. That number would be much, much higher if you were able to include the views on sites (including mainstream media sites) that hosted the pictures on their own servers.

If he were employed by a newspaper or wire service, he’d have a decent shot at a Pulitzer for breaking news photography. A key part of winning is being in the right place at the right time.

I used to wonder what I’d do if I found myself in the middle of a big news event to get the story out. Would I call someone I know at the New York Times? Now I know what I’d do: I’d upload a picture from my cameraphone to my flickr, Facebook and Twitter accounts.

Hard-hitting investigative journalism represents a small fraction of the resources spent by news organizations.

Even there, the “professional journalists” have competition. Last week, I attended a Web 2.0 Expo session by Sunlight Labs where technologists gathered to bring more openness and accountability to government. Their mission is to get access to government data that is locked up in ancient computer systems and expose it in ways that the average citizen can consume it. Their tools are XML, parsers and databases. They are journalists, too.

More on: newspapers

Disclosure: I have a fancy degree from a top-flight journalism school. I try to write briefly (on Twitter) and more eloquently here. I used to be on staff at and I try to commit journalism for fun.

April 5, 2009

Newspaper companies can’t unring the bell

Filed under: journalism, media, newspapers, publishing, twitter, web 2, web 2.0 — Rakesh Agrawal @ 12:07 pm

American newspapers are in trouble. So far this year, the Rocky Mountain News and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer have shuttered their presses. Tribune is in bankruptcy. My first employer, the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, is also there. Publishers have threatened to close the San Francisco Chronicle and the Boston Globe. Much of the blame has been pointed at two things: not charging for content online and the rise of craigslist.

While those have undoubtedly had an impact, there have been structural changes that go well beyond that:

  • Consolidation among key advertisers. There used to be three or four different department stores in each major city, all of whom advertised in the paper. Now they’re nearly all Macy’s, reducing the number of potential ad buyers. The same has happened in the banking industry where many regional banks have been gobbled up. Many of the ad buying decisions that were previously made at a local level are now consolidated as well.
  • Demand for trackability. Advertisers and their agencies increasingly want to know how their ads are performing and newspapers don’t provide the level of tracking that online sites do. The key classified verticals — homes, autos and jobs — all have trackable online options.
  • Rise of information technology. Businesses can get to know their customers much better due to advances in computer technology. The airlines, banks, hotels, department stores and grocery stores I do business with know my buying habits. They can use that data to create targeted offers that will appeal to me. Harris Teeter, a regional grocery store chain, sends out an e-circular that highlights the items customers have bought in the past. These personalized offers can be delivered for little cost.
  • Competition from their own suppliers. Newspapers have long been aggregators. They get a lot of their content from other providers. Instead of relying on a newspaper for Dilbert, I can get it in my email every morning from the syndicate that distributes it. And because color is free online, I get full color seven days a week.
  • Rise of user-generated content. Anyone can be a publisher these days. Twitter is stealing mindshare 140 characters at a time from newspapers. It’s not just Twitter, of course. Many of the same experts that newspapers rely on to provide the content for their stories are bloggers as well. Although the average quality of news in newspapers is likely higher than the average quality of an article in the blogosphere, there are more experts in the blogosphere than there are in newsrooms. As Fred Wilson writes, the tools for discovering this excellent content are getting better and better.
  • Increasing cost of commodities. Producing and distributing a newspaper is very expensive. Subscriptions don’t cover the cost of newsprint and fuel. While these prices fluctuate, the general trend line is up. To cope with these increasing costs, newspapers have raised their subscription rates, further depressing the circulation that advertisers count on.
  • Increasing environmental consciousness. Consumers are increasingly going green and newspapers are no friend of the environment. Trees are cut down, turned into giant rolls of newsprint, shipped across country where massive energy guzzling presses print on them and are then distributed every morning by trucks. Then they have to be disposed of. (See my earlier post on hotels going green and requiring opt-in to newspapers.)
  • Decreasing density of newspaper subscribers. As a kid, I used to drag a pile of newspapers around in my red Radio Flyer wagon, going door-to-door delivering the paper to people’s doorsteps. With the decline in subscriptions, you really can’t do that anymore. The unit cost of distribution goes up as there are fewer subscribers. It also makes the paper less convenient: rather than getting it at your doorstep, it might be in a box at the curb. Getting to your laptop doesn’t require getting dressed and going outside.
  • Inability to develop national scale. Most of the newspaper companies’ competitors can play at a national scale. This includes both online and offline media such as Google and TV networks. This makes it easier to spread out costs and easier to generate revenue. At, we built out online yellow pages, entertainment guides, classifieds, etc. well before the vertical players existed. But because we were a regional paper, we couldn’t generate sufficient revenue to compete with the focused vertical players. The fragmentation also makes it harder for advertisers who want to buy reach. (See my related post on How the AP blew it.)

More on: newspapers

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