March 23, 2011

Adding Color to breaking news

Filed under: journalism, media, newspapers, photography — Rakesh Agrawal @ 9:10 pm

Today marks the launch of a groundbreaking new app called Color.

The app, available for iPhone and Android, has users automatically share pictures with those around them. Take a picture and people in close proximity can see them. No logins, no passwords, no need to build a social network — it’s automatically defined by your proximity to people. If you’re around people regularly, those people and their pictures will become sticky.

It’s a whole new dynamic in photo sharing. Not only is everything public, there is virtually zero latency.

While I’m trying to get my arm around what it will mean for sharing in general, there is one clear application for Color: breaking news.

Cell phone networks light up when news happens. If CalTrain hits a pedestrian, many people get on their cell phones to let their friends and family know that they will be late. That’s before any news outlet has even heard of the accident. By detecting unusual spikes, you can predict that something has happened — even if you don’t know what it is.

A few years ago, while I was stuck on a CalTrain that hit a pedestrian, I wrote about how Twitter would be used for breaking news:

There were lots of questions from the people on the train: What happened? Did we kill someone? How long are we going to be delayed? There were also a key question for others who use CalTrain: should I get on the train or find another way home?

Given the small number of people affected, this isn’t the type of thing that makes the local TV news. The Bay Area, being what it is, has a new answer: Twitter. An unofficial CalTrain account allows citizen journalists to share information about what’s going on. Readers can get the news on the Web or by text message.

Twitter could become the police scanner of our times. As Twitter becomes location aware, it would be possible to detect where something happened by looking for unusal spikes in activity around a location.

Although Twitter is often used for breaking news today, it doesn’t do a great job with geodata. It’s hard to tell tweets from people talking about the Japanese earthquake from those who are actually in Japan who are living in its wake. Undoubtedly, Color will be used to take pictures of breaking news. If the system is instrumented to process and normalize all of the geodata that it gets, it could not only show you where news was breaking, it would show you exactly what was happening there.

Networks like CNN have had features like iReport for a few years, but those require editors to manually process a lot of information and only work for really large events.

Color could take it to a new level and make it much more scalable by algorithmically determining what’s important based on where you are. Color would also allow an elastic view of “news”. A CalTrain wreck is news to a few hundred people. A giant earthquake and tsunami is news to billions. If you’re in Palo Alto standing at the CalTrain station, you’d see pictures from CalTrain. No matter where you were in the world, you’d see the Japan earthquake pictures.

Color comes from serial entrepreneur Bill Nguyen. It’s really incredible to see folks like Bill and Mike McCue creating tools that will revolutionize news and publishing.

While many have carped about Color having raised $41 million in financing, I’ll point out that The New York Times is reported to have spent $40-$50 million building a paywall digital subscription system that won’t work.

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March 17, 2011

All the news thats fit to retweet

Filed under: journalism, media, newspapers — Rakesh Agrawal @ 1:28 pm

The New York Times today came out with its long awaited digital subscription pricing. Beginning immediately in Canada and March 28 in the United States and the rest of the world, heavy users of the New York Times will be asked to pay between $15 and $35 every four weeks for continued access.

Most people aren’t likely to hit the paywall. I consider myself a heavy news consumer and I value the NYT brand. But I had no idea how many stories I read a month. I checked my own usage and found that I read 18 stories in the last month.

The reality is that most traffic to news sites is already driven through search and social media. Those will remain free in the new model. Four years ago, only 20% of NYT visitors who viewed the front page. It’s likely a lot lower now. Bizarrely, the new model actually discourages people from going to the NYT home page directly.

For those who do hit the limit, there are numerous options aside from paying:

  • Stop reading.
  • Tweet “Psstt… buddy, can you tweet me a link?” If someone responds, you get free access to the story.
  • Follow @nytimes on Twitter and click on the links from there.
  • Go into your browser’s porn mode.
  • Clear out cookies.
  • Go to Google and search for keywords related to the story.
  • Find a summary of the story on and click through from there.

Print subscribers continue to have free access to, mobile applications and iPad apps.

Some commentators have pointed out that the pricing is out of line with the print edition. For $15 a month, you can get home delivery of the Sunday New York Times which includes all access to the online, mobile and tablet editions of the Times. To get the same access without the print paper costs $35 a month.

So the times is charging an extra $20 not to deliver the paper. In one case, you’ve got nearly zero incremental cost. In the other, you’ve got several dollars in hard costs of paper, printing and delivery.

What gives?

The point of the digital pricing is exactly to drive people to print subscriptions — even if they never read them and the papers pile up.

The ad rates the NYT can charge in print are much higher. On average, the NYT generates $600 in advertising per year per print subscriber and less than $10 per online user per year. If someone looks at the digital pricing and decides to get a paper subscription, that’s a huge win for the NYT because it gets to up its more valuable print subscription base. Of course, at some point advertisers will catch on that no one is reading that circulation.

As someone who cares about the environment, this saddens me. Chopping down trees, sending them across the country and then having diesel-guzzling trucks roaming around town all morning is just wasteful. (Not to mention the process of disposing of all this.) The Yellow Pages people, with once a year deliveries,  have nothing on newspapers.

I doubt that this new model will be an abject failure like TimesSelect. But it’s also unlikely to generate significant revenue for the NYT.

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