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Workplace Attention Spans vs Leisure-Time Reading

New York Times 2013

In The Rise of Curiosity Journalism Ian Bogost explores the odd news that the most-viewed story published online by The New York Times in 2013 wasn’t a story at all; it was an interactive widget that quizzed and then mapped American regional dialects. “It’s certainly startling. But is it really surprising? Perhaps not, once we consider the dominant patterns of online attention.”

Those dominant patterns include the fact that so many of us fill our media diets by following links shared by our friends on Facebook and Twitter, the more “curious” the better. What’s most interesting to me, though, is the story’s timing — it published in the work-free window between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, and still landed in the Number One spot among popular NY Times stories for the whole year:

On the one hand, the week of Christmas and New Year’s seems like a terrible time to publish anything; readers are often traveling or visiting with family. But on the other hand, this downtime also offers a great opportunity to play with distractions like a dialect quiz.

Maybe downtime — if that’s the opposite of work time — isn’t just the best time to publish regional-dialect curiosities and listicles. Perhaps all media longer than a Vine requires a the kind of attention we reserve for leisure time.

Take news, for instance. People who still get newspapers tend to read them over breakfast before work, and that kind of news reader spends 27 minutes with the paper. When we read news on our laptops — a context where news is competing with work activities like email, instant messaging, and the meeting we’re late for — we spend, on average, only one minute per day with a newspaper website. On Sunday, the most downtime day of the week, readers of print newspapers spend 57 minutes, more than twice the time they carve out for the weekday paper. (Stats and further insights at the UC Berkeley School of Journalism’s site.)

Hal Varian News Consumption Graph

There’s nothing magical about paper as a format, either. People who read digital news on tablets (instead of on phones or laptops) spend print-like chunks of time with their newspapers. According to Google chief economist Hal Varian (from his September 2013 speech at the E Giornalismo awards ceremony in Italy):

If you look at the time-of-day pattern of online news readership across devices you see that searches for news are concentrated during the working day. On mobile phones, news reading is spread out across the day. Tablet use, on the other hand. peaks in the morning and evening hours. This is because tablets, unlike phones and computers, are primary used for leisure-time reading.

And phone reading isn’t just for short-form workday snacking anymore either. A recent viral hit at Buzzfeed, a 6000-word piece called Why I Bought a House in Detriot for $500, got phone readers to spend more than 25 minutes reading it, which was twice the time spent reading by its tablet readers.

Maybe the crisis of modern publishing isn’t that we just can’t pay attention any more (although some sources say our attention spans have shrunk by fifty percent in the past decade), or that bits are inherently less monetize-able than atoms. Maybe it’s simply that we push our wonderful, engaging media out to consumers in the wrong context, when bosses and workplace distractions prevent them from giving us the time of day.

Let’s Not Blame It All on Programmatic Buying

New York Times Building

In an interview this week with PaidContent, NY Times’ VP of advertising Todd Haskell gave a tour the media company’s Idea Lab, the special-ops team tasked with inventing better digital advertising. They are creating awesome executions (here). But they still aren’t selling enough of these high impact, high CPM units to offset declining digital ad revenues at the Times because, according to Haskell:

the company has been unable to pre-sell all its inventory, and attributes the overall ad challenges to two factors — “an explosion of inventory from social channels” (read Facebook) and the rise of automated or “programmatic” buying which lets advertisers purchase digital ads on real time exchanges.

In other words, Facebook and Google’s AdX are ruining the party. No doubt. But I have to wonder if part of the injury is self-inflicted.

When I read that the Idea Lab “is perched on the 16th floor of the Times’ building and commands an impressive view of the Hudson river,” I asked myself, What floor are the ad sales people on?

When you sequester a product think-tank like the Idea Lab from the core flow of the day-to-day business, it’s tough to make it work. I’m guessing the rank-and-file ad sellers, with their less impressive view of the Hudson River, are spending most of their time selling banners and boxes and longing for the old days when robots didn’t also sell banners and boxes for less. When advertising innovation is an afterthought, something that gets tacked on later to the editorial assets, you usually end up with an unremarkable ad banner plunked inside an otherwise awesome content experience.

728x90 Ad Banner in Snow Fall

Take Snow Fall, the groundbreaking, multimedia journalistic wonder the Times published last December. If you haven’t seen at least 25 gushing (and well-deserved) references to its magnificence, plug yourself back into the Internet. Meanwhile, take a look at the 728×90 banner they slapped inside a bellyband of wasted grey pixels. Yesterday I got Virgin America, today it’s Panda Express.

Smile, People Like Your Pictures More Than Your Words (All Things D Version)

On March 7, Facebook announced a major overhaul to its newsfeed, the scrolling page of friend-news where we spend the bulk of our Facebook time. The central change: Facebook is making room for bigger pictures.

It’s a logical move when you look at the data. In November 2011, one-fifth of posts uploaded to newsfeeds were photos. Today, every other status update is a photo. My math friends tell me it that it’s hard to meaningfully affect percentage gains when you start with a really big number. Even with my quantitative limitations, I have to believe Facebook qualifies. Last year it told investors (as part of its IPO roadshow) that users were uploading more than 300 million photos every single day, and from that very large starting point photo activity just jumped 150 percent in 15 months. So much for the law of large numbers.

If you’re a brand, though, it’s not the fact that photo-enabled devices will soon outnumber humans on the planet, or that we’re piping all those pictures into social media. The important trend is that consumers are looking at them. In other words, your art-directed fashion spreads have a lot more competition these days.

There was a time when professional photography had a monopoly on our attention. When mass media meant national magazines, TV networks and big-city newspapers, only deep-pocketed corporations could afford access to large audiences. Back then it made economic sense to build your story around professional-grade photography: A single print ad would reach millions of readers, so a few tens of thousands of dollars spent on art and photography chewed up only a negligible percentage of a campaign’s costs. And for a few generations, this approach worked great.

It turns out, though, that cost-to-produce and magnitude-of-consumer-delight don’t plot analogous curves in an Excel graph. In fact, it’s hard to find a direct correlation between the two. A photo that captures something important or interesting or timely wins our attention — regardless of who took it or how much it cost to make. It also turns out the spans of our attention are shrinking. Google economist Hal Varian observed as far back as 2010 — before SnapChat, and back when we uploaded a mere 30 million photos to Facebook every day — that we pay less attention to stuff when we consume it online. “The average amount of time looking at online news is about 70 seconds, while the average amount of time spent reading the physical newspaper is about 25 minutes a day.”

So corporate storytellers need to master a new narrative technique. It’s as if they need to shed those florid sentences that played so well in Victorian novels and dial it down to the Hemingway-esque. The good news: This new approach to storytelling still employs a language in which brands are fluent: Photos. There are three ways that brands should modify their visual storytelling.

One, feeds move faster than print magazines, so you need to tell your story in a series of frequent episodes, anecdotes and updates — not the grand gestures of Ogilvy or Draper. Photos are the currency of social media, but it’s a currency doled out in nickels, not twenty-dollar bills.

Two, let photos do more of the talking for you. Humans process visual information much faster than we process text. And when we’re online (remember those stats from Hal Varian), we navigate more quickly from story to story. If you’re going to capture attention in a digital landscape, you have to do it fast. So steal a page from the playbooks used by Pinterest, Flipboard, USA Today’s new design or the NYT’s TimesCast: Use visual content instead of words to invite consumers into the story.

Three — need I say it? — let them interact with your story, let them re-mix your assets and choose their own adventures. Let them steal your photos so they can more easily share them with friends. Let them explore inside your images to find links to products, deals and related links. And let them contribute their own. If the Web conversation is going visual, encourage them to talk to you in the local dialect — images snapped on their phones looking for a place to be uploaded.

(This post was originally published at All Things D.)

Facebook Timelines: Creating Brand Authenticity Through Old Photos

At the end of this month, Facebook Timelines will officially open for business. In the meantime, Econsultancy asked its readers to rank the brands who are already making good use of the new format for corporate pages.

Among the most popular are Fanta and Captain Morgan, both of whom offer custom apps and games — not to mention alcohol and sugary deliciousness. Who can resist the combination of pirates and boozy recipes, or cute cartoon characters and soda pop? Some brands have it easier than others.

My favorites, though, are Subway, New York Times and Burberry, who are using Timeline to reinforce the authenticity of their brands through old pictures. Burberry resurfaces a print ad from the 1950s: Burberry’s, apparently, has been the outerwear for rich adventurers since the days when traveling by airplane defined you as rich and adventurous. Subway, the unpretentious lunchtime favorite of guys like Jared, presents storefront photos from its older self, a corner joint called Pete’s Subway. And the New York Times, the Gray Lady of trustworthy news reporting, digs up images of reporters in 1948 walking past a plaque memorializing Times reporters that fought in the First World War. Heck, the Huffington Post wasn’t even around to cover the First Gulf War. Who you going to trust?!

Let’s be honest. I have no idea if Subway was really started by a guy named Pete who wore a white paper hat, but pictures have a way of presenting themselves as truth. Whether I like it or not, I believing Subway’s heritage-through-pictures story. All of sudden I’m feeling like I could be friends with that giant, Fortune 500 corporate entity that sells me lunch three times a week.

(Thanks for the tip, Toby Bodner!)

Awkward Ad Targeting at NY Times

“One would think this far into contextual targeting it wouldn’t yield ridiculous pairings with inappropriate content. But sadly one would be wrong,” says Brian Morrissey at DigiDay. This time it’s the New York Times: A Holland America Line ad alongside its news story about the capsized Italian cruise ship.

(Screenshot credit: ADmantX.)

NYT TV Spot Pitches Paid Model

NY Times Weighs In on Digg v4

Keval and Chas in NY Times

My mother was so proud to see me in the New York Times. My grandmother, though, thinks I’m looking a bit too skinny.

Full story here.

Newsday.com Signs Up 35 Paid Readers — Less Than Two Per Week

Newsday logo

Three months after the Dolan family (owners of Cablevision) bought Newsday for $650 million and put the website behind a paid subscription wall, only 35 people have coughed up the $5 per week fee.

Subscribers to the print edition and to Cablevision’s Optimim Cable package can read the site for free, which, as one Newsday reporter put it (via The NY Observer), makes Newsday.com “the freebie newsletter that comes with your HBO.”

Two observations:

One: While it might suggest that publishers can slow the abandonment rate among print subscribers by giving those subscribers more value for the buck (generally a good business practice!), it’s another data point in the argument that paid online news models (NYT, for example) will struggle.

Two: The above model is broken. If news audiences are migrating to digital formats, publishers that — come on, let’s be honest — erect a pay wall around the digital product as a ploy to save print (or cable) subscribers are eating their own children. It’s a tactic to buy more time to figure out digital. But while traditional print publishers are “buying more time,” their competitors (especially the native digital publishers) will win the game. In other words, buying time before you have to deal with your digital strategy is the opposite of what publishers should be doing.

NYTimes Editors Ignore Readers' Input in Shaping Front Page

New York Times deputy managing editor Jonathan Landman tells The Observer: “nothing about the Web has changed the front page of the paper in any fundamental way.”

Odd, isn’t it? I agree with The Business Insider: “Web editors simply must pay attention to readers’ clicks for two obvious reasons. It’s the main way readers can show what kinds of stories they care about.”

Meanwhile, what’s this NYTimes prototype?

NYT Prototype

Would You Pay for New York Times Online?

That’s the question James Poniewozik asks at Time’s Tuned In blog.

“The questions are, simply: what/who will pay, will it work, and what will it pay for? ….Beyond that, the shoulds are just a philosophical exercise. New systems for funding the time to do journalism are not going to appear just because you, I or Bill Keller thinks they should. Few people will pay for news because they should. And news media are not going to find a way to bring you content for free just because they should.”

I say the NY Times will fail with a for-pay service unless it does two things. One, treat the for-pay service as an application, not a content offering. Two, make the for-pay service available on a commerce platform we’re all already using, namely iTunes or Amazon.

Too many newspaper publishers are stuck viewing the world from a “content is my value” orientation. This confuses them into thinking anyone has ever paid for his or her newspaper subscription because the writing is so darn good that riots in Iran covered by any other author just wouldn’t convey the news. Oh please. I get it that investigative reporting — the hard work of tracking down the facts and verifying them on certain stories — isn’t free, but the major newspapers don’t have a monopoly on reporting either, and most of the news we read everyday doesn’t require Bob Woodward to find another Deep Throat.

An “app” orientation assumes that what we readers are paying for (since the dawn of newspapers) is service. Two services, mostly. One, getting the news to our doorstep or a newsstand conveniently located on our walk to the train station. ISPs and web browsers on our cellphones have solved the news-delivery problem; we’re not likely to pay a publisher for home delivery again. Two, culling the over-abundant supply of current events down to the handful of news items I need to be aware of — those five stories each day elected by the NYT editors to make the front page. We pay for the filtering, not the quality, of the content.

I’m sure there are other valuable news services beyond those two. My point is that we are all more likely to hand over money for a “service” than for a bag of content. The news organizations that lean into services will win the day.