NPR’s analytics tool will measure how much readers care

Nice to see Brian Boyer and co at NPR have won Knight Foundation funding to build Carebot, a tool that aims to improve the nature of news analytics.

Writing on, Benjamin Mullin says Carebot will try to determine how valuable stories are to readers, rather than just counting pageviews and unique browsers.

“The stated mission of the project, spearheaded by NPR Visuals Editor Brian Boyer, is to devise metrics that change how newsrooms measure and celebrate successful stories,” writes Mullin.

“Our official team motto these days is: We make people care,” Boyer said. “We believe that visual journalism has the power to make people care. So if that’s our motto, if that’s what we tell ourselves, if that’s what we’re trying to do every day, then how do we know if we’re doing our jobs? How do we measure that success?”

Carebot will aggregate data from Chartbeat, Google Analytics, Facebook and Twitter, and run an algorithm that looks at “social engagement (likes, shares, comments) time spent on site and completion rate. Rather than examining raw numbers for each statistic, Carebot will base its scores on the number of engagements per pageview. By this reckoning, a story with 1,000,000 pageviews and 1000 shares would have a lower Carebot score than a story with 1,000 pageviews and 100 shares.”

NPR plans to open-source the program for use by other news organisations, Mullin says.

Read more about the concept in Mullin’s piece on

‘Users convert to digital subscribers at a rate of ~1 per cent’

Some useful details about the workings of paywalls in excerpts from Jeff Jarvis’s book Geeks Bearing Gifts published on Medium.

1. If you can expect to convert people from user to digital subscriber at a rate of around 1 per cent, then you need a lot of users to begin with.

Martin Nisenholtz, the business executive who started, has told my classes that giving away Times content online was not an original sin but a foundational necessity, for The Times needed to compete with other new players and to build market share. In fact, being free allowed The Times to become a truly international brand with a huge audience: almost 60 million monthly readers online vs. fewer than 1 million buyers daily in print. Having that large an audience is what made it possible for The Times to put up its meter, for its conversion rate from online user to digital subscriber is only a bit over 1 percent, but 1 percent of almost 60 million is a lot of subscribers.

2. People read far fewer stories than we might imagine. At lesser newspapers ‘an average of 3-4 per cent of users hit the paywall and about half a per cent of those will pay’.

When it started to charge, The Times allowed users to see 20 stories a month for free (with various additions, including links from social media) before encountering the meter and getting hit up to pay up. But not enough people hit the wall and got the pitch. The Times lowered the barrier so customers would see only 10 stories a month for free. That means the vast majority of The Times’ audience doesn’t read so much as one story every three days. That is a shockingly low level of engagement for the pinnacle of a profession that considers itself vital to the maintenance of democracy and society. For lesser newspapers, the numbers are worse. According to Jeff Hartley, vice president for consumer revenue at the Morris Publishing Group, experience with Press+, the leading provider of paywall services, shows that on average 3–4 percent of users will come often enough to hit the wall and about half a percent of those stopped will pay.

Read the rest here.

Nice clarity of thought on value of Economist to readers

The Economist’s Tom Standage spoke to Joseph Lichterman at Nieman Lab recently about:

The Economist’s Tom Standage on digital strategy and the limits of a model based on advertising

I was struck by the clarity of purpose expressed in these paragraphs:

We sell the antidote to information overload — we sell a finite, finishable, very tightly curated bundle of content. And we did that initially as a weekly print product. Then it turns out you can take that same content and deliver it through an app.

The “you’ve got to the end and now you’ve got permission to go do something else” is something you never get. You can never finish the Internet, you can never finish Twitter, and you can never really finish The New York Times, to be honest. So at its heart is that we have this very high density of information, and the promise we make to the reader is that if you trust us to filter and distill the news, and if you give us an hour and a half of your time — which is roughly how long people spend reading The Economist each week — then we’ll tell you what matters in the world and what’s going on.

The article’s a good read. Recommended.

I’d forgotten how much you have to learn to be a journalist

I’m doing a stint this semester as the Journalist in Residence at AUT University. This week, the first week of term, we’re running a bootcamp for degree and post-graduate students studying journalism.

Some students have done preparatory courses for this year, others haven’t. Either way they all have a lot to master in the year ahead.

They’re starting on a very steep learning curve this week: interviewing, recording, writing and filing stories to deadline from day one.

Watching the bootcamp unfold has made me realise how much I’ve learned and internalised over the years. How many things that working (and even lapsed) journalists do instinctively.

We already know how to take notes, check our audio is recording, listen to who we’re talking to, adapt questions on the fly, put people at ease and mentally map how the story will read all at the same time.

We’ve already been yelled at, forgotten to push record, got facts/names/dates wrong, felt like a fool, been overwhelmed and elated and overwhelmed again and come out the other side.

But for someone new, interviewing someone you’ve never met before is not at all instinctive. It’s awkward. A little like the clunky process of learning to drive: remember, think, do, feel overwhelmed, feel relieved, rinse and repeat.

So hats off to the crew of 2015 for rushing headlong into the challenge. Hang in there, it’s going to get easier.

In the weeks and months ahead our students will be publishing stories in news publications around Auckland, and the country, on our own website and in our print edition Te Waha Nui.

You can follow our progress, and see our stories on Facebook and Twitter. And right now some of our students are sharing thoughts, images, and requests for information using the hashtag #AUTbootcamp.

You might want to help them out with story ideas, suggestions of great people to follow, and tips on how to be an effective journalist and citizen on Twitter and beyond.

And if you’re in a position to offer an internship a little later to one or more of our hardy students, drop me a line. I’d love to hear from you.


How printing ink is made

Take 8 minutes out of your day to watch how a printing company makes and tests great big, blobby, beautiful barrels of ink. Or just listen: it’s accompanied by “Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-Flat Major, Op. 73, “The Emperor”: II. Adagio un poco mosso” by Apollo Symphony Orchestra (Google PlayiTunes).


See also this lovely piece from Mary Pilon on Backchannel about the last typewriter repairmen in New York. Includes some very pretty typewriter pron photos with a nicely written story:

He pointed at the wall of photographs and news clippings with weathered hands, which he concedes have been ink-stained since the Eisenhower administration.




Maths, locks & sewing machines: the beauty of educational GIFs

Loving the educational GIFs popping up around the place. This one, which I saw on an IFLS post that pulls together 21 maths GIFs, demonstrates ‘how to make an ellipse’. It’s from

This one I find so simple but so illuminating. A GIF from NikolayS that shows how a sewing machine makes a stitch.

LockstitchCopyright Licence: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported.You can re-use this file so long as you say who created it and share it under the same licence.


Lee LeFever of CommonCraft is creating a guide on how to create GIFs to use as explainers. He blogged about it (which is where I found this sewing machine GIF) and you can sign up for the guide at

He also wrote a nice post about the power of GIFs to explain as well as entertain: Welcome to the Next Golden Age of Animated GIFs.

That post includes a number of GIF-making tools including: — Simply add “gif” to any YouTube URL (…) to open this tool. — The popular image hosting site recently rolled out a new GIF conversion tool that converts GIFs to smaller mp4 videos.

LiceCap — Free, works on Windows and OSX

This one, posted by baruthi on, shows a key opening a lock. Weirdly mesmerising.

Then there are the lovely GIFs created for the GIF It Up competition run by Digital NZ and the Digital Public Library of America. The winners are here and you can see more of the GIFs on the GIF It Up tumblr.


GIF-IT-UP Screengrab



Let’s bring UX design to the news experience

I read a great post by Jared Spool this morning on ‘The curse of a mobile strategy’. The killer pull-out quote for me is this one:

The problem with a mobile strategy is it’s about the medium of delivery, not what is being delivered. It focuses on the technology questions. Do we build a native app or a web-based solution? It doesn’t ask, what’s the best experience for the customer?

I’ve noticed a tendency in news organisations I’ve worked with to focus on technology – the new platform, new storytelling device, new bells and whistles – without ever really rethinking the underlying proposition of what works best for readers.

Over the years I’ve heard a lot of thinking along these lines:

  • We should do an app, everyone’s got apps these days.
  • Why don’t we look like the Guardian? We should look more like the Guardian.
  • We need to do more video, it’s getting clicks and we can sell ads into it.
  • Data journalism’s a thing, let’s do some.
  • Love that New York Times Snow Fall thing, let’s do more stuff like that!
  • Wow, Serial. Let’s do stuff like that!
  • Lists are working great for Buzzfeed. Let’s do lists!
  • Mobile, mobile, mobile, we need to do more mobile!

Which is fine, as far as it goes, and some of those things are going to prove useful to the business and to readers (I like – and have said – some of that stuff too).

But it’s really a variation on the “Let’s do what we’ve always done but stick it online too!” of the 90s and “Let’s do what we’ve always done but stick it in an app too!” of the early 2000s.

The question/s that tend to be asked are: where/how else can we publish our content to better suit our readers? And that’s cool.

But what I’ve never heard in a newsroom or boardroom is anyone asking the more fundamental question:

How can we make a great experience for our readers?

Or the follow-up questions:

What do people want to know? What do they want to understand? (Which is a very different question to ‘what do people want to read?’)

What’s missing? What are readers looking for and not finding? What are those things people know they’re hankering for but can’t quite describe?

What’s getting in people’s way? What’s making it hard for people to find the stuff they want to read? What’s turning people off?

What do people want to do with the things they’re reading, the information they’re finding? What do they do with them?

If, at any one time, reader x is in a queue at the Post Office swiping through his phone, and reader y is hopping between news sites and Facebook and email in her office, and reader z is having an idle iPad moment in his tractor, and reader b is having lunch in his hair salon and has just picked up his phone to see what’s changed since two hours ago, and reader c is having a serious news catch-up at home before returning to writing her thesis, then how do we create experiences that work for each of them?

These kinds of questions feel important to me.

They’re partly about navigation and platform and functionality and storytelling devices:

If I don’t want to read about crime or court or celebrities or tragedies, how well does the news homepage serve me? Can I subscribe to an email of daily news that excludes these categories? How long will it take me to set up? To change? Can I set it up on my phone while I’m in the queue at the Post Office?

Can I subscribe to Government news but not political news (i.e. not the stories about what he said about the thing she said about the thing that may or may not happen in 2020)?

I was in meetings all day, have you got a 3-minute summary of what happened that I can read? Actually, scratch that, I’m too tired to read, can you give it to me in a video?

My internet connection’s gone batshit slow and I can’t watch the video. Got a transcript?

But they’re also about the substance of the stories themselves:

If I want to understand what the Government’s doing, am I going to be best served by over-worked gallery journalists firing off quick questions to politicians while they’re walking into the Debating Chamber, then writing up the quick answers?

If I want to understand social housing in New Zealand (in the wake of the Government’s announced social housing programme), how much will reading a couple of news stories help me? Is there another way you can help me?

If I want to understand child poverty, which is an ongoing issue much discussed in New Zealand, will reading news stories only when a report has been released or a politician has delivered a stump speech help me? Is there a way you can walk me through the complexity of the issues over time? Can I easily find what you’ve published using your on-site search engine? Are your videos and timelines and slideshows and stories titled and marked up and written in a way that will make sense to someone reading them a week later? A year later?

It seems to me that UX designers would be really helpful in news product and story development – to help frame these questions and figure out how to test and design around them, within the inherent constraints and challenges.

Certainly I’d be interested in working up a little news project with a couple of UX designers if there’s anyone around who’d like to spend some time thinking about news? If so, hit me up!

Meantime, check out Mr Spool’s piece. He makes a lot of great points and it’s well worth a read.

Also, Min Ming Lo has a pretty accessible outline of what various kinds of designers do (UX, UI, Research, Motion, Visual etc).

 This post is also on Medium.


PM John Key’s Social Housing Speech: A Checklist

I read Prime Minister John Key’s Social Housing Speech and thought it might be useful to pull out the main actionable points and put them in a checklist: a way of keeping track, should you want to.

I recommend reading the whole speech for context. (I haven’t been able to include everything here.)

If you’re after news coverage and commentary, this google search is a reasonable starting point.

You may also want to look at: The Week That Was in New Zealand Government News Jan 26-30, 2015 

Last updated: Thursday 5 February 2015
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* If you spot any errors, please let me know and I’ll fix them. Thank you!



Job prospects for new journalists? Low-ish, according to app

A sobering picture of becoming a journalist in this screengrab from the NZ Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment’s career-planning app Occupation Outlook.

Journalists' Prospect MBIE App

Why the lowish-looking job prospects for journalists in New Zealand? Because: competition for few vacancies.

Chances of getting a job as a journalist have improved, due to higher turnover in the industry and major changes in the way the industry is structured, but prospects are still limited because of high competition for few vacancies. Chances of promotion have also improved, with many more senior positions available than used to be the case.

The brightest prospects (and most expensive to study) include veterinarian, doctor, dentist, physiotherapist, psychologist, accountant and environmental scientist.

Environmental Scientists' Prospects

The Occupation Outlook app was launched by MBIE earlier this year. Here’s the MBIE blurb:

Occupation Outlook is a great place to look when thinking about your study and career options. It contains education, employment and income information on 50 key occupations in New Zealand to give you a clearer picture of possible career paths. These 50 were chosen for their size, popularity, and potential for future growth.

You’ll find the link for the app (iTunes or Google Play) here.

Below is the page about journalism that appears in the app.

MBIE Occupation Outlook: Journalists


Three worthwhile reads on the future of news (2015)

Snapchat’s new Discover feature could be a significant moment in the evolution of mobile news

Joshua Benton does a thorough job pulling together thoughts and reactions to Snapchat’s new Discover feature. He says it’s significant because it a) puts news where the audience already is, b) is completely mobile native, and c) retains flexibility in form. He also notes, though, that challenges will come when/if it scales – “navigation problems, discovery problems, personalization problems”.

I agree it’s significant and was pretty impressed when I first saw it (once I figured out the navigation). That said, I haven’t remembered to go back since that first visit.

Snapchat for beginners: Mashable

I use Snapchat because friends and family do, and because I’m sometimes a lazy communicator and find it fantastically convenient to snap a photo and scribble a one-line message.

Most users, though, are young. And Snapchat’s early news partners in Discover are making a real effort to target accordingly.

From ‘Trust in News’ to ‘News Profiling’

Frédéric Filloux, in Monday Note, discusses The Trust Project’s suggestions for improving trust in the news. I agree with them all: they include news organisations posting a mission and ethics statement, listing the expertise of their writers and contributors, indicating who and what level of editing was involved on a given story, including citations (links to source material), and showing how a story was put together (eg how many interviews, the reading, and checking involved).

The Trust Project is an effort by Richard Gingras of Google News & journalist and ethics scholar Sally Lehrman “to consider new approaches to building trust in journalism”. I recommend reading their thoughts on Medium:

Online Chaos Demands Radical Action by Journalism to Earn Trust

Filloux adds the concept of readers enabling Google to create a News Profile of themselves which can be matched with semantic information from publications to create a tailored news feed: “Think about the benefits: A skimmed version of Google News, tailored to my preferences, that could include a dose of serendipity for good measure… Isn’t it better than a painstakingly assembled RSS feed that needs constant manual updates?”

A mile wide, an inch deep

I can’t recommend this piece from Medium CEO Evan Williams highly enough. His take on the value of various audience metrics is bang on, in my view.  A couple of excerpts:

We pay more attention to time spent reading than number of visitors at Medium because, in a world of infinite content — where there are a million shiny attention-grabbing objects a touch away and notifications coming in constantly — it’s meaningful when someone is actually spending time.

The problem with time, though, is it’s not actually measuring value. It’s measuring cost as a proxy for value. Advertisers don’t really want your time — they want to make an impression on your mind… As the writer of this piece, I don’t really want your time — I want to make an impression on how you think… At Medium, we don’t really want anyone’s time. We want to create a platform that enables people to make an impression on others… It’s hard to measure all that.

This is the problem with any one-dimensional metric. As Jonah Peretti says, there’s no “God metric”:

If you’re an entrepreneur (or public company employee), don’t get caught up in this. Numbers are important. Number of users is important. So are lots of other things. Different services create value in different ways. Trust your gut as much (or more) than the numbers. Figure out what matters and build something good.

 See also: