The lifecycle of a news story and the structuring of news site

I’ve been obsessed with the lifecycle of news for many years now: with both surfacing archival content, as well as resurfacing existing news.

I’m troubled by the short lifecycle that a news story has, and dependency on two factors:
- Visibility: The reach of social media, which is limited by two factors. Firstly, the transience of social media, given that both facebook and twitter have an immense number of updates that users have to go through, and a single update will get lost in the deluge. Secondly, personalization and the throttling of reach. Facebook virtually killed reach around July/August 2013, which means that publishers are forced to pay for reach on a platform that they initially popularized. It was bait-and-switch by Facebook, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Twitter does something like this too.
- Intent: If you’re found only when a user is looking for something that you’ve written, then that limits your reach because you’re competing with Wikipedia. Discovery is in Google’s hands. Tweaks of their algorithm can kill a publishing businesses.

So how do you deal with this, and help readers learn more? Invariably, it means doing two things:

1. Different story structures:

The ContentSutra model, which I was inducted into by @Rafat, was part news, party aggregation, part opinion. It was 2006. I naturally gravitated towards linking back towards historical content to provide readers with more reference material, and this was expanded upon with MediaNama where we began with doing fewer but deeper stories and linking to stories both internal and external. This means that you follow an almost Wikipedia like approach to structuring a story, enabling users to discover and explore more stories. This benefits a publication in that users visit more pages, spend more time with the publication, and/or pay for archival content. In this way, the structuring of a story helps increase the lifecycle of the story.

Another way of doing this is to create timelines to provide context.

With news being commoditised, readers will go where they believe they’ll receive maximum value for their time. If you consistently provide value, they’ll turn to you more often, and linking to more stories internally or externally does that.

2. Different discovery mechanisms: With the new MediaNama design, we’re bring tags to the top, and using plugins to highlight popular content by day, month and year. The key approach with the plugins is that the story page is the homepage, and by showcasing related content in the left sidebar, we’re helping readers discover relevant, related stories.

The tag pages are design in a card based layout, and possibly the best designed of our pages, created to help discover more content. They help readers more on a particular company and topic. They’re still not ideal, in my view, and we’ll have to figure out iterations that deliver more context. The basic idea here is that the tag page is the homepage for that issue/company etc. Ideally, I’d like to have surfaced job posts for that same company or topic, company announcements, a key events timeline. That was a plan for MediaNama before it began, and I think this is where WordPress limits us. Drupal can allow this – a job board, an outsourcing board, a company page with announcements uploaded. The richer the detail in the tag pages, the greater their lifecycle and relevance.

It’s also in line with the “body of work” approach we take to editorial: each story is, the way we look at it, a part of a connected history. Over 20 stories on net neutrality, for example, give you complete context on what’s going on.

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The one problem that this doesn’t solve for me is surfacing some great, relevant archival stories. For example, the 2008 guidelines for MVNO’s provide learning on how the government was thinking about them then, and while I know that I can look those up and link to them, the thing with the digital industry is that most people don’t have historical or cross-segment context. That’s where we, as editors, come in, I guess.

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A little room to breathe

The thing I’ve always loved about the people I follow on Twitter is what they bring to my timeline: their curation, perspective, and criticism helps me learn. They bring a variety no editor can, but of late, my timeline has become rather unidimensional: it’s almost entirely about politics and news, and the OOTD (Outrage of the day). The problem with the outrage is that it usually makes for great conversation, and now dominates offline conversations if you have many friends who are active on Twitter. Which I do. I don’t want to be the one asking ‘so, what exactly happened?’, which is true of many of us.

But we need room to breathe, to think. Something a mentor said in a conversation earlier this month: he schedules his email and news reading because he needs contiguous free time to think. I also feel we need contiguous free time to do, which is a luxury that someone in my line of work (entrepreneur + journalist) doesn’t get.

So how do we deal with this? We take social media breaks, and schedule our usage, and block people who do the telemarketer thing: poor targeting with no respect for the other persons time.

Scheduling doesn’t quite address the other compelling problem. One thing that @mrajshekhar said to me a few years ago constantly worries me: at a time when I had become completely consumed with medianama, so much so that it was the only thing I’d talk about, Shekhar told me that I need to change, lest I become too unidimensional, which I never was. I’ve tried, not always successfully, but I’ve tried and keep trying.

The same thing, though, is happening on Twitter: the people I follow have become too newsy and too caught up in things of immediate concern (not necessarily of immediate importance). There are those who’re constantly posturing, sermonising, outraging, whether through tweets or retweets.

I was discussing this with Rishi Majumder in Mumbai, when we met at the Prithvi Theatre Festival: Twitter used to be my primary source for gigs, and for interesting things to do. Now, I invariably miss these gigs because of the flood of news, even from friends. I’m going to do two things, and I hope people won’t mind: I need more than a little room to breathe, and to discover more stuff that doesn’t feel like work. News does.

The third thing is that for my own sanity, I need a bit of positivity around me. There are people who’re negative and bring you down by what they say, not just to you. Then there are those who are positive, and make you believe that good things are possible. I need that bubble right now.

I’m going to create two lists: one for newsy folks, and one for temporarily unfollowed, for those who are going on a rant. This means I’m going to unfollow some people, and can only hope that they don’t treat it like a break-up (I’ve had that happen to me thrice already).

Then I’m going to follow people who do the artsy thing, because that’s the part that’s being crowded out.

p.s.: In case it wasn’t evident, I think I’m becoming to newsy too. Time for me to change too.

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On defining processes

I’m constantly thinking of processes, especially editorial processes, that allow for room to innovate. It’s difficult to quantify editorial processes because the output is creative. I’m not sure of how long form publications like the Caravan do it, and I’ve heard great things about Jonathan Shainin (who’s now with the Guardian), and how, sometimes, his feedback on an article would be longer than the article itself. Things are very different for a news and analysis publication like MediaNama, because we’re mostly doing news, and then a little more.

I’ve looked at style guides from various international publications (donated to me by a benevolent friend), and I found it surprising that the focus was significantly on maintaining parity in formats and the usage of certain types of phrases, and seeking certain types of information (when it comes to financial reporting). What they didn’t appear to focus on, was questions. This might have to do with the kind of reports they do – which are largely short, for a general audience (or a general business audience), and on the basis questions they ask. With so much information alredy at our disposal, a significant part of our work is making sense of information. Our style guides (called #NAMAstyleguide) are mostly about structuring of stories, providing formats, but more importantly, to look for information and provide an analysis that helps change perspectives on the development. As a publication, in order to make readers think, we first have to make our journalists think. Of course, other processes that we have in place ensure that a styleguide is almost never needed, and but it helps to have documentation around how we want to think. So, our style guides essentially focus on the kind of questions we want our stories to answer for readers. While some style guides are still not complete, some have options of 10-15 questions that a story can answer. Not all of them need to be answers, but I feel that questions provide a great sense of direction.

As we expand editorial (we’re currently a team of 5, though I’m going to be write less frequently), and begin working with freelancers, the ambiguity and decision making around many things makes the entire process cumbersome for everyone. The way we work has to change too – in terms of reporting structures, roles and responsibilities. I’m aware of instances, particularly around research and events, where we’ve messed up, I’ve messed up, or allowed things to be messed up. Each screw up brings with it its own learning, and it’s important to define processes more granularly, and change processes with each iteration. What I consciously worry about is the risk of templatization in a manner that doesn’t allow flexibility. Still much to figure out.

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Pings on a network: Taking control of your time

At an Airtel event a couple of months ago, someone from their network team explained to me why connections don’t really work very well at toll booths. We were in Gurgaon, a few months after the Gurgaon toll booth had been shut down to allow free passage of non-commercial vehicles. Before that happened, you had to add around 15-20 minutes to your ETA, to get through the toll. Both sides of the toll saw hundreds, if not a thousand cars waiting to go through, during peak hours. It’s not just calls, the Airtel exec explained. Each phone sends out multiple pings to multiple towers for multiple things (I forget which), because of which, the towers get overloaded because during peak ours, too many phones (and people) reach there at the same time.

‘Ping’ is a phrase some of use also use, when asking someone to contact us: “Ping me”. Every message we receive is a ping. Given how connected we are, there are multiple ways of being contacted: via Twitter (message, DM), Whatsapp (messaging or groups), email (or multiple emails), phone calls, text messages.

Each ping leads to a decision that your network makes, and at certain times, the number of pings on your network can be overwhelming. What’s more, as an entrepreneur and a journalist, and someone who is open and accessible, these pings come to me from many many sources, each of a different order of priority, each with a different set of expectations, and expectations of detailing of response.

Each ping is a decision. Even deferring a decision is a decision, every response can lead to more, so each ping can lead to multiple decisions. Decision making is often tough, and too many decisions can be tiring. Some people view my lack of response as arrogance, but I can’t help that.

To deal with pings on my network, I do two things: Firstly, try and reduce the number of pings that reach me. Secondly, respond to them in a manner that makes sense, and take decisions quicker and better.

Reducing pings: Taking control of your time

1. Set up processes to ensure that only important pings reach you: At one time, I used to get around 250 emails from companies and PR agencies each day, many of which were irrelevant. I have over 1200 gmail filters that I update religiously. Most emails go straight to trash. I check trash according to my convenience, and move to inbox the relevant emails. For the rest of the mails (everything from marine fuel, diapers, films releases, book launches, face creams etc), this process saves me a click per mail. A lot of pings avoided. Almost all PR agency mobile numbers are blocked (I love Xiaomi’s MIUI), because the process I prefer is: email –> email again –> SMS –> Assume I’m not interested.

2. Act to reduce the number of pings: In a similar manner, you can choose to mute Whatsapp groups, ask people to not cc you on twitter discussions (it’s sometimes perceived to be rude, but it’s important), untag yourself from Facebook updates. One action saves you the trouble of sifting through hundreds of updates.

3. Make things asynchronous: People expect immediate responses to messages. That’s often not possible for you, because if you did that, you would spend most of the day responding to people, and responding to their responses. Making things as asynchronous means looking into things at specific points in time. Turn off most notifications on your mobile phone(s) and check only when needed. Don’t auto-sync email to your mobile device. I’ve disabled call waiting on my phone.  One thing at a time, and if it’s important, the caller can message. Schedule the time that you spend on facebook and Twitter (instead of being always on). Shift to a read-only mode on social media, unless you really have time for a conversation. Ask people to switch a discussion to email, so that you don’t have to respond in real-time.

I defer reading and responding to mails when there is something important that I’m working on, and I’ve struggled to make this a norm: of checking email only in spurts, instead of real-time. I’m reminded of my uncle Deepak Pahwa, who, when on holiday in the pre-email era, would only allow calls from office for an hour in the morning, and an hour in the evening.

The important thing here is: You’re outnumbered, and need to take control of your time. Because if you won’t, others will.

4. Set up processes to allow others to make not-important decisions for you: To address the email issue, we set up a releases@medianama.com address which goes out to everyone. This way, someone apart from me can make a decision on something that isn’t of significant priority to me anymore. We also set up a Google Doc for Work in Progress (i.e. stories that we’re working on), wherein journalists can stake claim to certain stories (so we don’t have multiple people working on the same thing at the same time), and any inputs can be shared voluntarily without being requested.

We also set up a peer review system for stories, which means that each individual helps someone else. This addresses the issue that hierarchies face, where the boss becomes the bottleneck because he has to take too many decisions and keeps deferring them. The added advantage of this is: if you’re critiquing someone elses work, it makes you think, and helps you get better. Responsibility is collective.

There’s also a MediaNama stylebook, where we’ve outlined broadly how to approach specific types of stories. Again, it’s supposed to reduce my involvement (and reduce pings that I receive), and not many of us refer to it often enough, but it’s there in case someone needs help on how to approach a story.

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One of the bigger challenges is delegation upwards, but I do think I have managed to reduce the number of pings I get, by following these rules. Importantly, I hope it also means that those who work with us get used to making more decisions, and become better at what they do.

In part 2, when I get the time, I’ll look at something that I constantly struggle with: decision making. In the meantime, if you have any suggestions on reducing pings on network, or how you’ve done this, please do leave a comment.

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It wasn’t a smirk

It was exasperation.

This article on Niti Central, an online publication that claims that it is “Bold and right”, has focused an inordinate amount of its attention on my facial expressions during a debate on NDTV’s show “The Social Network”. Instead of focusing on the points I was making on the show, the writer appears to have attempted to discredit my views by focusing on how I was smiling by saying that I was smirking. I find that rather petty, and symptomatic of the discourse that we currently see on Twitter today.

Shifting the focus doesn’t change the fact that those (apparently) representing the left (Congress) and the right (BJP) on the show were constantly attacking each other, and in the process, drowning out the others point of view on the show.

I was smiling because that’s exactly the point I was trying to make, and it was being proven on the show: both parties, the Congress and the BJP, have been constantly attacking each other on Twitter, and reacting to criticism by attacking the person criticizing them. In the process, they’re drowning out all legitimate debate.

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I support neither party. I’m neutral, and undecided, and equally critical of both sides. The Congress lost me long long ago with its ruinous policies, and the BJP is losing me with its vitriol, and lack of focus on what it plans to do for the economy. I hate it that what should be a debate on who has better ideas to improve things for citizens has turned into a shouting match, with each trying to prove the other is worse.

The trolls are obnoxious. By being vicious, vindictive and crass, they’re losing me as a voter. Things have been tough the last few months, and Twitter was once a place one could turn to, for friends and some banter – that five minute break (multiple times a day) that could brighten up things for you. Now it has people spewing hate and vitriol. I’ve unfollowed a lot of people in the past week – some for tweeting, some just for retweeting.

That was the point I was making on the show – don’t feed the trolls, and unfollow with a vengeance.

The discussion on NDTV was on mobs taking over Social Media, in the context of a satirical page criticising one party being shut down, alleging that he was being harassed. It was about mobs. Instead both sides tried to appropriate the discussion by blaming the other, hijacking the debate on whether the mobs are stifling free speech (which I feel strongly about), and focusing on a micro issue of one satirical page being (allegedly) forced to shut down by mobs, instead of the macro issue of this stupid, relentless and immature blame game.

You can abuse the other person all that you want, but that never really makes you look good. This morning, I was critical of the Congress for having shut down Aditi Restaurant in Mumbai, because it printed a snarky message on its bills, criticising the UPA government. A Congress supporter started attacking me because I agreed with a point an alleged BJP supporter was making. How does that help their cause? It just shifts the debate away from the policy being discussed.

As a neutral, if you support one sides point of view, the other side labels you and attacks you.

I don’t remember where I read this, but this stuck: be a gentleman not because the other person deserves it, but because you are one. There aren’t enough gentlemen around, unfortunately.

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I smiled because I’m Indian, and there are times when we’re fatalistic. I was amused by the helpless situation I am in: Look at these two parties, or the Niti Central article which tries to divert attention from the issue: do we have any choice? They’re both giving me reasons to not vote for the other. Arvind Kejriwal is doing much the same with the Aam Aadmi Party.

Here’s an idea for the Congress or the BJP: Assume that the other party doesn’t exist. I’m a neutral, undecided voter. Now tell me, the voter, why I should vote for you.

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Hint: I’m socially liberal, believe in a small government, light-touch regulation (unless cartels need to be broken), open markets, empowerment of small businesses, a low fiscal deficit and low government spending, and transparency and accountability in governance. I’m also almost a freedom-of-expression absolutist (minus defamation), so…oops.

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And we are back

Things to do:

  • Set up photo gallery
  • Change WP theme
  • Integrate twitter account
  • Write about last year
  • Upload photos from travel last year
  • Change the world*

* – optional

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Introducing MEDIANAMA: News & Analysis of Digital Media in India

Last Friday, my new digital media site – Medianama.com – went live with an interview with S. Sivakumar, the CEO designate for Times Private Treaties, the ads-for-equity investment arm of Bennett & Coleman Co Ltd (BCCL), which owns some of India’s largest media properties – the Times of India, Times Now, The Economic Times, Mumbai Mirror, Times OOH, Zoom TV, Femina, among others.

We raised a few contentious issues, focusing on what exactly Private Treaties brings to the table for startups, about investing in competitive businesses, whether editorial content is a part of the deal, and and whether they offer any strategic support at all. It was a long and consuming interview, and you can probably tell by the audio how involved both the interviewee and the interviewer (me) were.

For Medianama, it was an explosive large start – the kind I wasn’t expecting – and I think we’re now settling into the rhythm of analysing developments in the digital media business. A few things will emerge with time – we’ll try to offer significant perspective on the Digital Media industry, while also covering news, and we’ll offer an increased focus on certain domains that are still emerging. The reasoning behind an emerging segments focus: the deeper we dig, the more knowledge we’re able to share about these domains. In effect, we hope to help decision makers – entrepreneurs, investors, consultants and observers – understand the domain better.

It’s not been much of a break for me – Medianama has taken around 3 weeks of work. I worked till 9:30pm on my last day at CS, and finished off with a Yahoo vs T-Series story and the Sify earnings report. I don’t think I wanted a break anyway – I love this domain and love my work…staying away for these three weeks alone was difficult, as you probably gauged by a few posts that I did in the interim.

Medianama will continue to evolve as we go along, and if you have any suggestions, please do share at nikhil AT medianama DOT com.

For now, it’s back to work.

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An update…and another soon.

May 31st was my last day with ContentNext Media (and at contentSutra), and I’ve been on something of a sabbatical since. Expect an announcement from me soon. Have done a few posts on this blog – which just goes to show how difficult it is for me to take a break from blogging. contentSutra was an incredible experience for me – something of a roller coaster, and left me completely consumed by the digital media business. Love the space and am committed to being there. All credit to Rafat and Staci for giving an untried rookie so much freedom and responsibility. Rafat gave me the confidence to fight for stories that were deservedly mine, and Staci guided me through many-a-tricky situation. Still remember one of the first few mails from Rafat, where he ended with “Let’s blow this up big.” To some extent, I think we did.

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Funky Reva

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TenCent To Invest $7.5M In MIH India Over 3 Years; Can Acquire Upto 50 Pc Stake

MIH India Global Internet, the holding company for Indian Internet properties like ibibo.com, dwaar.com, onefamily.com, Newscola.com and bixee.com, and ad network AdWinks, has entered into an agreement to divest as much as 50 percent stake (less one share) to China based Tencent Holdings. Tencent, in turn, will invest at least $7.5 Million in MIH India over a period of three years, though it has the option of increasing that investment if needed. There are some conditions (of assuming certain loans) under which Tencent can increase its holding to 50 percent shareholding (minus one share).

Burn Rate: Take a look at the losses that MIH has suffered since launch:

Assuming that MIH started operations around August 2006, they’ve suffered a net loss of $18.947 Million in 23 months – an average loss of $1.114 Million (Rs. 4.76 Crores) per month. Some of that money has been spent on acquiring a 30 percent stake in ACL Wireless for $12.3 Million in July 2007, acquiring Bixee and Pixrat (for websites and a team of developers in Bangalore), developing products, allowing users to call each other for free, payouts to users as prizes, sponsoring TV shows like ibibo MTV Superstar and ibibo FTV Fashion Photographer.

Internal company transaction? This may be considered to be an internal company transaction, since the parent company of MIH India – Naspers, owns a 35.5 percent stake in TenCent. Interestingly, I’d heard murmurs of TenCent being in talks with MIH India around a year ago, but wasn’t able to verify. The deal didn’t appear to mean much then, since both are a part of Naspers portfolio.

More on valuation, Tencent’s agenda, and probable launches – Continue reading

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