Secrets to becoming the next media disruptor from HuffPo CTO John Pavley

A newsroom - photo from Creative Commons

Photo courtesy of John Pavley

While traditional media outlets wring their hands and issue alarming reports about slipping ad dollars and loss of audience shares, web-based publications like The Huffington Post and Buzzfeed are not-so-quietly taking over as viral news sites and redefining the behavior of a successful news publisher.

At the helm of such a major shift in news dissemination are the few folks who can stand on the crux of engineering / software development and editorial prowess and see the future. Huffington Post’s Chief Technology Officer John Pavley, an alum of Spotify and Apple among other tech companies, is one such individual.

Between managing all things tech at the sixth most trafficked U.S. news site and creating articles and drawings for HuffPo, Pavley took time to chat with Ebyline about leading HuffPo into the newsroom of the future, and the trends ahead. Below is an excerpt of our conversation.

What’s the newsroom dynamic like at the Huffington Post?

There isn’t a wall. There’s no [physical] wall between the technology team and the edit team. And there also isn’t a cultural wall. There isn’t this idea that [as an editor] you have to go to tech and beg for your work to get done or that if you go to [the editorial department] they’re not going to listen to you because you’re just a techie.

We encourage every single developer to take editorial training. And we encourage every editor to learn enough technology training that they feel comfortable to have a great discussion with an engineer. So it’s not like one side talking down to the other. They’re meeting as equal partners.

With all of this collaboration, is any side in charge?

We like to think of ourselves as editorial lead. So we focus very much on ‘What are the needs of our editors? What are the needs of our consumers?’ There certainly are technical needs as well in terms of scalability and performance. But one of the most important things to us is that our editors have the tools and the data that they need to execute their jobs. We’re a very flat organization.

As chief technology officer at HuffPo, what do you focus on most?

I hire really great people. That’s my number one focus is to bring on board fantastic talent… You can have a great process, you can have a great product, but if you don’t have a great team, all that falls down.

Number two is efficiency. I spend my days and nights, when I’m not recruiting people to build really great products, I sit down and think about ‘Are we doing as well as we can? What is preventing us from really knocking it out of the park every time?’

And then technology. I look at are we using really great modern technology to build our applications and our backend systems and our data analysis and our data collection systems? Are we using technologies that are really giving us huge return on investment, that are low-maintenance and that allow our developers to make changes very rapidly without creating a lot of technical debt?

John Pavley

 

What are some trends you have your eye on this year?

There’s a whole new world out there and we really have to take mobile seriously. It’s not web on smaller devices. We’re flipping to mobile much quicker than we thought and this has huge impacts in how we monetize with ads because ads are optimized for the web, they’re not really optimized for mobile devices. It has huge consequences for our content: our content was not meant to be read on a device that you carry in your pocket or walk around with in your hand—it was meant to be read while sitting at your desk and you have a cup of coffee in your hand and you’re going to read a huge two-, three-thousand-word article.

Another trend is people are increasingly impatient. They don’t want to wait for comments to be moderated, they don’t want to wait for facts to be checked. They want to know what’s going on in the world right now. They’re no longer accommodating their life to the schedule of the newspaper or the television network. It’s all on-demand and in real time.

The third thing that I’m excited about is that all of these mobile devices are getting more deeply embedded into our daily lives and there are apps out there that can help us lead happier and healthier lives on a mobile device that I carry with me wherever I go.

Any examples of this from Huffington Post?

At Huffington Post we have something called GPS for the Soul where I can actually measure my pulse through the phone’s camera and try to come up with an idea for how stressed I am and it will give me breathing exercises. I have another app called Move where basically it figures out if I’m sitting still or walking and figures out if I’ve been too sedentary. I think this is a huge trend.

I don’t think a media company now can just sit back and say ‘here’s the news’… Now we can actually be part of the solution.

What’s been the biggest surprise working at the Huffington Post?

Well I hadn’t worked with journalists before. I have to say the most amazing thing for me was meeting and working with journalists and understanding their process and understanding their thinking.

I would also say that I was surprised at the level of technology behind the Huffington Post until I got here… We have machine-learning algorithms that are pre-moderating content; we have recommendation systems. We have heat maps on our front page that tell us in real time what users are looking at and what they’re ignoring. So we have a lot of really great solutions already and I felt like ‘wow, this is a really great technology organization.’

What’s the biggest challenge about your work at Huffington Post?

Our biggest challenge continues to be scale… When you have the kind of growth that we have, solutions that worked for 500 people don’t work for 5,000 people or 5 million people so with each order of magnitude you have to go back and refactor your systems.

So, how do you become the next Huffington Post?

There are key things that any startup has to do which are, number one, keep your overhead low. Make sure that everybody can code… everyone needs to be on equal footing. You have to have a very clear vision of what you want to accomplish but you have to be able to pivot at a moment’s notice. You know, run with it. You can’t fall too much in love with your own creation.

Particularly in the media world, you really have to think six to twelve months ahead of the rest of the world.

The Huffington Post is very disruptive… We’ve disrupted print journalism newspapers with what started out as a blog and has become a recognized leader, a recognized organization of journalism. A lot of our practices in the beginning were kind of looked down upon. But now there was this article that just came out that said ‘everyone is the Huffington Post now.’ It literally said that.

Every news organization has to do what the Huffington Post did in terms of SEO and social and content in order to be successful. That’s really great but if you’re a startup you need to look past that to what the Huffington Post is going to do in six months to two years down the road.

Featured image courtesy of victoriapeckham via Creative Commons license.

Is news reporting creative? No, says U.S. government

Newsroom

NewsroomAmidst shrinking budgets and the threat of layoffs or buyouts, newspaper staffers across the country are scrambling to meet deadlines and fill pages using fewer and fewer resources. Many reporters are entitled to overtime pay when they exceed 40 hours of work in a week, according to the Fair Labor Standards Act, but actually getting paid for overtime is another story as the recent TribLocal settlement illustrates (more on that below).

“Media companies are some of the worst abusers of the Fair Labor Standards Act,” says Donna Ballman, a Fort Lauderdale, Fla. labor attorney and author of Stand Up For Yourself Without Getting Fired: Resolve Workplace Crises Before You Quit, Get Axed or Sue the Bastards.

Lawsuits: Covering a school board does not take creativity

Often, media companies argue the “creative” exemption, which exempts from overtime journalists whose primary duties require invention, imagination, originality or talent over manual or physical work.

However, that approach didn’t work for the Chinese Daily News, a Chinese-language daily newspaper based in Los Angeles and New York.

In 2010, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco upheld an order for the company to pay $5.2 million ($3.5 million in damages and penalties plus more than $1.5 million in interest) to nearly 200 current and former employees including reporters, advertising sales staffers, and hourly employees. In that case, the judge ruled that CDN’s reporters were not exempt from overtime, citing the Department of Labor (DOL) regulation that reporters “who simply collect and organize information that is already public, or do not contribute a unique or creative interpretation or analysis to a news product, are not likely to be exempt.”

More recently, the case against CDN was sent back to court over whether the case was properly classified as a class-action lawsuit. “If the class is thrown out, reporters might have to bring cases individually,” explains Ballman. “It doesn’t mean the exemption changes at all. Most reporters must still be paid overtime.”

Earlier this year, the Chicago Tribune settled a $660,000 class-action lawsuit over unpaid overtime with 46 TribLocal reporters. The employment lawyer who filed suit on behalf of the reporters argued that the reporters were not exempt from overtime because they did hard news, mainly covering school board and municipal meetings, which did not meet the DOL’s criteria for exempting creative employees.

New York and New Jersey employment lawyer Alix Rubin explains that when “a reporter’s job is to cover municipal council meetings, perhaps rewrite press releases and follow up on other types of stories in those communities, that’s pretty routine news. They’re probably not going to be exempt, but somebody who writes editorials and does big investigative stories probably would be exempt.”

In addition to performing creative or inventive work at least 50 percent of the time, reporters must make at least $455 per week to be exempted from overtime pay. The $455 per week threshold was set by the DOL in 2004, when it revamped overtime rules for the first time in over 50 years; that amount does not adjust for inflation and has not been updated since 2004, so it inevitably includes a larger portion of the journalism work force. Workers paid by the hour are not considered creative.

The new newsroom blurs the line

With newspaper staffs shrinking and more journalists being asked to take on more administrative, clerical or otherwise uncreative tasks, the distinction between creative and non-creative roles is getting murkier. “Employees may have started out as exempt, but as time goes on, people take on more duties and those duties may not be as creative,” explains Michelle Lee Flores, who focuses on employment litigation as a partner in the Los Angeles office of Fisher & Phillips. “It is not an easy analysis by any stretch of the imagination and that’s where these lawsuits come from.”

Issues with overtime pay can also arise because the 24/7 news cycle doesn’t neatly fit the traditional 9 to 5 workday. When reporters go to cover breaking news, they may feel pressure to exclude those extra hours from their timesheet if they didn’t get approval for overtime hours and want to avoid disciplinary action for going over their hours. “If the culture in the company is not to record it, then it’s not gonna get recorded,” says Rubin. “That shouldn’t be happening, but I think it does. It’s hard in this industry when employees are discouraged from recording their hours over the allotment.”

Of course, as smartphones and tablets create expectations of 24/7 connectivity, the overtime problem arises in other industries, too. A recent New York Times article about young people working around the clock mentions the term 22-22-22, meaning a 22-year-old willing to work 22 hours a day and earn just $22,000 a year (presumably without overtime but glad to be employed at all).

While some reporters may take issue with their work being classified as “uncreative,” Ballman points out that taking creativity or invention to extremes can get them into hot water. “If they’re engaging in invention and imagination, then they’re probably doing something wrong, so that’s why they’re not in this classification,” she says. “For the most part, most journalists are not gonna be exempt and that’s a good thing, not a bad thing.”

 Flickr photo courtesy of charlesdyer

How Oxfam engages readers with digital storytelling

Oxfam America blog
Oxfam America blog

Oxfam America’s content focuses more on people than problems. Anna Kramer asks of her own ideas: “If I saw this on Facebook or Twitter, would I find this interesting?”

For-profit companies like HSBC are using digital journalism to engage and inform current and potential customers. But they aren’t the only ones. Nonprofit organizations—who’ve long used storytelling to tug at the heartstrings of current and potential donors—are increasingly publishing online content designed to build awareness and spark conversations about their mission.

With an 11-person creative team working out of its Boston and Washington, D.C. offices, Oxfam America exemplifies this trend toward using content to build community. The four decades-old nonprofit recently rebranded its magazine, which goes out to 250,000 donors three times a year, as Oxfam Closeup, re-emphasizing its focus on narrative storytelling through photography and words.

The organization also has a robust website and publishes two blogs: The Politics of Poverty, which focuses on the organization’s policy work out of Washington, D.C. and First Person, which puts a human face on the issues the organization addresses, among them workers’ rights, disaster relief, food security and microfinance. (The organization has had a blog since 2008 but created two separate blogs in late 2011 as its audience goals evolved.)

Oxfam America: play up dignity, not poverty

Some organizations working in developing nations use their communications materials to play up the challenges of the people it serves and the direness of their lives. But according to Anna Kramer, who edits the First Person blog and contributes to the magazine, Oxfam America avoids that strategy.

“The way we approach poverty and hunger issues, we’re trying to portray people with dignity,” she says. “We don’t portray people as victims. We bring out the agency of people.” Not only do Oxfam America writers follow this tenet but when the organization hires freelance photographers in the countries it serves, it also looks for those who can capture the dignity of the people they photograph.

Kramer and Oxfam’s other writers travel on occasion to the communities the organization serves to collect stories from the trenches. Last year, Kramer spent three weeks visiting rural communities in Peru.

“We go just to gather content and then when we get back, we figure out how to use it,” she explains. “It may turn them in a magazine story, maybe short a video, but we work closely with Oxfam’s offices in those areas.” Using material collected with pen and paper on her Peru trip (and with translation help from someone at their local partner organization), Kramer penned a 2,000+-word story about women earning a living by cultivating traditional crops. She posted a shorter version of the Peru story on the First Person blog.

Seed of a viral idea: everyone can relate to groceries

Earlier this year, Kramer compiled a post for First Person comparing what seven families eat in different parts of the world over the course of one week. Since late January, the post received over 38,000 shares, including 6,500 Facebook likes and 4,000 tweets. Oxfam Great Britain had commissioned the photos using its community contacts around the world, so Kramer pulled seven of them from their shared photo database and wrote an introduction to frame the piece.

Kramer says she was pleasantly surprised by how quickly the post took off on social media and attributes it to the popularity of listicles and the quality of the photos.

“There’s an everyday quality to these photos,” she says. “Everyone can relate to this idea of how much food you buy, but these people in different countries have a very different experience with food, so there’s a difference but also a relatability.”

Other recent posts tie in with the organization’s work raising awareness around the inequalities facing female cocoa growers. The organization redesigned several iconic candy bars urging chocolate companies to create fairer policies for women growers. Kramer posted an explanation of the campaign along with shareable images of the candy wrappers on the blog, while another blog contributor created a roundup of the worst chocolate ads targeting women. One of the candy bar graphics posted on Facebook has gotten over 4,500 likes.

In brainstorming post ideas for the blog, Kramer says she asks herself, “If I saw this on Facebook or Twitter, would I find this interesting?” She says that has helped her focus not on “pushing out our content to people, but engaging with people on something that’s interesting to them. We want to engage with people instead of just telling them.”

How the end of Saturday mail delivery affects publishers, advertisers and readers

Postal Truck

Postal Truck

The elimination of Saturday mail delivery by the United States Postal Service, expected to begin in August (although there’s some dispute about whether the move is legal) doesn’t only mean waiting until Monday for letters to arrive. For newspapers that use the post office for home delivery—primarily weeklies but also dailies that have switched to several days a week and rural papers—the decision to end Saturday mail delivery will force them to shift how they cover the news, how they get that news to readers and how they deliver readers to advertisers. In short, Saturday mail delivery is a big deal to the newspaper world.

While big metro newspapers long ago replaced paperboys with professional delivery services, many rural and non-daily newspapers rely on the postal service to deliver every day but Sunday, says Max Heath, who consults on postal issues for publishers including the Publishing Group of America (American Profile, Relish and Spry magazines) and Landmark Community Newspapers (56 newspapers and seven college sports publications).

Even though the change only affects Saturday mail delivery, it will impact most U.S. newspapers in some way, Heath predicts. Trickling down to the deadlines of technical and content writers.

Medium- to large-circulation dailies will see the least impact because, according to Heath, most metro dailies (i.e. with a local coverage area) with a circulation of 25,000 or over use contract carriers for home delivery. These papers typically only mail a few hundred papers a day to avid subscribers far from home.

“In the 25,000-and-under segment, a shift toward [using the post office] becomes more predominant as circulation declines,” said Heath, noting that there are exceptions such as papers that have wide geographic coverage areas that don’t commit a lot of resources to home delivery and typically piggyback on local newspapers’ carrier services. How big a deal is the Postal Service to the newspaper industry? Heath estimates that 80 percent of non-daily newspapers are predominantly delivered by mail.

Weekly, semi-weekly and six-day-a-week papers are likely to see the largest impact. Of those, the large number of weekly and twice-weekly publications that come out on Saturday will need to either move back to Friday or forward to Monday (since there’s no mail delivery on Sunday, either). For six-day-a-week newspapers, the Saturday issue is often the biggest issue with the most advertising, according to Heath.

 

Advertisers will determine how newspapers respond

Advertisers face a tough decision: Will they get the same bang for the buck and a similar audience by moving their ads to Friday or Monday? Their choice, made community by community, will be one factor driving newspaper publishers to consider dropping a Saturday issue or switching to expensive contract carriers.

“Those dailies with Saturday issues must discern whether their advertisers will live with Friday. Some, like the Cadillac, Mich., daily [Cadillac News] with a Saturday issue and large shopper to non-subscribers, will likely go to home delivery by contract carriers,” said Heath. “The effects will vary from paper to paper, depending on Saturday advertising and whether it can keep the advertisers on another day or will also be forced to consider contract delivery. Some non-dailies with Saturday may have a bigger percentage of advertising on Saturday than, say, a six-day daily with Saturday issue,” said Heath.

Chris Huckle, publisher of the Cadillac News, said in a piece posted on his newspaper’s website that the post office has forgotten about newspapers.

“We know that people not only want their news delivered on the weekends but also their letters, cards, bills, payments and other communication,” wrote Huckle, who declared that his newspaper will continue to publish on Saturdays and find another way to deliver.

“We’re the major mailer by far in our market area. And we do care about our Saturday delivery. If you (upset publishers), they’re going to find other ways to deliver their products,” Huckle told USA Today, explaining that approximately 75 percent of Cadillac News’ postage budget goes toward delivery of the Saturday edition and a supplement on Monday.

Tonda Rush, CEO of the National Newspaper Association, the industry group of community newspapers, said his organization opposes eliminating Saturday delivery.

“A USPS whose focus is on urban delivery of packages and advertising — which is where it seems to be headed — is a USPS that is not fully serving the nation,” said Tonda.

 

Digital, late delivery part of the solution

One possible upshot of the end of Saturday mail delivery will be papers investing more in a digital strategy. For newspapers that publish on Wednesday, Thursday or Friday, many of their subscribers receive their papers the following day by mail. For them, the end of Saturday mail delivery could lead to subscription cancellations, especially since 10 federal holidays land on Mondays, said Heath, who explained that this issue is more likely to affect papers in rural areas because for them, contract delivery could be prohibitively expensive.

The in-county cost for a 5 ounce paper delivered by the post office is less than 10 cents per piece, said Heath. Contract delivery ranges from 12 to 15 cents in city areas and 25 to 30 cents in rural areas, or a 20 to 200 percent increase in cost. Why the extra cost? Using private carriers means newspapers have to create driving routes, hire a supervisor, verify delivery, recruit and contract carriers that typically don’t stick around too long, develop a legal contract, and decide whether to provide accident insurance for drivers. Hiring third-party companies to do the job will work for some papers but likely not for rural ones.

 

How an end to Saturday delivery might affect the news itself

The Wise County Messenger in Decatur, Texas, is a Wednesday/Saturday paper with a circulation of 6,000. It also publishes a supplement called All Around Wise that is both mailed separately (21,845 copies) to non-subscribers and part of the Wednesday edition. All of its printed material are delivered by mail.

Roy Eaton, publisher, is concerned that elimination of Saturday delivery will hurt high school sports coverage—he has eight schools in his coverage area. The Messenger will likely change its publication days to Tuesday/Friday, cramping its ability to deliver the high school sports stories for which parents scoop up papers each weekend.

Eaton says his staff will respond by creating an online page or product covering high school football that will be published on Friday night or early Saturday and will include printable versions of each story and photo for parents to clip out for their scrapbooks.

“It will be a gigantic pain in the butt, but we’re continuing to plan. If something in Washington doesn’t change, we will probably make the switch in late July, early August,” said Eaton.

Photo used via Creative Commons license courtesy of superba.

 

 

The smart advice on how to be a travel writer: think close to home

Kingsport Church Circle

Kingsport Church CircleFreelancers who dream of writing about travel are lured by the dream of having big-name publications such as Travel + Leisure paying them to take multi-week vacations to exotic locales where they’ll bask in lavish accommodations. If this you, and you’re serious about becoming a travel writer, you’ll soon feel the smack of reality on your forehead: your chances of scoring such plum assignments are pretty much nil. But just because you’re not Rick Steves or Arthur Frommer doesn’t mean you can’t be a successful freelancer who writes about travel as part of a broader portfolio. Here’s a smart way to go about becoming a travel writer: start local.

Are you absorbed by how the Amish cope with the 21st Century or the process of preparing the spongy Ethiopian injera bread you tasted in Chicago or Toronto? Readers elsewhere may well be fascinated by quirky features associated with your hometown. If you live in or near a traditional travel destination, and even if you don’t, your chances of scoring decent travel writing assignments – and being paid for them – are better than you may think.

‘Being there’ is two-thirds of travel writing

If you’re located in a major metropolitan area, you’re in luck. Chicago has a rich architectural history, spectacular lakefront, and lively summer festival season, all of which provide inspiration for travel stories. But dig deeper than typical tourist attractions for your story ideas and you’ll have editors’ ears. The key is giving readers a sense of being immersed in a location, explains WeekAway content editor Eleni Chappen. (Editor’s note: WeekAway is an Ebyline partner.)

“Talk to at least one local to get their perspective on an area,” suggests Chappen. “Blurring the lines between travel and the local experience is happening more and more in the travel industry, and that perspective is something travelers crave now. Writers shouldn’t be afraid to step out of the tourist’s path.”

Adam Rugel, co-founder and CEO of Open Places, agrees. “Describe that one dish in a restaurant that is really special, or that one trail in a park that is really special,” he advises. “Write about things that you can’t do anywhere else.”Downtown Chicago Street Scene

Travel editors: there really is no place like home

If you’re located in “flyover country,” don’t despair. Small towns often boast offbeat and off-the-beaten-track attractions that can provide inspiration for unique travel stories.

“We have a site dedicated to the South Shore of Lake Michigan in Indiana,” says WeekAway’s Chappen. “Not everyone would call this a conventional destination, but it has attractions like the Indiana Dunes National Seashore, which make for a great summer day-trip from Chicago. Now, a person from California is probably not looking to fly here for a week’s vacation, but it’s certainly a viable destination for a Chicago couple looking for something to do on the weekend.”

“Anything can be interesting, whether it’s a traditional vacation spot or someplace that you would never think to travel to,” Rugel agrees.

As a local, you can write about gems that visitors or travel writing veterans parachuting in for a day would otherwise miss. One example: the central business district of Kingsport, Tenn., a city of about 50,000, features buildings that date from the early 1900s. Church Circle District, a prominent feature of downtown Kingsport, is home to four historic church buildings and listed in the National Register of Historic Places, but nowhere to be found in many tourist guides for the region. That lack of publicity is one feature that travel editors, inundated with pitches for destinations they’ve published on many times and to which everyone’s been, often crave.

Getting published? Look off the beaten track again.

Unless you’re already known to editors, you’re probably wasting your time pitching major travel publications, warns Tim Leffel, a travel writer and editor and author of Travel Writing 2.0: Earning Money from Your Travels in the New Media Landscape.

“It’s easier to break into trade publications, regional magazines, and those that run some travel articles but aren’t really travel magazines,” Leffel says “Spending some time perusing titles at a good newsstand or library helps, as does using a service like the Wooden Horse Database that supplies contact information for lots of publications you didn’t even know existed. Online is where the clear growth is.”

Knowing your potential audience also makes pitching and writing local and regional travel stories easier, Chappen advises.

“Try to create an ideal profile of those who are most likely to travel to your area. Are they singles in their twenties or families with young children? Do they want the luxury spa or are they the rustic, outdoors type?” she explains. “I’m an optimist and think that any area can be attractive, but not every area is attractive equally to everyone.”

You may even find it easier to get published writing about local attractions than writers pitching stories about world famous travel destinations, says Leffel.

“Everyone wants to go to France or Italy and write about it. Not so many people want to write about Missouri or Idaho,” Leffel explains. “There are plenty of angles in Missouri or Idaho though and good pitches to the right places—including regional publications–can have a high rate of success.”

 Photos by Audrey Henderson

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