How one freelancer jumped from anonymity to The New York Times

Gaby Dunn

nyt2In 2010, when Gaby Dunn (@GabyDunn on Twitter) moved to New York, she had big ambitions but few contacts in the journalism business. So the Emerson College grad created the 100 Interviews Project, a Tumblr blog in which she interviewed 100 people she knew existed but had never met before over the course of a year. She interviewed a sex therapist, a rocket scientistsomeone who was left at the altar, and many others.

The project caught the attention of industry pros including best-selling author A.J. Jacobs and a New York Times editor, landing Dunn a book agent and plum freelance assignments. Ebyline recently caught up with this up-and-comer to find out she why embarked on a year-long interview blitz, how she built her platform from scratch, and what’s she been up to since. What follows is an excerpt of that conversation, edited for clarity and brevity.

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Can a live video chat platform make money for publishers?

Shindig Events

Shindig Live Event

Video seems to be the hot new thing in print publishing. Between the recent Newfronts, and efforts by the New York Times, which took down its video paywall, and the Huffington Post to get in on the ad dollar pie for digital and streaming video, everyone wants to better utilize and monetize video. The International News Media Association even released a report that reviews the industry’s efforts thus far, and offers tips on making video work for traditional newspapers.

This attention to video as a new digital revenue stream has opened up the door for entrepreneurs ready to pounce. One longtime music industry executive, Steve Gottlieb – who founded independent record label TVT Records and launched the careers of musicians like Nine Inch Nails – has translated his experience with live musical performances into the creation of a live chat platform, Shindig, which offers authors and publishers the opportunity to monetize the broadcast of those live events. The company, based in New York City, is currently in beta.

Shindig, the live chat platform

Although numerous video chat platforms presently exist, Shindig is unique in that it provides a customizable shared space online for authors and publishers to provide virtual book tours, readings, talks, presentations, press conferences, interviews, and more with up to 1,000 attendees. In addition to the speaker, 20 fans can be seen at a time. Google+ hangouts doesn’t come close in terms of scale. To compare, G+ only allows for 10 attendees and provides no options for charging to attend a hangout.

Drawing from his musical background, Gottlieb sees potential for Shindig to offer a new live event revenue stream for publishers and online content providers.

“There is nothing like the live experience of a musical event, that sharing of not just the event, but the venue and time and place and being there beforehand and afterwards,” Gottlieb said. “This is a great way for online media to broaden their reach and create excitement, a great way for freelance writers and authors and bloggers to create multiple platforms through interviews and events around their content. In a way, this is a media creation platform.”

Gottlieb started thinking about developing a live chat platform after watching his son play games online with people he didn’t know. The lack of identity “just kind of gave me the creeps,” he said.

Shindig shares the names of all participants and gives attendees the option of turning on their webcams and appearing in the live chat room, which is visible to the speaker and all attendees.

Speakers can share the virtual stage with a chat participant or use the second space for a presentation or a video. If participants have questions for the speaker, they can click on the hand-raise button, and the speaker can bring him/her onto the stage. Attendees can also start private video chats with other participants by clicking on the image of that person. All live chats can be recorded and published on YouTube.

Advertising, sponsorship, and new revenue stream opportunities

The author or publisher of a given Shindig live chat has the option of offering free chats or charging participants a fee to join by using online event registration system Eventbrite.

Currently, there are no up-front costs for early adopters of Shindig, but if authors and publishers monetize their events through paid sponsor and branding opportunities (which could include customizing the background image in the live chat room), charging for events through Eventbrite ticket sales, or selling merchandise during an event, Shindig asks for percentage of the revenue.

“Right now, advertisers are limited to a banner or the side of a webpage. The ability for advertisers to get in front of a live audience might be worth more than a whole lot of banners. Sponsorship of life experiences has always been much more engaging for advertisers,” said Gottlieb, adding that video chat offers a viable opportunity for online media organizations and magazines to expand their reach and get to know their audience better.

Gottlieb provided examples of recent Shindig live video chats from Guy Kawasaki, who spoke on how to publish a book April 4, and Bill Gates, who spoke at Concordia College on April 27.

Narratively’s Noah Rosenberg on monetizing long-form journalism

Narratively

Noah HEADSHOTWhile many newspapers have cut back on long-form journalism due to shrinking page counts and budgets, stories running thousands of words are finding a home online thanks in part to platforms like Longreads and Narratively.

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How do newspapers really stack up?

newspaper stack

PaywallsThe big news in newspapers this week is that paywalls are starting to pay off for some of the bigger-circ publications. The latest data released by the Alliance for Audited Media (AAM – formerly known as the Audit Bureau of Circulation) indicates that while overall circulation figures for papers nationwide have gone down, major papers like the New York Times and Wall Street Journal have seen a boost in their total circulation numbers, in no small part due to their boost in digital subscriptions, which now account for almost 20 percent of all daily circulation.

One caveat to these cheery figures is that AAM allows newspapers to count individual subscribers who have both a print and digital subscription twice, as multiple media commentators have pointed out.

So where do these papers actually stand then?

With the Newspaper Association of America (NAA) recently releasing a Nielsen study they sponsored about consumer media engagement that reports newspapers have the highest “trustworthiness” among readers, and highest audience engagement with content and advertisements, it would seem the newspaper industry is out in full force to prove it still has efficacy – especially to advertisers.

The New York Times, among some other papers, could use a boost in advertising confidence. The paper’s Q1 earnings fell flat, with a 93 percent drop in revenue compared to the same time frame a year ago. Granted, these figures failed to include properties that the Times Co. sold at the end of 2012, but they still fell short of projected earnings. Likewise, advertising revenue was down 11 percent to $191.1 million from $215.2 million in Q1 2012.

Investor confidence is also down, with stock price of the NY Times Co. slipping this week, despite news of circulation bumps.

There’s no doubt that with all of the ways readers can access and share the news, quantifying exactly how large a given paper’s readership is can be immensely difficult. But measurements are only going to get messier.

In October, AAM will no longer require newspapers to submit a five-day average of their circulation figures for audience measurement and auditing, which has long been the standard measurement. This means that even a somewhat reliable indicator of audience size will be hard to come by, let alone comparable between papers.

Perhaps then newspapers will be left once again with but their strongest suit to deliver them advertising dollars: their ability to tell (or spin) a good story – this time about their reach, audience, and influence. Legacy and trustworthiness may help too, but only for so long.

Content writers and editors need to step up their game to keep up with free-flowing information from digital mediums.

It’s time for a new metric.

Investigative reporting at the LA Times: 3 tips from the pros

Eye glass

LATimesPanelThe task of reporting an investigative story for the Los Angeles Times may have its share of adrenalin-rush ‘detective’ moments – going under cover in a coffee shop to watch a corrupt doctor prescribe narcotics to his patients; kayaking to the back of a man’s house to get his side of the story; even tracking down a Boy Scout pedophile to a rural truck stop in Canada – but the bulk of the work usually takes place in front of a computer, scrubbing public records and databases.

That’s what LA Times’ reporters Jason Felch, Lisa Girion, and Scott Glover described at a panel on accountability journalism at the Los Angeles Times 2013 Festival of Books in downtown L.A. Moderated by the Times’ self-declared “chief cheerleader,” editor Davan Maharaj, the panel also included insight from California investigative editor Julie Marquis. Here’s a look at some of the main points the panel made about watchdog journalism:

Gathering and curating data is key (and time-consuming).

With a team of only 3 full-time investigative reporters, Marquis has overseen the production of numerous high-profile investigations in recent years, including coverage of the Boy Scout “perversion files,” which examined 1,900 files documenting sexual abuse cases kept by the Boy Scouts of America from 1947 through 2005.

For the Scouts investigation, reporters Jason Felch and Kim Christensen spent the better part of a year combing through confidential files and building a publicly accessible database of abuse cases. Many of those cases had never been reported to the police – or even to the victims’ own family decades later. The result was not only a series of eye-opening reports about the lack of background checks required for the Boy Scouts organization, but the most comprehensive published database of these records.

Investigating a story about a prescription drug epidemic in Southern California, Lisa Girion and reporter Scott Glover spent two years building and cleaning up a database with over 9,000 lines of drug data that needed to be translated into hydrocodone components. Much of their two years of research was spent adding data pulled from death reports to a massive excel spreadsheet. The resulting database revealed patterns and painted a clearer picture of who was dying from prescription drugs, and from where those drugs were coming.

“No one had quantified the role that physicians play,” said Girion. “That’s what we wanted to do.”

Never assume a subject won’t talk for a story.

During the Festival of Books discussion, Felch described how he collaborated on part of his Scout story with reporters in Canada, and eventually managed to track one convicted child molester, who had served as a scout leader and then gone underground, to a rural motel in Canada.

To his surprise, the man in question agreed to speak when confronted, and fully admitted to molesting boys in California and Canada. Their interview lasted for three hours.

“I was out of questions after two and a half hours,” said Felch. “I was exhausted and disgusted but he just wanted to keep talking.”

Girion wasn’t surprised by that fact.

“I find that remarkably common among pedophiles,” she said.

For her part, Girion has a knack for getting suspects of her investigative reports to open up. Her tactic? Explain to subjects that this is their opportunity to air their side of the story; the subject is the only one who can explain what went on from his/her perspective.

While reporting on the prescription drug epidemic, Girion admitted to staking out a doctor who refused to talk by waiting outside of his office for hours. When that didn’t work she and her team kayaked to the back of his house. Ultimately she got him to talk.

Finally, have a great editor.

Girion and Glover ultimately published only 15% of what they know about prescription drug related deaths in Southern California. They said they hope they reported the best, most interesting 15% of the story, but it took a team and a keen editor to help them choose what to ultimately publish.

Currently up for sale by the Tribune Co., the LA Times is facing almost assured cuts over the next few years, and Marquis says she has to fight to keep her small team of reporters focused on their big stories so they don’t get pulled into the newsroom for daily coverage.

For all of the good that watchdog journalists do with their investigative reports – prompting the enactment of new laws, taking down corrupt officials and institutions, even freeing those wrongly accused from death row – their numbers are dwindling. If there were ever a time for legacy publications to keep innovating to find ways to bring home both Pulitzers and the buck, that time is now.

Featured image by Florence Ivy via a creative commons license. Panel Photo by Sarah Erickson.

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