trust me im lying ryan holiday

How Subscription Models Lead to More Trustworthy Journalism

Ryan Holiday is a marketer.

Even his name sounds catchy.

Just like the title of his first book: Trust me I’m Lying. Confessions of a Media Manipulator (2012). Being a top marketer – Holiday served as Director of Marketing at American Apparel -, his book is also written in a catchy way – stuffed with punch lines.

That’s not by accident, a short read on Holiday’s blog teaches us. He links to a blog post where he explains how he ‘growth hacked’ his latest book:

“I designed this book to be viral. [..] I tried to keep my sentences short and make my revelations big and exciting. I wanted people to leave with important and actionable sound bites.”

It’s a funny paradox, since Trust me I’m Lying forms a powerful argument against the clickbait-culture, while at the same time its author uses the exact techniques behind the very same culture to ‘optimize’ his book.

That being said, I gained plenty of new insights through Holiday’s book. Specifically about how most of online journalism is broken.

The diagnoses goes as follows:

  • Most online media outlets make money by selling ads;
  • In general, the more traffic they have, the more ads they sell;
  • Thus the task of most online journalists is: generate traffic;(Gawker’s famous page views leaderboard in their newsroom comes to mind);
  • In their quest for traffic, journalists are desperately looking for juicy stories;
  • ‘Media manipulators’ like Ryan Holiday supply those journalists with what they need, meanwhile serving their own agendas.

On the opening pages of the book, Holiday explains how he does this:

  • He designs a controversial billboard for one of his clients and makes sure it gets a good spot in LA;
  • Holiday then gets himself a spray can and defaces his own billboard;
  • In act three, Holiday drives by in a car and snaps a photo of the demolished billboards;
  • He then sends it a blogger, who gladly posts it. Uproar follows. Box office soaring.

(Holiday urges media manipulators to ‘trade up the chain’. Send your news to a low-profile blogger with zero to none journalistic standards. He’ll probably post it. You now have a link to your fake controversy. Then it’s just a matter of waiting before a more well-known blogger picks it up).

The billboard example is quite innocent. But what happens when Politico starts following obscure presidential candidates just to get more traffic (and thus sales)? It changes the political arena.

Holiday also hints to a solution: subscription-based publications. Just like The New York Times once created an opportunity to steer away from the sensationalist-sells-good-on-the-streets pulp journalism by introducing subscriptions, web publishers can now escape the ad-drive race to the bottom.

subscriptions versus ads

That’s exactly what we did at our Dutch journalism platform De Correspondent. First we organized a crowdfunding campaign to get started without investor capital (and raised $1.7M), then – as soon as we launched – we introduced a membership. For 60 euros a year, you can access all our articles, podcasts and videos and can contribute to stories. We now have 28,000 subscribers.

I’m not saying we’re immune to media manipulators (they could still mingle in our comments section ), but as I read Trust Me I’m Lying, I took comfort in the fact that our journalists only have to serve one purpose: inform our readers in a thoughtful, trustworthy and careful way.

Ryan Holiday – Trust me I’m Lying. Confessions of a Media Manipulator (2012)

tumblr_lnpt88RIIn1qmqh97o1_1280

My public scrapbook now has 10,000 followers

Just posted this on my Writers at Work Tumblr (more info about that hobby here):

Dear literature friends,

I normally just post photos of literary giants at work, but I’d like to take a moment today to thank you.

Screenshot 2014-11-19 16.34.50

 

As of today, 10,000 people follow this photo collection. Wow. I couldn’t have imagined that when I started this website in 2011 as basically, well.., a public scrapbook. Let alone that someone like Salman Rushdie would call the collection ‘fascinating’.

Moreover, I want to thank you for sending me photos I hadn’t found yet. Together we’re building an archive that will hopefully inspire us every day to get to work ourselves.

Yours sincerely, 

Ernst-Jan Pfauth (@ejpfauth)
Amsterdam, The Netherlands

tf8-1024x796

Why I’m using a default WordPress theme

I’m looking forward to the next version of WordPress, specifically because of the new theme: Twenty Fifteen.

Earlier this year I ditched my handmade theme, because there just wasn’t a way to keep up with all the requirements that come with people using hundreds of different screens for accessing your blog.

I mean, I love to geek around with WordPress Themes and CSS, but doing it just as a hobby isn’t enough anymore to guarantee every visitor of my blog a good experience.

So I opted for the default WordPress theme and thus making sure my blog would always be up to date and in sync with the latest responsive design, microformats and SEO technologies.

The problem is though that I find this current theme – Twenty Fourteen –  a bit too heavy on the black, which gives it a clunky feeling. I wanted a more lightweight theme and it seems TwentyFifteen will perfectly fit my needs:

Screenshot of TwentyFifteen on portrait iPhone.
Screenshot of Twenty Fifteen on portrait iPhone.

WordPress 4.1’s launch is scheduled for December 8th (it has a neat new writing focus feature too).

Are you still coding your own themes?

Between Screens (2014). Photo by Olivier van Breugel and Simon Mudde.

Photographing people who photograph art

Yesterday I visited a festival called Kantor in a deserted laboratory, somewhere in an industrial area in the western outskirts of Amsterdam.

At an art installation, I discovered this great work by Olivier van Breugel and Simone Mudde, who photographed Rijksmuseum visitors who photograph the Dutch masters.

I’m always mildly irritated when I see groups of tourists posing next to an artwork, seemingly reducing it to just another check mark on their bucket list.

So it’s quite an accomplishment that these two photographers have turned this into an esthetic celebration of experiencing art:

Between Screens (2014). Photo by Olivier van Breugel and Simon Mudde.
Between Screens (2014). Photo by Olivier van Breugel and SimoneMudde.

More on the artists’ website.

Here’s a video of Van Breugel and Mudde talking about Between Screens:

Every month, our membership grows with at least one percent (thanks to Facebook)

I reckon that if the five dominating media companies joined forces, 80% of original-content news would be owned by that collective.

The five common-front news houses would need to make just one move: no more streaming of free news. The result? No more free news for Google News. No more Facebook news feed. If you want the news, you’ll have to buy it.

According to marketing author Martin Lindstrom, this is how the news business can survive Facebook. He wrote this in response to Facebook’s offer to publishers to host their content on their superfast, steady and mobile-loving social network (which David Carr reported for The New York Times).

Lindstrom thinks that newspapers should join forces just like the Swiss watch industry did when they launched Swatch together in the eighties to compete with cheap Japanese watches.

Newspapers should launch their own Swatch

(Dan Gillmor suggested a similar approach in 2009 – be sure to read the interesting discussion that followed.)

I think this would just lead to more aggregation sites. A bunch of bloggers would read the paid mega sites and then summarize the articles for a bigger audience.

I do expect a loyal group – small, but loyal – to happily pay a subscription fee to read world’s most in-depth and impressive longform articles (just as Dutch people are now paying for newspapers articles on Blendle).

Should publishers accept Facebook’s offer?

That leaves the question of Facebook’s offer to host articles of legacy media, because their own sites are loading painfully slow on mobile devices.

(I for one, haven’t recently experienced a crappy mobile experience on legacy media sites. I could read The New York Times column about this matter just fine on my mobile. Maybe it’s because I live in a 4G country.)

Joining such a content deal with Facebook sounds like a race to the bottom to me. It’s basically surrendering. Admitting that you’re nowhere without their superb platform.

How we use Facebook to attract more members

At De Correspondent, we try to profit from Facebook without becoming too dependent on them:

  • Last month, 79 percent of our social traffic came from Facebook. 232k of those visitors were new users.
  • As soon as someone likes our page (as 82k people did) we treat it like a trial subscription. We share our best articles with those likers and every time they’ve read one, we tell them we’re ad-free and hope they like the idea of making new stories like the one they’ve just read possible by paying 60 euros a year for a membership.
  • Last month, 267 people became a member of De Correspondent via Facebook (€60 p/y). 0.12% of the new users who came through Facebook became a member.
Here's the Facebook popup. Rough translation: 'Thank you for your interest in this story. Our correspondents gladly share their articles with you to get to known each other better. Like what you read? Become a member'.
Here’s the Facebook pop-up. Rough translation: ‘Thank you for your interest in this story. Our correspondents gladly share their articles with you to get to known each other better. Like what you read? Become a member’.

The conversion rate is still pretty low, but 267 new members on a total membership of 28.000 is a monthly increase of almost 1 percent in our membership, which already sounds more hopeful.

We’ll keep trying to use Facebook likers as trial members and hope not to become too independent on the platform (as in: what if members just read us when we share a link on Facebook?) and instead use it for our own good.

I’ll keep updating you on that challenge, of course (follow through RSS or Twitter).

 

How Medium organizes free brainstorming sessions with thousands of publishing experts

I like how transparent publishing platform Medium is about their challenges.

Founder and CEO Evan Williams recently decided to publish (edited) internal meeting notes. Today he shared how their product team spent almost six hours on discussing how their site can make more sense to users and visitors.

At De Correspondent, we’ve also shared our biggest mistakes and challenges (at our one year anniversary) but we had the time to think about those for twelve months. Medium is almost posting them real-time, which is not just entertaining for us to read, it also helps Medium, since readers will reflect on their writings and might come up with great solutions.

A free brainstorming session with thousands of publishing experts. Not a bad idea, Mr. Williams.

Why I Blog (Again)

As long as I can remember, I always wanted to be a journalist. So when I moved to New York in 2007 to intern at the United Nations, I decided time had come to apply for a writing gig at a serious newspaper. I emailed my favorite journal, offering them my services and, to my great astonishment, received a reply within hours.

‘No thank you’, it said.

So I started blogging about how I wanted to become a journalist. Later I joined The Next Web as their founding editor in chief.

Fast forward to two years later.

The newspaper now emailed me, asking if I wanted to start a blog for them. I accepted their invitation, as Dutch newspapers were limiting their internet journalism efforts to copy/ pasting and I wanted the work of Holland’s finest journalists out there on the web.

On this newspaper blog, print journalists elaborated on the stories they had written for the newspapers and carried meaningful discussions with readers. In the first year of its existence, the blog was awarded ‘Best blog of The Netherlands’.

Then I stopped blogging.

Because I became the chief digital of the newspaper’s mother company and in 2013 I co-founded De Correspondent, a world record-breaking journalism platform; both gigs meant I had to quit writing and making the writings of other journalists possible.

But here I am, back at the blogging thing. The last couple of weeks, I find myself posting things on this site again. Please allow me to tell you why, with the hope it might inspire you to start blogging (again) as well.

There’s still no better medium for people to freely share their knowledge than blogging.

It encourages you to dive into your beat – analyzing and rethinking it post by post – while allowing other experts to comment on your finding along the way. You aren’t limited by the constraints some social network have invented for you.

Writing about your experiences and learnings forces you to rephrase the incoherent thoughts in your mind into clear stories other people should understand. This public thinking is incredibly valuable, it makes you understand your work (and where it’s heading) better.

Plus: people who write well, think well (so any exercise is welcome).

Not to mention that you can always go back to your archive to see how you felt about something years ago (which comes in handy, as we humans tend to forget negative experiences).

The only thing that sometimes bothers me about blogging is that it can seem superficial. 200 words about something here.., a link to an article there; when you just look at single posts the whole blogging endeavour doesn’t seem to add much value.

Especially when you’re a fan of this one liner: ‘you’re as good as your last post’.

But when it comes to blogging, that one liner is utter nonsense. At least, that’s what I’m trying to tell myself.

I tell myself the value of blogging cannot be found in a single post, it can only be found in the stream of posts. With blogging, it’s the sum of all parts that counts. It’s about the public archive you’re building.

That’s why I lately started to encourage myself to constantly lower the barrier of writing a blog article.  ‘If it’s a paragraph, it’s a post‘, writes Gina Trapani, and I couldn’t agree more.

So here I am, back at blogging again. I’ll document the lessons I’m learning at De Correspondent – about how we’re trying to turn readers into contributing experts or how we raised $1.7M with a crowdfunding campaign (and what happened in year one). I’ll also point out interesting articles from other folks out there, who are also trying to reinvent publishing – such as the IndieWeb movement.

To sum it up: I’ll take notes while exploring the future of publishing. 

(And I’ll do this thing in English. I might not be as good at it as I am in Dutch – I might even be terrible at it – but it allows me to communicate with thousands of peers all over the globe.)

Follow me through good ol’ RSS or Twitter if you want to stay in the loop. Looking forward to hearing from you!

‘The days of cheap tricks for clicks are coming to an end’

The founder of online travel trade magazine Skift has published a post that’s written like a warning, but actually motivates me to work harder. Rafat Ali says:

‘The cracks are beginning to show in medialand’

‘The days of cheap tricks for clicks are coming to an end, the days of bullshit “growth hacking” are coming to an end. ‘

And then Ali continues:

‘Time to focus on what matters: building loyalties, both with users and advertisers (if that’s a constituency), focus on doing the things that build revenue base, stay away from hiring diva-stars for the sake of hiring them, and focus on quality as consumers are tiring off cheap tricks.’

Well, that’s exactly what we’re doing at De Correspondent (except for the advertisers part, since we’re ad-free).

‘Medialand has always been a game for the long haul’.

Duly noted.

(The evidence in his post is pretty weak though. I haven’t seen any bubbles yet and Ali doesn’t specifically mention one either. But the idea that users will get fed up with click bait and pageview generating stuff, makes perfect sense. I’m reading the book Trust Me I’m Lying by Ryan Holiday, which exposes all the negative outcomes of cheap tricks. More on that later.)

Becoming part of the IndieWeb movement

I’m fascinated by the IndieWeb movement. These guys encourage people to own their online identity by creating a personal website and using it for your content and communications (better explanation on their wiki).

So to learn more about them, I’m now ‘IndieWebifying‘ my site, and for that purpose I have to test the Webmention plugin with this random link (based on this tutorial).

Expect further (and more elaborate) updates on the IndieWeb.

 

Taking notes while exploring the future of publishing