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.

 

Frank Underwood is an optimist, says his creator

The show’s creator, for his part, has claimed he doesn’t have a cynical view of politics: Dead bodies and callous plots aside, Frank Underwood is an “optimist at heart,” Willimon insists. “He says, ‘Forward progress. Momentum. Do something instead of nothing.’”

Says House of Cards-creator Beau Willimon in an interview with Politico. I didn’t see that coming (I thought House of Cards served more as a cynical response to The West Wing – proving how politics has changed).

But as Politico says: the gridlock American politics is in, makes you wish for a getting-things-done-guy like Underwood.

Even when he’s surrounded by dead bodies?

‘Jep Gambardella lives and he’s a Spanish architect’

Whenever you travel to Barcelona, think of the man who designed Terminal 1, architect Ricardo Bofill, and the beautiful ‘Cathedral‘ he has created out of a cement plant (a project that started in 1973).

When my friend Justus Bruns alerted me to this video, he said ‘Jep Gambardella lives and he’s a Spanish architect’. I like that angle.

Focus on the big stories, no-one will remember the small ones

Paul Lewis is The Guardian‘s Washington correspondent and got the advice from late Ben Bradlee (editor in chief of The Washington Post during the Watergate scandal) to ‘focus on the big stories. No-one will remember the small ones.’

Although it’s probably hard to recognize big stories from the very start, and small stories can grow out to become as big as Watergate,  I do think this is wise advice.

In these days of focusing on instant recognition (I often check how many tweets my last published story generated), it serves you and journalism better to unplug now and then and take the time to work on something bigger. Something that might not be retweeted at first, but will have a larger impact on the long run.

Focus on getting direct traffic (like Netflix does)

On the must-read Monday Note blog, one of its authors describes how Facebook and Google now dominate media distribution and why – as a publisher – you shouldn’t solely rely on them (they’re uncontrollable and the users they’re sending you aren’t loyal). He ends with a good recommendation: improving the recommendations on your own site and thus getting more people to directly access your publication:

Taken to the extreme, some medias are doing quite well by relying solely on direct access. Netflix, for instance, entirely built its audience through its unique recommendation engine. Its size and scope are staggering. No less than 300 people are assigned to analyze, understand, and serve the preferences of the network’s 50 million subscribers.

This is one of the greatest priorities at De Correspondent, where we’re building a new front page, filter methods and collections for stories. We believe we can provide a unique insight in the subjects we cover by connecting our previously published (and quiet timeless) stories.

(with the small difference that our budget isn’t as impressive as Netflix’)

Getting your readers in the right mindset (like Ozy does)

A friend alerted me to Ozy, a daily curation web site, backed by Laurene Powell Jobs. What I like about this site is that they – albeit a bit pompous – describe in an inspiring way how you should read their site.

First: they call their daily briefing ‘The Presidential Brief‘. It’s their ‘take on what the most powerful person in the world gets with their morning coffee’. This is exactly the sentiment most readers have in the back of their mind when reading a daily brief, the idea that they’re hitting the streets well-prepared. Just like the president.

Screenshot of Ozy.com
Screenshot of Ozy.com

Second: the distinction within the brief between ‘Important’ and ‘Intriguing’. At my former job as digital editor of NRC Handelsblad, we tried to do something on nrc.nl with the labels ‘The most important news’ and ‘The best of the web’, but I think Ozy came up with more powerful labels.

The labels on nrc.nl
The labels on nrc.nl

I do think their site is a bit overwhelming when it comes to the visuals. I’d prefer a more sparse look, to reaffirm the idea behind a presidential brief. But still, Ozy it’s a good example of how to prep your visitors for reading your site.

 

Sullivan has over 30.000 subscribers

We currently have 30,200 paying auto-renewing subscribers. Our monthly traffic is between 700,000 to a million uniques, our subscription renewal rate is 83 percent. We also have a pay-what-you want model above a certain baseline. The average subscription when we launched was $34; this year it went up to $39, but with fewer subscribers

Andrew Sullivans reader-funded publication is doing great.

Exploring the Frankfurt Buchmesse

I’m heading to the Buchmesse today, just caught an early train with my friend Daniël van der Meer. It’s a study trip for us, to see how the international book industry (net)works, but I won’t object if a German, French or any other foreign publisher wants to buy the rights of Rutger Bregmans book Free Money For Everyone.

Except for American publishers, we’ll try to conquer that book territory ourselves with a Kindle edition in early 2015.

Will write updates here about our adventures in Frankfurt! To end this first post, here’s a photo of how Daniël looks when he’s on a mission:

IMG_1665.JPG

American press about De Correspondent’s renewals

We’ve had some great international coverage about De Correspondent these last days, because enough members renewed their crowdfunding membership (over 11,000 of a group op 18,933 people signed up for another year – read the announcement on Medium):

  • Columbia Journalism Review about reader engagement;
  • GigaOM pointed out three things traditional media could learn from our site;
  • And Nieman Lab declared that ‘we’re still going strong’ in year two.