Session: The Rise of the Digital New Media Entity
Speakers: Announcer Jacob Weisberg Jim Bankoff Erik Martin Daniel Roth
I’m a huge, huge fan of the Slate Group, so I’m excited to bring this next gentleman on. We’re going to be talking about The Rise of the Digital New Media Entity. It’s going to moderated by Jacob Weisberg, he’s the Chairman and Editor in Chief of the Slate Group. He’s going to be talking with Jim Bankoff of Vox Media, Erik Martin of reddit, and Daniel Roth of LinkedIn. Please welcome our first panel of the day.
Jacob Weisberg 00:40
Good morning everybody. Welcome to the panel. We have failed on the wardrobe diversity and on the gender diversity this morning [chuckles]. We’re going to try to make up for it with a lively conversation. Just to introduce our panel, briefly, Jim Bankoff is the CEO of Vox Media, Erik Martin is the GM of reddit, and Dan Roth is the Executive Editor at LinkedIn. Jim, I’m going to start with you. All of us are in first, digital only media and every morning we get up and thank the Lord that we don’t have to deal with all of the problems of legacy media. We have advantages that are hard for people in legacy media to understand. I want you to explain what those are in terms of technology and in terms of how we think about the business. Why is what you do different from what someone at Time Inc. does when trying to think about content?
Jim Bankoff 01:32
No trees, no trucks, no newsstands; it’s very environmentally friendly. Seriously, I think three things that separate us – at least with our culture. For context, you may not have heard of Vox. We’re publishers of SB Nation and sports; the verge in technology and polygon and gaming.
Jacob Weisberg 01:52
Just those three sides?
Jim Bankoff 01:53
Yeah, those three sides. SB Nation in turn has about 300 sites; one for every team and sports topic. Check it out.
Jacob Weisberg 02:01
Just to explain it though, you hire journalists.
Jim Bankoff 02:02
Jacob Weisberg 02:03
You have professional writers. It’s not primarily user generated content.
Jim Bankoff 02:06
That’s exactly right. We go out and find the leading expert for any topic. It could be the San Francisco Giants, where our site is McCubby Chronicles where we find the most talented web-native person who can create a community and create content about that team.
Jim Bankoff 02:22
To answer your question, I’d put it in three buckets, in terms of what makes a pure play digital company successful; technology, talent and culture. Start with technology. We developed our own platform. It’s part CMS, it’s part analytics, it’s part advertising management, it’s part community management. We call it Coris. Coris really powers everything that we publish. We really consider ourselves a platform driven media company. Just as though I’m sitting next to a couple great platform companies here, whether it’s reddit or LinkedIn, we consider ourselves a platform. The difference for us is we use our platform exclusively and we’re looking to get more leverage off of it. No mistake about it, without that platform, I don’t think we can scale the way that we’ve had success scaling. So, that’s part one.
Jacob Weisberg 03:14
So, you wouldn’t buy someone else’s CMS? You have to own and operate your own?
Jim Bankoff 03:17
Yeah. Again, that’s not a prescription for everyone, but in our case – and we have serious intentions on scaling to be a very big company and have a lot of users. We’ve grown to upwards of 50 million users every month and across really 330 different sites when you count all of our sports sites. Deep community integration, deep need for analytics, deep need for very special advertising integrations; all that stuff is very hard to do if you’re trying to do it off the shelf, or if you’re trying to hobble together some sort of open source system. In our case, we needed that. So, technology part one, talent part two. We look for web-native creators; people who grew up doing on the Internet. I call them Media Hackers. Just like we have technology hackers who go out and code and just build stuff, we look for people who just create; who create video, who create word content and who have been doing it in this environment and know how to engage a multi-media audience, as oppose to engage in other media.
Jim Bankoff 04:27
The third part I mentioned it culture. Culture is often something that’s hard to touch. It’s often squishy. In our case, it means operating in a different way. Not having technology over there and sales over there and editorial talent over here; really finding ways to get the sides talking to one another. We’re appropriate collaborating so that we can make a better product for our audience and our advertisers.
Jacob Weisberg 04:52
Erik, I want to turn to you now. So, reddit is actually owned by Condé Nast, the legacy media company–
Erik Martin 04:59
Jacob Weisberg 05:00
Oh, it’s not?
Erik Martin 05:01
No, we spun out almost two years ago.
Jacob Weisberg 05:03
All right. Well, that answers that question. I’m a little out of date on that. The question is, reddit is user generated content. It’s not what is on reddit any given day, other than the AMAs that you set up and maybe some other things. It’s sort of driven by the users, and we were looking in the green room beforehand that the users on reddit today want to solve the Boston Bombing and are doing this sort of close analysis of photographs and think they’ve identified a subject. Is this the Wild West, or is this something that is contributing to the media landscape?
Erik Martin 05:44
I think as far as the Wild West being an indicator of what’s to come–
Jacob Weisberg 05:48
I was thinking in terms of vigilante justice.
Erik Martin 05:51
Oh yeah, there’s that too. On reddit, the users set up a sub-reddit, which is one of the things that makes reddit unique is that users can create a sub-reddit or a sub-section or community on the site about anything. So, they created a sub-reddit several years ago called Random Acts of Pizza, where would people would just say, ” Hey, I got a raise, who needs a pizza?”, or ” It’s going to be a couple days until I get my next paycheck, could someone help me out?” So, this sub-reddit wasn’t set up to be anything more than a fun, mini-altruism type thing. So, they pulled together to send a bunch of pizzas to all of the emergency room workers in Boston. So, that’s one example of a sub-reddit that was set up. The one you’re talking about was a sub-reddit set up called, I think Find The Boston Bombers, where people were analyzing the forensic pictures that the authorities released. They were encouraging people to submit any photos or video they had, or any details that they had from an eye-witness scene. Then they were going through all the different photos. So yes, certainly anyone looking at that worries about sort of going too far and vigilante stuff. One of the top threads this morning was about Richard Jewel, the falsely accused guy from the Atlanta bombing in ’96. Everyone – reddit users and everyone on Twitter and on social media – is sort of experiencing all this raw– all this data, all these images, all these stories in sort of real time. And it’s messy and it’s confusing and chaotic going through it people are just trying to make sense of, not just the data, but make sense of this event.
Jacob Weisberg 07:34
Right. I think what people in traditional journalism would say is that you have some sense of responsibility for it. In a traditional publication, you can’t put up a picture of a guy– you can’t find out if someone is guilty by publishing their picture.
Erik Martin 07:48
They do it all the time.
Jacob Weisberg 07:50
Erik Martin 07:50
There is all kinds of confusing, chaotic information in traditional media, in social media–
Jacob Weisberg 07:58
Fair enough. There’s a lot of misreporting, but if you look at reddit this morning, there’s a picture of a guy and people are pointing to him as a suspect. So, this guy – if he is – reddit’s going to be a hero. And if he’s not, it’s going to be the Richard Jewel case again.
Erik Martin 08:11
No. I don’t look at it that way. They were pointing to this guy because some of the forensic evidence showed a certain brand of backpack. They said, ” This guy looks like he’s holding that brand of backpack”. I don’t know.
Jacob Weisberg 08:26
Is this an environment where it’s essentially Caveat Emptor and anybody can say anything and as the owner of the site, as the operator of the site, you sort of bless the chaos and don’t take responsibility for what people post?
Erik Martin 08:39
Yeah. We are sort of grounds keepers. We’re facilitating the platform and facilitating the interaction. We’re there to let people create spaces to talk about whatever it is. Whether it’s sports or whether it’s the latest video game or whether it’s people coming together to try to– in this case, I just think there’s a lot of people who just want to do something in wake of what happened. If this is helpful, great. If it helps them just kind of deal with this and feel like they’re doing something active, then hey, that’s still pretty good.
Jacob Weisberg 09:11
Dan, LinkedIn, like a lot of the social media companies has had this instinct that, ” Hey, we’ve got this unbelievable audience, we should be creating content”, and you are running a part of the site that is columns by a very well-known writer – your influence to the community I think you call it. The pattern I’ve observed is that social media companies have tended to get into this space and then get out of it. So, Facebook decided it wanted kind of news creation, has pretty much gotten out of it. Tumblr was– Chris Mooney was going to be on the panel. He was unfortunately uninvited after Tumblr shut down its little content creation unit this week. So, why is LinkedIn– first of all, what’s happening? Why have these other companies tried it and pulled back from it? Why is LinkedIn doing it in a way that it’s going to work?
Daniel Roth 10:01
Sure. Let me back up for one second and explain what we’re doing. We basically have two– the original content on LinkedIn has been a natural evolution. We started with a news product called LinkedIn Today, which took about 1. 2 million publishers trying to use an algorithm and editorial approach, which is what the editors were originally doing to try to match the right content with the right professional at scale. In October, we launched this original content offering, which we called the Influencer Program, and Jim happens to be one of our influencers who is doing great work and the more he does the better.
Jacob Weisberg 10:34
Jim, does Dan edit you?
Daniel Roth 10:34
Very influential. What the columns are is, we have 260 people from Richard Branson to the head of The World Bank. We’ve got people like Barrack Obama is on there, we’ve got Beth Cander, who’s a leading voice in social media for non-profits. So, it’s a wide range of people. They’re writing for the professional audience. I think that’s the difference between what Tumblr was doing and what Facebook was doing. Facebook and Tumblr both approached bringing in journalists as a way to talk about their own platform. So, Tumblr – for Storyboard – nothing could be written unless it had a Tumblr tie-in. Facebook was writing Facebook stories – they might still be doing it, I’m not quite sure – that involved talking about how Facebook is helping change the world. LinkedIn–
Jacob Weisberg 11:21
So, they were doing PR?
Daniel Roth 11:21
Exactly. It is much more of a PR operation. When our influence is right, they never talk about LinkedIn. LinkedIn is the platform that delivers them– that enables them to talk to the widest range of professionals ever assembled. I think that for the Editor, it’s a really interesting position because we have an editorial team that does a couple things. Number one, they edit stories if the influencers want it. They try to promoter stories to the right people. They think about which professionals should be getting these stories. They push for quality. So, a lot of times, influencers write a post and either the editors will push back and say, ” Have you thought about doing this or that?”, or ” This paragraph doesn’t make any sense”, or ” This is a really bad story. You really should re-think this. Do you really want this assigned to your name?” But none of these people are paid by us. So, you can’t just say, ” You can’t write this”.
Jacob Weisberg 12:06
How many of them do you think are really writing their own stuff as oppose to a ghost writer?
Daniel Roth 12:09
I think probably about 80% are writing their own stuff?
Jacob Weisberg 12:12
Daniel Roth 12:13
Yeah. And for the ones that aren’t, it doesn’t matter to me whether they have a ghost writer or not, as long as they’re willing to put their name to it. In the end, there are some people who write this content that feels like a press release and it does terribly. One of the really great things is someone who came out of the traditional media world is seeing that readers really respond to quality. If someone just puts out a press release– we had a CEO who did something and it basically said, ” We’re opening a new office here”, and the readers went crazy. They were like, ” How much did you pay to get this on here? This is terrible. Why am I reading this. I can’t believe it”. They reacted in such a negative way. It made me so happy to see that the audience was saying, ” This is not what we want. We want to react to someone authentically telling us what they’re seeing in their world from their perch or how they go to where they got to”.
Jacob Weisberg 12:58
I think you’re most successful writers are probably the ones who are most invested in what they’re doing. I did an event with Richard Branson a few months ago, and he was sweating because his LinkedIn column was due. I said, ” Your what?” It turns out he’s one of your top columnists, and he clearly writes it himself or is very closely involved in the writing.
Daniel Roth 13:17
You can tell. The pieces are raw. They are not written by a professional writer, and people love it. They respond to that. The lack of polish actually works really well with this.
Jacob Weisberg 13:27
So, is that the beginning and end of content on LinkedIn? Or do you have dreams to expand into a Time Inc. type empire?
Daniel Roth 13:34
I don’t think that there is a– I would not characterize it that way at all. This is definitely not the end of it.
Jacob Weisberg 13:40
Having come from Fortune yourself.
Daniel Roth 13:42
Right. No. I have learned a tremendous amount from being at Fortune and at Time Inc. and at Condé Nast, and there are parts of it that filter into what we’re doing now and there are parts of it that we’re avoiding. You don’t see us putting out glossy magazines, but the idea of how to create content and how to package content especially is something that we think about hard at LinkedIn. Just one last point, I think that – as I was listening to these guys talk about – where they sit on one continuum from creating all the content to yourself to user generated content. What we see at LinkedIn is somewhere right in the middle, where we have original content and then the commoners – the community – really takes it from there. The average post has at least 100 comments. It’s the professional world taking someone’s idea. Jim will write something and then people will riff off of it and engage their own network with what ideas he sparked. So, it’s really interesting to see.
Jacob Weisberg 14:41
Jim, I want to pick up on something you said at the beginning about these people who work at your organization who understand technology and understand content. In my experience at Slate, these are the key people now and they’re in their 20s – very few of them are older than that – and they have this versatility where they can write sentences. If they can’t write code, they understand it enough to know what goes into it. They’re these sort of journalists from the future. I imagine these are the people we’re looking for now. This is the new digital only entity has a new kind of–
Jim Bankoff 15:21
I think a new class of talent has evolved. I have a phrase for them, I call them Media Hackers. I think they’ve been born of platforms that have arisen– what drove it is the rise of Word Press, the rise of reddit, the rise of now LinkedIn – have created platforms for expression that didn’t exist. It used to be, in the day, if you wanted to create media, you had to start maybe as an intern getting coffee or a production assistant. Now, you want to make a movie? You and get $100 of used equipment on Craig’s List and make your movie and post it on YouTube, or post it somewhere. You want to do an investigative journalist piece? You go investigate it and you post it. You can post it on your own site or you can post it on someone else’s site if they allow you to. People are just doing it and the cream is rising. We view it as our job to identify the top people and then support them. Really, it’s our job to create an environment where they can be successful and that includes giving them the best possible tools, giving them the best possible promotion, and giving them a business model that can support their career so that they can actually make money off of this. We’re proud to have hired maybe more writers, videographers, technologists than most – if not all – media companies in the past couple of years. In addition to that, we are also a platform where anyone can write. So, part of our platform enables – like LinkedIn and like reddit – people just to post and we’ve found some of our best talent. We’ve found Editors in Chief. Our Editor in Chief on our Sports side began as someone who was just commenting and posting and did that a lot, got noticed, worked his way up and now is making a very healthy salary running one of the biggest sports websites in the world.
Jacob Weisberg 17:22
So, Erik, who are the key people at reddit? Are they the same people Jim’s talking about?
Erik Martin 17:28
A little different, but same type of hybrid or model. We have 25 employees and roughly half are programmers, but those programmers and sys-admins are also community managers, they’re also writing blog posts, they’re also helping some of the influential or some of the members in the community that are – reddit’s an open source – so, they’re managing that community of developers who are creating the tools that are leading to our next innovation in the platform, or they’re helping facilitate things. We did a fun thing on April Fool’s where we divided the community into an orange team and a blue team and had them sort of compete against each other. Nothing may ever come of that, but there was a lot of technically innovative things we did there with people in the community and the people at reddit who were facilitating that, are our sys-admins, our programmers.
Jacob Weisberg 18:23
Right. So, the engineering skills are relatively more important and the content creation skills are relatively less important?
Erik Martin 18:30
No, I think they’re both important. I just think in our case, our engineers are also really good at content and really good at community and really good at knowing even what direction we should go in terms of advertising. So, it’s these people who are, yes, they’re coders, they’re programmers, but they understand the whole ecosystem.
Jacob Weisberg 18:45
Dan, LinkedIn is sort of a different model. It’s a pure technology company that has this content unit which you run. Are you a sort of fish out of water there? What defines the culture there for you?
Daniel Roth 19:00
I sit on the Product Organization, which is a really interesting place to sit. Again, this goes back to the Tumblr and Facebook question. One of the fascinating things about being in Product with a company like LinkedIn – and I imagine this is true for elsewhere – is there are some real church/state divides that product just thinks about how to make product that’s super engaging to users – in this case members. The monetization comes second. I don’t deal with the monetization side. I deal only with the engagement side. The things that I measure are: daily active users, or the number of people who are commenting, or the number of social gestures on stories, how well our algorithm is doing, how much we need to tweak it. That’s the culture which was – in the traditional media world – which was the outside does what it does, we do what we do, and we just need to create good content for the readers. That’s the same thing that’s happening here. It was really weird coming into LinkedIn and seeing and feeling the same culture that I had felt at Time Inc. or at Condé Nast or even Forbes, back in my early days.
Jacob Weisberg 20:00
Have you had to, or have you been able to bring that kind of church/state thinking to LinkedIn? I remember when Slate started at Microsoft back in the 90s, that was a totally alien idea to them, but they actually kind of got it because we managed to get across to them, ” Look, if you want any credibility in the journalism world, you have to do it with integrity and here’s what integrity involves”.
Daniel Roth 20:20
Right. At LinkedIn it is much more about, you just– they hire people who they expect to be experts in what they’re doing. I think they’re first like, ” Here’s this company and I’ll do things their way”, and then as it went, they’re actually looking to me to explain why we should go down this route and why we should have this divide and why it’s important to make sure that the content is not being mingled with paid content and to think about that. There was instant understanding; yes, this helps engagement, this is good for the readers, this is good for the members and this is the way we should do it. So, it didn’t take a lot to sell. This is a company that has a very engineering, very rational focus. As long as you explain things in that way, people really buy into it.
Jacob Weisberg 21:02
We all deal with a big issue: commenting quality. We want to cultivate this user discussion. At reddit, it’s the whole ballgame. At other sites, it’s very important. We’ve been fighting for years this sort of entity that conservations have this natural tendency to go to hell and be unpleasant places and create all the misery people complain about. I’m wondering how each of you have thought about and dealt with that problem over time. Dan, why don’t we just start with you.
Daniel Roth 21:38
Sure. So, we’re in a really lucky position, which is that no one’s anonymous on LinkedIn. When people make comments, it gets tied to their professional identity. This is as close as you get to having a permanent record.
Jacob Weisberg 21:43
It’s real names.
Daniel Roth 21:44
It’s real names, real people. Every time they comment, their boss sees it, their employees see it, future business partners see it. So, people are incredibly respectful. They’ll argue, but they’ll argue from a point of what they’ve seen in their own career. So, our comments have turned out to be phenomenal. It actually has helped the influencer program tremendously because we can go to someone, like the President of the World Bank, who’s got no social media, who hadn’t been on social media before and say, ” This is the place to start. This is the right community. The commenters – you’re going to know who they are and you can see them”. So, it’s been the opposite for us where the commenting has actually lifted everything.
Jacob Weisberg 22:14
Erik Martin 22:16
I think we’re in a lucky position because our comments are anonymous, or pseudo-anonymous, and people’s bosses don’t see it when they post, their crazy uncle who’s going to argue with them about politics doesn’t see it when they post. So, they can be candid and open and that’s what’s good for us. Something when I think about comments that I was thinking about a lot recently was – I don’t know if anyone read the comments on Ebert’s blog – but the most important thing about comments is that you care. I see so many sites that just don’t actually care, they pretend to care. What Ebert would do is – and he was running Google 1. 0 – he would go and reply to a comment. So, if someone asked a question about the best Italian films of the year, he would go in and edit their comment as an administrator, reply in bold and re-save it. Technically, that’s horrible [chuckles]. Don’t do that, that’s really bad. You’re pretending to be a user and you’re editing their comment. It worked because he cared and because he took the time to do it. I think that’s the thing–
Jacob Weisberg 23:16
People sounded better after they were edited by Roger Ebert [chuckles].
Erik Martin 23:19
He didn’t edit what they said, he just edited the block of text so he could put in his own reply. So, it’s not about what technical solution you have, it’s about caring to let people know, ” Hey, we’re paying attention to this, we’re looking at it, we’re changing the stories based on comments, we’re changing our user interface based on the feedback”. If you don’t care enough to listen and do something based on what people are saying, then why have comments at all?
Jim Bankoff 23:44
I couldn’t agree more. I talked about this new craftsmanship. This is part of the craftsmanship to consider the comments down there as something that’s apart from the content up there is wrong. It’s obviously different, but it’s part of one product. The people who create that product have to be engaged in that part of the product, or just don’t have comments at all. In our case, it’s a combination of a contextual environment. If it’s the San Francisco Giants or if it’s talking about an iPhone, there are people who naturally gravitate there because they care about that. So, you have the right context, therefore both the audience and the editors take pride in the conversation and keep it on track and dive in to make sure that it’s on track. We then facilitate that with technology so that they can do their jobs better, but the technology doesn’t solve anything in and of itself, it just enables human beings who guide the conversation.
Jacob Weisberg 24:41
Do you have anonymous commenting on your sites?
Jim Bankoff 24:44
We do. We have anonymous or you can use Connect or Twitter or whatever so you can–
Jacob Weisberg 24:50
It can be identity based, but you can also–
Jim Bankoff 24:52
Yeah, and the same thing in sports too. Let’s face it, people are goofing off during work and talking about their favorite sports team and they wouldn’t be able to do that if their boss had evidence [chuckles].
Jacob Weisberg 25:04
Do you have human moderators at all?
Jim Bankoff 25:06
It’s all human moderated.
Jacob Weisberg 25:07
In the commenting?
Jim Bankoff 25:08
Yeah. The same people who oftentimes create the professional content are the ones who are moderating. It’s almost always the same people. We don’t go out and hire someone whose job it is just to moderate. There is always someone who’s deeply involved in creating content for the site.
Jacob Weisberg 25:27
Where do you draw the lines and what do you deal with people who are abusive or nasty?
Jim Bankoff 25:33
We manage that on a community by community basis. There’s certain things at the highest level that we don’t tolerate; things that are illegal or hate speech or stuff like that, but from there we are kind of like a mini-version of reddit. We empower our community leaders – Again, if it’s on the Yankees site and the Red Sox site might have different tolerance for different things – but we empower them and they kind of set their own rules. They post the rules clearly so the people in the community know what’s up and then they handle it.
Jacob Weisberg 26:04
Erik, you guys go for maximum openness, but there have been these issues about misogyny and racism. How do you deal with that?
Erik Martin 26:11
Similarly, we kind of let the communities decide on a community by community basis. So, what’s appropriate in the Classical Music sub-reddit or the Ask Historians sub-reddit is going to be very different than in some of the humor sub-reddits where it’s more anything goes. So, we let the moderators figure out what works best for their community. It’s not perfect, but they’re figuring out how to carve out new spaces and that’s what’s really powerful is different rules creates different spaces.
Jacob Weisberg 26:42
Just in our last two minutes here, I want to touch on the culture that’s built up around data and analytics. I think this is really one of the distinguishing things about digital only entities. Dan, in the old media world that we both come from, there’s a kind of fear of that. People fear if you actually know how many people are reading the international coverage, it’s going to be hard to justify the expense, so it may be better not to know. In the digital only world, people consider data both the center of everything and kind of liberating.
Daniel Roth 27:13
One thing that we do is every two hours, we’re taking a pulse of everything that’s being shared on LinkedIn and we use that to help guide what the editors are doing for LinkedIn today. One of the nice things is you have data on one side telling you what works, but you also have unlimited space that helps you be able to try new things and write anything and see what works and what doesn’t work. So, you use the data when you can, but you also experiment non-stop.
Jacob Weisberg 27:34
We have one minute left. I want each of you to tell me the coolest data tool that you use, whether you’ve built it or not. Jim, why don’t you go first?
Jim Bankoff 27:40
We call ourselves data informed, not data driven. Our editors are informed with what audience is talking about what they’re searching for and then they can use or ignore that information. We look at it in real time via CharPede. CharPede is a big part of what we use in terms of outside. We also use a service called Umbole, I think they might even be here today, and they’ve been great with our social analytics, as well.
Jacob Weisberg 28:12
Erik, you’re going to get the last word.
Jim Bankoff 28:13
Coolest data tool we have was of course built by someone in our community, not by someone who’s employed, it’s called Stattit. What I like most about it is it shows what new sub-reddits have grown the most in the past week or the past month. So, you see all kinds of really cool, interesting, funny sub-reddits that people are creating and have taken off for some reason or another.
Jacob Weisberg 28:32
That’s great. Please join me in thanking our panel.