Bill Gannon joins First Look Media: My Q & A with him about intelligent aggregation in news

Jan.
7
Today Pierre Omidyar announced a key hire: recently Bill was editor of Entertainment Weekly, before that boss of the Yahoo home page.

This is from the official press release:

I’m pleased to announce that Bill Gannon joins us as a member of our editorial leadership team from Time Inc.’s EntertainmentWeekly.com. Drawing on his extensive experience in digital media as well as his diverse background in developing new editorial strategies and creating great user experiences, Bill will leverage all of his talents to help us build a next-generation media platform for a broad audience.

…Bill’s expertise at pinpointing and presenting the Web’s most reliable and relevant content will provide readers with a fresh, “First Look” at the day’s rapidly shifting news and events…

As the editor of EntertainmentWeekly.com for the last three years, Bill owned editorial strategy and day-to-day operations for all content and digital platforms, including an overhaul of desktop and responsive mobile design…. Previously, Bill was Director of Digital Media at Lucasfilm Ltd., where he spent four years driving global digital strategies and operations across multiple business units and in support of a wide range of e-commerce, theatrical, television, and video game releases.

At Yahoo! Inc., Bill oversaw news and editorial strategy and content operations for the front page of Yahoo.com, drawing hundreds of millions of unique visitors monthly. His time in Silicon Valley also included development of digital media products for Financial Engines Inc., a financial services technology company when it was in its startup phase.

So far we have said First Look will be built around three things:

* Original reporting and investigative work, especially by “independent journalists with expertise, and a voice and a following” (in Pierre Omidyar’s words.)

* A continuous news operation serving broad audiences with up-to-date news on politics, business, technology, culture, entertainment, sports. This will be Bill Gannon’s primary responsibility. Intelligent aggregation will be a part of it.

* A technology company that can develop new media tools and better infrastructure for the news industry.

In between meetings and phone calls I caught up with Bill for a short interview about news aggregation. We stayed away from “what will First Look be doing that’s so new and different?” because a.) he just started so how would he know? and b.) it’s smarter to figure out a path to try first, then try it, and then talk about it when people have something in built form to react to. “Demos, not memos,” as newsroom developer Matt Waite said in a now-famous post.

JR: I wrote Out of the press box and onto to the Field about my reasons for joining up with Pierre Omidyar’s new venture in news. For me it involved crossing the street, so to speak, from an observer and academic to participant in a news start-up as an adviser. What did it involve for you? And what will be your primary duties?

Bill Gannon: I was initially attracted to the idea because it seemed to be a unique opportunity where my background in creating new editorial strategies and new user experiences could add value. Bill_Gannon12 I’ll be focusing on continuous news coverage and aggregation across a wide range of sections: world news, politics, business, entertainment, sports and more.

JR: When I teach graduate students about news aggregation they are often familiar with the controversies about it: complaints about over-aggregation and sucking up the traffic. Those things do happen, of course. Students are not as familiar with the arguments for it, like the maxim developed by Jeff Jarvis: Do what you do best and link to the rest. That’s where I start. Where do you start?

Bill Gannon: Aggregation done well — providing multiple brand “takes” or reporting on a story — can create tremendous value for end users who are desperate to find the best journalism on a specific topic.

JR: Offer the user of news multiple brands, not just one: good way of putting the argument for aggregation.

Bill Gannon: Exactly…

JR: Jarvis described it this way:

Instead of saying, “we should have that” (and replicating what is already out there) you say, “what do we do best?” [and] “can we do it better?” If not, then link. And devote your time to what you can do better.

There is brand proposition there: the brand that is happy to bring you multiple brands. As Dave Winer puts it: “People come back to places that send them away.”

Bill Gannon: When I was Editorial Director at Yahoo! we routinely “beat” great journalism digital brands with breaking news to the home page simply because our focus was to get the story up fast and service our users, regardless of if the source was a Yahoo News partner or a non-partner. But in the last five or so years we’ve seen some web sites “harvesting” nearly complete stories, even exclusive reporting, in the name of aggregation without providing real attribution or making a real effort to drive traffic back to those news sites.

JR: One of my big impressions as a consumer of the product, a user of aggregation, trying to inform myself by efficient use of many brands, is that too frequently the the concept of a “topic” seems left over from newspaper verticals and sections. The topics betray their origins as producer categories from an earlier era of distribution. “Topics” tend to be story bins that are efficient for the producers, not natural containers for our interest in news. The intelligence that we’ve put into “what’s a topic?” has not impressed me, as a user. Is my impression I wrong? Did I simply not know where to look?

Bill Gannon: I agree and I hope this is an opportunity where I hope we can do better at First Look by better understanding how users engage with news on digital platforms. It’s something great technology companies like eBay, Amazon and Netflix have already done at scale but journalism brands have not yet invested in or embraced.

JR: You’re saying recommendation systems in news have not kept place, correct?

Bill Gannon: Correct.

JR: When you were at Yahoo or EW, did you ever want to have a technology company in the same family making tools for news producers?

Bill Gannon: We had that exact team in place at Yahoo when I was there and that’s one reason why Yahoo News became a top news destination on the web and frequently out-performed major news brands on election nights or during the Olympics. And there are a number of great journalism brands complimented by top-notch tech teams out there right now.

JR: One of the questions I have been asked the most since my first post on First Look is this. People seem to get easily the idea of a news organization built around independent journalists with subject matter expertise and an online following, operating within their own orbit but with support from the center. But then they see Pierre’s statements that First Look will be a full service news provider, as well, and they say: huh? Where do those things “snap” together in your mind? What connects them?

Bill Gannon: The audience becomes aware of our our investigative journalism en route to their other news needs.

JR: Or the reverse: they become aware of the daily news product after being drawn in by the investigative work and a more personal kind of journalism.

Bill Gannon: Precisely.

A final observation of my own: Another key starting point for me in understanding online news is Robin Sloan’s great essay on stock and flow, which he called a “master metaphor for media today.”

Flow is the feed. It’s the posts and the tweets. It’s the stream of daily and sub-daily updates that remind people that you exist.

Stock is the durable stuff. It’s the content you produce that’s as interesting in two months (or two years) as it is today. It’s what people discover via search. It’s what spreads slowly but surely, building fans over time.

I feel like flow is ascendant these days, for obvious reasons— but we neglect stock at our own peril. I mean that both in terms of the health of an audience and, like, the health of a soul. Flow is a treadmill, and you can’t spend all of your time running on the treadmill. Well, you can. But then one day you’ll get off and look around and go: Oh man. I’ve got nothing here.

But I’m not saying you should ignore flow!

You need both. Not just for First Look but for any news organization setting up shop today, Robin Sloan nails it.

8 Comments

  1. Lisa Simeone says:

    Those of us hungry for fearless, independent journalism are so excited about this new venture. Some of us would be even more excited to work in it . . . .

  2. Jozef Imrich says:

    MJ: This phrase that’s repeated in the novel—festina lente—what’s that all about?

    RS: Festina lente should totally be a model for our age. I came across it just reading about the early days of printing and Aldus Manutius—the great printer who of course figures in the plot of my book. It’s his motto. I’m sure that you could translate it different ways—but the one I liked best is “make haste slowly.” And I just love it cuz it seems like a contradiction, but in fact it’s exactly right. It seems to fit our time really well, but I stole it from a guy 500 years old. Oh wait, maybe this isn’t new, maybe this is not a new feeling.

    MJ: Yeah, I mean they probably felt oversaturated and crazy too.

    RS: My great revelation, even with a little bit of research about Manutius and that era of printing, was: It was the internet! With all the confusion and competition and crazy arguments that you’d expect. I mean, we’ve got all these people today arguing, “Oh man, iPhone app,” “Naw dude, you gotta do it as a website!” You can dial it back 500 years and it’s exactly the same spirit. They were talking about like how to make ink, or what the best alloys were to use for this new type they were making, but it’s like the same guys, just transported in time. Same attitude, same personalities.

  3. Jozef Imrich says:

    Apologies as my clumsy fingers tried to type the context and reference on my iphone and I published it before I could edit it… The extract came from the interview with Robin Sloan published by Mother Jones circa 14 Nov 2012 … Robin is George Orwell of 2048… Cheers Jozef

  4. KadeKo says:

    Gannon…Gannon…

    I will henceforth refer to him as Bill (No Relation to Jeff) Gannon, simply because his surname is an epithet in many places that care about the craft practiced here.

  5. RW says:

    I don’t like news aggregation sites. I like original reporting news sites that are digital newspapers. As to the front page of Yahoo of yesteryear I hated it, It was so chocked full of tidbits it was no more that a link page.

    I also hope you will resist making the front page a montage of big square color graphics or pics. Huffington does this and more and more sites seem to think this is all the rage. It implies dumbed down and does not convey richness of content.
    The Guardian has an excellent format and you would do worse than to emulate some of their ways to make the front page more alive by doing live video news events or live blogs as the Guardian does so frequently.

    These days comment sections are an essential part of news websites and please consider the format well. Look at the WashPo as one of the worst and the Guardian as one of the best with real time moderation.

    You might want to try NYTimes style of comments for some editorials or stories but the delay between writing a comment and it being published precludes any ongoing conversation between participants.
    And please don’t do something new just to be new, do it because it is veritably superior.

  6. Mark says:

    I want something on Allen v. Wemple. Or Morning Joe and Ziggy’s Daughter defending Mark Levin’s Krispy Kreme.

    I get self-serving spin about some schmuck.

    When the Senate, on orders from AIPAC, OKs amped up sanctions on Iran and scuttles the P5+1 deal and Avigdor Lieberman orders Bibi to bomb in the nuke sites, figure on Rosen tossing out more hasbara about his new gig.

  7. Jozef Imrich says:

    There is short of topics for First Media as media and blog battles will go on as in Allen v Wemple it is a human nature to fight and the new technology only makes possible for more people to shout inside the public arena … I enjoyed reading Eugene Volokh’s observations on Bloggers = Media for First Amendment Libel Law Purposes
    So holds today’s Obsidian Finance Group v. Cox (9th Cir. Jan. 17, 2014) (in which I represented the defendant). To be precise, the Ninth Circuit concludes that all who speak to the public, whether or not they are members of the institutional press, are equally protected by the First Amendment.

    FREEDOM FOR THE PRESS AS AN INDUSTRY,
    OR FOR THE PRESS AS A TECHNOLOGY?
    FROM THE FRAMING TO TODAY
    http://www.volokh.com/2014/01/17/bloggers-media-first-amendment-libel-law-purposes/

    Mathew Ingram – On free speech and blogging: The First Amendment applies to everyone, not just journalists
    http://gigaom.com/2014/01/19/on-free-speech-and-blogging-the-first-amendment-applies-to-everyone-not-just-journalists/

    Warmly

    Jozef

  8. Jeff says:

    As the Snowdon files are being slowly apportioned to consumers, I now must now consider monetary motivations rather than ethical responsibility. When you withhold information about assassination programs and the like, people are put at risk. What is the truth in the consideration of the files and the dissemination of their supposed important information.