It’s [still] about voices

A little over a month ago, in a post introducing Yahoo! Opinions, I’d written about the need for Yahoo to find its voice. And in the immediate aftermath, the newly launched initiative found some favorable coverage — like, so.

Both before the launch of our Opinions section under Amit Varma’s aegis, and in the subsequent weeks, I’ve been fielding questions from journalist and lay friends on the ‘So what?’ and ‘What next?’ lines.

The ‘So what?’ group argued on these lines: Dude, it is not as if you and Amit Varma invented columns — every damn newspaper/website worth its audience has columns, often far more ‘renowned’ names. So what’s the big deal about what you are doing here?

True. We didn’t invent the concept of opinions — they’ve been around almost as long as print journalism. And Yahoo! Opinions is not, in and of itself, a ‘big deal’ [though I must add that the early traffic numbers are well above what I had projected prior to launch]. Park that thought for a moment.

The other group wanted to know what was next.

This — the official Yahoo editorial blog.

We switched on the lights, with no fuss and fanfare, at noon yesterday. My colleague Suma Nagraj, who is point person for the initiative and who has been following the numbers obsessively since launch, is over the moon: 98,890 page views at midnight — that is, 12 hours post launch; 146,541 page views in toto as I write this, 24 hours after launch. That is, a few thousand more page views in a day than I get on this blog in a good month.

And no — we didn’t invent blogging either.

What we are attempting to do, with Opinions first and now the blog, is two-fold. The first, clearly, is to experiment with, and find, an editorial voice — an absolute essential for a site that is otherwise known as a content aggregator. Ergo, the blog: It allows my colleagues in Yahoo, who thus far have been voiceless entities spending their days and nights curating content that comes from a multiplicity of sources, to spread their wings; to write and, through writing, to move beyond their daily brief and explore their own limits. [The blog, incidentally, might appear a bit diffuse, lacking in a clear focus, just now — but that is exactly how we want it. The idea has to be for everyone, across editorial functions, to start writing; fine-tuning of the content et cetera will happen organically over time].

That’s a first step. Starting next week, we’ll gradually introduce a series of regular features on the blog, that will cumulatively help shape content and define the platform. And once their voices gain in assurance, the logical next step is to move into the realm of ‘original content’; to get a team that thus far has been desk-bound to step outside office, to find and tell compelling stories.

The second reason is a touch more complicated. A priority, when I joined Yahoo in January this year, was for us as an organization to decide on a long term strategy for the site. That exercise, which cuts across departments and hierarchies, took us the best part of four months — but we now know where we want to be a year, two years from now. And each of these initiatives — Opinions, now the blog — are calculated steps towards that destination. The coming months will see more micro-launches; hopefully, if we’ve done our thinking right, by the end of the year you’ll see exactly where we are going with all of this.

Meantime, do me a favor: check out the blog, and if you have feedback on the lines of what you would like to see and such, let me know. Here.

PS: Anticipating a question: Yes, I’ll be posting on that blog. Actually, during the seeding process I’d already put up three posts: on rock as escape in Nagaland; on Rahul Mehta’s debut with a collection of gay-themed short-stories; and on the 50th anniversary of Psycho besides a promo post to two columns on Yahoo that examine the arguments for and against homeopathy.

I’ve been kind of swamped, and haven’t had the time to figure out what I’ll post there and what kind of content I’ll save for this blog. Hopefully, next week will bring more clarity. In the meantime, will be off the air from now through the weekend — got a heck of a lot of pencil-and-paper planning to do. Regular service, on cricket and all else, resumes Monday [in any case, what the heck can you say about India’s ‘hopefuls’ in Zimbabwe that cannot be summed up in the one word, ‘hopeless’?]

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31 thoughts on “It’s [still] about voices

  1. Pingback: The problem with blogs « Smoke Signals

  2. Hi Prem,
    Just an observation on the yahoo editorial blog. The posts seem rather hurriedly put together. While I understand that this is a rather informal platform, I don’t think grammatical errors and immature writing style will go down too well. Must confess, I have sampled only a few posts and this observation may be a function of my selection, but the blog is sending out “quantity over quality” vibes to me.

    • Sure. Hence the title of my post: “finding” voices. 🙂 If I start with strict quality control, it will end up inhibiting my colleagues, who are sampling writing in the public domain for the first time. So for me the priority is, first, to get them thinking of posts and creating them. Then over time, it is a matter of working with individual colleagues and helping them to shape their posts better, write them better, etc. I’d rather that, at the outset, there is the odd error or lack of clarity in narrative, than not have them talk at all.

  3. Prem,
    Here are two thoughts that might be of some value.
    1. Debates. Larry Flint, at least in the movie “People Vs. Larry Flint”, has a timeless quote “Your honor, opinions are like assholes, everyone has one”. Well, I am in no way demeaning your opinion producers. In fact, I read most of their writing, both on yahoo and other places. My belief is that diversity in opinions is important, but debate is critical. Real original ideas and opinions need to be debated, and the people producing these opinions need to be tested with counter opinions, counter facts and experts who have contrary ideas. Would like (no, love) to see some structured debated between experts on serious topics. The Economist website has some formally structured debates which I read regularly. I think that format is not used enough.

    2. This may be slightly cheesy, but I would like to see if it is worth Yahoo’s time to set up a platform for outsiders(readers/visitors to the web site) to formally provide articles/opinions. This could cause some chaos depending on how many people want to write pieces and see them published through this platform, but would surely generate traffic, interest and may be unique enough for Yahoo to become a platform that produces the next generation of famous writers.

    Overall, I am clearly enjoying what you are producing at Yahoo. Keep it up.

    • Thanks, Sridhar — actually, you kind of anticipated where we are going with all of this. Not in entirety, mercifully, or I’d have had to kill you, but on the social media space. Debates are among the line items we have — easy enough to start in plain vanilla form, but we have some ideas in mind that requires some engineering builds, so we’d rather take some time and get this thing right.

      As to the harvesting of columns and opinions from outside, why do you suppose we did this? 🙂

      http://www.google.co.in/search?sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8&q=yahoo,+associated+content

      I could have linked to just one story, but some of them include their own analysis and stuff as well.

      The deal just got signed. Before it becomes operational, there is a bit of a stage wait, and then another wait while we integrate AC into our systems, region by region. But hell yeah, this is something various regions, including India, have been thinking about for some months now; the deal means we don’t have to do any building of our own.

      Thanks for the feedback, mate.

    • Not the best url in the world admittedly — but seriously, though I could wish it were different, I am not going to *not* do something simply because the url, which is not in the content area, is not to my liking.

  4. Prem
    I like all these initiatives. The ideas are great. Only thing is they are on yahoo!.. Wouldhave loved something new…!!!

    • Yes well, the only thing is, Yahoo is where I work, and it is also who pays for my bread and butter. And a spoonful of jam. 🙂

  5. Either on Yahoo or here you should have a regular “humour in Sports”old snippets comments which are humourous could be put up.
    On the yahoo blogs,the length of articles are short,quality is decent I would say.The president may not arrive as promised as he has a habit of missing Asia (Ask Indonesia).
    On Homeopathy-it works,has worked better than allopathy in many cases even with me who used to deride it earlier and let me assure you it’s not all placebo effect.Ask someone with a rotting gum and maybe his homeo medicines will do the trick while all allapthy medicines fail.

    • Oh, I have a huge heap of regular features — including fun stuff — lined up. Hopefully will get them going, one by one, in coming weeks. Thanks, mate

    • The url, unfortunately, is not something we can handpick. The site was set up by Yahoo’s team in Singapore working with WordPress VIP, and the url for this and the Singapore and Taiwan team were all decided at the engineering end. No option but to live with it — besides, we will take the risk. 🙂 Right now, at 4.30, the blog has crossed 2 lakh page views in a day and a half, so traffic is not really our problem just now.

  6. Checked the FTP blog. Looks good but I am unable to search for posts by specific author. For example, the two posts that you wrote, unless I know the title of the post, there is no way I can search for posts by Prem Panicker.

    Also when I click on View All Posts in the Recent Posts section, it reloads the same page.

    Lot of things to be fixed on this blog before you will find people who may want to return. However, it is good to see that the site comes with RSS enabled. That is probably one consolation of this wordpress enabled site over Yahoo! Opinions which is still in WIP.

  7. was waiting all morning for a twitter update that said, “On Smoke Signals… [Link]” 🙂 however, i was expecting something on the Pawar-IPL imbroglio, with some paragraphs on exactly how much egg Supriya Sule has on her face 🙂
    That said, this appears to be a far more interesting post!

    • Yeah, I thought about that, but figured what the hell — it is all hair-splitting anyway. Pawar as a stake holder in a company claims the head of the company acted in an individual capacity though he used the name of the company — trying to make sense of that gave me a headache first thing in the morning 🙂

      I’ll resume cricket posts, likely Monday, but have a heck of a lot of stuff to catch up on first.

      • on pawar-ipl: i was actually surprised by the morning papers. have become accustomed to reading all IPL-related relevant info on Smoke Signals first. was this something you knew but just passed up, or was it new to you too?
        as for the comments about the url, its not the best in the world, but it hardly matters if the content is good imho. so far the opinion pieces led by Amit Varma and co have been uniformly superb (again imho) – though havent managed to read all due to being away.

        • It was fairly clear even at the time of the first, aborted auction that Pawar had an interest — so that was no surprise. In fact, if I remember right, Pawar’s backroom involvement in the cancellation of the original auction was mentioned in one of my posts.

          I didn’t have the details, though, and to be honest I haven’t, over these last few months, really had either the bandwidth or the inclination to do any digging into anything.

          When I joined Yahoo I realized that the demands on my time had exploded exponentially; around that time I figured I needed to mentally reorient where I was going with this blog, and what I figured was, I’d use it (a) to point to good stuff I managed to stumble on while browsing and (b) to use it as an interpretative filter for news, particularly on cricket. So during the IPL thing, I tended largely to see what was coming through in the media, then ping contacts, do some research of my own, and use what I learnt to separate fact from the many fictions prevailing on the front pages.

    • For now, I just don’t have the mental space to take on any regular creative writing projects, mate. I do have a couple of ideas, one of them Mahabharat-themed, but they need to wait for a while, till this rush is over.

  8. Prem if I understand correctly, this looks like the basis of competition for Yahoo India with google and other content aggregators. Becoming an online magazine with no restrictions of deadlines, frequency or the lengths faced by the paper magazines, in turn creating its own differentiation from a pure news site. Interesting

    • Um no — we are not ‘competing’ with Google or anyone else — merely clarifying, with every move we make, that there is a third category in play. Google is aggregation; news websites like Rediff and the websites of newspapers are about content creation and promotion.

      Our USP is smart aggregation — not algorithm-driven, like Google, but curated by human beings to surface the most relevant content, to create packages that take you deeper into the story and bring together the best from multiple content providers, etc. It is already out there in nascent form; behind the scenes, we are looking to fine tune. Once we have that done, the shape of our content will tell you clearly where we are headed, and it is definitely not towards the Google ball park. Actually, look at it this way — why should we play in someone’s park when we can own our own stadium?

  9. hi Prem,
    The Y! opinions when it started out, it used to have a place to rate the piece (stars) but it is no longer there – was there a reason it was taken out?

    • nope, it is a platform under construction. What you have now is a basic version, we’re working on one with more features — when that goes up, the ratings will be switched back on

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