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The Globe and Mail

Media’s new model: Come for the monkeys, stay for the news

I have seen the future of journalism, and it is full of monkeys.

When a shearling-clad macaque named Darwin turned up lonely and confused in the parking lot of a suburban Toronto Ikea store almost two weeks ago, even an ape could have known the story would travel as quickly as a monkey-borne virus. Outlets from Spain to Sweden and even the Washington Post picked up the tale. Here at The Globe, at one point last week three of our 10 most popular items (articles and videos) were about the cheeky monkey.

Most of the time, though, it's not as easy to discern the daily zeitgeist, to know what subjects people want to read about. So a clutch of new tools has sprouted up to help editors take the world's pulse and serve up content to feed the masses.

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The trick is to make sure newsrooms don't turn into a collection of typing monkeys, hammering away at keyboards just to please their traffic-baiting masters (that is, readers).

This week, Bloomberg published an eye-opening feature about Content Fleet, a start-up out of Hamburg that trolls more than half a million websites, Google searches, and social media mentions, to find which of five million subjects are spiking in the public consciousness. Its proprietary "Content Evaluation System" then measures how certain subjects will likely resonate within different markets (determined by a host of characteristics, include geography and audience demographics) and spits out recommendations so that news organizations can produce something quickly to capitalize on the interest. "Be the first mover now!" barks one section of the Content Fleet website.

The pressure on some news organizations to chase online traffic can be extraordinary, especially as other revenues fall away. (One oft-quoted study shows that North American legacy news organizations are losing $7 in newsprint ad revenue for every $1 in digital ad revenue they are gaining.) Many legacy organizations have added staff whose sole purpose is to ride the surf of search engine optimization: to see what stories people are looking for, and to add something to the mix. It doesn't have to be something meaningful, though Content Fleet urges its customers that their first-mover advantage "should be backed up with high-quality content."

So far, Bloomberg reports, Content Fleet has signed up Axel Springer AG, which owns the German tabloid Bild, and the European broadcaster RTL Group SA. It also services Yahoo Germany as well as the popular T-Online portal. In hopes of signing up U.S. customers, the company recently opened an office in New York.

For publishers, it is an alluring prospect. "Despite journalistic integrity, it cannot be denied that editorial articles should, above all, bring profit to publishers," insists one section of the Content Fleet website, which explains its system can measure "the monetary potential of millions of keywords and phrases."

"Monetary values are allocated to each potential article topic based on: display advertising, Adsense, Affiliate, CPX models, and many other sources. The result is as simple as it is astonishing: a monetary road map for topics," it says, which can lead to an editor's decision "to continue with a topic or to let it go." There's only one problem that few are discussing: the value of digital ads is spiralling downward, as the amount of inventory spirals ever upward.

Content Fleet was founded by Mattias Protzmann, a former TV journalist who later found his calling in building data-oriented companies. He is evidently sensitive about criticism that his company will hasten the demise of democracy by convincing publishers to just give readers what they want rather than what they need. He told Bloomberg: "We are not going to cause the death of journalism."

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No, not directly – but then, it's always hard to attribute blame to a single ailment when a body simply starts to fall apart. An executive at Axel Springer told Bloomberg that using Content Fleet enables him to dedicate some personnel to spinning web clicks and others to real investigative journalism. The hope, as always in these matters, is that random readers arrive at the online doorstep of a publication to read something they're interested in and then find so much compelling other stuff that they form a lasting attachment.

Could be, though when I clicked over to the Daily Mail Online on Thursday to check out the slideshow of Jenny McCarthy's incredible abs, I admit I got distracted on my way to the real news.

But then, I'm just a big dumb ape.

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