Showing our workings

Paul Carr
April 1st, 2014

If you’re a regular Pando reader, you might notice something missing from the bottom of our article pages. That “recommended articles” block that used to point to other Pando posts and “related” links from around the web? It’s gone.

I want to explain our reasoning for the decision, not least because a few of you had complained about ads appearing recently in the block. But first, some background.

(And, no, none of what follows is an April Fool joke.  Those are banned on Pando.)

Three weeks ago, or so, we had a bit of a reshuffle here at Pando. More like a straightening of papers, really. The TL;DR version is that I became the company’s Editorial Director, with responsibility for setting and directing the news agenda on PandoDaily, but also for developing our overall editorial “product” across all the various Pando sites and services (more on that soon). Sarah will remain as Editor in Chief and CEO while Adam Penenberg becomes Editor at Large, allowing him to focus on the kind of big investigative stories for which he has become rightfully famous. You’ll be seeing a lot more of those from him in 2014.

Not before time, we also promoted David Holmes and Michael Carney to East and West Coast editor respectively.

We announced the changes internally to the team a while back (I’ve copied the relevant section of the “all hands” email below, if you’re into that kind of inside baseball stuff) but we decided not to make a big deal about it publicly, preferring to show rather than tell.

And yet. Over the next weeks and months you’re likely going to detect some subtle (and not so subtle) changes at Pando.

With our mission to “speak truth to the new power” well underway, I’m all too aware that power is going to start fighting back. That’s absolutely to be expected, and we’re ready for whatever counterattacks may come. Still, for all that others might throw at us, we should always be our own fiercest critic. Which is to say, we should be quick to identify anything about Pando that isn’t working as it should, or which might lead to even the appearance of ickiness.

You might have already noticed some of the steps we’ve taken, editorially, to improve transparency: for example, we now clearly state the number of hours we gave a subject to comment on a story, with a minimum of two working hours for all but the most breaking of news.

With Sarah’s blessing (and in large part at her insistence) I’ve also started a complete audit of every area in which the commercial side of Pando intersects with editorial. That includes obvious things like ad placements, sponsored posts and sponsored content series, but also anywhere where accidental commercial conflicts might slip in too, like unpaid guest posts, or news articles mentioning companies with which we have investors in common. My goal isn’t to remove ads from Pando — I’m told we’ve sold more ads and sponsorships already this year as we did in the whole of 2013. Rather, the aim at every point is to ask: “are we going out of our way to ensure readers understand how this message came to be on Pando, and why?” Our editorial/advertising divide is already strong but, by the time we launch our new site design later this year, I want us to be strides ahead of our media peers in terms of transparency and openness with readers. In most cases, that’s just a question of ensuring clear disclosures are in place — but if, along the way, anything we’re doing doesn’t pass that ickiness test, we need to either figure out a way to fix it immediately, or kill it dead.

And so it was with the recommended articles block. Over the past few weeks, since Gravity (which powers the block) sold to AOL, the external articles being suggested to Pando readers have gone from good to bad to hideous. A few days ago, reader Simon Craven sent me a particularly egregious example: an ad promising “dating tips that will get you any woman”. Then on Friday, I noticed a Gravity ad promising to “reveal” exactly “how people are paying LESS than $24 dollars for new Michael Kors purses” right next to the headline: “How to pick up any woman! This will shock you. ”

Screen Shot 2014-03-29 at 4.35.11 PM

I admit, that did shock me. There’s no amount of money that justifies that crap appearing on our pages. Within a couple of hours (with help from our tireless dev team, working on a Saturday night) it was gone.

(In fairness to Gravity, CEO Amit Kupur was mortified when he heard about the ads. We’re going to talk on the phone later this week and see if there’s any way to fix the problem, and guarantee the quality of future recommendations. If we can figure that out, then maybe we’ll bring Gravity back in some form. But that’s a gigantic “if”.)

The point in explaining this is partly so you know what happened to the Gravity block, but also to give me an excuse to share with you some of the efforts we’re making at Pando to continually improve the product we put our every day, and to solve some of the ethical and commercial challenges every media company is wresting with at the moment. We can’t promise to have all the answers, but we can at least promise to show our workings as we try to figure them out.

Here’s the relevant section of the email Sarah and I sent to the team a couple of weeks back…

Hi all,

Later this week, we’re adding yet another new face to our reporting team. Dan Raile will be joining us in San Francisco with a special focus on the “infrastructure” beat — that is, transportation, housing, fiber and anything else on the intersection of cities and technology.

As Team Pando continues to grow, we figured this was a good time to step back and assess how the newsroom works, and how best to use all of the talent we now have under our roof. Also, as we continue to break scoop after scoop, we have more eyes on us than ever before. This means more people relying on us to understand what’s really going on with the New Power, but inevitably it also means more competitors and critics waiting for us to screw up. With that in mind, this also seems like a perfect time to tighten up some of our processes, and make sure we’re giving you the support and time you need to do your best work.

You’ve likely noticed some of the changes already this morning (sorry we couldn’t get this email to you last night — we wanted to make sure everything was set before we did). Over the next few days, Paul will be setting up one on one calls with the whole editorial team to share some more specifics on this next phase of Pando’s development. In the meantime, though, here are the headlines….

— Effective today, Paul will take over the running of the newsroom. For those who work out of the SF office, you likely won’t notice much difference as he has already been taking on more of a day-to-day role in driving the editorial direction of the site in recent weeks. Hopefully the move won’t come as a surprise to anyone, though:  in a company like ours, it’s almost impossible to distinguish editorial from [how our website looks and feels] and it makes perfect sense that the same person have responsibility for both. Paul’s focus in the coming weeks and months will be continuing to develop the kind of reporting that is increasingly seeing Pando set the news agenda, locally, nationally and internationally. Again, he’ll be setting up calls with everyone over the next few days to explain more, and also to understand what stories you’re excited about covering: The goal is to ensure that you all have the resources and focus you need to do your best work. (To be clear, Sarah will remain as EIC, and she and Paul will continue to share a brain.)

— Having worked tirelessly to build the newsroom into the powerhouse it is today, Adam is shifting gears to become Pando’s Editor at Large. Paul’s new role frees up Adam to focus on the kind of HUGE investigative stories that he really wants to work on, and that have made his name legendary in journalistic circles (and on the big screen). Of course he’ll still be available as an invaluable senior editorial resource in the newsroom and at events, but his main focus will be on writing and reporting. This is, of course, fantastic news for our readers  — and we have a feeling he’s pretty happy about it too.

— David Holmes has been promoted to East Coast Editor, and Michael Carney to West Coast Editor. With Paul running both editorial and product, Sarah spending much of her time focusing on the business, and Adam working on flagship stories, we wanted to make sure the newsroom is in strong hands, no matter what hour or on what coast news breaks. As you already know, both David and Michael have a huge amount to offer in terms of mentorship and support to the editorial team and it’s long overdue that we formalized their position in the newsroom. On a practical note, this means that — most days — before 10am Pacific David will be the senior editor on duty in the newsroom, and there will be other times when Michael is on deck. At those times, they’ll be the ones making all editorial/scheduling calls, including spiking or delaying posts that they feel need more more work[.]

The above announcements are just the first steps in a larger plan to start acting more like the serious, robust news organization that we’ve been for a long time….