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April 16 2010

13:20

This Week in Review: News talk and tips at ASNE, iPad’s ‘walled garden,’ and news execs look for revenue

[Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week’s top stories about the future of news and the debates that grew up around them. —Josh]

Schmidt and Huffington’s advice for news execs: This week wasn’t a terribly eventful one in the future-of-journalism world, but a decent amount of the interesting stuff that was said came out of Washington D.C., site of the annual American Society of News Editors conference. The most talked-about session there was Sunday night’s keynote address by Google CEO Eric Schmidt, who told the news execs there that their industry is in trouble because it hasn’t found a way to sustain itself financially, not because its way of producing or delivering news is broken. “We have a business-model problem, we don’t have a news problem,” Schmidt said.

After buttering the crowd up a bit, Schmidt urged them to produce news for an environment that’s driven largely by mobile devices, immediacy, and personalization, and he gave them a glimpse of what those priorities look like at Google. Politico and the Lab’s Megan Garber have summaries of the talk, and paidContent has video.

There were bunches more sessions and panels (American Journalism Review’s Rem Rieder really liked them), but two I want to highlight in particular. One was a panel with New York Times media critic David Carr, new-media titan Ariana Huffington and the Orlando Sentinel’s Mark Russell on the “24/7 news cycle.” The Lab’s report on the session focused on four themes, with one emerging most prominently — the need for context to make sense out of the modern stream of news. St. Petersburg Times media critic Eric Deggans and University of Maryland student Adam Kerlin also zeroed in on the panelists’ call to develop deeper trust and participation among readers.

The second was a presentation by Allbritton’s Steve Buttry that provides a perfect fleshing-out of the mobile-centric vision Schmidt gave in his keynote. Poynter’s Damon Kiesow had a short preview, and Buttry has a longer one that includes a good list of practical suggestions for newsrooms to start a mobile transformation. (He also has slides from his talk, and he posted a comprehensive mobile strategy for news orgs back in November, if you want to dive in deep.)

There was plenty of other food for thought, too: Joel Kramer of the Twin Cities nonprofit news org MinnPost shared his experiences with building community, and one “where do we go from here?” panel seemed to capture news execs’ ambivalence about the future of their industry. Students from local universities also put together a blog on the conference with a Twitter stream and short recaps of just about every session, and it’s worth a look-through. Two panels of particular interest: One on government subsidies for news and another with Kelly McBride of Poynter’s thoughts on the “fifth estate” of citizen journalists, bloggers, nonprofits and others.

Is a closed iPad bad for news?: In the second week after the iPad’s release, much of the commentary centered once again on Apple’s control over the device. In a long, thoughtful post, Media watcher Dan Gillmor focused on Apple’s close relationship with The New York Times, posing a couple of arresting questions for news orgs creating iPad apps: Does Apple have the unilateral right to remove your app for any reason it wants, and why are you OK with that kind of control?

On Thursday he got a perfect example, when the Lab’s Laura McGann reported that Pulitzer-winning cartoonist Mark Fiore’s iPhone app was rejected in December because it “contains content that ridicules public figures.” Several other folks echoed Gillmor’s alarm, with pomo blogger Terry Heaton asserting that the iPad is a move by the status quo to retake what it believes is its rightful place in the culture. O’Reilly Radar’s Jim Stogdill says that if you bought an iPad, you aren’t really getting a computer so much as “a 16GB Walmart store shelf that fits on your lap … and Apple got you to pay for the building.” And blogging/RSS/podcasting pioneer Dave Winer says the iPad doesn’t change much for news because it’s so difficult to create media with.

But in a column for The New York Times, web thinker Steven Johnson adds an important caveat: While he’s long been an advocate of open systems, he notes that the iPhone software platform has been the most innovative in the history in computing, despite being closed. He attributes that to simpler use for its consumers, as well as simpler tasks for developers. While Johnson still has serious misgivings about the Apple’s closed policy from a control standpoint, he concludes that “sometimes, if you get the conditions right, a walled garden can turn into a rain forest.”

In related iPad issues, DigitalBeat’s Subrahmanyam KVJ takes a step back and looks at control issues with Apple, Facebook, Twitter and Google. Florida j-prof Mindy McAdams has a detailed examination of the future of HTML5 and Flash in light of Adobe’s battle with Adobe over the iPad. Oh yeah, and to the surprise of no one, a bunch of companies, including Google, are developing iPad competitors.

News editors’ pessimism: A survey released Monday by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism presented a striking glimpse into the minds of America’s news executives. Perhaps most arresting (and depressing) was the finding that nearly half of the editors surveyed said that without a significant new revenue stream, their news orgs would go under within a decade, and nearly a third gave their org five years or less.

While some editors are looking at putting up paywalls online as that new revenue source, the nation’s news execs aren’t exactly overwhelmed at that prospect: 10 percent are actively working on building paywalls, and 32 percent are considering it. Much higher percentages of execs are working on online advertising, non-news products, local search and niche products as revenue sources.

One form of revenue that most news heads are definitely not crazy about is government subsidy: Three quarters of them, including nearly 90 percent of newspaper editors, had “serious reservations” about that kind of funding (the highest level of concern they could choose). The numbers were lower for tax subsidies, but even then, only 19 percent said they’d be open to it.

The report itself makes for a pretty fascinating read, and The New York Times has a good summary, too. The St. Pete Times’ Eric Deggans wonders how bad things would have to get before execs would be willing to accept government subsidies (pretty bad), and the Knight Digital Media Center’s Amy Gahran highlights the statistics on editors’ thoughts on what went wrong in their industry.

Twitter rolls out paid search: This week was a big one for Twitter: We finally found out some of the key stats about the microblogging service, including how many users it has (105,779,710), and the U.S. Library of Congress announced it’s archiving all of everyone’s tweets, ever.

But the biggest news was Twitter’s announcement that it will implement what it calls Promoted Tweets — its first major step toward its long-anticipated sustainable revenue plan. As The New York Times explains, Promoted Tweets are paid advertisements that will show up first when you search on Twitter and, down the road, as part of your regular stream if they’re contextually relevant. Or, in Search Engine Land’s words, it’s paid search, at least initially.

Search blogger John Battelle has some initial thoughts on the move: He thinks Twitter seems to be going about things the right way, but the key shift is that this “will mark the first time, ever, that users of the service will see a tweet from someone they have not explicitly decided to follow.Alex Wilhelm of The Next Web gives us a helpful roadmap of where Twitter’s heading with all of its developments.

Anonymity and comments: A quick addendum to last month’s discussion about anonymous comments on news sites (which really has been ongoing since then, just very slowly): The New York Times’ Richard Perez-Pena wrote about many news organizations’ debates over whether to allow anonymous comments, and The Guardian’s Nigel Willmott explained why his paper’s site will still include anonymous commenting.

Meanwhile, former Salon-er Scott Rosenberg told media companies that they’d better treat it like a valuable conversation if they want it to be one (that means managing and directing it), rather than wondering what the heck’s the problem with those crazy commenters. And here at The Lab, Joshua Benton found that when the blogging empire Gawker made its comments a tiered system, their quality and quantity improved.

Reading roundup: This week I have three handy resources, three ideas worth pondering, and one final thought.

Three resources: If you’re looking for a zoomed-out perspective on the last year or two in journalism in transition, Daniel Bachhuber’s “canonical” reading list is a fine place to start. PaidContent has a nifty list of local newspapers that charge for news online, and Twitter went public with Twitter Media, a new blog to help media folks use Twitter to its fullest.

Three ideas worth pondering: Scott Lewis of the nonprofit news org Voice of San Diego talks to the Lab about how “explainers” for concepts and big news stories could be part of their business model, analysts Frederic Filloux and Alan Mutter take a close look at online news audiences and advertising, and Journal Register Co. head John Paton details his company’s plan to have one newspaper produce one day’s paper with only free web tools. (Jeff Jarvis, an adviser, shows how it might work and why he’s excited.)

One final thought: British j-prof Paul Bradshaw decries the “zero-sum game” attitude by professional journalists toward user-generated content that views any gain for UGC as a loss for the pros. He concludes with a wonderful piece of advice: “If you think the web is useless, make it useful. … Along the way, you might just find that there are hundreds of thousands of people doing exactly the same thing.”

April 15 2010

15:26

The Newsonomics of content arbitrage

[Each week, our friend Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of the news business for the Lab.]

We’re into a new age of digital news content. Every conceivable kind of company is starting to produce it and find homes for it. Smarter advertising strategies are matching up against the new content. Mix and match exploding content creation with ahead-of-the-curve ad targeting, and you’ve got a new math.

Presto: Content arbitrage. Forget “curators”; an accurate but museum-musty term for judgment. As news sites have branched out, bringing in community bloggers and sites, “hiring” top-end bloggers, we’ve come up with the genteel “curation,” a popular term at this week’s ASNE conference, a hot (well, warming) bed of such forward-reaching ideas.

So if want to move beyond “editors,” with its old-world connotations, to get at a reaching out, an aggregation of more content, what’s the proper word? Well, aggregator is technically correct, but it’s Terminator-like. News people don’t like to think of themselves copying the the first, big aggregators like Yahoo, Google, MSN and Huffington Post. (Each of which, not incidentally, sees great next-stage opportunity in content brokerage and are competitors to news companies in this area going forward.)

So let me suggest a title that fits what is going on, though it will make “editors” uneasy: “Content brokers.” I’m not suggested that anyone change a job title to “content broker,” but rather to recognize that’s a huge role going forward. (And even backwards, for us veteran features editors who understood that buying content from diverse syndicates, wires and freelancers was an essential part of the business.)

Let’s go to the newsonomics of content brokering.

Demand Media, fairly and not, has become the poster child of the content-and-ad arbitrage. It’s both been derided as an amoral, slave-wage content farm and marveled at for its absolute smarts about the value of content, and its creation. Just last week, Demand announced a deal to power a “Travel Tips” section for USAToday.com; earlier it had done a lower-profile deal with AJC.com, in Atlanta

It’s just one example of news companies starting to get it about content brokering. The principle is simple: Obtain the highest quality content you can (or at least sufficient to what the market of readers and advertisers demand) at the lowest possible cost. Then, make sure you can make a profit over each set of obtained content. We all understand the idea: Buy low, sell high.

Demand will pay, say, $35 for an article of new treatments for spring allergies, knowing how many pageviews its distribution networks can generate and what cost-per-thousand rates it can get. Maybe it makes $100 or $300 on that article. Maybe it makes a lot more. You can do lots more arithmetic here, with thousands of stories, higher-priced ones and even “free” user-gen ones. The principle, though, is the same.

Newspapers understand that principle. For decades, they employed large newsroom staffs, paid them what they had to, sold advertising, at expectable and rising rates, and took in margins of 20-percent-plus. That’s content-and-ad arbitrage, though it moved at glacial speed and seemed more like a constitutional principle than an evolving business, subject to change.

Now, the arbitrage business is moving at warp speed. Consider just a few of many brokerage initiatives:

  • The New York Times is “buying” content from the Chicago News Cooperative to power its local Chicago edition. It will soon do the same with the emerging Bay Citizen in California. The economics are key here: The Times can’t afford to add full-time staffers at $100k a pop; it can afford something less to get its standard of journalism from other sources.
  • Seattle is hosting the battle royale to aggregate local bloggers. The now-online-only Seattle P-I, led by Michelle Nicolosi, has been signing up bloggers for years, and hosts more than 200 of them, who use the P-I’s publishing system. Across town, Bob Payne, communities director of The Seattle Times, is working with 22 hyperlocal sites in the region. That’s a J-Lab-funded project, which the Miami Herald and Charlotte Observer are also trying. All the newspaper sites get more content, as blogs and bloggers get more notice and traffic.
  • Hearst recently signed up Bleacher Report to provide fan-generated sports content for its sites.
  • Demand’s growing list of competitors to provide brokered content to news companies (and others) includes Associated Content, Helium, Seed, and Examiner, although there are signal differences among them. Outside.In and FWIX both offer pointers to local content of interest and have done deals with news websites.
  • Poynter Institute is even putting a finer point of the business of getting cheaper content, hosting a “Stretching Your News Budget with User Content” seminar in May.

Some of this content brokering brings in community-oriented “user-gen.” Some of it brings in useful content in niche areas, like sports, travel, family, religion and much more. Some does both.

Is there a danger in content arbitrage? It’s value-neutral; it’s all in how you do it. Let’s remember that journalism is essentially a manufacturing process, with as much or as little value added as we want.

On a brand- and content-integrity level, it’s all in exercising good judgment — but against a much wider array of choices. On a business level, it’s making sure you are buying low and selling high. Ironically, many news companies are starting to bring in more content — mostly from local bloggers and sites — but few are seeing ad departments monetize it well. That’s buying cheaply, but if you don’t sell it, it’s not really much of a business advance. That should be temporary, if news publishers and editors take content brokering to heart.

Photo by Petra Sell used under a Creative Commons license.

April 14 2010

17:22

“Intensely engaged followers”: Joel Kramer on MinnPost’s focused audienced-building strategy

Joel Kramer came right out and said it: He discriminates when it comes to his readers. MinnPost cares more about repeat readers than stray visitors, the site’s editor said during the “Building Online Communities” session at the ASNE NewsNow Ideas Summit this week; it’s chosen depth over breadth in its strategy of audience cultivation.

“What we’re trying to do is build a community of intensely engaged followers,” Kramer said. And while, yes, “user engagement” and its iterations seem to be the unofficial theme of this year’s ASNE event, Kramer wasn’t simply referring to engagement in the most common, “traffic-plus-interaction” sense of the term. For MinnPost, engagement is repetition. It’s commitment. It’s what Gawker Media has termed, simply, “affection.”

The strategy, for MinnPost, is a financial as much as an editorial one: It’s about concentrating impact, but also about monetizing that impact. The outlet’s ultimate goal in developing a core readership, Kramer said, is to “convert that community into enough money to sustain the journalism.”

It’s a more nuanced approach to a pageview-focused perspective on audience cultivation; last year, in a piece for our sister publication Nieman Reports, Kramer noted that “traffic to our web site, MinnPost.com, is critical to our financial success.” That’s still the case, of course; but a work-your-core caveat marks a shift in that traffic-is-traffic sensibility — and, as far as the outlet’s reach-out to advertisers is concerned, a shift in the eyeballs-are-eyeballs sensibility. It’s a commercial truth as well as a journalistic one: Not all readers are created equal.

The intense-engagement strategy makes sense in the context of MinnPost’s particular fusion of funding streams: A nonprofit, the outlet also relies on ad revenue — and on member donations that it hopes, eventually, will increase in number and put MinnPost on a path to sustainability. But: eventually. At this point, “the vast majority of our unique visitors are passers-by,” Kramer noted. The goal is to increase the ratio of repeat visitors to one-time ones.

How to do that is the big question — though engaging people with MinnPost’s journalism via the get-them-where-they-are approach will likely play a big role in it. “Social media, comment, and other forms of engagement with the audience have a tremendous effect on audience-building,” Kramer noted. “Facebook is the number-one referrer to our site not counting search — and we hardly were on it at all eight months ago.”

Comments have also been a boon. The site’s ban of anonymous comments, Kramer said, was “controversial” at its inception — “and it probably depresses the traffic,” he allowed — but it maintains MinnPost’s mission, he said, and leads to a more civil environment on the site. Which is another route to constructive community engagement.

And then there’s getting-readers-where-they-are in the more literal sense. “Probably the number-one builder of intensity is face-to-face contact, not online,” Kramer said. He mentioned the annual MinnRoast — the site’s version of the Gridiron Dinner — and some other in-person events that are targeted, in particular, at reaching readers under 40. The outlet recently polled young people about effective ways to get them excited about MinnPost, its content, and its community, Kramer noted. “The first thing they said was, ‘Hold events at bars.’”

April 13 2010

16:00

“The 24/7 News Cycle”: David Carr, Arianna Huffington, and Mark Russell debate the future at ASNE

Earlier this morning, David Carr, Arianna Huffington, and the Orlando Sentinel’s Mark Russell gathered to discuss “The 24/7 News Cycle: New Opportunities, New Pressures.” The panel had, surprisingly, a more elegiac tone at the outset than some of the previous events at this week’s “NewsNow Ideas Summit“; near the start of the conversation, Carr mentioned starting as The New York Times’ media columnist during a time when mass layoffs at papers and other media organizations were already the norm. “For a while I was thinking, ‘Does this end with me typing my own name into a sentence about layoffs?’” he said.

Now, though, at least according to the panel, things are turning around. Despite the recognition of context, optimism — tempered by pragmatism — was the talk’s overall sensibility. “I think we’re getting to the good part,” Carr said. “That’s what it feels like to me.”

Below, three (by now familiar) ideas that emerged, again and again, during the conversation:

1. The core need for context in addition to, and as part of, news narrative.

“We need to go back to getting stories,” said Huffington. But we need, she continued, to tell stories in a new way — to bolster them with background information, smart framing, and, overall, context. “How do we do impact journalism — especially at a time when so many institutions are crumbling?” Huffington asked. Which is also to say: “How do we do journalism in a way that is transformational?”

One answer to that question, she said, is to leverage the expertise of editors. Even in the aggregative work The Huffington Post is engaged in, Huffington pointed out, “the editorial function is paramount.” If a story is “surging” — i.e., getting heavy traffic and pass-around — it’s up to an editor to decide whether to increase its reach and impact, she said. Is the story, ultimately, “worthwhile”?

Context also demands stepping back from the tumult and taking time to process information as well as produce it, Carr pointed out. “I think because we’re so busy pushing media out, that it makes us dumber and dumber,” he said. (Later, he added: “This thing about iterating, iterating, iterating — great. But every once in a while, pick up the gun and shoot it.”)

“Editors are always saying, ‘Do more with less,’” Carr said. “We know that’s baloney. We know that’s not true.” He echoed a comment Mark Russell had made earlier: Know your strengths, he said, and focus on those. “We have a guy named Brian Stelter, who every time he moves his elbow, media pops out,” Carr pointed out. But Stelter is a digital native, Carr said; not everyone can — or should — be like him. Pick your battles.

2. The need for strategic use of new technologies.

“The cloud enriches what we do in ways that we don’t even see — because it happens slowly,” Carr said. And it opens up the possibilities for journalistic creation. “There’s this cereal box of things I could be doing every single day,” Carr pointed out. But, then again, “just because you can do it doesn’t mean you should do it.” Again, be selective.

And that’s a rule for preserving not just journalists’ sanity, but also their journalism itself. “It’s not how many times you tweet,” Huffington said; rather, “it’s how effectively we can use the new media and the new technologies.” And it’s about taking advantage of the new connectivity that the web allows to improve journalistic storytelling. “Technology has allowed millions of people to express themselves as they’ve never been able to before, she said — to the extent that “self-expression is the new entertainment.” And leveraging that expressive explosion is to everyone’s benefit.

(As to the payment question: People ask why people edit Wikipedia for no money, Huffington said. People ask why people tweet for no money. “But nobody asks, ‘why are they watching seven hours of bad TV for no money?’”)

3. The need for respecting readers and their desires for the news.

The patriarchal days of journalism are over, the panelists suggested; today, news is about determining what readers want — and not only giving it to them, but giving it to them where they are. Social media aren’t merely valuable as crowdsourcing mechanisms; they’re valuable as distribution platforms. “That’s the stage you have to be in because that’s what the users expect,” Russell said. Ultimately, “we have to be in the spaces they’re in.”

4. The need for collaboration.

We’re in a time that finds discrepant news approaches colliding with each other. “Arianna’s marching toward us in terms of some things that she’s up to; and we’re marching up toward her,” Carr said. It’s “insurgent warfare” — “and we’re at a disadvantage because we have all of these legacy costs and systems,” he pointed out of the Times. “The frictional stuff that’s going on is breathtaking to behold.”

One thing to remember, though: When news outlets become casualties of our transforming news system, their loss “is not collateral damage,” Carr said; it’s a real reduction in our ability to cover communities. Which makes collaborations — which are, among other things, hedges against news vacuums — increasingly valuable.

A lot of these hybrid models — “which I thought were, frankly, baloney when they first launched,” Carr said — are now playing an indispensable role.

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