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September 15 2011

15:00

The newsonomics of 1, 2, 3, 4

Editor’s Note: Each week, Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of news for the Lab.

Ah, the joys of print — and real world — serendipity.

Arriving in Berlin to speak at the annual Medienwoche, part of the IFA 2011 content-meets-tech conference, I took a post-flight stroll around my hotel. I picked up a Wired U.K. at a local newsstand (newsstands chock-full of magazines and newspapers seem ubiquitous in Germany, their big-city absence in America made more noticeable). It’s a good issue, exploring the top digital entrepreneurial hotspots across Europe, from a U.K. perspective.

Across from p. 82, my eye caught a house ad. It was selling all things Wired U.K., but selling them in a customer-centric way I hadn’t before seen. Reproduced below, you see how it focused on how customers may variously access Wired. It speaks “multi-platform,” “multimedia” and “news anywhere” much better than those compounded nouns (which, when you think of it, are starting to sound like multisyllabic German constructions).

It’s masterful in telling the reader simply, and with a bit of fun, what the Wired U.K. brand stands for, how you can pick your timeliness (now to annual), mode of ingestion (reading, listening, or attending conferences) and more.

In a second bit of terrestrial serendipity, it turned out that Wired U.K. Editor David Rowan was speaking at IFA two hours after my talk. He and his art director, Andrew Diprose, had already supplied a digital copy of the house ad. I told him how well I thought the ad captured a business model in the making, with a clear customer-centric approach. He thanked me for the comment, and added, “It’s just something we tossed together when we had an extra page.” Well, it may have been, but it shows how this Wired crew is thinking of their business, eating some of the digital dog food it dishes out in each issue.

The ad had particular resonance this week as I’ve been thinking about the question on everyone’s minds in the newspaper and magazine businesses: What’s the new business model — that hybrid print/digital or digital/print — going to look like? It’s clear to everyone at this point that while print has a significant role for as far forward as we can see, it’s receding in importance, and revenue, and that digital is the growth engine on which to focus.

It’s one thing to say that and quite another to say what the new business model will look like. How much revenue will come from what, when, and who?

Now approaching 2012, we see that 2011 has provided a few clues to that new business model. No one, though, even the world’s digital revenue news leader, Oslo-based Schibsted (with 30 percent of overall revenues driven by digital) will tell you that even the industry’s leader has not yet found a big, sustainable model able to support a large newsroom.

Let me propose a model I’m testing out, as we watch the rollicking developments in the industry. As paid digital-access plans roll out weekly, as Digital First becomes not just a catchphrase but a company, as tablet development moves to the front burner and as the TV business continues to outpace both newspapers and magazines, what are the common threads we can see?

It’s purposely a simplified, bare-bones structure. I call it the newsonomics of 1, 2, 3, 4 and welcome flesh to be added to the skeleton — and/or chiropractic adjustment as well.

It’s 1, 2, 3, 4, as in:

  • 1 brand
  • 2 major sources of revenue, advertiser and reader
  • 3 products: print, computer, and mobile
  • 4G, as in the coming of faster connectivity

Let’s look at each one, briefly:

1 brand

The first decade-plus of the web was all about collecting, bringing things together. That meant major wins (63 percent of U.S. digital ad revenue in 2011 is going to Google, Yahoo, AOL, Microsoft — and Facebook) for those who aggregated. The act of collecting (curating if you prefer) was rewarded at the expense of those being aggregated. Now, as we approach 2012, we’re seeing a major re-assertion of brand, and its primacy.

Steve Jobs’ tablet-launching assertion that search is so yesterday was part sales pitch, part prophecy. The app is nothing if not the re-ascendance of brand, encapsulated in a few pixels. These tiny apps — from ESPN, The Atlantic, Time, the Guardian, and Berliner Morgenpost to The Boston Globe, The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal — all convey new promise. That promise has found a business model — all-access — to accompany. After years of wandering in the wilderness of customer confusion and self-doubt, news companies are saying: “You know us, you know our brand; you value us. Pay us once and we’ll get you our stuff wherever, whenever, however you want it”. Call it “entertainment everywhere” or “news anywhere,” or “TV Everywhere,” major media are now re-training their core audiences to expect — and pay for — ubiquity.

News companies are following the lead of Netflix, HBO, and Comcast (Xfinity), all now basing their hybrid old world (TV/cable/post office) and new world (smartphone, tablet, computer, and connected TV) on the same simple idea. In the first digital decade, news and entertainment was atomized by aggregators, dis-branded, as readers and viewers often flipped through Google, YouTube, or Yahoo without knowing who actually produced news or entertainment.

Now, we see brand re-emerging to signal top-of-mind awareness — and to earn those one-click credit card payments. These are friendlier brands, attempting to leverage and master the new social curation of news and entertainment.

2 major sources of revenue, advertiser and reader

For that first decade plus of the web, news publishers relied on one revenue source — digital advertising. That’s been like wheeling into the future on a unicycle, lots of careening and too little forward progress. As publishers have taken a long-term view of the business, the conclusion from Arthur Sulzberger and Rupert Murdoch to Dallas’ Jim Moroney and Morris’ Michael Romaner has been the same: We have little hope of creating a successful digital business without robust digital reader revenue. Reader revenue doesn’t have to be mean only digital subscriptions. Schibsted and Australia’s Fairfax are pioneering “services,” with Schibsted’s story-aided weight-loss programs prototypical. Newbies Texas Tribune and MinnPost are showing how reader-attended events are moneymakers. The tablet will spawn lots of new one-off paid reader products.

And advertising doesn’t mean just selling space. Most major news chains, from Advance to Gannett to Hearst, are becoming regional ad agencies, selling and re-selling everything from deals to Yahoo (or in Advance’s case, Microsoft) to search engine marketing to Facebook and Google to local merchants large and small. The New York Times pulled Lincoln “ad” money into digital circulation push. Sponsorships are coming back in a big way for mobile.

So, two revenues, tried, true, but twisting new. Will they be 50/50 supports of new models? Too early to say, but they provide us the rivers and tributaries to build new revenue stream models.

3 products: print, computer, and mobile

“Online,” of course, was first re-purposed print. Too much of mobile is, again, re-purposed online. Yet, the smarter all-access players, mostly national, are looking at their audience data and seeing how different usage is by device or platform. There are new products — MediaNews’ TapIn is emblematic — that are made for the tablet, with even smartphone utility in question and desktop a distant third. We’ll see three distinct ways of thinking about product: print, lean-forward desktop/laptop and lean-back tablet/on-the-move smartphone. Newspaper print becomes just another platform. This triad becomes more than a smart way to think about product development — it becomes a way of measuring costs, revenues, and metrics like ARPU.

4G, as in the coming of faster connectivity

Only in the last couple of years have we passed 50 percent broadband access in the U.S., which currently ranks ninth worldwide at 63 percent of households. We’ve forgotten the days when pressing on the play button on a website’s video player was a crapshoot. Between buffering and bumbling of all sorts, video only sometimes worked. Now, take a look at the just-launched WSJ Live on the iPad, and you see how far we’ve come. 4G is now on the mainstream horizon, and with it comes the higher valuing of news video. That’s a challenge for text-based newspaper companies, most of whom have taken only first steps to becoming truly multimedia companies. You can see the 4G glow in the eyes of John Paton’s new Digital First Media company. I’m told his New Haven Register now outproduces the local TV stations in digital video news creation; few newspaper peers can yet say the same. With ad rates for news video are still markedly higher than for text stories, any successful model must put video at the center of new products.

So, it’s 1, 2, 3 and 4, good tests of evaluating new company strategies — from the inside or out.

January 13 2011

15:30

The Newsonomics of 2011 news metrics to watch

[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.]

In the digital business, the old aphorism — “If you can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist” — is rapidly moving from article of faith to fundamental operating principle. Measurement systems are just getting better and better.

Yes, there are still quite a few naysayers in the digital news business, those who believe that editorial discretion is superior to any metric the digital combines can kick out. They’ll say you can’t measure the quality of journalism created — and, of course, they are partly right. The truth of the moment is that good (to great) editors, armed with good (to great) analytics, will be in the winners in the next web wars. The same is true for digital marketers working for news companies. Unless they combine their knowledge of markets, customers, and advertisers with often real-time numbers about performance, they’ll lose business to those who do.

The counting of numbers, though, is tricky. So many numbers, so little time, as 24/7 digital keystrokes stoke endless reams of data. Which ones to count, and which to pay closest attention? Meaningful numbers, of course, are called metrics, and meaningful interpretation of those numbers we now call analytics. These analytics, discovered or undiscovered, then drive the business, and they are particularly important in great times of change, when whole industries move profoundly digital. As that old investigative reporter Sherlock Holmes said, “Data. Data. Data. I can’t make bricks without clay.”

In the spirit of the new year, let me suggest some of the more valuable emerging metrics for those in the news business in 2011. Further, in that spirit, let’s pick 11 of them. These aren’t intended to be the most important ones — the mundane price of newsprint, trending up recently, still is a hugely influential number — but ones that are moving center stage in 2011.

1. How much are news companies getting for tablet advertising? Or, in more numerical terms, what’s the effective CPM, or cost-per-thousand readers? In 2010, those with tablet news products reaped a small windfall, gaining rates as high as $150 per thousand readers, which would be 20 times what many of them get for their website ads. Much of that business was “sponsorship,” meaning that advertisers paid simply for placement, not actually based on number of readers. It was the blush of the new, and the association with it, that drove that kind of money. While early 2011 pricing is still very good, as the tablet market goes mass, what will happen to the rates news companies can charge advertisers? This is a huge question, especially if tablet news reading does hasten movement from ad-rich newsprint (see “The Newsonomics of tablets replacing newspapers“).

2. What percentage of unique visitors will actually pay for online access? It’s going to be a tiny percentage — maybe one to five percent of all those uniques, the majority tossed onto sites by search. If it’s less than one percent, paid metered models may be of little consequence. At two percent, especially for the big guys, like The New York Times with its imminent launch, the numbers gets meaningful and model-setting.

3. Where are the news reading minutes going? The Pew study showing that Americans are reading news 13 minutes a day more, probably given smartphone usage, was a thunderbolt — a potential sign of growth for a news industry that has felt itself melting away. With tablet news reading joining even more smartphone reading (only 20 percent of cellphones are “smart” right now), each news company will have to look at its logs to see which readers are reading what with what kind of device — which will tell where reading is increasing and where (let’s guess, print) it is decreasing. Then comes the job to adjust products accordingly.

4. How good are the margins in the fast-developing marketing services business? Tribune’s 435 Digital, GannettLocal, and Advance Internet are among the leaders selling everything from search engine marketing and optimization to mobile and social to local merchants. It’s a big shift for big newspaper companies used to selling larger ticket ads to relatively few customers. There is no doubt that local merchants want help in digital marketing. The number to watch for the newspaper companies is their margin on sales — after paying off technology partners from Google to Bing to WebVisible. Once we see how those margins settle in, we’ll know whether marketing services is a big, or small, play to find local news company profit growth.

5. How much of digital revenue is being driven by digital-only ad sales? McClatchy has been a leader in unbundling print/online sales, with digital-only now approaching 50 percent. That’s a big number for all media companies to watch. Not only is the market pushing them to offer unbundled products, but the sooner they sell digital separately on its own merits, the faster they grasp the growing business and slowly cut the cord to the declining one.

6. How much of news traffic is now being driven by Facebook and Twitter? A few companies, including The Washington Post, know daily how much of their traffic is driven by social media; many others have little clue. Those that do watch the number know that Facebook and Twitter are the number one growth driver for news “referral” traffic, and that social traffic (friends don’t let friends read bad news) converts better to more regular readership than does search traffic. This metric then pushes newsrooms to more greatly, and more quickly, participate in the social whirl.

7. How much will membership grow at the highest-quality, online-only local news start-ups? MinnPost just hit 2,300, an impressive number, but it’s been a three-year road to get there. It is hiring a membership director and trying to better convert regular readers to members. The Texas Tribune is pushing toward 2,000 and Bay Citizen 1,500. Can membership be a significant, and ramping, piece of the new news business model, or will it have to look elsewhere — advertising, syndication, events, more grants — to find sustainable futures?

8. How many titles — and readers — is Journalism Online able to bring into its Press+ network? Journalism Online has moved from a question mark to a well-situated player in the iPad-fueled universe of paid content. Its Press+ network offers the promise of that elusive “network effect” — but only if it gets real scale.

9. How much “extra” do news companies charge for digital access? Okay, every publisher wants to be paid for news content. But as they test out pricing, they’re all over the board in how much to charge. Some want to charge as much for digital as for print; others are willing to throw in digital access for “free” if readers maintain print. The number to watch is one probably about 10-20 percent higher than print alone — as an opt-out upsell — and see how much that sticks with print readers. If that works, new “circulation” revenue helps replaces some of that disappearing ad money — and provide a route to a time of mainly digital, partially paid access.

10. What’s your cost of content? No journalist likes to be thought of as a widget producer, but news is a manufacturing trade, as the Demand Media model has shown us. How can news companies lower the cost of content while creating more? That’s why we see new Reuters America deals, Demand partnerships, more user-gen, more staff blogging. Editors are more needed than ever to make quality judgments about new content, but they and their business leaders must understand what content — high-end and low — really costs to produce.

11. How much do you spend on analytics? Ultimately, investing in the collection and interpretation of data is a big test of news companies’ ability to play digital. I’ve noted (“The Newsonomics of the FT as an Internet retailer“) how the Financial Times has set the pace for the industry in establishing a new team of (non-newspaper) people to run its analytics arm. That operation now numbers 11, up from nine last year. A good beginning metric for any news company to ask: How much money are we investing in understanding our business with the tools of the day?

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