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April 03 2013

18:50

The newsonomics of the Orange County Register’s contrarian paywall

angel-stadium-cc

Get your hot dogs. Get your beer. Get your newspaper. Step right up.

As Opening Day comes to the Big A in Anaheim on Tuesday, you can now expect to hear that barker’s call in Orange County. In what is fast becoming one of the most-watched experiments in newspapering (to use a quaint term), the Orange County Register innovates in a new way, aligning one hallowed American pastime with another.

Hundreds of newspapers have announced paywalls, as the Register is doing and a smaller subset is embracing “membership” as a way of redefining subscription. The Register, though, is making membership more meaningful with a just-completed deal with the many-named Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Starting tomorrow, “Register Connect” members — that is, seven-day subscribers — get a perk unlike any other in the newspaper world: free tickets to Angels games. That may be an actual game-changer — giving new meaning to the idea of “all-access.”

The new offer is just part of the Register’s aggressive, contrarian approach to paywalls, which is a central piece of its readers-first, invest-in-content staffing strategy (“The newsonomics of Aaron Kushner’s virtuous circles”). It’s a strategy that reaches beyond the groupthink that has long characterized much of the industry. Let’s look at its approach, including the ticket giveaway — its pros and the cons, its potential brilliance and what could dull the strategy. Let’s look at the newsonomics of the Register’s new paywall, one run by younger, sure-of-themselves non-newspaper people. Let’s also consider how much the Register’s new approach reminds us how first-generation, how 1.0 the current pay systems in fact are. Over 2013, we’ll see twists, turns, and nuances, as even paywall stalwarts like the Columbus Dispatch and Dallas Morning News tell us about previously unannounced changes in their own paywalls.

Aaron Kushner and Eric Spitz, CEO and president respectively of Freedom Communications, which they bought out of bankruptcy last year, have diverse business backgrounds. You’ll find a smattering of greeting cards, beer, unfast food, horse-racing technology, and moving services on their resumes, and they bring that experience to the problems and opportunities of the modern newspaper company. You get the sense that they love to zag when others are zigging — which helps explain their pride in announcing their paywall.

“We’re doing four things that are totally unique,” Spitz told me this week. Those four are interesting, certainly, but they bury the Register paywall lead. The Register is doing two things that others have done, but are doing differently — putting up a hard paywall and making much more of the membership idea than peer pioneers have yet done with it. First, though, a quick run-through of Spitz’s four unique forays:

1. A paywall without discounted digital access

The Register will charge one price — a dollar a day or $365 a year. Get digital or print or both. “We are truly agnostic. It’s our job to get you the content anyway you want. It’s kind of like HBO GO.” Why one price? “You are not paying for the paper — you are paying for the content.”

Most papers charge less for digital-only access, often 50 to 70 percent of the print price. Many have found that non-print readers won’t pay print-like prices for digital-only; some, like The Dallas Morning News, have actually lowered their digital-only prices, as they’ve found low incidence of fully paid print readers “trading down” to digital-only.

In the abstract, the Register’s reasoning makes sense. In practice, expect that few non-print readers will fork over that much money, initially, for tablet and smartphone reading. In the long term, of course, publishers want readers to pay for the content, not the package. In the long term — with production, printing, and distribution costs largely gone and subscription rates close to what they were in print — news publishers would be greatly more profitable. That’s the long term, though, and the path there is foggy. Yes, The Wall Street Journal can charge 83 percent of its print price for digital, and the Financial Times 87 percent (or 113 percent), but those are business-specific anomalies in the print trade.

2. Time-based digital access

If you pay $2.40 for Sunday print only, you get digital access only on Sundays. The Register, true to its agnosticism, is literally matching print and digital access. (You can also buy Thursday-Sunday for $5.60 a week, with matching digital access.) It’s agnostic — and it’s literal. One could argue that The New York Times’ scheme — cheaper for Sunday print + digital access seven days a week — better meets its business needs and consumer psychology. But the Register’s approach is a great test to watch.

3. Day passes

For any 24-hour period, you can pay $2 for access — access that gets you, in effect, two days worth of Register stories. The daypass idea is one that hasn’t much been tested in the U.S., with the Memphis Commercial Appeal trying but apparently dropping it. TinyPass, the company powering Andrew Sullivan’s Dish paywall, says daily access is more popular overseas and for video, selling live events and sports videos. The idea: sampling. Potential upside: day-passers move to full subscriptions. Potential downside: Comparing a $365 commitment to a $2 commitment, many readers opt into day passes.

4. All archives open to the public

The last 90 days of the Register’s content is considered current and covered by the paywall. Any content older than that is open to the full public. Why? “It’s the current content that readers most value,” says Spitz. Undoubtedly true, but it seems to me that archives — a continually undervalued asset by most news companies — have more value that can be exploited.

But it’s the membership program — one that’s not unique in the industry — that will catch the headlines.

Most newspaper membership programs offer free ebooks (The Boston Globe), coupons (The Day in New London, CT) and retail discounts (Los Angeles Times). Some invite members to community events or to visit the editorial staff. The Register wants to go bigger. It approached the Angels, located 10 minutes away, with the idea of better using the empty seats the Angels couldn’t sell. The Angels found themselves sitting on almost 600,000 empty seats last year over 81 games. Put another 7,000 butts in those seats each night, even without getting paid for the ticket, and the club is pulling in another 10 bucks or so on Chronic Tacos, garlic fries, and overpriced Corona.

The perk is available on a first-signed-up, first-served basis to the Register’s 124,000 seven-day subscribers, beginning 72 hours before each game. Forty-eight hours before the game, the Angels, through Ticketmaster, release available seats. Register Connect buyers can nab four tickets, for a service charge of $5. Within a year — subject to going to the end of the electronic queue after landing some tickets — fans can claim as many as 96 tickets a season.

“We’re looking to execute at scale,” Spitz explains, noting that lots of membership perks are good, but few are likely to move the needle of buying and retention. The Angels’ ticket program is that touch of likely brilliance. It is a scale play — and one I’ve been looking for as I’ve heard about the various membership initiatives rolled out over the last two years.

Further, it acts on the power of media. The Register, though shrunken in circulation like the rest of its metro brethren, still throws a lot of weight around town. It retains the power to pull off a big deal with the local baseball franchise — and one that comes at relatively low cost to the newspaper. (The high value/low cost here parallels the Register’s precedent-setting “golden envelope” program, in which it gave those same seven-day subscribers a $100 “check” for “free advertising,” a check they could endorse over to their favorite charity. That program will now be offered “at least twice a year” as well.) A couple of decades after airlines embraced variable pricing — selling off commodities whose value was destroyed by time — the practice is getting to be standard in lots of industries. Newspapers, with their market power, then are well positioned to create a variable pricing marketplace — with their member-subscribers at the center — and the Angels deal leads the way there.

“For your $400 a year, we’re going to deliver you far more than $400 in value,” says Spitz, underlining the allure of “membership.” To make membership more than a card-in-the-wallet afterthought, Spitz says Register Connect will include a key fob — a literal “key to the city” — to facilitate greater use.

Finally, there’s that hard paywall. It’s the biggest enigma of the Register plan. Come to the Register site, and you can get any non-staff-written story — wires and syndicated content, which makes up 40 percent of the content overall — but you won’t get more than “a headline and a sentence” of local stories.

It’s been the meter — with its flexibility and open site sensibility — that has fueled the paywall movement. Yet the Register, two years into modern paywall history, is going with the hard wall. Why?

Spitz says the Register wants to be clear that paying customers get everything — all access on all devices — and that others don’t. You are a customer — or you’re not. You’re on the Register bus, or you’re off it. There’s a certain purity to the thinking; it certainly slams shut that loophole we’ll come to see as plain weird — readers paying several hundred dollars for print or nothing for online. The metered model has largely closed off that stark choice for real readers of any publication. The Register, though, wants to make it even clearer: Pay your $365 a year — either for print or digital or both — and you get the content. It wants to reinforce its buyers’ smart choice.

The move means that the Register will surely lose more pageviews than if it went with a meter. Figure that it will lose 20-30 percent of them, where new metered paywalls lose about half as much. “We don’t care about monetizing eyeballs,” says Spitz, talking about the small incremental ad value newspaper sites get from marginal readers.

I asked Spitz if he had talked with The Dallas Morning News, one of the few U.S. sites to go hard paywall, and he said he had. “The number one thing we take away from them is the most significant value of the paywall is that if someone signs up — a print subscriber who signs up for the paywall — they become 50 percent less likely to attrite [drop their subscription]. The most important value of a paywall as it turns out is you are telling your customer that they are not stupid for buying something their neighbor is getting for free.”

Ironically, publisher Jim Moroney of the Dallas Morning News tells me that his paper is likely moving to a metered model: “We’re pretty certain that’s part of our strategy. How do it is the question.” Today, the Morning News does what the Register is about to do, offering for free access all the non-staff content, but making local stuff inaccessible to non-payers. Why the likely change? In a word, sampling. Moroney believes that he’s secured his core readers — at a high price of $36.95 a month for seven-day print + digital — but knows he needs to crack a code to bring in new, and younger, readers. The hard paywall is a barrier to sampling.

Phil Pikelny, the Columbus Dispatch’s CMO (“The newsonomics of pressing innovation”) is even blunter about the need for a meter:

Pre-2006, we had a hard wall at Dispatch.com. “It was an unmitigated disaster. While other news sites offered all free content, we [who only offered a free home page, free classifieds and free obits] were only able to attract 6,000 paying subs at the height of our ‘success.’ I’d say that thinking retarded our digital growth by three years. No matter what ‘we wish would happen,’ the simple fact is that people only pay for the value they perceive in a product. A website visitor looking at eight pages a month obviously derives little value from the site visited that infrequently. Obviously no pay scheme will win them over. I personally think a hard wall is so restrictive that the website immediately falls into the no-perceived value pile for too many people in the market.

Pikelny, like Moroney, is among those now looking at second-gen paywall notions: “We’re working on a dynamic paywall. Our thought is to eventually move to five free pages a month [from 10]. However, on those webpages where we have the heaviest revenue from advertising (and some of our most robust traffic) we are considering dropping the paywall altogether during certain dayparts. In other words, our home page and OSU sports pages might be without metering from 8 a.m.-10 a.m. and again from noon-2 p.m. The rest of the website would stay metered at all times. When we lower the meter to five pages a month, we might not lose those who don’t see ‘value’ in paying for our site since they will turn to us for headline or breaking stories without hitting a paywall.”

(At the Newspaper Association of America’s April 15 “Strength of Digital Subscriptions” session, Pikelny, the Star Tribune’s Mike Klingensmith, Gannett’s Laura Hollingsworth, and Press+’s Gordon Crovitz will join me for a session I’m moderating.)

Spitz says he, too, believes, in sampling, and that the Register will do that three ways: (1) the $2 day pass; (2) by providing seven days of free access with any fresh email signup; and (3) by pushing five to ten local stories in front of the wall at any one time.

Maybe, that will work. I’m dubious. Hard paywalls, no matter their intent, create a psychological barrier for readers, as The New York Times’ TimesSelect proved years ago. It doesn’t matter how clever you are; readers don’t like running into walls. That’s going to be especially true as news publishers confront the next challenge of paid digital readership. Properly, they’ve focused on their core print readers, extending them into higher-priced all-access.

That makes sense, but doesn’t provide enough growth, and those readers are averaging almost 60 years old. How are they going to convince younger, not-habituated-to-paying readers to join the paywall revolution?

For the Register, that’s a huge question. It’s down to 124,000 seven-day subscribers, with its official audited reporting pointing to 160,000 daily circulation. On Sunday, that number is 280,000, but it’s unclear how many of those are fully paid. Kushner and Spitz inherited a crazy-quilt of pricing when they took over the Register in June 2012. Their ability to weave a new rational pricing structure will make or break their out-of-the-box strategies.

Their all-in approach is refreshing, and as long as they’re prepared to quickly fix the moving parts that squeak, their model has a chance of success.

Photo of Angel Stadium by socaltimes used under a Creative Commons license.

November 10 2010

18:30

Talking Points Memo’s first developer talks startup life, jumping to ProPublica and data journalism

What’s it like being the only in-house techie at a news startup? Talking Points Memo’s first developer Al Shaw says “it’s kind of like being a reporter….you have to be a generalist,” doing everything from ad-side work to election-night interactives.

Shaw was the primary technical force behind most of the bells and whistles that cropped up at TPM over the past two years, including a redesign that lets producers switch up the layout of the homepage, and an array of slick interactives like the real-time election results tracker that made TPM look a lot less like a scrappy startup and more like an establishment outlet on Election Night earlier this month. (Shaw is quick to explain he had some help on the election map from Erik Hinton, TPM’s technical fellow.) He’s also been good about blogging about his technical endeavors in ways that could be useful to his peers at other news organizations.

Shaw announced last month he is leaving TPM to start a new gig at ProPublica, where he’ll keep working on data-driven journalism. On one of his few days off between jobs, I talked with him about what it’s like working for a news startup, what he hopes to accomplish at ProPublica, and where he thinks data journalism is headed. Below is a lightly edited transcript. (Disclosure: I used to work at TPM, before Al started there.)

Laura K. McGann: How did you approach your job at TPM? What did you see as your mission there?

Al Shaw: When I started, I came on as an intern right before the ’08 election. At that point, they didn’t have anyone in house who really knew much about programming or design or software. I came on and I saw an opportunity there because TPM is such a breaking-news site, and their whole goal is to do stuff really fast, that they needed someone to do that, but on the technology side, too.

I had a big role in how we covered the 2008 election. We became able to shift the homepage, rearrange stuff. Being able to really elevate what you can do in blogging software. That was kind of the first foray. Then I started redesigning some of the other sections. But the biggest impact I had was redesigning the homepage. That was about a year ago. I had the same goal of being able to empower the editors and nontechnical types to have a bigger palette of what they can do on the site. I created this kind of meta-CMS on top of the CMS that allowed them to rearrange where columns were and make different sections bigger and smaller without having to get into the code. That really changed the way the homepage works.

There is still Movable Type at the core, but there’s a lot of stuff built up around the sides. When we started to build bigger apps, like the Poll Tracker and election apps, we kind of moved off Movable Type all together and started building in Ruby on Rails and Sinatra. They’re hosted on Amazon EC2, which is a cloud provider.

LKM: What have you built that you’re the most proud of?

AS: Probably the Poll Tracker. It was my first project in Rails. It just had enormous success; it now has 14,000 polls in it. Daily Kos and Andrew Sullivan were using it regularly to embed examples of races they wanted to follow and it really has become a central part of TPM and the biggest poll aggregator on the web now. I worked with an amazing Flash developer, Michiko Swiggs, she did the visual parts of the graph in Flash. I think a lot of it was really new in the way you could manipulate the graph — if you wanted to take out certain pollsters, certain candidates, methods, like telephone or Internet, and then you could see the way the trend lines move. You can embed those custom versions.

I think the election tool was also a huge success [too], both technologically and on the design and journalism side. We got linked to from Daring Fireball. We also got linked to from ReadWriteWeb and a lot of more newsy sites. Andrew Sullivan said it was the best place to watch the elections. Because we took that leap and said we’re not going to use Flash, we got a lot of attention from the technology community. And we got a lot of attention from kind of the more political community because of how useable and engaging the site was. It was kind of a double whammy on that.

LKM: What was your experience working with reporters in the newsroom? TPM is turning ten years old, but it’s still got more of a startup feel than a traditional newspaper.

AS: It’s definitely a startup. I would fade in and out of the newsroom. Sometimes I’d be working on infrastructure projects that dealt with the greater site design or something with the ad side, or something beyond the day-to-day news. But then I’d work with the reporters and editors quite a bit when there was a special project that involved breaking news.

So for example, for the Colbert-Stewart rallies we put up a special Twitter wire where our reporters go out to the rallies and send in tweets and the tweets would get piped into a special wire and they’d go right onto the homepage. I worked with editors on how that wire should feel and how it should work and how reporters should interact with it. I remember one concern was, what if someone accidentally tweets somethng and it ends up on the homepage. How do we delete that? I came up with this system with command hashtags, so a reporter could send in a tweet with a special code on it which would delete a certain tweet and no one else would know about that, except for the reporter.

A lot of the job was figuring out what reporters and editors wanted to do and figuring out how to enable that with the technology we had and with the resources we had.

LKM: I remember an instance in my old newsroom where we had a tweet go up on the front page of another site and the frantic emails trying to get it taken down.

AS: Twitter is such an interesting medium because it’s so immediate, but it’s also permanent. We’re having a lot of fun with it, but we’re still learning how best to do it. We did this thing called multi-wire during the midterms, which was a combination of tweets and blog posts in one stream. There was a lot of experimentation with: When do we tweet as compared to a blog post? Should we restrict it to certain hours? That was a really interesting experiment.

LKM: What emerging trends do you see going on in data-driven or interactive journalism?

AS: It’s really good that a lot of sites are starting to experiment more with data-driven journalism, especially as web frameworks and cheap cloud hosting become more prevalent and you can learn Rails and Django, it’s really easy to get a site up that’s based around data you can collect. I do see two kind of disturbing trends that are also happening. One is the rise of infographics. They may not be as useful as they are pretty. You see that a lot just all over the place now. The other problem you see is the complete opposite of that where you’ll get just a table of data filling up your whole screen. The solution is somewhere in between that. You have a better way of getting into it.

It’s really great that there’s kind of a community forming around people that are both journalists and programmers. There’s this great group called Hacks/Hackers that brings those two cohorts together and lets them learn from each other.

LKM: How about at ProPublica? You mentioned you aren’t sure entirely what you’re going to do, but broadly, what do you hope to accomplish there?

AS: I’m most excited about working more closely with journalists on data sets and finding the best ways of presenting those and turning them into applications. That was one thing I was able to do with Poll Tracker, but it didn’t seem like TPM had as big of a commitment to individual stories that could have side applications. Poll Tracker was more of a long-running project. ProPublica is really into delving deeply onto one subject and finding data that can be turned into an application so the story isn’t just a block of text, there’s another way of getting at it.

One of the other things they’re working on is more tools for crowdsourcing and cultivating sources. I know that they want to start building an app or a series of apps around that. And they’re doing some cool stuff with Amazon Mechanical Turk for kind of normalizing and collecting data. I’m sure there’s going to be a lot more fun stuff to do like that.

August 26 2010

14:00

Project Argo blog is for participants, but an interesting read for outsiders

In the run-up to the launch of the D.C. local site TBD, the editors let future readers peek behind the curtain through a placeholder blog that teased new hires and plans for the project. The blog also did a great job of generating buzz; we tweeted quite a few links to the site.

So when Megan pointed me to a blog from another not-yet-launched project, NPR’s Argo Project, I assumed it would serve a similar marketing end. But this one’s different: The blog’s lead writer, editorial project manager Matt Thompson, is writing directly to the new Argo bloggers at 12 NPR member stations. Argo is a new cross-country network of reported blogs, and many of the journalists hired to run them need some tactical training in how to run a successful Argo site.

Think of it as an in-house blog that just happens to be open to the public; even though the blog is meant for NPR staff, it’s a useful read for anyone interested in the future of news or in best practices for launching a news blog. Here are a few of Thompson’s lessons:

1. You need a plan

One of the best posts on Thompson’s blog is a pre-launch checklist. (He’s since posted a revised version of the checklist on Argo’s impressive and useful docs site.) Thompson lays out a step-by-step guide for Argo participants, but it’s generally useful for anyone about to launch a new site could use (particularly if you’re using WordPress, which Argo is).

Some of the best: Do a “photowalk” for your beat (“try to capture images of things you’ll be posting about frequently”); build our your metadata beforehand (defining tags and categories before launch to straighten up your taxonomy); and reaching out to the best Creative Commons photographers on your beat (to ensure a happy group of free content providers).

2. Follow by example, steal from others

Blogging isn’t new, and Argo isn’t pretending it’s creating a new format. In fact, Thompson is urging bloggers to follow the examples of their best predecessors. He points readers to the work of trailblazers like Marc Ambinder, Nick Denton, and Andrew Sullivan. Ambinder gets a nod for his thoughts on journalism as an industry. A Nick Denton memo pushes for context (one of Thompson’s longstanding interests). And Andrew Sullivan gets praise for his pacing. The three writers certainly have different styles, different content focuses, and different missions, but Thompson has plucked out valuable advice for all of his bloggers.

3. Tactics are teachable

Thompson has a running series of posts called “dark secrets” that offer insight into how successful blogs engage an audience. Use photos. Watch your headlines. Where should you place that hyperlink? He’s got a good post on that. They’re the kinds of insights newspapers, magazines, and radio stations have compiled about their own media over time. But for this new-to-many platform, they make for helpful tips.

4. Blogging is a craft

The category Thompson posts to most frequently is “blogging technique.” His points are great: Find your morning routine, your rhythms, and your pace. Check out his post on “The blogger’s first month.” Blogging isn’t journalism for dummies — it’s a craft with its own set of practices and ways to excel.

July 04 2010

11:08

HOW TO HAVE STRONGER NEWSPAPERS? EASY. DO REAL JOURNALISM. PERIOD!

Sullivan

I just subscribed to The Times and Suday Times websites.

Cheap and easy: 1 GBP for one month, and after that 2 GBP a week.

Why?

Because you cannot read anywhere else smart columns like this one.

Andrew Sullivan on the real crisis of American newspapers.

A few “tapas”:

-Many US newspapers have simply become pale, quivering shadows of what they once were.

-Once, they aggressively scrutinised the powerful and exposed secrets, but they have — with some exceptions — become mouthpieces for the powerful, enablers of propaganda and prim schoolmarms when it comes to telling people what they want to know.

-A Harvard study recently examined the full record. This was its finding: “[From the 1930s to 2002] The New York Times characterised waterboarding as torture in 81.5% (44 of 54) of articles on the subject and the Los Angeles Times did so in 96.3% of articles (26 of 27). By contrast, in 2002-8 the studied newspapers almost never referred to waterboarding as torture.

-The New York Times called waterboarding torture or implied it was torture in just 2 of 143 articles (1.4%). The Los Angeles Times did so in 4.8% of articles (3 of 63). The Wall Street Journal characterised the practice as torture in just 1 of 63 articles (1.6%). USA Today never called waterboarding torture.”

-Over time this kind of editorial cowardice gets through to the average reader. She senses she is not reading a truly independent press, eager to offend, sceptical of the powerful and determined not to mince words. And so she looks elsewhere. The editors and producers of American journalism have long wondered why their industry has been in decline. Perhaps they should try looking in the mirror.

Oh, boy!

Talk about multimedia, citizens journalism, social media, new platforms, interactivity, tablets and other magic words…

That’s nothing.

That’s wrong.

That’s a distraction.

Newspapers will be saved not by gadgets, technology and buzzwords but by real journalism.

Period!

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