Tumblelog by Soup.io
Newer posts are loading.
You are at the newest post.
Click here to check if anything new just came in.

June 27 2013

15:17

The newsonomics of Advance’s advancing strategy and its Achilles’ heel

Another city. Another melange of limited information, confused storytelling, and an unsuccessful attempt to put on a happy face to mask a huge change in newspapering and civic life.

Last week, Oregon’s dominant paper, The Oregonian, followed in the footsteps of other Advance papers and announced it would be delivering to homes only four days a week come fall. It will be greatly slimming down staff, including dozens in the newsrooms, formally going digital-first, reorganizing into two companies, and producing newsstand editions on the days it won’t home deliver. It’s Advance’s Slim-Fast, Phase 2, tweaked after its torturous New Orleans rollout last year (“The newsonomics of Advance’s New Orleans strategy”).

That’s the new Advance playbook, as the company — a top 10 newspaper company by revenue in the U.S. — proceeds with a revolutionary restructuring of the local news business. It’s a play that serves at this point as a contrarian example. Most publishers believe the Newhouse family, owners of the very private Advance, is downsizing its own business, and about to give away the local market dominance in readership and commerce monopoly regional dailies have long had in the United States.

Within Advance, you hear that its strategy isn’t just on plan — it’s ahead of it. How do we put together what’s really happening and figure out what to make of it?

It’s not easy. Working with sources up and down in Advance cities is one way, gathering lots of partial views. While top editors are willing to talk, Advance’s business leaders are mum. That’s just silly: Newspapers have a special responsibility to the public, one that although further tested by Advance’s new strategy, is universal. Newspapers are citizens of their community — leading ones, we’d hope — and clamming up about changes of this significance is contrary to the values of the trade.

Just as curiously, Advance isn’t sharing much with its peers in the industry. If Advance has really developed the new secret sauce, why not share it with other newspaper publishers nationally and globally? After all, they’re not the competition. Yet Advance’s omerta-light DNA is a sideshow here. What we care about is the Advance strategy and what it means to the readers, to the journalists, and to the business of news going forward.

So let’s look at the updated newsonomics of the Advance strategy, Phase 2, as it rolls out in Portland in October, two months after Cleveland’s Plain Dealer takes the same plunge. Let’s look the strategy — which has a fair amount of smarts built into it — and its challenges, pitfalls and, likely, its Achilles’ heel.

Planning for print decline

As a strategy, think shock therapy and you’d be close. For decades, the Advance papers had been the epitome of corporate paternalism. The no-layoff pledge, generous health benefits, and good salaries all said job-for-life. Advance’s separation of its local digital sites (OregonLive.com in Portland, for instance) from the newsroom — literally 10 blocks away and reporting to corporate, not the publisher or editor — greatly hampered a singular reader focus.

As other companies struggled mightily with the digital transition, the huge staffs of the Advance dailies found themselves too often sitting on the sidelines. Individual editors, with great variability, tried to innovate. Overall, though, Advance dailies were falling behind the peers in trying to meet the digital revolution.

After years of waiting, waiting, and waiting, the company is now in a mad rush to change. When it came time to acknowledge basic truths about newspapering, Advance management reached for the hand grenade rather than the scalpel.

Reading the same tea leaves of print decline as their brethren, they decided that blowing up the enterprise (reassembling it in two pieces) and downsizing their operations, their home delivery, and their community service was the answer.

Their analysis, curiously, parallels that of iconoclast John Paton, the mastermind behind Digital First Media, as Journal Register and now MediaNews properties experience their own more evolutionary revolution. The in-common belief: As print ad revenues show accelerated decline, companies must greatly reduce their legacy costs and concentrate on the digital future. In fact, Paton has somewhat endorsed Advance’s efforts.

While the experiments began in Michigan in 2009, it was the the New Orleans Times-Picayune downsizing that riveted public and industry attention. In fact, 60 Minutes, which had sought the one moment for years to finally talk about the decline of the U.S. press, used the Times-Picayune’s réduction des effectifs as Exhibit A.

Everyone acknowledges that Advance publicly handled the New Orleans changeover as poorly as it could. Marketing. Messaging. Engagement. All subpar.

The T-P seemed to be at odds with the community that went into the streets to demand its very pulp-based existence. The community’s clamor for a seven-day paper went unheeded — until Monday, when the street edition of The Times-Picayune hit pavement, in 60 glorious tab pages. The New Orleans paper had borrowed a page from its northern cousin, the Post-Standard, which cut back home delivery Feb. 1, publishing a print edition even on days that it no longer offered home delivery. The changeover, Phase 2.

Now The Plain Dealer, which just announced a set of layoffs last week, and The Oregonian are following the same five-point model:

  • Massively cut expenses: At The Oregonian, about a sixth of the 650 staffers will lose their jobs. At Syracuse, the number was closer to 30 percent of about 400. Overall, I’ve extrapolated that Advance is aiming for an about 25 percent expense reduction (mainly in staff, printing, and distribution); I’ve been told that is close to the mark.
  • Pixelate the remaining ink-stained wretches: As Oregonian editor Peter Bhatia made (solely, he says) the layoff decisions that eliminated the jobs of about four dozen journalist staffers — about a quarter of the newsroom — he’s been quite clear that digital skills played a part in his decision-making. “How well [people] will work in the new world order” is key, he told me this week. (For the depth of the tumult within The Oregonian, check out Willamette Week’s takeout here.)
  • Separate out the old business from the new: In all its restructured cities, two separate companies have emerged to replace the old print. In Portland, it’s the Oregonian Media Group (yes, the already much-satirized OMG) that will now employ the content and sales people. As I’ve argued over the years, it is content and sales, quite simply, that are the foundation of the new business. The Advance strategy recognizes that and takes it to an operational level. The other new company Advance Central Services Oregon houses “support” of OMG. So it’s mainly made up of the print-oriented parts of the business — production, printing and distribution — along with HR, finance, and technology.
  • Provide seven-day print, but not home delivery: In New Orleans, and at Advance’s two Alabama dailies, the end of seven-day print was cold-turkey. One day: seven days a week of print; after the changeover, only three days. Then, Advance learned something from the Syracuse model. Pushed to continue (at least for a while) the semblance of seven-day print, the Post-Standard found that a by-product of daily print — the durable, seemingly vestigial e-edition — achieved a market purpose. Today in Syracuse, with a daily circulation of about 75,000, about one in ten readers downloads that daily e-edition. E-editions have been around for 15 years; essentially, they’re replicas of the final edition of the printed paper, ones that can be updated during the next day, but often aren’t.

    Why would anyone want to read a static copy of yesterday’s news? Think older readers. They own computers, but are more comfortable with the format of the newspaper they’ve read for decades. This is an interim market, to be sure, but serving it is a subscriber retention must. To publish an e-edition, you need a print edition. If, like the Oregonian, you’re making substantial revenue printing other publishers’ papers, adding a short run of single-copy papers can be done very cheaply. Hence, single copy editions.

    In Portland, there will be four days of home delivery. The Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday editions are clearly full papers. The content emphasis of a Saturday paper — first called a “bonus” in its announcement — is still taking shape, says Bhatia. Consistent with Advance’s marketing and messaging faux pas, it has also named its daily e-edition, “My Digital O,” to the guffaws of many. Talk about service journalism.

    This single-copy story may get more interesting. Whereas Syracuse has stuck to a 16-page edition, with a single ad — to facilitate that e-edition — New Orleans’ TP Street debuted with 60 pages and a good run of ads, adding three to its print team to produce it. Both cities’ papers are delivered to hundreds of newsstands. An ironic question: What would Advance have to charge to restart seven-day home delivery, coming full-circle in its digital-first, cost-cutting exercise?

  • Keep digital access free — at least for now: Most puzzling in Advance’s strategy is its reliance on advertising, which continues to go south for the whole industry — including Advance. As more than 500 dailies in the U.S. move to charging for digital access, including all of Advance’s peer chains, Advance eschews paywalls. Why? Well, given the tight lips, we’re not sure.

    The lack of an All-Access model, I believe, looks like the Achilles heel of the Advance strategy, even if that strategy works in other ways. Why? Advance depends and will depend much more on ad revenue than its peers. Many of those peers believe that reader revenue may reach 50 percent of total revenue within two to five years. They believe that print advertising’s fade looks near-irreversible. Further, they’ve learned that the sharp growth curve upward in digital ad revenue has hit a wall. Some struggle for growth at all; most are in single-digits, well below the 15 percent growth of digital ad revenue overall. Sure, The Oregonian, The Post-Standard, or The Harrisburg Patriot-News could institute a paywall. It would likely, though, yield much less than it could have.

    Getting the order of things right on a paywall is important: Much better to improve the seven-day print product, add usable mobile apps, and then price up, even if you have a mind to cut home delivery. That way, you’ve established a new, higher price — and the monetary value of digital. Instead, Advance maintains what now seems like a nonsensical approach to paid print and free digital, and that bodes ill for holding on to current print subscribers, much less convincing many people to pay much for all-access down the road.

    If other publishers believes half of their 2016 revenue will come from digitally oriented readers, how will Advance newspapers deal with the lack of that revenue? It will have two major choices: find currently unknown large sources of revenue — or keep cutting expenses, including newsroom staff.

Stand back from this audacious strategy — with all its staff-cutting pain, its inducing of reader pain, and the promise of its digital-first, future-is-now thinking — and it’s hard to get past the point of its missing digital reader revenue strategy.

That said, Advance’s more immediate bet is that it can radically reduce its costs and maintain its dominating presence in local news and commerce.

It’s too early to assess the local advertising challenge. It’s a hyper-competitive marketplace, and Advance seems to succeeded in corralling seven-day advertisers into three days. (I’d projected it would hold on to 85 percent of its print advertising revenue in New Orleans; the number appears to be closer to 90 percent.) It still faces, though, a fast-declining (high single digits loss in metro markets) print market. Further, its ability innovate fast enough in the digital ad marketplace is unproven.

As one observer put it to me today, does the new Oregonian plan to make its future on display banner ads? I’m sure execs would answer that no. But its work in newer forms of digital advertising, from content marketing to marketing services to a major video presence, all seem relatively nascent. Is it ready for prime time as a digital-heavy company? Not yet, certainly, and the clock shows two more big Advance dailies going digital-first within 90 days or so. As it fights for digital ad revenue, it faces many competitors from Google and Facebook nationally to lots of local players.

New competition

In news impact, so far, there is mixed evidence.

Observers in both New Orleans and Syracuse tell me it is a crazy-quilt. Yes, with time-stamping on the website, more stories and posts are being pumped out of the newsroom.

The new operations break their share of news, and some second-day stories do a great job of summing up major news events. Sometimes, though — more than they used to — both papers drop the ball on breaking news. Other news players, from NewsChannel 9 WSYR in Syracuse to The Lens and the just-launched Baton Rouge Advocate’s greatly energized New Orleans play (“The New Orleans Advocate”), are competing more consistently. The Advance papers are still the biggest dog in town, but the dog park is now more diverse. Come fall, The Plain Dealer and The Oregonian will wake up to find their traditional alpha status more challenged day by day.

Times-Picayune editor Jim Amoss believes he is already seeing the dividends from the wrenching change the newsroom has seen. His staff is thinking news, not the next day’s paper.

“We’ve had eight months of having the news gatherers and editors separate, physically separate, from the print team and not having to think about the print product. The new rhythms have been inculcated in everybody,” says Amoss. “The total number of people in news went from 181 pre-change to 160 now. We’re still in the process of filling some of those positions. That total includes 91 reporters (including metro area news, sports, entertainment, Baton Rouge, and Washington correspondent). The number of reporters pre-change was roughly the same.”

Digital audience has grown, as we would expect given the print stoppage. Overall pageviews are up 15 percent, and “eyes on content” — meaning views of articles, videos, and photos across the site — are up 35 percent. A significant part of that is huge photo growth, up 150 percent year over year; photos represent 16 percent of the site’s traffic.

With the changeover, editors and ad directors have more direction of their own digital presentations and business. Advance Digital, to whom the separate sites used to report, still provides digital product development, sales strategy, news and information content product development, and centralized technology for the digital products.

Oregonian editor Peter Bhatia echoed Amoss’ newsgathering point to me this week: The Oregonian newsroom today has about 90 reporters and will have about the same in the fall. The newsroom cutting has fallen disproportionately in middle editor and copy editing ranks in all the Advance cities, a strategy well-employed by others over, including the Star Tribune, over the past several years in making cuts.

The big questions, of course, are who those reporters are, how much experience they have and what beats they cover. In any newsroom restructuring, newsroom managers can use the opportunity to make changes they long wanted to make, but found inconvenient. In this great shuffle, some areas, like environmental beat experience, have been wiped out at the Oregonian.

Further digital skills may have trumped journalistic skills in such Sophie’s Choice decision-making. Finally, The Oregonian — as keenly aware of its newsroom dollar budget as of its actual headcount — cut many high-salaried people, as well as some younger staffers, weighing, I’m sure, one more factor: exposure to age discrimination suits, as any employer in such a situation would do.

All of that change means The Oregonian, come fall, will find new areas in which to excel — and will leave its flanks more open to competition. In Portland, there’s a lot of it. Pulitzer Prize-winning Willamette Week provides city-smart, well-established news coverage. Oregon Public Broadcasting has been adding coverage area after coverage area. Add in a strong TV news presence and several niche print players, and The Oregonian may find what its sister papers in New Orleans and Syracuse have found: breaking news and analysis becomes more of a multi-horse race.

It’s not just news-gathering and writing that matters on the web, of course. A digital-first news operation should be the go-to news aggregator for the region; The Oregonian isn’t. It should have the best tablet and smartphone apps — news and entertainment — and its offerings so far are nothing special, open to competition. It could leverage community, user-generated content far better, borrowing a page from its Northwest neighbor, The Seattle Times, but hasn’t moved in that direction.

Broadly, let’s say the strategy — at least parts of it — may be right. Then the question becomes: Is the Oregonian ready to execute on it?

There’s little doubt that most of Advance’s employees — whose work will make or break the strategy — have little confidence in the “the plan.” It’s paternalism gone awry, and the sense of abandonment is clear. The lurch in strategy is offering little comfort, as Advance and its publisher largely keep the staff in the dark about how the new business is going to create successful products and long-term employment.

What Advance has done is buy some time. In radically cutting its cost base, it may have given itself a couple of extra years to get its new strategy right. It will need that time, at least, to work the prodigious to-do list it has handed itself.

Photo by Josh Bancroft used under a Creative Commons license.

June 20 2013

14:02

The newsonomics of Spies vs. Spies

So who do you root for in this coming battle, as Google petitions the feds? Are you on the side of Big Brother or Little Brother — and remind me, which is which? It’s a 50-year-update on Mad Magazine’s iconic Spy vs. Spy.

The Surveillance State is — at least for this month — in front of the public. The Guardian’s rolling revelations of National Security Agency phone and web spying have again raised the bogeyman of Big Data — not the Big Data that all the airport billboards offer software to tame, but the Big Data that the unseen state can use against us. We’ve always had a love/hate relationship with big technology and disaster, consuming it madly as Hollywood churns out mad entertainments. We like our dystopia delivered hot and consumable within two hours. What we don’t like is the ooky feeling we are being watched, or that we have to make some kind unknowable choice between preventing the next act of terror and preserving basic Constitutional liberties.

Americans’ reactions to the stories is predictable. Undifferentiated outrage: “I knew they were watching us.” Outrageous indifference: “What do you expect given the state of the world?” That’s not surprising. Americans and Europeans have had the same problem thinking about the enveloping spider’s web of non-governmental digital knowledge. (See The Onion headline: “Area Man Outraged His Private Information Being Collected By Someone Other Than Advertisers.”)

While top global media, including The Guardian, The Washington Post, and The New York Times, dig into the widening government spying questions, let’s look at the ferment in the issues of commercial surveillance. There’s a lot of it, and it would take several advanced degrees and decoder rings to understand all of it. No, it’s not the same thing as the issues surrounding PRISM. But it will be conflated with national security, and indeed the overlapping social and political questions are profound. Let’s look at some recent developments and some of the diverse players in this unfolding drama and see where publishers do — and could — fit in.

The commercial surveillance culture is ubiquitous, perhaps even less hemmed in by government policy than the NSA, and growing greatly day by day. While Google asks the FISA court to allow it to release more detail about the nature of federal data demands, its growing knowledge of us seems to have no bounds. From our daily searches, to the pictures (street to sky) taken of our homes, to the whereabouts relayed by Google Maps, and on and on.

It’s not just Google, of course. Facebook, whose users spend an average of seven hours per month online disclosing everything, is challenging Google for king of the data hill. A typical news site might have 30 to 40 cookies — many of them from ad-oriented “third parties” — dropped from it. That explains why those “abandoned” shopping carts, would-be shoe purchases, and fantasy vacation ads now go with us seemingly everywhere we move on the web. It’s another love/hate relationship: We’re enamored of what Google and Facebook and others can do for us, but we’re disquieted by their long reach into our lives. It’s a different flavor of ooky.

We are targeted. We are retargeted. Who we are, what we shop for, and what we read is known by untold number of companies out there. Though we are subject to so much invisible, involuntary, and uncompensated crowdsourcing, the outrage is minimal. It’s not that it hasn’t been written about. Among others, The Wall Street Journal has done great work on it, including its multi-prize-winning three-year series on “What They Know.”

Jim Spanfeller, now CEO of Spanfeller Media Group and the builder of Forbes.com, related the PRISM NSA disclosures to commercial tracking in a well-noticed column (“At What Price Safety? At What Price Targeted Advertising?”) last week. His point: We’re all essentially ignorant of what’s being collected about us, and how it is being used. As we find out more, we’re not going to be happy.

His warning to those in the digital ad ecosystem: Government will ham-handedly regulate tracking of consumer clicks if the industry doesn’t become more “honest and transparent.”

Spanfeller outlined for me the current browser “Do Not Track” wars, which saw its latest foray yesterday. Mozilla, parent of Firefox, the third most-popular browser by most measures, said it will move forward with tech that automatically blocks third-party cookies in its browser. Presumably, users will be able to turn back on such cookies, but most will go with the defaults in the browsers they use.

The Mozilla move, much contested and long in the works, follows a similar decision by Microsoft with its release of the latest Internet Explorer. Microsoft is using a “pro-privacy” stance as a competitive weapon against Google, advancing both Bing search and IE. Spanfeller notes that Microsoft’s move hasn’t had much effect, at least yet, because “sites aren’t honoring it.”

These browser wars are one front, and much decried by forces like the Interactive Ad Bureau, the Digital Ad Alliance, and its “Ad Choices” program — which prefer consumer opt-out. Another front is an attempt at industry consensus through the World Wide Web Consortium, or W3C. Observers of that process believe it is winding its way to failure. Finally, also announced yesterday was the just-baked Cookie Clearinghouse, housed at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society. The driving notion, to be fleshed out: creating whitelists and blacklists of cookies allowed and blocked. (Good summaries by both Ad Age’s Kate Kaye and ZDNet’s Ed Bott.)

Never too far from the action, serial entrepreneur John Taysom was in Palo Alto this week as well. Taysom, a current senior fellow at Harvard’s Advanced Leadership Initiative, is an early digital hothouse pioneer, having led Reuters’ Greenhouse project way back in the mid-’90s. His list of web startups imagined and sold is impressive, and now he’s trying to put all that experience to use around privacy issues. As a student of history, old and modern, his belief is this: “When they invented the Internet, they didn’t add a privacy layer.”

“We need a Underwriters Laboratory for our time,” he told me Wednesday. UL served a great purpose at a time (1894) of another tech revolution: electricity. Electricity, like computer tech these days, seemed exciting, but the public was wary. It wasn’t afraid of behind-the-scenes chicanery — it literally was concerned about playing with fire. So UL, as a “global independent safety science company” — a kind of neutral, Switzerland-like enterprise — was set up to assure the public that electrical appliances were indeed tested and safe.

Could we do the same with the Internet?

He’s now working on a model, colloquially named “Three’s A Crowd,” to reinsert a “translucent” privacy layer in the tech stack. His model is based on a lot of current thinking on how to both better protect individual privacy and actually improve the targeting of messages by business and others. It draws on k-anonymity and Privacy by Design principles, among others.

In brief, Taysom’s Harvard project is around creating a modern UL. It would be a central trusted place, or really set of places, that institutions and businesses (and presumably governments) could draw from, but which protect individual identification. He calls it an I.D. DMZ, or demilitarized zone.

He makes the point that the whole purpose of data mining is to get to large enough groups of people with similar characteristics — not to find the perfect solution or offer for each individual. “Go up one level above the person,” to a small, but meaningfully sized, crowd. The idea: increase anonymity, giving people the comfort of knowing they are not being individually targeted.

Further, the levels of anonymity could differ depending on the kind of information associated with anyone. ”I don’t really mind that much about people knowing my taste in shirts. If it’s about the location of my kids, I want six sigmas” of anonymity, he says. Taysom, who filed a 2007 U.K. patent, now approved, on the idea, is now putting together both his boards of advisors and trustees.

Then there are emerging marketplace solutions to privacy. What havoc the digital marketplace hath wrought may be solved by…the digital marketplace. D.C.-based Personal.com is one of the leading players in that emerging group. Yes, this may be the coming personal data economy. Offering personal data lockers starting at $29.99 a year, Personal.com is worth a quick tour. What if you could store all your info in a digital vault, it asks? Among the kinds of “vaults”: passwords, memberships and rewards programs, credit and debit card info, health insurance, and lots more.

It’s a consumer play that’s also a business play. The company is now targeting insurance, finance, and education companies and institutions, who would then offer consumers the opportunity to ingest their customer information and keep it in vault and auto-fill features then let consumers re-use such information once it is banked. Think Mint.com, but broader.

Importantly, while Personal.com deals potentially with lots of kinds of digital data, its business doesn’t touch on the behavioral clickstream data that is at the heart of the Do Not Track fracas.

Do consumer want such a service? Personal.com won’t release any numbers on customers or business partners. Getting early traction may be tough.

Embedded in the strategy: a pro-consumer tilt. Personal.com offers an “owner data agreement,” basically certifying that it is the consumer, not Personal.com, that owns the data. It is a tantalizing idea: What if we individually could control our own digital data, setting parameters on who could use what and how? What if we as consumers could monetize our own data?

Neither Personal.com nor John Taysom’s project nor the various Do Not Track initiatives envision that kind of individually driven marketplace, and I’ve been told there are a whole bunch of technical reasons why it would be difficult to achieve. Yet, wouldn’t that be the ultimate capitalist, Adam Smith solution to this problem of runaway digital connectedness — a huge exchange that would facilitate the buying and selling of our own data?

For publishers, all this stuff is headache-producing. News publishers from Manhattan to Munich complain about all the third-party cookies feeding low-price exchanges, part of the reason their digital ad businesses are struggling. But there is a wide range of divergent opinion about how content-creating publishers will fare in Do Not Track world. They may benefit from diminished competition, but would they be able to adequately target for advertisers? Will Google and Facebook do even better in that world?

So, for publishers, these privacy times demand three things:

  • Upscale their own data mining businesses. “There’s a big difference between collecting and using data,” says Jonathan Mendez, CEO of Yieldbot, that works with publishers to provide selling alternatives to Google search. That’s a huge point. Many publishers don’t yet do enough with their first-party data to adequately serve advertiser needs.
  • Take a privacy-by-design approach to emerging business. How you treat consumers in product design and presentation is key here, with some tips from Inc. magazine.
  • Adopt a pro-privacy position. Who better than traditionally civic-minded newspaper companies than to help lead in asserting a sense of ownership of individual data? If news companies are to re-assert themselves as central to the next generation of their communities and of businesses, what better position than pro-privacy — and then helping individuals manage that privacy better?

It’s a position that fits with publishers’ own interests, and first-party data gathering (publisher/reader) makes more intuitive sense to citzen readers. For subscribers — those now being romanced into all-access member/subscribers — the relationship may make even more sense. Such an advocacy position could also help re-establish a local publisher as a commercial hub.

News and magazine publishers won’t have to create the technology here — certainly not their strong suits — but they can be early partners as consortia and companies emerge in the marketplace.

Photo by Fire Monkey Fire used under a Creative Commons license.

August 17 2012

16:07

Metrics, metrics everywhere: How do we measure the impact of journalism?

If democracy would be poorer without journalism, then journalism must have some effect. Can we measure those effects in some way? While most news organizations already watch the numbers that translate into money (such as audience size and pageviews), the profession is just beginning to consider metrics for the real value of its work.

That’s why the recent announcement of a Knight-Mozilla Fellowship at The New York Times on “finding the right metric for news” is an exciting moment. A major newsroom is publicly asking the question: How do we measure the impact of our work? Not the economic value, but the democratic value. The Times’ Aaron Pilhofer writes:

The metrics newsrooms have traditionally used tended to be fairly imprecise: Did a law change? Did the bad guy go to jail? Were dangers revealed? Were lives saved? Or least significant of all, did it win an award?

But the math changes in the digital environment. We are awash in metrics, and we have the ability to engage with readers at scale in ways that would have been impossible (or impossibly expensive) in an analog world.

The problem now is figuring out which data to pay attention to and which to ignore.

Evaluating the impact of journalism is a maddeningly difficult task. To begin with, there’s no single definition of what journalism is. It’s also very hard to track what happens to a story once it is released into the wild, and even harder to know for sure if any particular change was really caused by that story. It may not even be possible to find a quantifiable something to count, because each story might be its own special case. But it’s almost certainly possible to do better than nothing.

The idea of tracking the effects of journalism is old, beginning in discussions of the newly professionalized press in the early 20th century and flowering in the “agenda-setting” research of the 1970s. What is new is the possibility of cheap, widespread, data-driven analysis down to the level of the individual user and story, and the idea of using this data for managing a newsroom. The challenge, as Pilhofer put it so well, is figuring out which data, and how a newsroom could use that data in a meaningful way.

What are we trying to measure and why?

Metrics are powerful tools for insight and decision-making. But they are not ends in themselves because they will never exactly represent what is important. That’s why the first step in choosing metrics is to articulate what you want to measure, regardless of whether or not there’s an easy way to measure it. Choosing metrics poorly, or misunderstanding their limitations, can make things worse. Metrics are just proxies for our real goals — sometimes quite poor proxies.

An analytics product such as Chartbeat produces reams of data: pageviews, unique users, and more. News organizations reliant on advertising or user subscriptions must pay attention to these numbers because they’re tied to revenue — but it’s less clear how they might be relevant editorially.

Consider pageviews. That single number is a combination of many causes and effects: promotional success, headline clickability, viral spread, audience demand for the information, and finally, the number of people who might be slightly better informed after viewing a story. Each of these components might be used to make better editorial choices — such as increasing promotion of an important story, choosing what to report on next, or evaluating whether a story really changed anything. But it can be hard to disentangle the factors. The number of times a story is viewed is a complex, mixed signal.

It’s also possible to try to get at impact through “engagement” metrics, perhaps derived from social media data such as the number of times a story is shared. Josh Stearns has a good summary of recent reports on measuring engagement. But though it’s certainly related, engagement isn’t the same as impact. Again, the question comes down to: Why would we want to see this number increase? What would it say about the ultimate effects of your journalism on the world?

As a profession, journalism rarely considers its impact directly. There’s a good recent exception: a series of public media “impact summits” held in 2010, which identified five key needs for journalistic impact measurement. The last of these needs nails the problem with almost all existing analytics tools:

While many Summit attendees are using commercial tools and services to track reach, engagement and relevance, the usefulness of these tools in this arena is limited by their focus on delivering audiences to advertisers. Public interest media makers want to know how users are applying news and information in their personal and civic lives, not just whether they’re purchasing something as a result of exposure to a product.

Or as Ethan Zuckerman puts it in his own smart post on metrics and civic impact, ”measuring how many people read a story is something any web administrator should be able to do. Audience doesn’t necessarily equal impact.” Not only that, but it might not always be the case that a larger audience is better. For some stories, getting them in front of particular people at particular times might be more important.

Measuring audience knowledge

Pre-Internet, there was usually no way to know what happened to a story after it was published, and the question seems to have been mostly ignored for a very long time. Asking about impact gets us to the idea that the journalistic task might not be complete until a story changes something in the thoughts or actions of the user.

If journalism is supposed to inform, then one simple impact metric would ask: Does the audience know the things that are in this story? This is an answerable question. A survey during the 2010 U.S. mid-term elections showed that a large fraction of voters were misinformed about basic issues, such as expert consensus on climate change or the predicted costs of the recently passed healthcare bill. Though coverage of the study focused on the fact that Fox News viewers scored worse than others, that missed the point: No news source came out particularly well.

In one of the most limited, narrow senses of what journalism is supposed to do — inform voters about key election issues — American journalism failed in 2010. Or perhaps it actually did better than in 2008 — without comparable metrics, we’ll never know.

While newsrooms typically see themselves in the business of story creation, an organization committed to informing, not just publishing, would have to operate somewhat differently. Having an audience means having the ability to direct attention, and an editor might choose to continue to direct attention to something important even it’s “old news”; if someone doesn’t know it, it’s still new news to them. Journalists will also have to understand how and when people change their beliefs, because information doesn’t necessarily change minds.

I’m not arguing that every news organization should get into the business of monitoring the state of public knowledge. This is only one of many possible ways to define impact; it might only make sense for certain stories, and to do it routinely we’d need good and cheap substitutes for large public surveys. But I find it instructive to work through what would be required. The point is to define journalistic success based on what the user does, not the publisher.

Other fields have impact metrics too

Measuring impact is hard. The ultimate effects on belief and action will mostly be invisible to the newsroom, and so tangled in the web of society that it will be impossible to say for sure that it was journalism that caused any particular effect. But neither is the situation hopeless, because we really can learn things from the numbers we can get. Several other fields have been grappling with the tricky problems of diverse, indirect, not-necessarily-quantifiable impact for quite some time.

Academics wish to know the effect of their publications, just as journalists do, and the academic publishing field has long had metrics such citation count and journal impact factor. But the Internet has upset the traditional scheme of things, leading to attempts to formulate wider ranging, web-inclusive measures of impact such as Altmetrics or the article-level metrics of the Public Library of Science. Both combine a variety of data, including social media.

Social science researchers are interested not only in the academic influence of their work, but its effects on policy and practice. They face many of the same difficulties as journalists do in evaluating their work: unobservable effects, long timelines, complicated causality. Helpfully, lots of smart people have been working on the problem of understanding when social research changes social reality. Recent work includes the payback framework which looks at benefits from every stage in the lifecycle of research, from intangibles such as increasing the human store of knowledge, to concrete changes in what users do after they’ve been informed.

NGOs and philanthropic organizations of all types also use effectiveness metrics, from soup kitchens to international aid. A research project at Stanford University is looking at the use and diversity of metrics in this sector. We are also seeing new types of ventures designed to produce both social change and financial return, such as social impact bonds. The payout on a social impact bond is contractually tied to an impact metric, sometimes measured as a “social return on investment.”

Data beyond numbers

Counting the countable because the countable can be easily counted renders impact illegitimate.

- John Brewer, “The impact of impact

Numbers are helpful because they allow standard comparisons and comparative experiments. (Did writing that explainer increase the demand for the spot stories? Did investigating how the zoning issue is tied to developer profits spark a social media conversation?) Numbers can be also compared at different times, which gives us a way to tell if we’re doing better or worse than before, and by how much. Dividing impact by cost gives measures of efficiency, which can lead to better use of journalistic resources.

But not everything can be counted. Some events are just too rare to provide reliable comparisons — how many times last month did your newsroom get a corrupt official fired? Some effects are maddeningly hard to pin down, such as “increased awareness” or “political pressure.” And very often, attributing cause is hopeless. Did a company change its tune because of an informed and vocal public, or did an internal report influence key decision makers?

Fortunately, not all data is numbers. Do you think that story contributed to better legislation? Write a note explaining why! Did you get a flood of positive comments on a particular article? Save them! Not every effect needs to be expressed in numbers, and a variety of fields are coming to the conclusion that narrative descriptions are equally valuable. This is still data, but it’s qualitative (stories) instead of quantitative (numbers). It includes comments, reactions, repercussions, later developments on the story, unique events, related interviews, and many other things that are potentially significant but not easily categorizable. The important thing is to collect this information reliably and systematically, or you won’t be able to make comparisons in the future. (My fellow geeks may here be interested in the various flavors of qualitative data analysis.)

Qualitative data is particularly important when you’re not quite sure what you should be looking for. With the right kind, you can start to look for the patterns that might tell you what you should be counting,

Metrics for better journalism

Can the use of metrics make journalism better? If we can find metrics that show us when “better” happens, then yes, almost by definition. But in truth we know almost nothing about how to do this.

The first challenge may be a shift in thinking, as measuring the effect of journalism is a radical idea. The dominant professional ethos has often been uncomfortable with the idea of having any effect at all, fearing “advocacy” or “activism.” While it’s sometimes relevant to ask about the political choices in an act of journalism, the idea of complete neutrality is a blatant contradiction if journalism is important to democracy. Then there is the assumption, long invisible, that news organizations have done their job when a story is published. That stops far short of the user, and confuses output with effect.

The practical challenges are equally daunting. Some data, like web analytics, is easy to collect but doesn’t necessarily coincide with what a news organization ultimately values. And some things can’t really be counted. But they can still be considered. Ideally, a newsroom would have an integrated database connecting each story to both quantitative and qualitative indicators of impact: notes on what happened after the story was published, plus automatically collected analytics, comments, inbound links, social media discussion, and other reactions. With that sort of extensive data set, we stand a chance of figuring out not only what the journalism did, but how best to evaluate it in the future. But nothing so elaborate is necessary to get started. Every newsroom has some sort of content analytics, and qualitative effects can be tracked with nothing more than notes in a spreadsheet.

Most importantly, we need to keep asking: Why are we doing this? Sometimes, as I pass someone on the street, I ask myself if the work I am doing will ever have any effect on their life — and if so, what? It’s impossible to evaluate impact if you don’t know what you want to accomplish.

August 15 2012

20:28

The newsonomics of breakthrough digital TV, from Aereo to Dyle and MundoFox to Google Fiber

In 1998, when Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. bought the Los Angeles Dodgers, the storied franchise was worth $380 million. News Corp. sold the team in 2003 for $430 million. After winning the ability to negotiate a new multi-billion sports TV contract this fall, they sold earlier this year for $2 billion, blowing the lid off sports property values.

In 1994, the San Diego Padres were worth $80 million. After recently signing a 20-year deal with Fox Sports for $1.2 billion, they sold (pending league approval) for $800 million.

Meanwhile, in 2000, the Los Angeles Times was worth at least $1.5 billion when it was sold as part of Times Mirror to Tribune Company. Today, as it is newly readied for market out of the Tribune bankruptcy, it would go for something less than $250 million. The San Diego Union-Tribune, once valued near a billion dollars, sold for about $35 million in 2009 and about $110 million in 2011.

It’s a reversal of fortune: Newspaper franchises that once outvalued baseball teams by 3-1 or 5-1 or 10-1 now see the inverse of that ratio. Why?

Two letters: TV.

Those numbers tell us a lot about the continuing power of television, in worth, in value creation, and in the news business itself. If we look just at recent events in the ongoing transformation of broadcast and cable to digital, we now see multiple breakthroughs on their path to digital. They give us indications of what the news business, video and text, will look like in the coming years. While we can argue endlessly about the relative virtues and vices of print and TV news, we must acknowledge the relative ascendance of TV and think about what that means for the news business overall.

TV’s revenues are holding up far better than newspaper companies’, and TV is better positioned to survive the great digital disruption.

TV has continued to have great audience. Nearly three in four Americans tune in to local TV news at least weekly, surpassing newspaper penetration, even as Pew Research points out they mainly do it for three topics: breaking news, weather, and traffic. Further, it retains great ad strength — 42 percent of national ad spending, matching the actual number of minutes Americans spend with the medium and making it the only medium still ahead of digital spending as digital has surpassed print (newspapers + magazines this year, both in the U.S. and globally). Yes, TV remains a gorilla. While Netflix won headlines when it announced it had streamed one billion hours of TV and movies in a single month, that huge number compared to about 43 billion hours of U.S. TV consumption, according to Nielsen’s 4Q 2011 Cross-Platform report.

In a nutshell, that’s the difference between TV and video, circa 2012. Video is the next wave — incorporating TV perhaps, but still the very young kid on the block.

Today, TV is no longer a box. Sure, even with all the Rokus, Boxees, and Apple TVs, it seems like TV isn’t yet an out-of-the-box experience. But with Hulu, Netflix, and Comcast’s Xfinity, it’s emerging quickly, escaping our fixed idea of what it once was — the boob tube in the living room. If it’s not just a box anymore, it’s a platform. From that platform, we see both the disruptors and the incumbents doubling down their bets. As in most things digital, few of these launches will be huge winners — but some will drive big breakthroughs. Some of the iconic legacy companies we’ve long known will be absorbed in the woodwork as new brands supplant them. Consider the spate of recent innovation, as we quickly assess the newsonomics going forward:

  • NBC, bashed up and down Twitter, nonetheless proved out a new business model with its multi-platform approach to Olympics coverage. Whatever you think of the tape delays or the suspended reality of Bob Costas’ gaze, NBC made the economics work, surprising itself and others. Its live streaming has ratified the development of cable- and satellite-authenticated, all-access digital delivery. That reinforces cable/satellite value. Further, it whetted prime-time viewing appetites, boosting ratings and earning NBC more ad revenue than it had projected. That’s icing on the cake for NBC, which, under Comcast ownership, has rocketed forward in digital strategy. The network has made a number of moves to transform itself into a global, video-forward, digital news company, joining the Digital Dozen global news pack. Recently, it bought out Microsoft’s share of msnbc.com, a leading Internet news portal. It immediately rechristened it NBCNews.com. In short order, it appointed Patricia Fili-Krushel as the new head of NBCUniversal News Group, an entity made up of NBC News, CNBC, MSNBC, and the Weather Channel. A former president of ABC, with 10 years of experience at Time Warner, she heads a growing news operation. Earlier this year, NBC combined its sports properties into a unified NBC Sports Group, merging NBC’s broadcast sports unit and Comcast’s regional sports networks. NBC is growing out of its digital adolescence. (See “One year after she was hired, Vivian Schiller’s ‘wild ride’ at NBC is just beginning.”)
  • Aereo, the TV startup funded by media magnate Barry Diller, is expanding its footprint from its current New York City base, and starting to offer multiple promotional deals. Diller’s in-your-face challenge to over-the-air broadcasters (CBS, NBC, Fox, ABC, CW, PBS) takes their signals and delivers that programming via the Internet. It charges consumers $12 a month, or as little as a dollar a day. They can then watch those TV stations on up to five devices; in addition, they can deliver these signals to a TV via Apple TV or Roku. Aereo also offers DVR capability, with 40 hours of storage. It’s classic disruption, with Aereo upping the pressure on the cable bundle and messing with the “retrans” fees that broadcasters get from cable companies to run their programming. Is it really legal, as a court recently found? It may be as legal as Google presenting snippets from every publisher and directory provider.
  • Local broadcasters — representing a broad swath of ownership groups organized in a newer company called Pearl — are bringing local TV to our mobile devices themselves. Just a week ago, Metro PCS started selling a Samsung Galaxy S phone with a TV receiver chip in 12 markets. That’s just the first push of Mobile Content Ventures, a collection of Pearl, NBC, Fox, and others. Expect mobile TV, marketed as Dyle, to be available for other phones and tablets, either with built-in chips or after-market accessories — although price points are an issue, with $100-plus premiums likely over the next year. So what does this innovation mean? Simply, that broadcasters are going direct to mobile consumers — no Internet needed, no data charges applying, and maybe providing more consistent video connectivity — with live programming; whatever is on TV at that moment is also on your phone or tablet. Broadcasters just use part of their digital signal to, uh, broadcast to us on our phones. It’s that antenna, and its cost, that’s the issue. Business questions abound. Given the timing of the launch, Dyle seems like an aspiring Aereo killer, and certainly broadcasters would like to see it do that, if further court action doesn’t. More deeply, though, broadcasters want to maintain their direct-to-consumer brand identity as they do a balancing act and try to keep those retrans fees from cable and satellite companies. They don’t want to be left out of the digital party.
  • Social TV pulls up a chair. First it was startup Second Screen, matching tablet ads to real-time TV viewing. Now ConnecTV, partnered with Pearl, is trying to corner the activity as it takes off. Its promise: “synchronization of local news, weather, sports, and entertainment programming along with social polls.” Ah, synchronicity, a Holy Grail of our digital aspirations. Last week, Cory Bergman (a man of at least three full-time digital lives, with MSNBC, Next Door Media, and Lost Remote) sold his Last Remote social-TV site to Mediabistro.
  • Then there’s the disruptor of everything on planet Earth, Google. The company recently announced it is putting another $200 million into YouTube Channels, building on its initial $150 million investment. The move emphasizes how quickly YouTube is growing beyond its homegrown, user-generated roots. Now partnering with dozens of prime video producers, creating more than 100 new channels, it is trying to establish itself in viewers’ lives as a go-to video aggregation source. Major video producers are still wary of Google getting between them and their customers, both ad and viewer, but many others are signed on. Meanwhile, in Kansas City, Google Fiber TV (TV that’s healthier for you?) launches. It’s a rocket shot at the cable, telco, and satellite incumbents. It’s also a demonstration project: providing more, cheaper. The more: interactive search for TV that combs your DVR and third-party services such as Netflix. (Yes, The Singularity ["The newsonomics of Google ad singularity"] marches on.) Google Fiber TV combines DVR and third-party (Netflix-plus) search. Its DVR holds 500 hours of storage of shows in 1080p and the ability to record eight TV shows simultaneously. Bandwidthpalooza. Google’s goal: Toss a hand grenade among the TV-as-usual business models, and pick up some of the pieces, adding new significant revenue lines.
  • CNN moves to break out of its identity funk, figuring out what that powerful global brand means in this fast-changing digital news world. CNN President Jim Walton recently stepped down, clearly acknowledging that his 10-year run had reached an end. “CNN needs new thinking,” he said in a farewell note. On TV, CNN has been beaten up badly both both Fox News and MSNBC. In 2Q, CNN showed its worst numbers in 20 years, down 35 percent year-over-year. On the web, it’a a top-three news player. But overall, it’s become the Rodney Dangerfield of news entities, getting little respect. Its cable fees — the strength of its revenues — could be challenged by low ratings. Going forward and competing against other global news brands — many of which are transitioning their own businesses to gain far greater digital reader revenue — it is, at this moment, caught betwixt and between. How it brings together a single — and global — digital/TV identity is at the core of its continuing journalistic importance and financial performance.

That’s a short list. We could easily add HuffPo’s streaming initiative and The Wall Street Journal’s wider video embrace. Or Les Moonves’ digital moves at CBS. And Fox’s new MundoFox, Spanish-language TV network, taking on Telemundo and Impremedia. The new network, at birth, offers a strong digital component, working at launch with advertisers along those lines. Let’s note some quick takeaways here, all of which we’ll be talking about in 2013:

  • Note how much you see the names News Corp. and Fox here. While segregating its text assets (and liabilities), News Corp. is investing greatly in the video future.
  • Cable bundling’s longevity is uncertain. There’s a lot of residual power here, but we know how quickly that can fade in legacy media. Yes, the unbundling of cable and satellite has been overestimated by some, as Peter Kafka pointed out recently. Yet, these multiple digital strategies may still push a tipping point. Clearly, legacy TV media, despite their public protestations, sees that potential and is acting in multiple ways to prepare for it.
  • Though broadcasters are making major digital pushes, they start from a lowly digital position. Many broadcasters can count no more than 5 percent of their total revenues coming from digital. That compares to 15-20 percent or more for newspaper companies. While there are other sources of revenue have been more stable than those of newspapers, they need to grow digital revenues quickly to make up for inevitable erosion of older money streams.
  • TV ≠ newspapers. Much of broadcasters’ revenues are made on non-news programming, as much as one-half to two-thirds for most local broadcasters. While learning from TV experience here is useful, given lots of differences, the learnings must be smartly applied. As news consumers and advertisers move increasingly digital, though, that thick line that separate local TV from local newspapers thins by the day.

The all-access, news-anywhere, entertainment-everywhere era has created a new massive business competition. Which brands will be top of mind? Who will consumers pay? How valuable is news itself in this contest?

Comcast, Time Warner, Verizon, AT&T — pipes companies — are in one corner. CNN, NBC, CBS, ABC, Fox, HBO, Showtime, and other known-to-consumer brands in another. Aggregators like Netflix and Hulu over there. Media marketers like Amazon and Apple holding court. Google. The local broadcasters fighting for their place in this digital ring. This new battle of brands, in and around “TV,” is now joined.

August 02 2012

15:04

The newsonomics of syndication 3.0, from NewsCred and NewsLook to Ok.com and Upworthy

Of the many failed digital news dreams, digital syndication is one of the greatest enigmas. We’ve seen companies like Contentville, Screaming Media, and iSyndicate (Syndication 1.0) followed by companies like Mochila (Syndication 2.0), all believing the same thing: In the endless world of digital content, there must be a big business in gathering together some of the world’s best, creating a marketplace, and selling stream upon stream.

In the abstract, the idea makes lot of sense. Producers of content — AP, Reuters, Bloomberg, The Street, Al Jazeera, Getty Images, Global Post, and many more — want all the new revenue they can get. They want to see the content they produced used and reused, over and over again, helping offset the high cost of news creation. The enduring problem is the buy side. We’ve gone oh-so-quickly from Content is King to a content glut. In a world of endless ad inventory and plummeting ad rates, why take syndicated content just to create a greater glut of news, information, and ad spots? That dilemma still hangs in the wind, and has bedeviled news industry consortium startup NewsRight, as it tries to find a future. Yet I’ve been surprised by a new wave of news syndication that’s been developing, here and there. It’s worth paying attention to, because it tells us a lot about how the digital news world is developing.

In part, it’s about new niches being found and exploited. In part, it’s about responding to deep staff cuts at many newspapers. In part, it’s about a slow-dawning wave of new product creation, aided by the tablet. Each of the newer efforts sees the world a little differently, and that’s instructive, though technology and video (see The Onion’s “Onion Special Report: Blood-Drenched, Berserk CEO Demands More Web Videos”) play increasingly key roles. So let’s look at the newsonomics of Syndication 3.0, and a few of the newer entrepreneurs behind it.

NewsCred

As 31-year-old CEO Shafqat Islam notes cheerily, finding investors for his startup was complicated by the fact that “there are a lot of dead bodies in this space.” With 100 fairly top-drawer sources and a staff of 50 (35 of them in tech), NewsCred is the big new mover in text and still image syndication, launched earlier this year (“NewsCred wants to be the AP newswire for the 21st century”). Its 50-plus customers divide roughly equally into two groups: media and big brands.

Media, says Islam, are using NewsCred for two reasons. One is to build new products, as the New York Daily News has done with its March-launched India news site, recognizing a locally under-served audience. Skift, Rafat Ali’s new travel B2B start-up, is getting 30 to 40 percent of its content through NewsCred. The other is the emergence of the paywall: Charging for digital access, he says, has meant some news companies are wanting to bulk up, offering a better value pitch to would-be digital subscribers. The Chicago Tribune launched a biz/tech “members only” product, powered by NewsCred, at the end of June.

The brand use of news content has a bigger potential. Check out several case histories, showing the use Pepsi, Orange Telecom, and Lenovo has made of NewsCred-distributed entertainment and tech content. Brands are publishers and want an easy, one-source way to populate their sites. Islam says his seven sales people are working as consultants of a sort, especially with such brands. Figuring out how to create content experiences for brands-turned-publishers is one part of the syndication puzzle.

Lessons Learned:

  • In a sense, this is syndication meets marketing services: As news companies both produce content and try to act as regional ad agencies, the synergies between the two are becoming more evident.
  • Timing is everything: We’ve seen a maturation in curation technologies, as metatagging gets easier and cheaper, allowing niched feeds. Then, an increased emphasis on niche product creation is combining with brand need for news content, creating new potential markets.

NewsLook

With 70-plus top video news sources and 35 clients, the three-year-old NewsLook also hopes to build on the archeology of syndication ruin. Like NewsCred, it positions itself as a technology and curation company, adding value to a mass of content. For CEO Fred Silverman, the technology means, importantly, better integration of text and video content.

“We see an awful lot of guys with a video page, or a video way down at the bottom — it’s not integrated. Our push with the publishers we work with is to fluidly integrate it into a news page. You are eleven times more likely to watch that video if it is integrated into a story.” That seems like common sense — put the words and pictures together — but Silverman’s experience resonates way too deeply if you journey through news websites. For his part, he’s been working on improving both NewsLook’s own video metatagging and the ability to match that with text. Now he’s got to convince more customers to make the integration.

Using a license model — “we’re not really an ad company” — NewsLook has found its customers in three segments. He sells to content aggregators like LexisNexis and Cengage, and he sells to news companies. It’s the third area, though, vertical sites, that represent the biggest growth opportunity, especially in the tech area. NewsLook, with its video emphasis, is now partnering with text-centric NewsCred, looking for joint opportunities.

Lessons Learned:

  • Think niche. Think video. Both have audiences that may be paying ones; video ad rates are still holding up far better than text.

Deseret News Service and Ok.com

Clark Gilbert caused quite a stir when he took the reins at Utah’s largest newspaper company two years ago (“Out of the Western Sky, It’s a Hyperlocal, Worldwide Mormon Vertical”). Combining Harvard Business smarts, wide media knowledge, and traditional religious values, Gilbert promised to reshape the LDS-owned media Utah media properties in a way no one else could. Now, midway through that Utah transformation, he’s also moving on a wider world of syndication.

Ok.com has launched. It’s a movie guide like no other. Less Rotten Tomatoes and more wholesome salad, it is a “family media guide.” It’s social (Facebook login) with user-generated comments and ratings, and it offers many of the features (trailers, photos, theater times, online ticketing) that you’d expect. It’s also just the beginning. Ok.com will add TV listings, books, music, and other media to its site. Just syndicated, it so far has signed up a half-dozen customers.

“We want to own the family brand,” Gilbert says, citing his own commissioned research to indicate that it could be a large market. His segmentation of faith-based readers finds not only great dissatisfaction with the perceived amorality of Hollywood, but also questioning of the values of mainstream media.

To address the latter market: the new Deseret News Service, a “values-oriented syndication service.” That service, available for both print and digital, now reaches five markets, with a couple of dozen more on the horizon.

Business models, like cars.com, Gilbert notes, include both straightforward license fees and revenue share models, with Deseret selling advertising.

Gilbert, ever the modeler, believes Deseret is creating one for the industry.

“If you look at the product strategy, we started with the newspaper. We knew we couldn’t be good at everything…..For the Deseret News, that meant our six areas of emphasis [Family, Financial Responsibility, Values in Media, Education, Faith, and Care for the Poor]. For other newspapers, that can be something else. For Washington Post, it is politics. For Sarasota, it is retirement. What I’ve seen in the failure of the newspaper industry is that we’ve lost half our resources, but we’re going to cover it all rather than having the rigor to say, ‘What are we the best at?’

“The web rewards deep expertise. You have a lot of newspapers with high cost structures, producing average commodity news. [We looked] at what can can be the best in the country at. That led to a national edition in print and now syndication.”

Lessons Learned:

  • Combine your values — editorial, religious, or whatever — with the best web tools of the day to satisfy currently unsatisfied audiences. Then scale.

The AllMedia Platform

Critical Media CEO Sean Morgan may be the last man standing whose career has spanned syndication from 1.0 through 3.0. A founder of Screaming Media, circa 1995, his Critical Media company has been building syndication and other products (media monitor Critical Mention, video capture and creation platform Syndicaster, news video licensor Clip Syndicate) since 2002. Now, his company has produced AllMedia. Its primary function: a platform allowing clients “to collect and curate user-generated video content from their online communities.” It’s another component of its analytics-based enterprise business.

Morgan’s play here is wider than syndication, but syndication plays a key role. Critical Media’s technologies offer publishers (and others) value. In return, Critical gets the right to license news video assets, and it has amassed three million of them, and 100,000 are being added monthly; 350 (200 newspaper; 150 broadcast) local media companies are participating in Critical products. Clip Syndicate, its news video product, isn’t yet well promoted, but when it is, it could be powerful. It already enables “grab a channel” functionality for licensees. Clip Syndicate operates on a 50/50 revenue share model, with Morgan saying he is getting $21.40 CPM rates. The goal: monetize the “the biggest news video archive.”

Lessons Learned:

  • Syndication may be a long-term proposition, taking years of building infrastructure, or partnering with those who do.
  • It’s not the content — it’s the metadata about the content that unlocks its value, allowing niching and enabling product creators and editors to find what they need.

California Watch

Now incorporating content from its Bay Citizen merger, California Watch continues to expand out its syndication business. Executive director Robert Rosenthal estimates the news startup will take in about $750,000 this year in licensing money, funding about 10 percent of its budget (“The newsonomics of the death and life of California news”). California Watch offers yearly, monthly, and à la carte sales.

Its model really is the old-fashioned media wire, vastly updated with multimedia at the core and a strong enterprise journalism emphasis. With 16 significant media partners throughout California, just adding NBC Bay Area and including big TV stations and newspapers, it has been able to double some of the prices it charges over time. Further, it’s on the verge of syndicating to a major national/global news player. “Don’t silo potential audience by geography. A good story from a neighborhood in San Francisco may be the top story on the Internet one day,” Rosenthal says.

Like a traditional wire, its value is in more than its stories. It also acts as a news budget or tipsheet for subscribing news editors. With one of the largest news contingents in the state capital, Sacramento, for instance, it helps drive coverage overall.

Lessons Learned:

  • Collaboration with customers creates utility as well as content itself — and cements financial relationships.
  • Syndicated content, here, works on the older concept of scale: Do it once and distribute to many, without the burden of legacy costs and constraints.

Upworthy

Upworthy is like Hollywood Squares for progressives. No Whoopi Goldberg, but nine rectangles of meaningful video, well described by the Times’ David Carr.

Launched in March. It’s an on-ramp for Facebook, feeding the kinds of videos it prizes into the social sphere with headlining that would make a tabloid editor proud. Founder Eli Pariser (of Moveon.org and author of The Filter Bubble) says he borrowed headlining techniques from Slate, which he says writes “the best headlines on the web,” without slavishly pointing at Google search engine optimization. (Examples: “Donald Trump Has Pissed Off Scotland” and “How a 6-Year-Old With Ignorant Parents Just Became the Best Republican Presidential Candidate“).

Its declaration defines its would-be audience: “At best, things online are usually either awesome or meaningful, but everything on Upworthy.com has a little of both. Sensational and substantial. Entertaining and enlightening. Shocking and significant. That’s what you can expect here: No empty calories. No pageview-juking slideshows. No right-column sleaze. Just a steady stream of the most irresistibly shareable stuff you can click on without feeling bad about yourself afterwards.”

Upworthy is really syndication simplified. It uses the social sphere to see content re-used. Its currency isn’t licensing fees; no money changes hands in its viral promotion of content. Currently, its single revenue source is referral fees it gets from progressive organizations that pay it on a cost-per-acquisition basis for traffic.

Lessons Learned:

  • People — many, many people — will do the syndication for you if you learn the tricks and trades of headlining, SEO, and the social rumble. While Upworthy’s referral-fee business model may have limited extension, its use of social to extend syndication (perhaps with sponsorships) can be used by others.

Consider Syndication 3.0 a puzzle, with more of the parts found but the full picture still incomplete. Technology, as in all things digital, plays a midwife role, but understanding customer use — and helping would-be customers imagine use — is fundamental. Let’s face it: Costly content creation must be paid for somehow, as ad revenues falter and reader revenues build slowly. Making more use of the content that has been created makes basic sense, and the basics of that business are being built out anew.

February 03 2012

16:30

Pew data: Facebook has room for passives as well as actives

If it’s so much better to give than receive, why are some Facebook users sitting on their hands?

The Pew Internet and American Life Project released a new report today that suggests Facebook users are not a uniformly active bunch. According to the study, the typical Facebook user gets more friend requests than she sends, is tagged in photos more than she tags, and has posts Liked more often than she Likes herself.

But wait — shouldn’t it all even out? After all, every friend request has a requester and a requestee. If a typical user is skews passive on Facebook, where’s all the action coming from?

The answer: a collection of “power users” who, according to the report, are becoming specialists of a sort. You know that friend who only posts tons of photos, or the one who goes on a Liking spree, or the one who seems to rack up an inordinate amount of friends? Yup, they’re doing the work for the rest of us. Even on a flat platform, behavior still moves toward a division of labor:

A proportion of Facebook participants — ranging between 20% and 30% of users depending on the type of activity — were power users who performed these same activities at a much higher rate; daily or more than weekly.

Essentially, in the funny parlance you could only get in a report about Facebook: “People are liked more than they like.” Some data:

Facebook users in our sample on average contributed about four comments for every status update that they made. On average, users make nine status updates per month and contribute 21 comments. Some 33% of Facebook users here updated their status at least once per week. Still, half of our sample made no status updates in the month of our analysis.

Discussion of social media circles around the word “engagement” — but even for many users of social networks, the experience is more about taking-it-all-in than about response and conversation. For a news industry with a long history of one-way communication, that might be a little…comforting? Facebook’s value, at least to media and other companies looking to tap into audiences, is that it’s a super-broad platform built for content and transactional activity. A link is posted; it’s rewarded with a like. A question is asked; it elicits comments. The Pew survey paints a picture where that action is less than reliable:

A third of our sample (33%) used the like button at least once per week during this month, and 37% had content they contributed liked by a friend at least once per week. However, the majority of Facebook users neither liked content, nor was their content liked by others, in our month of observation.

If Facebook activity disproportionately relies on a subset of power users with busy hands, that’s an opening for news outlets or individual journalists to fill that need. The conversation is far more distributed than it was pre-Internet, but it’s still not evenly distributed.

Pew says that Facebook comment-leaving is a bit more reciprocal than some other kinds of Facebook behavior:

More than half our sample (55%) commented on a friend’s content at least once in the month, and 51% received comments from a friend. A large segment of users, a little over 20%, contributed or received a comment every day. The average of 21 comments given on friends’ content was nearly identical to the average of 20 that were received. Again, there are some extreme users as well, about 5% of our sample contributed and received over 100 comments in the month of our observation.

Pew’s data is based on a sample of 269 Facebook users, initially identified through a random phone survey, but who then allowed Pew to track their trails on the site. While its findings may give a (slight) challenge to the idea that Facebook is a heavily engaged network where everyone’s sharing all the time, the report still found big, enticing numbers for any publishing looking to reach a big audience: The median user in their sample is within two degrees of separation (friends of friends) of 31,170 people on Facebook. (For one uber-connected user, that number was 7,821,772.) We already know Facebook is growing as a top referrer to many news sites, so what’s clear from this report is that they need to keep it up. If power users are the straw that stirs the drink on Facebook, then it’s more important than ever journalists and media companies play an active role.

Meh button by Ken Murphy used under a Creative Commons license.

January 06 2012

21:34

Did we create the monster…

…or is the monster re-creating us?

Hopping around to various newsie sites, I see a lot of moaning, groaning, and bitching about the state of broadcast journalism today. How the ethics are shot…the stories are more entertainment than news…how Barbie and Ken are running rampant in the studio. Where to lay the blame? Well favorites are consultants. Management. News directors. The new crop of (you name it: reporters, producers, crew).

But we’re leaving out the most critical factor. The elephant in the newsroom discussion: the audience.

THAT my friends is the monster that is forcing change as much as anything. And it IS a MONSTER. It wants entertainment…excitement…it is a voyeur demanding the reality it can never live…but wants to emulate.

OUR audience.

Oh, where to begin? How did this all start? Examine it enough and you end up staring at the lint in your belly button (or the toe-jelly…um, never mind…).

Back in the 90s I worked for a station who demographic (we used to jokingly say) was “Trailer Trash Barbie.” The only person at home during our noon and early news shows. Um…and the only one who wasn’t watching some of the other stations with well let’s say a little more of what we like to think of as “news”. Little TTB has been very busy pro-creating with lots of “Gangsta Kens” and other unnamed low-lifes, raising up an entire new crop of young ‘uns.

These mini-(couch)taters are generally overfed, undereducated (trust me – the students who walked into my classes firmly stating, “I don’t read.”), with little or no motivation to become…anything. They just want their “stuff” and an Idol to clone themselves after.

Our new audience. They spend more time in front of a screen than any other generation. The virtual world is more real than the couch they kick back in. The stars they watch wallow, not twinkle. They don’t watch news…well, because it’s boring…doesn’t relate to who they are.

The result is broadcast news has changed to meet the demands of a generation who can choose exactly what they want to see and hear…and it does not seem to fit the traditional definition of news: information that informs and educates people about their community and world.

sigh…end of rant.


August 03 2011

09:28

Announcing news:rewired – connected journalism, 6 October 2011

Journalism.co.uk’s next news:rewired event will take place on 6 October at MSN’s London offices in Victoria.

What’s it about?

news:rewired – connected journalism will look at different forms of integration and collaboration in the industry, both inside and outside the newsroom.

As journalists we don’t work in isolation, and collaborating with our audience is becoming increasingly important. And as the way we do journalism changes, organisations need to think carefully about the way members of staff and different departments work together to produce the best product in the most efficient way possible.

Journalism.co.uk’s next news:rewired event will look at the latest opportunities for collaboration in the newsroom given the evolution of new digital journalism roles, and how reporters can work with the wider community to improve, fund and find the journalism of the future.

Sessions at the one-day conference will include:

  • a look at the architecture of the newsroom and new opportunities for integration
  • advice on how to inspire continued and enhanced engagement from a community
  • a guide to some of the top tools and latest digital platforms for integrated multimedia storytelling
  • insight into innovative business models being adopted by community-focused news outlets
  • a discussion on the importance of collaboration for the future of investigative journalism and how to build the necessary bridges between journalists, news outlets and the general public

In the spirit of collaboration, we are keen to hear about anything you would like to see covered during the day. Just let us know @newsrewired or email rachel[at]journalism.co.uk.

Several speakers have already been confirmed for the event, including:

Iain Overton, managing editor, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

Philip Trippenbach, editor-in-chief, Citizenside.

Laura Oliver, community co-ordinator, the Guardian.

Turi MuntheTuri Munthe, founder and CEO, Demotix.

Kate DayKate Day, social media and engagement editor, the Telegraph.

Who’s it for?
news:rewired events are for: working journalists with an interest in digital media; media trainers and students; journalism and communications academics; PR and communications professionals; and anyone interested in the future of the journalism and media industries.

Book Your Place!

How can I book tickets?
There are 50 tickets available at a special earlybird rate of £85 (+VAT). But you will need to be quick because this 35 per cent discount is only available until 29 August.

After 29 August ticket prices will rise to £130 (+VAT). For information about tickets and availability email ed[at]journalism.co.uk.

How can I learn more?
You can email rachel [at] journalism.co.uk for more information on the agenda, or to suggest any topics you would like to see covered.

For sponsorship/advertising queries contact stefanie[at]journalism.co.uk or james[at]journalism.co.uk.

Image by WebWizard on Flickr. Some rights reserved

June 27 2011

04:36

Which UK news sites post the most stories? Do more stories lead to more visitors?

paidContent :: May 2011, The Telegraph posted the 1,099 stories on Thursday. But do more stories lead to more eyeballs? New data shows which publishers are churning out most articles - but is the strategy working? paidContent provides with interactive charts to hover and click in order to explore the data …

[Robert Andrews:] Story volume does correlate with audience size, but not universally. Although Telegraph.co.uk publishes more stories than anyone (not including its blogs), it ranks third for audience size.

Continue to read Robert Andrews, paidcontent.co.uk

June 15 2011

16:00

Does a new report mean doom and gloom for local online news? Maybe, but here are a few balancing factors

Matthew Hindman’s new paper showing miserably low levels of local online news consumption is a terrific addition to research on how journalism gets produced and consumed online. He found, using panel data from comScore, that local news sites received, on average, only about three pageviews per person per week in their local markets.

And that’s in total, adding up all local news sites — individual sites fared even worse. The largest local news site in a typical market reached only about 17.8 percent of local web users in a given month, and it drew only about five minutes of the typical web user’s attention during that month.

Nikki Usher summarized the report’s findings for us in a separate post. But while Hindman’s research is a welcome reminder of local online news’ limitations and failings, I think there are a number of factors that complicate his findings a bit. Here are four reasons why I think the doom and gloom that I expect to circle around this report might not be spot on.

comScore’s dataset isn’t perfect

Among the various traffic-measurement firms, comScore has a very solid reputation. But it is also subject to some of the criticisms that have historically faced Nielsen’s TV ratings, most notably that their sample may not be a representative one. For example, comScore panel data doesn’t measure mobile traffic. And it likely undercounts web traffic from people at work, which Pablo Boczkowski and others have shown to be where a disproportionate amount of online news consumption occurs. (Hindman, to his credit, highlights these problems with comScore’s dataset.)

And, frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if the kind of person willing to install comScore’s traffic-recording tool on their computers isn’t perfectly representative of the web-using public. The biggest news nerds might be underrepresented.

But the reality is these are quibbles, and Hindman’s larger point remains. Even if comScore is undercounting by a factor of three or four, we’re still talking about a small-numbers showing for local online media.

Reach does not mean impact

If raw readership totals equaled impact — on political discussion, on democracy, on the culture — then USA Today would be more important than The New York Times and Reader’s Digest would be more important than The New Yorker. Reaching the “right” people — and by that I mean the people who have disproportionate influence in political discussion, democracy, or culture — can make an outlet’s reach more potent than traffic numbers would suggest.

So for sites like MinnPost or Voice of San Diego, which write extensively about politics and local government, it’s possible to be both a must-read in the corridors of City Hall or the statehouse and still reach an audience that’s disproportionately influential.

Take MinnPost, for instance. According to Hindman’s analysis, 0.61 percent of all pageviews in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area went to local news sites. And only about 0.001 percent of total pageviews went to MinnPost (varying slightly by month).

But MinnPost’s Joel Kramer told us in March that, in January and February, MinnPost.com had received 921,000 visits. Each of those generated at least one pageview. The site has 5,700 daily email newsletter subscribers, 2,500 weekly email subscribers, and over 10,000 followers on Twitter.

In other words, while MinnPost may look like a rounding error in the overall scheme of Twin Cities web traffic, it is reaching many thousands of people. And even if those people are a small subset of the area population, a site like MinnPost can still have a significant positive impact on public affairs.

In Hindman’s previous book, The Myth of Digital Democracy, he advanced a largely similar argument based around political blogs. Here’s the book’s promo copy from its publisher:

Matthew Hindman argues that, though hundreds of thousands of Americans blog about politics, blogs receive only a miniscule portion of Web traffic, and most blog readership goes to a handful of mainstream, highly educated professionals. He shows how, despite the wealth of independent Web sites, online news audiences are concentrated on the top twenty outlets, and online organizing and fund-raising are dominated by a few powerful interest groups. Hindman tracks nearly three million Web pages, analyzing how their links are structured, how citizens search for political content, and how leading search engines like Google and Yahoo! funnel traffic to popular outlets. He finds that while the Internet has increased some forms of political participation and transformed the way interest groups and candidates organize, mobilize, and raise funds, elites still strongly shape how political material on the Web is presented and accessed.

You can see the DNA of that argument in the current paper. And I think Hindman’s right: If your goal for online media is to create a digital version of the New England town hall, then yes, you’re going to be disappointed that online media creates its own new class of media elites. But I’d argue that, if we’re judging online media’s value or worthiness to democracy, it’s important to do so through a lens that isn’t merely transposed from the days of big broadcast towers and giant metro newspapers.

I think, even taking Hindman’s facts on political blogs, that it’s impossible to argue that they haven’t had a significant impact on political discussion in America — despite their comparatively small readership and their power-law popularity structure. So I’d caution against anyone drawing similar conclusions based on this new paper about online media more broadly.

Local news does not equal “news”

It’s worth noting that, while the comScore data found little interest in local news, it did find substantially more interest in national and global outlets. Hindman’s analysis found that local news made up only about 19 percent of all pageviews to news sites measured. (The remainder is only defined as “nonlocal news sources,” but we can presume that a healthy chunk of that is made up of the big national news brands: CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, The New York Times, The Huffington Post, etc.)

The numbers were even more lopsided when you look at minutes spent rather than pageviews. Only about 15 percent of all time spent consuming online news was spent on local news sites.

While that’s not great news for local sites, it does indicate that people’s interest in online news more broadly isn’t in the same state of disrepair as their interest in local news. And it perhaps speaks to the wisdom of strategies that try to inject local news into national news brands — for instance, what MSNBC.com is doing with EveryBlock, or what AOL is trying to do in marrying HuffPo to Patch and Outside.in.

Watch your comparison sphere

One final note: Be cautious about reading too much into any statistics that look at online news as a fraction of total time spent online. That’s putting online news in competition not just with other traditional content sources, but with Gmail, and Facebook, and shopping on Amazon, and all the other bazillion things we do all day on the Internet. In other words, as more and more activities that traditionally took place outside the browser move inside it, it only makes sense that online news’ share might not keep up — even if online news consumption were held constant. (For example, if online news reading went up 10 percent, but total online usage went up 100 percent, online news as a share of online activity would drop — even though people were consuming more online news. Time spent shopping for shoes at Zappos shouldn’t count against time spent reading local headlines.

Again, that’s not to invalidate (or even to argue against) Hindman’s findings; his raw numbers of minutes spent are plenty low enough on their own, even without any comparison to the rest of the web. But if we are going to judge online news consumption, let’s use the numbers that make the most sense.

Separately, because the FCC-funded research process is pleasantly open, you can read Hindman’s initial draft of his paper, a peer review of it by Iris Chyi at the University of Texas, Hindman’s response to Chyi’s remarks, and the final version. Probably only of interest to the nerdiest of news nerds, but Chyi raises some good points.

June 12 2011

19:01

Initiative: TV ads increasingly performance-based, bad for Nielsen's (online) ratings system?

GigaOM :: Two executives from media agency Initiative said TV ads will increasingly become performance-based, moving the industry beyond just trying to amass huge audiences. That could throw a huge monkey wrench into the way brands and agencies think about media buying, and could be disruptive to Nielsen’s ratings system.

Continue to read Ryan Lawler, gigaom.com

May 27 2011

13:37

LIVE: Session 3B – Knowing your audience #newsrw

We have Matthew Caines and Ben Whitelaw from Wannabe Hacks liveblogging for us at news:rewired all day. You can follow session 3B ‘Knowing your audience’, below.

Session 3B features: John Barnes, managing director of digital strategy and development, Incisive Media; Chris Duncan, director of customer management, News International; Ron Diorio, vice-president product and community development, the Economist (via video/Skype); Edward Barrow, chief technology officer, idio. Moderated by Tim Faircliff, general manager, Reuters Media.

May 09 2011

09:59

Playing to the audience

…in which I mangle a metaphor in search of a thought about the relationship between journo and audience.

Time was that when I was asked about the value of social media platforms like twitter for journos, amongst the reasons I would give is the capacity to build audience.

The value of the individual journalist as a brand in a networked world (in contrast to the large media org) is something I repeatedly bang on about. But the truth is that there will always be some intersection between the sole trader and the big media hubs. In fact the prevailing model seems to be that apart from a tight core of full-time staff, most big orgs will have a steady stream of freelancers in their orbit to keep their mass.

In that respect having an audience that already follow ‘brand you’ rather than ‘brand x’ is just as attractive to the big media orgs as it is your own work.

I used to liken this to the idea of being in a band.

Record companies, even venues, wouldn’t look at you without some proof that you had audience. Signing mailing list sheets, following on myspace and now twitter and Facebook are ways that bands tried to do that.

But a chat with my excellent colleagues clarecook and Robert beers and the recent blogging about guardian local got me thinking about the danger of taking that idea too far.

How long would a band have an audience if they didn’t listen to those fans? If they didn’t tell the fans where they were playing next or what they were up to?

Many journos still stick to the idea that communication with an audience should only be one way. Some will tell you it’s because of the problems with managing the flow (busy, busy people journos) whilst others will happily tell you that they have no interest in the dribbling rantings of a few nut jobs ( because anyone who uses the web other than them is a nut job).

Truth is that if the audience isn’t behind you, you have nothing.

You could argue that the best musicians do what they do regardless of what the audience wants. They are artists. I’ve got news for you. When it comes to the web you’re not an artist. You can’t create in a platform or hack away in a garret.

If you don’t nurture and talk to the audience then, in a world of pay-to-play journalism you’ve got nothing.

Increasingly the opportunities are there for those who look out in to the audience rather than those who point their sites in a singular dash for a job with the media mothership. The crowd is not just a means of getting you there. They are the measure of your success and integrity (not just other journos)

It’s a lesson that big media orgs could learn too. Stop thinking like a record company think more like a concert promoter. The days of being the big media ‘stadium acts’ are fast becoming numbered. Maybe there is room for a few headliners at the festival but the vast majority of people are here for the rest of the bill (the long tail!).

So maybe, in future, when I’m asked about the value of social media, I’ll still be talking about the value of audience. But maybe I’ll put the band metaphor to bed. Truth is the dynamics are being rewritten everyday, just like the opportunities, and they are being written on an individual level – no band required.

09:57

Playing to the audience

…in which I mangle a metaphor in search of a thought about the relationship between journo and audience.

Time was that when I was asked about the value of social media platforms like twitter for journos, amongst the reasons I would give is the capacity to build audience.

The value of the individual journalist as a brand in a networked world (in contrast to the large media org) is something I repeatedly bang on about. But the truth is that there will always be some intersection between the sole trader and the big media hubs. In fact the prevailing model seems to be that apart from a tight core of full-time staff, most big orgs will have a steady stream of freelancers in their orbit to keep their mass.

In that respect having an audience that already follow ‘brand you’ rather than ‘brand x’ is just as attractive to the big media orgs as it is your own work.

I used to liken this to the idea of being in a band.

Record companies, even venues, wouldn’t look at you without some proof that you had audience. Signing mailing list sheets, following on myspace and now twitter and Facebook are ways that bands tried to do that.

But a chat with my excellent colleagues clarecook and Robert beers and the recent blogging about guardian local got me thinking about the danger of taking that idea too far.

How long would a band have an audience if they didn’t listen to those fans? If they didn’t tell the fans where they were playing next or what they were up to?

Many journos still stick to the idea that communication with an audience should only be one way. Some will tell you it’s because of the problems with managing the flow (busy, busy people journos) whilst others will happily tell you that they have no interest in the dribbling rantings of a few nut jobs ( because anyone who uses the web other than them is a nut job).

Truth is that if the audience isn’t behind you, you have nothing.

You could argue that the best musicians do what they do regardless of what the audience wants. They are artists. I’ve got news for you. When it comes to the web you’re not an artist. You can’t create in a platform or hack away in a garret.

If you don’t nurture and talk to the audience then, in a world of pay-to-play journalism you’ve got nothing.

Increasingly the opportunities are there for those who look out in to the audience rather than those who point their sites in a singular dash for a job with the media mothership. The crowd is not just a means of getting you there. They are the measure of your success and integrity (not just other journos)

It’s a lesson that big media orgs could learn too. Stop thinking like a record company think more like a concert promoter. The days of being the big media ‘stadium acts’ are fast becoming numbered. Maybe there is room for a few headliners at the festival but the vast majority of people are here for the rest of the bill (the long tail!).

So maybe, in future, when I’m asked about the value of social media, I’ll still be talking about the value of audience. But maybe I’ll put the band metaphor to bed. Truth is the dynamics are being rewritten everyday, just like the opportunities, and they are being written on an individual level – no band required.

April 14 2011

14:00

Love me, love my NPR: Public radio listeners can show off their loyalty

NPR executives have been known to brag that theirs is just about the only news organization to show up in people’s personal ads. For example: “I am in need of some intelligent male company…I am an avid reader, npr listener, talkative, curious and always up for trying something new.”

Media companies salivate over that kind of loyalty and identification with the brand. “People not only have an affinity for NPR but an affinity for each other, as listeners,” Kinsey Wilson, NPR’s general manager of digital media told me. “We’re the only news organization where public trust has increased over the last decade.”

While there is as yet no dating site for public radio nerds — though Wilson said the idea has come up — his development team recently whipped up a way for listeners to show off their support and discover friends with similar passions. A new Facebook app called I Heart NPR asks fans to put themselves on a map with thousands of others. Users can play games, such as Name That NPR Theme Song (I earned four-of-four virtual tote bags, thank you), and then share the results with friends. Secret games will be “unlocked” with every 100,000 new users, Wilson said.

NPR is already among the most “liked” news organization on Facebook, with 1.4 1.6 million fans. So what’s different about this? “The NPR Facebook page is first and foremost an extension of our news brand,” Wilson said. The I Heart NPR app, he said, is for fans of the organization itself and what it represents to them — the NPR personalities, the weekend rituals, the shared values that bring together like-minded people on a first date.

At the top of the Facebook app is a Twitter-inspired #gopublic stamp, which the network uses as branding on all social platforms. Local stations can also use the stamp and embed the Facebook app on their own sites.

I Heart NPR was conceived, Wilson reassured me, prior to the controversy that forced out two NPR executives and intensified a debate about federal funding of public broadcasting. (It looks like that funding survived the 2011 budget, by the way.)

Wilson said this is a lighthearted experiment and he chose not to define any hard goals for it. “We’re not trying to promote this in an aggressive way. We’ve put it out there and if it takes off, fabulous.” A half-dozen programmers, working part-time, built the app in about two weeks.

NPR’s digital team works on a bold schedule: Programmers work on two-week coding cycles to encourage rapid development. These so-called sprints encourage both failure and innovation. It’s what allowed NPR to develop its iPad app in one month, or two sprints, just in time for the iPad’s launch in April 2010. (That app just surpassed one million downloads.)

I asked Wilson, who used to run digital operations at USA Today, why it can be so difficult for other large organizations to churn out new projects — and how he’s able to do it now. “From my perspective, it comes from long, hard experience doing it badly,” he said. “Resources are always tight and so there’s probably a fear of burning too many cycles on something that either doesn’t go right.” But he said the rapid-release schedule encourages unconventional projects like I Heart NPR, and very few ideas are swatted down.

“The digital media staff here is about half the size of the one I had at USA Today and probably produces twice the output,” he said.

March 31 2011

17:43

March 11 2011

17:00

Pablo Boczkowski: The gap between what reporters write and readers read threatens news orgs’ future

We’ve written several times about Pablo Boczkowski, the Northwestern professor who studies news production and how it is changing in a digital environment. So when I was invited to serve as respondent to a presentation of some of Pablo’s new research at the MIT Communications Forum a couple weeks ago, I was very happy to.

Here, Pablo talks about a series of studies he’s done looking at the gap between the kind of journalism that news organizations produce and the kind of journalism that consumers consume. He’s gathered data from a number of different countries and time periods to see how those interests match up (or don’t). I think we found a few interesting points of disagreement — it’s worth a listen.

I’ve posted a transcript below of both Pablo’s comments and my own (but omitting the very interesting Q&A which followed, which is also worth a listen). For anyone wanting to skip ahead, Pablo’s talk begins at 7:50 in; my response starts at 37:10; the Q&A begins at 57:45. (And if anyone wants an MP3 version for their morning commute, here’s the link.)

Thanks to Pablo for sharing the forum with me (and for saying nice things about the Lab), to David Thorburn for the introduction and the invite, and to Knight Science Fellow Jason Spingarn-Koff for moderating.

Pablo Boczkowski: Thank you for the kind introduction. Thank you. I’m going to stand. I was standing before. I don’t know how to talk and stay still. So I’m going to move around a little bit. And I need to hide this, I’ve been told.

Thank you very much to David and to Susan for the invitation to be here. It’s always great to be back at MIT. I had a fabulous five years here and I’m always pleased to return, and in particular to share work with you and get your input on it. And I’m very much looking forward to the response — I’m a big fan of the Nieman Lab and Josh’s commentary as well. So hopefully he will not rip me apart.

So without further ado, let’s move to the topic because David said — I was planning to talk for 40 minutes and David said 20 to 25. So let’s go into it.

So this book — News at Work, as Jason just said, is a story about the increasing role of imitation or copying or replication in news production — the idea that more and more and more, we have the same news across different outlets.

The problem that I faced in that research project was whether perhaps I did — most of the explanation has to do with changes in the production of news and the behavior of news workers and news organizations.

But perhaps, it occurred to me, through the research — news organizations, which are actually market-driven organizations, were responding to changes in the nature of demand. Perhaps all of us want the same news and therefore news organizations are giving us just what we want? They are optimizing their product to match the nature of demand. Was that the case or wasn’t that the case?

So, to discard or not that alternative explanation, I did a series of studies that were reported in this book that came out with Chicago in October. And I found out that it is not the case, that actually there is a huge mismatch, as I say here, between the supply of information and the demand of information.

Basically, that means that the stories that news organizations consider to be the most newsworthy ones, the most important ones at any given point in time for any day or hour — the stories that are above the fold in print newspapers, or at the top of the hour in the television newscasts, or that they are in the top screen of the website — those stories that are the most important ones for them are not necessarily the stories that consumers consider to be the most important ones.

And this ties back to a long-standing debate between journalists and scholars about the stories that journalists say we need in order to function properly in a liberal democratic tradition, as citizens of the polity — information about national news, international news, business, economics, et cetera — versus the stories that often times we want to read, that are stories usually about sports, crime, or entertainment — that are not necessarily uninteresting or unimportant stories. As for example was the case a week ago, when my former advisor, my buddy and a great guy Trevor Pinch authored — you know, a professor at Cornell University — authored what was the most popular story on CNN.com at that point in time, which was a story — a very interesting one — about the role of embodied cognition in artificial intelligence and the relationship between us and machines.

So this was a very important story that piggybacked on “Jeopardy,” I think it was the television show, where the computer — right? So you can sneak in some great science study stuff through television entertainment. But, as Robert Park described 70 years ago — a famous sociologist, former newspaper person, founder of the Chicago School of sociology — this is something that journalists and scholars have known for a while: that “The things that most of us would like to publish are not the things that most of us want to read. We may be eager to get into print what is, or seems to be, edifying, but what we actually want to read or watch or listen to are stories that are interesting.”

So this debate has been going on for more than 70 years. And it’s a crucial one, not only for the industry, but also for the role of media in democracy. Interestingly enough, given how important and how longstanding this debate has been, there has been a relative dearth of empirical studies about this subject.

And the few real research studies that have systematically parsed the evidence that have existed have suffered from at least three major limitations.

The first one is that, so far, before the web, most of the studies focused on aggregate measures — ratings or circulation measures or responses that people would give you in surveys. But not necessarily the behavior that tracks how people read or consume or watch, which is story-driven, rather than circulation in a day — weekday versus weekend, et cetera.

The second limitation is that most of the few empirical studies that are out there have either examined the supply of information — what are the stories that are important in the day — and contrasted that to secondary evidence about the stories about which people are interested in. Or examined through surveys, through focus groups, through examination of ratings information, et cetera, the stories that people consider the most popular and use secondary evidence to look at what we think are the most important stories of the day for journalists — the editorial criteria.

And finally, the third limitation is that by and large, almost all the studies have conceived these preferences or these choices as static — as not changing depending on changes in circumstances. They have taken that for granted.

So what I did, after I got my curiosity piqued doing these few studies for News at Work, is I got some grant money and designed a series of studies that have tried to first determine whether there is actually or there isn’t a gap between the supply of information, consisting of the stories that are the most important ones for journalists, versus the demand for information, consisting of the stories that are the most popular for consumers, where consumers vote with their clicks — in seven different countries, 20 different online news organizations and that have tried, by research design to get rid of all these problems. So, focus on the story as a unit of analysis — focus on the story as the unit of analysis — looking at the choices of both, or the preferences of both journalists and consumers, journalists and the public concurrently, and also looking at the role of contextual variation, contextual circumstances, where they affect or not this preference, to get a sense of whether these choices are then static, or these preferences are static or not.

So I am trained as an ethnographer. Most of what I do is ethnographic. But I’m just going to give you numbers. This is a first for me. It’s an interesting challenge to write the book based just on numbers. I’m going to present you four of the papers that came up from these studies. I have a few more. You’ll have to tell me whether you think the overall story makes sense or not. The papers are almost all published or in the pipeline. So I have little doubt about that aspect of the research. But I’m trying to get a sense of the overarching narrative that is basically a tale of four studies.

So study number one is a study where we laid the methodology for this. We did the following. One day, for a number of days we repeated the same thing. We went, together with a group of collaborators, to four online news sites in the U.S. — CNN, the online news site of the Chicago Tribune, the online news site of a paper that now doesn’t exist anymore, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and the news operation at Yahoo.

At three times of the day, at the same time, we grabbed the top 10 most prominently displayed stories, which are basically the stories that appear on the first screen, as an indication of the stories that journalists consider to be the most important ones of the day.

At that very same time, we took the top 10 most-clicked or most-viewed or most popular stories on each of these sites. Whenever possible, I also collected information about the most-clicked and the most-commented — I’m sorry, the most-emailed and the most-commented stories. I have analyzed that as well. I’m not going to report it today. But in the Q&A I’m happy to tell you. There are a couple of papers out there. I’m happy to give you a gist of what that says.

So the methodology is very simple. We take the two rankings — the ranking of what the journalists consider to be the most important news and the ranking of what the consumers consider to be the most important — the most popular, interesting news.

Then we contrast. We say, of these top ten stories in one ranking, how many are about what I call public affairs news? News about politics or national news in this country, international, foreign news, business and economics — one side. The other side — the rest, which is usually weather, crime, sports, entertainment. Okay? I measure whether the level of preference is similar or is different. It’s a very, very simple process, a very crude measure.

But they give remarkably consistent results across sites. On the left side here, in this turquoise color, for each of these sites is the prevalence of public affairs news — the news that we need to know in order to function properly as citizens in a liberal democracy, presented by journalists among the top 10 in the four sites.

On the Northwestern purple side, the color here on the right-hand side, you have the prevalence of public affairs news among the top 10 most-clicked stories in each of these sites. In all cases, despite the fact that you have two metro papers here versus two sort of global/national organizations at the two ends, that one is a pure player and the others come from traditional media — it doesn’t matter.

You can change as much as you want. In all cases there is a double-digit gap between supply and demand.

Audience member: What is the y-axis?

Pablo: The y-axis is the percentage of public affairs news among the top 10. So in all cases — and all of these figures that I’m going to present today, everything is statistically significant. So we have about 1,200 stories for each of these sites — hand-coded, not machine-coded, hand-coded by people trained beforehand, blah, blah, blah. In all cases, you have a gap.

Now it is possible, we know, that our choices, when we read a site, we are influenced — or when we read a newspaper — we are influenced by editorial decision-making. That is, if this story makes it above the fold, we are more likely to pay attention to that story than if it is buried in page 15. If it is placed at the top of the screen of a website, it’s more likely that it will attract hits or at least some visibility than if it’s buried several screens deep.

Conversely, I am not the only one who is looking at this. Journalists in news organizations are constantly tracking this information. They use now a tool called Chartbeat. For a couple of hundred bucks a month, you get very detailed information about the heartbeat of a site. “I saw the Trevor Pinch story is generating lots of clicks, so we move it up in the site.” Possibly or possibly not.

So it is possible not only that our behavior as consumers is influenced by the journalists, but also that journalists’ behavior is influenced by consumers. So we did a second analysis of this information.

Of the top 10 stories, there were some in the two columns, there were some that showed up in both. That could be evidence that journalists have placed them at the top because consumers had actually clicked a lot or that consumers had clicked a lot because journalists placed them at the top.

So we extracted, removed all those stories, to get a purer sense of the preferences of each site. Guess what? The gap increases hugely. So when you have, actually left to our own devices, the preferences of the choices of people diverge, even more. This is in the case of CNN, a gap of 50 percentage points. It’s like basically running — having a bakery, putting all your products — you decide that 70 percent of what you are going to produce and put on the market are croissants, and only 20 percent of those are sold. You wonder how much longer can an organization survive with this huge gap between supply and demand.

So, okay. We basically proved that there is huge, sizable, quite robust gap between the needs and the wants, if you wish, between the supply and demand of information in the case of the States. But the States to present one of my favorite analogies, is the home of McDonalds. So perhaps people do not eat McDonalds in other countries.

We run a second study. That basically is exactly the same methodology to look at all the new sites of national newspapers — and like the previous study we just worked with national newspaper data for comparability reasons in six foreign countries. Three in Latin America and three in western Europe.

For each country except for the case of Brazil, because we were also interested in issues, not just of regional difference but also ideological differences, we looked at two sites per country. One, conservative leaning. The other liberal/centrist-leaning. So perhaps this is a thing of the right, not or the left, or vice versa.

These six countries are Germany, U.K., and Spain, in Argentina — I’m sorry, in Western Europe, and then Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico in Latin America. The first paper is coming out in Journal of Communication is saying and one just came out in Communication Research. Same ideas, same measures, similar results.

This is each site — so we have Tagesspiegel and Welt from Germany, El Pais and El Mundo from Spain, Guardian and Times from the U.K., Clarín and La Nación from Argentina, Folha de Sao Paulo from Brazil, and Universal and La Reforma from Mexico. In all cases, there is a sizable and significant gap, in some cases up to 30 percentage points between what is provided to the public and what the public actually wants to read, based on where they click.

Perhaps, however, this is more a thing of Europe, not Latin America, or Latin America and not Europe. No — not only the editorial criteria are remarkably similar across very different regions, but also consumer behavior. Here you have journalist choices. The prevalence of public affairs news in western Europe on the left and Latin America — or the three countries in western Europe, three countries in Latin America on the right. In both cases, almost 60 percent — there’s one percentage point difference. Here, preference of consumers, which are exactly at 39 percent, on average, combining all the sites together. And by the way this is not machine-coded. This is real people, people who lived in those countries for at least a year, and two people per country. We are talking a total 18,000 stories in this study, hand-coded this way. Perhaps, however, there is an ideological difference. This only applies to sites on the right. Because those of us on the left are a little bit more enlightened! Well, not actually.

You have, again the journalists here, the consumers here, this is conservative…it doesn’t really matter, right? Conservative, liberal, conservative, liberal — one percentage point difference if you group together all the conservative sides, plus group together all the liberals sides.

So, now that we know that there is gap, the gap is sizable, the gap applies in at least three different regions of the world, they got that doesn’t seem to vary depending on ideological preferences — we can start testing whether it is static or not. So, whether perhaps things change when people should pay more attention than other normal circumstances. And what better time to study that than during the 2008 election, which was not only just a presidential election, it was a major political moment. It was possibly the election of the first African-American president in the history of the country, coupled with a momentous financial transformation that you erased I don’t know how many trillions of dollars in peoples’ assets.

So if there is any point in time in which people should pay attention to politics, economics, international affairs, it’s this time. So the same methodology. We looked at six U.S.-based news sites. Two from cable, CNN and Fox. So two very different ones in terms of ideological orientation. Two from broadcast television, ABC and CBS. And two from print, Washington Post, a serious site, and USA Today, the antithesis.

We started collecting information three weeks before the first convention and we ended three weeks after the election. On average, we collected — for the normal weeks we collected between four and five times a week and around the election period, we collected for 14 consecutive days.

And then we went back exactly a year later, around those 14 days, and we gathered information during a more routine period — those same sites, same 14 days and I will report on that as well. We also gathered information during the congressional through the same 14 days in 2010 and we’re going to do a panel — we’re going to continue collecting information at least until 2012, if not longer than that.

So, I’m going to give you two cuts of the data. The first one compares what happens in the 14 days around the election time in 2008 with the same 14 days in 2009. Not the full load for ’08 — just these 14 days, those 14 days.

And here we start seeing that these choice is that actually not static. So the gap exceeds — is huge actually in Fox. So people, consumers of Fox.com were not really very interested in politics around election time. It’s still fairly large on CNN and it’s also large in USA Today and statistically significant in all cases.

It doesn’t exist in ABC and CBS at this one statistical vantage point. And the interesting things at the Washington Post is that there is a gap that reverses. Okay, so eight of over 10 top stories that journalists published in the Washington Post around election time were on politics. But that wasn’t enough for the public of Washington Post. They wanted more than nine out of ten. So the answer is, are these preferences is static? No. They actually changed quite a bit, depending — and when I show you another measure where if that is the case — depending on the context. When there’s a major election and people are trying to pay attention, people actually do pay attention. What happens when life goes back to normal? Everything goes back to normal. Gap large, everything in the same direction, no changes from two years ago. No changes, I can predict, if you measure now in all six sites. So this is what they interannual comparison, from one year to the next, tells us.

Then we did an analysis looking at the behavior both of journalists and consumers during the election cycle. So this chart gives information about the journalist’s choices starting from week one, which is prior the first convention, going through week 18, three weeks after the election, with week 15 being the week of the election. Each site has a color coding. Basically — if you do as we did through a regression — you can predict that from one week to the next, there is basically on average a three percent chance that as the election nears journalists are going to give us more public affairs news.

Fairly predictable, and the more predictable things that the journalists’ choices basically move in a pack. They all go; it doesn’t matter where you look. It doesn’t matter whether you look at on Fox or Washington Post. They are more or less going to give us the same diet.

So have this picture in mind — look at us. This is us. This is the public from one week to the next, right? Huge disparity. So in some sites, you can actually plot a regression. Most of the states you can’t predict from one week to the next. This is incredible. This is Fox. This is absolutely incredible. Okay?

Audience member: [Off mic question]

Pablo: No, the election is week 15. This is how much the election drew the attention. The best of three out of 10 stories in that week. Among the top 10 most clicked ones. The interesting thing or the most noticeable thing is that compare this with this. This with this. This is an industry that is fairly static. That doesn’t move depending on the context.

That doesn’t change. They have a formula, they push it. One, two, three, four, five. This is us. We change our moods. Today I want croissants. Tomorrow I want bagel. But I’m actually going to same bakery — the same bakery always giving me croissants. After a while, my appetite is going to be not satiated or not satisfied.

So eventually, which is one of the implications I think of all this, eventually people are going to start leaving these sites. There is no industry that can survive, especially in a competitive environment with this huge gap — [Jason signals two more minutes] I have two? Ha. I come from Argentina so with hyperinflation we say we eight, how about that?

So, okay, the moral of the story is that we can tell, okay, these choices are actually not static. They’re dynamic. They change depending on the environment, and of course this is a major environmental transformation, a major contextual variation in the case of the States — something that people had been clued in for months.

Would the same changes happen during a major crisis that erupts like this, is totally unforeseen, and vanishes quickly after that? So we run a fourth study that came out in Press/Politics last year, too. We basically were fortunate enough that during the day of election period for the international study, in Argentina there was one such crisis, a major political crisis where the economic minister had to resign, the government almost was collapsed, et cetera. And so what we did is we looked at the evolution — because we had 24 weeks of data, we looked at the evolution of covering during those 24 weeks. We also, the summer after we collected data, we also went to these organizations and a few others and interviewed a bunch of bunch of editors and also interviewed a number of consumers.

Long story, short, since I don’t have a lot of time, the choices are static only when there are no major contextual transformations. Even in case of a crisis erupting like this one, it only lasts for five weeks. Consumers really pay attention to topics that journalists consider politically important in those weeks. And then, when the crisis is over, people go back to life as usual. So this is the evolution of coverage during the 24 weeks, weeks 18 through 23 are the weeks in which the crisis was taking place. If you look at the lines, the blue lines are the…the solid one is the journalists’ choices for Clarín, which is the largest newspaper in the country. The broken ones are the consumer’s choices for the site, and the same for La Nación, which is the second largest news site in the country. They basically don’t move a lot together during normal periods. When there is a major crisis, they converge. And as soon as the crisis is over, they diverge.

That’s another way of showing the data. So, why? Why, given that we all know — I know it and people in the industry know it and people in these sites know it — given that they are publishing stuff that, a lot of it goes unnoticed, it’s not paid enough attention, why do journalists continue publishing this information? Why is their behavior like that?

One of our editors told us, “We cannot ignore what people are interested in, but we cannot make the news as a function of those interests either…I believe that journalism has a role that is different from following those [consumer demand] trends.” Another one, different organization, Clarín, said, “We are guided by parameters that have to do with taking care of the brand. We cannot publish anything that is out there.”

So basically this is saying that there is an occupational logic that, so far, trumps the market logic. We know what the demand is, but our occupational logic is such that will trump the nature of demand.

What happens on the consumer side? Why do consumers first click on public affairs or pay attention to public affairs news during crisis periods, but not during ordinary periods? One of them said, “You know, we have the agricultural producer strike,” which is this political crisis, “so now I follow the headlines from this story and if there is something I can read about it, I read it.”

“But during normal periods,” another said, “I don’t like politics very much, but I have to pay a bit of attention to this. Whereas, normally, I read bizarre news to take a break from current events.”

So basically, just to summarize a lot of interviews, people consider political news or public affairs news anxiety-provoking, demanding a lot of cognitive effort. And they feel somewhat unprepared to interpret it. All of that moves them away from this information. So we have two very different cultures and two very different logics here.

Jason: I think we should, if it’s all right with you, save the rest for the discussion.

Pablo: Give me two minutes.

Jason: Two minutes? Okay.

Pablo: Two slides. I only have two more slides.

Jason: We’re definitely getting into hyperinflation mode here.

Pablo: I know. So what does this mean for the industry? One, the media industry is an industry that grew and developed within the natural monopoly or oligopoly position. You had to come to them — you’re an advertiser, you had to come to them. They gave us what they considered was important, and basically when you are one or two, at the most three players in the market, you can actually ignore the nature of demand.

Now the industry has moved to a much more competitive environment. So this gap that has existed, according to Robert Park, for at least 70 years, now becomes terribly pressing in terms of the economic viability of the industry.

Second, this highlights the growing tension that you see in each and every newsroom that I’ve been to between the logics of the occupation and the logics of the market that I said before.

Third, the Washington Post finding is, in part, an interesting one for me, the reverse nature of the gap, because it tells us that the niche sites, the sites that have a specialty, are siphoning interest from the generalist sites. People who are in St. Louis or people who are in Seattle who are interested in politics go to Politico or the Washington Post — they don’t go to their local news organization.

So the bundled product strategy, the generalist strategy that dominated the industry for a long while, actually might no longer be so feasible. And since Jason is looking at me, “Come on. Come on. You have to finish.” I leave you with that last slide so that you can read and I can talk about it. Thank you. [applause]

Jason: It’s fascinating. So that’s brand-new research.

Pablo: It’s brand new.

Jason: Are we the first to see it?

Pablo: No. [laughter]

Jason: Great. That’s exciting. That’s going to be part of a new book?

Pablo: Yes. Hopefully.

Jason: Okay. Josh.

Joshua Benton: Terrific. Well, thanks very much. Thank you, Pablo, for that presentation. It’s a great honor to share the table with you. It’s a great pleasure to be here at MIT.

While I’ve been at Harvard for almost four years now, I really do come at a lot of these questions fundamentally from a journalistic perspective as opposed to an academic one. So while I can’t match Pablo in academic credentials, I do think journalists — traditionally their task is to ask questions. So I’m just going to raise a few questions about some of the research that we just heard presented that I hope can spark a fruitful discussion.

I appreciate all the work that Pablo has done to illustrate the gap that exists between the production of journalism and the consumption of journalism. That said, I’d be surprised if anyone here was really shocked by the idea that, in fact, the things that we consume are not the same things that we would like to see produced or that professional journalists would like to see produced.

I suspect we’d find a similar gap if we looked at the amount of broccoli you’re supposed to eat versus the amount that people actually do eat. Or the number of hours that Americans spend listening to Justin Bieber versus the number of hours they admit to listening to Justin Beiber.

I think we can all, even from our own experience, acknowledge that our own consumption of media is not always optimized for seriousness or for civic worthiness.

I’d actually be interested, if you’re looking for something else for the last chapter of your book, to do similar research looking specifically at the consumption habits of the same journalists who are producing the stories — because I’m sure at the end of a long day of muckraking a lot of them will go back to go read a trashy novel about vampires or zombies.

I, last night, used another tool to try and gauge the interest of the Internet-using public — this is Google Trends which is matching what people are searching for at any given moment. The top five there include a woman named Melissa Molinaro who, from what I could tell is only of interest because she’s in an Old Navy commercial and looks something like Kim Kardashian.

The word “forehead” — I was completely unable to figure why people were searching for forehead last night, but perhaps someone in the crowd can crowdsource that for me.

Two searches related to the death of the star of a reality television show, “The Deadliest Catch.” And “Scott Walker prank call,” which — that last one, that fifth one could be described as public affairs journalism if you’re willing to have a broad definition. But I’m willing to invoke the prank-call exception to anything actually being public affairs journalism. I think that sort of moves it into the entertainment category for most people who are consuming it.

The Internet certainly makes it very easy for us to quantify the public’s wandering attentions. But I would note that it’s not exactly a new phenomenon for there to be concern about the civic information levels of the American public.

I remember, as a kid in the ’80s, hearing about all the Americans who couldn’t find the Soviet Union on a map — which is really hard because the Soviet Union was pretty big, pretty hard to miss. There have always been people who, while they may have bought a very serious newspaper, skip straight to the comics or the sports section or the crossword puzzle or who, quite frankly, just wanted the ads. Anyone who’s worked at a newspaper will be able to tell you that Sunday paper sales are largely driven by people who take the newspaper, set it aside, and then just go through the circulars.

Joel Kramer who was the publisher of the Minneapolis Star Tribune and now runs a nonprofit news site called MinnPost, he told me that their readership research at the Star Tribune consistently found, over the years, that about 10 to 15 percent of their audience were people he would consider serious news consumers. People who sought out news as part of their civic identity, people who viewed it as sort of a life priority to get different perspectives and to stay informed with the latest happenings with government.

It’s easy in hindsight to imagine some idealized past where everyone was a dedicated public affairs reader — and maybe that was true in Cambridge, I confess. But I just want to raise a few questions.

One, before I go into it — one that just came to mind listening to Pablo’s presentation. It’s certainly true that some of the listing of the most popular stories and the most promoted stories on news sites may have some taint between them as news organizations realize, “Hey, this story is popular. We should move it up.”

But I think it’s difficult to argue that the presentation of the stories on a front page or the first few stories in a newscast have ever been a pure reflection of journalist’s judgments on what are the most important stories.

Page 1 meeting of the newspapers, the environment I’m most familiar with, usually had a mix. “We have to get the right mix — a few hard stories and a nice feature story about some teen that’s done something spectacular.” The presence on the front page was never a full statement of “this is the most important story of the day.”

But that aside, I want to just raise three questions that hopefully can be of use in our conversation. The first one is: Are we evaluating the right news universe? To the extent that I have a quibble with some of Pablo’s work and with News At Work, his last book, it’s that to my mind it doesn’t quite reflect the reality that the news universe is no longer limited, either from a consumer’s point of view or a producer’s point of view, to the large news institutions — either CNN or The New York Times or even the newcomers like Yahoo.

That’s the one question that I would push back a bit on from Pablo’s presentation is I’m not 100 percent sure that supply and demand is exactly the right metaphor here, because it’s really hard for me to look at the Internet and say there is a shortage of supply of anything.

It’s hard, whether you’re just limiting it to one news organization or going beyond — if you want to find out about what’s going on in Libya, you can easily spend the next 24 hours pouring through lots of information. It seems it’s less a matter of supply and demand and more one of distribution and promotion.

Also, along those lines, looking simply at the top 10 stories at any given moment, it’s not a really strong, to my mind, statement of supply. It’s only even a rough statement of consumption. If you’re looking at a site the size of, say, The New York Times or The Washington Post, even the top 10 stories that are consumed at any given moment are still only a tiny fraction, or at least a small fraction, nowhere near a majority of the amount of news reading that is going on at any given time.

If you just looked at just purely the public affairs production of something like The New York Times or even CNN, it’s certainly a list of stories much longer than 10 every single day.

When we’re comparing print to online, I think it’s very important for us to not just carve off the serious part of the print world and make that the point of comparison to the enormous, glorious confusion of the online world — or vice versa. Even in print, before the days of the Internet, more people read People than read Time, more people read Ladies’ Home Journal and Good Housekeeping than either of those. And more people, today read Game Informer magazine and Better Homes and Gardens than any of the other ones that I’ve just mentioned.

The web, particularly thanks to social media but not exclusively, does a really terrific job of connecting quality news and information and the people who might want to consume it. If you ever just look at the things that your friends are sharing on Twitter or on Facebook, they tend to be a pretty good reflection of your interests — assuming that you pick your friends correctly, which is always a different question.

As a result, there are lots of outlets that existed before the Internet — in some cases thrived before the Internet — who are now reaching all new audience that they would not have been able to achieve without the connecting power of online media. There are many, many more people reading the journalism produced by The New York Times newsroom today than has ever been the case. The Atlantic is doing great gangbusters on the web, generating lots of revenue and lots of readers by having a very smart digital strategy that is aiming at high-quality content. The New York Review of Books, of all people, is doing quite a good job online and reaching all sorts of new audiences who would never have gone to the one newsstand in their Midwestern hometown that would have carried a copy of The New York Review of Books.

There’s lots of terrific, serious criticism of the arts and books on book blogs, on little, nerdy startup sites. Because the web is such a good distribution and connection platform, that sort of quality content is able to reach new audiences. I would love to be able to see a way that that broadened effect, both on the high-end and on the low-end in terms of high and lowbrow — to see that reflected.

If we’re going to take the next step and evaluate the impact of these changes in the news universe and how we consume and produce news, it’s important to acknowledge these sorts of changes. As Ethan Zuckerman at Harvard has said often, for subjects like foreign affairs, it really is not so much a supply question as it is a demand question. It’s not how can we get more information about Libya. It’s how can we get more people to be interested in information about Libya.

The second question I wanted to raise is: Are news organizations public institutions or businesses? Now, of course, I can easily answer that for you. The answer is both. But which lens we view them through should inform, I think, the way that we view this gap between the public’s interest and journalistic production.

I think viewing news organizations as being primarily civic-minded institutions, is really only tenable if you ignore the vast majority of news that has been produced in the history of the world. Even before the Internet, an average American newspaper would only spend about 20 percent of its revenue, of its budget on the newsroom.

In that newsroom were lots of people — sports reporters, movie critics, other people who were writing perfectly valuable stuff, but stuff that it’s hard to say was critical to democracy in a lot of ways, or critical to being an informed voter. Even The New York Times spends an awful lot of resources covering the Yankees and fashion and pop music and whatever hipsters are up to in Brooklyn.

So what percentage of an average newsroom would pass the “Is it critical to democracy” test? It’s a lot less than 100 percent, that’s for sure. And even given that newspapers do an awful lot of important public affairs journalism, which they certainly do, why do they do it? Did they do it purely out of a civic responsibility? Or did they do it because they felt it was good business?

Again, the answer is both. But historically speaking, the story of newspapers in the 20th century was one of consolidation. Going from cities with dozens of newspapers to cities that would have, in most cases only one, and occasionally two. And if you live in New York, you get a few more.

That consolidation, in a variety of ways, led to spread of distribution in coverage area. You went from, if you were at my old newspaper, the Dallas Morning News, you were no longer covering the area immediately around Dallas. You were suddenly covering this sprawling metropolis of six million people.

Within those six million people, there are enormous disparities in wealth, in race and ethnicity, in interests, in socioeconomic status. So the economic incentive, if you want to be a monopoly player under this model and to reach as many people as you possibly can, is to focus your coverage on the broadest possible common interests. That’s why The Dallas Morning News wrote an awful lot of stories about the Dallas Cowboys and why the Globe writes a lot about the Celtics and the Red Sox.

It’s also one reason why the Globe writes a lot about Deval Patrick and the Statehouse — because when you have a large metropolitan newspaper that is trying to appeal to a large, very diverse audience, it’s efficient, from an economic point of view, to focus on the things that appeal most broadly.

It’s also the reason, on the other hand, why newspapers have traditionally been pretty darn bad, I would argue, at covering niches and subcultures and the small — the little things going on that a broad metro newspaper, you can almost always count to not do a particularly good job on.

From my own experience, I remember the day when I was looking through the newspaper’s archives in Dallas for information about the bar where the Velvet Underground recorded a live album in 1969. I realized that, after spending lots of time looking for references, that The Dallas Morning News essentially chose not to cover the 1960s, chose to ignore the counterculture, and treated as something they were not particularly interested in.

We had the example a few years ago, where the Lexington Herald-Leader published a front-page apology saying, as a correction, “We’re sorry that we forgot to cover the civil rights movement.” There are lots of ways in which newspapers, by trying to appeal in the broadest possible ways, focus their coverage in ways that leave open lots of niches to be exploited by new, more agile players.

Also remember that newspapers are not just selling news. They are also selling an image of their readers. They are selling that image to advertisers of course — “you should want to put your goods in front of these wonderful people.” But they’re also selling it to readers themselves. People’s identities are influenced by the kinds of media they consume.

I remember the great saying — I’ve been trying to figure out who said this, if anyone knows, please talk to me afterwards — that there are three kinds of people in the world: those who don’t read the New York Review of Books, those who do read the New York Review of Books and those who no longer have to read The New York Review of Books.

These sorts of identity issues are important to the ways that people consume their media. While there are lots of journalists who of course feel a civic duty to do serious reporting, and there are publishers who feel similarly, there are also economic motives, trying to get a more upmarket audience. It’s something which a lot of metro newspapers are very much focused on, and other news outlets as well.

Also, that sense of responsibility, that civic gravitas that the classic publisher had — well, not to demean that in any way, but it’s also a pretty easy sense of responsibility to feel when you have a local monopoly that will produce 30 percent profit margins without trying all that hard. When the question is, do you have a 30 percent profit margin or a 20 percent profit margin, and how much journalism you are willing to invest in to make that difference, the questions are a little bit different. So these business factors and economic motivations are also important, I think.

My third and final question is a little bit more — I hope there are good political scientists in the room: Is it okay for people to not be informed about the news? How much does it really matter?

I’m not surprised at all that the closest connection that Pablo found between news produced and news consumed was around the 2008 election, when, logically speaking, interest in public affairs should have been at their highest point, by most theories of what an informed public is supposed to be.

When I saw the numbers for Fox, I was reminded actually of Nick Lemann’s great profile a couple of years ago in The New Yorker of Bill O’Reilly, where he noted that while people who don’t actually watch Bill O’Reilly may think of it as being primarily a political show, but if you sit down and watch it, there are a lot of crime stories, a lot of “child abducted” kinds of stories that the political focus almost seemed secondary on a lot of days.

Jay Hamilton, who is an economist at Duke — his book All The News That’s Fit to Sell, a terrific book I would recommend — he outlines what he calls the four kinds of information demands, the four reasons that people would seek out and consume information.

The first is producer information. That means information that would improve or increase your production. So if you’re a stock trader and you find out that a company in which you’re interested just got a big new contract or is facing a lawsuit, that’s information that you can use to make you do your job better. So The Wall Street Journal would be producer information for you. The same is true if you are an agent in Hollywood and you are reading Variety. And also, to get to Pablo’s data, I think it’s also completely true if you are a reader of The Washington Post, and therefore probably affiliated with the federal government in some way, and it’s a few days before your megaboss is about to change, it’s very much tied to your production in your job.

The second type of consumer information is information that lets you make better consumer decisions. So, should I buy the new MacBook Pro that was unveiled this morning? If I want to risk injury to go see Spiderman on Broadway, will it be worth it? Reviewers of all kinds are the obvious suppliers of this kind of consumer information.

Entertainment information is what Lindsay Lohan is up to today, plus also a Philip Roth novel. It is information that is primarily aimed at entertaining the consumer in some way or another. An awful lot of what news organizations produce, I would argue, falls directly into this category. Journalists may not like to admit it. But I think it’s true.

Then finally, the fourth category is voter information. That’s information that lets the reader make better decisions about his or her government. Should I vote for Obama? Is he handling Libya correctly? Was the stimulus worth it?

And what Hamilton argues is that, for the first three kinds of information, there is an immediate return to the consumer. You make more money. You avoid Spiderman. You have a good laugh or a good cry.

With voter information though, knowing doesn’t give you an immediate return. Knowing about the stimulus doesn’t mean that the stimulus will have a different impact on you. It simply means that you’ll know more about it. Because the chance of your individual vote being the difference maker in any given election is so small, you don’t derive the same direct benefit from that knowledge that you do from the other classes.

Hamilton argues that, for this reason, it can be a perfectly rational economic decision for someone to choose not to follow the more broccoli side of the news. And frankly, these choices are something that we all — even if you are the biggest news omnivore in the room, there are still lots and lots of things that you choose not to read about every day. You may be completely up on the latest impact of the stimulus, but perhaps the Botswanan economy is not your major focus. We all make these choices.

Hamilton says that he views the elements that lead people to pursue a lot of voter information as what he calls the three Ds — duty, diversion, or drama. I think a lot of cable news would fall under diversion or drama, and not many other people would fall under having the sense of duty or following it.

So the question I really raise is, particularly in the kind of political system that we have, where the political science literature tells us that the best predictor of whether or not someone is going to be reelected as president is the level of unemployment right before the election, is it not potentially a rational choice for people to be choosing to focus less on public affairs news?

Is it okay for us instead to have a class of people, whether that’s politicians, but also journalists, lobby groups, academics, as well as those people driven by duty — to have this class of people who do the heavy lifting and pay attention to these things?

Speaking from my own experience, when I was writing about education policy in Texas, some of my stories I knew would reach a very broad audience and would be of interest to a broad audience. But a lot of them I knew were kind of targeted to a few dozen bureaucrats and administrators and legislators, for the hard-core policy questions that weren’t going to reach far beyond that.

How important is that element of mass in the mass media?

Jason: Josh, I just want to give you a warning.

Josh: Yes. All right. I am duly warned. When we talk about agenda setting, which I think is a slide that you may not have gotten to, I think one of your last slides, we live in a world where Gawker can take down a congressman, and Talking Points Memo can get an attorney general to resign, and Wikileaks can set the whole world talking. The ability to set the agenda is much more broadly spread than ever before.

And I think the impact we’ve seen in the economic structure of news organizations is moving away from the world of duplication to a world that is much more about niche. When you look at Washington coverage, there are fewer people than there were 20 years ago doing broad Washington coverage, of the sort that the Washington Bureau of the Des Moines Register would have done at some point in the past. But there are many more people doing niche coverage, about the elements of federal policy that are important to them.

For the people who are really interested, the people who are reading Politico and The Washington Post, there is no shortage of blanket coverage. It’s just that they’re reaching different audiences instead of trying to appeal to the broad element.

It’s really hard for me to look at the 700 feeds in my RSS reader and see more conformity or a new bottleneck for diverse subjects or diverse points of view.

But finally, to conclude, I think that the example of Wikileaks is instructive, because Julian Assange realized after working for several years to do what he wanted to do, at a certain point he needed to work with news organizations like the Times and the Guardian to have his work make the maximum impact. Those news organizations still have the enormous reach of their audience — an enormous weapon in the battle of what kind of media is going to be produced and consumed. So I think in the end there is going to be lots of room for lots of different kinds of players. The ability to judge the actions of the audience, as one unit, will get a lot harder.

We going to have to start looking at more narrow slices of the news production and consumption question. And I think in the end there will be room for all kinds. Thanks.

March 04 2011

19:30

Posted email addresses for NYT Mag reporters: A flashback to 1995

The new regime has taken over at The New York Times Magazine, and among the visible changes online is the addition, at the bottom of stories, of an editor’s credit and the email address of the writer. Jack Shafer’s written about the editor’s credit, but I’m more interested in the email addresses, which (correct me if I’m wrong) I believe is the first time the Times has ever attached reporter email addresses to stories in any sort of consistent way. (Times writers have their own author pages, but the “Send an E-Mail to Frank Bruni” link hides the email address via Javascript.)

My interest is mainly in the opportunity to repost one of my favorite all-time Lab documents, which Zach Seward wrote about two years ago. It’s a transcript from a conference we held here at the Nieman Foundation back in 1995. The conference was entitled “Public Interest Journalism: Winner of Loser in the On-Line Era” (we dug hyphens back then), and one of the sessions featured Esther Dyson interviewing the then-relatively-new publisher of The New York Times, Arthur Sulzberger. It’s the oldest documentation I’m aware of the Times’ perspective on its journalists getting feedback from readers. Here’s the relevant excerpt of the transcript, after Sulzberger tells Dyson that they’ve always gotten feedback from readers, even pre-Internet:

MS. DYSON: Yes, and you get that feedback when you go to cocktail parties at Michael’s, and people come up to you who are your elite readers. But now, you’ve got some guy who can’t really spell, who wants to waste your reporter’s time sending him Email.

MR. SULZBERGER: …I don’t think that’s going to happen. And maybe I’m fooling myself, but I really don’t think that an individual reader directly to reporter, that that’s going to be a major factor in how this is going to design itself.

MS. DYSON: But it’s going to be a major factor in how they have their time wasted, or how they have their time enriched.

MR. SULZBERGER: Are you making the assumption that we’re going to put all of our reporters online? Is that the assumption built into the question, that every day, all of our reporters will have hundreds and hundreds of Email’s that they’ve got to respond to?

You can pick up a pen today and misspell a letter any one of our editors, reporters, business folks. Most — I will speak, I think, candidly for the newsroom — most of those letters go unanswered. It drives me nuts, but it’s true.

Anyway, go read the whole thing and have your own journalism version of I Love the ’90s.

December 16 2010

15:00

The Newsonomics of all-access — and Apple

[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.]

Don’t wait for the white smoke to waft over America’s tech consumer Vatican, the Cupertino headquarters of Apple. The electronic elves are too busy shipping Christmas iPads, and figuring stock-option payouts based on 2011-12 sales projections. Those projections, newly minted by eMarketer, call for another 50 million iPads to be sold in the U.S. alone over the next two years, atop the eight million they think will sell by year’s end. (Other manufacturers would only sell another 20 million tablets in the U.S. over the same period.)

The white smoke? That would be the signal to news and magazine publishers of how Apple is going to allow access to the tablet kingdom. We’ve seen lots of debate, quasi-information, and mixed signals out of Apple about how digital subscriptions will work, including who will keep which revenue and who will partake of user data, the new digital gold. Apple execs talk regularly to publishers, under threat of severe NDA. Those discussions and the back and forth of dealing with Apple on how apps must be configured to get approved are described as an exercise in Kremlinology — trying to divine how things are really working and will work, without actually being told.

After talking with numerous people in and around the tablet/apps industry, I think we can divine the 2011 policy and clear away the smoke and mirrors. Simply put, this is what the de facto Apple policy on digital news subscriptions appears to be:

  • Publishers can charge their digital readers for tablet — and smartphone — subscriptions, and keep the generated revenue stream.
  • Publishers can offer “free” apps in the Apple store — iTunes for now, iNewsstand maybe not too far away.
  • Publishers must — and here’s the rub — restrict browser access is some form. In other words, you can’t simply charge for digital content on the tablet and the smartphone and let it run freely wild through a browser. The pay models may not have to be the same, tablet to smartphone to browser (that’s unclear), but publishers can’t two use two opposite approaches and use the iTunes stores an initial access point to gain customers and keep all the resulting revenue.
  • Publishers must do their own authentication of users and their own e-commerce outside the Apple interface, to make the program work.

Importantly, numerous news players are acting on the belief that the above will be the policy, given their conversations with Apple. If that seemingly de facto policy becomes formal — with the announcement of the iPad 2? — it will have far-reaching implications. In fact, it gives a rocket boost to the “paid content” (meaning new streams of digital reader revenue) revolution now in front of us. Why? It marks the convergence — maybe the ratification — of three big things happening as we enter 2011. Put them together, and you have the Newsonomics of all-access.

Number one: The tablet. It’s a reader’s product, and therefore a news publishers’ dream. Longer session times. Longer reading forms embraced. A greater willingness among consumers to pay. Print-like advertising experiences — and rates. All of those results, reported privately by the big news companies that are first to market with tablet products and also in a user survey just released by the University of Missouri’s Reynolds Journalism Institute here, are preliminary. (More on the recent Roger Fidler-led Digital Publishing Alliance conference, at which I spoke, here.)

As the iPad moves from Apple lovers to mass market, those numbers should moderate. Yet the very nature of the tablet is telling us that digital news reading isn’t what we thought it was — only a Kibbles ‘n Bits, check-in-on-the-briefs-and-scoot reading experience. It looks like a lot of what we thought were huge changes in news reading behavior may have had as much to do with what the nature of a computer (desktop, laptop) reading experience, and not with a change in the nature of humans themselves. We’ll see, but meanwhile, it looks like a good fifth of the country will have a tablet by 2014.

Number two: That paid content push. 2010 has been prologue, as The New York Times took the year to lay extensive plans, connecting pivotal technology, and Journalism Online traversed the country (and lately other continents) preaching from the pulpit of the Holy Church of Freemium and the practice of metering. Don’t erect a paywall, like News Corp. did in London with the Times; start the meter, track it, and charge accordingly. That’s the Financial Times model, and the one The New York Times and Journalism Online cite as a bible, along with learnings from The Wall Street Journal’s freemium experience, a pivotal education for JO principal Gordon Crovitz, who served as WSJ publisher. The digital reader revenue payment was born out of abject frustration, as publishers concluded that digital advertising itself would never support the large news enterprises they wanted to maintain. They were tired of unicycling into the future; digital reader revenue restores the “circulation” leg of the business, providing (in the abstract) two strong legs to stand out going forward.

Number three: The arrival — finally, o Lord — of the news-anywhere, multi-platform, multi-device world that we’ve been envisioning for more than a decade. For more than a decade, it was a print/online world, in the minds of publishers. Now it’s a print/online (desktop, laptop), smartphone, tablet — and soon Apple TV for news — world. That changes everything in how product is thought out, created, presented and sold.

Put these three phenomena together — a multi-platform world in which the tablet becomes a prime part of daily news reading, reading that will be partly charged for — and you have the shiny new business model of 2011: all-access. I’ve written about all-access and exhorted those publishers with high-quality, differentiated news products to embrace it (see The Newsonomics of the fading 80/20 rule, on Time Warner moves). Now, the forces of the times seem to have conspired to bring it forward and make it dominant.

No, there has been no announcement of a warm all-access embrace, but consider:

  • It’s the model used by the paid-content champ FT (“The Newsonomics of FT as an Internet Retailer“) and The Economist.
  • It’s the model just embraced, without fanfare, by The Wall Street Journal, which had throughout the year priced each new digital platform separately. In its recent announcement of an Android tablet product, it said: “A full digital subscription is available for $3.99 per week, which provides access to WSJ Tablet Edition for Android and iPad, WSJ.com, and WSJ Mobile Reader for BlackBerry and iPhone. Current Journal subscribers receive full access to the WSJ Tablet Edition for free for a limited time.”
  • The New York Times model will follow the same across-platform approach when it launches metered pricing early next year.
  • And, it’s not just the big guys. Take Morris’ Augusta Chronicle, a new Journalism Online customer, which just went metered– and all-access, including its upcoming tablet product in the subscription bundle. Expect to see other Journalism Online customers — a few dozen to start — follow this model next year, along with a number of other dailies that tell me they are planning a similar approach.

The big idea? Cement the relationship with those readers who really want your news, delivered by your brand, global, national or local. Say simply: We’ll make it easy for you to read the news however, wherever, on whatever you want and offer it at a single bundled price. Expect three basic offers: Everything (Print + all digital forms), Print Only and the Digital Bundle (probably including the odd cousin of the digital group, the e-edition), plus some by-the-device (iPhone, iPad, Blackberry, etc.) pricing. It’s certainly not a news-only idea, as Netflix, HBO, and Comcast build out the same model.

It’s a tablet-fed, Apple-polished tablet do-over, and for many news publishers, really a do-or-die effort to reassert brand and product value, reassembling a new business model and building what will sooner-than-later be a digital-mainly business. Will they succeed? Some — those with substantial product offerings that are not commoditized — who move the meter dials smartly, picking off the top five percent or so of their mostly digital visitors for payment will. In a twist on the now-legendary Jarvisism: Charge the best. Market ads to the rest. (And don’t scare them off with a paywall.) Other legacy publishers have cut too much to make the new math work, and still other newer publishers will find all-access works for them as well.

There are many more twists, turns, issues — many of them requiring technology lacking among many publishers — and obstacles yet to work through, but we’ll get to those into the new year. Apple’s own role certainly won’t be to remove itself from the new equation, but to find numerous ways — iAds anyone? — to harvest value.

For now, consider all-access the model to be tested in 2011.

November 18 2010

17:30

Crunching Denton’s Ratio: What’s the return on paying sources?

There was a lot of buzz on Twitter yesterday about Paul Farhi’s piece in The Washington Post on checkbook journalism — in particular the way a mishmash of websites, tabloids, and TV news operations put money in the hands of the people they want to interview. (With TV, the money-moving is a little less direct, usually filtered through payments for photos or videos.)

But, just for a moment, let’s set aside the traditional moral issues journalists have with paying sources. (Just for a moment!) Does paying sources make business sense? Financially speaking, the justification given for paying sources is to generate stories that generate an audience — with the hope that the audience can then be monetized. Does it work?

There’s not nearly enough data to draw any real conclusions, but let’s try a little thought experiment with the (rough) data points we do have, because I think it might provide some insight into other means of paying for content. Nick Denton, the head man at Gawker Media and the chief new-media proponent of paying sources, provides some helpful financial context:

With the ability to determine instantly how much traffic an online story is generating, Gawker’s Denton has the pay scale almost down to a science: “Our rule of thumb,” he writes, “is $10 per thousand new visitors,” or $10,000 per million.

What strikes me about those numbers is how low they are. $10K for a million new visitors? There aren’t very many websites out there that wouldn’t consider that an extremely good deal.

Let’s compare Denton’s Ratio to the numbers generated by another money-for-audience scheme in use on the Internet: online advertising. After all, lots of ads are sold using roughly the same language Denton uses: the M in CPM stands for thousand. Except it’s cost per thousand impressions (a.k.a. pageviews), not cost per thousand new visitors, which would be much more valuable. What Denton’s talking about is more like CPC — cost per click, which sells at a much higher rate. (Those new visitors aren’t just looking at an ad for a story; they’re actually reading it, or at least on the web page.) Except it’s even more valuable than that, since there’s no guarantee that the person clicking a CPC ad is actually a “new” visitor. Let’s call what Denton’s talking about CPMNV: cost per thousand new visitors.

CPC rates vary wildly. When I did a little experiment last year running Google AdWords ads for the Lab, I ended up paying 63 cents per click. I ran a similar experiment a few months later with Facebook ads for the Lab, and the rate ended up being 26 cents per click.

What Denton is getting for his $10 CPMNV is one cent per click, one cent per new visitor. It’s just that the click isn’t coming from the most traditional attention-generating tool, an ad — it’s coming from a friend’s tweet, or a blogger’s link, or a mention on ESPN.com that sends someone to Google to search “Brett Favre Jenn Sterger.”

Doing the pageview math

And that $10 CPMNV that Denton’s willing to pay is actually less than the return he gets for at least some of his source-paid stories. Take the four Gawker Media pieces that the Post story talks about: the original photo of singer Faith Hill from a Redbook cover, to show how doctored the image was for publication; photos and a narrative from a man who hooked up with Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell; the “lost” early version of the iPhone 4 found in a California bar; and voice mails and pictures that allegedly show quarterback Brett Favre flirting with a woman named Jenn Sterger, who is not his wife. Gawker publishes its pageview data alongside each post, so we can start to judge whether Denton’s deals made financial sense. (Again, we’re talking financial sense here, not ethical sense, which is a different question.)

Faith Hill Redbook cover: 1.46 million pageviews on the main story, and about 730,000 pageviews on a number of quick folos in the days after posting. Total: around 2.2 million pageviews, not to mention an ongoing Jezebel franchise. Payment: $10,000.

Christine O’Donnell hookup: 1.26 million pageviews on the main story, 617,000 on the accompanying photo page, 203,000 on O’Donnell’s response to the piece, 274,000 on Gawker’s defense of the piece. Total: around 2.35 million pageviews. Payment: $4,000.

“Lost” iPhone: 13.05 million pageviews on the original story; 6.1 million pageviews on a series of folos. Total: around 19.15 million pageviews. Payment: $5,000.

Brett Favre/Jenn Sterger: 1.73 million pageviews on the first story, 4.82 million on the big reveal, 3.99 million pageviews on a long line of folos. Total: around 10.54 million pageviews. Payment: $12,000.

Let’s say, as a working assumption, that half of all these pageviews came from people new to Gawker Media, people brought in by the stories in question. (That’s just a guess, and I suspect it’s a low one — I’d bet it’s something more like 70-80 percent. But let’s be conservative.)

Expected under the Denton formula:
Faith Hill: 1 million new visitors
O’Donnell: 400,000 new visitors
iPhone: 500,000 new visitors
Favre: 1.2 million new visitors

Guesstimated real numbers:
Faith Hill: 1.1 million new visitors
O’Donnell: 1.17 million new visitors
iPhone: 9.56 million new visitors
Favre: 5.27 million new visitors

Again, these are all ham-fisted estimates, but they seem to indicate at least three of the four stories significantly overperformed Denton’s Ratio.

Reaching new audiences

The primary revenue input for Gawker is advertising. They don’t publish a rate card any more, but the last version I could find had most of their ad slots listed at a $10 CPM. Who knows what they’re actually selling at — ad slots get discounted or go unsold all the time, many pages have multiple ads, and lots of online ads get sold on the basis of metrics other than CPM. But with one $10 CPM ad per pageview, the 2.2 million pageviews on the Faith Hill story would drum up $22,000 in ad revenue. (Again, total guesstimate — Denton’s mileage will vary.)

Aside: Denton has said that these paid-for stories are “always money-losers,” and it’s true that pictures of Brett Favre’s manhood can be difficult to sell ads next to. Most (but not all) of those 10.54 million Brett Favre pageviews were served without ads on them. But that has more to do with, er, private parts than the model of paying sources.

But even setting aside the immediate advertising revenue — the most difficult task facing any website is getting noticed. Assuming there are lots of people who would enjoy reading Website X, the question becomes how those people will ever hear of Website X. Having ESPN talk about a Deadspin story during Sportscenter is one way. Having that Redbook cover emailed around to endless lists of friends is another. Gawker wants to create loyal readers, but you can only do that from the raw material of casual readers. Some fraction of each new flood of visitors will, ideally, see they like the place and want to stick around.

Denton publishes up-to-date traffic stats for his sites, and here’s what the four in question look like:

It’s impossible to draw any iron-clad conclusions from these squiggles, but in the case of Jezebel and Deadspin, the initial spike in traffic appears to have been followed by a new, higher plateau of traffic. (The same seems true, but to a lesser extent, for Gizmodo — perhaps in part because it was already much more prominent within the gadget-loving community when the story broke than, for example, 2007-era Jezebel or 2010-era Deadspin were within their target audiences. With Gawker, the O’Donnell story is too recent to see any real trends, and in any event, the impact will probably be lost within the remarkable overall traffic gains the site has seen.)

Fungible content strategies

I’ve purposefully set aside the (very real!) ethics issue here because, when looked at strictly from a business perspective, paying sources can be a marker for paying for content more generally. From Denton’s perspective, there isn’t much difference between paying a source $10,000 for a story and paying a reporter $10,000 for a story. They’re both cost outputs to be balanced against revenue inputs. No matter what one thinks of, say, Demand Media, the way they judge content’s value — how much money can I make off this piece? — isn’t going away.

Let’s put it another way. Let’s say a freelance reporter has written a blockbuster piece, one she’s confident will generate huge traffic numbers. She shops it around to Gawker and says it’ll cost them $10,000 to publish it. That’s a lot of money for an online story, and Denton would probably do some mental calculations: How much attention will this story get? How many new visitors will it bring to the site? What’s it worth? I’m sure there are some stories where the financial return isn’t the top factor — stories an editor just really loves and wants to publish. But just as the Internet has turned advertising into an engine for instantaneous price matching and shopping into an engine for instantaneous price comparison, it breaks down at least some of the financial barrier between journalist-as-cost and source-as-cost.

And that’s why, even beyond the very real ethical issues, it’s worth crunching the numbers on paying sources. Because in the event that Denton’s Ratio spreads and $10 CPMNV becomes a going rate for journalists as well as sources, that means for a writer to “deserve” a $50,000 salary, he’d have to generate 5 million new visitors a year. Five million is a lot of new visitors.

There’s one other line Denton had in the WaPo piece that stood out to me:

“I’m content for the old journalists not to pay for information. It keeps the price down,” Denton writes in an exchange of electronic messages. “So I’m a big supporter of that journalistic commandment – as it applies to other organizations.”

When we think of the effects of new price competition online, we often think of it driving prices down. When there are only a few people competing for an advertising dollar, they can charge higher rates; when there are lots of new competitors in the market, prices go down. But Denton’s basically arguing the equally logical flipside: I can afford to pay so little because there aren’t enough other news orgs competing for what sources have to offer. Let’s hope we don’t get to that same point with journalists.

Older posts are this way If this message doesn't go away, click anywhere on the page to continue loading posts.
Could not load more posts
Maybe Soup is currently being updated? I'll try again automatically in a few seconds...
Just a second, loading more posts...
You've reached the end.

Don't be the product, buy the product!

Schweinderl