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May 05 2011

14:30

The newsonomics of the new ABCs of journalism

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

This week brought us the long-worked-on new counting metrics for American daily newspaper journalism.

ABC, the Audit Bureau of Circulations, has long provided The Number.

The Number — really The Numbers, a daily number and a Sunday number — have been the reader numbers dailies measured themselves by, twice a year, spring and fall. Who’s up, who’s down, who’s number one — it’s really a horse-race number, simple to report by the publishers and simple to report by those covering the industry. Of course, The Number has been in horrific decline. Take a look at the State of the News Media circulation chart (a third of the way down a long page) and you can see 15 straight reporting periods in single-digit decline, tracked since 2003. Clearly, circulation is still dropping, though it will take the next six-month comparisons, using these new metrics, to establish new benchmarking.

That’s one of the reasons The Number is gone — optics do count — but more importantly the nature of ad buying has changed dramatically in that same period. Newspaper ad revenues have been halved while online ad revenues will approximate newspaper ad revenues this year or next. While halved to $25 billion annually or so, newspapers, with the new ABCs, have made a directional shift to satisfying those advertisers; recall that even the New York Times, the digital leader with 25 percent of its ad revenues being digital, still depends on the print for three-quarters of its dollars.

So The Number is all but gone. Sure, there’s still “Total Circulation,” and that’s led some to do apples-to-apples comparison to the last set of numbers from last fall. It’s not a fruitful exercise, given the magnitude of the changes.

“ABC and the industry never intended that ‘total circulation’ to be a metric of success,” John Murray, the Newspaper Association of America’s vice president of audience development told me this week.

That’s because there is a now a whole raft of numbers, a new set collected by publishers, verified by ABC and used, over time, quite differently by advertisers. Trying to understand the difference between the old report and the new report is best done either dead sober or after a six-pack; anywhere in between may leave you wanting. I appreciate Poynter’s Rick Edmonds thorough picking through the changes, the new lexicon and taxonomy, and I won’t repeat his observations.

What’s significant to me about the changes are two big things, one theoretical and one practical, and therein, I think, lie the newsonomics of the new ABC report.

The big picture recognition here, as publishers and major advertisers have wrestled the new system to the ground, is that the age of simple mass is gone. Counting is increasingly about niche. How many of the readers are paid readers of print? How many read e-editions, and, of those, how many read replicas and how many read dynamic products? How many readers get free, but requested, packets of news and ads, and how many readers get the packets because they’ve been targeted (affluent households) just because of where they live? And there’s more nuance than that.

Just as the digital marketing world has increasingly provided agencies and advertisers with a trove of audience data, the print world is slowly responding. While advertisers can only track these differing print niches with differing coupon codes, or a spectrum of differing 1-800 call-in numbers, print at least can be niched in some ways, even though it doesn’t offer the intensive harvesting of data that digital does. Of course, the various e-alternatives, from “online” to tablet to smartphone, are offering advertisers the ability to say “I’ll take this, but not that” and to mix and match print and digital buying as never before. While advertisers could do some picking and choosing before, they were often flying blind and these new categories of circulation counting — verified circulation and branded editions to “requested” or “targeted” delivery — give them better data on which to make those choices. Consider the data advertisers get with this first report just the beginning of new sets of metrics to come.

On a practical level, we can see a couple of fundamental ways the new ABCs will impact the marketplace:

  • Sunday and preprints: Sunday Select is the flavor of the age, as companies from Gannett to McClatchy to Belo eagerly make up for declining paid Sunday circulation with packets of news and ads delivered to non-payers. “Paid is no longer the determinant of value,” says Murray — and that’s a huge change for an industry that long differentiated its ad appeal on the basis of paying customers. If readers opt in (“requested”), that’s a big plus for advertisers. Why? That shows “engagement,” that magic word all online publishers seek. Opt-out (or “targeted”) denotes a little lesser value, but since those being targeted are higher-demographic households, advertisers still like to reach them. In the new stats, though, they’ll be able to see how many paid, how many requested and how many targeted editions got distributed on Sunday. Some will try to differentiate results among the three. I asked John Murray where advertisers are at in tracking the differing results among paid, requested, and targeted, on a scale from one to ten. “I’d put them at 2s and 9s,” he told me, explaining with a couple of numbers how much in transition we are. Some — think Best Buy, for instance — are 9s, trying to track and compare everything, including differing print deliveries. Others are 2s, still essentially buying mass, but planning on doing more tracking over time.

Sunday is huge for newspapers, as a third or more of their revenue is driven by that one day. And preprints, or the Sunday circulars — all those glossy colorful ad inserts from the big box stores — are now make or break for that Sunday take. “Media [reading] habits are changing faster than ad habits,” says Randy Novak, a Gatehouse veteran and now vice president of industry research and relations for Geomentum, a local focused ad agency. “People like to touch those preprints.”

Let’s complete the value circle here. Who loves those preprints? Twenty-five to 44-year-old women, says Murray, and they are coveted consumers. Consider Sunday and its preprints to be the biggest raison d’etre of the new ABCs.

Further, add in a Wednesday or a Thursday midweek market day, says Novak, and you’ve got a newer, winning formula. We begin to see further definition of a strategy that is emerging at daily newspaper companies. That strategy: Sunday print/daily digital, especially tablet, as a coming subscription/ad satisfying program coming to a city near you by 2013-14 (“The newsonomics of Sunday paper/daily tablet subscriptions“). Or Sunday/Wednesday print, and the rest digital. We’re headed there, I believe, as the economics of advertising and the emerging reading habits of news readers merge to forge new revenue and cost-saving plans. (One thing to watch closely in the next sets of ABC reports: How well Sunday print paid is doing.)

  • Proving — and disproving — e-edition value: E-replica editions have been used by some papers to artificially pump up those sagging circulation numbers (“How much can we trust e-edition numbers?“). Publishers have told me privately that while they packaged — and counted — those replica products, only a small percentage of readers actively used them. Starting with the ABC fall report, there will be some effort to count usage — a nod to advertisers who figured out the scheme. In addition, we’re already seeing “replica” and “non-replica” parsed out, which should help separate out the e-chaff. More interestingly, as we see increasingly nuanced reporting of specific tablet and smartphone usage, we’ll be getting an emerging picture both of how news is really being read and how marketers can effectively read readers via these new platforms.

Just as we’re moving away from the One Number for print, we’re emerging from a time of counting those rudimentary uniques and pageviews online, with time spent digitally the big issue of the day for all publishers, but especially for those trying to sell those digital subscriptions. Where we may be headed: Time on Brand, as the biggest — and/or best — news brands try to satisfy readers, and bring along marketers to serve them — on a changing-through-day array of devices.

May 27 2010

14:00

The Newsonomics of wilting flowers

[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.]

Ah, the Dream of the Wilting Flowers. Like many web dreams, premature, premature, premature…and then, maybe soon, pop. A sensation, with lots of dollars involved. Our best current example: Steve Jobs’ “invention” of the iPad, which of course was dreamed up in quite similar forms, decades before, in the fancies of Alan Kay and Roger Fidler, among others.

It’s all timing, right?

So it’s a good time to get a sense of what’s happening in local mobile commerce among news companies.

A friend visiting the exhibition hall at the NAA Orlando convention in April told me he’d been besieged by mobile commerce vendors. Then there’s the group (mobile commerce) grope, symbolized by the Groupon craze. Get a whopping good deal — but only if you can get enough of the crowd to go along with it as well. Of course, iAds are on the horizon, with Apple offering a sweet-smelling twist on walled-garden marketing pitches. Google’s AdMob — the leading mobile ad network — just got the thumbs-up from the FTC and has launched AdWhirl, its open-source (take that, Apple) “mediation layer” to facilitate mobile commerce. You can’t stay on top of all the mobile-marketing plays these days, no matter how much you try.

Let’s look at newspaper companies and what they’re doing with mobile commerce. Talk about timing: When Dan Finnigan ran Knight Ridder Digital a decade ago, one of his favorite mantras was the Dream of the Wilting Flowers. As in: It’s 4:30. You’re driving down the street. Your phone knows where you are, of course, and coming up, on the right is a florist…with a perishable commodity, flowers that will be worthless within 24 hours. Your “smart” phone, knowing where you are, who you are, your flower-buying habits, and maybe your spending proclivities, sends you the florist’s coupon for half-off, if you stop by within the half-hour. Satisfied merchant, satisfied customer, a perfecting of supply and demand.

It’s still a great vision, with a new generation chasing it, and getting closer. Talk to newspaper companies, though, and you’ll hear the answer is “we’re not yet there.” Closer, but not quite there.

Bill Ganon sees that wilting-flower dream, but he’s drilling down into something more basic: mobile sales training and the establishment of mobile pricing standards and analytics. Then, maybe by the end of the year, he says, the location-aware capabilities of smartphones may start to smell the daisies.

Ganon is the general manager for local market development for Verve Wireless, and Verve is the newspaper industry’s biggest mobile play. Spurred first by AP investment and partnership in summer 2008, many newspaper companies have turned to Verve for mobile content and, now, ad solutions. Verve now powers more than 400 mobile news sites for newspaper and broadcast companies including MediaNews, Hearst, Belo, McClatchy, Freedom, and Lee.

Verve is making a new ad push, after seeing its first forays fall flat locally. That push is predicated on scale. Its network — the Blackberry has just been added to the iPhone, with Android and iPad applications on the way, says Ganon — has grown dramatically. Year over year, for April, it has grown to 8.9 million uniques (from 2.9) and 130 million page views (from 51 million).

When Ganon — a veteran of old media sales at Newsweek and Sunset, as well as eight years with Qualcomm — took over local sales eight months ago, he found a ragtag group of local mobile efforts. Now, as Ganon describes his work, we can see the emerging newsonomics of local mobile pricing. As the mobile commerce world explodes, Ganon is focusing on the basics. He says Verve can now count 75 local sites beginning to make consistent sales, up from around 20 when he came on board. The basics of the push:

  • Training: Verve’s local market sales team of four is spending lots of time training newspaper and broadcast sales staffs on how to sell mobile. That’s reminiscent of the ongoing training done by Lem Lloyd’s merry band through the Yahoo-powered Newspaper Consortium. (In fact, with all the Yahoo, Verve, and marketing-services training ongoing, I’d wager that newspaper sales people have gotten more training in the last two years than in the previous two decades.) Verve’s training focuses on taking the mystique out of mobile: “Advertisers don’t like stealth solutions. They like to know what’s behind the curtain,” says Ganon.
  • Pricing: Ganon urges a $15 CPM (cost per thousand) floor for selling mobile. With that guideline, he says Verve-powered sites are averaging $19 CPMs, which would be about twice the average of what news sites on getting on the desktop web. Says Ganon: “This is your time to define metrics.” In other words, try to establish a price, not allowing prices to fall to low single digits as inventory is sold by middlemen, as has happened in the main digital business. Right now, most newspaper companies can count no more than five percent of their digital revenue, coming from mobile. Most of that total — maybe $100 million — is going to bigger, national brands like The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. That’s out of maybe $500 million involved in mobile advertising overall in the U.S.
  • The Pizza Sale: Salespeople are being trained to sell the crust (a banner ad), the sauce (a landing page, tailored to action off the ad), and the toppings (call-to-actions, whether “click to call” or map directions). Pricing is still impression-based, though, Verve sees cost-per-click and cost-per-acquisition offers down the road.

What’s apparent is how early we are in local mobile selling — and how far away it is today from adding appreciably to news site revenues. The deals are small, and even the best-performing sites can count no more than 20 advertisers, with most having far fewer on their sites at any one time.

And the Dream of the Wilting Flowers? Ganon says Verve should be able to add in location-aware selling, maybe by the end of the year, but he believes that it “will be a major breakthrough.” So, 2011, maybe. When that breakthrough comes, the big question is who will benefit most: the local newspaper and broadcast companies, or Apple, or Google, or Yahoo, or maybe Verizon or AT&T?

Ask Walter Sanchez, publisher of BQE Media in Brooklyn and Queens and a Verve client, and he’ll tell you it’s an uphill climb. I met Walter at a recent New York Press Association conference, and his marketing efforts were way ahead of the curve, among publishers. He’s busy selling social sites, SEO, SEM, and mobile sites, he’s proud of getting such small businesses as Beach Bum Tanning sold on mobile ($500 a year for a landing page and 3,000 short-text messages). But he’ll tell you that most local merchants are indeed still mystified by the web, and they’re slow adopters: “When those 21-, 22- and 23-year-olds start buying their own businesses, in a few years, then, we’ll see real adoption.”

May 03 2010

14:00

The Newsonomics of reborn newspaper profit

[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.]

The first quarter newspaper numbers are in. They paint a consistent picture.

Across the board, the reporting of public news companies reflects a new, if unsteady reality. In short, that reality is one of profit. Not the big profit of 20-percent-plus profit margins — the envy of many other industries — that were a truism as recently as five years ago. Now, the profit’s more tepid, mostly in single digits: The New York Times, 8 percent; Gannett, 8 percent, McClatchy, 1.5 percent. Expectations run that news companies will show a five to 10 percent profit for the year, absent unforeseen calamity.

But that mild profit is good news. Recall that a year ago, much of the industry was in freefall. A number of companies — stunned by the quick near-Depression downturn of ad revenues — went operationally into the red. They responded with draconian cuts in staff and newsprint, and as the recovery has emerged, they’ve positioned themselves as smaller but profitable companies, though their first-quarter revenues still largely lagged the first quarter of the horrific Q1 2009. Wall Street has rewarded them with improved credit ratings and advanced share prices. There seems to be, say investors, some future here. This week’s tenacious auction in Philadelphia with lenders led by the Angelo Gordon private equity company — now a big player in the U.S. daily business — winning the papers with a $135 million bid only reinforces the notion that newspaper valuation may have been trashed too much.

It’s a fragile stability. One big question for all publishers: where do we go from here?

Here the newsonomics are constrained. While Google is off buying a company a month and Apple charts its own strong growth path, most newspaper companies have little room to maneuver. Sure, the private Hearsts — a diversified media company with newspaper interests — can invest in new companies and technologies, but for publicly owned newspaper companies, it’s a different story.

First off, their meager profits are uncertain. They then face three ways to use those profits. The three:

  • Debt reduction: Debt has been the anchor around many newspaper companies’ necks, as those that borrowed to complete acquisitions reeled as the business changed and then the economy tanked. Thirteen newspaper companies have declared bankruptcy, with that clean-up continuing. Yes, they’ve discharged a lot of debt (Alan Mutter tracks the $1.9 billion discharged in just four of the bankruptcies), but almost everyone — those now out of bankruptcy and those that avoided it — still has debt service to bear. In most cases, it is reduced, given either bankruptcy or workouts with lenders, which extended payments. Debt reduction remains not only a necessity, but a strategic goal. In most quarterly reports, news company CEOs trumpet their abilities to reduce debt, a sign of their revitalization — and an indication they hope to have more maneuvering room in the future. New York Times Co. on its 1Q debt picture: “The Company continues to improve its liquidity, reducing its debt, net of cash and cash equivalents by approximately one third to $671 million from its balance at the beginning of 2009. The majority of the Company’s debt matures in 2015 or later.” Over at Gannett, CEO Craig Dubow made a prominent point of his company’s recent $260 million quarterly debt reduction. Much of McClatchy’s first quarter statement focused on debt reduction and its refinancing.
  • Product investment: Publishers don’t have to look much beyond their own recent FAS-FAX circulation numbers — another 8.7-percent daily decline — or their talks with community members. They realize their major cuts in staff and product has diminished their business prospects; they’ve cut into bone, in parlance you often hear. A few companies, including Belo and MediaNews, have cautiously added back a little staff here, a little newshole there. They’d like to invest more in product, but agreements with lenders and their own sense of how fragile the newspaper recovery is holds them back.
  • Profit improvement: These are, after all, public, for-profit companies. Investors of all kinds expect them to grow their profits, after re-establishing the stability of them.

To put it simply, at this point, there’s not enough profit to satisfy all three goals. So, in 2010 — a year crying out for investment in innovative mobile media product creation and marketing services/advertising infrastructure build-out — news companies have far fewer resources than they’d like and they need. While once they were the big guys, looking at buying startups, for now, they’re largely on the sidelines, marveling at the mojo, the profits, and the acquisitions of the Googles and the Apples.

January 06 2010

15:00

Eric Newton: Shame on us if we don’t take the steps needed to feed knowledge to our democracy

[In October, the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy issued its report on how our media need to evolve to serve the public interest in the digital age. The effort included some big names: Google's Marissa Mayer, former solicitor general Ted Olson, ex-L.A. Times editor John Carroll, former FCC chairman Reed Hundt, and new media researcher danah boyd among them. Here our friend Eric Newton of the Knight Foundation explains how the report fits in a tradition of media self-examination and issues a call to action. —Josh]

Way back in the age of paper, in 1986, professor James Beniger, then at Harvard, produced a useful chart on the civilian labor force of the United States. It showed how the bulk of American workers had moved during the past two centuries from working in agriculture to industry to service, and now, to information. Point being: the digital age didn’t just sneak up on us. It’s been a long, slow evolution. So shame on us for not changing our rules and laws and institutions for this new age.

We were well warned. Just after World War II, the Hutchins Commission said that traditional media could do much better: they should take on the social responsibility of providing the news “in a context that gives it meaning.” In the 1960s, the Kerner Commission said mainstream media wasn’t diverse enough to properly tell the story of this changing nation. Same decade: the Carnegie Commission said the status quo was simply not working, that public broadcasting must be created to fill the gap.

After that, a stream of reports — from the University of Pennsylvania, from Columbia University and others — agreed and repeated the same three fundamental findings:

— Hutchins: Our news systems are not good enough,

— Kerner: They don’t engage everyone,

— Carnegie: We need alternatives.

Here comes digital media, and — boom! — an explosion of alternatives. And we’re all — shocked? Apparently. So let’s try it again. This time, the big report comes from the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, prepared by the Aspen Institute with a grant from Knight Foundation, where I work.

A new examination of a familiar problem

Why a new commission? We are now deep into the second decade of the World Wide Web. It was our hope that when our leaders were finally ready to change things, they would consider a new perspective. Hutchins, Kerner and Carnegie and the others focused on what should be done to improve, diversify, add to — and nowadays the talk is to save — traditional media.

The Knight Commission started with communities, by visiting them and hearing from their residents. News and information, the commission says, are as important to communities as good schools, safe streets or clean air. Journalism, it says, does not need saving so much as it needs creating.

As a former newspaper editor, that last point seems pretty important to me. Of the nation’s 30,000 burgs, towns, suburbs and cities, how many are thoroughly covered by the current news system? Ten percent? Five? Less? We’re talking about knowing how to get, sometimes for the first time, the news and information we need to run our communities and live our lives.

Is the Knight Commission making a difference? We hope so. The Federal Communications Commission has hired Internet expert Steve Waldman to study the agency, top to bottom, thinking of reforms with Knight’s 15 recommendations in mind. Free Press, the nation’s largest grassroots media policy group, embraced the report, especially its call for universal affordable broadband. Ernie Wilson, dean of USC’s Annenberg School and chair of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, announced he is boosting innovation in public media. CPB backed NPR’s Project Argo in a partnership with Knight Foundation.

Community lawmakers are agreeing with commissioner and former FCC chair Michael Powell’s points about “information healthy communities,” about the role of open government and public web sites in local information flow. Commissioner Reed Hundt, also a former FCC chair, presented the Knight findings to the Federal Trade Commission.

Librarians across the country are pushing the role they can play as digital training and access centers. In addition to its dozens of media innovation grants, Knight Foundation itself took the commission’s advice: it has made more than $5 million in grants to libraries.

Taking the next steps

Now what? The policy work needs to come down to the detail level. Steve Coll and New America Foundation are among those thinking about that. How can we really spur more marketplace innovation? How can government rules and laws make it easier for newspapers to be nonprofits, treat student and nonprofit journalists equally, require the teaching of news literacy?

The hard part is ahead of us: that is, involving every aspect of our communities in this issue, governments, nonprofits, traditional media, schools, universities, libraries, churches, social groups — and, especially, citizens themselves. How do you do that? How do you make “news and information” everyone’s issue? It’s a tall order, perhaps the most difficult thing of all.

Universities could help here. Nearly two thirds of the nation’s high school graduates at least start out in a college or university of some kind. These institutions could make news literacy courses mandatory for incoming students. Understanding and being able to navigate the exploding world of news and information is as fundamental to the college students of our nation as knowing English. Stony Brook has already been paving that path. There, nearly 5,000 students have taken news literacy under the first university-wide course of its kind.

Colleges could set an example for the rest of our institutions. We are, after all, at the dawn of a new age. Who a journalist is, what a story is, what medium works, and how to manage the new interactive relationship with the people formerly known as the audience — all of these are changing as we speak. The complete metamorphosis of how a society connects the data and events of daily life to the issues and ideas that can better its life — would seem to be something colleges should want all of its students to think about.

This is hardly a short-term project. It took more than 200 years for America to change from a country where most people work growing food to one where most people work growing information. It will take time for the wholesale rewriting of America’s media policies, not to mention getting up the guts to spend the trillion dollars or more needed to remake our access to high speed digital systems and ability to use them.

Yet all of this is needed for America to become an information-healthy nation. A nation without universal, affordable broadband is like a nation without highways and railroads. We would be stuck on the surface streets of the new economy, tracing our fall from a global force to a secondary society.

More than 70 years after Hutchins, the basic story is still the same. The country’s news and information systems still aren’t good enough, still don’t engage everyone and still invite alternatives. It’s time to start doing something about this issue. Our rules, the laws, the policies — even the high school and college classes we teach — these things matter to how the news ecosystem in any given community is shaped. They can speed innovation or stunt it. So pick a recommendation — the Knight Commission lists 15 — and have at it.

[Disclosure: The Knight Foundation is a supporter of the Lab.]

January 04 2010

18:00

What opportunities are there in broadcast for nonprofit news?

The AP’s Andrew Vanacore had an easily digestible story over the holidays about the problems about to befall nation’s local TV stations — and how they could spell the end of “free” TV.

Turns out, the nation’s big four TV networks are pondering ways that they can cut local affiliates out of the revenue stream by selling their signal directly to cable TV providers. Vanacore writes:

Pay-TV providers are paying the networks only for the stations the networks own. That amounts to a little less than a third of the TV audience, which means local affiliates recoup two-thirds of the fees. If a network operated purely as a cable channel and cut the affiliates out, the network could get the fees for the entire pay-TV audience.

He goes on to say: “If forced to go independent, affiliates would have to air their own programming, including local news and syndicated shows.” But I’m not so sure about the news part. Given a choice between paying the cost of producing local news and airing another segment of “Wheel of Fortune,” I don’t think there’s any doubt that they’ll do what they need to stay afloat.

The forces undermining the local broadcast model are different than those that are pummeling the newspaper advertising-and-subscription model; the relationships among networks, stations, cable companies and advertisers aren’t as easily disrupted by the Internet. But the bottom line for local civic affairs coverage is pretty much the same: The local news that broadcasters have provided as a public service — though arguably not in the same depth as newspapers — is going to get cut back even more. Call it the legacy media flu; there’s no cure except to lower expectations.

So what to do? In the world of words, nonprofits have emerged to help fill the void, and they have been particularly successful at the local and regional level, as reported earlier this month.

This is where I leave my comfort zone, as I have no professional experience in the broadcast arena. But it seems to me that there is a natural opportunity for nonprofits to help fill the void in broadcast as well by shouldering some of the cost of producing local TV news. At the same time, local stations would do well to seek out and nurture these relationships.

It’s already happening at some local stations. On Dec. 18, KHOU in Houston aired a segment about members of Congress taking trips at the expense of interest groups. The report was based almost entirely on reporting by Andrew Kreighbaum of The Texas Tribune, the new nonprofit based in Austin. The only significant cost to KHOU (owned by Belo Corp.) was the time it took to interview Kreighbaum and have its own reporter do a voice-over.

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