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August 16 2012

08:27

Hyperlocal Voices: Matt Brown, Londonist

The fifth in our new series of Hyperlocal Voices explores the work done by the team behind the Londonist. Despite having a large geographic footprint – Londonist covers the whole of Greater London - the site is full of ultra-local content, as well as featuring stories and themes which span the whole of the capital.

Run by two members of staff and a raft of volunteers, Editor Matt Brown gave Damian Radcliffe an insight into the breadth and depth of the site.

1. Who were the people behind the blog?

Everyone in London! We’re a very open site, involving our readers in the creation of many articles, especially the imagery. But more prosaically, we have an editorial team of 5 or 6 people, plus another 20 or so regular contributors. I act as the main content editor for the site.

We’re more than a website, though, with a weekly podcast (Londonist Out Loud, ably presented and produced by N Quentin Woolf), a separate Facebook presence, a daily e-newsletter, 80,000 Twitter followers, the largest FourSquare following in London (I think), a Flickr pool with 200,000 images, several e-books, occasional exhibitions and live events every few weeks. The web site is just one facet of what we do.

2. What made you decide to set up the blog?

I actually inherited it off someone else, but it was originally set up as a London equivalent of certain sites in the US like Gothamist and Chicagoist, which were riding the early blogging wave, providing news and event tips for citizens. There was nothing quite like it in London, so my predecessor wanted to jump into the gap and have some fun.

3. When did you set up the blog and how did you go about it?

It dates back to 2004, when it was originally called the Big Smoker. Before too long, it joined the Gothamist network, changing its name to Londonist.

We now operate independently of that network, but retain the name. It was originally set up in Movable Type publishing platform, but we moved to WordPress a couple of years ago.

4. What other blogs, bloggers or websites influenced you?

Obviously, the Gothamist sites originally. But we’re now more influenced by the wonderful ecosystem of London blogs out there, all offering their own take on life in the capital.

The best include Diamond Geezer (an incisive and often acerbic look at London), Ian Visits (a mix of unusual site visits and geeky observation) and Spitalfields Life (a daily interview with a local character). These are just three of the dozens of excellent London sites in my RSS reader.

5. How did – and do – you see yourself in relation to a traditional news operation?

Complementary rather than competitors. We cover three or four news stories a day, sometimes journalistically, but our forte in this area is more in commentary, features and reader involvement around the news.

And news is just a small part of what we do — most of the site is event recommendation, unusual historical insights, street art, food and drink, theatre reviews and the like. As an example of our diversity, a few months back we ran a 3,000-word essay on the construction of Hammersmith flyover by an engineering PhD candidate, and the very next item was about a beauty pageant for chubby people in Vauxhall.

6. What have been the key moments in the blog’s development editorially?

I think most of these would be technologically driven. For example, when Google mapping became possible, our free wifi hotspots and V2 rocket maps greatly increased site traffic.

Once Twitter reached critical mass we were able to reach out to tens of thousands of people, both for sourcing information for articles and pushing our finished content.

The other big thing was turning the site into a business a couple of years ago, so we were able to bring a little bit of money in to reinvest in the site. The extra editorial time the money pays for means our output is now bigger and better.

7. What sort of traffic do you get and how has that changed over time?

We’re now seeing about 1.4 million page views a month. It’s pretty much doubling year on year.

8. What is / has been your biggest challenge to date?

Transforming from an amateur site into a business.

We started taking different types of advertising, including advertorial content, and had to make sure we didn’t alienate our readers. It was a tricky tightrope, but I’d hope we’ve done a fairly good job of selecting paid-for content only if it’s of interest to a meaningful portion of our readers, and then making sure we’re open and clear about what is sponsored content and what is editorially driven.

9. What story, feature or series are you most proud of? 

I’m rather enjoying our A-Z pubcrawl at the moment, and not just because of the booze.

Basically, we pick an area of town each month beginning with the next letter of the alphabet (so, Angel, Brixton, City, Dalston, etc.). We then ask our readers to nominate their favourite pubs and bars in the area, via Twitter, Facebook or comments.

We then build a Google map of all the suggestions and arrange a pub crawl around the top 4.

Everyone’s a winner because (a) we get a Google-friendly article called, for example, ‘What’s the best pub in Farringdon?‘, with a map of all the suggestions; (b) we get the chance to use our strong social media channels to involve a large number of people – hundreds of votes every time; (c) the chance to meet some of our readers, who are invited along on the pub crawl, and who get a Londonistbooze badge as a memento; (d) a really fun night out round some very good pubs.

The next part (G for Greenwich) will be announced in early September.

10. What are your plans for the future?

We’re playing around with ebooks at the moment, as a way to sustain the business directly through content. We’ve published a book of London pub crawls (spotting a theme here?), and a history of the London Olympics by noted London author David Long. Our next ebook will be a collection of quiz questions about the capital, drawn from the numerous pub quizzes we’ve ran over the years.

Basically, we’re looking to be the best organisation for finding out about London in any and every medium we can get our hands on.

08:27

Hyperlocal Voices: Matt Brown, Londonist

The fifth in our new series of Hyperlocal Voices explores the work done by the team behind the Londonist. Despite having a large geographic footprint – Londonist covers the whole of Greater London - the site is full of ultra-local content, as well as featuring stories and themes which span the whole of the capital.

Run by two members of staff and a raft of volunteers, Editor Matt Brown gave Damian Radcliffe an insight into the breadth and depth of the site.

1. Who were the people behind the blog?

Everyone in London! We’re a very open site, involving our readers in the creation of many articles, especially the imagery. But more prosaically, we have an editorial team of 5 or 6 people, plus another 20 or so regular contributors. I act as the main content editor for the site.

We’re more than a website, though, with a weekly podcast (Londonist Out Loud, ably presented and produced by N Quentin Woolf), a separate Facebook presence, a daily e-newsletter, 80,000 Twitter followers, the largest FourSquare following in London (I think), a Flickr pool with 200,000 images, several e-books, occasional exhibitions and live events every few weeks. The web site is just one facet of what we do.

2. What made you decide to set up the blog?

I actually inherited it off someone else, but it was originally set up as a London equivalent of certain sites in the US like Gothamist and Chicagoist, which were riding the early blogging wave, providing news and event tips for citizens. There was nothing quite like it in London, so my predecessor wanted to jump into the gap and have some fun.

3. When did you set up the blog and how did you go about it?

It dates back to 2004, when it was originally called the Big Smoker. Before too long, it joined the Gothamist network, changing its name to Londonist.

We now operate independently of that network, but retain the name. It was originally set up in Movable Type publishing platform, but we moved to WordPress a couple of years ago.

4. What other blogs, bloggers or websites influenced you?

Obviously, the Gothamist sites originally. But we’re now more influenced by the wonderful ecosystem of London blogs out there, all offering their own take on life in the capital.

The best include Diamond Geezer (an incisive and often acerbic look at London), Ian Visits (a mix of unusual site visits and geeky observation) and Spitalfields Life (a daily interview with a local character). These are just three of the dozens of excellent London sites in my RSS reader.

5. How did – and do – you see yourself in relation to a traditional news operation?

Complementary rather than competitors. We cover three or four news stories a day, sometimes journalistically, but our forte in this area is more in commentary, features and reader involvement around the news.

And news is just a small part of what we do — most of the site is event recommendation, unusual historical insights, street art, food and drink, theatre reviews and the like. As an example of our diversity, a few months back we ran a 3,000-word essay on the construction of Hammersmith flyover by an engineering PhD candidate, and the very next item was about a beauty pageant for chubby people in Vauxhall.

6. What have been the key moments in the blog’s development editorially?

I think most of these would be technologically driven. For example, when Google mapping became possible, our free wifi hotspots and V2 rocket maps greatly increased site traffic.

Once Twitter reached critical mass we were able to reach out to tens of thousands of people, both for sourcing information for articles and pushing our finished content.

The other big thing was turning the site into a business a couple of years ago, so we were able to bring a little bit of money in to reinvest in the site. The extra editorial time the money pays for means our output is now bigger and better.

7. What sort of traffic do you get and how has that changed over time?

We’re now seeing about 1.4 million page views a month. It’s pretty much doubling year on year.

8. What is / has been your biggest challenge to date?

Transforming from an amateur site into a business.

We started taking different types of advertising, including advertorial content, and had to make sure we didn’t alienate our readers. It was a tricky tightrope, but I’d hope we’ve done a fairly good job of selecting paid-for content only if it’s of interest to a meaningful portion of our readers, and then making sure we’re open and clear about what is sponsored content and what is editorially driven.

9. What story, feature or series are you most proud of? 

I’m rather enjoying our A-Z pubcrawl at the moment, and not just because of the booze.

Basically, we pick an area of town each month beginning with the next letter of the alphabet (so, Angel, Brixton, City, Dalston, etc.). We then ask our readers to nominate their favourite pubs and bars in the area, via Twitter, Facebook or comments.

We then build a Google map of all the suggestions and arrange a pub crawl around the top 4.

Everyone’s a winner because (a) we get a Google-friendly article called, for example, ‘What’s the best pub in Farringdon?‘, with a map of all the suggestions; (b) we get the chance to use our strong social media channels to involve a large number of people – hundreds of votes every time; (c) the chance to meet some of our readers, who are invited along on the pub crawl, and who get a Londonistbooze badge as a memento; (d) a really fun night out round some very good pubs.

The next part (G for Greenwich) will be announced in early September.

10. What are your plans for the future?

We’re playing around with ebooks at the moment, as a way to sustain the business directly through content. We’ve published a book of London pub crawls (spotting a theme here?), and a history of the London Olympics by noted London author David Long. Our next ebook will be a collection of quiz questions about the capital, drawn from the numerous pub quizzes we’ve ran over the years.

Basically, we’re looking to be the best organisation for finding out about London in any and every medium we can get our hands on.

July 25 2012

09:16

Hyperlocal Voices: Richard Gurner, Caerphilly Observer

For the fourth in our new series of Hyperlocal Voices we head back to Wales. Launched by Richard Gurner in July 2009, the Caerphilly Observer acts as a local news and information website for Caerphilly County Borough.

The site is one of a small, but growing, number of financially viable hyperlocal websites. Richard, who remains the Editor of the site, told Damian Radcliffe a little bit about his journey over the last three years.

 

1.  Who were the people behind the blog?

People tend to be a bit surprised when I reveal that it’s only me behind Caerphilly Observer. We do have guest bloggers (local politicians and business leaders) and we have some sports reports sent in from local teams, but apart from that I do most of the editorial on the site and our weekly newsletter.

2.  What made you decide to set up the blog?

Believe it or not, I originally set up Caerphilly Observer while I was living in Brighton – some 200 miles away from the area.

I was working for daily newspaper The Argus at the time as a reporter and simply wanted to keep up with what was going on back home. I also wanted to improve my digital skills and thought setting up a news website would kill two birds with one stone.

It has always been a dream of mine to own a newspaper and I thought that if the website took off with the readers, then maybe one day I could do it as a full-time job. I never thought that would become a reality until it happened in August 2011.

3.  When did you set up the blog and how did you go about it?

With the intention of this maybe becoming a business one day, I purposely set about choosing a name with a “newspaper” feel. If the website was to be taken seriously then it needed to have a strong brand. After several alternatives, Caerphilly Observer was finally chosen by my wife.

I registered the domain name and went about setting-up a self-hosted WordPress site. With next to no technical knowledge of DNS, PHP, Apache and loads of other things that sounded like they were from Star Trek, I ploughed on.

The learning curve has been steep – especially with implementing a custom WordPress theme – but the knowledge gained has been immensely valuable.

I’m very much a hands-on learning person, so I know a lot of it has stuck and it won’t be forgotten.

4.  What other blogs, bloggers or websites influenced you?

I drew a lot of inspiration from several news websites, in not what to do, and loads of other blogs in what to do correctly.

Lichfield Live (Or Lichfield Blog as it was then called) was a big inspiration as was Bristol 24/7.

5.  How did – and do – you see yourself in relation to a traditional news operation?

I definitely see Caerphilly Observer as part of the local media and I’m very pleased to say the community we cover also sees us in the same light.

Quite often people mistake us for a newspaper and think we’re bigger and more established than we actually are – not a bad thing. Obviously, I can’t cover everything and there have been court cases I would have loved to have covered but couldn’t. I used to beat myself up about not being everywhere but more recently I’ve come to terms with the fact that it’s me against the big media trying to create something sustainable.

There are other aspects of the site that equally need taking care of such as business admin and the small matter of selling advertising to fund what I do.

6.  What have been the key moments in the blog’s development editorially?

You know you’re being taken seriously when people contact you to complain. I won’t go into specifics but during last year’s Welsh Assembly elections we were threatened with legal action. We eventually sorted it out without the need for solicitors but it did go to show that we had arrived. If we were irrelevant then I wouldn’t have had that phone call.

7.  What sort of traffic do you get and how has that changed over time?

Our monthly average over the last six months (Jan 2012 to June 2012) is 37,000 page impressions and 13,340 unique visitors. That’s roughly double to what we did in the first half of 2011.

8.  What has been your biggest challenge to date?

Creating revenue is an absolute huge challenge and fundamental to the sustainable future of Caerphilly Observer.

One of our selling points is that we’re local and independent, but if we’re not getting the numbers for local businesses to themselves get business, they’re not going to advertise and we’re not going to make any money.

Paid-for editorial spots and display advertising make up the bulk of my income, but I still do freelance copywriting and journalism to create my wage. It’s nowhere near where it was when I was working for a big media company but the difference is I’m doing what I think serves our readers and advertisers the best. There is also an unrivalled sense of job satisfaction.

Many in hyperlocal circles and the wider media industry state that creating a paying website is impossible – I love proving them wrong.

9.  What story, feature or series are you most proud of?

Without doubt it was our liveblog during the local election count in May this year. It was a fantastic night grabbing interviews and updating the website and we had a record number of visitors and page views for a single day.

The reaction from and interaction with our readers was what kept me going into the small hours.

10.  What are your plans for the future?

To keep growing. I want to have at least one other member of staff and an office in Caerphilly town centre, but that will take a lot of hard work and dedication.

Most of all, I want Caerphilly Observer to be the primary source for local news in the area and have the mind and market share in the local community that traditional media has.

09:16

Hyperlocal Voices: Richard Gurner, Caerphilly Observer

For the fourth in our new series of Hyperlocal Voices we head back to Wales. Launched by Richard Gurner in July 2009, the Caerphilly Observer acts as a local news and information website for Caerphilly County Borough.

The site is one of a small, but growing, number of financially viable hyperlocal websites. Richard, who remains the Editor of the site, told Damian Radcliffe a little bit about his journey over the last three years.

 

1.  Who were the people behind the blog?

People tend to be a bit surprised when I reveal that it’s only me behind Caerphilly Observer. We do have guest bloggers (local politicians and business leaders) and we have some sports reports sent in from local teams, but apart from that I do most of the editorial on the site and our weekly newsletter.

2.  What made you decide to set up the blog?

Believe it or not, I originally set up Caerphilly Observer while I was living in Brighton – some 200 miles away from the area.

I was working for daily newspaper The Argus at the time as a reporter and simply wanted to keep up with what was going on back home. I also wanted to improve my digital skills and thought setting up a news website would kill two birds with one stone.

It has always been a dream of mine to own a newspaper and I thought that if the website took off with the readers, then maybe one day I could do it as a full-time job. I never thought that would become a reality until it happened in August 2011.

3.  When did you set up the blog and how did you go about it?

With the intention of this maybe becoming a business one day, I purposely set about choosing a name with a “newspaper” feel. If the website was to be taken seriously then it needed to have a strong brand. After several alternatives, Caerphilly Observer was finally chosen by my wife.

I registered the domain name and went about setting-up a self-hosted WordPress site. With next to no technical knowledge of DNS, PHP, Apache and loads of other things that sounded like they were from Star Trek, I ploughed on.

The learning curve has been steep – especially with implementing a custom WordPress theme – but the knowledge gained has been immensely valuable.

I’m very much a hands-on learning person, so I know a lot of it has stuck and it won’t be forgotten.

4.  What other blogs, bloggers or websites influenced you?

I drew a lot of inspiration from several news websites, in not what to do, and loads of other blogs in what to do correctly.

Lichfield Live (Or Lichfield Blog as it was then called) was a big inspiration as was Bristol 24/7.

5.  How did – and do – you see yourself in relation to a traditional news operation?

I definitely see Caerphilly Observer as part of the local media and I’m very pleased to say the community we cover also sees us in the same light.

Quite often people mistake us for a newspaper and think we’re bigger and more established than we actually are – not a bad thing. Obviously, I can’t cover everything and there have been court cases I would have loved to have covered but couldn’t. I used to beat myself up about not being everywhere but more recently I’ve come to terms with the fact that it’s me against the big media trying to create something sustainable.

There are other aspects of the site that equally need taking care of such as business admin and the small matter of selling advertising to fund what I do.

6.  What have been the key moments in the blog’s development editorially?

You know you’re being taken seriously when people contact you to complain. I won’t go into specifics but during last year’s Welsh Assembly elections we were threatened with legal action. We eventually sorted it out without the need for solicitors but it did go to show that we had arrived. If we were irrelevant then I wouldn’t have had that phone call.

7.  What sort of traffic do you get and how has that changed over time?

Our monthly average over the last six months (Jan 2012 to June 2012) is 37,000 page impressions and 13,340 unique visitors. That’s roughly double to what we did in the first half of 2011.

8.  What has been your biggest challenge to date?

Creating revenue is an absolute huge challenge and fundamental to the sustainable future of Caerphilly Observer.

One of our selling points is that we’re local and independent, but if we’re not getting the numbers for local businesses to themselves get business, they’re not going to advertise and we’re not going to make any money.

Paid-for editorial spots and display advertising make up the bulk of my income, but I still do freelance copywriting and journalism to create my wage. It’s nowhere near where it was when I was working for a big media company but the difference is I’m doing what I think serves our readers and advertisers the best. There is also an unrivalled sense of job satisfaction.

Many in hyperlocal circles and the wider media industry state that creating a paying website is impossible – I love proving them wrong.

9.  What story, feature or series are you most proud of?

Without doubt it was our liveblog during the local election count in May this year. It was a fantastic night grabbing interviews and updating the website and we had a record number of visitors and page views for a single day.

The reaction from and interaction with our readers was what kept me going into the small hours.

10.  What are your plans for the future?

To keep growing. I want to have at least one other member of staff and an office in Caerphilly town centre, but that will take a lot of hard work and dedication.

Most of all, I want Caerphilly Observer to be the primary source for local news in the area and have the mind and market share in the local community that traditional media has.

July 25 2011

16:00

For the Texas Tribune, “events are journalism” — and money makers

Texas Tribune Festival logo

When Evan Smith helped launch the nonprofit Texas Tribune in 2009, he set out to get people engaged in their government again, especially in places where newspaper coverage has dwindled. The Tribune introduced blogs, multimedia, troves of government data, and something old-fashioned for an online news startup: face-to-face conversations.

The Tribune has hosted more than 60 public events — all free — attracting top influencers, big audiences, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in corporate sponsorships. Now the Tribune is blowing up the event and throwing The Texas Tribune Festival, a weekend of ideas for policy wonks, lobbyists, and anyone else invested enough in local government to pay $125 for a ticket.

“Events are journalism — events are content. And in this new world, content comes to you and you create it in many forms,” says Smith, the Tribune’s chief editor and chief executive.

One goal: to combat low levels of public engagement on a lot of the issues the event will address. “We think much of the technology world embraces ‘push’ as opposed to ‘pull’ as a way to reach people,” Smith says. “We are taking a ‘push’ approach to content, and that means going to people with content where they live.”

The speaker list includes top names in the universe of Texas politics: energy tycoon T. Boone Pickins, former U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro. And the topics covered are also the Tribune’s core coverage areas: health and human services, energy and the environment, public and higher education, and race and immigration.

Evan Smith

If that all sounds familiar, it’s because the idea is modeled on the New Yorker Festival. In 2009, Smith hired the person who created that festival, Tanya Erlach, the former senior talent manager for The New Yorker. (“She’s not reinventing the wheel; this is her wheel,” Smith says.) Erlach handles everything from programming to logistics.

Smith is the first to admit that events don’t only produce journalism. They also produce revenue. And even the free events, including the TribLive speaker series, have been money-makers. They are cheap to produce, for one thing, and often underwritten by corporate sponsors. Smith estimates the Tribune raised about $650,000 in corporate support last year, which includes events. He expects to raise $1.3 million this year. While major gifts from philanthropists represented almost all of the Tribune’s revenue in 2009, Smith expects more financial diversity in 2011, with income from philanthropy, corporations, and events evenly split. Altogether, the Tribune has raised $9.3 million in barely two years — far more than like-minded nonprofit startups elsewhere.

“A lot of better established nonprofit news organizations — and I’m not counting the public broadcasting TV and radio stations but the sites that are similar to ours, ones that have been in existence longer — really have not approached the task of soliciting corporate support, underwriting, and sponsorships. We’ve just not seen other folks approach this, and they started to call us and ask us and our folks, you know, ‘How are you doing this?’”

If journalism is to survive, Smith says, business must be in the DNA. It’s in the Tribune’s DNA. Another Tribune co-founder was a venture capitalist, John Thornton, who initially raised $4 million in startup funding, including $1 million of his own cash and a large grant from the Knight Foundation. While Smith does not handle fundraising, he does reach out to executives personally to solicit their support.

Is Smith sheepish about that? “Hell, no.” Is there a conflict of interest? “Our only bias is in favor of Texas.” Public radio and television, he points out, rely heavily on corporate underwriting. The Tribune is neither paying people to speak at the festival nor covering their expenses. And the only reward for a corporate sponsorship is “a handshake and a tax letter,” he says.

“The work we do is important. And it needs to be paid for,” Smith explains. “There are appropriate sources of revenue out there. There is nothing to be ashamed of when putting a ‘for sale’ sign on as much stuff as possible, provided that it doesn’t have a negative impact on the work that you do or doesn’t create a negative perception of your integrity.”

Besides the financial value of the Tribune’s events, Smith says, there’s also value in the B word — you know, the word that tends to be uncomfortable in journalism circles. “Just as some other organizations may shrink from associating with corporate interests, there are some organizations, I suspect…that don’t fully appreciate the value of branding,” he says. A big festival is a platform for the Tribune to present itself as a grown-up operation, to build credibility and attract new readers.

Tickets went on sale July 11, with a discount for Texas Tribune contributors. Smith is working out a deal with sponsors to make admission free for college students.

July 05 2011

14:00

Exit music: David Cho on leaving The Awl, joining Grantland, and building a business from high-quality writing

The world of online publishing, or at least upstart online publishing, got a surprise on Wednesday when David Cho, publisher of The Awl, announced he was leaving the 2-year-old site he founded with Choire Sicha and Alex Balk. He’s packing his bags (literally) and heading west to join Bill Simmons and Team Grantland, where he’ll be director of business development.

We (probably like a good number of you) are fans of The Awl here at The Lab, and have been following its growth from “scrappy” three-man circus to money-making writing franchise, complete with its own spinoffs: Splitsider and The Hairpin.

I reached out to Cho, busy in the dreadful/necessary task of packing, to talk about his time with The Awl, connecting with audiences, and the new economics of writing online.

“The Awl as it stands is a very good business. The goal in the next two years is to make it a great business,” Cho told me.

If past success is any measure, The Awl will make good on that, with the three sites combined reaching 2 million monthly unique visitors, Cho said, with annual revenue for 2010 reportedly over $200,000. Those figures are what Cho thinks bodes well for the future of The Awl family. It’s not just 2 million passersby, it’s people who regularly visit the site, read stories, and click to others, people who comment and want to contribute their own writing. That’s the sites’ measure of success, he said.

So if everything’s (and everyone’s) clicking, why’s he leaving? The opportunity at Grantland, Cho said, was too good to pass up. And The Awl, he thinks, will thrive without him. Cho describes it like this: “If I thought The Awl would be hampered in any way, I wouldn’t have left. I couldn’t have left,” he said. “I compare it to raising a child. You’re not going to leave your child in the hands of people you don’t trust to raise them.”

It’s a bit like Three Men and a Baby, yes, but understandable. But from the beginning, the strategy for The Awl, and later for its associated sites, was to create good content and trust that people would come to it. Cho goes further, though, saying that The Awl wanted to cultivate a particular audience, one with a taste for a certain kind of writing. It created a destination, Cho said, for writers who are passionate about certain subjects and have an enthusiasm for connecting with people on the same wavelength.

“I think the mission statement for The Awl — and it evolved as the business did — the mission statement of The Awl was: How can we best help writers monetize content?” he said.

They’ve put that plan on wheels, too, generating revenue through display ads and smart partnerships with companies like Gillette and Dockers. (Deals that, Cho says, make sense: Sicha’s posts on dressing well — which could seem like a too-neat bit of brand-blurring synergy — would have run either way. “We would have done that no matter what, it just so happens we have brands that align with that,” he said.) As a result, starting in January, they begin profit-sharing with contributors, which, while the money isn’t a lot, is a start, Cho said.

Of course the other, perhaps unofficial path to compensation for Awl writers is the book deal: Count contributors Chris Lehmann and Natasha Vargas-Cooper down in that camp.

All of this — and the fact that it’s all in the capable hands of Sicha and Balk (who Cho calls “champions of writers and writing”), as well as Splitsider’s Adam Frucci and The Hairpin’s Edith Zimmerman — are reasons why Cho is betting on The Awl’s continued success. The plan, at least as he describes it, seems simple: “Finding people who you work with who understand the audience or are passionate about the audience or passionate about a subject. That, more than anything, has helped [The Awl],” Cho said. “At the end of the day, it’s a writer’s website.”

And that makes leaving all the more bittersweet. “All the hard stuff has been done now,” Cho said. “I told the guy coming in now, ‘I did all the heavy lifting, and you get to have fun!’”

That’s not to say he isn’t thrilled to be jumping onboard one of the most-watched journalism start-ups (as much as you can call a project with ESPN dollars behind it a start-up). Both Grantland and The Awl, though different in size, share a similar ethos that Cho admires.

“I wouldn’t want to work somewhere where I didn’t believe in the product itself,” Cho said. “I think Grantland has great writing, I think The Awl has great writing, and there’s a lot of sites on the Internet that can’t say that.”

May 13 2011

14:00

This Week in Review: New business models and traffic drivers in online news, and wrangling over app ads

Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week’s top stories about the future of news.

Leaving the old ad model behind: Much of the commentary about digital news this week was generated by two big reports, one on the business of digital journalism and the other on its consumption. We’ll start on the business side, with the Columbia j-school’s study on what we know so far about the viability of various digital journalism business models. As Poynter’s Bill Mitchell suggested, the best entry point into the 146-page report might be the nine recommendations that form its conclusion.

Mitchell summed the report up in three themes: The audience for journalism is growing, though translating that into revenue is a challenge; the old model of banner ads isn’t cutting it, and news orgs need to look for new forms of advertising; and news orgs need to play better with aggregators and sharpen their own aggregation skills. In his response to the study, Reuters’ Felix Salmon focused on the advertising angle, arguing that journalism and advertising have too long been linked by mere adjacency and that “when you move away from the ad-adjacency model, however, things get a lot more interesting and exciting.”

The New York Times’ story on the report centered on advertising, too, particularly the growing need for journalists to learn about the business side of their products. (That was media consultant Mark Potts’ main takeaway, too.) Emily Bell, a scholar at the center that released the study, said that while journalists need to understand the business of their industry, integrating news and sales staffs isn’t necessarily the way to go.

The J-Lab’s Jan Schaffer recommended that news orgs respond to their business problems by learning from smaller startups and incorporating them more thoroughly into the journalism ecosystem. And paidContent’s Staci Kramer advised news orgs to focus on regular audiences rather than fly-by visitors: “Outwardly we like to complain about content farms; in reality, a lot of what news outlets are doing to the side of those front-page stories isn’t very different.”

Facebook’s growth as news driver: The other major report was released by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism and looked at how people access news on the web. This study, too, found that despite a small core of frequent users, news sites are dependent on casual users who visit sites infrequently and don’t stay long when they’re there. Poynter’s Rick Edmonds conveniently distilled the study into five big takeaways.

The study also found that while Google is still the top referrer to major news sites, Facebook is quickly emerging as a significant news driver, too. University of British Columbia j-prof Alfred Hermida said this lines up with recent research he’s done among Canadians, and GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram said it showed that while Google is a dominant source for online news now, Facebook is primed to succeed it.

Meanwhile, the study also found that surprisingly little traffic to news sites is driven by Twitter. Lauren Dugan of All Twitter said this finding casts some doubt on the idea that Twitter is “a huge link-sharing playground,” though the Wall Street Journal’s Zach Seward said the study misses that Twitter referrals are undercounted.

The Twitter undercounting was one of several problems that TBD’s Steve Buttry had about the study, including inconsistent language to characterize findings and a bias toward large news organizations. “This study probably has some helpful data. But it has too many huge holes and indications of bias to have much value,” Buttry wrote.

Pricing ads and subscriptions on tablets: Condé Nast became the third major magazine publisher to reach an agreement with Apple on app subscriptions, and one of the first to offer an in-app subscription, with The New Yorker available now. (Wired subscriptions are coming next month.) Time Inc., which reached a deal with Apple last week, clarified that it won’t include in-app subscriptions, which would be where Apple takes that now-infamous 30% cut. The Financial Times, meanwhile, is still negotiating with Apple.

Forbes’ Jeff Bercovici explained why publishers may be warming to Apple’s deal: Turns out, more people are willing to share their personal data with publishers feared. Still, Mathew Ingram of GigaOM used iFlowReader’s bad Apple experience as a warning to other companies about the dangers of getting into bed with Apple.

Now that Apple-publisher relations have thawed, the New York Times’ David Carr moved to the next issue: Negotiations between publishers and advertisers over how valuable in-app ads are, and how much those ads should cost. Time.com’s Chris Gayomali wondered why magazines are more than giving away app subscriptions with print subscriptions, and concluded that it’s about getting more eyeballs on the print product, not the app, in order to maintain the all-important ad rate base.

In other words, Carr said in another post, publishers are following the old magazine model, where the product is priced below cost and the money is made off advertising instead. He questioned the wisdom of applying that strategy to tablets: “the rich advertising opportunity that will produce may be a less durable and less stable business than grinding out highly profitable circulation over the long haul.”

A postmortem on Bin Laden coverage: It’s now been close to two weeks since the news of Osama bin Laden’s death broke on Twitter, but plenty of folks were still discussing how the story was broken and covered. Gilad Lotan and Devin Gaffney of SocialFlow put together some fascinating visualizations of how the news spread on Twitter, especially the central roles of Donald Rumsfeld staffer Keith Urbahn and New York Times reporter Brian Stelter. Mashable’s Chris Taylor concluded from the data that trustworthiness and having active followers (as opposed to just lots of followers) are more important than ever on Twitter.

Media consultant Frederic Filloux was mostly reassured by the way the traditional news outlets handled the story online: “For once, editorial seems to evolve at a faster pace than the business side.” There were still folks cautioning against going overboard on Twitter-as-news hype, while the Telegraph’s Emma Barnett wondered why pundits are still so surprised at the significant role Twitter and Facebook play in breaking news. (“It’s exactly what they were designed for.”)

New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane gave the blow-by-blow of how his paper responded to the story, highlighting a few tweets by Times reporters and editors. Reuters’ Felix Salmon chastised Brisbane for not including Brian Stelter’s tweets, which were posted a good 15 minutes before the ones he included. The exclusion, Salmon surmised, might indicate that the Times doesn’t see what Stelter did on Twitter as reporting.

Google News founder Krishna Bharat compared the way Google handled 9/11 and Bin Laden’s death, marveling at how much more breaking-news coverage is available on the web now. The Lab’s Megan Garber used the occasion to glean some insights from Bharat about trusting the authority of the algorithm to provide a rich palette of news, but at Search Engine Land, Danny Sullivan used the Bin Laden coverage to point out some flaws in Google News’ algorithm.

Reading roundup: Lots of interesting little rabbit trails to choose from this week. Here are a few:

— ComScore’s April traffic numbers are out, and there were a number of storylines flowing out of them: Cable news sources are beating print ones in web traffic, the New York Times’ numbers are down (as expected) after implementation of its paywall, and Gawker’s numbers are starting to come back after dropping last year with its redesign.

— Last week, ESPN columnist Rick Reilly told graduating students at the University of Colorado’s j-school to never write for free. That prompted Jason Fry of the National Sports Journalism Center and Craig Calcaterra of MSNBC.com’s Hardball Talk to expound on the virtues of writing for free, though Slate’s Tom Scocca took Reilly’s side.

— Late last week, Google lost an appeal to a 2007 Belgian ruling forcing it to pay newspapers for gaining revenue for linking to their stories on Google News.

— Finally, two thoughtful pieces on brands and journalism: Jason Fry at Poynter on assessing the value of organizational and personal brands, and Vadim Lavrusik at the Lab on journalists building their brands via Facebook.

March 30 2011

16:30

Canadians don’t want to pay for the news online

In the week the New York Times introduced digital subscriptions, a Canadian study shows that consumers just don’t want to pay for the news.

An online survey of 1,682 adults, conducted by the Canadian Media Research Consortium (CMRC )and Vision Critical, showed that Canadians are overwhelmingly opposed to fees for content.

It found that 92% of Canadians who get news online say they would find another free site if their favourite news site started charging for content.

The findings suggest that news as an online commodity has little monetary value in the eyes of the consumer. What is less clear is whether people would pay for the service and convenience of having the news packaged in emerging delivery mechanisms, such as an iPhone/iPad app.

Among the other key findings:

  • 81% say they definitely will not pay to continue reading their favourite online news site.
  • Up to 30% indicate they would definitely or probably pay, if there were no other choice.
  • Charges are most acceptable for breaking news (28%) or hard news (22%). 19% indicate they would pay for international news and 16% would purchase feature and analytical news.

Perhaps not surprising, most news consumers (82%) were happy to accept advertising alongside content, if it meant the news was free

Canadians, though, are more willing to pay for music, games, movies, e- books and even ringtones online than they are to pay for news.  But it is only a minority: 26% cent already pay for music; 19% pay for games; 9% for movies; 8% for e-books and 12% for ringtones.

I am part of the research team behind the study, which is the first in a series of reports that looks into the changing news consumption habits of Canadians.

The full report is available as a PDF download.

 

 

March 22 2011

08:37

Data journalism: commercial models

I’ve written a lengthy article for InPublishing on the commercial side of data journalism, from increased engagement, hits and advertising opportunities to tapping into latent development talent and selling data itself – you can read it in full here.

December 29 2010

16:26

November 23 2010

16:30

The Business of Public Radio: WNYC Bulks Up, Builds Out

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The Public Media 2.0 series on MediaShift is sponsored by American University's Center for Social Media (CSM) through a grant from the Ford Foundation. Learn more about CSM's research on emerging public media trends and standards at futureofpublicmedia.net.

On a recent chilly night in downtown Manhattan, about 130 fans of WNYC's Radio Lab chuckled at quips exchanged between show hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich in the station's new event space.

The performance wasn't part of the public radio show's on-air lineup, but was instead a live event for which the audience members had paid $25 per ticket. This is just one way the station is reaching out to the community -- and in the process making a few bucks.

WNYC, the flagship public radio station in New York and the most listened to public radio station in the country, has in recent years developed a lot of ways to, in the words of CEO Laura Walker, "diversify revenue streams." It has increased its member base, used new fundraising techniques, attracted new grants, conducted capital campaigns to buy radio licenses and build new offices and studios, made financial investments, developed new sponsorships, increased web revenues, rented out its event space and more.

"What we have done is been a leader within the public media industry in applying both traditional and non-profit fundraising techniques," Walker said in a telephone interview. "We're taking the best of the non-profit world, the best of the public media world."

While WNYC has the advantage of being situated in the largest U.S. city -- a financial and artistic hub Walker says is "at the center of the creative world" -- the station also provides lessons in how public media can try to improve, even in difficult financial times.

LauraWalker_ScottEllisonSmith_medium_image.jpgWalker took charge of the station in 1995, when it was owned by the city and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was looking to sell it. Some of Walker's first tasks were to launch a campaign to raise $20 million to buy the FCC license and to negotiate a deal to stay in the city offices for a few more years, rent-free.

She later worked to diversify the programming and sources of income and to develop a five-year plan to bring more news and information to an audience that grew swiftly after the 9/11 attacks that occurred just blocks from their Municipal Building offices.

Growth in Audience, Staff, Funds

In 1995, the station's operating budget was $8 million, and "there was no endowment to speak of," Walker said. Today, its budget is about $55 million. In fiscal 2010, which ended in July, the station raised $56.2 million in revenue and support, according to its financial statement [PDF]. It has more than $16 million cash on hand, and a staff of about 252 people, including 31 news reporters and producers, and 13 salespeople at the national and local levels.

The audience has grown more than 40 percent since it became independent to 1.2 million people weekly, a spokesperson said, for its two stations, one each on AM and FM. The station's members in fiscal 2010 gave the largest share of contributions, $15.4 million of the $33 million received. Major donors, who gave $1,000 or more each, contributed $2.4 million. About $3.25 million, 6 percent of the station's yearly operating budget, comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, according to the spokesperson.

The CPB also is expected to donate more than $1 million to help support "The Takeaway" morning news program, which WNYC produces in partnership with Public Radio International.

Fundraising Activities Raise Millions

To bolster its ability to create programming and keep expanding, the station has launched campaigns that in the last several years raised $62.9 million, Walker said. Members of the board, which include many New York media and society luminaries, have donated close to $22 million. Thirteen individuals or family foundations have given $1 million or more each to help support the station and its shows, she says.

takeaway-logo-sm.jpgWNYC partners with PRI and American Public Media to produce shows such as "Radio Lab," the "Studio 360" arts and culture show, "On the Media," "Freakonomics" segments for the Marketwatch business show, and "The Takeaway." Costs and revenues are shared with the partners.

For local audiences, WNYC launched "Financial 411" segments that explain economic issues, "Mainstreet NYC" to explore how the economy affects New Yorkers, and the Peabody award-winning "Radio Rookies" that gives teenagers, often from less privileged communities, a voice, among other shows, programs and events.

Last year, WNYC moved its operation to new headquarters that include the performance space, which was created with the help of a $6 million gift from the Jerome L. Greene Foundation. State and City agencies gave another $10 million toward the move. The space is working to become self-sustaining financially, said WNYC's Indira Etwaroo, who runs it.

The Greene space, as it's known, has hosted cooking demonstrations, concerts and readings, and is accepting applications for a second "Battle of the Boroughs" talent quest in which performers compete to host a concert and perform during the summer at Central Park's Summer Stage.

The recent 11th-annual gala, a glittering event hosted by station friend and listener Alec Baldwin and Ira Glass, host of Chicago Public Radio's "This American Life," raised close to $1 million. Baldwin, star of the hit TV show "30 Rock," not only donated his time, but also starred in a number of humorous radio spots used for the recent fundraising drive.

The station raised another $15 million to purchase and operate WQXR, the nation's most-listened to classical music station, from the New York Times this year. (Of that, $11 million was used to purchase the FCC license, and $4 million went to operations.) WNYC has since moved its classical music programming from WNYC-FM to QXR and now concentrates WNYC-AM and -FM on news and talk.

It all adds up to a station that has become a big fundraising presence in New York, bringing in dollars that support current activities and allow for new ones that, in turn, attract more interest and generate more revenue.

Walker Is Station's Highest Earner

By public media standards, Walker has been well-compensated for her efforts. According to the station's tax return for 2008 [PDF], the most recent provided, her compensation was $512,870, with $150,000 of that amount as a bonus. She was the top earner at WNCY, with former "Takeaway" co-host Adora Udoji coming in second at $332,147 (the other co-host John Hockenberry received $265,595). Dean Cappello, chief content officer and SVP was the third-highest earner, garnering $309,341.

Not everyone, of course, has been happy with everything Walker and the station have done. Last year, amid a decline in membership dollars, the station laid off four staff members, eliminated 11 unfilled positions and cut senior staff pay by five percent. Like any station, WNYC gets complaints when it changes programming or schedules, but because it's in New York, those complaints can come from highly visible individuals.

While the station has diversified its audience to better match the multi-ethnic and racial mix of New York, some believe it could do more. Maxie C. Jackson III, was the station's senior director of program development until a year ago. He is now president of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters, and thinks the station's fundraising should reflect "a greater diversity."

"There needs to be a focus on generating revenue from communities of color," he said of WNYC and other public media.

Walker said the next phase for the station is "about doing innovate, creative programming in New York" and also "building out new revenue sources."

"I think we are uniquely positioned because we have diversified revenue streams, unlike our traditional non-profit brethren that often have less" and have to rely more on government and foundation support, she said.

While WNYC does have some unique advantages by being in New York, their efforts may hold lessons for ways in which public media can grow, prosper and expand its mission in the years to come.

A former managing editor at ABCNews.com and an MBA, Dorian Benkoil has devised and executed marketing and sales strategies for MediaShift. He is SVP at Teeming Media, a strategic media consultancy focused on attracting, engaging, activating communities through digital media. He tweets at @dbenk. He and his wife, residents of New York, support WNYC as members.

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The Public Media 2.0 series on MediaShift is sponsored by American University's Center for Social Media (CSM) through a grant from the Ford Foundation. Learn more about CSM's research on emerging public media trends and standards at futureofpublicmedia.net.

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September 13 2010

20:58

Rafat Ali Seeks to Re-imagine Travel Guide Industry for Mobile

After traveling around the world for the last two years, paidContent founder Rafat Ali has a new venture. In a separate Q&A, he describes why he wants to avoid the business of covering news.

Here, he discusses how the travel guide industry piqued his interest and how he started Guidism.com to explore whether the industry can be re-imagined for mobile devices.

Dorian Benkoil: Could you tell me about what you’re working on?

Rafat Ali: One of the sectors that I’m deeply interested in, and very likely my next venture, is going to be in the travel guidebook sector.

And that’s born out of a few things. One is, as people who have been following me on Facebook and Twitter know, I have been traveling for the last 24 months. I have been to five different countries and all kinds of various places, and as a result I think it’s fair to say that I’ve caught more than the travel bug, and have also been using all kinds of guides, whether it’s books or research online, or a bunch of mobile apps.

I think there is an opening in the market that I can help address in the travel guidebook sector, particular as the sector gets re-imagined in the mobile arena. If anything says mobile, travel guide says mobile …

Exactly what it means for me and what the final thing I’m going to be working on will look like, to be honest, I don’t know yet. What I have done is launch a site, a blog, which is what I know best, about the travel guide sector called Guidism.com, which essentially is the daily links that I’m posting as I learn about the sector. …

Can you tell me more about your intentions with mobile and things you want to do?

Ali: It’s obvious that the scope for reinvention of the guidebook is on the mobile platform. Clearly, online there are too many sources of information. Most people start their research on Google.

So how do you as a startup or an established brand rise above the noise? I think on the mobile platform that becomes slightly more clear, because by the time you’ve reached the mobile platform, you’ve already done pre-research of where you want to go.

At a destination … you need a guide, whether that’s a printed guide or a mobile guide. Just making an e-book out of a guidebook is not enough. Some of the guide companies have done that. That’s not even taking advantage of the medium, which is a live medium. Mobile is a connected medium, so there a lot of things that you can do. And that’s what I’m trying to figure out.

This seems rather different than what you did before. This a vertical, but you’re not really talking about covering a vertical, and you’re not talking about doing a news media company.

Ali: Correct. Also, this is a consumer vertical, not a B2B vertical, which I’ve done previously. When I started thinking about leaving, and especially as I was traveling, I think one of reasons I was traveling so wide was to clear my head and also figure out what I want to do next.

One of the things I did not want was to do something in my comfort zone, which I’ve been doing previously for the last eight years of my life. The easiest thing for me would be to take that vertical building knowledge and apply it to another B2B vertical that I can apply the same treatment, which is fast-breaking news, bite-sized chunks, analysis, opinion, data, research. Add conferences, add classifieds, add video — all the elements that went into ContentNext and paidContent, and all the stuff that I’ve done. …

In business to business, everything is incremental, right? You get this many visitors or this much money, you hire another person. Or you do this much, and you expand. And the audience growth is also incremental — it never is exponential — which is good and steady. …

But having covered the consumer companies, I’ve always liked the high that comes with the exponential growth. If something clicks, that’s the high I want to experience at least once in my life, however naive that sounds. But of course there’s good and bad. Good is if you get that high. Bad is you can flame out so much faster. …

Isn’t everything you’ve said about news applicable to travel guides? Whatever brilliant content you get, brilliant applications you build, brilliant platforms you get them on, there is other content. Others with just as few barriers can do the same thing you’re talking about with travel.

Ali: Yes and no. I can’t explain for two reasons. One is I will disclose more than I’m willing to. And secondly, I’m still learning. The reason I say no is because for something where people have invested a bunch of money to go a certain place — especially destinations outside your own country — the planning and the guide part of it cannot be left to chance, which is left to brands that are untested and not well-known.

From a consumer point of view, if they’re investing so much money and time and effort to go, there has to be enough security, in terms of when they’re taking a guide, whether it’s a book or it’s mobile. It has to have reliable information. They can’t be stranded in the middle of nowhere without knowing where go.

I’ve learned this being a traveler, and learning about the travel industry. While it seems to be the easiest thing to get content, it’s one of the hardest, backbreaking kinds work that these guys have done over the last 20, 30, 40 years, which is how long these guys have been in existence. … It’s not just creating something one time; it’s updating that is also extremely difficult, especially outside the popular sectors. …

But there are four or six established brands I could name. Even in the backpack sector, the high-end sector, there are a couple or three brands in each.

Ali: If you look at the numbers in the travel guide sector, all of them, especially in the last couple of years, have declined.

Of course, those are secular trends. The print part of the guidebook sector is in decline. It’s also cyclical because travel in the last two to three years has been hit by the economy, and [that will continue] for the next couple of years, in all likelihood.

It’s also why I’m looking at it as an opportunity because now is the down cycle, and there are probably things to start and things to pick up that will be much cheaper now than they will be in a few years.

I do think brands matter in this industry. Imagine the content dropped into these books. I mean, a company like Lonely Planet, just as an example, has 800 different titles. Imagine the amount of content that is built into those books. How can a startup even begin to rival that, even if all they’re doing for the next five to 10 years is gathering content?

So what’s your opportunity?

Ali: Maybe not in the travel content industry but maybe an allied services thing that will become a hit. It could be a technology. It could be a way of presenting these books on these platforms. It could be search in the travel guide sector. So I don’t know yet, to be honest. That’s what I’m trying to figure out. Search certainly seems to be an interesting opportunity.

If you do create the brilliant application, brilliant technology, sure that gives you a head start. But somebody else could come along and create another brilliant technology that somehow undercuts or steals or improves upon what you’ve done.

Ali: Hopefully I will be that person.

Again, there are slight risks in going public for competitive reasons or even talking about it in the posts that I did. But if your competitive advantage is silence, I don’t think that’s a huge advantage.

I feel like I’ll learn more being in a public forum, as I say in my post [on the site], and also I’m getting e-mails from people in the sector, so clearly I’m already getting more opportunities than I would have just being silent.

August 31 2010

14:58

Review: Funding Journalism in the Digital Age

For the past few weeks I’ve been casually enjoying Funding Journalism in the Digital Age, a book that surveys the business models underpinning the industry – and those that are being explored for its future. And it’s rather good.

The book has four broad parts: the initial 3 chapters provide the current context: a history of news publishing as a business; and an overview of current business models and commercial tactics, from paywalls and hyperlocal projects to SEO and dayparting.

The bulk of the book then looks in detail at particular types of business models: micropayments and microfunding; sponsorship and philanthropy; family ownership and trusts; niche content; e-paper, and e-commerce.

Alongside this, a number of chapters look at organisational innovation, from pro-am collaboration to institutional partnerships. And finally, two key chapters look at the principles of microeconomic concepts for the industry, and the importance of innovation.

Rather than sit back and paint a neutral picture of things, the book states quite firmly why now is not the time to stick with old models (the economics of both publishing and advertising have changed), while also not pretending to know the answer to the industry’s problems.

Instead, over the course of the book, readers get a good overview of how media organisations are attempting to adapt to the new environment, as well as a sample of the different models being experimented with by innovative startups – the successes, failures, but mostly the wait-and-sees. The result is a valuable insight into the increasingly varied nature of the industry side of ‘the industry’.

The chapters are littered with examples from both mainstream and lesser-known publishing projects, and it’s refreshingly global in its perspective: the usual US and UK stories are complemented with online and print examples from France, Singapore, Norway, Australia and elsewhere. Sadly, like most journalism textbooks, magazines and, to a lesser extent, broadcast, are a little neglected.

Although this is an entry-level book the subject is broad enough – and the industry itself so varied – for most people to find something new here.

For students, this is a book to join the list of must-reads. Too few books address the current commercial realities that students face upon entering the media. It would be nice to see some more.

August 20 2010

15:14

Nieman: How the FT’s business model is more online retailer than publisher

Fascinating article on Nieman Journalism Lab from Ken Doctor, author of Newsonomics, looking at how the Financial Times, its website and its business model take inspiration from internet retail and not publishing.

Internet retailing — think Amazon — seems like a very different business than publishing. In the endlessly measurable digital age, though, the parallels are striking. It’s not in what you are selling – books, electronics, or news stories – it’s what you know about your customers, their habits and wants.

(…) In addition, analytics support the FT’s eight-member strategic sales team as it customises marketing approaches for firms and their agencies. Grimshaw says that by early 2011, advertisers themselves will get some access to FT audience data.

Full post on Nieman Journalism Lab at this link…Similar Posts:



August 18 2010

16:30

Seeking Sustainability, Part 2: John Thornton and others on strategies for nonprofit revenue generation

This spring, the Knight Foundation hosted a roundtable discussion exploring a crucial issue in journalism: the sustainability of nonprofit news organizations. This week, we’re passing along some videos of the conversations that resulted (and, as always, we’d love to continue the discussion in the comments section). We posted Part 1 of the series, a talk focused on business-model viability over time, yesterday. And in today’s pair of videos, John Thornton, chairman of the excitement-inducing Texas Tribune, leads a discussion about a topic near and dear to the hearts of even, yes, nonprofit news outlets: revenue generation.

“It is nowhere in the mid-life venture capital playbook to start a nonprofit news organization,” Thornton noted; “and so none of us would be doing this if the central mission weren’t about public service.”

Thornton’s introduction is above; below is a discussion that it sparked among the nonprofit all-stars Knight brought together for the occasion — among them The Bay Citizen’s Lisa Frazier, the Chicago News Cooperative’s Jim O’Shea and Peter Osnos, the Texas Tribune’s Evan Smith, Voice of San Diego’s Scott Lewis, The Atlantic PhilanthropiesJack Rosenthal, Seattle CrossCut’s David Brewster, the New Haven Independent’s Paul Bass, California Watch’s Mark Katches, J-Lab’s Jan Schaffer, and the St. Louis Beacon’s Nicole Hollway. The group discussed finance-crucial issues like publicity, community, membership incentives, collaboration, demographic measurement, branding, corporate sponsorship, and more…not from a theoretical perspective, but from the point of view of practitioners who spend their days thinking about how to keep their organizations thriving.

The conversation, by the way, is well worth watching all the way to the end: The video closes with group members discussing some of their more outlandish — and, so, intriguing — ideas for revenue-generation.

August 13 2010

16:00

Knight Foundation’s new biz consultant thinks news startups can learn from outside of journalism

When Nick Denton sent out an email to his Gawker empire in April 2008 announcing the sale of the popular political site Wonkette, it came as a shock to those of us who so closely identified Wonkette with the Gawker brand. Not to mention that the 2008 presidential campaign season was in full swing and traffic on political sites was way up. Denton, the founder and owner of Gawker Media, explained that Wonkette (along with two other properties, a travel site called Gridskipper, and a music site called Idolator) “each had their editorial successes; but someone else will have better luck selling the advertising than we did.”

It was a moment when Denton showed his cards: If a site, even one clearly identified with his brand, was a threat to the broader organization, he’ll cut it loose. Here’s the crux of his thinking, in the run-up to the economic meltdown:

Everybody says that the internet is special; that advertising is still moving away from print and TV; and Gawker sites are still growing in traffic by about 90% a year, way faster than the web as a whole. But it would be naive to think that we can merely power through an advertising recession. We need to concentrate our energies, and the time of Chris Batty’s sales group, on the sites with the greatest potential for audience and advertising.

I was reminded of this moment recently after a conversation with a new hire at the Knight Foundation, Benoit Wirz. Knight brought Wirz on board to serve as director of business consulting, where he’ll work with “Knight Foundation staff to develop programs based on realistic business plans.” He’ll also work with individual grantees, including the crop of Knight News Challenge winners. The goal is to get Knight grantees thinking along the lines of Denton: How will my project survive for the long term?

“There are organizations that are struggling with that issue,” Wirz told me. “It would be good to give the organizations we’re working with the best chance to be sustainable.”

Wirz joined Knight from the Florida investment firm USGlobal, where he was vice president for strategic planning and worked with companies ranging from an architectural glass manufacturer to energy firms. I asked Wirz what spurred his interest in working for Knight, particularly on news projects. He said the challenges faced by a news startup are similar to their counterparts in other fields. “My sense is that startups in general face a lot of the same problems, whether they’re journalism or not,” he told me. The solutions aren’t cookie-cutter, but the strategies to get there can work across industries.

The Knight News Challenge, in particular, has always looked for projects that are scaleable, replicable, and in general sustainable, Gary Kebbel, the former journalism program director for Knight and now journalism dean at the University of Nebraska, told me. The new position is an investment in that ideal. “The Knight News Challenge has been used to find and fund new, exciting projects,” he said. “In doing that, it’s made some bets on great ideas.” But, of course, not everyone with a great idea is also an experienced project manager. Kebbel noted that Knight has always offered grantees technical help with basic business functions, like payroll.

More broadly, Knight is looking to make sure its projects and specific grantees take market factors into account. The foundation’s CFO Juan Martinez told me “what he’s really supposed to do is help us evolve our thinking.”

Don’t go Cadillac

Wirz is still new on the job, but we did talk about his broad thoughts on how to get news startups thinking. One of his rare universal points: Forget the Cadillac launch. Journalism might be the first draft of history, but most journalists see their work as something more polished than a sloppy copy. The journalistic process — report, check your facts, edit, copy edit and deliver a product as close-to-perfect as possible — doesn’t always line up with the best mindset in the startup world, Wirz says. Spending too much time and money planning the perfect prototype isn’t necessarily the way to go.

“You want to spend as little amount of money on a product as possible, put it out there, and then get as much feedback as you can,” Wirz said. “I think that model is something that can be useful for journalism startups, in particular, to keep in mind.”

Take the much talked-about new local startup in Washington, TBD. They embraced the attitude that their project is “to be determined,” which is where the probably-too-cute name comes from. The new site launched this week with some nice bells and whistles, like a homepage that can tailor your content via geo-tagging, but the organization fully expects their product to evolve as their audience interacts with them. The site’s general manager Jim Brady told paidContent that in the run up to the launch “we finally just had to say we’ve got to stop throwing new things in here and just get this thing out the door and freeze where we are.” Will the strategy work? Well, that’s TBD.

Pick the right risk

Another broad theme Wirz plans to focus on is managing risk. “The moment you make a business plan, you know it’s wrong,” he said. “You know that it’s wrong. It may be wrong in a good way; it may be wrong in a bad way.” Wirz wants to help startups make sure that the risk of what will go wrong centers on their innovative idea, not the myriad other, more predictable business problems. “There are certain risks that are just inherent in being in a business model. There are portions of business models based on risks. Why I’m here is to mitigate some of the risks that you don’t have to take.”

Friend of the Lab Jeff Israely, who is working on launching his own news startup and writing about it for us, is grappling with this very issue. Israely is a seasoned journalist, not an entrepreneur, who recently described himself as “a well-meaning but lonely 40ish hack with little technical knowledge and scant business experience.”

One of the ways to mitigate risk is to think about sustainability from the get-go, even during the grant application process or the early business-plan development phase. Wirz plans to work with Knight to make sure that groups are already thinking about their long-term plans long before they see any money. And that planning can come from unfamiliar territory. “My hope is certainly to share outside of the journalism world with the journalism community as much as possible,” he said.

August 02 2010

20:35

Can Social Micro-Earnings Help Micropayments Work for News?

Would readers pay as little as a penny, or even less, for news? They would, if paying was combined with social sharing, micro-earning, virtual currency and a centralized banking system, according to doctoral students Geoffrey Graybeal and Jameson Hayes of the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia.

Graybeal and Hayes propose a "Modified News MicroPayment Model" as a way to implement micropayments for news. In this model, readers are not pushed to pay for content, but are instead given choices and incentives to nudge them to pay. The model consists of four key elements: Micro-earnings, socialization/sharing, local focus and a centralized banking system. The model is described in a detail in a paper [PDF] that the pair presented at the Annual International Symposium on Online Journalism in Austin, Texas, in April.

The pair determines the two-way interaction of the social web as a principle in the model.

"When you use people's social networks to share content, and get other people to pay for it, it should be a partnership between the media organization and the reader, not a one-way proposition," Hayes said in a phone interview. "People need to get paid back, and the social web allows that."

Micro-earn by Sharing

In the model, micro-earnings are combined with social sharing. For example, when a reader shares news articles with friends on Facebook or followers on Twitter, and a friend ends up purchasing the article, the reader earns points. The reader can exchange these points to pay for articles at a news outlet. Thus, the reader can transform their social capital into something with monetary value.

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Micro-earning has already been experimented with on a small scale in journalism. For example, sharing platform YupGrade enables readers to earn points, credits or badges by sharing news stories related to a certain topic. Sharing can be combined with donating, as was the case when YupGrade partnered with the Hunger in America campaign for the SXSW Interactive conference. For every story about hunger, malnutrition, or obesity in the U.S. shared on YupGrade, a can of food was donated to the campaign.

Another example of micro-earning is crowdfunding platform Spot.Us, where community members can earn credits by filling out surveys or other activities. They can then use these credits to donate to pitches on Spot.Us. Thus, readers' time is given a monetary value that can be converted on the site.

According to Graybeal and Hayes, when a news outlet implements a micropayment system, they should also simultaneously implement a micro-earning system.

"Micro-earning would have taken away some of the shock when Time magazine recently implemented a pay wall," Hayes said.

Virtual News Currencies: Times Tender, WSJ Bucks

Evidence suggests consumers are more likely to spend more money when they use virtual currencies and credits, Hayes and Graybeal state in their paper. As a result, the pair believes media outlets should establish their own currency. The Wall Street Journal could offer "WSJ Bucks," the New York Times could have the "Times Tender," etc.

Earning 100 WSJ Bucks for sharing an article on Facebook is more appealing to the reader than paying one-tenth of a cent for an article, they argue. Readers could then cash out the micro-credits they have earned via a centralized banking system. The news outlets could also sell points to the readers.

How the Banking System Works

Hayes and Graybeal see a centralized banking system as being crucial when building a seamless user experience for paying for news. It is also needed to address the transaction costs that are associated with micropayments. The banking systems gives especially local news outlets more control over the pricing of the news, the pair says.

"If a big story breaks in Clayton, Georgia, and the local newspaper, the Clayton Tribune, is the only one who has the story on it, the newspaper should be able to leverage that for their business, and not have the price forced on them by the national news organizations," Hayes said. "The central banking systems allows you to maintain the local focus, have different prices on different products and different places, all that streamlined into one banking system."

Here is how the banking system could work, according to Hayes' and Graybeal's proposal. Let's say the New York Times' currency is called Times Tender, and the user pays $100 for 100 Tenders. With one Tender, the reader can get an access to 10 Times articles. The Times has partnered with a micropayment billing platform that enables the reader to purchase articles with one click.

The users' Times Tender profile is linked to their Facebook and Twitter accounts. When they share a news article on social media and somebody from their network purchases the article, the billing system recognizes this and gives the reader credit.

"The key is to have a seamless user experience," Hayes said. "It has to be easy to use so that it is appealing to the readers."

Micropayments as Part of a Revenue Ecosystem

Graybeal and Hayes emphasize the importance of local and hyper-local focus in journalism, and see their micropayment model that could work for local news.

"Local news has always been a bread and butter for newspapers, but often times when talking about business models we are talking only about big players such as the New York Times," Graybeal said. "But a large amount of newspapers don't fall into this category, and there is a big opportunity for journalism in the neighborhoods that nobody is really covering."

Graybeal and Hayes see micro-earning as one revenue model in the ecosystem of revenue streams that consists of advertising, subscriptions and micropayments.

"This is not the solution, but can be one of the solutions", Hayes said.

He said readers have to be given different options for how to pay for news, such as through subscriptions or one article at a time via micropayments.

"In a paid content environment, outlets will leave money on the table and do a disservice to readers if multiple options for payment are not offered," Graybeal said.

Tanja Aitamurto is a journalist and a Ph.D. student studying collective intelligence in journalism. She has studied innovation journalism at Stanford, and has degrees in journalism, social sciences, and linguistics. Tanja advises media companies and non-profit organizations about business models, reader engagement and community building. As a journalist, she specializes in business and technology. She contributes mainly to the Huffington Post and to the Helsingin Sanomat, the leading daily newspaper in Finland, as well as to the Finnish Broadcasting Company.

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July 09 2010

17:20

Where Did We Go Right? How to Be a Successful Entrepreneur

Imagine a well-known Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. Wanting to repeat his success, he scrutinizes all his articles and discovers they contain the letters "E" and "R" 10 times more frequently than any other letters. In his next article, he focuses on increasing the use of these letters, and then plans on teaching his new-found secret during his journalism seminar next fall.

More than likely, his success as a reporter is due to a combination of talent, hard work, circumstances, personal relationships and some luck. Which means that evangelizing the benefits of proper letter frequency is irrelevant at best and probably harmful to his journalism students.

Entrepreneurial Mortality

Successful entrepreneurs make this same mistake. New ventures are born every day and the sad fact is most die young. Yet the causes of startup death are predictable: Lack of cash, lack of funding, arriving too early or too late to market, insufficient experience or talent on the team, or just plain bad luck.

In a startup, you may not be able to avoid death, but at least you'll know what killed you. Triage is easy on a corpse; it's a lot harder to dissect a healthy Olympic athlete to understand what makes them a champion.

Entrepreneurs who experience failure usually have lots of time to ponder the question "Where did we go wrong?" in order to learn from and avoid making the same mistakes. It's much harder for them to figure out "Where did we go right?" so success can be repeated.

Success As Poison

Before becoming entrepreneur-in-residence at the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship, I spent my career as a serial entrepreneur. I was surrounded by entrepreneurs who had worked on as many successes as failures. Some of these entrepreneurs are very well known and have achieved legendary status, while others are just starting to become the next generation's Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. Failures, fizzles, flameouts and near misses are the norm -- and in Silicon Valley they are rites of passages for every entrepreneur.

Experience gained from failure is more valuable than an Ivy League M.B.A. and can serve as a passport for long-term success. Misinterpreting prior success factors can doom the entrepreneur, as well as infecting all other ventures they mentor. Yes, early success can be worse than failure -- just ask any child star.

Many entrepreneurs who taste success attribute it to their own intelligence, vision, creativity or business savvy. They ignore the critical influences of timing, circumstances and luck. In many cases I've seen people ignore an inheritance, an influential relative or a family name when they take stock of their success. This brush with success poisons future attempts.

Snake-Oil Success

Far more dangerous are former entrepreneurs who have one success to their credit and spend the rest of their career imparting (or worse, selling) their secret to wide-eyed aspiring entrepreneurs everywhere. The books and seminars shout, "Be like me! Use more E's and R's than your competition and you'll be successful."

Being an entrepreneur is often like driving a half-built race car 200 mph in a thick fog -- and not being sure if the steering wheel works. There are lots of voices in the crowd telling you which direction to drive, but who can you trust? Even if one of the voices belongs to an experienced racer, they have not been successful in these exact same circumstances -- so their advice could be fatal.

Success is Simple. It's Just not Easy

Mark Zuckerberg's path to success was different than Steve Jobs' path. They are different people with different backgrounds and situations, so trying to copy their path and methods is probably futile. A more reliable way is to look at the majority of success stories and find out what they had in common, and apply the lessons to your own situation.

Great entrepreneurial success often looks like a combination of luck, timing or brilliance -- or sometimes sheer genius -- but when you dissect it, there are really just two groups of entrepreneurial success factors:

1. Personal Factors:
  • Hard work and commitment
  • Sufficient intelligence
  • Interpersonal skills/relationships
  • Location and proximity to resources
2. Circumstantial Factors:
  • Economic and business situation
  • State of technology
  • Social trends
  • Customer wants/needs/behavior
  • Competition

When looking at these two groups, notice that all the personal factors are within your control, and the circumstantial factors are the same for every other entrepreneur. So what's the catch? The best entrepreneurs play to their strengths on the personal factors and develop a particular clarity on the circumstances and leverage them to their advantage. Most successful entrepreneurs actually have one key personal factor and one key circumstantial insight that makes all the difference in their success.

Now we can better understand what appears as luck, timing and brilliance:

  • "Luck" is when any of the personal or circumstantial factors are stronger without any extra effort. Recognize it, embrace it and use it -- but don't count on it.
  • "Timing" is when several circumstances are aligned with the entrepreneur's interests. Wait for it, recognize it and move fast when it happens.
  • "Brilliance" is when you are aware enough to take advantage of luck and timing.
  • "Genius" is when the entrepreneur overcomes the personal and anticipates the circumstantial.

Where Did You Go Right?

As an entrepreneur, what can you do to make these success factors work for you? First, take a look back on any success you've had in the past -- no matter how minor -- and ask, "What did I do right?" Think about which personal factors were your strengths, how you can use them again, and which personal traits need more work.

Next, take a look at the circumstances surrounding your prior success. Which of them were you able to foresee or even predict? Perhaps you have a special gift or insight in that area. Are you particularly observant as to customer needs, or can you understand technology or spot trends better than most? These are your success factors, and they don't come out of a bottle sold by someone else.

All entrepreneurs, and potential entrepreneurs, have the necessary success factors -- personal traits and circumstance. The key is being aware of which are your own relevant success factors, and which ones are someone else's snake oil.

10:39

The Journalism Firm: What journalists have to learn from lawyers

Responding to ongoing discussion of the idea of journalists as entrepreneurs, videojournalism pioneer Michael Rosenblum suggests a new model for independent journalists going forward – the law firm:

Lawyers, (while it is true some become employees), tend to organise themselves in partnerships in which they pool their skills and their business.

A law firm hires its talents out to many clients.  A Journalism Firm (to craft an interesting idea) would do the same. A partnership of journalists would contract with various magazines, newspapers, television stations and websites to offer content, as a law firm offers work. In this way, they would also be insulated from the predictable disaster if one newspaper or one magazine went under.

The Journalism Firm would be a partnership, and as a good law firm combines the high paying M&A with the lower paying family practice, so too could a Journalism Firm combine the low paying investigative journalism with the high paying Public Relations. Don’t cringe. Many of our grads go into PR and can make a fortune. It’s the same skill set.

Full post on Rosenblum TV at this link…Similar Posts:



July 08 2010

20:14

News Organizations Must Innovate or Die

People in news don't generally think of innovation as their job. It's that old CP Snow thing of the two cultures, where innovation sits on the science not the arts side. I had my own experience of this at the American Society of Newspaper Editors conference in Washington a couple of months ago.

After one of the sessions I spotted an editor whose newspaper had adopted hNews (the Knight-funded news metadata standard we developed with the AP). "How's it going?" I asked him. "Is it helping your online search? Are you using it to mark up your archive?"

Before I had even finished the editor was jotting something down on his notepad. "Here," he said, "Call this guy. He's our technical director -- he'll be able to help you out."

Technology and innovation still remain, for most editors, something the techies do.

So it's not that surprising that over much of the last decade, innovation in news has been happening outside the news industry. In news aggregation, the work of filtering and providing context has been done by Google News, YouTube, Digg, Reddit, NowPublic, Demotix and Wikipedia...I could go on. In community engagement, Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter led the way. In news-related services (the ones that tend to earn money) it has been Craigslist, Google AdWords and now mobile services like Foursquare.

Rather than trying to innovate themselves, many news organisations have chosen instead to gripe from the sidelines. Rupert Murdoch called Google a "thief" and a "parasite." The U.K.'s Daily Mail has published stories about how using Facebook could raise your risk of cancer,, referred to someone as a "Facebook killer" (as in murderer), and runs scare stories about Facebook and child safety. And let's not even start to take apart various news commentators' dismissive attitude towards Twitter.

When they have seen the value of innovation, news organizations have tended to try and buy it in rather than do it themselves, with decidedly mixed results. Murdoch's purchase of MySpace initially looked very smart, but now, as John Naughton wrote over the weekend, it "is beginning to look like a liability." The AOL /Time Warner mashup never worked. Associated Newspapers in the U.K. have done slightly better by making smaller investments in classified sites.

Most news organisations do not see innovation as a critical element of what they do. This is not that unexpected since they spend their day jobs gathering and publishing news. Unfortunately for them, if it doesn't become more central to their DNA they are liable to become extinct.

Speed and Unpredictability of Innovation

At last week's Guardian Activate Summit, Eric Schmidt, Google's CEO, was asked what kept him awake at nights. "Almost all deaths in the IT industry are self-inflicted," Schmidt said. "Large-scale companies make mistakes because they don't continue to innovate."

Schmidt does not need to look far to see how quickly startups can rise and fall. Bebo was started in 2005, was bought by AOL in 2008 for $850 million, and then was sold again this month to Criterion Capital for a fee reported to be under $10 million.

The problem for Schmidt -- and one that is even more acute for news organizations -- is the increasing speed and unpredictability of innovation. "I'm surprised at how random the future has become," Clay Shirky said at the same Activate summit, meaning that the breadth of participation in the digital economy is now so wide that innovation can come from almost anyone, anywhere.

As an example he cited Ushahidi, a service built by two young guys in Kenya to map violence following the election in early 2008 that has now become a platform that "allows anyone to gather distributed data via SMS, email or web and visualize it on a map or timeline." It has been used in South Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo, India, Pakistan, Gaza, Haiti and in the U.S.

He might also have cited Mendeley, a company which aims to organize the world's academic research papers online. Though only 16 months old, the service already has over 29 million documents in its library, and is used by over 10,000 institutions and over 400,000 people. It won a prize at Activate for the startup "most likely to change the world for the better."

The tools to innovate are much more widely available than they were. Meaning a good idea could be conceived in Nairobi, Bangalore or Vilnius, and also developed and launched there too, and then spread across the world. "The future is harder to predict," Shirky said, "but easier to see."

That's why Google gives one day a week to its employees to work on an innovation of their choice (Google News famously emerged from one employee's hobby project). It is why foundations like Knight have recognized the value of competition to innovation. And it's why Facebook will only enjoy a spell at the peak.

Some Exceptions

There are exceptions in the news industry. The New York Times now has an R&D department, has taken the leap towards linked data, and published its whole archive in reusable RDF. The Guardian innovated with Comment is Free, its Open platform, and the Guardian Data Store. The BBC developed the iPlayer.

The Daily Telegraph had a go, setting up "Euston Partners" under then editor Will Lewis. (Although setting up an innovation center three miles away from the main office did not suggest it was seen as central to the future of the business.) The project was brought back in-house shortly after Lewis left the Telegraph in May 2010 and has been renamed the "Digital Futures Division."

But mostly people in news don't really do innovation. They're too focused on generating content. But as the Knight Foundation has recognized, doing news in the same old way not only doesn't pay -- it doesn't even solve the democratic problems many of those in news are so rightly concerned about. For some people FixMyStreet.com or its U.S. equivalent SeeClickFix is now more likely to give them a direct relationship with their council than the local newspaper.

News and media organizations have to realize that they are in the communications business, and being in that business means helping people to communicate. Giving them news to talk about is a big part of this, but it's not the only part. The sooner they realize this and start to innovate, the better chance they have of surviving the next couple of decades.

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