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

August 02 2012

15:04

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

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

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

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

NewsCred

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

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

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

Lessons Learned:

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

NewsLook

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

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

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

Lessons Learned:

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

Deseret News Service and Ok.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lessons Learned:

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

The AllMedia Platform

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

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

Lessons Learned:

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

California Watch

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

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

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

Lessons Learned:

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

Upworthy

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

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

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

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

Lessons Learned:

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

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

April 19 2012

13:17

The newsonomics of risking it all

Alfredo Corchado was used to getting mortal threats.

He received three in Mexico, but now he was in a Laredo bar, north of the border.

You better stop what you’re doing, or you’ll end with a bullet in your head and your body in a vat of acid, he was told. And then we’ll deliver the bones to your family in El Paso.

It was a chilling warning, or at least we’d expect it to put a chill into Corchado. An investigative reporter for the Dallas Morning News (and a former Nieman Fellow), he’s been covering the ravages of drug trafficking for years, much to the concern of his parents living, as the traffickers plainly know, in El Paso. Yet Corchado goes on with his work — as do Adela Navarro Bello of Tijuana’s Zeta news magazine, Jerry Mitchell of the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., and Ramita Navai of the U.K.’s Channel 4. As Navarro Bello explained of her paper’s coverage of the drug trafficking that has consumed at 50,000 Mexican lives, “If we don’t publish this information, we are part of the problem.” (Filmmaker Bernardo Ruiz has captured Zeta’s struggle — including the murder of two of its journalists — with a new movie.)

Each is an investigative reporter who put their lives on the line to reveal stories they think readers must know about. They spoke on the “When the Story Bites Back” panel this weekend, at UC Berkeley, part of the sixth annual Reva and David Logan Investigative Reporting Symposium (live blogging of the conference, here, with a #Logan12 Twitter feed).

That panel and the entire spirited weekend, organized and led by esteemed investigative producer Lowell Bergman, tells us a fair amount about the business of journalism. Though it is not — like most of my work — concerned with the dollars and cents of the business, in its very essence, it describes why the current crazy-quilt economics of the business matters. Funding the journalism business isn’t like funding Sears and Kodak (“The newsonomics of the long good-bye”) or other fading institutions. It’s not even about saving a perhaps-vital American industry, like the auto industry.

It’s about keeping a lifeline of funding open so that our best reporters can do their jobs.

I’ll call it the newsonomics of risking it all because that’s what these reporters do. Many of the other Logan participants and attendees, thankfully, do less life-threatening work. Yet those represented at the conference — from ProPublica, the Washington Post, and New York Times to ABC, NBC, and NPR — are among the cream of the crop of investigative work and produce work with real public interest impact.

As we endlessly debate pay models, whether or not to work with Facebook, how to deal with Apple and Amazon and multi-platform journalism, the Logan Symposium is good tonic — certainly for those of us who attended, but really for all of us who know why this business matters to democracy. Whether and how the economics of the new news business work out isn’t an arcane question; it’s central to our collective future. The value of good, deep reporting is truly priceless.

So what about the state of investigative reporting? Look at the glass as half full and half cloudy.

What emerged from the conference, surprising to some, is that national investigative reporting is keeping its head above water. Both NBC and ABC talked about their expansions in the investigative area, while companies like NPR and Bloomberg have put new resources in as well. Units at the Post, L.A. Times, and New York Times may not be growing much, but seem to be sustaining themselves, for now.

“For now” is an important qualifier, and New York Times managing editor Dean Baquet’s opening interview at Logan, in its over-the-top self-assurance, bothered many of the conference participants with whom I talked.

Washington Post investigative editor Jeff Leen suggested that there were 200 investigative reporters paid by news media in the U.S., which I calculate as one for every 1.5 million Americans. That’s not a ratio that’s going to hold many big institutions — government, business, labor — to account. Maybe that’s why as Logan participant and new-media vet Neil Budde tweeted, “How many times will ‘existential’ be used this weekend? I think count is six so far.”

Importantly, it is largely the largest news media — mainly national and global ones — that continue to put money into investigative work; these are the Digital Dozen companies I identified in my Newsonomics book. For them, as NBC senior executive producer David Corvo put it, investigative work is a “differentiator,” important to distinguishing big news brands from one another in the digital age.

What’s going on regionally is more of a patchwork.

Dozens of people like the Logan family are using their wealth to fund investigative enterprises from coast to coast, most with little fanfare. The Knight Foundation, represented at the conference by its senior advisor and grant-giver extraordinaire Eric Newton, has put $20 million into investigative journalism. With the decline in newspaper budgets, and thus in funding of investigative teams at many regional papers, such private funding has been a lifeline, though there’s a profound sense that significantly less in-depth work is being done at former powerhouse regional papers.

This Logan conference lacked the always-odd spontaneity of a Julian Assange appearance, but it offered intriguing emphases:

  • Front and center, though not appearing in person was Rupert Murdoch. After screening “Murdoch’s Scandal,” Bergman’s Frontline documentary that aired March 27, “The Murdoch Effect: News At Any Price,” made for a raucous panel. Milly Dowler attorney Mark Lewis told how the phone hacking scandal had consumed his life and spoke of the “commercial despotism of Murdochracy” in the U.K., given the News Corp. CEO’s multi-party, decades-long influence. Big questions: What next, and if and how this tale plays out in the U.S.
  • “If it’s not on TV, the American public doesn’t know it,” observed Diana Henriques, the New York Times financial investigative reporter. Yes, we may be on the brink of this multi-platform age, where old newspapers like the Times and the Journal do video alongside print, but still — in terms of notice and public action — there’s nothing like the impact of TV documentary.
  • This is a generational challenge. Journalism has always had its challenges, but never has there been more uncertainty about how one generation can pass along its best practices to the next. Through that foundation funding, a couple of dozen younger journalists and students had their way paid into the conference. Surveying the group on the last day, Robert Rosenthal, executive director of the Center for Investigative Reporting and California Watch, summed his baby-boomer generation’s role: “I’m a bridge — we’re all bridges to the future.”

Bridging is, in part, what Lowell Bergman’s program does. UC Berkeley’s Investigative Reporting Program is a partner in the new Collaboration Central project, along with PBS MediaShift. With new funding, IRP will soon move into a new permanent office. It provides lots of training and fellowships, bringing along new generations to work alongside people like the Pulitzer Prize-winning Bergman, whose career has spanned from early Ramparts through CBS, The New York Times, and Frontline, and who was played by Al Pacino in the tobacco industry exposé The Insider.

Bergman paid tribute to his one-time CBS colleague Mike Wallace, underscoring Wallace’s storied tenacity. That tenacity, based on Wallace’s fierce journalistic power (highlighted at CBS, in story and video), is what it took a non-journalist to highlight in Berkeley.

Jules Kroll, who led the invention of the modern intelligence and security industry, gave the trade good, pointed advice. Saying he had heard a lot of journalists talking about how beleaguered they are, he noted, “You have a big impact.” His shared his inside view of the power of a good investigation. Colloquial translation: Stop whining and get on with it.

And that’s always good advice. As ProPublica managing editor Steve Engelberg aptly said, “They were whining in 1989, when times were good.” That’s true. There may be more to whine about these days than in 1989, but the power of great public service work, sometimes when lives are on the line, is one of the things that must propel the trade forward.

Photo of Alfredo Corchado by the U.S. embassy in Paraguay used under a Creative Commons license.

April 18 2012

14:03

Coloring books and puppets: California Watch unveils a new section just for kids

It’s often said that kids today aren’t interested in the news. Could it be because traditional newsrooms aren’t reporting stories with them in mind?

Most third-graders may not need or want comprehensive coverage of, say, tax reform. But there’s a case to be made for tailoring some important news to a pint-sized audience. That was nonprofit California Watch’s attitude when it included a coloring book in its 2011 series on seismic safety.

Now, California Watch has a whole news section just for children. It’s a place where “you can color, watch videos and learn about issues our reporters cover.” It’s also the latest move in the nonprofit’s longstanding effort to distribute their work through nontraditional channels as a way to reach people who need the information they’re reporting. To meet that goal, California Watch’s strategy incorporates multiple platforms, translating work into different languages, and collaborations with media and community partners to get the word out.

“One of the things that I love about California Watch is we’re focused on actual communities because we have a solution-oriented focus,” the site’s public engagement manager, Ashley Alvarado, told me.

So the California Watch reporting strategy isn’t just about putting the information out there — it’s also about empowering people, grown-ups and kids, to do something about what they’ve learned. The star of the “Ready to Rumble” coloring book, Sunny the dog, makes a return for the Junior Watchdogs section, which features an online version of the original coloring book that kids (or, ahem, Nieman Lab reporters) can color using a digital palette.

There’s also a video puppet show — complete with felt props, knitted finger puppets, music and voiceovers — about clean water issues. The three-minute film explores pollution, and how people affect water quality. (This is truly a team effort: Listen for reporter Lance Williams as the voice of the owl scientist.) Next week, California Watch is debuting the Spanish-language version of the video.

The Junior Watchdogs site features a map called “Where’s Sunny?” that shows all of the places where California Watch has shipped its “Ready to Rumble” coloring book. Most of them went to coastal cities in the United States but at least one batch got as far as New Zealand. Another story in the works for the junior audience is based on a 2010 series about unsafe levels of lead in toys, jewelry, and back-to-school products.

The unusual storytelling approach is only one component. California Watch also has to make sure that people know about its work, and that’s Alvarado’s job. There may be an opportunity to tap into a network of schools at some point, but first she’s going to hit the streets. Alvarado has been putting together community toolkits, which she’ll “hand deliver, person by person” to various areas. Each toolkit will contain:

• A DVD featuring the puppet show and a slideshow (an alternative format for those without Internet access)

• Printed versions of an article or articles applicable to the community

• Worksheets to help answer questions that community members might have about the issue that California Watch reported about in their area, including contact numbers for government agencies

• A primer on working with the media

• A one-page information sheet about California Watch and the Center for Investigative Reporting

In much the same way that government agencies and other institutions provide reporters with press kits to help them understand the issues they have to write about, California Watch is giving informational kits to the community based on what it has reported.

Alvarado will start with 100 kits for her trip to two mobile home parks in Coachella, and will distribute kits that include an article about grim living conditions there. There is also a toolkit built designed to serve the Maywood community based on coverage of water quality, and a toolkit for unincorporated communities across the state.

“We’re not just writing about a community for another community,” Alvarado says. “That means nontraditional distribution. That means whether we’re putting a story on a postcard, putting a story in a coloring book, attending community meetings, whatever we have to do to become their own advocate.”

A contrasting example she gives: The New York Times might produce a brilliantly reported piece of journalism. But what if it’s about people who don’t read the Times? Which news organizations are looking out for their interests?

“I always joke and say we’re so old school we’re new school,” Alvarado says. “We are putting an emphasis on actual human-to-human interaction, which is — for whatever reason — becoming endangered.”

April 16 2012

15:31

April 12 2012

15:12

The newsonomics of small things

If the news business were sexy enough (it’s not) to fuel Hollywood or Bollywood filmmaking, we might envision this wake-me-from-the-dead screenplay: A publisher (I’m thinking Tom Hanks, now almost old enough to look sufficiently weary), lured by the sirens on the Isle of Profitos, falls into a deep, deep sleep.

Awakened 10 years later, he finds his golden egg of a business withered, an ellipse of uncertain provenance or fertility, halved in size. He pokes around the egg — surely the once-thriving thing can be revived somehow. Finally, after what seems like years, he gives in to nature, and set outs to find a new, big golden egg.

Yet search as he might, through forest, beach, and urban landscape, he can find none. All he finds is little eggs. They seem puny. Egg analysts calculate that these little finds will never reach the size of the prized golden egg, and advise they be discarded. They are no replacement for that big golden egg.

But maybe, say a couple of advisers, you need to learn how to assemble a bunch of those golden eggs. Some will never grow big, to be sure — but some may thrive, and if you add three or four of them together, maybe they will begin to approach the size of that golden egg.

That’s the news industry today.

Until recently, the holy grail was summed up in two words: replacement revenue. Now the jig’s up. No matter how fast you shovel digital dirt into the chasm of print loss, you can’t recreate the past; you can’t fill the hole. Now, though, we see new foundations being set and fresher building — with more realistic expectations — begun. The change is a huge one. Where once top newspaper company execs eschewed new initiatives as too small with which to bother, the awareness that the old business simply is never coming back has almost sunk in.

Meinolf Ellers, managing director at dpa-infocom, crystallized the Small Things phenomenon for me last month. At a Moscow conference of MINDS International, a five-year-old network of 22 of the world’s news agencies, he invoked Steve Jobs and talked about “getting small things right.” People have talked about the Apple founder’s attention to small product details, to doing fewer things better and to pricing some things low (think iTunes songs at the uniform and now ubiquitous price point of 99 cents). Start small, get it right, and then maybe if the universe aligns, get big.

For Ellers, one of the best forward thinkers in the news business, thinking small works, for now, on at least two levels.

He thinks of the lessons of the digital gaming industry (“The newsonomics of gamification”) and how luring in customers step-by-step — first with freemium techniques, and then with low (yup, 99 cents) incremental pricing — builds customer engagement and purchasing.

Secondly, he thinks of it on a more global level: “What we all see — newspaper publisher or news agency — is that the bundle is eroding, losing its power. The more we see the bundle losing market share and reaching the end of its lifecycle, the more we have to work on smaller, fragmented products that, not each by each, but overall, can compensate. That’s the strategy.”

So, let’s call it the newsonomics of small things, with a nod to Mr. Jobs and to Meinolf Ellers’ realization. Let’s focus on Small Things as opposed to Big Things — meaning traditional advertising and circulation, the long-in-the-tooth double-digit contributors to newspaper company revenues.

It would be great to replace those-end-of-lifecycle business lines with other Big Things, but those are few and far between. Google developed the Next Big Thing of paid search advertising, and continues to dominate that $40 billion global industry, with 76 percent market share in the Americas and 94 percent in EMEA, according to Covario, an large, independent search marketing agency. AT&T and Verizon replaced their cycle-ending landline business by going Triple Play, adding broadband and cable to their revenue lines. Facebook cornered the market on a little segment called global social connectivity. Newspapers have been searching in vain for two decades for such Big Things and have come up short.

So let’s touch on six Small Things — each now a small egg, at best a single digit contributor to overall revenue. Then let’s toss in a couple of Wild Things, fliers of businesses that might work.

We can turn our eyes to Texas to see at least half of them, an indication of how fast the Small Things movement is accelerating.

In Houston and San Antonio, Hearst has been leading the marketing services push, among newspaper companies. In Dallas, the Morning News is making a significant business of in-sourcing, becoming a major printer and distributor of Old World print, at the same time it is launching (with Hearst) its own marketing services foray. In Austin, the Texas Tribune has created an events business model, widely, if quietly, being studied and adopted in various parts of the country.

In Morning News publisher Jim Moroney’s sum-up of his push, I think we see a common thread among these and of Small Thing moves: “Print editions are not going away anytime soon. So take the extra capacity of your print facility and bring in as much commercial broadsheet or tab newsprint work as you can. There’s no reason to have idle capacity.”

In a word, capacity. What kinds of skills, knowledge and abilities do you have in your company, assets that can be used newly and differently? What kind of job needs to be one by someone who has the budget and has no go-to supplier…yet?

Let’s look at those six Small Things, just as first examples, through the lens of capacity and revenue potential.

Marketing services

That push (“The newsonomics of 8 percent reach”) is indicative of the fastest-growing digital ad line for many news publishers. Hearst Media Services and its Local Edge push, Tribune 365, Gannett Local, Advance Digital, and McClatchy are among the many companies plying this territory.

John Denny, VP of marketing for Advance Digital, recently spoke in Boston to the Kelsey Interactive Local Marketing East Conference. He outlined well the value of the marketing services push: “[There's a] growing importance of ‘services’ in the world of marketing priorities for businesses. That money is now shifting from what has always been viewed as ‘advertising’ (whether traditional or digital media) to a whole host of growing priorities including search engine optimization, social media optimization, blogs, and content marketing.” Every merchant faces the same kind of blur of too many choices — digital marketing choices — and some will take a newspapers’ help in sorting them out.

Talk to marketing services execs and they’ll tell you that today marketing services revenues — money paid by local merchants to publishers who help them with their advertising, in addition to any ads those merchants buy on publisher websites or in the paper — amounts to at least 10 percent of overall digital ad revenues. Some are pushing that number towards a quarter or a third of the total; several say they expect marketing services to account for half of all digital ad-related revenue within three years.

Capacity use: Makes great use of newspaper brand equity capacity. While many companies employ a separate (from their own ad selling) salesforce, some company infrastruture can also be used.

Revenue contribution: 1-3 percent of total revenue in 2012; could reach 10-15 percent by 2015.

In-sourcing printing and distribution

From recent quarterly reports, figure that the Morning News (good interview with publisher Moroney in News & Tech) is now getting close to using the full capacity of its printing and distribution resources. You won’t find a Morning News thrower with a single paper; they toss USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and a couple other titles.

Capacity use: Rather than outsourcing, more common among daily papers, the insourcing is making almost full use of the Old World asset.

Revenue contribution: Figure about five percent of Morning News revenues, with fair margins, are derived from insourcing.

Custom publishing

Journalism companies know how to create readable content, though we often take that for granted. In London, the Press Association, the AP’s cousin, is building a substantial business in bespoke — or as Yanks would say, custom — publishing. News agencies, of course, are native B2B industries. They are used to selling the same content stream — the wire — to many comers, a good business for a long time, but now threatened as their newspaper customer budgets decline.

So Tony Watson, PA’s managing director, has now extended that B2B publishing customer relationship. Working with top portal customers, providing them unique content they can monetize, he’s grown that business more than 50 percent year over year. It’s still small, but growing rapidly, as newspaper revenue contributions to his budget decline markedly in the UK recession.

Watson isn’t alone, but custom content marketing — whether performed by an auxiliary staff or the core one — is nascent in much of the news industry.

Capacity use: For Watson, that’s what it’s about: using PA’s “significant product development capability” — though the agency is careful to avoid conflicts of interest.

Revenue contribution: Low single digits at this point, but could make up 10 percent within three to four years. In addition, it’s a cousin to commercial content creation, noted under marketing services.

Events

Newspapers have long sponsored bridal fairs and the like. What we see in Texas Tribune’s new event model (“For the Texas Tribune, events are journalism — and money makers”) is connecting public service journalism with worthy civic events that make money. CEO Evan Smith told me that he expects $900,000 in revenue from events sponsorships this year, plus attendee income. I hear a lot of ferment among publishers wanting to borrow the model.

Capacity use: While the events staff is focused on that work, the piggybacking on the Tribune’s excellent journalism doubles its value.

Revenue contribution: Maybe about 20 percent now — a big number for a start-up finding its model — and could grow to around 33 percent, while supporting other revenue lines like site sponsorship and membership.

Syndication

California Watch, now newly expanded with the CIR/Bay Citizen merger, has smartly considered itself largely a B2B business, a new wire for a new time. Its stories reach hundreds of thousands of print, online, and broadcast news consumers.

Capacity use: That’s the once (and future) beauty of the wire business. Produce once, customize a little, and distribute many times over.

Revenue contribution: California Watch stories are still underpriced, contributing less than 10 percent of the organization’s revenue. With scale and a greater track record, it may be able to wring closer to 20 percent of its revenue from syndication in three years.

Ebooks

Last week, I wrote about the coming explosion of ebook publishing by news and magazine publishers; in the past week, I’ve heard from many more publishers whose ebook plans I hadn’t known about. Getting into the ebooks business — or “mining the archive” — is becoming mainstream. Ellers’ dpa is one of those stepping up its business, out of its News Lab. It will soon produce ebooks on both wacky subjects and the historically significant, like the 1972 Munich Olympics killings of Israeli athletes.

Capacity use: Excellent. Content is already paid for, edited, and largely ready to go.

Revenue contribution: Tiny in 2012; at least five percent by 2015, if publishers execute well.

A couple of Wild Things that could become Small Things:

Journalism company journalism schools: College education is going digital and virtual anyhow, so why can’t journalists (and marketers) get into the business. The Guardian is tiptoeing into it, and you can imagine what a diploma from The New York Times or Wall Street Journal might be worth. Journal Register is already retraining its own staff at its Digital Ninja schools; why not go bigger?

Professional services: Several publishers have told me how they idolize the Financial Times for its pricing schemes, product initiatives, and intensive use of analytics. As the FT goes forward, and at least some other publishers get proficient at newer parts of the business, professional services — or, to use the old-fashioned world — will make sense for some.

Overall, it’s much better to move into the future with a half-dozen revenue streams — even if some are now just trickles — to stick with only two big-but-slowing ones. It should be more lucrative than selling the same old things. And maybe more fun, too.

“As a news agency guy,” says Meinolf Ellers, “I’m used to being disrupted. Now I can be the disruptor [with ebooks] to the book industry.”

March 29 2012

15:00

The newsonomics of 100 products a year

Try this: Call up your local newspaper or online news organization. Tell them you want to buy something and ask them what they can sell you? Of course, at first, they’d be non-plussed: Sell you something? Then, after giving it some thought, they’d say you can buy a newspaper or a subscription or a membership — or, maybe, an ad? Would you like one of those?

Those days — mark it — are coming to an end. We’re on the brink of news companies producing hundreds of products for sale each year. While digital technology hath taketh (the easy ability to make money on news distribution), digital technology also giveth back, with the ability to create hundreds and thousands of newsy products at small incremental costs. The bonus: News organizations will be able to satisfy groups of readers and advertisers (often disguised thinly as sponsors) better than ever before. Double bonus: The let-a-hundred-products-bloom revolution fits neatly with the all-out embrace of all-access circulation initiatives, which news companies in North America, Europe, and Asia now can’t seem to implement quickly enough.

Can we call this the ebook revolution? Maybe, but that’s probably too narrow. Delivery of new products to new audiences can take several forms. A text-only ebook, a shinier iBooks-enabled product with video, or an app with all the glorious functionality apps offer. It’s not the form; it’s the content, content that satisfies niches rather than serves masses with one-size-fits-all newspaper or magazine products.

Call it the newsonomics of 100 products a year, or just one way to envision a much bigger future.

The 100-product-a-year model is a much-needed growth model. We can see how it fits nicely with all-access subscriptions, and together we have two interconnected Lego blocks of a new sustainable news model. We have two essential parts of a crossover model (“The newsonomics of crossover”) that I detailed here a few weeks ago. The big, hairy challenges of accelerating print ad loss and onerous legacy costs remain, but at least we’ve got a couple of building blocks we didn’t have two years ago. By we, I mean those of us who care about news and great professional content.

Is it a big moneymaker? We don’t know yet, though we can extrapolate some numbers below.

It’s directionally right, though, for at least a couple of strategic reasons. The notion of 100 smaller products reminds us that so much of the new world is based on volume. Google has built a monstrous advertising business on hundreds of thousands of smaller advertisers, while daily newspapers reaped huge profits on relatively few bigger advertisers. Even as movie watching by streaming surpasses DVD watching, more money is still in the old medium. Streaming will monetize at a lower rate, but end up generating bigger dollars over time. The same thing is true in the digital music business. Selling lots of stuff to lots of people at smaller price points is something the Internet enables superbly.

Yes, there are definitely new winners and losers in movies and music, as there will be in news. Those who transition best and fastest will win.

Second, it’s in line with the strategic push to satisfy the hell out of core customers. As publishers have figured out that it’s the top 15 percent of site visitors who make the big difference in building the new digital business — perhaps paying for subscriptions, consuming many more pages than fly-by users sent by Google — core customer satisfaction is key. Ebooks deeper the relationship to that reader customer.

This 100-product-a-year model may fit as well with the new California Watch/Bay Citizen combo (“The newsonomics of the death and life of California news”), finalized Tuesday, as its does with The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, the Charlotte Observer, GQ, or Conde Nast Traveler.

Let’s take one example. On Wednesday, the Boston Globe launched “Sunday Supper & More.” It’s a cookbook. It’s New England. And it could be the beginning of a new franchise: Expect summer, fall and winter editions each year to join this spring debut. The Globe’s staff built it with Apple’s iBooks Author tool, so it offers video within it.

Want to buy it? Not so fast. Today, Sunday Supper & More is only available to Boston Globe print, all-access, and digital subscribers. So subscription — think “membership” (the recent riff of the L.A. Times new paywall intro) — is gaining new benefits. Surprise, says the Globe, you not only get our paper, our spiffy new replica-plus edition, if that’s what you want, and our mobile apps — you also get our cool cookbooks, with more to come.

The Globe will sell the book to non-subscribers — probably at $4.99 — but will decide the timing of that sale after next week’s Globe confab at which execs and editors will plot an ebook plan for the company.

“Events and ebooks will be the two biggest perks” of the new Globe subscription push, says Jeff Moriarty, the Globe’s VP of digital products. Beyond Sunday Suppers and a new spin on the Fenway 100 historical Red Sox book, we can picture the Globe soon mining its archives in both sports and features to provide new value for customers and a new leg of revenue. It experimented early with three books on its Whitey Bulger stories, and learned some lessons in pricing, distribution, and the technical creation process along the way.

The Globe has plenty of company in this push. We see Canada’s National Post committing to a couple of dozen ebooks in the coming year, again from hard news to features (“To learn what works (quickly), Canada’s National Post dives into ebooks”). Guardian Shorts is an early innovator; Politico is churning out four campaign ebooks this year.

Magazine publishers, faster than newspaper publishers to embrace the tablet as the next-gen platform, are also ahead of most newspaper publishers in ebooks. Vanity Fair’s done more than a half dozen, and its parent Conde Nast is hosting an explosion of more single-purpose apps in the iTunes Store, some unrelated to Conde’s magazines. Hearst’s Cosmopolitan is embracing ebooks, and now partnering, along with ProPublica — an early tester of ebooks — with Open Road Integrated Technology. Open Road Integrated Technology?

Well, it’s a book company, an ebook company juiced on the possibilities of our age. Headed by former HarperCollins CEO Jane Friedman, the company is prototypical of a new group of middlemen. With book marketing savvy (cover design, marketing, distribution+), these companies are now feeding the emerging ebook marketplace. They are also partnering back for that old standby, print, as Open Road has done with book services company Ingram. In Canada, it was Harper Collins Canada that became the National Post’s partner in bringing news ebooks to market.

Just as the web has knocked many middlemen for a loop, it creates openings for new ones.

If you talk to publishers about ebooks, they are farther along in experimenting than they were a year ago. Yet some basic issues — producing the books, marrying them to commerce engines, placing them prominently in e-stores and more — are giving them headaches as they push forward. “How do we make the right offer to the right person at the right time?” one experienced exec asked.

The marketplace has been exploding (recall that Amazon announced last spring that its ebooks were now outselling its paper books), but those issues are setting the stage for a new group of companies, many staffed with graduates of the book industry, offering their help. Newspaper and magazine publishers are looking to the Open Roads for guidance.

Some are turning to their digital circulation partner, Press+. That company, which is powering more than 280 titles’ subscription commerce, says its system can handle the commerce and even help with identifying likely customers, based on tracked content usage, so its customers are just beginning to ply the ebook trade.

ProPublica general manager Dick Tofel opted for Open Road for the non-profit investigative publisher’s fifth and sixth books. He says the company will start producing a half dozen or more a year now and is now fielding calls from other publishers eager to get the benefit of his early ebook experience.

So far, ProPublica has put 90,000 ebooks into the market. The first couple were free downloads, but with the addition of new original introductions to work ProPublica had already published free online, Amazon and ProPublica agreed on test pricing of 99 cents and $1.99, and new revenue is rolling in. It’s small, but “pound for pound, it generates more than advertising,” notes Tofel, who is a Wall Street Journal veteran. And, of course, the incremental cost of creating ebooks is closer to zero, with most sales cost able to be a commissioned cost of sale.

As assistant publisher, Tofel oversaw the print books business that’s been a good Dow Jones sideline for a long time.

Those books — personal investing and more — are naturals for the ebook revolution now. Look for the Journal to experiment more with those titles, perhaps niching by life stage.

As news and magazine publishers look to this new revenue stream, here are six points to ponder:

It’s about product development: Yes, it’s editing, but fundamentally, it’s a mindset change for many publishers stuck in the one-size-fits-all world. Publishers either need staffers with new product chops or partners wanting to license publisher content and create the products for the marketplace.

Free the archives!: Digital archives have never been a big business for publishers, caught somewhere between Google and musty library connotations. Packaged archives — for specific audiences — can offer new life for older content.

Don’t think content; think problem solving: Publishers too often start with content. If we start with audience — college-planning students and parents, new mothers and fathers to be, bored cooks, and, big time, sports enthusiasts of all ages — we can see the motors of ebook publishing beginning to role. Think life stage, just for starters, and add the geo angle, and regional publishers can play.

Mining the database: As onesies and twosies, it’s fairly easy to pick content from publishers’ own databases. Think of bigger production cycle, going beyond the 100 a year, to a thousand, all niched products that could be semi-automated and templated over time. Better tagging of content for ebook usage then becomes a priority.

Ebook or app?: Early experimenters say let the content be your guide. The more multimedia, the better an app may work. Ebooks, though, can be sold through more distributors, while Apple continues to dominate the app business.

Pricing: What’s an ebook worth? If it solidifies a subscriber/member paying $300 or more a year, it’s worth a lot, even if it’s free. Think of the lifetime value of that subscriber.

To the right niche, some ebooks will be worth $1.99 and others — Retina perfect — will go for $19.99. Let’s take our 100 products a year. Let’s average 5,000 sales for each. Let’s price at $2.99 on average. That would be $1.5 million. Some books, though, could be blockbusters. We can play with this math and see where it goes.

For the ProPublicas, it’s a nice non-ad revenue stream. For other publishers, it’s at least a growing third leg of revenue (beyond ads and circulation) and one that may be nurtured into something significant. (Last fall, Will Sullivan offered a gaggle of reasons ebooks make sense for publishers.) As importantly, it can reinforce those two legs, pleasing subscribers/members with free (or discounted) perks and advertisers/sponsors who have new opportunities to represent themselves to niche audiences. That’s a pretty good combination, and one that publishers will soon embrace, just as they lately have all-access digital circulation.

14:00

Merger means the new Bay Citizen will be more investigative and experimental

Breaking: The Bay Citizen won’t be covering as much breaking news any more.

The merger of Bay Citizen with the Center for Investigative Reporting announced yesterday — with CIR forces coming out in charge — will mean structural changes for the nonprofit outlets. But it’ll also mean editorial changes, one of them being a reduction in covering the same big daily stories and subjects the competition is — at least not in the same way.

“There’s so much information, there’s so much newsgathering, there’s so much out there, and there’s so much clutter out there,” CIR executive director Robert Rosenthal told me. “Someone may have it first, but there’s almost no such thing as first anymore. News is a commodity. Information is a commodity.”

(The Bay Citizen’s own story on the merger puts it this way: “The Bay Citizen will likely no longer cover breaking news or culture, as CIR leaders have said they see those as commodities that don’t fit the expanded organization’s core mission.”)

Today, a Bay Citizen reporter “might post several times a day on a breaking story or a story on the Bay Area that they were covering maybe in a unique way,” Rosenthal said. “We’re not going to do that. If we get into a major developing story, it will be in an investigative or explanatory way…For a beat reporter, to suddenly not have the obligation of potentially filing I-don’t-know-how-many stories a day or week — it liberates you.

“You know as well as I do that one of the key elements of this kind of reporting is time: time to develop sources, time to do that extra step, having the time not to be chasing deadlines, quickly running out to events that are covered by multiple other people.”

Developing a focus

From its launch in January 2010, Bay Citizen took a broader approach to its coverage than many of its nonprofit peers, which tended to focus on narrow, specific areas like investigative reporting or a particular beat. Founded at a time when many were concerned the San Francisco Chronicle could close, Bay Citizen mixed in daily breaking news coverage, cultural coverage, and even sports with more investigative and enterprise work.

When the San Francisco Giants were in the 2010 World Series, Bay Citizen had author Dave Eggers attend games and do notebook drawings of players and fans. Indeed, Bay Citizen has done game stories, fan slideshows, and even fifth-inning updates from Giants games and other area sporting events — something not many other nonprofit outlets would do.

In particular, it’s probably not something you’d see from the CIR-founded California Watch, the statewide investigative news service. The Bay Citizen will adopt an approach that parallels the guiding principles at California Watch, only on a more local level, Rosenthal said. The combination of Bay Citizen, California Watch, and CIR can give the organization wide reach.

“Here’s an example: We’ve been looking very hard at issues on homeland security, and we have lots of data sets on a national scale,” Rosenthal says. “A reporter looking at that is thinking, ‘What’s the story for California?’ We may [also] be looking at a national story around surveillance. It’s a very flexible model.”

Bay Citizen is one of three regional nonprofit news outlets to have partnered with The New York Times to provide content for the Times’ regional editions; the others were the Chicago News Cooperative and the Texas Tribune. The Times, in addition to a small amount of money, gave status and prestige to the new local brands, plus the promise of some local print readers. But the deals also committed the outlets to producing a certain amount of newspaper-ready content — stories of a certain length and covering a newspapery mix of beats — that helped define its approach. Stories were due to the Times late Tuesday for Friday publication, so stories had to be able to hold a few days.

The Chicago News Cooperative has faced challenges even greater than Bay Citizen’s, suspending operations last month. Of the three Times partners, only the Texas Tribune — which keeps a tight focus on matters of state government and public policy — has thrived. And the Trib is known for ignoring even big breaking news that falls outside its editorial mission. (The New York Times’ Texas report does include culture coverage, but it’s provided by Texas Monthly instead of the Tribune.)

Rosenthal said CIR is currently re-evaluating The Bay Citizen’s relationship with the Times, noting that the deal carries an agreement of “exclusivity” that raises “concerns.”

Multiple platforms, multiple revenue streams

The flexibility of the model may be the key to the Center for Investigative Reporting’s success, and it’s about more than a newsroom-culture shift away from the kind of crime coverage you’re already going to get on the six o’clock news. Freeing up reporters to spend more time digging deeply into stories is the foundation. But the real opportunity for innovation comes in experimenting with a variety of distribution methods and multiple sources of revenue. That’s at least in part because the fundamental instability of the industry is directly tied to questions about how people get information today.

“It’s very difficult to be ambitious and build something in a newsroom where you’re getting smaller and the business model is broken — and it is broken,” Rosenthal said. “It has been broken. It’s not the journalism that’s broken, it’s the business model. We’re in a completely different world.”

“The process can be very iterative, it can be messy, but at the same time you get some great ideas.”

Adapting — and ultimate survival — in this new world requires deftly crossing platforms to tell stories that matter. Rosenthal bristles at the idea of having “readers” because CIR doesn’t just produce news websites, it produces news across platforms.

CIR’s revenue strategy mirrors the spirit of the diversification with which it approaches content production. Rosenthal says that the funding that flows into The Bay Citizen will, like California Watch, have multiple channels: philanthropic support from “major donor efforts,” content fees, fees from membership, fees from events, corporate underwriting. More opportunities for revenue translate into more journalism, which further fuels a newsroom’s ability to try different kinds of storytelling.

“You’re working simultaneously with the video people, you’re working with a radio reporter, you’re working with people who are doing interactive data, you’re working with people who might be doing animation,” Rosenthal says. “The process can be very iterative, it can be messy, but at the same time you get some great ideas…There’s a tremendous amount of involvement from everybody. It’s a very lively, creative, ambitious culture.”

It’s also a culture that encourages ideas that might not even be discussed in a traditional newsroom. Remember California Watch’s “Ready to Rumble”coloring book? That came out of an investigative series on earthquake safety in schools. Next up: Puppets.

“We’re going to be very experimental,” Rosenthal says. “We’re really thinking of how people of all ages get, use and want information at this revolutionary moment we’re all in. This is a good opportunity— a terrific, unique opportunity to be entrepreneurs.”

Photo of Golden Gate Bridge by Marco Klapper used under a Creative Commons license.

February 10 2012

15:00

This Week in Review: Facebook’s future and the open web, and finding balance on breaking news

Is Facebook a threat to the open web?: There was still a lot of smart commentary on Facebook’s filing for a public stock offering rolling in last late week, so I’ll start with a couple pieces I missed in last week’s review: Both The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal and Slate’s Farhad Manjoo were skeptical of Facebook’s ability to stay so financially successful. Madrigal said it’s going to have to get a lot more than the $4.39 in revenue per user it’s currently getting, and Manjoo wondered about what happens after the social gaming craze that’s been providing so much of Facebook’s revenue passes.

How to supplement those revenue streams? A lot of the answer’s going to come from personal data aggregation, and law professor Lori Andrews wrote in The New York Times about some of the dark sides of that practice, including stereotyping and discrimination. Facebook also needs to move more deeply into mobile, and Wired’s Tim Carmody documented its struggles in that area. On the bright side, Wired’s Steven Levy approved of Mark Zuckerberg’s letter to shareholders and his articulation of The Hacker Way.

Facebook’s filing also spurred an intriguing discussion of the relationship between it, Google, and the open web. As web pioneer John Battelle said best and The Atlantic’s James Fallows summarized aptly, several observers were concerned that Facebook’s rise and Google’s potential decline is a loss for the open web, because Google built its financial success on the success of the open web while Facebook’s success depends on increased sharing inside its own private channels. As Battelle argued, this private orientation threatens the core values that should drive the Internet: decentralization, a commons-based ethos, neutrality, interoperability, and data openness. Mathew Ingram of GigaOM countered that users don’t care so much about openness as usefulness, and that’s what could eventually do Facebook in.

Another Facebook-related discussion sprung up around Evgeny Morozov’s piece for The New York Times lamenting the death of cyberflânerie — the practice of strolling through the streets of the web alone, taking in and reflecting on its sights and sounds. Among other factors, he pinpointed Facebook’s “frictionless sharing” as the culprit, by mandating that all experiences be shared and tailored to our narrow interests. Sociologist Zeynep Tufekci pushed back against Morozov’s argument, countering that there’s still plenty of room for sharing-based serendipity because our friends’ interests don’t exactly line up with our own. And journalist Dana Goldstein argued that a lot of what yesterday’s flâneurs did is still echoed in the web today, for better or worse — cyberstalking, trying out new identities, and presenting our ideal selves to the public.

The clampdown on breaking news via Twitter: One of international journalism’s leaders in social media innovation, News Corp.’s Sky News, issued a surprisingly stern crackdown on its journalists’ Twitter practices, banning them from retweeting information from any other journalists without clearing it past the news desk and from tweeting about anything outside their beats.

There were a few people in favor of the new policy — Forbes’ Ewan Spence applauded the ‘better right than first’ approach, and Fleet Street Blues rather headscratchingly asserted that “it makes no sense for them to pay journalists to report through a medium outside its own editorial controls.” But far more people were crying out in opposition.

Reuters’ Anthony De Rosa reiterated that argument that a retweet is simply a quote, rather than an endorsement, and Breaking News’ Cory Bergman said not all the broadcast rules apply to Twitter — it’s okay to be human there. GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram and POLIS’ Charlie Beckett made the point that Sky should want its reporters to be seen as go-to information sources, period — no matter where the information comes from. As Beckett put it: “We the audience now privilege interactivity and added value over conformity. We trust you because you share, not because you have hierarchical structures.”

The BBC also updated its social media guidelines to urge reporters not to break news on Twitter before they file it to the BBC’s internal systems. BBC social media editor Chris Hamilton quickly clarified that the policy wasn’t as restrictive as it sounded: The BBC’s tech allows its journalists to file simultaneously to Twitter and to its newsroom CMS (an impressive feat in itself), and when that tech isn’t available, they want their journalists to file to the newsroom first — “a difference of a few seconds.”

J-prof Alfred Hermida said the idea that journalists shouldn’t break news on Twitter rests on the flawed assumption that journalists have a monopoly on breaking the news. And on Twitter, fellow media prof C.W. Anderson asserted that the chief problem lies in the idea that breaking news adds significant value to a story. “The debate over “breaking news on Twitter” is a perfect example of mistaking professional values for public / financial / ‘rational’ ones,” he wrote. Poynter’s Jeff Sonderman, meanwhile, praised the BBC for putting some real thought into how to fit Twitter into the breaking news workflow.

An unclear picture of the Times’ paywall: The New York Times released its fourth-quarter results late last week, and, as usual with their recent announcements, it proved something of a media business Rorschach test. The company reported a loss of $39.7 million for the year, thanks in large part to declines in advertising revenue — though most of that was due to About.com, as revenue in its news division was slightly up for the quarter.

As for the paywall, media analyst Ken Doctor reported 390,000 digital subscribers and estimated the Times’ paywall revenue at $86 million and said the paper has climbed a big mountain in getting more than 70 percent of its print subscribers to sign up for online access. Reuters’ Felix Salmon saw the paywall numbers as “unamiguously good news” and said it shows the paywall hasn’t eaten into ad revenues as much as it was expected to.

Others were a bit less optimistic. GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram said the Times’ new paywall revenue still isn’t enough to make up for its ad revenue declines, and urged the times to go beyond the paywall in hunting for digital revenue. Media analyst Greg Satell made a similar point, arguing that the paywall is a false hope and calling for the Times build up more “satellite” brands online, like the Wall Street Journal’s All Things Digital. Henry Blodget of Business Insider had a different solution: Keep cutting costs until the newsroom is down to a size that can be supported by a digital operation.

A nonprofit journalism merger: After a few weeks of speculation, two of the U.S.’ more prominent nonprofit news operations, the Bay Citizen and the Center for Investigative Reporting, have announced their intent to merge. Both groups are based in California’s Bay Area, and the CIR runs the statewide news org California Watch. The executive director of the new organization would be Phil Bronstein, the CIR board chairman and former San Francisco Chronicle editor.

Opinions on the move were mixed: Oakland Local founder (and former California Watch consultant) Susan Mernit thought it would make a lot of sense, combining the Bay Citizen’s strengths in funding and distribution with California Watch’s strengths in editorial content. Likewise, the Lab’s Ken Doctor saw it as an opportunity to make local nonprofit journalism work at an unprecedented scale.

There are reasons for caution, though. As Jim Romenesko noted, the Bay Citizen has recently gone through several key departures and the unexpected death of its co-founder and main benefactor, Warren Hellman (and even forgot to renew its web domain for a bit). And California Watch pointed out some of the potential conflicts between the two newsrooms — California Watch has a partnership with the Chronicle, whom the Bay Citizen considers a competitor. And the Bay Citizen has its own partnership with The New York Times for its regional edition, something PBS MediaShift’s Ashwin Seshagiri said could now prove as much a hindrance as an advantage.

J-prof Jay Rosen said the two orgs aren’t a good fit because of their differing institutional bases — the CIR is more established and has been on a steady build, while the Bay Citizen’s short history is full of turmoil. And the San Francisco Bay Guardian’s Steven Jones argued that Bronstein’s rationale for the merger is misrepresenting Hellman’s wishes.

Reading roundup: Lots of other stuff going on this week, too. Here’s a quick rundown:

— Another week, another few new angles to the already enormous News Corp. phone hacking scandal: The FBI is investigating the company for illegal payments of as much £100,000 to foreign officials such as police officers, a political blogger told British officials that the Sunday Mirror’s top editor personally authorized hacking, and The Times of London admitted it hacked into a police officer’s email to out him as the author of an anonymous blog. How much is this whole mess costing News Corp.? $87 million for the investigation alone last quarter.

— News Corp.’s tablet news publication The Daily got the one-year treatment with an update on its so-so progress in The New York Times. News business analyst Alan Mutter also gave a pretty rough review of the status of tablet news apps as a whole.

— A couple of other news developments of interest to folks in our little niche: The tech news site GigaOM announced it was buying paidContent from the Guardian (PBS MediaShift’s Dorian Benkoil loved the move, and the Knight Foundation announced the first of its new News Challenge competitions, this one oriented around networks.

— A couple of cool studies released this week: One from HP Labs on predicting the spread of news on Twitter, and another from USC on ways in which the Internet is changing us.

— Finally, for those of us among the digitally hyper-connected, The New York Times’ David Carr wrote a poignant piece on the enduring value of in-person connections, and sociologist Zeynep Tufekci offered a thoughtful response.

Original Twitter bird by Matt Hamm used under a Creative Commons license.

October 07 2011

14:30

This Week in Review: Remembering Steve Jobs, and a new-old media partnership

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

A man who thought different: The tech, media, and business worlds lost one of their brightest minds this week: Steve Jobs, the visionary who co-founded Apple and helped transform virtually every industry this site touches on, died Wednesday at age 56. Thousands of people have been pouring out their thanks and remembrances online over the past couple of days; I’ll try to highlight some of the most insightful reflections here.

First, the obituaries: The New York Times and Wall Street Journal memorialized Jobs in their formal, definitive style, while Wired’s Steven Levy took a more interpretive angle on Jobs’ life and work. The Times offered a fantastic interactive guide to Jobs’ 317 patents, and All Things Digital remembered Jobs with a collection of his own words. One of his most well-known public statements is a 2005 commencement speech that included some profound thoughts about death, including the statement, “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.”

The New York Times and the Lab’s Megan Garber have good summaries of the ways people remembered and honored Jobs on Wednesday. Several pieces on Jobs’ legacy, by the LA Times’ Michael Hiltzik, Slate’s Farhad Manjoo, and Reuters’ Kevin Kelleher, centered on a similar point: Jobs’ expertise wasn’t in technical advancements so much as it was in his uncanny ability to recognize what made technologies frustrating for people to use and then to develop brilliant solution after brilliant solution. As the AP’s Ted Anthony put it, “He realized what we wanted before we understood it ourselves.”

Others remembered Jobs for what tech blogger Dave Winer called “the integrity of his vision.” For the Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal, that vision meant a distinctive devotion to work for pure self-fulfillment, and that devotion led to, as Richard MacManus of ReadWriteWeb pointed out, a corporate culture uniquely predicated on accountability and direct responsibility. Berkman Center fellow Doc Searls brought up some old insights about Jobs’ dedication to innovation, and at the Guardian, Dan Gillmor wrote on the juxtaposition between his awe of Jobs’ genius and his concern about Apple’s growing control. Horace Dediu gave the contrarian’s remembrance, challenging the idea of Jobs as an otherworldly visionary and coming up with some poetic insight in the process.

A few people looked specifically at Steve Jobs’ impact on the media industry — GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram looked at the ways Apple has continued to disrupt media, especially with the iPhone, which definitively turned the phone into a media consumption device. Jeff Sonderman of Poynter republished a piece on Jobs’ relationship with the news industry, and the New York Times’ David Carr said Jobs made business journalism cool for the first time.

Then there were the personal stories: Fast Company collected bunches of accounts of tech execs, writers, and students’ first meetings with Jobs, and the Wall Street Journal’s Walt Mossberg shared several Jobs stories of his own. Tech blogger John Gruber wrote on the grass-stained sneakers Jobs wore to his keynote address at a conference in June — “the product of limited time, well spent.” And former Gizmodo writer Brian Lam, who had a notorious run-in with Apple last year over a lost iPhone prototype, reflected on Jobs’ kindness and forgiveness amid that incident.

My favorite takeaway came from journalism professor Jeremy Littau’s summary of his lecture on Jobs to his students: “Go create stuff. Lots of stuff. Don’t wait for me to tell you to do it and —  for the love of God — don’t wait for it to be assigned in a class or be for credit on the student newspaper. The great ones are never off the clock. They create stuff because it matters, not because they’re told to.”

Two media giants jump in together: ABC News and Yahoo announced a major partnership for online news, agreeing to share web content, count traffic together, and produce web video series. It’s not a full-fledged merger: The two organizations will remain independent, but they’ll share news bureaus and sell ads together as ABC produces web series for Yahoo and Yahoo maintains the web operations of shows like Good Morning America.

These two companies have done something like this before — as Poynter noted, their announcement this week was strikingly similar to an announcement between the two orgs back in 2000. Still, The New York Times said it’s the deepest partnership of its kind since NBC and Microsoft in the mid-’90s. The basic reasons for the move seem to make sense: As the Times and TV Newser pointed out, ABC News has plenty of corporate muscle behind it via Disney, but has lagged behind its competitors in web traffic. Yahoo, on the other hand, is swimming in traffic but has had some serious difficulty figuring where to go from there.

Still, the deal got a lukewarm reception from many online media analysts. One of them told Ad Age that for ABC News, Yahoo was “the last life vest on the Titanic.” Wired’s Tim Carmody said ABC and Yahoo could have some quite interesting opportunities for cooperation, but instead, they’re “both left chasing The Huffington Post — a fast-growing, web-native and increasingly multimedia-savvy and professional-journalism-driven site.” Mathew Ingram of GigaOM described the move as a doomed, retrograde portal strategy: What these organizations need, he said, is not more eyeballs, but more targeted audiences and well-produced niche content.

But here at the Lab, media professor Josh Braun said that while the partnership is far from a slam dunk, it’s still an ambitious move with the potential to give ABC News a foothold into round-the-clock content and some demographic niches highly coveted by advertisers. On Yahoo’s side, Forbes’ Jeff Bercovici wondered whether they’re moving away from producing original content.

Apple drops the next iPhone: The news of Steve Jobs’ death dwarfed what had been a significant development for Apple-philes: the unveiling, earlier this week, of the next iteration of the iPhone, the iPhone 4S. As the New York Times explained, the new iPhone doesn’t look much different from the current one, but most of its improvements are below the surface, most notably the addition of a voice-activated personal assistant named Siri.

This was not what everyone was expecting; for weeks, the tech press had wrongly predicted an iPhone 5, only to see upgrades that were smaller and more incremental than they expected. The result was disappointment for many, summed up well by Henry Blodget of Business Insider and Farhad Manjoo of Slate. Others, like tech writer Dan Frommer and The New York Times’ Nick Bilton, said there was plenty to like about the iPhone 4S, including faster download speeds and a more powerful camera.

Poynter’s Jeff Sonderman looked at several aspects of the new iPhone of interest to journalists, focusing specifically on Apple’s new Newsstand section for newspaper and magazine apps. He expressed some concern that the Newsstand locks publishers into Apple’s 30-percent-cut pay system while duplicating the old print news-buying experience, rather than creating something new.

Reading roundup: This week was a busy one outside of the big stories, too. Here’s what else people were talking about:

— Some conversation that continues to trickle out about Facebook’s overhaul: GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram argued that Facebook’s “frictionless sharing” is where the web is headed next, the Lab’s Ken Doctor and Gina Chen looked at what’s in this for news orgs, and at The Atlantic, Ben Zimmer looked at what Facebook has done to the way we use language.

— Commentary about last week’s Kindle announcement also continued this week, with Frederic Filloux explaining why he’s excited about the Kindle Fire’s potential for news media and magazine publishers, saying the Fire could help spark some big revenue in tablets. Meanwhile, Nate Hoffelder noted that there’s a lot that you can’t do with the Kindle and its apps, and Mathew Ingram wondered what will happen to the book industry when Kindle prices drop to zero.

— Jonathan Stray’s thoughtful post a couple of weeks ago about journalism for makers has led to a slow-burning discussion: Grad student Blair Hickman proposed a model for solution-based journalism, while journalism professor C.W. Anderson questioned whether journalists have the authority for such an approach. Meanwhile, Josh Stearns of Free Press mused on applying “systems thinking” to journalism.

— This month’s Carnival of Journalism produced a solid set of posts that examined a variety of aspects of online video, from technique to philosophy to business. Here’s the roundup.

— Two useful pieces of advice from Poynter: a guide for news sites to partnering with local blogs, and for journalists to get started with data journalism.

— Former New York Times editor Bill Keller offered a (surprisingly) bullish take on the potential for a sustainable business model in online news, and the Center for Investigative Reporting’s Robert Rosenthal gave a thorough, up-close look at what that means for a single news org in his four-part report on making CIR and California Watch sustainable. Here’s part one and the bullet-point version.

August 03 2011

17:00

California Watch expands south with a new partnership

The nonprofit California Watch, just shy of its second birthday, opens its new Southern California bureau today — and the location says something about the evolution of the news business.

A reporter and community engagement manager will be leaving the outfit’s Berkeley headquarters and taking up residence in the newsroom of the Orange County Register. And the rent is unbeatable: free.

“As traditional newsrooms have cut back, they have been left with vast stretches of open space inside their newsrooms or buildings,” said Mark Katches, editorial director for California Watch and its parent organization, the making the announcement last month. “We are able to capitalize in a way that benefits our organization and our hosts.”

A couple of years ago, when California Watch was new and unknown, the outlook for this kind of team-up might not have been so sunny. The O.C. (don’t call it that) Register, for one thing, might have viewed California Watch simply as a competitor encroaching on its turf. Other reporters setting up shop here, digging for the same dirt?

No longer, though: Now, they’re teammates. (The Register already pays annual licensing fees to run California Watch stories in its own pages.) “There’s just so much news in California that, two years in, there really has not been a case where we have overlapped,” says Robert Salladay, California Watch’s senior editor. “I think that alleviated a lot of fear on the part of reporters and our partners.”

Not everyone they talked to was as receptive to a team-up as the Register, Salladay said, but at the same time, California Watch was actually getting partnership invitations from some papers. “The situation with newspapers is so critical. I think everyone’s happy for the copy, happy that stories are getting done. It is a much more collaborative industry now,” Salladay told me. “I can imagine that, 10 years ago, this model just wouldn’t have flown at all.”

The Center for Investigative Reporting launched California Watch in fall 2009 to do the kind of time-consuming, data-driven reporting that many newspapers can’t afford anymore. Since then, the site has launched its own initiatives: a statewide distribution network, a radio partnership with public broadcasting giant KQED, and a television unit that works in collaboration with WGBH’s Frontline and ABC News. In addition to more than 1,200 news posts last year, the site pumps out, on average, three investigative pieces a month, Salladay told me — and a half-dozen major series a year.

Financially, California Watch continues to subsist on grants from foundations, but the organization is raising some revenue, as well. In January, the outfit changed the way it charges for its content. Members of the California Watch Media Network — among them the San Francisco Chronicle, the Sacramento Bee, and, yes, the Orange County Register — now choose from a menu of stories each year and pay membership fees that vary according to their circulation and audience reach. (Previously, California Watch negotiated the price of each story, a la carte.) Salladay would not disclose the membership rates, but he said it can’t be so much that a newspaper can’t afford it. Newspapers’ financial struggles, after all, are the reason California Watch exists in the first place.

California Watch’s move into Southern California is overdue, Salladay said — especially because it’s where most Californians live. “One of the reasons we want to be in Southern California is that here are a lot of neglected communities that don’t get a lot of coverage, so we’re hoping to get out to some of the smaller communities to do a lot of work on low-income people, disadvantaged communities, work on the border, work on migrant farmworkers. You’d be surprised how many small towns there are down there that aren’t being watched. I think with what the L.A. Times found with the city of Bell, there’s a lot of fruitful work that can be done.”

Looking beyond Orange County, Salladay would also like to get a reporter in Los Angeles, add a border bureau in San Diego or Imperial County, and maybe hire a staff photographer. In just two years, now with 25 employees, California Watch has become the largest investigative reporting team in the state. The organization’s biggest challenge now, Salladay said, is staying on mission.

“We have to constantly remind ourselves that the mission is investigative reporting — looking at waste, fraud, and abuse,” he noted. “There’s a great temptation to pull ourselves away for some great mini-scandal somewhere or some great enterprise story about a social issue. We want to do those, but I think it’s important for us to stay focused.”

July 18 2011

13:00

Pew: Nonprofit journalism doesn’t mean ideology-free

Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism is out with a new study this morning that looks at the new universe of nonprofit journalism — and tries to get beyond the ProPublicas of the world to see who else is producing journalism under the legal structure of a 501(c)3 exemption. After all, remember, “nonprofit” signals a tax status, not a belief system or a commitment to any particular ideals, journalistic or otherwise.

The study found more than a little ideology lurking under that IRS umbrella. Of the 46 sites examined — 39 nonprofit and 7 commercial as a control — around half “produced news coverage that was clearly ideological in nature,” the researchers report.

Pew had the expected nice things to say about the usual nonprofit rock stars, like ProPublica, the Texas Tribune, MinnPost, and California Watch. They’re transparent about their funding sources, which are numerous; their doesn’t skew too far in one political direction; they produce a lot of journalism, compared to their nonprofit peers. But the major national networks of state politics sites — the conservative Watchdog.org sites and the liberal American Independent News Network — don’t reveal much about who’s paying their bills, and their work skews clearly in one direction, both in the topics they cover and the content of individual stories.

(Because it attempted to cover an entire universe of nonprofit outlets, researchers had to limit their targets to a reasonable number. As a result, older news orgs like the Center for Public Integrity and metro-scale outlets like Voice of San Diego were both excluded.)

PEJ does a great job, with this and other studies, of moving past barroom debates and gathering real-world data on the new worlds of journalism. And while this research doesn’t draw explicit moral conclusions, it won’t be hard for others to: These nonprofits aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. They’re not objective; they’re hidden tools of politicos; they’re no replacement for newspapers. Beyond the flagships like ProPublica and Texas Tribune, it’s a mucky world.

And there’s some truth in that! But two points: First, few of even the most ambitious nonprofit outlets consider themselves true replacements for newspapers. The scale just isn’t there; as Pew’s study notes, the median editorial-staff size at the nonprofits they studied was three. (Although those three people are usually more topic-focused than their print peers — a nonprofit site covering a statehouse might be the biggest player in town with three reporters.) Replacement is a straw man; the vast majority of nonprofits, ideological or not, view themselves more as supplements.

Second, a little ideology isn’t such a bad thing. Take the right-of-center Watchdog.org sites, which we wrote about last year. They say their mission is to “promote social welfare and civil betterment by undertaking programs that promote journalism and the education of the public about corruption, incompetence, fraud, or taxpayer abuse by elected officials at all levels of government.” They investigate Democrats a lot more than Republicans, and they’re no great fans of what they see as wasteful big government.

The left-of-center American Independent News Network sites works the other side, saying its reporting “emphasizes the positive role of democratically elected government in securing the common good and social welfare, and the continuing benefits of our founding culture of egalitarian government by the people, for the people.” They take on the GOP more than Democrats, and they write a lot about the environment and labor issues.

Viewed as replacements, they fall short of what we’d expect from a good newspaper. But as supplements, I’m happy that both exist — that in a state with both a Watchdog site and an Independent site, both sides of the aisle will be poked and prodded, and that stories will surface that otherwise wouldn’t. I’d draw a distinction between ideological outlets as drivers of political culture — Fox News being a prime example — and as drivers of new information. The biggest risk posed by the loss of reporting manpower in places like our nation’s statehouses is that real stories will go unreported. Adding ideological outlets to the mix reduces that chance; at least someone will be paying attention to environmental issues or fraud at the DMV. And, unlike with Fox News, the readers of many of these sites tend to be high-information consumers of political news; a statehouse-news-only site isn’t ever going to reach the broader general audience of a newspaper or TV station.

Anyway, that’s just one take on what is a data-rich analysis, a snapshot of an important group of new players in the news world. Go read the full paper.

April 28 2011

15:00

The newsonomics of story cost accounting

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

What’s a story worth?

Last week, I looked at a single investigative story (California Watch’s “On Shaky Ground“), and we saw the tab of half a million dollars for a 20-month-long tale of sleuthing. What about that ordinary daily story, quotidian journalism as we know it — the grinding out of less eventful articles, the kinds of things that keep us informed but don’t offer epiphanies? How much does it cost, and how much does that matter to the future of the news business?

It’s not an academic question. This week, McClatchy added to the long line of down financial reports, telling us that it was down 11 percent, year over year, in ad revenues and 9 percent in overall revenues, for the first quarter. That announcement follows on from similar reports from The New York Times Co., especially its regional properties, and Gannett. The U.S. news industry is extending its unwanted record: 21 straight quarters of revenue down quarter to quarter. That’s a lost half-decade.

Add up those down revenues and the need to maintain profitability — for public or private owners — and there’s but a single answer: cut costs. Certainly, the industry has cut out major costs in the last three years, but cost-cutting is slowing, if you look at the company reports. The New York Times’ costs were flat in the first quarter, Gannett’s down 0.9 percent and McClatchy’s down 6.5 percent. That’s in large part due to rising newsprint prices, making it harder to get costs more appreciably down. With those continuing revenue declines, though, expect more cost-cutting. It’s a given.

So, let’s ask about that daily story. What’s it cost?

Of course, we’ve never looked at it that way. We’ve hired people, told them to write, at times monitoring their production, but rarely taking a look at the cost of what they’re producing. Given the pressures of the day, given the Demand Media model and given the predilection to start counting whatever can be counted (“The newsonomics of WaPo’s reader dashboard 1.0“), story cost accounting is inevitable.

In fact, it’s already started. Let’s take a brief look at what is bound to become a bigger topic in the months ahead, the newsonomics of a single story.

Clark Gilbert, Salt Lake’s dean of disruption, is getting into the nitty-gritty of retooling editorial content production, top to bottom, and that includes getting a handle on differing costs of content. Gilbert is a key part of the team that is transforming the media properties of the daily Deseret News and leading local TV and radio stations KSL, all owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, better known as the Mormon Church. Last August, Gilbert announced one of the most major restructurings in journalism, making major staff cuts — a prelude to the re-architecting now being done. That restructuring includes the launching of Deseret Connect, an initiative to round up pro-am user-generated content from around Utah, and around the globe.

The new CEO of Deseret Media will soon be able to tell you exactly how much articles cost him. He’ll specify the differing price points of local, proprietary content, of AP content, of a blog post written halfway around the world, and lots more.

For now, he draws upon his experience as a Harvard Business School prof and strategic consultant. From that career work, he estimates the following, general cost metrics for the content offered by news companies in print and online:

  • $250-$300 per staff-written story;
  • $100 per stringer story;
  • $25 per Associated Press story;
  • 5-12 for “remote” stories, largely written by the emerging class of bloggers

“You better know your cost per story,” he says. “That’s the kind of rigor you need.”

As focused as he is on building digital ad revenues, he makes the point directly: “You have to work both sides [revenue building, cost reduction] of this.”

“It doesn’t mean I’m not willing to pay for content,” says Gilbert. “I’m paying a boatload for stories that are a commitment to my audience.” It’s a straightforward strategy: If you are going to pay a boatload for some stuff, you better pay a lot less for other stuff.

Still, those numbers are bound to chill many a journalist. You think posting reader metrics in newsrooms is still a point of contention — wait ’til story cost accounting becomes mainstream. And it will. It’s just simple manufacturing, and like it or not, that’s what the news business has long been. Manufacturing, with lots (New York Times, Wall Street Journal) of quality added or with (insert your favorite rag here) just enough to draw ads. News creation used to be a sunk cost, with headcount a small and usually polite battle between editors and publishers. That was in stable times. In these times, knowing business drivers, down to the dollar, is going to be part of the new world.

The metrics-driven thinking may have been first demonstrated by Demand Media, with its $10, $25, and $50 stories (“The newsonomics of content arbitrage“), but once opened, that Pandora’s Box won’t be closed.

Clark Gilbert is early in the game, but others are taking a parallel cost-conscious approach.

John Paton, CEO of the new, continuous-revolution Journal Register Company, breaks it down differently, but is highly cost-aware.

“We’re not looking to save money on local, professional content,” Paton told me this week. Notice the emphasis on “local” and “professional.” Like many others, Journal Register is beginning to round up hundreds of local bloggers (as Patch joins that club), who will be largely unpaid.

What Paton emphasizes, though, in his cost-of-content analysis, is the 60 percent of JRC’s content — across print and digital — that is national. He’s done a careful counting of what’s in his products, and says that while 40 percent is local (above average for dailies, he says), 60 percent is national. So Project Thunderdome, newly headed by D.C. veteran Jim Brady, has put a bullseye on that content. The notion: Lower the cost, and where possible, raise the quality of national content. That thinking is behind JRC’s recent deal with TheStreet.com, which is now providing its national business news. It’s a revenue share, with JRC gaining national revenues. In addition, says Paton, it has increased its local business content-related revenue, given both the new inventory of ad impressions made possible and the quality of TheStreet.com content. That’s a model Paton intends to extend to other non-local content.

Further, he’s taken dead aim at the cost of getting content through the mechanics of a newsroom. Saying that about half of U.S. editorial staffs are engaged in producing content for publication — not creating it — he’s focused on changing that ratio. Instead of five of ten journalists engaged in production, he’s aiming for two of ten, to be accomplished through centralization and templating of the production functions. “Then, two or three more of the ten can create content,” he says.

Both plans will, in effect, reduce the cost of content overall. And, as with Clark Gilbert’s philosophy, the intent is to invest in unique, local, proprietary content, even though it’s far more expensive.

Let’s consider one more take on story cost accounting. As CEO of Huffington Post, Betsy Morgan pioneered the unique brand of higher-end, often personality-driven aggregation that distinguished the site’s offerings. Out of that experience, and in her new role as CEO of Glenn Beck’s The Blaze site, she’s evolved her own metrics. They divide nicely into thirds.

  • One-third original, professional content, largely reported journalism.
  • One-third voice and opinion.
  • One-third aggregation, or to use the updated term, “curation,” as editors aggregate, honing off-site story selection given their understanding of their unique audiences.

Morgan tells me that “the thirds” form both an audience strategy and a cost strategy. Clearly, as the venture-backed HuffPo began its life, it watched its dollars very carefully. That meant that curation wasn’t just an audience-pleasing idea, of course, but a cost-saving one, as bloggers (at least then!) willingly forked over content in exchange for play and recognition, not money.

Going forward, the “thirds strategy” offers another twist on Clark Gilbert’s and John Paton’s (and Arianna Huffington’s) strategies. Obviously, you don’t pay for the curation part, other than for the technologies or smaller staff to handle it. You can pay for some of the voice and opinion, but there’s a hell of a lot of it you can get for free or cheap. And, once again, you concentrate your costs of content on the high end — original, professional, largely reported journalism.

The new AOL/HuffPo’s been doing that with pro hire after pro hire. Morgan herself is doing it, as recently as this week with the hiring of former Denver Post columnist David Harsanyi.

Add it all up, and it’s a new cost structure for the craft of journalism. As with all metrics, the good or bad they inspire depends on who is using them. What’s clear is that those news outfits — local, national or global — which only concentrate on paying staff, like in the old days, will find themselves out-strategized by those who take the blended approach.

Is it all about thirds? No, but it’s a good place to start.

I think of it as a pyramid. Original content — content that distinguishes news brands — is at the top, and, yes, is the most costly. At the bottom is clearly aggregation, because as Morgan points out, “[readers] can’t easily find and read what’s of interest to them.” Then, there’s the middle third or so. For regional news companies, that includes hyperlocal bloggers and subject-specific (transportation, public health, sports) experts; for national sites, it’s non-staff “contributors” of differing skills and costs. That third is quite open to innovation.

It’s a great whiteboard exercise, at least, for anyone in the news business. Pass the marker, please, and work the pyramid.

April 21 2011

14:00

The newsonomics of a single investigative story

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

It’s a week to celebrate great investigative work. ProPublica made some history with its Pulitzer for online-only work about the financial meltdown, and the Los Angeles Times crowned its success with the larger-than-life Bell corruption tale, winning its own top prize. Both well deserved.

Meanwhile, as journalists sat around their terminals awaiting the Pulitzer bulletin, an investigative series broke across California, perhaps reaching more audience more quickly than any previous investigative piece. There were no bodies to count, nor billions or millions of ill-gotten gains to uncover.

Rather, California Watch’s “On Shaky Ground” series is aimed at preventing disaster, getting ahead of the Grim Reaper. The series took a big look at the likely safety issues in the state’s schools when (not if, right?) The Big One hits. It found, not surprisingly, that although state law mandated seismic preparations, all kinds of bureaucratic nonsense has contravened that intent. It found that about 1,100 schools had been red-flagged as in need of repair, with no work done, while tens of thousands of others were in questionable and possibly illegal shape. The so-what: Some of the very institutions providing for the kids of California have a certain likelihood of actually falling on top of them and killing them.

It’s old-fashioned, shoe-leather, box-opening, follow-the-string journalism, and it is well done.

While it’s fun to celebrate great journalism, anytime, it’s vital to look at the newsonomics of this kind of investigative journalism. What did it take to get it done? How much did it cost and who paid for it? And, to look at the plainly fundamental question: How do we get lots more of it done in the future?

The series took more than 20 months to complete. The interactive timeline, “On Shaky Ground: The story behind the story,” tells that tale with tongue in cheek; it’s a great primer for any beginning journalism class. Corey G. Johnson, freshly hired from North Carolina and part of a young reporting contingent that has been mixed and mentored well by veterans like editorial director Mark Katches, stumbles on a list of 7,500 “unsafe schools” as he’s doing a routine story on the 20th anniversary of the Loma Prieta earthquake.

Along the way, the story grows in import and paperwork. California Watch, the less-than-two-year-old offshoot of the Berkeley-based Center for Investigative Journalism (CIR), adds other staff to the effort, including reporter Erica Perez, public engagement manager Ashley Alvarado, distribution manager Meghann Farnsworth, and director of technology Chase Davis, among other reporters.

In the end, the series rolled out in three parts — with maps, databases, historical photos, its own Twitter hashtag, a “My Quake” iPhone app — and a coloring book (“California Watch finds a new consumer group, kids“), intended to reach kids, the most important subject and object of the reporting. Already, the state legislature has scheduled hearings for April 27.

The reach of the roll-out is one of the new lessons here. Six major dailies ran at least some part of the series. ABC-affiliate broadcasters took the story statewide. Public radio news leaders KQED, in the Bay Area, and KPCC, in L.A. ran with it. KQED-TV. The ethnic press signed on: La Opinion ran two seismic stories Sunday and Monday, while at least two Korean papers, one Chinese paper, and one Chinese TV station included coverage as well. More than 125 Patch sites in the state (California is major Patch turf) participated.

A number of the distributors did more than distribute. They localized, using data from California Watch, and reporting on their local schools’ shape. KQED-TV produced a 30-minute special that is scheduled to air on at least 12 PBS affiliates in the state.

San Francisco Chronicle managing editor Steve Proctor is frank about how priorities and resource use have changed in the age of downsizing. When Proctor came to the paper in 2003, he says, the paper had five to seven people assigned to a full-time investigative team. Now there’s no team per se, with the Chronicle investing investigative resources in an “investigate and publish” strategy, getting stories out to the public more quickly and then following up on public-generated leads they create. It’s an adjustment in strategy and in resource allocation — and the California Watch relationship makes it even more workable. “We’ve been pretty sympatico with them from the beginning,” he said. “We’ve used the majority of what they’ve produced.”

So let’s get deeper into some numbers, informed by this series, and see where this kind of work can go:

  • “On Shaky Ground” cost about $550,000 to produce, most of that in staff time, as the project mushroomed. That’s now a huge sum of money to a newsroom, even a metro-sized one. Ask a publisher whether he or she is willing to spend a half a million on a story, and you know the answer you’ll usually get. It’s a sum few newsrooms can or will invest. Consequently, the economics of getting a well edited, well packaged series for a hundreth of that price is an offer few newsrooms can (or probably should) refuse.
  • California Watch, not yet two years old, runs on a budget of about $2.7 million a year. That budget supports 14 journalists, whose funding takes up about 70 percent of that $2.7 million number. That’s an intriguing percentage in and of itself; most daily newspaper newsrooms make up of 20 percent or less of their company’s overall expenses. So, disproportionately, the money spent on California Watch is spent on journalists — and journalism.

The project is about midway through its funding cycles. The ubiquitous Knight Foundation (which has contributed about $15 million to a number of investigative projects nationwide through its Investigative Reporting Initiative), the Irvine Foundation, and the Hewlett Foundation, all of which have provided million-dollar-plus grants, are reviewing new proposals.

The key word, going forward here, is “sustaining.” Will foundations provide ongoing support of the “public good” of such journalism? There’s lots of talk among foundations, but no clear consensus among journalism-facing ones. “There really isn’t a foundation community that thinks with a common brain — same situation as in the news community,” Knight’s Eric Newton told me this week. “Each foundation makes its own decisions using different criteria. Some foundations see their role as launching new things and letting nature take its course.” CIR executive director Robert Rosenthal is among those trying to find a new course. Although he’s a highly experienced editor, he finds that most of his time is found fund- and friend-raising.

  • California Watch is building a syndication business, feeling its way along. Already, six larger dailies — the San Francisco Chronicle, the Sacramento Bee, the Orange County Register, the San Diego Union-Tribune, the Fresno Bee, and the Bakersfield California — are becoming clients, paying a single price for the all-you-can-eat flow of daily and enterprise stories California Watch produces. They, a number of ABC affiliates (L.A.’s KABC, the Bay Area’s KGO, 10 News San Diego, 10 News Sacramento, KSFN in Fresno), and KQED public radio and TV in the Bay Area are also annual clients pay between $3,000 and $15,000 a year each. A la carte pricing for individual projects can run from $3,000 to $10,000. The California Watch media network, just launched in January, is an important building block of the evolving business model. It is clear that while syndication can be a good support, at those rates, it’s a secondary support.
  • So, if California Watch were to be totally supported by foundation money, it would take an endowment of $54 million to throw off $2.7 million a year, at a five percent spend rate. Now $54 million raised one time isn’t an impossible sum. Consider just one gift: Joan Kroc left NPR more than $200 million eight years ago. Consider that the billionaires’ club started by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett (encouraging their peers to give away half of their wealths) is talking about newly raising a half a trillion dollars for the public good. Last summer, I suggested the group tithe a single percentage point of the club’s treasury for news-as-a-public-good. It seems to me that stories like “On Shaky Ground” make that pivotal education/health/journalism connection; send “Shaky Ground” to your favorite billionaire and urge him to sign on.
  • Let’s do some cost-benefit analysis. How much is a single child’s life worth? How about a school of 250? We could consult a liability lawyer, who undoubtedly would put assign a six- and seven-figure number per life, and then tie up the courts, post-disaster, making the math work. So if California, bereft as it is of capital, were to invest in the infrastructure, per its own laws, wouldn’t it be ultimately cost-effective? Of course it would be, and in this case we see in microcosm, the question of American infrastructure writ large. Are we a country that will let more bridges fall into mighty rivers, more schools fall onto our children and more poor roads cause preventable injury and death? You don’t need my political rant here. Rather, let us just make the point that journalism — old-fashioned journalism, newly digitally enhanced — is a key part of forcing America to face its own issues, whatever the solutions.

In this project and in California Watch generally, we see the reconfiguring of local media. An owner — whether AOL, Hearst, or private equity — can hardly reject the offer of paying one-hundreth of the cost for space-filling, audience-interesting content. Welcome to a new kind of content farm, to use that perjorative for a moment. Yes, California Watch operates on the same Demand Media-like principle of create-once-distribute-many, realizing the digital cost of the second copy is nil. Let’s consider it the organic, cage-free content farm. It makes sense for a state the size of a country (California = Canada); smaller versions of it make equal sense for Ohio, North Carolina, or Illinois.

Older media outsources journalism and in-sources (affordable) passion. There are lots of lessons here (“3 Reasons to Watch California Watch“), but that fundamental rejiggering of who does the work and how it is distributed and customized is a key one. As Mark Katches points out, “They [distributing partners] put their voices on our story.” That’s a new system in the making.

Old(er) editors can learn new tricks. For a good show-and-tell of that principle, check out Rosenthal’s talk to TEDxPresidio two weeks ago. I first saw him give the talk at NewsFoo in Phoenix in December. Amid more tech-oriented talks, his stood out and was much applauded. It’s a clarifying call for real journalism, perfected for the digital age. Share it.

January 05 2011

14:05

Why ProPublica is publishing web ads — and what that means for the nonprofit outfit’s funding future

Check out ProPublica’s website today, and you might notice — along with blog posts, donation buttons, links to special projects, and the kind of deep-dive investigative journalism that the nonprofit outfit is celebrated for — a new feature: advertisements. Starting today, the outfit is serving ads on its site to complement the funding it takes in from foundation support and reader contributions, its two primary revenue streams.

“This has been something we’ve been expecting to do for some time,” Richard Tofel, ProPublica’s general manager, told me in a phone call. “It was a question of when.”

ProPublica isn’t alone in venturing into the realm of dot-org advertising. A number of ProPublica’s nonprofit peers, California Watch, Texas Tribune, Voice of San Diego, and MinnPost among them, already run sponsored messages on their sites, served directly and via community partnerships and corporate underwriting. As Tofel noted in a blog post explaining the decision to take on ad support: “We’re doing this for the usual reason: to help raise revenue that can fuel our operations, promoting what people in the non-profit world call ’sustainability.’”

The revenue raised, though, won’t likely be much in comparison to that offered by ProPublica’s other funding streams. The site had 1,300 donors in 2010, Tofel notes, providing $3.8 million on top of the funding provided by the Sandler Foundation; web advertising being what it is, the revenue that comes from the ads will likely be a trickle compared to the site’s donation-based funding streams. “Given what’s happened to web advertising in the last five years, on any kind of reasonable projection of the size of our audience” — though the number fluctuates, ProPublica currently averages a little more than a million pageviews a month, he told me — “we’re not talking about a great deal of money.”

So HuffPost this is not. And that will be true not only in terms of the revenue generated by the ads, but also in terms of their content itself. ProPublica’s ads will be served as part of the Public Media Interactive Network, a digital ad network — operated by National Public Media — that started in 2008 to sell remnant ad space on NPR.org and PBS.org, but which recently expanded to include nonprofit news sites. (According to this press release, Texas Tribune and MinnPost are also members.) The network sells packages; publishers can either opt into or opt out of running those packages’ ads on their sites. And while “we’ve looked at the range of their clients, and I don’t see any at the moment that we’d have a problem with,” Tofel notes — none of those “lose inches of belly fat!” monstrosities here, folks — ultimately, “it’s our decision about whether to accept a particular advertiser that they have found.” As ProPublica explains in its new Advertising Acceptability Policy statement:

First, ProPublica reserves the right to accept or decline any advertisement or sponsorship it is offered.

ProPublica will decline to accept advertising that it knows or believes to be misleading, inaccurate, fraudulent or illegal, or that fails to comply, in ProPublica’s sole discretion, with its standards of decency, taste or dignity.

ProPublica, like all quality publishers of original journalism, maintains a clear separation between news and advertising content. Advertising that attempts to blur this distinction in a manner that, in ProPublica’s sole judgment, confuses readers will be rejected.

It’s an expect-the-best/prepare-for-the-worst approach to ceding a bit of control over what readers see when they visit the site, Tofel explained. “You just want to leave yourself the latitude so that you don’t get into a situation that is uncomfortable — or that undermines, most importantly, readers’ faith in what they’re reading.”

And that transaction with readers — one that, ultimately, understands an audience not as an anonymous collective of eyeballs and click-givers, but as individuals and, in the best sense, message-amplifiers — will remain a constant even as ProPublica tweaks its revenue strategy. As will, Tofel notes, the outlet’s partnerships with other news organizations (48 last year alone!) — and its rare-in-the-media-world comfort with sending users away to other outlets, partner and otherwise. While, yes, the inclusion of web ads represents an interest in keeping — and growing — direct traffic to ProPublica’s own site, “we are not in business to make money,” Tofel says. “We are in business to make change. And that’s still very much the case. But we do need to come up with enough money to float the boat, not just today and tomorrow, but on into the future.”

November 04 2010

14:00

The Newsonomics of Kindle Singles

[Each week, our friend Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of the news business for the Lab.]

Maybe the newspaper is like the old LP — you know, as in “Long Play.” It may be a 33 1/3, though it seems like it came out of the age of 78s sometimes, a relic of the post-Victorian Victrola age. It is what it is, a wonderful compendium of one day in the life (of a nation, a city, a village), a one-size-fits-all product, the same singular product delivered to mass volumes of readers.

In the short history of Internet disintermediation and disruption of the traditional news business, we’ve heard endless debate of the “the content and the container,” as people have tried to peel back the difference between the physical form of the newspaper — its container — and what it had in it. It’s a been a tough mindset change, and the many disruptors of the world — the Googles, the Newsers, and the Huffington Posts, for instance — have expertly picked apart the confusions and the potentials new technologies have made possible. The news business has been atomized, not by Large Hadron Colliders, but by simple digital technology that has blown up the container and treats each article as a digestible unit. Aggregate those digestible units with some scheme that makes sense to readers (Google: news search; Newser: smart selection and précis; HuffPo: aggregation, personality and passion), and you’ve got a new business, and one with a very low cost basis.

None of this is a revelation. What is new, and why I re-think that context is the advent of Kindle Singles. The Lab covered Amazon’s announcement of less-than-a-book, more-than-as-story Kindle Singles out of the chute a couple of weeks ago. Josh Benton described how the new form could well serve as a new package, a new container, for longer, high-quality investigative pieces, those now being well produced in quantity by ProPublica, the Center for Investigative Reporting (and its California Watch), and the Center for Public Integrity. That’s a great potential usage, I think.

In fact, Kindle Singles may open the door even further to wider news business application, for news companies — old and new, publicly funded and profit-seeking, text-based and video-oriented. It takes the old 78s and 33 1/3s, and opens a world of 45s, mixes, and infinite remixes. It says: You know what a book is, right? Think again. It can also say: You know what a newspaper is, right? Think again. While the Kindle Singles notion itself seems to have its limits — it’s text and fixed in time, not updatable on the fly — it springs loose the wider idea of publishing all kinds of new news and newsy content in new containers. Amazon is trying to define this strange new middle, with the Kindle Singles nomenclature, while some have used the term “chapbook” to describe it. We’ve got to wonder what Apple is thinking in response — what’s an app in Kindle Singles world? What’s a Kindle Single in an apps world? It’s not a book, an article, a newspaper, or a magazine, but something new. We now get to define that something new, both in name, but most importantly in content possibility.

What it may be for news organizations is a variety of news-on-demand. Today, we could be reading tailored and segmented sections on the election, from red and blue perspectives, from historical perspectives, from numerical perspectives. Today, we in the Bay Area could get not just a single triumphant San Francisco Giants celebratory section, but our choice of several, one providing San Francisco Giants history, one providing New York Giants history, one looking at the players themselves; the list goes on and on. More mundane, and more evergreen commercial topics? Job-hunting, job-finding, job-prep guides, tailored to skills, ages, and wants? Neighborhood profile sections for those seeking new housing (pick one or several neighborhoods, some with data, some with resident views, others tapping into neighborhood blogs). It’s endless special sections, on demand, some ad-supported, some not; a marketer’s dream. Some are priced high; some are priced low; some are free and become great lead generators for other digital reader products.

A few recent initiatives in the news business news lend themselves to Singles thinking. Take Politico’s newly announced topical e-newsletters. Take Rupert Murdoch’s notion of a paid-content portal, Alesia, which had within the idea of mixing and matching content differently, until its plug was recently pulled. Take AP’s new rights consortium, a venture that could build on this approach. Again, endless permutations are possible.

Who is going to come up with the ideas for the content? Well, editors themselves should have their shot, though one-size-fits-all thinking has circumscribed the imagination of too many. Still, there are hundreds of editors (and reporters and designers and copy editors) still in traditional ranks and now employed outside of it capable of creating new audience-pleasing packages. Some will work; some won’t. Experiment, and fail quickly. The biggest potential, though? Letting readers take open-sourced news content and create packages themselves, giving them a small revenue share, on sales. (Both the Guardian and the New York Times, among others, have opened themselves up for such potential usage.) Tapping audiences to serve audiences, to mix and match content, makes a lot of sense.

Why might this work when various little experiments have failed to produce much revenue for news companies, thinking of Scribd and HP’s MagCloud? Well, it’s the installed bases and paid-content channels established by the Amazons (and the Apples). They’ve got the customers and the credit cards, and they’ve tapped the willingness to pay. They need stuff to sell.

For newspaper companies, it’s another chance to rewrite the economics of the business. The newsonomics of Kindle Singles may mean that publishers can worry less about cost of content production, for a minute, and more about its supply. Maybe the problem hasn’t been the cost of professional content, but its old-school one-size-fits-all distribution package. That sports story or neighborhood profile could bring in lots more money per unit, if Singles notion takes off.

One big caution here: Singles thinking leads us into a more Darwinian world than ever. In my Newsonomics book, I chose as Law #1: “In the age of Darwinian content, we’re becoming our own and each other’s editors.” Great, useful content will sell; mediocre content will die faster. Repackaging content pushes the new content meritocracy to greater heights. As we approach 2011, news publishers are hoping to hit home runs with new paid content models. Maybe the future is as much small ball, hitting a lot of one-base hits, of striking out as often — and of Singles.

October 28 2010

14:00

The Newsonomics of the third leg

[Each week, our friend Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of the news business for the Lab.]

Most publishing stood proudly and stably on two feet, for decades.

You got readers to help pay for the product. And you got advertisers to pay as well. While American newspapers dependably got 20 percent of their revenue from readers, European ones have gotten more than 30 percent and Japanese ones more than 50 percent. In the consumer magazine, trade, and B2B worlds, the splits vary considerably, but the same two legs makes the businesses work.

Even public radio, seemingly a different animal, has followed a similar model. Substitute “members” for subscribers and “underwriters” for advertisers, and the same two-legged model is apparent.

In our digital news world, though, the news business has been riding, clumsily, a unicycle for more than a decade. Revenue — other than the Wall Street Journal’s and the Financial Times’ — has been almost wholly based on advertising. So, that’s why we’re seeing the big paid content push. “Reader digital revenue in 2011!” is the cry and the quest, as the News Corp. pay walls have gone up, Journalism Online hatches its Press+ eggs, The New York Times prepares to turn on its meter, and Politico launches its paid e-newsletters. They all have the same goal in mind: digital reader revenue.

The simple goal: a back-to-the-future return to a two-legged business model. (See Boston.com’s New Strategies: Switch and Retention). We’ll see how strong that second leg is as 2011 unfolds.

While two legs are good, and better than one, consider that three would be better still. Three provide a stronger stool, and a more diversified business. We’re beginning to see a number of third legs emerging. So it’s look at the emerging newsonomics of the third leg.

The clearest to see is foundation funding. Foundations, led by Knight, have been pouring money into online startups. The startups, of course, are selling advertising and/or sponsorship, and some are selling memberships, as well. In addition to those same two legs, foundation funding provides a third leg — at least for awhile. Our 2010 notion is that foundation funding isn’t a lasting revenue source, but a jumpstart; that may change as we move toward 2015. We may well see foundation funding turn into endowments for local journalism, so it may become a dependable third leg.

Make no mistake: It’s not just the new guys who benefit from foundation “third leg” funding. Take California Watch, the Center for Investigative Reporting’s statewide investigative operation. Barely a year old, its dozen-plus staffers have written stories that have appeared throughout the traditional press, from major dailies to commercial broadcasters to the ethnic press. California Watch work — at this point wholly funded by foundations, though CIR, too, is looking back to the traditional legs for future funding — then is used by the old press both to improve quality and cut their own costs. So, indirectly, the old press derives benefit from this third leg of foundation funding.

Take a couple of examples from the cable industry. We’ve seen the Cablevision model, as the New York-based company bought Newsday, took the website “paid” and bundled it with its cable subscriptions. The notion, here: Cablevision is driving “exclusive” value for its cable (and Triple Play) offers by offering Newsday online content, content not otherwise available without paying separately (or subscribing to print Newsday). Newsday.com sells advertising, and online access, but the real value being tested is what its content does to spur retention and new sales in Cablevision’s big business: cable.

Similarly, Comcast — a pipes company fitfully becoming a content company as well as it tries to complete its NBCU deal — is making a big investment in digital sports. Headed by former digital newspaper exec Eric Grilly, ex of Philly.com and Media News, it’s a big play. Well-deployed in five cities — Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, the Bay Area and Washington D.C. — and headed for nine more, all in which it runs regional sports cable networks. Comcast Digital Sports now employs more than 80 people and is producing more than 50 hours of programming a week in each market.

While Comcast is ramping up advertising sales and may test paid reader products as well, it’s that same third leg — the cable revenue — that is the biggest reason behind the push. “We want to provide value to the core business,” Grilly told me last week.

In the cable cases, news production can be justified because it feeds a bigger revenue beast. Thomson Reuters and Bloomberg’s large news staffs do the same, feeding bigger financial services businesses.

Lastly, let’s consider the new Associated Press-lead push for an industry-wide “rights consortium.” While its daily newspapers try to stand taller on the two legs of digital ad and reader revenue, the business that could emerge from this new company is about syndication. In that sense, it could be a business-to-business-to-consumer (B2B2C) push, aimed at a third growing revenue source for all, as news content un-tethered from publishers’ own branded sites is used — and monetized — across mobile platforms, mixed and matched in all kinds of ways.

Maybe, overall, it’s a regeneration process for the news business, as the old legs have grown weaker, the environment is forcing evolutionary experimentation. Over the next several years, we’ll see which third legs survive and prosper, and which others become dead ends.

Photo by This Particular Greg used under a Creative Commons license.

October 20 2010

13:00

Meet “The Hub,” a virtual clubhouse for community nonprofit news sites

At the Block by Block community news conference last month, an irony emerged: Local site publishers, who spend their days cultivating community, hadn’t enjoyed much community amongst themselves. Again and again during the event — a convergence that co-host Jay Rosen aptly described as “entrepreneur atomization overcome” — participants expressed their desire for a centralized spot for conversation, information…and commiseration. As one publisher put it during the conference’s introduction session: “I just don’t want to feel like I’m alone in this.”

Enter The Hub, a new site that wants to be just what its name suggests: a centralized space — in this case, one for community news nonprofits. The site wants to be a go-to spot — the go-to spot, actually — for the people involved in nonprofit news, from journalists to publishers, from academics to funders. Click over to the site now, and you’ll find, among other things: a Getting Started section with legal and tax primers, editorial guidelines, and samples of marketing collateral; a Beyond the Basics section with info on business modeling and engagement strategies; an Academics and Research section with reports and teaching tips; a searchable database of participating news sites; a collection of contextual materials, like Q&As with, and videos of, nonprofit experts; and — maybe the most valuable resource for a nonprofit startup — a list of organizations that fund nonprofit journalism.

The Hub is overseen by Voice of San Diego, which has emerged of late as a kind of mega-org, leading collaboration efforts with fellow nonprofits. The idea for the site, says Scott Lewis, VOSD’s CEO, came in part from the many, many occasions in which VOSD execs and editors found themselves fielding requests for consulting and advice from people hoping to start their own nonprofit news sites. (Little surprise: The logistics to be worked out when it comes to news startup-ing — editorial, legal, and, of course, financial — are dizzying.) “We were getting so many people asking so many questions and wanting so many documents,” Lewis told me, “that we just thought, ‘Okay, let’s put it up. Let’s put it all up.’”

Though the idea was conceived by journalists, the site was funded by a foundation — the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation — and built by academics: San Diego State University assistant professor Amy Schmitz Weiss, with the help of grad students Jessica Plautz and Yueh-hui Chiang. They designed the site (work began in May) and then, over a busy summer, seeded it with relevant data. The hope, though, is that news organizations will supplement the existing infrastructure with their own contributions: information about their operating models, resources they’ve found helpful in building out those models, etc. Ultimately, Lewis says, he’d love to see each outlet with its own profile page on the network. (“Like a Facebook for nonprofit news sites,” he says.) From there, The Hub could also function as means of connecting community sites, both fledgling and already existing, not only to each other, Block by Block-style…but also to the organizations that might want to fund them. Voila!

The Hub doesn’t want to be simply a repository of documents, though, or even a connector of institutions; it also wants to be a centralized space for conversations. This past spring, the Knight Foundation convened a group of nonprofit journalism practitioners in Austin to share best practices, consider opportunities for collaboration, and generally discuss strategies for sustaining themselves into the future. (Check out videos of that meeting here and here and here and here.) Many new insights sprang from that meeting, Lewis notes — one of them being the meta-insight that was the need for a spot to incubate those insights in the first place. “We needed a natural place to put ideas once they come out,” he puts it — and “a natural place to promote them and make sure they spread.”

Lewis recently wrote a much-circulated blog post on the benefits of revenue promiscuity in the nonprofit world; it’s now hosted on The Hub. Ideally, he says, other people will contribute their own posts — original topics, or riffs on writings from other contributors — that will live on the site and fashion it into a kind of virtual brain trust. (Think Snarkmarket, the excellent group blog run by Twitter’s Robin Sloan, NPR’s Matt Thompson, and Wired’s Tim Carmody.) If the current state of the site is any indication, though, Voice of San Diego will continue to play a leadership role in cultivating the conversation, with the outfit’s models and strategies continuing to be a guiding resource for emerging startups. It’s a one-for-all approach that serves an all-for-one goal in nonprofit journalism. “If we and everyone else are seen as a viable solution that the community can turn to,” Lewis says, “then that helps us all.”

October 14 2010

14:30

The Newsonomics of replacement journalism

[Each week, our friend Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of the news business for the Lab.]

Finally, we’re seeing light on the horizon. Journalism hiring is picking up.

The second half of the year has so far produced TBD’s hiring of 50 in Washington, Patch’s push to pick up 500 journalists across the country, and the new alliance for public media plan to hire more than 300 journalists in four major cities, if funding can be found in 2011. In addition, the brand-name journalist market has suddenly flowered, as everyone from National Journal to the Daily Beast to Bloomberg to AOL to the Huffington Post to Yahoo compete for talent. These are bigger numbers — and more activity — than we’ve previously seen, though they build on earlier hirings from ProPublica to California Watch to Bay Citizen to Texas Tribune to MinnPost and well beyond.

It’s a dizzying quilt of hiring, in some ways hard to make sense of, as business models (how exactly is Patch’s business model going to succeed? what happens when the foundation money dries up?) remain in deep flux. Yet, amid the hope, now comes this question: Are we beginning to see “replacement journalism” arriving?

Replacement journalism, by its nature, is a hazy notion. We won’t see some one-to-one swapping for what used to be with something new. Replacement journalism will though give us the sense that new journalism, of high quality, is getting funded, somehow, and that the vacuum created by the deepest cut in reporting we’ve ever seen is starting to be filled. It is an important, graspable question not just for journalists and aspiring journalists welling up in schools across the country, but also for readers: Are we beginning to see significant, tangible news coverage in this new, mainly digital world?

So, let’s assess where we on, on that road to replacement journalism. Let’s start with some numbers. Take the most useful census of daily newspaper newsroom employment, the annual ASNE (American Society of News Editors) census, conducted early each year and next reported out at its April 2011 conference. ASNE’s most current number is 41,500. That’s down from 46,700 a year earlier, from 52,600 in 2008 and from 55,000 in 2007. So, over those three-plus years, that’s a loss of 13,500 jobs, a 25-percent decline.

As we consider what’s been lost and what needs to replace it, we’ve got to look as much at possible at reporting. That news-gathering — not commentary (column or blog) — is what’s key to community information and understanding, fairly prerequisite in our struggling little democracy. While we don’t know how many of those 13,500 jobs lost are in reporting, we can do some extrapolation. Using that same ASNE census, we see that a little less than half (45 percent or so) of newsroom jobs are classified as reporting, while 20 percent are classified as copy/layout editors, 25 percent as supervisors and 10 percent as photographers and artists. So — while not undervaluing the contributions of non-reporters — let’s say, roughly, that half the jobs lost have been reporters. That would mean about 6,750 reporting jobs lost in three years.

Okay, so let’s use that number as a yardstick, against a quick list of journalist hiring:

  • Investigative and extended enterprise reporting: It’s tough to come up with any one number for investigative or long-form reporting in newspapers or in broadcast. We know that many newspapers and broadcasters have cut the investment in staff here, though, through the carnage of staff reduction. (One indication: “The membership of Investigative Reporters and Editors fell more than 30 percent, from 5,391 in 2003, to a 10-year low of 3,695 in 2009″, according to Mary Walton in the American Journalism Review.) Into this breach have come the new ProPublica, the restyled Center for Investigative Reporting (with its California Watch, most notably) and the growing Center for Public Integrity in Washington, D.C. They are joined by smaller centers from Maine to Wisconsin to California. Loss: Probably in the high hundreds. Gain: Probably in the small hundreds. Net: We’ve seen real high-quality replacement journalism, but need more, especially on the community level.
  • Washington, D.C. reporting: Dozens of D.C.-based reporting positions have been lost over the last several years, certainly, and the number may stretch into the hundreds. For awhile, the biggest news was that the Al Jazeera bureau was among the fastest-growing. Now, of course, there’s the goldrush in government-oriented reporting as the newly emboldened (and funded) National Journal group and Bloomberg Government add a couple of hundred positions, and join Politico in the D.C-based fray. With both new efforts still in formation, we’re not clear what kind of reporting they’ll do. If it’s mainly government-as-business (Bloomberg’s seeming model) and/or if it’s mainly behind pay wall, then then this new stuff will be less replacement-like. Covering public policy implications for all of us nationally, and the particular impacts on those of locally, is a key, yawning need. Loss: Significant. Gain: Substantial. Net: Unclear we see the words on our screens in 2011.
  • Hyperlocal reporting: The biggest news here is Patch, of course. With 500 sites in various stages of rollout, we can’t yet assess how much new reporting — and of what quality, what depth — will be added back, replaced. Add in the redeployment of many metro staff reporters from Hartford to Dallas to L.A., and the fact that smaller community dailies and weeklies have weathered the storms better than bigger papers. Loss: Uncountable, but real across the country. Gain: With Patch and with the re-attention of metros to smaller communities through staff redeployment and blog aggregation, it’s now substantial. Net: One of the most promising areas in replacement journalism.
  • Metro-level reporting: The devastation seems clearest here, with newspapers like the San Jose Mercury News cut to 125 newsroom staffers from 400 a decade ago, and many other dailies down by 50 percent or more. The bulk of cuts, as well chronicled by Erica Smith at Paper Cuts, appear to be at metros — and they are continuing; witness recent job losses in Sacramento and Miami and at USA Today. On the positive end of the ledger, the TBD-Bay Citizen-Voice of San Diego-MinnPost-Texas Tribune-Chicago News Cooperative parade has added real journalistic depth in selected markets. Yet, unless they grow substantially from the dozens they are — the public media push, though only in formation, is the most promising here — there’s a low replacement ratio. This is the biggest conundrum in front of us: how do we maintain current newsroom staffing of 340 at The Boston Globe or 325 at The Dallas Morning News, against the ravages of change? Loss: Huge. Gain: Spirited and of noteworthy excellence. Net: Biggest gap to fill — and the gap may be widening still.

“Replacement journalism,” of course, is a tricky term, and maybe only an interim notion — a handle that helps us from there to here to there. By the very nature of digital and business disruption and transformation, we have to remind ourselves that the future is never a straight line from past to future, and that it will offer us great positive surprises as well as continuing disappointments. William Gibson’s enduring line sums that up: “The future is already here. It’s just not evenly distributed.”

Photo by Matt Wetzler used under a Creative Commons license.

August 17 2010

20:00

Seeking Sustainability, Part 1: Voice of San Diego’s Woolley and others on the role of the “venture mindset”

This spring, the Knight Foundation hosted a roundtable discussion exploring a crucial issue in journalism: sustaining nonprofit news organizations after an initial injection of funding gets them off the ground. The Seeking Sustainability conversation sought to examine nonprofit outfits not just as recipients of philanthropic funding, but also — and more so — as businesses that share many of the same concerns that their for-profit counterparts do.

“Traditional media companies have been particularly distressed by shifts in the markets and business models that historically supported them — and the conversation about how to ’save’ or ‘reinvent’ journalism has been largely focused on their concerns,” Knight noted in its summary of the roundtable. But

to a growing group of practitioners, funders and observers…the challenge is not saving traditional news organizations or traditional forms of journalism. The challenge is creating, strengthening and protecting informed communities and local information ecosystems, of which journalism is a necessary component.

Thus enters the nonprofit model, which allows organizations to pursue a journalistic mission without the competing demands of operating a for-profit business. Nonprofit news startups have been created in communities across the country, most with funding from major donors or foundations. The Knight Foundation alone has funded more than 200 experiments with what it calls a “build to learn” approach.

To benefit from the education those startups have been receiving, the foundation convened a group of experts to share practical insights about improving and sustaining nonprofit journalism. It also, thankfully, recorded the conversation that resulted. In a series this week, we’ll pass along the videos of those conversations (and, as always, we’d love to continue the discussion in the comments section).

In today’s first pair of videos, Buzz Woolley, chairman of Voice of San Diego, discusses the power of what he calls the “venture mindset” in journalism (above). In the second video (below), he is joined by an all-star panel of nonprofit startup leaders, including — in general order of appearance — J-Lab’s Jan Schaffer, the Chicago News Cooperative’s Peter Osnos and Jim O’Shea, the St. Louis Beacon’s Margaret Wolf Freivogel, Texas Tribune’s Evan Smith, Voice of San Diego’s Andrew Donohue and Scott Lewis, Knight president Alberto Ibargüen, the Center for Investigative Reporting’s Robert Rosenthal, the Connecticut Mirror’s James Cutie, The Bay Citizen’s Lisa Frazier, Oakland Local’s Susan Mernit, and the New Haven Independent’s Paul Bass.

August 03 2010

14:00

California Watch’s distribution model, by the numbers

In mid-July, California Watch posted the results of an investigation by reporter Louis Freedberg: After surveying the 30 largest K-12 districts across the state, Freedberg found that some were cutting the school calendar to as low as 175 days in an effort to balance their budgets.

It’s an explosive story, one that has resonance for an interest group whose welfare everyone has a stake in: kids. And California Watch wanted it to have as wide a reach — and as big an impact — as possible. To do that, the outlet treated its story’s distribution process as an integral part of the editorial process — to the extent that, if you read editorial director Mark Katches’ detailed description of that process, it’s hard to tell where the one ends and the other begins.

As Katches explained:

As we carve our niche in the California-media landscape, we are finding new ways to reach an audience. If we had one word to describe our distribution model it would be this: flexible. We craft a new distribution strategy for each story we produce, depending on the topic and the intensity of local interest.

I was intrigued, in particular, by the sheer numbers behind the distribution effort. Here’s the breakdown:

Media partners for this story: 20

Media partners California Watch has teamed with since its launch: 70+

Languages the story was distributed in: 5 (Chinese, English, Korean, Spanish, and Vietnamese)

Platforms it was distributed on: 4 (print, web, TV, radio)

Individual shows that discussed the story on KQED, Northern California’s public radio station: 3 (“California Report,” “Forum,” “This Week In Northern California”)

Words in California Watch’s original, full-length story: 1,900

Words in the abridged versions of the story tailored for print publication: 1,100-1,200

Versions of the abridged story: 3 (one for Northern California, one for central, one for Southern)

Words in initial story summary circulated to media partners in advance of publication: 335

Weeks media partners has to edit the story for themselves before its embargo was lifted: 1

And, then, the totals:

Estimated newspaper subscribers reached: 1.15 million

Estimated TV viewers and radio listeners reached: 200,000

Of course, “reached” is a tricky metric; eyeballs are one thing, but attention is another. More interesting to me, though, is how California Watch is doing that reaching in the first place: through a collaboration strategy that could almost be called “aggressive.” In a good way. The outfit is making it as easy as possible for other news organizations to use its content. In the past, that kind of generosity would have been, basically, suicide; now, though, with the influence of the link economy and the journalistic culture coming around to collaboration — and, of course, in California Watch’s case, with a nonprofit model that values social good ahead of financial gain — having content used by other outlets is not just acceptable, but something to be strived for. (Their goal: add at least one new distribution partner for every big new story they publish.) It’s a new model of journalistic impact that reimagines replication as the sincerest form of flattery.

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

Don't be the product, buy the product!

Schweinderl