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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.

September 27 2010

16:00

From Al Capone to Rod Blagojevich, how Chicago’s Better Government Association is reinventing itself

What should a good government organization with an investigative bent look like in 2010? That’s the question leaders of the Better Government Association, a Chicago institution that’s been battling city corruption since Al Capone, have been asking recently. The BGA is best known for its investigative partnerships with Chicago media, perhaps most famously the time it helped the Chicago Sun Times open and operate a bar called The Mirage Tavern. The 1977 investigation documented rampant city corruption, from kickbacks to tax skimming.

That type of investigative work is needed now more than ever, the BGA’s new executive director, Andy Shaw, told me. Shaw pointed to a combination of serious problems in city and state government (e.g. Rod Blagojevich) and the decline in the power of the state’s biggest traditional media outlets (e.g. the Chicago Tribune’s parent company currently being in bankruptcy proceedings). How does an institution like the BGA have impact in that kind of an environment?

Shaw, a veteran politics reporter for the ABC affiliate in Chicago, joined the BGA in June 2009. Since then, he’s quadrupled the BGA’s budget to $1.5 million, thanks to a number of foundation grants from places like the Knight Foundation and charitable arms of companies like Boeing. He’s ramped up the operation from a staff of two to a staff of 14. Shaw just announced the hire of three veteran Chicago reporters: Bob Reed, Bob Herguth and John Conroy (recently profiled in CJR). And he’s rethought how the BGA should operate in a new media age.

“All of this is made possible by the realization that we have a service that is critically necessary,” Shaw told me. “We know how to investigate.”

I spoke with Shaw about his specific plans for expansion. He was candid in his responses, saying he hopes other cities will start up their own BGA-style organizations — not unlike the boom we’ve seen recently in regional investigative nonprofits. “We’re trying to create a model for anti-corruption watchdogs to operate,” he told me. “There’s this desperate need for information and scrutiny.” Here are a few of the areas where the BGA is investing.

Partnerships

The rest of the journalism world seems to be catching up to the BGA when it comes to partnerships between nonprofits and news organizations. Shaw says now’s the time for BGA to diversify the kinds of partnerships it has. The group will still maintain relationships with traditional outlets like the Chicago Sun-Times and local television stations, but they’re also looking to online and niche publications, like Crain’s Chicago Business, and the education-focused Catalyst Chicago. One of its strongest partners is the Chicago News Cooperative, which provides The New York Times with content.

“The lifelong mission of this organization, which goes back to 1923, has become increasingly more important as legacy media is less able to do its old job,” Shaw said. “We have had an increasing number of partnerships with media in the pursuit of good stories. Over the last year, we’ve doubled the number of partnerships.”

Audience

Traditionally, the BGA reached an audience through its partner news organizations. Thanks to a grant from the McCormick Foundation, Shaw says they’re in the midst of a major overhaul of their site, which will begin rolling out in October. The site itself will become a destination for information, plus a place for users to submit content or tipsters to reach investigators.

“They’ll be able to report problems with government, ranging from potholes that don’t get fixed to snow that doesn’t get removed, to work sites where nothing gets done, to boards, commissions and agencies that don’t seem to be doing their jobs — or doing their jobs in a questionable way.”

BGA also wants to train locals to do reporting themselves, letting users contribute blog posts to the site. Shaw hopes that distributed effort will allow BGA to move into parts of Illinois outside Chicago. Their Watchdog program offers in-person training on filing Freedom of Information requests and other investigative basics.

Impact

Shaw is clear that BGA is an advocacy group, with a mission to stamp out corruption. That means a great story with no impact is of less value to BGA than it might be to a news organization. He wants readers contacting officials and pushing for change. “The biggest difference is we’ve begun to understand how important civic engagement is,” he said. “It’s not enough to disclose. We must propose solutions. Everything we uncover is matched with a source of remediation: cancel the contract; rebid the contract; revisit the salary structures. We are telling the subjects of our stories what we think they ought to be doing.”

Though BGA brings an advocate’s perspective, Shaw’s effort to double down on impact is right in line with what other nonprofit news organizations are facing. Nonprofit news organizations like the Center for Public Integrity and ProPublica all talk about impact as an important part of their viability as nonprofits — results sell better to funders than stories alone.

August 18 2010

16:30

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

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

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

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

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

August 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.

July 08 2010

14:00

The newsonomics of replacing Larry King

[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.]

I know. You say, who could ever replace Larry King? But I remind you that Larry’s six ex-wives have already confronted that question.

Most of the speculation about a replacement has focused on a range of usual suspects, personalities from Katie Couric to Ryan Seacrest to Joy Behar to Piers Morgan — all around the question of who will be able to command a better audience than King, whose ratings have seen a steady decline. Indeed, his successor, who will take over the show in November, will probably come from that list, a month after the network plucked Eliot Spitzer and Kathleen Parker to fill Campbell Brown’s spot.

Yet the changing economics of CNN’s basic business model prompt lots of questions about ways CNN could go — as well as offering print- and broadcast-based news companies some pointers on their own business model development.

Let’s recall that CNN is a tale of two modern stories. Its flagship cable news station has been flagging badly, having fallen to a #4 position in cable news behind Fox, MSNBC, and its own Headline News Network (HLN), tabloid TV without tabloid wit. CNN is cool and confused in an age of hot and pointed.

Online, though, CNN has built a formidable business. It ranks at or near the top of the top news sites, excels at user-gen news content and offers one of the few paid news apps.

It’s a tale of two business units going opposite directions.

Look at the revenue pie for CNN, and you discover more nuance. One-half of CNN’s roughly $500 million in revenue comes from what it calls business subscription fees — what cable companies pay it for carriage. Ten percent of its revenue is now coming from prime-time advertising; the same percentage from its digital businesses. Advertising outside prime time, international, and some syndication round out the revenue picture.

We can certainly see that CNN’s revenue model is much more diverse than newspaper or broadcast companies. That payment from cable systems for carriage — averaging about 50 cents per subscriber per month, according to recent accounts — makes a huge difference in a time of great advertising change.

We can also see that CNN is becoming more and more of a content company. It gets paid that half dollar a month from cable companies because its inclusion helps drive subscribers. Recently dropping the Associated Press, it’s moving increasingly into syndication, both video and text, and there the quality and breadth of content counts. As one of the first news companies to embrace multi-platform publishing (cable + desktop + mobile, long before others got that notion), it moved quickly to price its product for the iPhone, charging $1.99 and now ranking as the #2 news app in the iTunes store.

So content creation — and content creation that rebounds in digital waves, even if it starts from a cablecast — is more important to CNN every day. If it could come up with more programming that provided digital multipliers — smartphone and tablet users willing to pay for access, and advertisers joining them — then the Larry King replacement might be not just good TV, but good strategy.

What might that mean?

For instance, how could could CNN better leverage its substantial iReport operation, a user-generated innovation that is the gold standard for TV news. Viral user-gen video is a mainstay of the digital world. Or maybe it could create an America’s Best News Videos (is Bob Saget available?), riffing on the montages that Jon Stewart has made almost mainstream. Maybe it could go The View-like, aggregating characters whose comments and rants might generate great two-three minute digital products. Or, most likely, it could find a bolt-out-of-the-blue digital age personality, like Rachel Maddow, who may well front MSNBC’s first iPad app. As MSNBC’s Mark Marvel told AllThingsD’s Peter Kafka about its coming app, it will allow users to “engage with the host of that show.” Engagement with Rachel, yes; with Larry, no. With Katie, maybe.

Can CNN find a digital upgrade to the analog King?

The goals here would be to produce great digital content, not just ratings. Sure, TV has seen some pick-up of memorable interviews — think CBS’ Katie Couric and Sarah Palin, or more recently the half-million pageviews after-market that Maddow generated with her Rand Paul interview. That aftermarket, though, has been more of an afterthought. If revenue growth is in the digital content business, CNN, broadcasters, and all news producers must increasingly think at least digital rebound, if not digital first. As Stephen Covey legendarily said, “Begin with the end in mind.” A good habit for highly effective media companies to adopt.

What else might print news companies learn from the CNN model?

First, syndication. While the Chicago News Cooperative and Bay Citizen pioneer innovative content syndication models, both with the New York Times, and Financial Times’ direct licensing model breaks new ground, most newspaper companies have failed to find other new, lucrative markets for their content. Yes, they’ve made some money from enterprise and education licensing, but if their content is really that valuable, they should be able to find other companies (Comcast, NYT, regional businesses, and more) to pay them for it.

Second, the pay-per-subscriber model that has insulated CNN from the ravages of ad change is one news companies should ponder. CNN made itself an indispensable part of the cable mix. Is local/regional news content indispensable to any aggregators — AT&T, Verizon, Apple, Nokia, for instance — as they bundle technology and content? What would it take — in the kind and breadth of content (video?) produced — to get a monthly payment, especially in the mobile digital world to come?

May 06 2010

14:30

The Newsonomics of simplicity

[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.]

More and more, I’m thinking we’re making this new digital business too complicated. Sure, the technology behind the business is awe-inspiring — but then so was hydropower and electrification. Technology is often complex and developed by only a minority of us, while a majority of us are put to the task, and the fun, of using it.

The digital news business itself can be a blur, followed via Romenesko, Twitter, or the PowerPoint poison of your choosing. Lots there, always on. But business solutions — serving readers and advertisers better — aren’t complicated, and the more complex we make them, the less seems to get done.

Take this well-used quote from Larry Bossidy, once chairman of Honeywell, a prince of another technology era: “If you can’t describe your strategy in 20 minutes, simply and in plain language, you haven’t got a plan. ‘But,’ people may say, ‘I’ve got a complex strategy. It can’t be reduced to a page.’ That’s nonsense. That’s not a complex strategy. It’s a complex thought about the strategy.”

We can parse the differences between complex and complicated in the digital business, but won’t do it here. Probably the better exercise is to see how good a strategy you can express in a single tweet. And, of course, the collective consciousness has that figured out; small business blogger Lora Kolodny talked about the art — and four competitions based on it — recently in her New York Times blog.

Recently, as I look at the latest strategies being deployed, I’ve been using this emerging prism of simplicity. Here the newsonomics are simple: Make it easier to make new revenue; save expenses by adopting simpler solutions. I’ll share a few here, and hope you’ll add to them.

  • People love coupons: That’s at the top of the duh list, but the love is still eye-popping. Nielsen recently reported the explosion of digital coupons, with their redemption up 263 percent year-over-year. According to the report, newspapers are still the main source of coupon distribution, at 89 percent, and newspaper inserts account for the most coupons redeemed, at 53 percent. As Twitter studied commercial patterns, in the run-up to launching Promoted Tweets, what did they notice? Retailers like Whole Foods and Starbucks found their followers (and Facebook fans!) loved coupons. So now the challenge: taking that simple challenge and delivering location-aware, buying-interest-aware coupons, on the right platform, to the right customers, at the right time. Yes, that Wednesday food coupon is less old-fashioned than we think; now the simplicity required is finding the right technology to seamlessly offer digital coupons to news customers — before non-news companies do a better job of it.
  • Flyerboard: I recently talked to Victor Wong, one of the co-founders of Flyerboard, the oh-so-simple digital ad flier product that now finds itself on more than 100 newspaper sites, first adopted by Hearst and most recently by McClatchy. As a Yale undergraduate, he and a couple friends noticed that someone had begun digitizing the printed fliers commonly found on college neighborhood kiosks and walls. They then opened a company — PaperG — moved to commercialize the notion and have found great early uptake, based on an incredibly simple idea. They are now moving forward with PlaceLocal, a potentially far bigger idea: Harvest all the freely available digital information about local busineses, sweep it into templates, create spec ads on the fly and sell those to local retailers. Both ideas simply use already available information, repurporsed by smart technology and a company of a dozen or so people.
  • Outsourced regional editions: Okay, so you are The New York Times, and you want to double down on local engagement. You want to be a great national paper, but also a little regional, aware that such content might increase retention of all-important print subscribers. But you’re The New York Times, and the economics of the business don’t justify paying six-figure salaries to new regional staff. So you ask where can you get high-quality, low-cost journalism supply, and take advantage (in a symbiotic way) of the advent of the Chicago News Cooperative and Bay Citizen. You simply take advantage of the outflow of real talent out of top newsrooms — and stretch your six-figure payments to get lots more content than a single staffer would provide.
  • Content management in a cloud: Emerging from bankruptcy, Freedom Communications just announced an expansion of its relationship with technology provider DTI. It will move what had been its own hosted circulation and marketing management to DTI Cloud. Why hire, train and pay your own full-time tech staff — at each paper, I’d imagine — when a single company can give you a hosted, software-as-a-service solution in the cloud? Simple, in concept, at least: use someone else’s centralized technology to solve a problem that is replicated multiple times across multiple properties. Cloud computing, of course, isn’t new, but the newspaper industry has adopted it unevenly. MediaSpectrum (ads and content management) and Clickability (content management) are among the companies that have worked this cloud landscape in the news industry. Cloud “installations” carry their own support issues, of course; all solutions do. We’d have to believe, though, that the often-complex and costly solutions to production, printing, distribution, finance, and HR used in the news industry can benefit from some more heavenly solutions. Better to slim here and put resources into content creation and ad selling.

That’s just the top of a list. What else has the news industry done to introduce smart simplicity — or what else should it do?

April 15 2010

15:26

The Newsonomics of content arbitrage

[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.]

We’re into a new age of digital news content. Every conceivable kind of company is starting to produce it and find homes for it. Smarter advertising strategies are matching up against the new content. Mix and match exploding content creation with ahead-of-the-curve ad targeting, and you’ve got a new math.

Presto: Content arbitrage. Forget “curators”; an accurate but museum-musty term for judgment. As news sites have branched out, bringing in community bloggers and sites, “hiring” top-end bloggers, we’ve come up with the genteel “curation,” a popular term at this week’s ASNE conference, a hot (well, warming) bed of such forward-reaching ideas.

So if want to move beyond “editors,” with its old-world connotations, to get at a reaching out, an aggregation of more content, what’s the proper word? Well, aggregator is technically correct, but it’s Terminator-like. News people don’t like to think of themselves copying the the first, big aggregators like Yahoo, Google, MSN and Huffington Post. (Each of which, not incidentally, sees great next-stage opportunity in content brokerage and are competitors to news companies in this area going forward.)

So let me suggest a title that fits what is going on, though it will make “editors” uneasy: “Content brokers.” I’m not suggested that anyone change a job title to “content broker,” but rather to recognize that’s a huge role going forward. (And even backwards, for us veteran features editors who understood that buying content from diverse syndicates, wires and freelancers was an essential part of the business.)

Let’s go to the newsonomics of content brokering.

Demand Media, fairly and not, has become the poster child of the content-and-ad arbitrage. It’s both been derided as an amoral, slave-wage content farm and marveled at for its absolute smarts about the value of content, and its creation. Just last week, Demand announced a deal to power a “Travel Tips” section for USAToday.com; earlier it had done a lower-profile deal with AJC.com, in Atlanta

It’s just one example of news companies starting to get it about content brokering. The principle is simple: Obtain the highest quality content you can (or at least sufficient to what the market of readers and advertisers demand) at the lowest possible cost. Then, make sure you can make a profit over each set of obtained content. We all understand the idea: Buy low, sell high.

Demand will pay, say, $35 for an article of new treatments for spring allergies, knowing how many pageviews its distribution networks can generate and what cost-per-thousand rates it can get. Maybe it makes $100 or $300 on that article. Maybe it makes a lot more. You can do lots more arithmetic here, with thousands of stories, higher-priced ones and even “free” user-gen ones. The principle, though, is the same.

Newspapers understand that principle. For decades, they employed large newsroom staffs, paid them what they had to, sold advertising, at expectable and rising rates, and took in margins of 20-percent-plus. That’s content-and-ad arbitrage, though it moved at glacial speed and seemed more like a constitutional principle than an evolving business, subject to change.

Now, the arbitrage business is moving at warp speed. Consider just a few of many brokerage initiatives:

  • The New York Times is “buying” content from the Chicago News Cooperative to power its local Chicago edition. It will soon do the same with the emerging Bay Citizen in California. The economics are key here: The Times can’t afford to add full-time staffers at $100k a pop; it can afford something less to get its standard of journalism from other sources.
  • Seattle is hosting the battle royale to aggregate local bloggers. The now-online-only Seattle P-I, led by Michelle Nicolosi, has been signing up bloggers for years, and hosts more than 200 of them, who use the P-I’s publishing system. Across town, Bob Payne, communities director of The Seattle Times, is working with 22 hyperlocal sites in the region. That’s a J-Lab-funded project, which the Miami Herald and Charlotte Observer are also trying. All the newspaper sites get more content, as blogs and bloggers get more notice and traffic.
  • Hearst recently signed up Bleacher Report to provide fan-generated sports content for its sites.
  • Demand’s growing list of competitors to provide brokered content to news companies (and others) includes Associated Content, Helium, Seed, and Examiner, although there are signal differences among them. Outside.In and FWIX both offer pointers to local content of interest and have done deals with news websites.
  • Poynter Institute is even putting a finer point of the business of getting cheaper content, hosting a “Stretching Your News Budget with User Content” seminar in May.

Some of this content brokering brings in community-oriented “user-gen.” Some of it brings in useful content in niche areas, like sports, travel, family, religion and much more. Some does both.

Is there a danger in content arbitrage? It’s value-neutral; it’s all in how you do it. Let’s remember that journalism is essentially a manufacturing process, with as much or as little value added as we want.

On a brand- and content-integrity level, it’s all in exercising good judgment — but against a much wider array of choices. On a business level, it’s making sure you are buying low and selling high. Ironically, many news companies are starting to bring in more content — mostly from local bloggers and sites — but few are seeing ad departments monetize it well. That’s buying cheaply, but if you don’t sell it, it’s not really much of a business advance. That should be temporary, if news publishers and editors take content brokering to heart.

Photo by Petra Sell used under a Creative Commons license.

March 11 2010

17:00

The Newsonomics of new news syndication

[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.]

It’s tough to get the printer’s ink out of news people’s veins. For many, journalism = printing, and in printing, each copy costs extra. It’s an analog, manufacturing mindset, and one to finally bid goodbye.

Of course, we all know how freely we can fling stories about on the web, but second copy value — and cost — has an evolving business model implication, as the news industry looks for new pillars of support. That business model implication is syndication. Syndication in the old world meant the syndicates — among them, King Features, Universal Press Syndicate and now-put-up-for-sale United Media —and it meant wires, like AP, Reuters, and AFP, all of whom built big businesses on the increasing margin in the second, third and fourth copies of editorial content created and redistributed. Other syndicators (think Lexis-Nexis and Factiva) have built big businesses, selling multiple copies of stories to corporations and governments for their workforces and to schools of every level and size.

Now, we’re beginning to see next-generation syndication embraced by digital news startups, and that’s good news, a good supplement to advertising and sponsorship revenues, to membership charges and conferences.

Take GlobalPost for example. GlobalPost CEO Phil Balboni embraced syndication as a revenue source from the site’s early planning and rollout. “I knew I needed multiple revenue streams to support our business, and syndication of our original content — in a world of rapidly diminishing international reporting — seemed like a no-brainer to me especially given our pricing flexibility.”

GlobalPost now gets about 12 percent of its overall revenue from syndication. It shares its correspondents’ posts with about 30 newspaper, broadcast and other news sites in the U.S. and worldwide. It counts among its clients CBS News, New York Daily News, the Times of India, Australian Associated Press, Pittsburgh Post Gazette and the Newark Star Ledger. Sites pay a monthly flat rate and can use their fill of GlobalPost stories. In addition to web use, print publications can and do use them in print as well.

GlobalPost isn’t alone. Politico added a syndication network, the Politico Media Network, to its bag of tricks early on. For Politico, it’s a multi-pocket pool play, leveraging a related advertising network around the syndication and its own partnership with Reuters.

California Watch, the new initiative of the Center for Investigative Reporting, is figuring out the contours of its syndication business. Early in its life, it has found daily newspapers, broadcasters, start-ups and the ethnic press to be eager customers of its work, with some big stories reaching audiences of two million or more. Early on, CIR has priced its work fairly inexpensively, in the low hundreds of dollars. As it is getting traction, it is thinking of syndication as a key business model and will test pricing models over the next year

The Chicago News Cooperative, the supplier of local news coverage for the Chicago edition of The New York Times, operates on a similar principle, able to sell stories to multiple customers.

The principle here is devilishly simple — but has not been well enough applied. It’s been described from the inception of the Internet: the second copy is free (or really close to free). It’s also part of a basic Newsonomics law, Law #9: Apply the 10% Rule. Let technology do the value multiplication, not expensive-to-hire-and-feed humans.

Every syndication dollar earned is another dollar that doesn’t have to be wrung out of highly competitive advertising markets. Importantly, the syndication dollars derive from what journalism organizations do best: create high-quality content. The big notion: create better-than-good-enough content, the kind of stuff that is beginning to flood the web. It’s another way to affirm worth: the more companies that want to use your content, the clearer the value proposition in the digital world.

So what’s old is new again. In addition, syndication offers the potential of selling beyond traditional media that may offer significant new revenues. For local news companies, established for more than a hundred years or a few months, it’s a destination-plus model. It’s not about readers coming to your site; it’s about getting people to read your content —and get paid for it. It’s also — witness the Politico model — a way to enable an ad network, related to syndicated content. In fact, I can envision a range of locally oriented sites — from the Yelps, Open Tables and Zillows to government sites to niche mom’s and family sites and beyond — that may find use for various kinds of content. The first step for would-be syndicators: inventory and categorize what you have, and talk to would-be customers about what they might want to use.

Some have said that in the digital world, news companies need to think of themselves both as creators and aggregators, doing what they do best and linking to the rest. Let’s amend that: creators, aggregators, and syndicators, doing what they do best, licensing with zest and linking to the rest.

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