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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 27 2012

14:00

This Week in Review: Rupert takes the stand, and the Post’s pressure on young aggregators

Fresh accusations and denials for News Corp.: After several months of investigation, News Corp.’s Rupert Murdoch and his son, James, testified this week before the British government’s Leveson inquiry into their company’s phone hacking and bribery scandal. Rupert made headlines by apologizing for his lack of action to stop the scandal and by admitting there was a cover-up — though he said he was the victim of his underlings’ cover-up, not a perpetrator himself (a charge one of those underlings strenuously objected to).

Murdoch also said he “panicked” by closing his News of the World newspaper last year, but said he should have done so years earlier. He spent the first day of his testimony defending himself against charges of lobbying public officials for favors, saying former Prime Minister Gordon Brown “declared war” on News Corp., which Brown denied. James Murdoch also testified to a lack of knowledge of the scandal and cozy relationships with officials.

Attention in that area quickly shifted this week to British Culture Minister Jeremy Hunt, with emails released to show that he worked to help News Corp. pick up support last year for its bid to takeover the broadcaster BSkyB — the same bid he was charged with overseeing. Hunt called the accusation “laughable” and refused calls to resign, though one of his aides did resign, saying his contact with News Corp. “went too far.”

The commentary on Murdoch’s appearance was, perhaps surprisingly, mixed. The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple mocked the fine line Murdoch apparently walked in his currying favor from public officials, and the Guardian’s Nick Davies said Murdoch looks vulnerable: “The man who has made millions out of paying people to ask difficult questions, finally faced questioners he could not cope with.” He antagonized quite a few powerful people in his testimony, Davies said, and the Leveson inquiry ultimately holds the cards here.

But Murdoch biographer Michael Wolff said Rupert doesn’t use his newspapers to gain officials’ favor in the way he’s accused of doing, and Reuters’ Jack Shafer argued that there’s nothing really wrong with lobbying regulators to approve your proposals anyway. “Don’t damn Murdoch for learning the rules of the regulatory game and then playing them as aggressively as he can,” he wrote.

Plagiarism and aggregation at the Post: A Washington Post blogger named Elizabeth Flock resigned last week after being caught plagiarizing, but the story went under the radar until the Post’s ombudsman, Patrick Pexton, wrote a column charging the Post with failing to properly guide its youngest journalists. Pexton said he talked with other young Post aggregators who “felt as if they were out there alone in digital land, under high pressure to get Web hits, with no training, little guidance or mentoring and sparse editing.”

Poynter’s Craig Silverman wrote a strong follow-up to the column, talking to several people from the Post and emphasizing the gravity of Flock’s transgression, but also throwing cold water on the “journalism’s standards are gone, thanks to aggregation” narrative. Reuters’ Jack Shafer thought Pexton went too easy on Flock’s plagiarism, but others thought it was the Post he wasn’t hard enough on. The Awl’s Trevor Butterworth said Flock’s mistake within the Post’s aggregation empire shed light on the “inherent cheapness of the product and the ethical dubiety of the entire process. You see, the Post—or any legacy news organization turned aggregator—wants to have its cake and other people’s cake too, and to do so without damaging its brand as a purveyor of original cake.”

BoingBoing’s Rob Beschizza made the same point, criticizing the Post for trying to dress up its aggregation as original reporting. The Raw Story’s Megan Carpentier used the example as a warning that even the most haphazard, thoughtless aggregated pieces have a certain online permanence under our bylines.

Technology, connection, and loneliness: A week after an Atlantic cover story asked whether Facebook was making us lonely (its answer: yes), MIT professor and author Sherry Turkle echoed the same point last weekend in a New York Times opinion piece. Through social and mobile media, Turkle argued, we’re trading conversation for mere connection, sacrificing self-reflection and the true experience of relating with others in the process.

Numerous people disputed her points, on a variety of different fronts. Cyborgology’s David Banks charged Turkle with “digital dualism,” asserting that “There is no ‘second self’ on my Facebook profile — it’s the same one that is embodied in flesh and blood.” At The Atlantic, Alexandra Samuel said Turkle is guilty of a different kind of dualism — an us/them dichotomy between (generally younger) social media users and the rest of us. Turkle, she wrote, “assumes conversations are only meaningful when they look like the conversations we grew up having.”

Like Banks, Mathew Ingram of GigaOM pointed out the close connection between online and offline relationships, and sociology prof Zeynep Tufekci argued at The Atlantic that if we are indeed seeing a loss in substantive interpersonal connection, it has more to do with our flight to the suburbs than social media. Claude Fischer of Boston Review disputed the idea that loneliness is on the rise in the first place, and in a series of thoughtful tweets, Wired’s Tim Carmody said the road to real relationship is in our own work, not in our embrace or denial of technologies.

New media lessons from academics and news orgs: The University of Texas hosted its annual International Symposium on Online Journalism last weekend, one of the few of the scores of journalism conferences that brings together both working journalists and academics. As usual, University of British Columbia j-prof Alfred Hermida live-blogged the heck out of the conference, and you can see his summaries of each of his 14 posts here.

Several people distilled the conference’s many presentations into a few themes: The Lab’s staff identified a few, including the need to balance beauty and usefulness in data journalism and the increasing centrality of mobile in news orgs’ strategies. At the Nonprofit Journalism Hub, conference organizer Amy Schmitz Weiss organized the themes into takeaways for news orgs, and Wisconsin j-prof Sue Robinson published some useful notes, organized by subject area.

A couple of specific items from the conference: The Lab’s Adrienne LaFrance wrote on a University of Texas study that found that the people most likely to pay for news are young men who are highly interested in news, though it also found that our stated desires in news consumption don’t necessarily match up with our actual habits. And Dan Gillmor touted the news-sharing potential of one of the conference’s presenters, LinkedIn, saying it’s the first site to connect news sharing with our professional contacts, rather than our personal ones.

[Editor's note: Mark's too modest to mention the paper he coauthored and presented at ISOJ.]

Reading roundup: Several interesting debates lurked just a bit under the radar this week. Here’s a quick lay of the land:

— Reuters’ Felix Salmon wondered why the New York Times doesn’t sell early access to its big business scoops to hedge funds looking for a market advantage, as Reuters and Bloomberg do. GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram argued that the public value of those is too great to do that, and Salmon responded to his and others’ objections. The conversation also included a lively Twitter exchange, which Ingram and the Lab’s Joshua Benton Storified.

— The Chicago Tribune announced its decision to outsource its TribLocal network of community news sites to the Chicago company Journatic, laying off about 20 employees in the process. The Chicago Reader and Jim Romenesko gave some more information about Journatic (yes, the term “content farm” comes up, though its CEO rejected the term). Street Fight’s Tom Grubisich called it a good deal for the Tribune.

— In a feature at Wired, Steven Levy looked at automatically written stories, something The Atlantic’s Rebecca Greenfield said she didn’t find scary for journalism’s future prospects, since those stories aren’t really journalism. Nebraska j-prof Matt Waite also said journalists shouldn’t be afraid of something that frees them up to do their jobs better, and GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram tied together the Journatic deal and the robot journalism stories to come up with something a bit less optimistic.

— This week on the ebook front: A good primer on the U.S. Department of Justice lawsuit of Apple and publishers for price-fixing, which The Wall Street Journal’s Gordon Crovitz said is a completely normal and OK practice. Elsewhere, some publishers are dropping digital rights management, and a publishing exec talked to paidContent about why they broke DRM.

— Gawker revealed its new commenting system this week — the Lab’s Andrew Phelps gave the background, Gawker’s Nick Denton argued in favor of anonymity, Dave Winer wanted to see the ability for anyone to write an article on it, and GigaOM talked with Denton about the state of tech.

— Google shut down its paid-content system for publishers, One Pass, saying it’s moved on to its Consumer Surveys.

— Finally, a few long reads for the weekend: David Lowery on artist rights and the new business model for creative work, Ethan Zuckerman on the ethics of tweet bombing, danah boyd on social media and fear, and Steve Buttry and Dan Conover on restoring newsroom morale.

Rupert Murdoch artwork by Surian Soosay and texting photo by Ed Brownson used under a Creative Commons license.

June 17 2011

09:37

ChicagoTribune's redesign now with real-time ad information from Facebook, Tumblr, Flickr

Niemanlab :: ChicagoTribune.com's redesign will feature real-time ads, through a partnership with Brad Flora of NowSpots, a winner of the Knight News Challenge last year. As Bill Adee, the vice president for digital operations for Tribune Media Group describes it, the ad information could come from Facebook, Tumblr, or Flickr.

Review of the redesign, and how real-time ads work - continue to read Justin Ellis, www.niemanlab.org

June 16 2011

13:00

ChicagoTribune.com redesign will feature real-time ads

In redesigning their website, the Chicago Tribune staff focused on what they could take out of the homepage, not what they could add in. So when you go to the new Chicagotribune.com today, it’s not hard to notice how simple the design appears: Plenty of white space, clear lines and boarders, clean fonts and a basic color scheme — dropping the familiar Trib blue in favor of black and white, not unlike its sister paper in Los Angeles.

I spoke to Bill Adee, the vice president for digital operations for Tribune Media Group, about the new look, an update from their last redesign two years ago. “It’s cleaner, more organized, there’s a sharper focus on breaking news. We tried to hint at that in the tag line, ‘Breaking News, Since 1847,’” Adee said. (They’ve got a nice breakdown of the new parts of the homepage)

In general, the new look is meant to serve breaking and personalized news, with more recent stories (ones that have been populated the Tribune’s breaking news blog) in the center and on the left rail and a widget for localized stories on the right. “We’re serving two kinds of local users,” Adee said. “Users who have read our newspaper in the morning and want the latest updates and the person who hasn’t read the newspaper and is coming to our site to see what the Chicago Tribune has to offer.” (Also worth noting: Adee made mention on Twitter that the Tribune would soon debut an iPad app.)

But one of the more interesting things Adee told me was that they’ll soon be launching real-time ads, through a partnership with Brad Flora of NowSpots, a winner of the Knight News Challenge last year. As Adee describes it, the ad — which can change on the fly by pulling in tweets or other content — will be featured high on the homepage. It’ll initially be used to market other Tribune content and eventually opened up to other businesses. Adee told me plans were already in the works to incorporate real-time ads into the site, and the redesign offered a good opportunity to launch.

What makes the ad (there will be one for the time being) unique, Adee said, is the flexibility it gives advertisers and the integration with social media. So along with pushing out tweets, ad information could come from Facebook, Tumblr, or Flickr. While the Tribune may be one of the biggest organizations to use a real-time ad, Flora’s Windy Citizen, MinnPost, and others have made use of the format.

What may also be significant for the Tribune is that aside from a prominent place on the page (before the first scroll on most screens), the real-time spot would be one of a small number of ad slots on the homepage. (Looking at the page now, there are currently only four ad positions.)

As part of his job Adee oversees much of the digital machinery for the Tribune Media Group, meaning not just the Tribune but the features- and culture-centered RedEye and ChicagoNow blog network. Like most news sites, all these publications rely on traffic that comes from multiple sources, including social media, search, newsletters, and RSS. I asked Adee how important a traffic driver the homepage remained.

“It’s one of the single most powerful pages in Chicago,” he said. “There aren’t many pages where you have that kind of (mass) audience. Everyone’s got their own Facebook, their own customized Twitter. This is still where people go.”

December 09 2010

17:03

Altering Docs? Now There's a Tool for That in DocumentCloud

When we embarked on the DocumnetCloud project, tools for altering documents were the furthest thing from our minds. After all, a responsible journalist doesn't tweak source documents!

But one of the first papers to embed material using DocumentCloud needed to do just that. The Chicago Tribune accompanied their coverage of a troubled foster home with a collection of letters and court orders. Though the documents offered an excellent illustration of the state child services agency's lax oversight and slipped follow-ups, they were predictably full of personal information about children in the foster care system, individual agency staff names and other personal and identifying details about private individuals that the Tribune opted to omit from their reporting. That decision, however, left the news apps team replacing the whole stack of letters multiple times before the package was finally ready to post.

A tool, right inside of DocumentCloud, for replacing, removing and re-ordering the pages of a document would have helped them a lot.

When the "PBS NewsHour" shared a century old hand-written Mark Twain essay, our OCR tools were not nearly up to the task of reading his handwriting. NewsHour transcribed the 10-page essay by hand and we worked with them to replace the text stored in DocumentCloud and displayed on the embedded letters.

By the time that Memphis' Commercial Appeal wanted to run a lengthy series of handwritten letters from Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad, a young Memphis-born man who opened fire on a military recruiting center in Little Rock last summer, we at DocumentCloud were busy supporting nearly 200 newsrooms -- offering to hide the text tab was the best we could do.

What NewsHour and Commercial Appeal really needed was a tool, right inside of DocumentCloud, with which to edit the text of each document.

And so, we've assembled what we think is a sweet suite of tools to let you re-order pages, insert new ones, delete old ones and edit the text that will appear in your embedded document. Check out our user guide to see how it all works. We welcome your bugs, feedback, rants, raves and, as ever, your documents.

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.

September 02 2010

15:00

The Newsonomics of less-is-more, more or less

[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 is a head-turner, which seems to be, at first, an only-in-Utah story. The Deseret Morning News, KSL TV, and KSL Radio, all owned by one company, the Deseret Management Co., a for-profit arm of the Church of Latter-Day Saints, are combining operations.

One headline: “Salt Lake City paper axes 43% of its staff”.

Another: “Deseret News a model of growth and innovation for the entire industry”.

One’s a fact; the other is aspirational.

Remove the religious subtext, for a moment, and I believe we see a model that will appear ordinary in many American cities, within a few years. Think about it. If we as readers, viewers and listeners want words, photographs, videos, and audio, and expect it to be served up in an easy-to-use, relevant-to-me way, then why would the companies that produce news in those various forms be separate?

They’re separate, of course, because those words/picture/audio used to be called newspapers/magazines, network and cable TV and radio broadcasters. Those words, though, describe the old world, those packages the content came wrapped in. In our digital world, we’re seeing delivery blur through the Internet. And, that inevitably, and now more quickly, means that single companies will produce words, pictures and sound — and they’ll find ways to do it more cheaply and efficiently.

If you own the Salt Lake properties, or if you’re Tribune and own the Chicago Tribune, WGN-TV and WGN radio, you practically have a fiduciary responsibility to rearrange assets that will make the company more efficient. If you own a broadcast station or a newspaper, you can more easily see the rationale in buying or combining with the other, to meet customer (reader/viewer and advertiser) demands of the coming age.

So the Salt Lake Experiment joins TBD’s (“The Newsonomics of TBD“) in putting together the text and video pieces. They are the next generation in this attempt to make convergence work. Call it News Convergence 2.0, with Tampa’s Tribune/WFLA experiment the best poster child for 1.0. How well the Deseret operation (or TBD) executes is, of course, the key. Journalism isn’t about white-board theories, in any era; it’s about getting the news gathered, analyzed, and distributed to readers, and doing it better than the competition.

Let’s look at the newsonomics of the Deseret decision, though. The numbers in play are curious ones, as Deseret News President and CEO Clark Gilbert lays out a “less is more” theme in the major restructuring of his company. In fact, let’s use the more and less theme to gauge the moving pieces of the new business model.

  • Less is More: Take that “43%” headline. The legacy news staff of the Deseret News has indeed been cut 43 percent — 85 jobs, including those of the editor and publisher of the paper. That number includes both full-time and part-time positions. So we’d expect a lot less coverage, right? With a bit of frustration in his voice, Deseret News President and CEO Clark Gilbert tells me bluntly “That’s an Old Media world view. We have access to more journalists, hyperlocal contributors, national sports figures than ever before.” His point, and his plan: The combined operations of the remaining Deseret News staff and the sister news staffs at KSL TV and radio will operate smarter and more efficiently.

    “Say there’s a story on Capitol Hill [in Salt Lake City]. Right now, the paper sends a reporter and a photographer and KSL sends a reporter and videographer. That’s four people, and that story may end up on B3,” says Gilbert. “Now we’ll send one.”

    So, step one: “Reduce duplication.”

    So the news math changes dramatically. The new staff of something more than 200 (Gilbert is being cagey about the number) will be expected to multitask, with remaining staffers increasingly cross-trained and “new employees expected to have those skills.” Do the math. If it took four people to do a story and now it takes only one, you can afford to jettison one of those positions and get more productivity out of the other two.

    Step two: “Deepen coverage,” meaning the re-allocating of resources to cover issues most important to the readers. Gilbert says that about half of the remaining news staffers will serve in the “integrated newsroom,” with the remainder staying in more traditional journalistic roles. In that integrated newsroom of roughly a hundred, a third will serve as first responders/rewrite and two-thirds as field reporters. “You’re sandwiching the reporters between first responders [getting to news and getting it out quickly] and rewrite [those taking the reporters work and purposing it for various platforms],” explains Gilbert. Those who first-respond also do rewrite — so that’s going to be a busy staff.

    The journalistic question: How do the new stories compare to the old ones?

  • More Costs Less: Borrowing basic notions of getting cheap and free content from the Huffington Post and Demand Media, Gilbert is putting into action what he has long preached in academic and consulting circles. I’ve called this emerging time the Age of Cheap Content. That principle means that the new Deseret operation will leverage bigger-name writers (especially those consistent with its Mormon roots and values, like former BYU football star and current Philadelphia sports anchor Vai Sikahema) for little financial compensation. That’s the HuffPo model. And they’ll leverage Salt Lake and Utah reporters to address both topical and hyperlocal coverage, through the new Deseret Connect. That’s the Demand side of the idea, bringing together a large database of qualified writers — “not random bloggers,” says Gilbert — and keeping their payments low or non-existent. “Some of the best don’t write for money.”

    Deseret Connect already has received more than 100 applications, and Gilbert says he can see it scaling to a thousand or more contributors within the year, using management system techniques developed outside the news industry for BYU/Idaho faculty.

    Gilbert says the non-pros will work on a path from generalists to columnists to doing editorial features, with pay increasing along that continuum — though he’s clear to point out that people doing the writing won’t be looking to the company “as their main source of income.”

    So, looking at cost per content unit — a Demand-like analytic — the new company will be able to house lots more content under its brand, at a far lower cost point.

  • More Beats Less: The Deseret play aims to bring together text stories and blogs, video, and audio. That supposes that readers want all kinds of coverage brought together for them. It’s a bet that products that converge video and stories for readers will beat the competition, competition like MediaNews’ Salt Lake Tribune, the biggest non-church-owned news presence in the state. One big question here: How will the customer experience be converged? In Washington, two ongoing TV stations folded their websites into the new TBD at launch. How separate and how unified will the DeseretNews.com and KSL.com sites be?
  • More is More: The new Deseret operation doesn’t just focus on geography — Utah’s more than 700,000 households. It’s taking a twin approach to being a general interest news site — and a new worldwide voice for the Mormon faithful of 13 million or so worldwide. In the company’s strategy, that’s described as a values-oriented approach, and you can already read that six-point values mantra widely. The six: “the family, financial responsibility, excellence in education, care for the needy, values in the media, faith in the community.” They make for a strong philosophy, but in marketing, that’s quite a straddle — one that may be difficult to pull off, especially as Salt Lake City itself has become majority non-Mormon.

The economics of it are clear, though. Pay (or don’t) to get a story written or a video shot once, and then distribute it many times over. It’s basic Internet economics, with a nichy, religious angle, one of many variations we’ll soon be seeing on these increasingly popular themes.

August 05 2010

16:17

Active-duty Marines ‘reverse embedded’ at CNN Money, Chicago Tribune

Writing on the Upshot, John Cook has an interesting investigation into “reverse embedding”, a practice “which permits active-duty service personnel to serve as interns in major media companies – sometimes in an editorial capacity”.

The practice is part of the military’s Training With Industry (TWI) programme, which allows military officers to leave the service for up to a year to work for private companies in a wide variety of sectors. But Cook’s article draws attention to the problem with placing officers in media positions, alleging that they may be “gleaning insights and intelligence into how media organisations operate, and perhaps helping to shape the way they cover the military”.

The TWI operation achieved some notoriety in 2000, when Dutch and French media reported that CNN had invited US Army psychological operations soldiers into its newsroom to serve as interns. Embarrassed at having hosted military disinformation specialists,  the network acknowledged that it was a mistake and said in a statement that “the intern program was terminated as soon as the leadership of CNN learned of it.”

Now, however, the program appears to have been reactivated – at CNN and elsewhere.

Full post at this link…

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July 02 2010

05:45

SAM ZELL, THE TERMINATOR

sam-zell-billionaire-real-estate-mogul122

Sam, Zell, Tribune Group’s owner, that include big guns like Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune, leads a newspaper company with great vision…

He recently voiced his opinion about the future of newspapers on CNBC.

Reflecting on the future, said “going forward, it’s going to require all kinds of different approaches, including probably most significant, the elimination of home delivery and the replacement of it by PDFs.”

Oh, boy, what a shame to have owners like him!

If I were working for this company I will start to look for another job.

April 15 2010

16:28

April 09 2010

14:13

March 12 2010

10:40

Posthumous byline

While pre-prepared obituaries are standard practice, it was a little surreal to see an obituary of Michael Foot by Mervyn Jones (d. 23 February 2010) in the print edition of the Guardian on 4 March 2010, the Tribune’s diary notes. An obituary for Jones, who was Michael Foot’s biographer, had appeared in the Guardian on 25 February. The deaths were so close together, the Tribune says, it had to run its own tributes in the same edition.

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February 01 2010

18:22

Truly Serving the Public -- With Web Tools

We journalists are fond of saying that journalism is constitutionally protected because of our critical role in providing information that people need to be citizens in a democracy. Which makes it all the more shameful that most newspapers -- in print and online -- have historically done such a lousy job of helping people navigate the core functionality of democracy: elections.

chicagotribune-electioncenter-homepage.jpg

The Chicago Tribune's Election Center, developed by the team that includes the first two programmer-journalists (whose journalism educations were financed by Knight News Challenge scholarships), is a great example of what's possible. The site provides an essential guide to tomorrow's primary elections and dramatically simplifies the task of deciding whom to vote for. (If you're interested in seeing it live, you'll want to check it out before the polls close tomorrow, because once the election is over, the Tribune will shut down some of the key functionality -- and begin gearing up for the general election).

Here are the key elements of the Election Center (you can view screenshots in a Flickr slideshow):

  • Type in your address and you get information about your polling place and a sample ballot customized to where you live.
  • If you don't know whom to vote for in a given race, mouse over the candidate's name and you'll have access to his or her biography, relevant news articles, and endorsements from the Tribune's editorial board.
  • With a click, view all of the Tribune's endorsements.
  • View lengthy Q&A's with candidates in the most important races.
  • As you decide whom to vote for, click to check off your preferred candidate.
  • When you're done, produce a printable ballot you can take with you to the polls.
  • Share your choices via email, Facebook or Twitter.

Much as I like the Election Center, it's only fair to point out that there have been versions of this in the past. My Medill School colleagues Owen Youngman and Darnell Little tell me that as far back as 1996, the Tribune's Web site allowed people to type in an address and get a customized ballot. And in previous elections, many papers have made use of vendor-supplied technology (especially the ballot tools provided by thevoterguide.com) to provide similar capabilities. But I think the Tribune's site nails the combination of comprehensiveness and usability better than anything I've seen before.

When the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation funded scholarships to lure computer programmers into studying journalism, we were hoping to get coders excited about applying their skills to accomplishing the missions and goals of journalism. Brian Boyer and Ryan Mark, the first two scholarship winners, did exactly that, and helped launch the Tribune's "news applications team." A third team membrer, Joe Germuska, is featured in this news video about the Election Center.

There's one desirable piece of functionality I don't see on the Tribune's site: a tool pioneered years ago (I believe) by Rob Curley's team at the Lawrence Journal World and copied by others. It's basically a game where users register their opinions regarding key campaign issues, then are shown the candidates whose views are closest to their own.

I'd also point out that local media -- including the Tribune -- should do more to help educate voters about the election process. My Northwestern colleague Mary Nesbitt nicely captured some of the needs in a blog post last year about helping new voters.

One feature on the Tribune's site that I haven't seen before is the capability of sharing your ballot choices by email, Facebook and Twitter. I haven't seen anything quite like it before. But I have a feeling it's not going to be widely used -- in part because primary elections don't get much attention and in part because most people will be reluctant to share their voting intentions with people beyond their closest family and social circles.

Still, the concept of ballot sharing deserves further creative thinking and experimentation. What could be better for democracy than to have people telling their friends whom they're voting for and why, even if -- especially if -- that causes conversations to take place that would otherwise not occur?

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