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July 19 2011

14:30

Tackable, BANG collaborate on a location-based digital newspaper

Ever since he was a beat reporter at the Palo Alto Daily News and the Contra Costa Times, Luke Stangel has been thinking about how to improve finding and consuming news by adding more specific location data to news content.

Last year, he co-founded (with Ed Lucero) a company called Tackable to develop his ideas, and in February, we described here Tackable’s first product: a pair of iPhone apps that Tackable envisions as the basis for a social network that “organizes media on a map.”

Now Tackable has rolled out, in partnership with the newspapers of the Bay Area News Group, something much more complex and ambitious: an iPad app called TapIn BayArea, which Stangel describes as “the world’s first location-aware digital newspaper.” TapIn, at launch, is already an impressive, sophisticated product that shows potential to evolve in multiple ways. And its ability to engage users at various levels bodes well for its capacity to generate revenue.

The collaboration with BANG, the San-Francisco area cluster of the California Newspaper Partnership led by MediaNews Group, includes incubation space for the Tackable crew at the San Jose Mercury News. Jeff Herr, CNP’s VP/Digital, describes it as a “strategic partnership, with both partners sharing costs and both having a stake in the potential outcomes, which include expanding the product to other units of MediaNews Group and beyond.

TapIn is the first product that aims for a space envisioned by Ken Doctor here in his recent Lab post, “The Newsonomics of the Swift Street Courtyard,” in which he asked, “Imagine a world in which consumers can move their finger around a magic tablet surface, watching, listening, reading reviews and more?” TapIn may not completely fulfill Doctor’s vision, but it’s aiming to go there. After the launch, Doctor wrote on his blog: ” Potentially — and I cannot emphasize that word too much — it may become a prototypical product for the news industry, pointing a new way out of the hollowing-out landscape into which the news industry has meandered.”

Checking the reviews

During the Lab’s summer hiatus last week, a number of good descriptions of TapIn’s functionality were posted elsewhere, and rather than reinvent the wheel I’ll give you those links and move on to my impressions of where TapIn could be headed:

Not every user is going to be thrilled with the map as the basic navigational interface. The idea that men navigate with cardinal directions, while women navigate by landmarks, has scientific backing and implications for hardware and software design. Is it possible that some people (not necessarily women) will resist the map-based UI? Stangel says, “That was one of the things that came up in our focus groups. The ultimate goal is to produce a product that delights.” To that end, users can choose to access data via one of several views, with or without maps, including OnTap, a mix of the top six things that TapIn thinks you’re going to like. “We’re finding that people are clicking on OnTap a lot,” says Stangel. Right now, OnTap’s content is ranked mainly according to human editorial judgments, but eventually, the rankings will also be influenced by the crowd — frequently-shared material will bubble up — and by user customization in which users list preferences to get more personalized content. (“I want pizza but not Italian restaurants,” or “I like this sports team but not that one.”)

Down the road, Stangel has visions for upgrades ranging from version 1.1 all the way to 2.0. The ultimate goal, he says, is “a product that delights,” and the envisioned upgrades will aim for improvements in localization, personalization and customization, for all of which Stangel offers intriguing possibilities.

For example, TapIn is likely to accumulate many more optional layers of information organized on maps, which users will toggle on and off at will. In fact, Tackable plans to provide an API later this year so that third-party developers can add such layers — essentially apps within the app — catering to niche interests. Some of these layers could begin to appear in the next version, says Stangel, who paints a picture of layers focused on real estate, classifieds, sports scores, crime reports, and user interests like wine or gardening, all location-specific, all capable of generating topical conversations. (Herr also suggests fishing conditions as a map layer; and I can imagine more esoteric-interest layers like spelunking and underground urban exploration.)

To me, this potential multi-dimensional, data-rich, customizable environment is the flip side of concerns about comfort levels with the map interface. There is simply too much mappable news and information out there not to try this.

Leaving user input fuzzy

TapIn’s social layer is based on Gigs, a feature borrowed from the original Tackable phone app. Deliberately non-specific, Gigs simply allows users to place a red pin on the map and attach a post of some kind. This could be a restaurant recommendation or comment, but most intriguingly, it could be a question — “I’m here and have an hour to kill, anything cool to do nearby?” or “Does anybody know why traffic on this road is tied up?” or “What’s the story behind this interesting-looking building,” or “Can someone recommend a plumber who will come out here on a weekend?” “Post what you need and see who can deliver,” Herr says. “[We're] definitely just nibbling at the edges of a new marketplace like that.”

Indeed. I’m often struck by how quickly location-specific questions like, How do I kill 6 hours at the Denver airport are answered on Q&A sites like Ask Metafilter (and, not quite so quickly yet, on Quora). With local critical mass (how large?) the quality of such answers could be even better and faster on TapIn.

Stangel says Gigs was left “intentionally nebulous. We don’t put a lot of rules on what you ask for. You type in what you’re interested it. it could be a request for a photo. It could be simply, I saw something here and want to leave this digital beacon here to tell people about it.” The Gig pin and its associated content disappear after 24 hours — this is a pure real-time feature. People are starting to use it, and Tackable is watching to see how. “Our goal has been to create a robust community of people who live in a particular region and to give them the tools to really easily talk to one another, to ask one another questions, with the idea that they think and share local knowledge,” Stangel says.

In the course of the week since the app went public (on July 12), Stangel says downloads have been picking up exponentially, pushed along by Twitter talk, as well as by stories and promotions in the BANG papers. People are actively using the app and sharing links through it, Stangel says.

Where the money comes from

Herr spoke and emailed with me about the business side of TapIn. The principal revenue stream, of course, is expected to be advertising. “Geo-awareness just drives everything here,” he says. The tablet enables more elegant and engaging ads than prior websites, and Herr aims to use those capabilities. “We hand-selected some of the brightest advertisers in our markets because we need them to help us model out the ideal formulation.”

Clearly, additional revenue streams are possible down the road as well — for example, commissions on ticket sales generated through the app. An expansion of TapIn to the CNP’s southern California group, Los Angeles Newspaper Group (LANG), and to MediaNews’ Denver Post seems likely if the current rollout takes off with users and advertisers.

“From the start we looked for ways to engage people through game mechanics.”

One revenue stream will come from $4.99 per month user subscriptions (which kick in after a free introductory period during the summer), but a unique feature of Tapin is that active users can easily earn back the cost — and more — by earning credits for clicking on ads, sharing content or other forms of engagement. It’s an idea that might well be considered by other publications that have put up paywalls — just as electric meters can run backwards when homeowners install solar panels, engaged users could earn back their subscription fees by doing what you want them to do. (In the print world, many readers will tell you that the main reason they buy a Sunday paper is that they save more than the cost of the paper just by using some of the manufacturers’ coupons.)

Stangel says that what the team is calling the “earnout” feature came out of the CNP side of the collaboration. Every user action on a web site or app has a value — the user doesn’t know what it is; there’s no visible counter. But the site operator, the newspaper in this case, does. The team realized that “there could be a way for us to quantify the actions that people take on the app to essentially hold on to some of that value and trade it in for other things they find of value on the app,” Stangel says. Currently, they can do that at a store on the TapIn website that offers TapIn gear and merchant gift cards; eventually, this will happen within the app itself with a richer mix of offerings.

Here, too, I believe TapIn is potentially hitting a nerve and turning it to its advantage. As illustrated most recently by the Netflix pricing kerfuffle, whether it’s the slow economy or simply consumer fatique, people are reaching the limits of their willingness to spend more on digital services and content. So, especially when an app is clearly earning money from advertisers targeting me, why not give me a chance to reverse the meter by earning back my costs (and more) when I respond to the ads or engage my friends in the app?

All of this highlights the game-like aspects of TapIn. Herr points out, “From the start we looked for ways to engage people through game mechanics. We found in Tackable a perfect partner given their heritage in the gaming industry. They all worked in leading game-development shops on impressive game projects. I mean, they figured out how to coax couch potatoes up on their feet to jam on air guitars all night long!”

Soon after the introduction of the iPad, I posted here a set of iPad strategies for publishers. There is also a somewhat expanded version on my own blog. In the latter, I urged publishers to recognize that mobile will be ubiquitous; that content needed to be created and formatted specifically with the tablet’s capabilities in mind; to make everything personalized, customized and social; to forget about trying to emulate print with “issues” and “editions” on the tablet and recognize the atomization of content and the native capabilities of the new device; and to find new ways for merchants and brands to interact with consumers.

To me, TapIn hits the bulls-eye of those strategies. I’ll go a little further out on the limb than Ken Doctor’s “potentially” and say that TapIn is, in fact, the prototype (although certainly not the last word) for an innovative new class of apps and sites that can bring news publishers engagement with a brand new generation of consumers.

January 18 2010

17:51

Singleton’s next chapter: Can he steer MediaNews to a digital future?

[Our regular contributor Martin Langeveld spent 13 years as a publisher in MediaNews Group. That gives him an inside perspective on the company's bankruptcy filing, which he shares with us here. —Ed.]

In August 2006, as part of a deal that netted MediaNews Group the Contra Costa Times, San Jose Mercury News, and the St. Paul Pioneer Press, the Hearst Corporation agreed to make a $300 million equity investment in MediaNews. At that point, the peak of MediaNews’ company’s expansion and with revenue and cash flow at an all-time high, the holdings of the principal stockholders — the Singleton and Scudder families — net of debt, were arguably worth more than $500 million each.

But last Friday, whatever was left of that equity, as well as Hearst’s stake (not finalized until a year later), evaporated as part of an announced plan to file a “prepackaged” Chapter 11 bankruptcy. For Hearst, it’s a hefty writeoff of a bad investment. For the Scudders, it’s a bitter payoff after nearly 25 years of active participation in MediaNews management. For MediaNews CEO William Dean Singleton and his financial wizard, company president Joseph (Jody) L. Lodovic IV, it’s a fresh start (which includes a 20 percent equity stake for the duo, and retained control of the company).

Could readers of the company’s papers now see new investment in its newsgathering capabilities, long hammered by budget reductions? For MediaNews employees, could this be an opportunity to participate in the transformation of the company into a truly digital enterprise? Both answers depend on what kind of vision is shared by Singleton, Lodovic, and the former bondholders who are now their equity partners.

MediaNews’ story

In 1983, Singleton, then a brash 32-year-old newspaperman who already had bought and sold several newspapers, enlisted the help of his friend Richard B. Scudder to buy  the Gloucester County Times in New Jersey. Scudder, former publisher of the Newark Evening News (which his family owned for three generation before selling it in 1972), was founder and president of the Garden State Paper Co., the first commercial-scale producer of recycled newsprint.

Singleton and Scudder went on to create MediaNews Group in March 1985, and steered the company through a long series of deals that eventually built it into the sixth-largest newspaper group (by circulation) in the country — today it owns 54 daily newspapers with a total weekday circulation of about 2.3 million, plus a slew of weeklies and niche products. It also has a television station in Anchorage and a group of radio stations in Texas.

From the outset, Singleton and Scudder agreed to manage MediaNews for growth, and never to pay dividends. Neither of the partners ever personally owned any stock — they put it in trusts for Scudder’s children and grandchildren and for Singleton’s future children. Singleton was only 33, unmarried and childless at the time, but Scudder was 72, so the trust strategy would avoid inheritance taxes in the event of his death.

The company never went public, but because a small portion of its debt was publicly held, it was required for years to file disclosures with the SEC, providing a detailed window into the complex financial structure that enabled its growth. (That window closed in 2008 when the company reached an agreement with bondholders to avoid the filings.)

The financial wizard behind the company’s financial maneuvers was Jody Lodovic, who became chief financial officer in the early 1990s and rose to become president. Together, Singleton and Lodovic created partnerships with Gannett in Texas and New Mexico and with Gannett and Stephens Media in California to which each company contributed its newspapers, with MediaNews assuming the management. They pioneered the concept of “clusters” of papers that could realize economies of scale. They deftly exploited joint operating agreements in Detroit, Charleston, W.V., York, Penn., Salt Lake City and ultimately in Denver at the conclusion of a long battle between MediaNews’ flagship paper, the Denver Post, and the Rocky Mountain News. At times, when cash was tight or they got offers they couldn’t refuse, they sold papers, including the original New Jersey cluster dear to Dick Scudder’s heart.

For Singleton, the elimination of most his company’s debt is a long-delayed goal. As early as 1996, at a retreat for the group’s management and publishers, he outlined strategies including a few more years of acquisitions followed by a push to reduce debt. But somehow, acquisition opportunities kept coming along, and debt reduction was put off. Singleton began to feel that at some point, there would be only two or three newspaper companies left standing, and he wanted MediaNews to be one. To be in the running, the company had to keep growing. Ultimately, revenue tanked not long after the final big deals with McClatchy and Hearst, and MediaNews found itself in workout last April. Given the complexity of its financial structure, it’s not surprising that it took eight months to package the bankruptcy.

For Singleton, it’s not the first disappointing turn, but certainly the biggest. In 1975, pre-MediaNews and at the age of 24, Singleton was involved in an attempt to revive the Fort Worth Press, which had been closed by E. W. Scripps after losing money for two decades. The venture ended in failure after three months. MediaNews bought, but couldn’t make a go of the Dallas Times-Herald, which was closed a few years after Singleton sold it. Later, MediaNews bought the Houston Post but couldn’t make it profitable and sold the assets to Hearst, which owned the dominant Houston Chronicle. Hearst paid $120 million and immediately closed the Post. (The laid-off staffers, calling themselves the Toasted Posties, set up an early social networking site of sorts to stay in touch and swap gossip about Singleton; it was succeeded by a now-dormant blog, and later by a Facebook page.)

Known as a cost-cutter

Though he continues to have a reputation for ruthlessly cutting costs when necessary, Singleton takes a genuine pride and interest in his newsroom staffs. When visiting newspapers, before heading out for dinner with the publisher, he makes of point of visiting the newsroom to see what’s going on. He keeps an eye on editors, reporters and photographers with promise and has promoted some to the Denver Post. He has a mail subscription to every one of his dailies, and when he’s traveling, his sister and personal secretary Pat Robinson sends some of them to his destination in Fedex boxes so he can keep up. Editors are not surprised to get a call from Singleton asking about a local story, or exhorting them to run more local news on the front page. He lets each local paper formulate its own editorial views and endorsements. Before the going got rough, Singleton and Scudder convened annual gatherings of MediaNews publishers to talk strategy; they enjoyed these confabs far better than meetings of publishers.

And as Singleton told the Wall Street Journal in an interview relating to the current bankruptcy process, he continues to press his vision for consolidation of the newspaper industry, telling the Journal he wanted to be the “aggressor” in that effort.  The group’s employees fear that by consolidation, Singleton means more outsourcing or more centralization of operations regionally and nationally. There’s been a lot of that already, and there could be more, but Singleton and Lodovic will now be free to expand their partnerships, to seek mergers with other groups, or to rationalize the market through exchanges of newspaper properties. “Look at the map,” Singleton told the Journal in response to the question of where such consolidations might occur.

Singleton has lived with multiple sclerosis for 24 years; the disease has now robbed him of the use of his legs. In a long and particularly revealing interview last year with the Colorado Statesman, he discussed its effects:

I cheated it for many, many years. The last three years, I haven’t cheated it so well, and it has become more aggressive. I’ve lost the use of my legs and partial use of my arms and fingers. I feel fine most of the time. I’ve never missed work because of it. But clearly the current prognosis isn’t particularly good. The good news about Multiple Sclerosis is, it doesn’t kill you. But it does disable you. Not being able to walk or button your shirts or tie your tie — it’s troubling. But I’d rather be disabled and alive than fully able and headed to the other side. So I count my blessings for all the things it hasn’t taken. But it certainly has taken a lot. I look worse than I feel. I feel pretty good.

I’m still very energetic and do what I want to do. I travel if I want to travel, and get around to the newspapers and go anywhere I want to go. I enjoy life a lot, but I just enjoy it differently without some of the physical things I once had. It’s comical when I go on the road. I can’t button a button because my fingers don’t work. I can’t type anymore. I can’t use a computer because my fingers don’t work. If I go to hotels where I stay regularly, I’ve always got a concierge who’ll come up and button my shirts and help me tie my tie. If I stay in a strange hotel, I ask one of the housekeepers if she’ll button my shirts. She almost wants to call the police or something. You get all kinds of weird looks when you ask a housekeeper, “Would you come here and button my buttons for me?”

And I love it. In some places you get somebody who can’t speak English, so you have to explain how to button a shirt. And some places you get somebody who does, and they first think you’re joking. And then they understand your nod and they start laughing and everything. One of the fun things I have in life when I travel is the look on somebody’s face when I ask them to button my shirt. So you make the best of it.

Clearly, the MS puts some urgency in Singleton’s quest for a legacy. The elimination of most of his debt gives him an opportunity to rebuild newspaper operations that have been hammered for years by revenue declines and the company’s inability to invest adequately in its future (many of the papers are still operating on content management systems installed as Y2K solutions).  Whether he, or Lodovic, will have the vision to turn the company into a truly digital enterprise is an open question. Singleton has an understanding of the web (he helped lead the formation of the Yahoo Newspaper Consortium), but he’s not an active computer user. He has often expressed faith in the future of print, and has strongly espoused charging for content in order to protect the print side of the business: “I think print’s going to be important for a long time…Print is still the meat. Online’s the salt and pepper.”

With that attitude it seems unlikely that Singleton and Lodovic come to share the digital vision of another CEO leading his company out of bankruptcy, Journal Register’s John Paton, who told Jeff Jarvis recently (speaking of his previous company, Spanish-language publisher impreMedia):

The first thing we did was to decide that in our company, a print company, when it came to products we would be digital and brands first and print last. It was our radical way of focusing everyone on the future. By recognizing our competitors and our future were digital everything we built and did had to follow that decision.

Paton is free to pursue that vision at Journal Register, which is also newly unencumbered by debt. The readers and employees of MediaNews could benefit from a similarly unequivocal determination at the top to radically reinvent the business in a truly digital direction.

Disclosure: I worked for MediaNews Group as a publisher for 13 years from 1995 to 2008 at its cluster of four dailies in western New England. In a previous post, I outlined in more detail my suggestions for a more digitally-oriented MediaNews Group.

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