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April 03 2013

18:50

The newsonomics of the Orange County Register’s contrarian paywall

angel-stadium-cc

Get your hot dogs. Get your beer. Get your newspaper. Step right up.

As Opening Day comes to the Big A in Anaheim on Tuesday, you can now expect to hear that barker’s call in Orange County. In what is fast becoming one of the most-watched experiments in newspapering (to use a quaint term), the Orange County Register innovates in a new way, aligning one hallowed American pastime with another.

Hundreds of newspapers have announced paywalls, as the Register is doing and a smaller subset is embracing “membership” as a way of redefining subscription. The Register, though, is making membership more meaningful with a just-completed deal with the many-named Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Starting tomorrow, “Register Connect” members — that is, seven-day subscribers — get a perk unlike any other in the newspaper world: free tickets to Angels games. That may be an actual game-changer — giving new meaning to the idea of “all-access.”

The new offer is just part of the Register’s aggressive, contrarian approach to paywalls, which is a central piece of its readers-first, invest-in-content staffing strategy (“The newsonomics of Aaron Kushner’s virtuous circles”). It’s a strategy that reaches beyond the groupthink that has long characterized much of the industry. Let’s look at its approach, including the ticket giveaway — its pros and the cons, its potential brilliance and what could dull the strategy. Let’s look at the newsonomics of the Register’s new paywall, one run by younger, sure-of-themselves non-newspaper people. Let’s also consider how much the Register’s new approach reminds us how first-generation, how 1.0 the current pay systems in fact are. Over 2013, we’ll see twists, turns, and nuances, as even paywall stalwarts like the Columbus Dispatch and Dallas Morning News tell us about previously unannounced changes in their own paywalls.

Aaron Kushner and Eric Spitz, CEO and president respectively of Freedom Communications, which they bought out of bankruptcy last year, have diverse business backgrounds. You’ll find a smattering of greeting cards, beer, unfast food, horse-racing technology, and moving services on their resumes, and they bring that experience to the problems and opportunities of the modern newspaper company. You get the sense that they love to zag when others are zigging — which helps explain their pride in announcing their paywall.

“We’re doing four things that are totally unique,” Spitz told me this week. Those four are interesting, certainly, but they bury the Register paywall lead. The Register is doing two things that others have done, but are doing differently — putting up a hard paywall and making much more of the membership idea than peer pioneers have yet done with it. First, though, a quick run-through of Spitz’s four unique forays:

1. A paywall without discounted digital access

The Register will charge one price — a dollar a day or $365 a year. Get digital or print or both. “We are truly agnostic. It’s our job to get you the content anyway you want. It’s kind of like HBO GO.” Why one price? “You are not paying for the paper — you are paying for the content.”

Most papers charge less for digital-only access, often 50 to 70 percent of the print price. Many have found that non-print readers won’t pay print-like prices for digital-only; some, like The Dallas Morning News, have actually lowered their digital-only prices, as they’ve found low incidence of fully paid print readers “trading down” to digital-only.

In the abstract, the Register’s reasoning makes sense. In practice, expect that few non-print readers will fork over that much money, initially, for tablet and smartphone reading. In the long term, of course, publishers want readers to pay for the content, not the package. In the long term — with production, printing, and distribution costs largely gone and subscription rates close to what they were in print — news publishers would be greatly more profitable. That’s the long term, though, and the path there is foggy. Yes, The Wall Street Journal can charge 83 percent of its print price for digital, and the Financial Times 87 percent (or 113 percent), but those are business-specific anomalies in the print trade.

2. Time-based digital access

If you pay $2.40 for Sunday print only, you get digital access only on Sundays. The Register, true to its agnosticism, is literally matching print and digital access. (You can also buy Thursday-Sunday for $5.60 a week, with matching digital access.) It’s agnostic — and it’s literal. One could argue that The New York Times’ scheme — cheaper for Sunday print + digital access seven days a week — better meets its business needs and consumer psychology. But the Register’s approach is a great test to watch.

3. Day passes

For any 24-hour period, you can pay $2 for access — access that gets you, in effect, two days worth of Register stories. The daypass idea is one that hasn’t much been tested in the U.S., with the Memphis Commercial Appeal trying but apparently dropping it. TinyPass, the company powering Andrew Sullivan’s Dish paywall, says daily access is more popular overseas and for video, selling live events and sports videos. The idea: sampling. Potential upside: day-passers move to full subscriptions. Potential downside: Comparing a $365 commitment to a $2 commitment, many readers opt into day passes.

4. All archives open to the public

The last 90 days of the Register’s content is considered current and covered by the paywall. Any content older than that is open to the full public. Why? “It’s the current content that readers most value,” says Spitz. Undoubtedly true, but it seems to me that archives — a continually undervalued asset by most news companies — have more value that can be exploited.

But it’s the membership program — one that’s not unique in the industry — that will catch the headlines.

Most newspaper membership programs offer free ebooks (The Boston Globe), coupons (The Day in New London, CT) and retail discounts (Los Angeles Times). Some invite members to community events or to visit the editorial staff. The Register wants to go bigger. It approached the Angels, located 10 minutes away, with the idea of better using the empty seats the Angels couldn’t sell. The Angels found themselves sitting on almost 600,000 empty seats last year over 81 games. Put another 7,000 butts in those seats each night, even without getting paid for the ticket, and the club is pulling in another 10 bucks or so on Chronic Tacos, garlic fries, and overpriced Corona.

The perk is available on a first-signed-up, first-served basis to the Register’s 124,000 seven-day subscribers, beginning 72 hours before each game. Forty-eight hours before the game, the Angels, through Ticketmaster, release available seats. Register Connect buyers can nab four tickets, for a service charge of $5. Within a year — subject to going to the end of the electronic queue after landing some tickets — fans can claim as many as 96 tickets a season.

“We’re looking to execute at scale,” Spitz explains, noting that lots of membership perks are good, but few are likely to move the needle of buying and retention. The Angels’ ticket program is that touch of likely brilliance. It is a scale play — and one I’ve been looking for as I’ve heard about the various membership initiatives rolled out over the last two years.

Further, it acts on the power of media. The Register, though shrunken in circulation like the rest of its metro brethren, still throws a lot of weight around town. It retains the power to pull off a big deal with the local baseball franchise — and one that comes at relatively low cost to the newspaper. (The high value/low cost here parallels the Register’s precedent-setting “golden envelope” program, in which it gave those same seven-day subscribers a $100 “check” for “free advertising,” a check they could endorse over to their favorite charity. That program will now be offered “at least twice a year” as well.) A couple of decades after airlines embraced variable pricing — selling off commodities whose value was destroyed by time — the practice is getting to be standard in lots of industries. Newspapers, with their market power, then are well positioned to create a variable pricing marketplace — with their member-subscribers at the center — and the Angels deal leads the way there.

“For your $400 a year, we’re going to deliver you far more than $400 in value,” says Spitz, underlining the allure of “membership.” To make membership more than a card-in-the-wallet afterthought, Spitz says Register Connect will include a key fob — a literal “key to the city” — to facilitate greater use.

Finally, there’s that hard paywall. It’s the biggest enigma of the Register plan. Come to the Register site, and you can get any non-staff-written story — wires and syndicated content, which makes up 40 percent of the content overall — but you won’t get more than “a headline and a sentence” of local stories.

It’s been the meter — with its flexibility and open site sensibility — that has fueled the paywall movement. Yet the Register, two years into modern paywall history, is going with the hard wall. Why?

Spitz says the Register wants to be clear that paying customers get everything — all access on all devices — and that others don’t. You are a customer — or you’re not. You’re on the Register bus, or you’re off it. There’s a certain purity to the thinking; it certainly slams shut that loophole we’ll come to see as plain weird — readers paying several hundred dollars for print or nothing for online. The metered model has largely closed off that stark choice for real readers of any publication. The Register, though, wants to make it even clearer: Pay your $365 a year — either for print or digital or both — and you get the content. It wants to reinforce its buyers’ smart choice.

The move means that the Register will surely lose more pageviews than if it went with a meter. Figure that it will lose 20-30 percent of them, where new metered paywalls lose about half as much. “We don’t care about monetizing eyeballs,” says Spitz, talking about the small incremental ad value newspaper sites get from marginal readers.

I asked Spitz if he had talked with The Dallas Morning News, one of the few U.S. sites to go hard paywall, and he said he had. “The number one thing we take away from them is the most significant value of the paywall is that if someone signs up — a print subscriber who signs up for the paywall — they become 50 percent less likely to attrite [drop their subscription]. The most important value of a paywall as it turns out is you are telling your customer that they are not stupid for buying something their neighbor is getting for free.”

Ironically, publisher Jim Moroney of the Dallas Morning News tells me that his paper is likely moving to a metered model: “We’re pretty certain that’s part of our strategy. How do it is the question.” Today, the Morning News does what the Register is about to do, offering for free access all the non-staff content, but making local stuff inaccessible to non-payers. Why the likely change? In a word, sampling. Moroney believes that he’s secured his core readers — at a high price of $36.95 a month for seven-day print + digital — but knows he needs to crack a code to bring in new, and younger, readers. The hard paywall is a barrier to sampling.

Phil Pikelny, the Columbus Dispatch’s CMO (“The newsonomics of pressing innovation”) is even blunter about the need for a meter:

Pre-2006, we had a hard wall at Dispatch.com. “It was an unmitigated disaster. While other news sites offered all free content, we [who only offered a free home page, free classifieds and free obits] were only able to attract 6,000 paying subs at the height of our ‘success.’ I’d say that thinking retarded our digital growth by three years. No matter what ‘we wish would happen,’ the simple fact is that people only pay for the value they perceive in a product. A website visitor looking at eight pages a month obviously derives little value from the site visited that infrequently. Obviously no pay scheme will win them over. I personally think a hard wall is so restrictive that the website immediately falls into the no-perceived value pile for too many people in the market.

Pikelny, like Moroney, is among those now looking at second-gen paywall notions: “We’re working on a dynamic paywall. Our thought is to eventually move to five free pages a month [from 10]. However, on those webpages where we have the heaviest revenue from advertising (and some of our most robust traffic) we are considering dropping the paywall altogether during certain dayparts. In other words, our home page and OSU sports pages might be without metering from 8 a.m.-10 a.m. and again from noon-2 p.m. The rest of the website would stay metered at all times. When we lower the meter to five pages a month, we might not lose those who don’t see ‘value’ in paying for our site since they will turn to us for headline or breaking stories without hitting a paywall.”

(At the Newspaper Association of America’s April 15 “Strength of Digital Subscriptions” session, Pikelny, the Star Tribune’s Mike Klingensmith, Gannett’s Laura Hollingsworth, and Press+’s Gordon Crovitz will join me for a session I’m moderating.)

Spitz says he, too, believes, in sampling, and that the Register will do that three ways: (1) the $2 day pass; (2) by providing seven days of free access with any fresh email signup; and (3) by pushing five to ten local stories in front of the wall at any one time.

Maybe, that will work. I’m dubious. Hard paywalls, no matter their intent, create a psychological barrier for readers, as The New York Times’ TimesSelect proved years ago. It doesn’t matter how clever you are; readers don’t like running into walls. That’s going to be especially true as news publishers confront the next challenge of paid digital readership. Properly, they’ve focused on their core print readers, extending them into higher-priced all-access.

That makes sense, but doesn’t provide enough growth, and those readers are averaging almost 60 years old. How are they going to convince younger, not-habituated-to-paying readers to join the paywall revolution?

For the Register, that’s a huge question. It’s down to 124,000 seven-day subscribers, with its official audited reporting pointing to 160,000 daily circulation. On Sunday, that number is 280,000, but it’s unclear how many of those are fully paid. Kushner and Spitz inherited a crazy-quilt of pricing when they took over the Register in June 2012. Their ability to weave a new rational pricing structure will make or break their out-of-the-box strategies.

Their all-in approach is refreshing, and as long as they’re prepared to quickly fix the moving parts that squeak, their model has a chance of success.

Photo of Angel Stadium by socaltimes used under a Creative Commons license.

April 24 2012

13:57

Human-assisted reporting, mass intelligence, and mobile mobile mobile: What we learned at ISOJ

After attending a conference like the International Symposium on Online Journalism, it can be hard to pinpoint just one major takeaway. ISOJ features a mix of quantitative academic research, practical insights, and data from media companies like CNN, The Los Angeles Times, The Dallas Morning News, and Google News — all assembled by the ace team of Rosental Alves and Amy Schmitz Weiss.

You can check out our complete liveblog from the event; ISOJ has posted recaps of the symposium’s sessions; and Alf Hermida did his usual stellar job blogging everythign in sight. But we also wanted to distill some of what got us thinking.

A future of focused brands

What will newspapers and media companies look like in the future? Richard Gingras of Google News said news outlets will continue to move away from being general-interest publications and become more of a “stable of focused brands.” As alternative news channels like Twitter and Facebook continue to grow, and as more and more people get their information on-the-go, Gingras said news companies spend too much time worrying about their home pages and not enough about their article pages. He said he wouldn’t be surprised if there comes a time when a media company opts not to have a homepage at all. (Gingras’ comments echoed the themes in his TechRaking speech, which we shared on April 12.)

Embrace human-assisted reporting

Ben Welsh, who mans the Data Desk at The Los Angeles Times, is a big proponent of using computing power to make reporters’ lives easier. That includes letting robots do some of the writing. (Here’s an example of the kind of stories that algorithms write for the Times.) He also gave one of the most succinct and passionate calls to action of the conference. You can watch his talk here.

Appeal to “mass intelligence”

The Dallas Morning News is shifting the focus of its reporting to appeal to a “mass intelligence” audience rather than a general one, according to publisher Jim Moroney: “When I say a mass intelligence audience I don’t mean elite,” but instead a readership that wants daily intelligence about the community that fits specific interests. (Moroney credits this Economist article for the term.) The Morning News is trying to differentiate itself in two ways: By shifting its production to fit devices like tablets, and by shifting its reporting with a plan they call “PICA,” which stands for Perspective, Interpretation, Context and Analysis.

Take time to play in the news sandbox

Louis Gump, vice president for CNN Mobile, said the company was slow to launch its iPhone and iPad apps because it wanted to figure out the right way to use its vast collection of video and images. CNN provides widely differentiated experiences; consider how different the iPad app looks from the iPhone app from the mobile site from the desktop site. CNN’s iPad app is among the top 10 free downloaded apps, with more than 19.5 million U.S. users in February 2012. Even with that success, Gump said CNN sees the iPad app and other mobile apps as a “sandbox” to test how the audience responds: “You can’t choose between mobile web and apps — like two wheels on a bike, you need both.”

“Survival is success” in online news startups

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, who coauthored a report on the climate of online news startups in France, Germany, and Italy, found a culture similar to its U.S. equivalent. He said former reporters are trying to address perceived gaps in traditional media coverage but struggling to find and grow niche audiences, let alone generating enough revenue to thrive. For the companies he studied, the majority are not breaking even, and most operate at a loss. (Download the report, which goes deep on nine case studies, here.)

The Carvin Factor

In analyzing the tweets of NPR’s Andy Carvin during the Arab Spring, University of British Columbia professor Alfred Hermida found that Carvin overwhelmingly quoted activists, bloggers, and alternative voices. While almost half of Carvin’s tweets and retweets came from people on the ground, they made up just about a quarter of his sources, with the rest being mainstream media and official institutions. In other words, his tweets served as a major amplifier of lesser-known sources. Hermida questioned how this sourcing structure could have influenced the framing and coverage of the events of the Arab Spring.

Build something beautiful

Creating a tablet app is not just a box for news organizations to check. Many of the panelists at ISOJ talked about resisting the urge to transfer web-based design principles to smartphones and tablets. Pedro Doria, digital platforms editor at O Globo (Brazil), showed us how the paper reintroduced the concept of an “evening edition,” providing an update to tablet readers at the end of the day. It’s rich with videos and photos — that what tablets are good at, Doria said — which keeps people in the app longer, and it features content specially designed for a lean-back evening mode of reading. Since the launch of the p.m. edition, Doria said the average time spent daily in the O Globo iPad app jumped from 26 minutes to a staggering 77 minutes.

Don’t just build something beautiful

ISOJ’s all-star data panel made clear there’s a distinction between art and data that sometimes gets blurred at the expense of user experience. Pretty graphics must provide context and useful information to be journalism. Here’s an example that University of Miami lecturer Alberto Cairo gave of data that’s lovely but ultimately not useful.

Execution is key

It takes more than a killer idea to achieve greatness in the newsroom. As Moroney argued, “culture eats strategy,” and he acknowledged it as an area where his paper still had plenty of room for progress. Moroney said that means filling a newsroom with more Tiggers than Eeyores. That drew laughs and tons of retweets, although some said that wasn’t fair to Eeyore.

Mobile will just keep getting bigger

Okay, so we didn’t need a conference to tell us that. Just today we learned more than half of Facebook’s 901 million monthly active users uses it on a mobile device. The Dallas Morning News will shift more of its development resources to tablets, promising a groundbreaking app within a year. And while News Corp. was criticized for its single-platform strategy with The Daily, William Hurley — whose company helped design the iPad newspaper — said someone had to go first. Last year, The Daily was No. 3 on Apple’s list of top grossing apps, behind Smurfs’ Village and Angry Birds. Before diving into mobile, Hurley said, news organizations should consider their audience’s needs. Start with looking at access logs to see what devices people are most commonly using to visit a website.

There’s a big world out there

Conferences like ISOJ are a good reminder to sometimes-gloomy U.S. journalists that journalism is well, even thriving, in other markets. Globally, journalists face a slew of different challenges — fellow attendees from places like Argentina and the Philippines reminded us that FOIA protections aren’t universal. But it’s also an environment where international news companies with a bit of money to spare are doing interesting things — which means there’ll be interesting lessons for American companies to bring back from abroad.

April 20 2012

19:32

Local media as news for a mass intelligent audience

The afternoon keynote at ISOJ was by Jim Moroney, publisher & CEO, Dallas Morning News, and chairman of the board, Newspapers Association of America

He started off by insisting there was a connection between the two aspects of the title of his talk, Becoming The Economist of Metro Newspapers and the Pursuit of the Tablet Audience. 

Moroney said the goal of journalism remained the same – an informed public that can make wise decisions to govern itself.

But what had changed was the dramatic fall in print advertising, halving between 2007 and 2011 to $20.6bn.

“We are no longer publishing to a mass audience,” said Moroney. We are publishing for a “mass intelligent audience”, a term he borrowed from The Economist.

Moroney doesn’t mean publishing for elites but for smart people who are interested in the world around them.

The mass intelligent audience reads the Atlantic or the New Yorker, but also mix in US Weekly, Pop Idol or The Simpsons, he said.

The basis of there business is based on the existence of a sufficient audience for intelligent reporting, curating and aggregating of hews and information.

He pointed to the success of Harry Potter, HBO and the King’s Speech as evidence there was a market for smart content.

The value of content is measured by relevance and differentiation.

Today, who, what, where and where are commodities, said Moroney. You have to have breaking news but you cannot win on this particular kind of news.

In his view, the value today is in the how, why and what does it mean for me.

At the Dallas Morning News, they use the acronym PICA: Perspective, interpretation, context and analysis.

What it means for the newsroom is a need for beat reporters, columnists and subject matter experts, said Moroney. It also means going deep into certain subjects and focusing on 10-12 categories to go deep.

The problem facing newspapers is declining print advertising revenue, and Moroney does not believe that digital publishing will be enough to support journalism. Instead there is a need for models to cross-subsidize journalism, beyond advertising.

The experiment going on, said Moroney, is finding ways to have audiences pay for journalism.

And with that comment, he switched to talking about the opportunities offered by tablets.

Figures suggest that people will read long-form on tablets. Moroney cited a figure showing 43% of tablet news readers regularly read in-depth articles.

But for now, 92% of the news audience in the US is still using the web, rather than smartphone or tablet apps.

Moroney’s strategy is focused on a smaller audience that will pay for high-end journalism and that this audience will be accessing the news on a tablet, and for now, that’s the iPad.

April 19 2012

13:17

The newsonomics of risking it all

Alfredo Corchado was used to getting mortal threats.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 12 2012

15:12

The newsonomics of small things

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

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

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

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

That’s the news industry today.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marketing services

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

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

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

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

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

In-sourcing printing and distribution

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

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

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

Custom publishing

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

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

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

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

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

Events

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

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

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

Syndication

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

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

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

Ebooks

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

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

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

A couple of Wild Things that could become Small Things:

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

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

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

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

November 27 2011

06:38

A Dallas Morning News not every morning? Will dailies stay daily?

Caitlin Johnston is a graduate student at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. Will dailies still exist in 3 years from now? Johnston summarized the discussion for us.

American Journalism Review :: Mark Medici, then-vice president of audience for the Dallas Morning News, triggered a brief media frenzy in October when he said at a conference that within three years the Morning News wouldn't be publishing seven days a week. Though the paper quickly backed away from his remark, with Publisher Jim Moroney asserting that the Belo-owned paper has no intention of cutting back, the flap raised the question of whether daily newspapers will soon cease to be daily.

Continue to read Caitlin Johnston, www.ajr.org

March 11 2011

15:00

This Week in Review: NPR at a crossroads, hyperlocal’s personal issue, and keeping comments real

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

A bad week for NPR execs named Schiller: For the second time in five months, NPR has found itself in the middle of a controversy that’s forced it to wrestle with issues of objectivity, bias, and its own federal funding. This one started when the conservative prankster James O’Keefe orchestrated a hidden-camera video of a NPR fundraising exec bashing Tea Partiers and generally straying from the NPR party line while meeting with people pretending to represent a Muslim charity. (The “donors” also met with PBS, but their people didn’t take the bait.)

Reaction was mixed: The right, of course, was outraged, though others like Slate’s Jack Shafer and Gawker’s John Cook downplayed the significance of the video. NPR was outraged, too — “appalled,” actually, with 21 journalists condemning the remarks. CEO Vivian Schiller said she was upset and that the two execs had put on administrative leave, but within about 12 hours, however, Schiller herself had been forced out by NPR’s board. The New York Times has good background on the shocking turn of events, and Poynter summarized the six months of controversy that led up to this, stretching back to Juan Williams’ firing (the American Journalism Review’s Rem Rieder called Schiller’s ouster “Williams’ revenge”).

Reaction to NPR’s handling of the situation was decidedly less mixed — and a lot more scathing. In a chat and column, NPR ombudsman Alicia Shepard ripped just about all parties involved, and the online response from media-watchers was just as harsh. NYU j-prof Jay Rosen called it “profoundly unjust,” and several others blasted NPR’s leadership.

The Awl’s Choire Sicha called NPR’s management “wusses,” CUNY j-prof Jeff Jarvis called the NPR board “ballless” and said the episode exposes the difference between NPR and the stations who run it, ex-Saloner Scott Rosenberg lamented NPR’s allowing the O’Keefes of the world to take over public discourse, and Rosen and Northeastern j-prof Dan Kennedy told NPR to start fighting back. The Columbia Journalism Review’s Joel Meares put it best, saying the fiasco “exposes them as an organization that is fundamentally weak — too concerned about its image to realize that ‘surrender’ is not always the best option.”

The episode also stoked the fires of the perpetual debate over whether public radio should keep its federal funding. The Atlantic’s Chris Good looked at the political aspects of the issue, and The Christian Science Monitor examined whether public radio stations would survive without federal money. A few calls to defund public radio came from outside the traditional (i.e. conservative) places, with Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan and media analyst Alan Mutter arguing that NPR will be in an untenable situation as a political football as long as they’re getting federal funds. Meanwhile, here at the Lab, USC’s Nikki Usher did give some encouraging information from the whole situation, looking at Schiller’s legacy of digital and local innovation during her NPR tenure.

Making hyperlocal news personal: AOL continued its move into local news late last week, as it bought the hyperlocal news aggregator Outside.in. In an excellent analysis at the Lab, Ken Doctor argued that the purchase is a way for AOL to get bigger quickly, particularly by bulking up Patch’s pageviews through cheap local aggregation tools. ReadWriteWeb’s Marshall Kirkpatrick took the opportunity to ask why hyperlocal news technology services like Outside.in, Everyblock, and Fwix haven’t been as useful as we had hoped.

Mathew Ingram of GigaOM posited an answer: Hyperlocal journalism only works if it’s deeply connected with the community it serves, and those technologies aren’t. Without that level of community, “AOL is pouring money into a bottomless pit,” he wrote. The Knight Digital Media Center’s Amy Gahran said that might be where local news organizations can step in, focusing less on creating news articles and more on using their community trust to make local information useful, relevant and findable.

Elsewhere on the cheap-content front: All Things Digital reported that AOL is laying off hundreds of employees (including the widely expected gutting of several of its news sites), and Business Insider snagged the memo. Wired talked to two Google engineers about its anti-content farm changes, and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales said good content is created either by passionate fans or by proper journalists being paid a fair amount. But, he said, “paying people a very low amount of money to write about stuff they don’t care about — that doesn’t work.” And Dan Conover at Xark warned against turning content — especially hyperlocal — into a franchise formula.

Accountability and authenticity in online comments: TechCrunch was one of the first companies to try out Facebook’s new commenting system, and after about a week, MG Siegler noted that the number of the site’s comments had decreased, and they’d also gone from nasty to warm and fuzzy. Entrepreneur Steve Cheney proposed a reason why the comments were so “sterile and neutered”: Facebook kills online authenticity, because everyone is self-censoring their statements to make sure their grandmas, ex-girlfriends, and entire social network won’t be offended.

Tech guru Robert Scoble disagreed, arguing that TechCrunch’s comments have improved, and people know real change and credibility only comes from using their real identities. Slate’s Farhad Manjoo made a somewhat similar argument, eloquently making the case for the elimination of anonymous commenting. GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram weighed in by saying that Facebook can’t make or break comments — it all depends on being involved in an actual conversation with users. He pointed to a brilliant post by NPR’s Matt Thompson, who gave numerous tips on cultivating community in comments; much it went back to the idea that “The very best filter is an empowered, engaged adult.”

Meanwhile, Joy Mayer of the Reynolds Journalism Institute got some advice on cultivating online reader engagement from the Wall Street Journal’s (and formerly the Lab’s) Zach Seward, and the Lab’s Megan Garber reported on the results of some research into which stories are the most liked and shared on Facebook.

More paywall test cases: Newspapers continue to pound the paywall drumbeat, with the CEO of newspaper chain Gannett saying the company is experimenting with various pay models in anticipation of a potential one-time company-wide rollout and the Dallas Morning News rolling out its own paywall this week. Ken Doctor crunched the numbers to try to gauge the initiative’s chances, and media consultant Mike Orren disagreed with the News’ idea of how much a metro newspaper’s operation should cost.

Elsewhere, Reuters’ Felix Salmon made the case that Britain’s Financial Times’ paywall strategy has contributed to its decline, writing, “the FT strategy is exactly the strategy I would choose if I was faced with an industry in terminal decline, and wanted to extract as much money as possible from it before it died.” Meanwhile, The New York Times’ public editor, Arthur Brisbane, chided the Times for not aggressively covering news of its own paywall, and Mathew Ingram of GigaOM called paywalls a futile attempt to hold back the tide of free online content.

Reading roundup: Some things to read in between SXSW Interactive panels:

— New York Times executive editor Bill Keller wrote a rather odd little column taking shots at news and opinion aggregators, especially Arianna Huffington. Everyone then took shots at his column, including Huffington, TechDirt’s Mike Masnick, GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram, and Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan.

— Newsweek published its first redesigned issue under The Daily Beast’s Tina Brown this week. The Society of Publication Designers had a look at the issue, which Slate’s Jack Shafer panned. The New York Times noted the issue’s familiar bylines.

— A few Apple-related notes: At MediaShift, Susan Currie Sivek looked at the impact of Apple’s 30-percent app subscription cut on small magazines, and Poynter’s Damon Kiesow urged Apple-fighting publishers to move to the open web, not Android-powered tablets. GigaOM’s Om Malik joined the chorus of people calling for iPad apps to be reimagined.

— Two great posts at the Lab on search engine optimization: Richard J. Tofel on why the web will be better off with the decline of SEO, and Martin Langeveld on the SEO consequences of including paid links on sites.

— Former Guardian digital chief Emily Bell gave a fantastic interview to CBC Radio about various future-of-news issues, and Mathew Ingram summarized a talk she gave on newspapers and the web.

— Finally, two must-reads: The Atlantic’s James Fallows wrote a thoughtful essay arguing that we should take the contemporary journalism environment on its own terms, rather than unfairly comparing it to earlier eras. And at the Lab, former St. Pete Times journalist and current Nebraska j-prof Matt Waite called news developers to let the old systems go and “hack at the very core of the whole product.”

February 10 2011

15:00

The Newsonomics of overnight customers

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

It’s a new epidemic of digital-pricing strategery, to borrow a fading term, now breaking out within the newspaper executive suites of the western world. Rupert will soon be charging 99 cents a week for The Daily, and dozens of dailies are laying out digital payment plans to be put into effect this year. Some are hiring top-drawer consultants to parse the many possibilities and run the odds of success before they throw the dice.

The questions are many. Do I charge print subscribers anything extra for digital delivery? If so, how much? If I add a fee for print subscribers, is it opt-out or opt-in? Do I offer a day pass or week pass, or just stick with monthly and annual subscriptions? If I put up a wall, where do I place it? Do I restrict content access by type — allowing free access to classifieds, commerce, and commoditized national and global news, but keep the somewhat proprietary local stuff locked up? Do I let readers read some — maybe 10 or 20 pages a month — of their choosing before making them pay to go further? How many bundles should I offer, and what’s in them?

We’re in uncharted territory. We know very little about consumer behavior when it comes to paying for journalism because the old, steady, entrenched models worked so well for so long that they barely changed over decades. Then the Internet came along and publishers felt compelled to give away their work for free — a subject to be featured in many psychology dissertations to come — as they abandoned, for a 15-year period it appears, a two-legged (advertising + circulation) business model.

A year from now we’ll have lots of data, parsed by all of us every which way from London to New York to Memphis and Augusta to Dallas to San Jose and Modesto, and then we’ll see what works, what doesn’t, and indeed, what “works” means in dollars (and pounds) and cents.

For now, though, the paid plans consist of commonsense, conjecture, conventional wisdom, consultant graphs, and, I believe, some fascinating assumptions about human psychology. On the eve of the launches of more paid offers, let’s examine four of those assumptions underlying this new era.

Let’s call it the newsonomics of overnight customers, which is our first psychological model, and one that I think may turn out to be the most promising.

Our four psychologies:

The psychology of the overnight customer

In north Texas, if you’re a Dallas Morning News subscriber, you’ll wake up sometime after March 1 (the loose date for the debut of the company’s digital paywall), and find that you no longer have a split identity. Though for 15 years you’ve been a “subscriber” for print and a “user” for online, you’re now just a customer. You pay your $30 or $33.95 (the new price as of Jan. 1) a month, and you get seven days of the Morning News and access to the Morning News’ new digital bundle, consisting of desktop/laptop, smartphone, and tablet availability.

That’s right. You’re no longer a “user”, a hateful term if ever one were invented, or a “visitor,” or a brother from another digital planet. Overnight, you’re a customer again.

In this psychology, a news company has put a value on what it produces. You, the customer, now are being shown that value. Maybe a year, or two, or three, from now, you perceive that value — forgetting all about those days of “free” — and value your relationship to the Morning News’ news, whether you access it by paper, phone, tablet, or TV screen.

The big hope: When you are ready to forsake pulp itself, you’re accustomed to paying for digital — you’re a customer of all, clearly — and do so without thinking twice. (And if the Morning News can save big bucks on not having to print and deliver a paper to you, and tens of thousands of your neighbors, it can significantly cut costs, increase profits, and maybe grow its news-gathering capability.)

We expect that after The New York Times’ finishes its own (higher-priced) pricing strategy, it, too, will offer print subscribers digital access as part of the coming “All-Access” bundles. Journalism Online says that about half of its newspaper clients will offer print subscribers no-extra-charge access to digital, while the rest will tack a small upcharge onto print bills.

This psychology, I believe, offers elements of a winning one. Why? It begins to change the artificial split between print and digital consumption. Most likely, it slows down — only temporarily, but every year makes a huge financial difference to news companies — print loss. Bundle it all together — print + digital — and there’s less incentive to drop print, even your use is declining. Less loss in the short-term helps retain print ad revenue, which is still 80 percent or more of all newspaper company ad revenue.

Secondly, it sets up publishers for the hastening print-to-tablet transition. If the kind-of-print-like tablet convinces readers to move away from print more quickly, the more they’ve been accustomed to paying for tablet digital, the less likely they are to balk at paying just for tablet digital.

Journalism Online cofounder Steve Brill will tell you that the company still urges publishers to charge something extra for digital access, even a $1.95 or $3.95 a month, often a 60 percent or more discount compared to what digital-only bundle buyers will pay. Whether you ask print subscribers to pay a small amount for digital access or give them access “free” as part of their print subscription (they still have to register for the restricted access even if no new payment is involved), they’re as likely to sign up for digital access, he says. If that holds, a small, incremental price itself may not be that much of an issue with print subscribers. Those that want it are as likely to pay for it as take it for “free,” as a new digital customer. It’s a way too early to know if that will be the case, but it’s one metric that should be at the top of publishers’ watch lists.

One way or the other, though, print customers are becoming digital customers, quickly. One key lesson here: It is newspapers’ print subscribers and regular readers who should be the likeliest to maintain their loyalty (and show the most willingness to pay of all potential audiences). In a sense, this is a back-to-the-future scenario, redrawing that big “circulation” circle as it was, but now including digital access.

The Forrest Gump psychology

Is a news site just a bunch of chocolates? If so, how important is it to allow would-be news customers to sample the wares before making them open their wallets? If you let them sample, can they sample all the treats, or just half the box — and which half?

Morris Communications’ Augusta Chronicle, partnered with Journalism Online’s Press+, now gives readers 25 pageviews a month before the paywall comes down, giving them access to the whole site. Dallas Morning News digital readers will find that most local stories — other than widely covered local news — have a small “D” symbol, indicating restricted access content that only print or digital subscribers can get access to. In Memphis, the current plan of Scripps’ Commercial Appeal is to start charging in the second quarter, but only for mobile access, while the website itself remains free.

Sampling is a big question. Print subscribers, who tend to be older, know what they are getting, while less habituated readers, who tend to be younger, may need to develop a habit. If sampling of the key, unique, proprietary stuff is made difficult, then how likely are news sites’ to develop a next generation of paying readers?

The psychology of the maze

So what happens when digital visitors bump into paywalls? Remember TimesSelect, and how disorienting that seemed to be to many. It makes people anxious to bump into a wall. Publishers hope that those who bump into walls (after 10-20 pageviews a month), and don’t pay, will come back the next month, and be more likely to pay then. Michael Romaner, head of Morris Digital, which has rolled out an Augusta-like model in Lubbock and plans six more similar rollouts by July 1 (and the rest of the company’s titles by the end of the year), says early data shows that 25 percent of those who ran into the wall paid up. Again, that’s very early data. Let’s see if that 25 percent number holds in Augusta and elsewhere, and what the tracking of the 75 percent — how many go away and never come back? — shows. How many just keep sampling, and are ad-monetized, but never fork over circulation dollars?

The psychology of the psych-out

Maybe news companies are overthinking all of this. Maybe they’ve psyched themselves into believing the world of free news content has really and profoundly changed — with little supporting evidence, other than a number of one-time news apps sales. It’s true that the metered systems, pioneered by the Financial Times and at the core of The New York Times’ and Journalism Online’s models, aren’t bet-the-company strategies. They are designed to keep the engine of growing digital ad revenue humming, allowing 80 percent or more of digital customers go on their merry non-paid ways, while turning those heavier digital readers into digital customers. If they succeed, they’ve picked up a new digital revenue stream, maybe laid down the first pavement to tablet utopia, and maintained a commitment to a digital ad future. All that combined may be just a middling success in revenue, though, as print (see both recent McClatchy and Gannett reports) ad revenues remain stubbornly negative.

If they fail — and that means losing more traffic due to paywalls than they anticipate — then news publishers have once again too strongly believed their own conventional wisdom and will pay the additional consequences.

January 27 2011

16:00

The Newsonomics of do-over

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

You remember do-overs from your childhood, right? On the playground, something went awry in a game, and you just called do-over: Reset the game, reset the clock. It’s one convenience of childhood that seldom makes it way into adult life. Yet that’s just what newspaper company owners are hoping to do in 2011. I thought of calling this post “The Newsonomics of inflection point,” but that seems too high-minded. Do-over is more apt to the emotions undergirding decision-making in early 2011.

Tuesday, in speaking to a group at USC’s Annenberg School of Communication, one graduate student heard my description of the paid-content landscape and asked a great, simple question: “I don’t understand why now, after news being free all these years, publishers now want to be paid for it. Why now?”

Indeed. Why now?

There are two reasons, I think. One’s economic, and it first got big, public voice at the Newspaper Association of America session in San Diego, two years ago this month. There Rupert Murdoch and Dean Singleton laid down the gauntlet: Google was stealing content, and readers needed to start paying. It was a public expression — pushed to the forefront by the deep recession — of what had become a private realization; the exchange rate of print ad dollars for digital ad dimes didn’t seem likely to change. Simply, there wasn’t — as far as the eye could see — enough money in digital advertising to sustain large news enterprises, long-term. The other reason is emotional: What we do is valuable, so people should pay for it — though as the grad student pointed out, most of the reader payment has gone to paper and distribution costs, not to feeding journalists.

If 2009 was a period of emotional as well as economic depression for those in the industry, 2010 was one of simmering hope, which the glimmer of tablet emergence stoked. Now, in 2011, we’ve got a convergence of factors beginning to create a new sense of where traditional news publishing may go. They may, collectively, provide an inflection point, a point at which the news industry sees itself differently and consumers are suddenly confronted by numerous paying choices. Together, these factors offer a newsonomics of do-over, the ability to unwind what many call the original sin of giving away news content for free, and creating a new business model for how news is distributed and paid for.

There are four factors that have pushed us to this point, in early 2011:

  • Tablets certify the mobile, news-anywhere era: Until recently, if you asked publishers what business they were in, they’d tell you the newspaper business — and online. It’s been a two-part business, anchored in print (still 85 percent of all revenues) and moving at glacial speed “online,” meaning desktop/laptop. The smartphone began to change that mindset, but hasn’t produced significant new revenue for news publishers, even though they’ve made efforts to create some smartphone products. It’s been the emergence of the tablet, with its promise of real new revenue, that certifies what I’ve called the News Anywhere model. Arthur Sulzberger’s outlining of that manifesto Sunday at the Digital Life Design conference in Munich is as good a statement of it as any: “Wherever people want us, we must be there. That’s our commitment to be there on the devices, including paper — paper’s fine — devices and paper for as long as people want.” Now all news publishers, some pushing forward at warp speed, others being pulled along, are moving into a true multi-platform world.
  • A metering system that says you can have your cake and eat it, too: It’s not a paywall, it’s a hurdle, says Journalism Online. Set the hurdle at 10 or 20 pageviews a month, and 80 percent or so of your visitors will never even see it. Capture half the rest of those frequent visitors, and you’re started a new digital reader stream. And, by the way, if you do it right, your digital ad revenue can keep on growing — that’s your own major hope for any ad growth at all — because your traffic won’t decrease by any more than 10 percent. In a nutshell, that’s The New York Times’ strategy, as well.
  • Apple’s push and shove: Unannounced, publishers are moving forward with what Apple has told them. Apple is pushing them to align their web access strategy with their tablet strategy, saying if you want to retain direct customer relationship and revenue, you can’t offer all this stuff for free on the desktop and just charge for the tablet. That’s the push, and the strategy is shoving publishers, both salivating for tablet revenue and afraid that the tablet will hasten print readership decline one way or the other, to align their access strategies, from print to desktop to smartphone to tablet. That’s all-access, and it’s coming to be the prevailing industry model.
  • The rise of public equity: PE owners, as evidenced by their rising influence at MediaNews, are now pushing their publishing enterprises to innovate faster, embrace mobile, and get busy with new revenue streams. The all-access, news-anywhere model is a natural for them as well, offering the potential of enough new money to build new companies of sustainable profitability — and that’s their only ticket to cash out by 2015.

Put it altogether, and the do-over looks eminently reasonable.

Yet it’s no slam dunk, and we’ve got to wonder how the theory will play out in practice. The tests are now coming fast and furious. The Wall Street Journal has switched to multi-platform, all-access pricing recently. The New York Times will do the same soon, adding its meter. News Corp.’s The Daily tests out consumer willingness to pay for a new, native news product, while Ongo seems to have stumbled out of the gate with an underwhelming presentation and too small — and haphazard — a list of initial news suppliers as it asks news consumers for $84 a year. The Dallas Morning News will lead U.S. metros into this new world. Journalism Online will power a good five to six dozen newspaper sites — most are metered, most getting ready for the tablet — by mid-year, as well.

Though it all makes good economic sense to the industry, some — how many? — consumers find work-arounds more appealing than publishers expect. As daily publishers have cut back and back, we’ve seen an explosion of new news content, from top-drawer regional startups to hundreds of native hyperlocals and Patches to great niche sports sites and more entertainment and lifestyle feature content (hello, Demand Media IPO!) than anyone can stomach. There’s lots of free news content still out there, and planning to be out there, from the Reuters and Washington Posts to the GlobalPosts and BBCs and U.S. public radio stations/websites. It will be fascinating to see how the non-paywall news suppliers organize themselves — consortiums are in discussion — to offer alternatives to this very do-over strategy.

January 06 2011

19:00

Dallas Morning News publisher on paywall plans: “This is a big risk”

In talking about the Dallas Morning News’ plans to begin charging for digital content next month, Jim Moroney is surprisingly candid about the decision and the economics of the industry. When the publisher of the News told his staff about the decision, he said they must be prepared to be ridiculed and vilified for putting their content behind a paywall.

“This is a big risk — I’m not confident we’re going to succeed,” Moroney told me. “But we’ve got to try something. We’ve got to try different things.”

Beginning February 15, the News will beginning charging for a majority of its content across its soon-to-be-redesigned website, its iPhone app, and a forthcoming iPad app. Print subscribers will get full access to everything for $33.95 a month, while those who eschew the paper can buy a subscription to the website and apps for $16.95. What’s unclear at the moment is how exactly the digital subscription will work given that Apple’s app store doesn’t allow for subscriptions (at least not yet, but that could be changing soon).

The move is not entirely a surprise given that other large metro papers, The New York Times and the Boston Globe, are developing paywalls. It’s also less of a surprise since A.H. Belo, parent company of the News, said in 2009 that it was considering switching some of its papers to paid sites. (A plan for the Providence Journal to go all-pay appears to have been changed or pushed back.)

What will readers have to pay for? Dallasnews.com exclusive reporting, for one thing, including its scoops on the biggest show around, Dallas Cowboys football. Free stuff will include breaking news, wire stories, obits, and blogs (which, curiously, could include sports coverage of the Cowboys).

Moroney is pragmatic about the paper going to a paid model. “It’s not an over-the-cliff strategy,” he said. “If this works, great, it’ll be fantastic. If it doesn’t, we can go back to providing access at a lower price or free.”

It’s an experimental approach that marks a shifted attitude toward paid content. In 2009, Moroney was one of several newspaper executives to testify at a Senate hearing on the future of newspapers. As he put it at the time, “If The Dallas Morning News today put up a paywall over its content, people would go to The Fort Worth Star-Telegram.”

Now, though, as he sees it, the News and other papers have no choice but to change. “I don’t see impression-based advertising, the thing that paid bills for newspapers for so long, as supportable in the long run for a newspaper,” he said in our phone conversation. Moroney said he expects that pageviews will drop by half once the paywall is up, which is no small consideration given that the News has roughly 40 million pageviews a month. But even with growing pageviews and modest gains in online ad revenue in the industry, CPM prices are still low and ad inventory is up, Moroney said. And as he told Ken Doctor in a Newsonomics post last August, the days of newspapers living off the old “80/20″ rule are long gone.

Over the last few years, the News has reined in its circulation from far-flung areas (sorry, readers in Arkansas and Oklahoma), cut back third party copy sales, and increased its home delivery price, all with the idea of turning the Dallas Morning News (in all of its forms) into a product that makes money off specific, targeted audiences — rather than one that makes money on volume, Moroney said.

What the paper hopes will make the difference is a tiered system of access, from individual apps to the digital-only bundle and the full-blown subscription. In debuting an iPad app, it made sense to make all the paper’s digital offerings paid, Moroney said — otherwise, why would someone pay for an app when they can access DallasNews.com on a smartphone or tablet’s web browser? That becomes especially true as more publishers build HTML5 sites that can offer an engaging app-esque experience. “You have a website you can access with a browser that has the same look and feel of an app. How can you expect people to pay for one,” he noted, and not the other?

In its research to prepare for the site, the News found that there was willingness to pay for access to the site or various apps. While, because of the relative newness of the iPad, Moroney said he takes the data with a grain of salt, it was still positive enough to encourage the paper to create a paid strategy for its digital products.

“I don’t think we can wait,” Moroney said. “The business has enough uncertainty around it.”

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.

October 04 2010

16:06

COMMON SENSE: GOOD NEWSROOMS ALWAYS MAKE THE DIFFERENCE

Jim_8250gray

From “common sense” Jim Moroney III, the Dallas Morning News publisher, in a letter to staff on the paper’s 125th anniversary:

“And what is newspapers’ sustainable competitive advantage?

Fortunately for our democracy, it’s the scale of their newsrooms.

It is important to recognize that digital technology has already leveled the technological playing field for local media. In the internet environment, the means of transmission and the devices used to access news and information are identical for all media.

The sustainable competitive advantage newspaper companies have is the scale of their newsrooms and the quality and quantity of important and relevant local news and information it permits them to originate as compared to all other local media.

If newspaper companies continue to reduce the scale of the reporting resources in their newsrooms, they will level the reporting playing field with local TV stations and give up their competitive advantage.”

Amen.

August 05 2010

14:00

The Newsonomics of the fading 80/20 rule

[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.]

Jim Moroney thinks he may be on to a new formula. It’s not as great — not nearly as profitable — as that old newspaper formula, but it’s one that may sustain his company into the future.

“The Dallas Morning News now gets 38 percent of its revenue from circulation, 54 percent from advertising, and 8 percent from contract printing plus,” the Morning News’ publisher tells me.

Those numbers are a far cry from the way it used to be for newspaper companies. They long used one of the many 80/20 rules out there: 80 percent of their revenue came from advertising, and 20% came from circulation.

Now, as ad revenue has been on a precipitous decline — down from almost $50 billion in 2000 to $24 billion in 2009, and still sliding a bit more — that old formula is out the window.

While the digital news world seems consumed with conversations about paywalls and memberships, it is old-fashioned print circulation revenue that is the gainer in the post-80/20 formulas. Sure, advertising’s ski slope decline has greatly altered the 80/20. So has, though, the significant up-pricing of both subscriptions and single copies over the past three years.

At the Morning News, Moroney — aided by research from consumer products company The Modellers — took monthly subscriptions from $18 to $30, in one fell swoop. Many other publishers have upped prices, though most have done it more gradually. Pick up a slim copy anywhere in your travels, and you see it now costs 75 cents or a buck; it used to be the “25-cent or 35-cent?” discussion that consumed executive committees.

The impact of the pricing moves is still uncertain. Short-term, they seemed to work. Though circulation continued to decline, circulation revenue was mildly up. The central notion: Get those with the newspaper habit to pay more of the freight, figuring that few would drop the newspaper because it cost two Grande Mochas more.

As we look at last quarter’s financial reports, we have to wonder how the up-pricing of circulation will work. As many companies showed a decline in circulation revenue in the second quarter as showed an increase.

A few of the numbers:

  • McClatchy: down 2.5%
  • Lee: down 4.4%
  • Gatehouse: down 2.5%

Moroney’s own company, A.H. Belo, of which he is an executive vice-president, reported a 6.6-percent increase. Additionally, The New York Times Company reported a 3.2-percent increase and Scripps a 4.5-percent increase (from 1st quarter data; 2nd not out until Aug. 9). Significantly, I think, each of those companies may have done a better job of minimizing newsroom cuts and reinvesting — at least a little — in that now higher-priced product.

While the jury is out on the stickiness of price increases, it’s clear the old 80/20 rule is gone.

Broadly, in research I conduct annually for Outsell, we track the global moves in ad, circulation and digital revenue. In 2009, circulation revenue was up more than a point over 2008 to 41 percent. Significantly, Japanese publishers continue to get a majority of their revenue from circulation, while much of Europe and UK see their percentages in 35-45 percent range.

ln the U.S., let’s just pull some data from the second-quarter reports. They show:

  • New York Times: Circ: 40%, Ads: 53%, Other: 7%
  • Scripps: Circ: 28%; Ads: 67%; Other: 5%
  • Gatehouse: Circ: 27% , Ads: 71%, Other 2%
  • Lee: Circ: 24%, Ads: 70%, Other: 6%
  • McClatchy: Circ: 20%; Ads: 76%, Other: 4%

Several factors will continue to push and pull the new ad/circ breakdown.

For one thing, we’re moving into an era of “reader revenue,” one that will roll up print subscriptions, single print copies, digital pay per view, digital subscriptions, all-access (across platform) subscriptions, memberships and more. For a next generation of reader revenue, tablet access is the big prize in the sights of publishers; witness, for instance, the likelihood of a News Corp. “iPad division.” Further, advertising will continue morph greatly, as digital marketing replaces some of that spend, enlarging and changing definitions.

Finally, don’t forget “other.” For A.H. Belo, it’s 8 percent now, but growing at at 35-percent clip. As news companies find “other” ways to make “other” revenue, we’ll see new formulas begin to make sense.

December 04 2009

19:52

“Integrating” news and advertising

At first, I was horrified as many were at the news out of Dallas that A.H. Belo Corp. would “integrate” news and ad departments at its newspapers, including its flagship Dallas Morning News, by having some section editors at their newspapers reporting to sales managers. Would ad people control content? Yikes. I count myself among the many newsroom troops who fought wars to keep this kind of thing from happening.

But as I thought about it a little more, it occurred to me that this is really just another case of the dead-tree news business trying to catch up to what’s going on in the online world. Thanks to our new friend the algorithm, editorial and advertising content are inextricably linked in ways that were never possible with the printed page.

In this new world, online journalists might think they can publish any stories they want. But if the stories don’t have the right keywords — or, heaven forbid, if they contain words blacklisted by advertisers — they won’t sell. And if the stories don’t sell ads, the publication, however high-minded its editors, will cease to exist. There’s really not much room to escape from that reality — at least as long as the publication’s first duty is to turn a profit for its owners.

Nothing wrong with making a profit. But the close connection can preclude online publications from pursuing some topics with the same depth and vigor as did newspapers of yore — for example, homelessness, poverty, or other social ills that don’t have a natural appeal to advertisers. And if other publishers take their cue from the leadership at Belo, that might not be the case for newspapers going forward.

In my mind, this is exactly the space where the nonprofit model fills a need that grows with every cancelled newspaper subscription. In a world where algorithms supplant human judgment, it can provide a needed buffer that protects the public interest.

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