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January 19 2012

15:00

The newsonomics of signature content

What’s your signature content?

Quick: If somebody buttonholed you in an elevator, a school play, or a bar, and said, “Why should I pay you for that?” — what do you tell them?

Each passing week, it seems we’re further into the age of signature content. That only makes sense: If the death of distance is now old news, if everything is available everywhere at the touch of button or the swipe of a finger, then what makes any news or entertainment brand stand out amid this plague of plenty?

Closed systems — from three or four TV networks to less than a dozen big movie studios to a half-dozen major magazine publishers to geographically dominant newspapers — made signature content less important. Sure, big shows and big names have always driven media to some extent, but now, media without big names or big shows are going to get lost in the ether. Take Hulu’s announcement last week about Hulu Originals. You do have to wonder if Hulu’s fictional 13-episode “Battleground,” about a dysfunctional political campaign, will be bested by the Republican reality show in progress when the show debuts next month. Hulu is also bringing a Morgan Spurlock series for a second run, and probably will feature one other new program. The Hulu announcement joins Netflix’s own foray into signature content. Three years ago, would the thought of Netflix signing up Little Steven to do an original comedy series have crossed anyone’s imagination?

Hulu and Netflix both need to distinguish themselves in the market — not only from each other, but from Comcast, DirecTV, and Time Warner, among others. They need to buy protection as supposed masses consider cutting the cord on packaged services, Roku-ing and Apple-enabling Internet video onto their living-room screens. In movies and TV, we’re quickly morphing from a world of news and entertainment anywhere — get all of these things, somewhat haphazardly (Comcast Xfinity, for instance) on all of our devices — to one in which consumers ask, “What special do you have for me, in addition to my all access? Yes, All-Access, the cool feature of 2011, will quickly graduate from a wow to an expectation.

Why as consumers should we pay $7.99 (down from an initial $9.99) to Hulu Plus, when the same stuff (kinda sorta) is available through Boxee, or Apple TV, or Netflix, if I can find it? Why am I paying $7.99 a month (apparently the magic price of the moment) to Netflix for a catalog of films that is both voluminous and too often lacking what I want? Consumers are going to be asking that question a lot more.

Publishers, distributors, aggregators, and networks all want more money, and they’ve seen — courtesy of tablets and All-Access — that consumers are now more ready to pay for digital content than ever before.

Forget “content wants to be free.” Now content wants a fee. And everyone from Time Inc to The New York Times to the Memphis Commercial Appeal to Hulu’s co-owners (Fox, Disney, and Comcast) see gold. They see another digital revenue stream, in addition to advertising or to cable subscription fees. Yet they are increasingly believing they’ve got to up the ante (and Hulu is raising new funds to buy original programming) to compete and to win those consumer dollars.

News companies — at least one in ten U.S. daily newspapers and many consumer magazines — are rapidly embracing digital circulation revenue and All-Access. Yet results have been quite uneven. That makes sense: Consumers will pay for digital news, feature, and entertainment content, but they don’t want to overpay, and they’ll increasingly be forced to make choices. Buy this; let that go.

Let’s be clear. Paid media is paid media, and the original-programming pushes of the video companies have great meaning for news and magazine companies, global to local. For them, the calculus is similar. News and magazine brands can launch new products, though that’s out-of-their-DNA-tough for many. So they’ve focused primarily on sub-brands, many of which are people. These are the faces of news and magazines; many of these have become hot commodities over the last several years (“The newsonomics of journalistic star power“) as companies try to distinguish themselves — and give readers and viewers a reason to pick them out of the crowd.

How, though, can media companies afford to pay a premium for branded, promotable talent, talent that may open consumers’ pocketbooks? That’s easy: spend less on other content. So we’ve got the rise of user-generated content, obtainable free or cheap, and all kinds of new syndicate action from Demand Media to startup Ebyline (and maybe NewsRight), all trying to make it cheap and easy to get more medium- and higher-quality content more cheaply. What’s old is new again — as a young features editor, I got regular visits from syndicate and wire salesman, ranging from high-quality to the Copley News Service, that sold its stuff by the pound.

Another prominent model no news or magazine company can afford to ignore: The Huffington Post. Back to the early days when Betsy Morgan first teamed up with Arianna, HuffPost has worked this evolving content pyramid. At the top, a few highly paid site faces, many opinionated faces (some paid, most not), and then low-cost aggregation, much of it AP, headlined with the site’s recognizable swagger.

Then, of course, there’s the old standby: staff cutting. We’ve seen lots of staff cutting. In fact, these days, while we see some announcements like Media General’s big Tampa cut, most of the bloodletting is less public, but no less real. If you need to pay more to stars, and ad revenues are still declining, staff cuts of less than premium content (and those that produce it) make economic sense (“The newsonomics of the new news cost pyramid“). It’s the new news math.

These newsonomics of signature content are getting clearer. Netflix is planning to spend 5 percent of its expenses — or $100 million a year — on original, Netflix-defining content. Hulu is spending about a quarter what Netflix’s total, or $500 million in total, on all content licensing this year. We don’t know how much of that is for original content, but observers believe “Battleground” will cost $15-20 million for its 13 episodes. With its other forays, it will probably spend closer to 10 percent of its content budget on original content.

Curiously, many newspaper newsrooms constitute only 10-20 percent of the overall expenses of a daily newspaper company. So we’re starting to see some new, and old, arithmetic play out here.

Simply, Andy Forssell, Hulu’s SVP of content, explained the cost/benefit ratio to Variety: “…having an original scripted series that hasn’t been seen anywhere else yet is considered the best tool for standing out with either advertisers or viewers.”

As usual, we see the bifurcation of the bigger national brands — those with more audience to gain and more money to spend — and local news brands. While many local newspapers have cut to the bone, with too much of the tissue in the form of experienced, name-brand metro and sports columnists cajoled or drummed into “early retirement,” we see increased branding of stars at places like Time, The New York Times, Fox News, and ESPN. The sports network may be the classic business model of our age, and in its anchors and top analysts — many initially lured from daily newspapers — it has shown the way for many years now.

At the Times, consider business editor Larry Ingrassia’s build-up of business columnists, from veterans Gretchen Morgenson and Floyd Norris to new(er)bies Andrew Ross Sorkin, Brian Stelter, David Carr, Ron Lieber, and David Pogue. And the Times more recently picked up James Stewart from archrival Dow Jones.

At Fox News, Roger Ailes has cannily built the most successful cable news operation not on the interchangeable blondes that provide so much fodder for Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, but on O’Reilly and Hannity.

At NBC, the news franchise is so built around Brian Williams that his well received newsmagazine “Rock Center with Brian Williams” is synonymous with its host.

At Time Warner’s CNN and Time, we see the building of a worldly franchise on Fareed Zakaria’s clear-eyed, no-nonsense view of our times.

And then there’s the more local and regional press. Newspapers have long believed that it wasn’t any one or a half-dozen names that sold the paper. They’ve believed the news itself was the star, and the daily information report was the brand. That may be still be true of the Times, the Journal, the Financial Times, the Guardian, and a handful of other national/global news organizations — all of which have substantial, multi-hundred newsrooms that produce branded, unique products. It’s less true of regional and local dailies, many of which still present too much commoditized news in national, business, entertainment, and sports coverage, and have bid goodbye to many faces familiar to readers. Those that have retained familiar faces must do what they can to keep them; all need to recruiting more.

Then they may have a good answer to the question, in one form or another, consumers and advertisers will increasingly ask: What’s your signature content?

December 09 2009

19:01

NYTPicker Covers New York Times Like a Wet Blanket

On Sunday, the New York Times published an Editors' Note detailing a conflict of interest:

The "Place" feature about Miami in the T magazine travel issue on Nov. 22 included a reference to the 8 oz. Burger Bar. The writer has had a long personal relationship with a co-owner of the restaurant; had editors known of that connection, the restaurant would not have been included in the article.

One thing the note didn't disclose was that this personal relationship was first identified and publicized by the NYTPicker, an anonymous group blog (and Twitter account) that has been keeping tabs on the New York Times for a little over a year. During its relatively brief existence, the site's hundreds of posts have demonstrated that its authors have a breadth and depth of insight into the paper.

Just last week, the NYTPicker raised some serious and legitimate questions about a new book edited by Gretchen Morgenson, the Times' Pulitzer Prize-winning business columnist.

The NYTPicker has also demonstrated a talent for spotting overused phrases by Times headline writers; it celebrated the work of Times journalist Robin Toner after she died late last year; and it has been diligent about tracking the work -- and titles -- of technology columnist David Pogue.

If you're interested in the Times, you need to read the NYTPicker. Here's how the site describes itself and the people who write for it:

This website devotes itself exclusively to the goings-on inside the New York Times -- the newspaper and the institution itself. Written by a team of journalists who prefer to work in anonymity, The NYTPicker reports daily on the internal workings of the nation's top newspaper, and comments on its content.

The site's authors refused to provide even a few hints as to their identities, but they did, for the first time, agree to answer questions via email. As a result, we now know that six people write for the site, they describe themselves as "reporters," and they aren't impressed with the work of Thomas L. Friedman. On top of that, they're a pretty funny group.

Q&A

Why did you start the site?

We came up with the name "NYTPicker" and realized it didn't really work for our soft-core porn idea.

How many people visit the site per day?

maureen-dowd-chair.jpg

We average about 1,000 to 1,500 hits a day, but have had a few 10,000-hit days. Depends on what we write about, who links to us, and whether we use that sexy photo of Maureen Dowd in a lounge chair.

Do you get a lot of traffic from folks inside the Times?

Um, yes.

Do you consider the site to be a watchdog of the Times? Why or why not?

We're not media critics. We're journalists who love the NYT and hope our stories improve it. We report on aspects of coverage NYT readers might not otherwise know or think about.

One common theme on the site seems to be conflicts of interest. You often point out how the personal and professional relationships of Times reporters and editors appear to play a role in coverage. Do you see this as a big problem at the paper? And do you think it's worse at the Times compared to other media organizations?

We're not writing an institutional history of the NYT -- we're covering it day to day. We point out the problems when we find them. They don't seem to be going away.

You often display a decent amount of insider knowledge. A recent example would be the fact that you knew about Times freelancer Suzy Buckley's old boyfriend. Does this kind of information come from sources inside the Times? Or do your contributors have a handle on this stuff on their own?

We're reporters. We don't talk about our sources.

How has the site changed over the course of its first year of publishing?

We're more selective about posts now than in the beginning. We only publish when we've got a story, or angle, you won't find anywhere else.

Is there one post that you'd highlight as your best work?

We liked the story we did on Brad Stone's page-one trend piece, the one that was filled with quotes from friends and colleagues. We were also proud of our stories about the NYT's deeply-flawed Caroline Kennedy coverage, and our reporting on the Maureen Dowd plagiarism scandal. We still haven't gotten any comment from the NYT about whether the paper investigated Dowd's explanation, which wasn't very plausible.

Our biggest scoop? Probably when we discovered that the anagram for "New York Times" was "Write, Monkeys."

Have you received any official reaction from the Times?

When Catherine Mathis, the NYT's recently-departed spokeswoman, answered our emails, she always wrote, "Dear NYTPicker." That was sweet. We liked her.

What is your biggest issue of concern at the paper right now?

That changes every day. We read the paper every morning with an open mind, looking for stories, angles, ideas, and funny bylines. The NYT used to have funnier bylines. We miss Serge Schmemann. We hope we'll be seeing more stories from David Belcher.

We've also been working very hard on a story about the difference between Kirk Johnson and Dirk Johnson. That should be ready shortly.

Who is the paper's best columnist and why?

Philip Adler on bridge. Last week he ended his column with the line, "The imponderables of bridge keep us thinking and playing." That's freaking genius.

thomas friedman.jpg

Who is its worst and why?

Thomas L. Friedman. Do we really need to explain?

You recently contacted sports editor Tom Jolly and received an official comment from him. Did he have any specific reaction to being contacted by your site? Was he familiar with it?

We asked him a few questions, and he answered. Simple as that.

Where does the Times excel in terms of its journalism, and where does it fall short?

Too many stories about texting and driving. We get it. It's dangerous. We'll stop.

Can you give me a preview of the top candidates for the Worst NYT Story of 2009 award?

It all depends on what happens next in "The Puppy Diaries."

Why do you need to remain anonymous?

Mom thinks we're doing our homework and we don't want to get in trouble.

I noticed that a comment on your one-year anniversary post read, "Congratulations on a year of anonymity and cowardice!" Do you regularly face criticism for this decision?

Once every few weeks, social media editor Jennifer Preston calls us cowards and invites us to lunch. Otherwise, not really.

How many people write for the blog?

Six.

What can you tell me about them? (Where at the Times did they work, did any of you take buyouts, are any of you current employees, etc.?)

We're all very attractive.

How many people are answering these questions?

Four. Two of us have declined to comment.

Craig Silverman is an award-winning journalist and author and an associate editor at MediaShift and Idea Lab. He is the founder and editor of Regret The Error, the author of Regret the Error: How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech, and a weekly columnist for Columbia Journalism Review. Follow him on Twitter at @CraigSilverman.

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