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July 21 2011

15:30

The newsonomics of U.S. media concentration

The rise and potential fall of Rupert Murdoch is a hell of a story. It is, though, closer to the Guardian’s Simon Jenkins’ description Tuesday, “not a Berlin Wall moment, just daft hysteria.” Facing only the meager competition of the slow-as-molasses debt-ceiling story, the Murdoch story managed to hit during the summer doldrums. Plus it’s great theater.

Is it just imported theater, though? We have to wonder how much the cries of “media monopoly” will cross the Atlantic. Is there much resonance here in the States for the outrage about media power in the U.K.? Will the sins (its newspaper unit now being called to account by a Parliamentary committee for deliberately blocking the hacking investigation) of News International impact its cousin, Fox Television, the one part of its U.S. holdings regulated directly by government — or can it build a firewall between the different parts of News Corp.? (See “New News Corp. Strategy: Become Even More of an American Company.”)

Certainly, the tales of News International’s ability to strike fear in the London political class are chilling. Our issues in the U.S., though, are largely different. Both come down to who owns the media, and what we need in the diversity of news voices.

The question of media concentration here is tricky, complex, and a profoundly local question. Yes, there are national issues — but the forces of cheaper, digital publishing and promise of national and global markets easily reached by the Internet have spawned much more competition on a national level.

As to what kind of local reporting we get, we see powerful forces at work, shaping who owns what and how much. Likely, we’ll see some News Corp. fallout in FCC debates now re-igniting in and around Washington, D.C. — as the fire of regulating media burns more brightly here, even as Ofcom, the British regulator, grapples with similar issues.

That said, the question of media concentration, or what I will call the newsonomics of U.S. media concentration, will be fought out on two battlegrounds in the U.S. One is at the regulatory level, as the FCC looks at cross-ownership and the cap on local broadcast news holdings by a single national company, like News Corp., and may take into account its U.K. misdeeds. (Especially if the 9/11 victim wiretapping claims are borne out.) Second, and probably more important, sheer economic change is rapidly re-shaping who owns the news media on which we depend. The fast-eroding economics of the traditional print newspaper business are changing the face both of competition and of journalistic practice faster than any government policy can affect.

So this is how our time may play out. Smart, digital-first roll-ups align with massive consolidation.

First, let’s look at the print trade, at mid-year. The numbers are awful, and getting no better. We’ve seen the 22nd consecutive quarter of no-ad-growth for U.S. dailies, the last positive sign registered back in 2006. Further staff reductions, albeit with less public announcement, continue at most major news companies. This week, Gannett — still the largest U.S. news company — reported a 7-percent ad revenue decline for the second quarter, typical among its peers. Its digital ad revenues were up 13 percent, a slowing of digital ad growth also being seen around the industry.

We see a strategy of continuing cost-cutting across the board, with a new phenomenon — roll-up (“The newsonomics of roll-up“) — trying to play out.

Hedge funds — which bought into the industry through and after 14 newspaper company bankruptcies — are having their presence felt. Most recently, Alden Global Capital, the quietest major player in the American news industry, bought out its partners and now owns 100 percent of Journal Register Company. Alden, with interests in as many as 10 U.S. newspaper chains, apparently liked the moves of CEO John Paton. Paton’s digital-first strategies have more rapidly cut legacy costs than other publishers’ moves, and moved the needle more quickly in upping digital revenues.

No terms were announced, but Paton says “all its lenders were paid in full.” That would be a qualified success, given the bath everyone involved in the newspaper industry has taken in the last half-decade.

In JRC’s case, we’d have to say the push of hedge funds for faster change has been more positive than negative. Pre-bankruptcy, it was derided for its poor journalism and soul-crushing budgeting. Under Paton, who has brought in innovators like Arturo Duran, Jim Brady, and Steve Buttry, the company is trying to reinvent new, digital-first local, preserving local journalism jobs as much as possible. A work very much in early progress.

You can bet that Alden’s move is just one of its first. Sure, as a hedge fund, it may just be getting JRC ready to sell; hedge funds don’t want to be long-term operators. Before that happens, though, expect the next shoe to drop: consolidation.

JRC owns numerous properties around Philly, and a roll-up with Greg Osberg-led (and Alden part-owned) Philadelphia Media Network, has been talked about. Meld the same kind of synergies, and faster-moving print-to-digital strategies of Paton with Osberg’s new multi-point, Project Liberty plan, and you have a combined strategy. Further combine the operations into a single company — removing more overhead, more administration, more cost — and you have a better business to hold, or sell, or still further combine with still more regional entities.

It’s not just a Philly scenario.

In southern California, the question is how the three once-bankrupt operations — Freedom Communications, MediaNews’ Los Angeles News Group and Tribune’s L.A. Times (still not quite post-bankrupt, but acting like it is) — will mate. Over price, talks broke down about merging Freedom and MediaNews (both substantially owned by Alden; see Rick Edmonds’ Poynter piece for detail). Yet, everyone in the market believes consolidation will come. Now with Platinum Equity, another private equity owner, putting its San Diego Union-Tribune back on the market just two years after buying it for a song, we could see massive consolidation of newspaper companies in southern California.

Media concentration, perhaps in the works: Southern California, between L.A. and San Diego, contains at least 21 million people — or a third of the total population of the U.K. Philly and Southern California may among the first to consolidate, but the trends are the same everywhere.

So this is how our time may play out. Smart, digital-first roll-ups align with massive consolidation. It’s time to get our heads around that. That won’t necessarily mean that Alden, or other hyper-private owners, keep the new franchises. Their goal probably is to sell. But to whom, with what sense of public interest?

Which brings us back to broadcast, to which newspaper people give much too little shrift.

Both those in the old declining newspaper trade and those in the mature and largely flat broadcast trade (as an indication, Gannett’s broadcast division revenues grew to $184.4 million from $184 million in the second quarter) are beginning to figure the future this way: there may only be enough ad revenue in mid-metro markets (and smaller) to maintain one substantial journalistic operation. Not one newspaper and one local broadcaster. But, one, presumably combined text and video, paper and air, increasingly digital operation.

So, finally, let’s turn back to the FCC. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals just returned cross-ownership regulations back to the FCC, largely on procedural (“hey, you forgot the public input part”) grounds. In addition, it will likely soon take up the national cap on local broadcast ownership. (Good sum-up of FCC-related action by Josh Smith at the National Journal.)

Which brings us back to the News Corp story. The national cap — how much of the U.S. any one national company can serve with local broadcast — is 39 percent. Fox News does that with 27 stations, and, of course, has lobbied for more reach. So, the media concentration issue may play out as the cap is further debated, and as cross-ownership — a News Corp. issue in and around New York/New Jersey — returns as well. Will Hackgate’s winds blow westward, as local broadcast news concentration comes up again?

Though it may be shocking to many newspaper people, though, local TV news is a major source of how people get the news. Some 25 to 28 million viewers watch local early-evening or late-evening TV news, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism. That compares to about a 42-million weekday newspaper circulation, so those numbers aren’t quite apples to apples. In my research for Outsell, I noted that local survey data indicated that reliance on TV news equaled that of newspapers.

As Steve Waldman’s strong report for the FCC pointed out, local TV news is “more important than ever” — but thin on accountability reporting.

So while much of the media concentration questions centers on print, local broadcast ownership, and direction of news coverage, matters a lot.

Combine that local concentration — 39 percent or more — with the sense that the market may only support single journalistic entitities and we’re back to the theme of media concentration, perhaps on a scale hitherto unseen.

A declining local press, with signs of impending roll-up. Stronger local TV news, weaker in accountability reporting, and pushing for more roll-up. Winds of outrage wafting over the Atlantic. Regulatory breezes gaining strength.

These are powerful forces colliding, and in the balance, the news of the day won’t be quite the same.

March 29 2011

20:00

What’s Project Thunderdome, you ask? Inside Jim Brady’s new job at Journal Register Company

So Jim Brady, formerly of AOL, washingtonpost.com, and TBD, is now of the Journal Register Company. That’s big news — and not only because it had been an open question where Brady would land after he left TBD in November. As John Paton, JRC’s CEO, put it in a release announcing the news: “The debate of bloggers vs. journalists or citizen journalists vs. professionals is now over. The new business models of news demand we understand and incorporate both.”

Brady “will immediately be responsible for Project Thunderdome,” the release notes, which is an initiative that is — besides being, obviously, one of the most delightfully named projects in the news innovation world — “Journal Register Company’s plan for engaging audience and creating content across all platforms and geographies.”

But what is Thunderdome, exactly? I talked to Brady and Jon Cooper, JRC’s vice president for content, to learn more.

Essentially, they told me, Thunderdome is an attempt to take Journal Register’s current collective of media properties — community newspapers joined at the top by a corporate brand — into an interwoven network. While the project’s ultimately about content (both improving its quality and expanding it), it’s also about production practices: It’s trying, in particular, to create uniform standards across the organization when it comes to content management. Ultimately, Thunderdome will mean a redesign for JRC’s digital platform as well as its print platform, giving JRC’s papers — in print and especially (per JRC’s “digital first, print last” ethos) online — a standard look and feel.

Essentially, Journal Register is “building a news system,” Brady puts it, “as opposed to trying to retrofit one that came out of a different time.”

On the one hand, Thunderdome is about systematization and centralization — and the production-side efficiencies that come from them. “Right now, we operate anywhere from 6 to 8 [CMSes], depending on who you talk to,” Cooper notes — and the reason that number varies is that “we have places that don’t actually have a CMS.”

Those CMS-less properties — gird yourselves, techies — use a Windows folder structure to manage their content. Imagine erasing a coworker’s content, Cooper notes, “because you happen to name your story ‘Fire,’ and I had named my story ‘Fire,’ and I copy over yours.”

So that’s one side of it. But Thunderdome is also about the categorization of content. Much of the efficiency JRC hopes will be gained from the new system will come from the bifurcation of local content and what it calls “common” content — in other words, from distinguishing between information that requires feet-on-the-street reporting and information can be provided by wire services or other more centralized sources. It’s the classic distinction between wire content and original, taken to the next level. So take, for example, content like stocks, weather, comics — things that a journalist might not define as journalism in the strictest sense, but which readers want as part of their news experience. Journal Register, across its 18 daily papers, does over 50,000 of those pages a year, Cooper told me, creating different products for different locations. Sometimes that’s necessary, of course (the weather in Connecticut being different from the weather in Michigan); often, though, it’s simply redundant — a waste of time and resources.

Thunderdome aims to establish a 40/60 — or even 50/50 — ratio of local content to common content. “JRC is a fairly large organization,” Cooper notes, “so we have a decent amount of power that we put behind a project like this.” As Brady puts it, the system will allow the papers “to spend their actual staff time covering local news and embedding themselves in the local community — which they have to do to make themselves successful.”

A big part of Brady’s job at JRC will be to figure out the specifics of that kind of production-side streamlining, determining, for example, content partners — JRC, yesterday, announced a financial-news-content deal with The Street — and staffing the Thunderdome effort with vertical content specialists. Another part of it will be figuring out the audience engagement side of the equation — to put to use the knowledge Brady gained at TBD. “That’s key to us,” Cooper says — “key to Thunderdome, key to our brand expansion, key to our current brands.” Brady’s work won’t just be about “providing leadership to our journalists,” he notes; it’ll also be about “working with our communities — our physical, geographic communities, but also our digital communities.”

Which all sounds eminently reasonable and, well, not Thunderous. So, then: What’s with that name? JRC’s CEO, John Paton, named the project, Cooper told me. When he’d visited The Washington Post, someone had talked about the paper’s digital center as “the Thunderdome” — and the name, both epic and tongue-in-cheek at once, came into play as a working title as Journal Register laid out its (also epically named) Ben Franklin Project. The project came out of the basic realization, Cooper says, that “we can’t wait for a unified CMS; we can’t wait for a unified technology to be in place. We have to make it happen sooner.”

It’s that kind of thinking that attracted Brady to Journal Register in the first place. When you’re looking for a new job, he notes, you’re looking at both “the size of the opportunity and the size of the challenge.” For Thunderdome, the size of both is “large.” “Folks have done production hubs; folks have done content bureaus or content sharing,” Cooper says. “But what we’re really looking to do is to empower local journalism. And part of that is to remove the roadblocks to small operations.”

Image by rachelbinx used under a Creative Commons license.

March 04 2011

16:00

December 20 2010

17:00

Maybe not much will change at all: 2011 journalism predictions from Malik, Gillmor, Golis, Grimm, more

Editor’s Note: We’re wrapping up 2010 by asking some of the smartest people in journalism what the new year will bring.

Below are predictions from Andrew Golis, Dan Gillmor, Joe Grimm, Om Malik, Jim Brady, Seth Lewis, David Cohn, Jeff Israely, Barry Sussman, Evan Smith, and Joe Bergantino. Plus, to round things off, a few not-so-serious predictions from Dan Kennedy and Bob Garfield.

Seth C. Lewis, assistant professor of new media journalism, U. of Minnesota

So, the question is: how much will journalism and media change in 2011? My answer: not much, actually. I know that’s a contrarian view, at a time when so much seems to be in flux, so let me try to explain.

I think we tend to overestimate the volume of change that actually occurs in a given year, and at the same time underestimate the obduracy of individual and societal habits, routines, values, and bureaucratic systems. This doesn’t mean change doesn’t occur — of course it does! — but rather that it tends to be more incremental, more subtle, and even more glacial than we sometimes like to imagine. And I’m not trying to be a kill-joy here, for I love tracking the exciting future of journalism as much as anyone and have no particular fondness for the past. Rather, I’m coming at this question as a former journalist and present academic who studies the extent to which (professional) journalism’s core identity — its ethics, worldview, fundamental practices, etc. — is evolving in the digital age. The research out there suggests that change does come, yes, but not without considerable resistance and reluctance on the part of professions and institutions.

So, what does this mean for 2011? Well, that we’re more likely to see change occurring by degree rather than by kind. There will be more iPad news apps; more journalism crafted to take advantage of the social, viral, and “spreadable” nature of networked media; and more newsrooms experimenting with Big Data, both of the WikiLeaks and less sensational variety. There may even be some business-model breakthroughs as newspapers figure out a Groupon-like strategy for local advertising. But to see truly significant changes in kind — changes to the very DNA of journalism and how it gets accomplished — we may have to look beyond 2011, toward something like a five-year or even a ten-year time horizon. Just as we can see rather significant changes in news work as we look back over the past decade, it may be a long while yet before we appreciate what’s really happening under our feet, and its impact (or lack thereof), in any particular year.

When I sit down and think about the future of media, I see two core problems with the media business at large. Most media entities tend to define themselves by features — magazines, newspapers, television and radio — while the audience aka the customers see media entities as “information” resources.

I think we are going to see the continuous destruction of value in the media industry because folks refuse to look beyond what is obvious and comfortable. That is precisely why we are going to see media industry lose a shirt on ill-conceived mobile applications, mostly because publishers want to replicate what they know best — an ambiguous, non-measurable advertising paradigm — on digital devices.

Similarly, the media entities will all come to a realization that chasing pageviews is a zero-sum game, and they are playing with a losing hand against zero-cost pageview-generation megafarms like Facebook, especially at a time when the modes of content consumption and discovery are changing. Content farms like Demand Media and Associated Content are commoditizing the value of banner ads and pageviews.

In 2011, I expect following to happen:

Bloomberg will continue its march and become one of the most powerful media entities in the U.S. It has television assets to go along with web, print offerings (Bloomberg BusinessWeek), and data terminals — making it a company in the business of selling information.

— We will see continued implosion of large-scale media barring a handful of national/transnational brands such as The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. 2011 is going to be particularly hard for companies that have cut back on their core competency — journalism.

— MSNBC make a serious bid to acquire The Huffington Post.

— The Discovery Group will become one of the major media groups. The company has done a good job of merging its cable television and web businesses with a thriving e-commerce business, making it less reliant on pure advertising revenues. In 2011, Oprah joins the Discover family. What’s good for Oprah is good for Om!

Andrew Golis, blogging czar, Yahoo News

2011 will be the year online journalistic innovation reaches scale.

For the first time, a critical mass of journalists — not just a handful of early-adopters — have moved beyond learning the core skill set or figuring out the inherent incentives of the web. They’ve mastered the craft and the medium and are primed to push boundaries and innovate.

At the same time, those who have been experimenting — be it startup, nonprofit, amateur, or otherwise — are coming away from their projects with lessons learned. Now their ambitions and ideas are less abstract, more tangible and ready to be implemented.

And add to that the fact that major news organizations have stopped playing defense and are pivoting to invest in things that will excite their fickle, fragmenting audiences.

2011, then, will be the year millions of Americans see the kind of experimentation and innovation Nieman Lab readers have been following.

The “woe is us” crowd, which dominated the conversation for the past several years, will be largely supplanted by the “wow, let’s try new things” multitudes who are experimenting with a huge variety of journalism and business models. We’ll also stop looking for magic solutions to the “problem” of replacing monopoly and oligopoly profits, recognizing that the emerging media ecosystem will be diverse and, in the end, more robust. The outlines of tomorrow’s ecosystem will begin to emerge as a small percentage of the experiments show signs of financial sustainability.

As we are flooded with more and more information, much of which is garbage, we’ll see a strong move toward trusted sources. This will take many forms. One will be a classic retreat to quality, as the best news providers retain or earn positions of trust. Another will be progress toward increasingly sophisticated combinations of human and machine intelligence, where aggregation and curation are melded so that people and communities can sort out what they need and want based on quality, popularity and reputation. But we’re also in the early days of this shift, so it won’t happen in a mere 12 months.

Overhanging all this will be who controls the ecosystem. Will it be us, the users, or will it be powerful interests that clamp down on what we can do? I fear that 2011 will be more of the latter, as media and communications incumbents, aided by a government that increasingly wants to control what we can see and do online, erect more and more barriers to innovation. The people who favor a diverse and robust media ecosystem will realize they need to become more political — and as they do they’ll help the public understand what’s at stake.

Jim Brady, former general manager, TBD

Local will be the next hot thing. The continued rise of mobile and location-based services will be major factors in that emergence, and will help drive major innovations in local journalism. I predict a steady rise in locally based startups.

You’ll see more longtime digital types abandoning their legacy roots and either going to web-only companies or starting their own things.

Social media will establish itself firmly as something that every media company will need to have a strategy and staff for. This isn’t a fad.

Partnerships will be a strong theme. Companies that once would never have considered even talking to each other will begin forming partnerships in order to allow each to focus on its strengths. As a result, news sites will continue to become more niche.

The number of niche news startups employing fewer than 20 people will begin to increase, and begin to cause grief for larger, more general-interest news sites.

The paywall debate will drone on for another year, and at the end of it, there will still be equally dug-in camps on both extremes of the issue. (That’s the prediction I feel most comfortable about).

Joe Grimm, Poynter blogger and recruiter, Patch.com

In 2011, I expect to see some shakeout of traditional and innovative newsrooms. Some of the new ones will have hit the wall that tells them they don’t have the right model to go forward. Legacy newsrooms seem to gaining traction with digital advertising and are feeling some traditional advertisers come back, but they have been substantially weakened and devalued. With the amount of cash that is sitting idle, I expect we will see some acquisitions among traditional media companies. The prize in those deals will be the content parts of the operations, of course.

I would not surprised if some traditional newsrooms are absorbed by digital companies looking to build credibly news-oriented footprints fast. Watch Yahoo! and Facebook in 2011 to see how they try to grow their reputations as news sources.

Mobile and tablets will continue to boom, with some shakeout among devices and a real gold rush to build apps, backed up by original news and news aggregation. Individualized services or services curated by friends will grow.

The WikiLeaks phenomenon will continue. As Julian Assange has recently said, he’ll move out of military leaks and into Wall Street. Instead of being unpatriotic, there will be new legal claims blasted at them (copyright, IP, privacy). The ongoing drama of Julian Assange will come to a head in some way shape or form (arrested, killed, stepping down), but WikiLeaks or another organization with the same ethos will remain. Somehow it must move beyond Julian Assange and just be WikiLeaks, or another leak-esque organization that doesn’t have a cult of personality.

The New York Times pay ramp will launch. It will neither be a huge success or a huge failure. The nature of the pay ramp means that the vast majority of people will still get free content from the Times. They’ll only be able to ask people who come to the site regularly to pony up some money. And that amount of money will have to be high enough to compensate for the loss in advertising dollars (when X percent of readers leave) and low enough that the X percent is as low as possible.

As a result, it’ll work. It might even make them some money. But the margin of error is so small here — if they charge too early or too much — that it won’t really solve the problem of print dollars to digital dimes.

Next year will mark the end of the pay vs. free debate as we’ve known it. In 2011, those on either side of the question who speak about it in ideological/philosophical/historical terms will begin to sound, like, so 2000s. We can all now agree that information neither “wants to be free” nor is a consumer good like any other. The confluence of more and cheaper tablets on the market, the Times’ metered-model rollout and Murdoch’s continued (and intentional) overplaying of his hand with thick paywalls will combine to help close the black-or-white era of this debate.

This doesn’t mean that next to the barrel-chested Murdoch, The New York Times will not look a bit, er, wimpy in its halting moves to charge for some of its content. But even if it has trouble finding the sweet spot on the meter (or communicating its intentions), it will become clear rather quickly in 2011 that for a quality/global news gathering organization like The New York Times, there is no turning back to the days of all free access. This is also does not mean that the Guardian or Des Moines Register or Twitter for that matter can’t have another approach. But from now on, they’ll always have to explain their choice in strategic terms.

Meanwhile, Julian Assange has shown that there are still plenty of religious battle lines to be drawn around the Internet and information, without having to debate whether it is right or wrong to charge people (who can afford it) for news and let those who would rather spend their money elsewhere find the free stuff.

Stories by nonprofit, online news organizations already have a foothold in elite national newspapers — but nothing like the prominence they’ll have in 2011. They will produce strong watchdog reporting and, as a result, they’ll draw sharply increased funding from individual large donors.

Evan Smith, editor-in-chief and CEO, Texas Tribune

More meaningful collaborations between nonprofits and for-profits!

Public TV and public radio will take a much more proactive role in helping fill the investigative reporting void that’s resulted from cutbacks at commercial media outlets.

Many more newspapers will attempt to monetize their websites with paywalls for “exclusive” content.

The experiments to pool, among local TV stations, more types of news coverage, will accelerate over the next year —leading eventually to the end of an era in which most major cities have at least three or four TV stations airing several newscasts.

Dan Kennedy, journalism professor, Northeastern U.

AOL executives, despairing at the dearth of advertising on their hyperlocal Patch.com sites will hit upon a bold new strategy: print. “We believe that publishing weekly community newspapers will prove to be the hottest new media idea since Twitter,” AOL chief executive Tim Armstrong will say. “A study we conducted shows that local businesses such as hardware stores, funeral homes, and nail salons are far more likely to advertise in a newspaper than online. Our goal is nothing less than to revolutionize local journalism and the business model that supports it.” Kirk Davis, president of GateHouse Media, which publishes nearly 400 weekly and daily community newspapers across the United States, will not be reachable for comment.

Time magazine will name Google’s ruling troika its Persons of the Year for 2011. In singling out chairman Eric Schmidt and co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, the magazine will explain: “In a digital media world in which most consumers are all too willing to live under Apple’s semi-benign dictatorship, Google has kept the flame of openness alive, selling tablet computers and smartphones for which anyone can write applications without fear of censorship. The spirit of the garage-based startup lives.” In response, Apple CEO Steve Jobs will order Time’s iPad app to be removed from the App Store.

Rupert Murdoch’s “The Daily” debuts. Both subscribers are extremely satisfied.

In August, after months of crushing losses, The Daily Beast/Newsweek folds. In November, Howard Kurtz stops filing stories.

Glenn Beck shoots at two black helicopters hovering near his home, killing a Medevac pilot and a Fox 5 traffic babe.

Katie Couric steps down as anchor of CBS Evening News to join 60 Minutes, lowering the average correspondent age by 28 years. Kim Kardashian assumes Couric’s role reading the news.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, on trial in Sweden, is asked by prosecutor where he pays taxes. “None of your beeswax,” Assange replies.

On March 1, Steve Jobs introduces the iPatch, a tablet designed for content piracy. More than 30 million units sold on first day.

On April 1, 100 million iPatches explode, maiming the entire US population between 15 and 29.

Fearing revenue declines at its Kaplan Education subsidiary, the Washington Post Co. buys 49 percent of the Mafia.

Comcast, under FCC scrutiny for first time, sells NBC Universal to Barry Diller. Tina Brown brought in to run it.

Paul Krugman loses his sense of outrage. Universe contracts.

November 12 2010

16:00

This Week in Review: An objectivity object lesson, a paywall is panned, and finding the blogger’s voice

[Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week's top stories about the future of news and the debates that grew up around them. —Josh]

Olbermann and objectivity: Another week, another journalist or pundit disciplined for violating a news organization’s codes against appearances of bias: This week (actually, late last week) it was Keith Olbermann, liberal anchor and commentator for the cable news channel MSNBC, suspended for donating money to Democratic congressional candidates, in violation of NBC News policy. Olbermann issued an apology (though, as Forbes’ Jeff Bercovici noted, it was laced with animus toward MSNBC), and returned to the air Tuesday. There were several pertinent peripheral bits to this story — Olbermann was reportedly suspended for his refusal to apologize on air, it’s unclear whether NBC News’ rules have actually applied to MSNBC, numerous other journalists have done just what Olbermann did — but that’s the gist of it.

By now, we’ve all figured out what happens next: Scores of commentators weighed in on the appropriateness (or lack thereof) of Olbermann’s suspension and NBC’s ban on political contributions. The primary arguments boiled down to the ones expressed by Poynter’s Bob Steele and NYU’s Jay Rosen in this Los Angeles Times piece: On one side, donating to candidates means journalists are acting as political activists, which corrodes their role as fair, independent reporters in the public interest. On the other, being transparent is a better way for journalists to establish trust with audiences than putting on a mask of objectivity.

Generally falling in the first camp are fellow MSNBC host Rachel Maddow (“We’re a news operation. The rules around here are part of how you know that.”), Northeastern j-prof Dan Kennedy (though he tempered his criticism of Olbermann in a second post), and The New York Times’ David Carr (“Why merely annotate events when you can tilt the playing field?”). The Columbia Journalism Review was somewhere in the middle, saying Olbermann shouldn’t be above the rules, but wondering if those rules need to change.

There were plenty of voices in the second camp, including the American Journalism Review’s Rem RiederMichael Kinsley at Politico, and Lehigh j-prof Jeremy Littau all arguing for transparency.

Slate media critic Jack Shafer used the flap to urge MSNBC to let Olbermann and Maddow fly free as well-reported, openly partisan shows in the vein of respected liberal and conservative political journals. Jay Rosen took the opportunity to explain his phrase “the view from nowhere,” which tweaks traditional journalism’s efforts to “advertise the viewlessness of the news producer” as a means of gaining trust. He advocates transparency instead, and Terry Heaton provided statistics showing that the majority of young adults don’t mind journalists’ bias, as long as they’re upfront about it.

On The Media’s Brooke Gladstone summed up the issue well: “Ultimately, it’s the reporting that matters, reporting that is undistorted by attempts to appear objective, reporting that calls a lie a lie right after the lie, not in a box labeled “analysis,” reporting that doesn’t distort truth by treating unequal arguments equally.”

Commodify your paywall: We talked quite a bit last week about the new numbers on the paywall at Rupert Murdoch’s Times of London, and new items in that discussion kept popping up this week. The Times released a few more details (flattering ones, naturally) about its post-paywall web audience. Among the most interesting figures is that the percentage of U.K.-based visitors to The Times’ site has more than doubled since February, rising to 75 percent. Post-paywall visitors are also visiting the website more frequently and are wealthier, according to News Corp.

Of course, the overall number of visitors is still way down, and the plan continued to draw heat. In a wide-ranging interview on Australian radio, Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger expressed surprise at the fact that The Times’ print circulation dropped as their print-protectionist paywall went up. That, he said, “suggests to me that we overlook the degree to which the digital forms of our journalism act as a kind of sort of marketing device for the newspapers.” ResourceWebs’ Evan Britton gave five reasons why news paywalls won’t work, and Kachingle founder Cynthia Typaldos argued that future news paywalls will be tapping into a limited pool of people willing to pay for news on the web, squeezing each other out of the same small market.

Clay Shirky used The Times’ paywall as a basis for some smart thoughts about why newspaper paywalls don’t work in general. The Times’ paywall represents old thinking, Shirky wrote (and the standard argument against it has been around just as long), but The Times’ paywall feels differently because it’s being taken as a “referendum on the future.” Shirky said The Times is turning itself into a newsletter, without making any fundamental modifications to its product or the basic economics of the web. “Paywalls do indeed help newspapers escape commodification, but only by ejecting the readers who think of the product as a commodity. This is, invariably, most of them,” he wrote.

A conversation about blogging, voice, and ego: A singularly insightful conversation about blogging was sparked this week by Marc Ambinder, who wrote a thoughtful goodbye post at his long-running blog at The Atlantic. In it, Ambinder parsed out differences between good print journalism (ego-free, reliant on the unadorned facts for authority) and blogging (ego-intensive, requires the writer to inject himself into the narrative). With the switch from blogging to traditional reporting, Ambinder said, ”I will no longer be compelled to turn every piece of prose into a personal, conclusive argument, to try and fit it into a coherent framework that belongs to a web-based personality called ‘Marc Ambinder’ that people read because it’s ‘Marc Ambinder,’ rather than because it’s good or interesting.”

The folks at the fantastically written blog Snarkmarket used the post as a launching point for their own thoughts about the nature of blogging. Matt Thompson countered that Ambinder was reducing an incredibly diverse form into a single set of characteristics, taking particular exception to Ambinder’s ego dichotomy. Tim Carmody mused on blogging, voice, and authorship; and Robin Sloan defended Ambinder’s decision to leave the “Thunderdome of criticism” that is political blogging. If you care at all about blogging or writing for the web in general, make sure to give all four posts a thorough read.

TBD’s (possible) content/aggregation conflict: The new Washington-based local news site TBD has been very closely watched since it was launched in August, and it hit its first big bump in the road late last week, as founding general manager Jim Brady resigned in quite a surprising move. In a memo to TBD employees, TBD owner Robert Allbritton (who also launched Politico) said Brady left because of “stylistic differences” with Allbritton. Despite the falling-out, Brady, a washingtonpost.com veteran, spoke highly of where TBD is headed in an email to staff and a few tweets.

But the immediate questions centered on the nature of those differences between Allbritton and Brady. FishbowlDC reported and Business Insider’s Henry Blodget inferred from Allbritton’s memo that the conflict came down to an original-content-centric model (Allbritton) and a more aggregation-based model (Brady). Brady declared his affirmation of both pieces — he told Poynter’s Steve Myers he’s pro-original content and the conflict wasn’t old media/new media, but didn’t go into many more details — but that didn’t keep Blodget from taking the aggregation side: The web, he said, “has turned aggregation into a form of content–and a very valuable one at that.” Lost Remote’s Cory Bergman, meanwhile, noted that while creating content is expensive, Allbritton’s made the necessary investments and made it profitable before with Politico.

A new iPad app and competitor: There were two substantive pieces of tablet-related news this week: First, The Washington Post released its iPad app, accompanying its launch with a fun ad most everyone seemed to enjoy. Poynter’s Damon Kiesow wrote a quick summary of the app, which got a decent review from The Post’s Rob Pegoraro. For you design geeks, Sarah Sampsel wrote two good posts about the app design process.

The other tablet tidbit was the release of Samsung’s Galaxy Tab, which runs on Google’s Android system. Kiesow rounded up a few of the initial reviews from All Things Digital (a real iPad competitor, though the iPad is better), The New York Times (beautiful with some frustrations), Wired (more convenient than the iPad, but has stability problems) and Gizmodo (“a grab bag of neglect, good intentions and poor execution”). Kiesow also added a few initial impressions of the Galaxy’s implications for publishers, predicting that as it takes off, it will put pressure on publishers to move to HTML5 mobile websites, rather than developing native apps.

In other tablet news, MediaWeek looked at the excitement the iPad is generating within the media industry, but ESPN exec John Skipper isn’t buying the hype, telling MarketWatch’s Jon Friedman, ”Whenever a new platform comes up, people want to take the old platform and transport it to the new platform.” It didn’t work on the Internet, Skipper said, it won’t work on the iPad either.

Reading roundup: More thoughtful stuff about news and the web was written this week than most normal people have time to get to. Here’s a sample:

— First, two pieces of news: First, word broke last night that Newsweek and The Daily Beast will be undergoing a 50-50 merger, with the Beast’s Tina Brown taking over editorship of the new news org. The initial news accounts started to roll out late last night and into this morning at The New York Times, Washington Post, and NPR, who posted an interview with Brown. Obviously, this is a big, big story, and I’m sure I’ll have much more commentary on it next week.

— Second, U.S. News & World Report announced last week that it’s dropping its regular print edition and going essentially online-only, only printing single-topic special issues for newsstand sales. The best analysis on the move was at Advertising Age.

— Two great pieces on journalism’s collaborative future: Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger in essay form, and UBC j-prof Alfred Hermida in audio and slide form.

— Poynter published an essay by NYU professor Clay Shirky on “the shock of inclusion” in journalism and the obsolescence of the term “consumer.” Techdirt’s Mike Masnick added a few quick thoughts of his own.

— Two cool posts on data journalism — an overview on its rise by The Columbia Journalism Review’s Janet Paskin, and a list of great tools by Michelle Minkoff.

— Finally, two long thinkpieces on Facebook that, quite honestly, I haven’t gotten to read yet — one by Zadie Smith at The New York Review of Books, and the other by The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal. I’m going to spend some time with them this weekend, and I have a feeling you probably should, too.

Olbermann photo by Kirsten used under a Creative Commons license.

October 28 2010

18:33

Notable Moments From the 2010 ONA Conference

"Welcome to the conference where journalism supposedly doesn't know it's supposed to be dead."

Those were the welcoming words from Online News Association executive director Jane McDonnell as she opened the 2010 Online News Association Conference.

Many of the top people in online journalism in the Unites States, Canada and other countries are in Washington, D.C. this week for the conference. I'm here representing PBS MediaShift and OpenFile, the online news startup I'm involved with in Canada. This post is where I'll collect my thoughts, impressions and all of the notable things I see and hear at #ONA10.

Come back over the course of the weekend for the latest updates.

Friday TBD Keynote

The conference program officially kicked off with a keynote discussion featuring key people from TBD.com, the recently launched local news website for the D.C. area. Jim Brady (general manager), Erik Wemple (editor), Mandy Jenkins (social media producer) and Steve Buttry (director of community engagement) took part. Some notable quotes and information:

"The way I phrase [our revenue model] to people is that there's no silver bullet -- it's just shrapnel ... there isn't one stream that's going to make us successful." -- Jim Brady. He also later noted that TBD could roll out paid mobile apps that offer very targeted information and functionality. For now, though, their main apps are free and will likely stay that way.

"Burrell & Associates predicts there will be $1 billion spent this year in local mobile advertising, and they are seeing $11 billion by 21014. That's bigger than last year's decrease in print advertising." -- Steve Buttry

"Our editorial vision is that we try to focus on a few key areas: Transportation, arts and entertainment and sports that cut across the region. We can't be in every jurisdiction. For politics we are doing a fact checking approach ... The vision is just work really hard all the time, and always be checking your device. We are just trying to keep the site refreshed at all times." -- Erik Wemple

"If you run a website that doesn't have something that's terrible on it, you are not trying hard enough. You have to fail, fail, fail. You have to fail and fail miserably many times." -- Erik Wemple

Many Jenkins said that in order to do her job she has 22 columns open in TweetDeck, has keyword searches running constantly, and is reading around 200 news feeds constantly. "I follow a ton of our readers -- pretty much anyone who has sent us a news tip," she said.

"Social media, while it's a great source of information, you have to treat it like a tip line, not like a reporter. It's a matter of checking all of your sources before you run with them, and it's an important part of using [social media tools] responsibly." -- Mandy Jenkins

A lot of news organizations think social media "is a way to get our stuff out to people. [Mandy Jenkins] pushed an idea that it's also the police scanner of the 21st century." -- Jim Brady

"The commodity that's most restricted in people's lives is time." -- Jim Brady

More updates to come...

Craig Silverman is an award-winning journalist and author, and the managing editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He is 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 columnist for Columbia Journalism Review and BusinessJournalism.org and the Toronto Star. He serves as digital journalism director of OpenFile, a collaborative local news site for Canada. Follow him on Twitter at @CraigSilverman.

This is a summary. Visit our site for the full post ».

18:33

Notable Quotes, Impressions and Moments From the 2010 Online News Association Conference

"Welcome to the conference where journalism supposedly doesn't know it's supposed to be dead."

Those were the welcoming words from Online News Association executive director Jane McDonnell as she opened the 2010 Online News Association Conference.

Many of the top people in online journalism in the Unites States, Canada and other countries are in Washington, D.C. this week for the conference. I'm here representing PBS MediaShift and OpenFile, the online news startup I'm involved with in Canada. This post is where I'll collect my thoughts, impressions and all of the notable things I see and hear at #ONA10.

Come back over the course of the weekend for the latest updates.

Friday TBD Keynote

The conference program officially kicked off with a keynote discussion featuring key people from TBD.com, the recently launched local news website for the D.C. area. Jim Brady (general manager), Erik Wemple (editor), Mandy Jenkins (social media producer) and Steve Buttry (director of community engagement) took part. Some notable quotes and information:

"The way I phase [our revenue model] to people is that there's no silver bullet -- it's just shrapnel ... there isn't one stream that's going to make us successful." -- Jim Brady. He also later noted that TBD could roll out paid mobile apps that offer very targeted information and functionality. For now, though, their main apps are free and will likely stay that way.

"Burrell & Associates predicts there will be $1 billion spent this year in local mobile advertising, and they are seeing $11 billion by 21014. That's bigger than last year's decrease in print advertising." -- Steve Buttry

"Our editorial vision is that we try to focus on a few key areas: Transportation, arts and entertainment and sports that cut across the region. We can't be in every jurisdiction. For politics we are doing a fact checking approach ... The vision is just work really hard all the time, and always be checking your device. We are just trying to keep the site refreshed at all times." -- Erik Wemple

"If you run a website that doesn't have something that's terrible on it, you are not trying hard enough. You have to fail, fail, fail. You have to fail and fail miserably many times." -- Erik Wemple

Many Jenkins said that in order to do her job she has 22 columns open in TweetDeck, has keyword searches running constantly, and is reading around 200 news feeds constantly. "I follow a ton of our readers -- pretty much anyone who has sent us a news tip," she said.

"Social media, while it's a great source of information, you have to treat it like a tip line, not like a reporter. It's a matter of checking all of your sources before you run with them, and it's an important part of using [social media tools] responsibly." -- Mandy Jenkins

A lot of news organizations think social media "is a way to get our stuff out to people. [Mandy Jenkins] pushed an idea that it's also the police scanner of the 21st century." -- Jim Brady

"The commodity that's most restricted in people's lives is time." -- Jim Brady

More updates to come...

Craig Silverman is an award-winning journalist and author, and the managing editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He is 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 columnist for Columbia Journalism Review and BusinessJournalism.org and the Toronto Star. He serves as digital journalism director of OpenFile, a collaborative local news site for Canada. Follow him on Twitter at @CraigSilverman.

This is a summary. Visit our site for the full post ».

August 13 2010

16:00

Knight Foundation’s new biz consultant thinks news startups can learn from outside of journalism

When Nick Denton sent out an email to his Gawker empire in April 2008 announcing the sale of the popular political site Wonkette, it came as a shock to those of us who so closely identified Wonkette with the Gawker brand. Not to mention that the 2008 presidential campaign season was in full swing and traffic on political sites was way up. Denton, the founder and owner of Gawker Media, explained that Wonkette (along with two other properties, a travel site called Gridskipper, and a music site called Idolator) “each had their editorial successes; but someone else will have better luck selling the advertising than we did.”

It was a moment when Denton showed his cards: If a site, even one clearly identified with his brand, was a threat to the broader organization, he’ll cut it loose. Here’s the crux of his thinking, in the run-up to the economic meltdown:

Everybody says that the internet is special; that advertising is still moving away from print and TV; and Gawker sites are still growing in traffic by about 90% a year, way faster than the web as a whole. But it would be naive to think that we can merely power through an advertising recession. We need to concentrate our energies, and the time of Chris Batty’s sales group, on the sites with the greatest potential for audience and advertising.

I was reminded of this moment recently after a conversation with a new hire at the Knight Foundation, Benoit Wirz. Knight brought Wirz on board to serve as director of business consulting, where he’ll work with “Knight Foundation staff to develop programs based on realistic business plans.” He’ll also work with individual grantees, including the crop of Knight News Challenge winners. The goal is to get Knight grantees thinking along the lines of Denton: How will my project survive for the long term?

“There are organizations that are struggling with that issue,” Wirz told me. “It would be good to give the organizations we’re working with the best chance to be sustainable.”

Wirz joined Knight from the Florida investment firm USGlobal, where he was vice president for strategic planning and worked with companies ranging from an architectural glass manufacturer to energy firms. I asked Wirz what spurred his interest in working for Knight, particularly on news projects. He said the challenges faced by a news startup are similar to their counterparts in other fields. “My sense is that startups in general face a lot of the same problems, whether they’re journalism or not,” he told me. The solutions aren’t cookie-cutter, but the strategies to get there can work across industries.

The Knight News Challenge, in particular, has always looked for projects that are scaleable, replicable, and in general sustainable, Gary Kebbel, the former journalism program director for Knight and now journalism dean at the University of Nebraska, told me. The new position is an investment in that ideal. “The Knight News Challenge has been used to find and fund new, exciting projects,” he said. “In doing that, it’s made some bets on great ideas.” But, of course, not everyone with a great idea is also an experienced project manager. Kebbel noted that Knight has always offered grantees technical help with basic business functions, like payroll.

More broadly, Knight is looking to make sure its projects and specific grantees take market factors into account. The foundation’s CFO Juan Martinez told me “what he’s really supposed to do is help us evolve our thinking.”

Don’t go Cadillac

Wirz is still new on the job, but we did talk about his broad thoughts on how to get news startups thinking. One of his rare universal points: Forget the Cadillac launch. Journalism might be the first draft of history, but most journalists see their work as something more polished than a sloppy copy. The journalistic process — report, check your facts, edit, copy edit and deliver a product as close-to-perfect as possible — doesn’t always line up with the best mindset in the startup world, Wirz says. Spending too much time and money planning the perfect prototype isn’t necessarily the way to go.

“You want to spend as little amount of money on a product as possible, put it out there, and then get as much feedback as you can,” Wirz said. “I think that model is something that can be useful for journalism startups, in particular, to keep in mind.”

Take the much talked-about new local startup in Washington, TBD. They embraced the attitude that their project is “to be determined,” which is where the probably-too-cute name comes from. The new site launched this week with some nice bells and whistles, like a homepage that can tailor your content via geo-tagging, but the organization fully expects their product to evolve as their audience interacts with them. The site’s general manager Jim Brady told paidContent that in the run up to the launch “we finally just had to say we’ve got to stop throwing new things in here and just get this thing out the door and freeze where we are.” Will the strategy work? Well, that’s TBD.

Pick the right risk

Another broad theme Wirz plans to focus on is managing risk. “The moment you make a business plan, you know it’s wrong,” he said. “You know that it’s wrong. It may be wrong in a good way; it may be wrong in a bad way.” Wirz wants to help startups make sure that the risk of what will go wrong centers on their innovative idea, not the myriad other, more predictable business problems. “There are certain risks that are just inherent in being in a business model. There are portions of business models based on risks. Why I’m here is to mitigate some of the risks that you don’t have to take.”

Friend of the Lab Jeff Israely, who is working on launching his own news startup and writing about it for us, is grappling with this very issue. Israely is a seasoned journalist, not an entrepreneur, who recently described himself as “a well-meaning but lonely 40ish hack with little technical knowledge and scant business experience.”

One of the ways to mitigate risk is to think about sustainability from the get-go, even during the grant application process or the early business-plan development phase. Wirz plans to work with Knight to make sure that groups are already thinking about their long-term plans long before they see any money. And that planning can come from unfamiliar territory. “My hope is certainly to share outside of the journalism world with the journalism community as much as possible,” he said.

August 12 2010

14:00

The Newsonomics of TBD

[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.]

Thirsting for good news, the welcome given TBD.com by news observers has been a bit overwhelming. In a desert of too-scarce good news about the news business, TBD represents one of the potential oases, like its smaller — and largely nonprofit — counterparts from San Diego to Austin to the Twin Cities to New York.

Most of the first appraisals have focused on the site’s product innovations. Let’s now take an early look at the size of this possible oasis and the unique business model under it, to gauge what kind of a test it may be. Let’s look at the Newsonomics of launching what is the nation’s first combined local online news startup/24-hour news channel.

That combination is the most basic to understanding the business of TBD, informing both TBD’s cost structure and revenue models. If TBD turns profitable within two to three years, it may become a prototype for digital/video/TV city-based news businesses.

While there may be two dozen or more metro news channels in the U.S, none has yet combined with a online news site to the extent that TBD is doing. The only parallel may be Cablevision’s News 12, its longstanding Long Island/Connecticut/New Jersey-oriented station that got a new cousin when the parent company bought Newsday from Tribune in 2008. In a post on that acquisition, I noted the potential synergies in the deal:

  1. Joint ad sales.
  2. Synergistic news-gathering and production.
  3. Monetizing cable-produced news video through Newsday’s site.

Since then, we haven’t seen a lot of that synergy in New York, as the cable news site and Newsday.com remain separate, with those who don’t subscribe to either having to pay for direct access. A cursory look at the sites doesn’t betray much sharing, but there may be more under the hood.

It is those three principles, though, plus an all-important fourth one — promotion — that should define this next, and bigger, experiment, as TBD.com and TBD TV (which has been rebranded from the former NewsChannel 8) take flight.

Let’s look first at the costs of TBD. TBD has added 50 new positions, all additional to the approximately 50 jobs ported over from the former NewsChannel 8. Jim Brady, TBD’s general manager, outlined the 50 for me: “About 30 doing news, including 15 reporters, six editors, two senior editors, six community engagement people. Another 20 doing tech, sales, product, and design.”

That tells us that the nut for TBD is about $3.5-4 million, salaries and operating costs combined. It needs to find new revenue — exclusive of what the former NewsChannel 8’s sales staff of seven brought in — to get to profitability. Profitability is a key goal for this for-profit company, and one key to proving out the model for use in other metro areas. The cost side is one of the areas that distinguishes the TBD experiment; it’s two to four times bigger than most of the local online news startups we’ve seen.

Key to our understanding here is that TBD — the website and the cable news station — is one organization. Brady is in charge of the P&L of it, though he has a dotted-line relationship to the ad sales heads. While it adds costs to do 24-hour cable news as well as 24-hour digital news, it offers more revenue opportunities as well.

The key synergy: a kind of virtuous circle of promotion to stoke growth of audience and advertising dollars.

“They have the big megaphone [of promotion],” points out Phil Balboni, now CEO of startup GlobalPost, but also a veteran of New England Cable News, which he built and operated. “They can push TBD on every program. Within a short period of time, they will get great brand awareness.” So, yes, TBD TV pushes people to the website, but TBD.com also pushes people to the cable news channel. And WJLA, the ABC7 affiliate also owned by Allbritton, promotes both. JLA’s been the second-ranked station in the broadcast market.

The idea: Big promotion drives in samplers. Then the site must convert a good 20 percent of them to regular customers.

So what does TBD need to get to profitability — and make itself the model to match? Let’s quickly look at the two big qualifiers, audience and sales.

A big audience: Let’s remember that TBD starts with a significant audience, though one far smaller than WashingtonPost.com, just to drop a name. It gets traffic from both WJLA and the former NewsChannel 8; both of their former websites now point to TBD.com. According to Nielsen, WJLA pulled in about 327,000 unique visitors and 1,516,000 page views in July, while NewsChannel 8 appeared to attract a small fraction of that.

Make no mistake: Gaining attention in a crowded media marketplace won’t be simple — and is one of the reasons for the fast-out-of-the-chute TBD Community Network of 129 bloggers.

The Post is formidable competition. It is a premier regional website (built by Brady and others) and in a June Nielsen report, showed a 5.27-percent increase in unique visitors year over year, to 10,089,000 unique visitors and 106,387,000 pageviews. It zigged — up — while the news category zagged down 2.74 percent overall for the same period.

So figure that TBD.com needs a web audience of between 10 and 20 million page views a month at some point in the next 24-36 months to get to profitability. That’s a fifth to a tenth of the Post’s online audience, which, we should keep in mind comes more from outside D.C. than in within it.

Significant new revenue from both TBD.com and TBD TV: The revenue will be mainly advertising. As a for-profit, TBD.com is taking a different route than non-profits MinnPost and Texas Tribune, for instance, both of which are focusing strongly on membership and corporate/institutional sponsorships. The nonprofits are thinking that maybe a third — or less — of their revenue will come from traditional “advertising.” For TBD, though, it’s all about the sale of advertising. Just as TBD TV is critical to TBD.com site promotion, its own revenue growth will be key.

Figure that as much as 30 percent of new revenue generated out of the new enterprise could come from new TV revenue; to the extent it does, the site’s growth could trend more to the 10 million monthly page views, than 20 million, and still be profitable.

Brady says a new online-only sales staff of four will drive both online-only and bundled sales, working with the established sales force. “You start with a sales force that has relationships with an auto dealer, for instance, ” says Brady. “You don’t need a million uniques to get a meeting with them.”

The questions here are familiar ones for local broadcasters and for newspaper publishers: How do you a traditional ad sales staff — one mainly used to selling “time” — to sell the web effectively? How do you blend the online-only sales force with TV-oriented one? How much do you emphasize online-only sales, or continue a focus on bundling with TV time?

It’s a complex sell, combining sales of space, time, and pay-for-performance advertising. “They need to sell four or five different kinds of advertising,” says Arul Sundaram, an industry consultant who formerly was vice-president of strategy for Internet Broadcasting, which has powered dozens of local broadcast station websites. Beyond selling cost-per-thousand display advertising, Sundaram ticks off various pay-for-performance (largely search-based), video, and mobile ad products that the operation should learn to sell as well.

Pioneering models is a tough business. As the news business looks for new models, the man of the moment is man behind the TBD curtain, Robert Allbritton, CEO of his eponymous company. Allbritton’s gotten credit for seeing, and seeing through, Politico, his first web venture, to on-again, off-again profitablity. Importantly, he’s been credited with allocating sufficient resources, even in cash-negative startup times to create journalistic products that attract audiences.

As Phil Balboni sees it, Allbritton’s move, especially in this economic climate, is “a gutsy statement.” In 2010, especially, no guts, no glory.

August 06 2010

22:20

Six reasons to watch local news project TBD’s launch next week

I don’t know if it’s eavesdropping since I was invited, but this afternoon I listened in by phone on a preview of the much anticipated new local news project in Washington, D.C., TBD. They’re set to launch sometime next week that will integrate with a local television station, WJLA. In the past few months, parent company Allbritton Communications has hired about 50 people for the project’s editorial and sales teams. They joined another 50 people working on the project but already employed at existing Allbritton properties Politico and News Channel 8.

We’ve known the newsroom will pump out content for the web and television, but despite blogging much of its development some of the details of the project have been pretty hazy. Today I got a better sense of what TBD is going to look like and what it’s going to cover — look for lots of news-you-can-use, like weather and traffic, on multiple platforms. Editor Erik Wemple, formerly of the Washington City Paper, explained that a handful of reporters will work geographic beats, starting with densely-populated neighborhoods, while the rest will cover beats like the D.C. mayor’s race, plus sports and breaking news (thunderstorms!). There’ll also be a special emphasis on arts and entertainment.

Oh, and there will be lists. Lots of SEO-friendly lists. Everyday. One reporter will crank out about three of ‘em a day for a section called, you guessed it, The List. In honor of TBD’s adopted format, I’m going to stop here and give you six reasons why the project is worth watching for those who care about the future of local news.

1. Symbiotic ad sales

Most local news stations have a website, but in general they’re either just a home to stories aired on TV or a promotional tool for the broadcast. TBD’s newsroom will be platform-neutral, with content heading both online and on-air, side by side. From a business perspective, there’s potential to bring traditional television advertisers online. And, in the case of TBD, there’s already a strong sales team in place at News Channel 8 to go after local advertisers.

2. Coverage and revenue sharing

TBD admits it can’t cover everything. But what it can do is cover a few things well (weather, traffic, sports, entertainment) and rely on other outlets for the rest. This means aggressively linking out to other outlets. Four TBD staffers will be responsible for monitoring coverage in the region, particularly news coming from the 127 blogs now officially part of TBD’s blog network. Those sites will can participate in a revenue ad share. TBD’s sales team sells the ads and takes 65 percent of the gross. The minimum CPM is $8.

3. Mobile from the get go

TBD won’t just put its website on your phone. Android and iPhone apps are designed to give users the kind of information they might want from a local news site on-the-go, like weather or traffic reports (noticing lots of weather?), in a handy format.

4. Social media on the brain

TBD is obsessed with social media because they want to create an obsessive following online, with readers checking in multiple times a day. Months before launch, TBD was already active on Twitter, as were individual members of the editorial team. This spring I noted that their director of social media, Steve Buttry, would have a seven-person engagement team in place before reporters had even been hired.

5. Interactive strategy

Comment policies are a topic we’ve written about here plenty of times. Should they be unbridled free-for-all zones or curated? TBD plans to rank comments; users with the best reputations on the site will get to appear higher. The idea is to create an audience excited to participate in the site. They’re also trying a few new tricks, like a pre-written tweet for each article (something snappier and more Twitter-friendly than the headline) and an area that encourages users to help figure out unanswered questions the reporter couldn’t get.

6. TBD

Why else? Well, as they like to joke, that’s TBD.

June 30 2010

14:00

April 14 2010

13:30

Politico parent’s new local news site prepares for launch with audience and conversation at the forefront

The new D.C. local news site from Politico parent Allbritton still doesn’t yet have a name, an official launch date (“June-ish,” I hear), or a solid staff of reporters in place. But by the end of the week, it’ll have the first five members of a seven-person “engagement” team hired.

The site — the subject of much speculation and hope among local-online types — is supposed to do for local news what Politico did for politics and pit the former owners of the old Washington Star against the incumbent Washington Post. It’s being launched by Jim Brady, a former web czar at the Post and consultant to the Guardian. Brady recently brought on Steve Buttry, the longtime journalist and social-media strategist, to put together a team of four “community hosts,” plus a social media producer and a mobile producer. Buttry has officially hired Jeff Sonderman of the Scranton Times Tribune, who blogs at News Futurist, and Lisa Rowan of Vocus, who blogs about vintage shops in the D.C. area, to fill two of the community host positions. He’s almost ready to announce the remaining two. The two producer jobs, staffed by people with smart ideas for social media and mobile (although most likely not developers themselves), will be filled before launch day, Buttry told me.

I asked Buttry what he hopes his “community hosts” will do. He says the title, which he readily admits pocketing from John Temple of Peer News, captures it: The hosts will create a place where users can have a lively experience. They’ll foster conversation and get readers involved and invested in the content. Their main focus will be on buildinging relationships with existing local bloggers, recruiting new ones, and building out a local audience around their work. They’ll also get readers involved in generating content — whether it’s livetweeting from a breaking-news event or cell-phone photos of a baseball game — as well as in-person events.

Buttry deflected my observation that the site might be moving more quickly on the engagement side than the more traditional reporting side. Buttry said it was just a matter of timing; he was hired before the site’s editor, Erik Wemple, the former editor of the alternative weekly Washington City Paper, who is in the process of hiring his team of journalists now. In all, the site will have a staff of 50, which includes reporters, editors, the engagement team, and the business side.

Even if reporter and editor hires are right around the corner, it’s still a reflection of the significance audience engagement is being given that their team is being assembled so early on. Buttry said that the site can’t be a success without engagement at the forefront, the business model is based on a dedicated readership that is checking in on the conversation throughout the day. “We want to have a strong start to that network at launch,” he told me.

The concept isn’t unique. Other newsroom positions are cropping up around the country hoping to help deepen engagement with a publication’s audience. Megan recently reported on the Voice of San Diego’s new “engagement editor” position, which was created to spark, frame, and guide discussions. The job is also part PR: Engagement jobs are about getting the word out, increasing traffic, and getting stories noticed, a job that might have once belonged to someone on the marketing side of the business.

Buttry differentiated his hosts from the work of the company’s communications department, saying that the hosts will be integrated into the newsroom. He can envision breaking-news stories that require a reporter at the scene and a host back in the newsroom, perhaps sifting through tweets to add directly to a story page, or acting as a social-media source for the reporter.

“The multitasking and specialization has always been part of newsrooms,” Buttry explained. “This is just what it looks like in 2010.”

January 30 2010

14:32

Jim Brady outlines new DC local news venture


The CAJ Innovate conference kicked off with a keynote by Jim Brady. He is the president of digital strategy at Allbritton Communications (owners of Politico.com) and the former executive editor of WashingtonPost.com.

His theme was the potential of local news. He argued that in the early days of news online, many local newspaper sites were tempted by big waves of traffic from viral engines, picking up a national or international audience.

“We were doing things to attract the wrong audience and ignoring the audience in our backyard,” he said.

He described this as a drift away from local news, even in terms of advertising by seeking national rather than local ads.

For example, he cited examples of how metropolitan newspapers tended to focus on national news, rather than providing a local perspective on a national issue.

He talked about the new challenges facing newspaper sections, such as travel. He argued that there was bound to be a better site focused just on travel than the general coverage provided by a newspaper travel supplement.

Brady recalled that when he left, 85% of unique visitors were from outside Washington DC. But the “dirty secret”, he said, was that 15% of visitors who were local drove 35%-40% of page views and the revenue.

This, he said, spurred his interest in local news and the potential to reinvent how local can work both from a journalism and business perspective.

He recalled a journalist describing web journalism like Vietnam – everyone feels they need to be there but don’t know how to win.

Brady explained his decision to take on a project like a new local website for DC. Part of the appeal was running a news organisation focused on the web, rather than viewing the website “as a second-class citizen”.

He argued there was an opportunity for working with Allbritton’s local TV stations. In his experience cross-promotion of web and newspaper doesn’t work. But TV and web does, as many people watch TV with a laptop.

Brady provided some details about the local DC venture. He didn’t want to do the site piecemeal, such as by just hiring a handful of reporters.

So he will have a newsroom of 35-40 out of a staff of around 50 people. This will combine reporters, but also journalists focused on social media and reaching out to the community and encourage contributions.

“To win big, you have to bet big,” he argued.

His editorial strategy will to focus on “the things that matter to people”, such as crime, real estate and more, rather than trying to cover everything.

“We are going to pick certain regions and cover them like crazy,”  he said, realising that he could not compete with the Washington Post in comprehensive coverage of DC.

The content will be geo-coded to offer customised news based on where people live and work, rather than dump everything on the homepage and leave it to the audience to sort it out.

The site will also aggregate news as people want a range of sources. This would, for example, mean linking to a Washington Post story from the homepage if it has a major story.

He wants to create a network of citizen contributors and promote their content on the home page, rather than pigeonhole “amateur” journalism.

The new venture will also have a focus on mobile, but with a local focus to deliver targeted alerts, both editorial and advertising.

In terms of revenue, Brady said there would not be one solution. Rather he will explore things like advertiser blogs, clearly labeled as such and offered at a premium.

Other commercial strategies involve helping small businesses go online by providing a local advertising service.

Brady summarised by saying he will try things both on the editorial and business side.

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