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May 23 2013

16:33

The newsonomics of value exchange and Google Surveys

whittier-daily-news-google-survey-paywall

What happens when a reader hits the paywall?

Only a small percentage slap their foreheads, say “Why didn’t I subscribe earlier?” and pay up. Most go away; some will come back next month when the meter resets. A few will then subscribe; others just go elsewhere.

So what if there were a way to capture some value from those non-subscribing paywall hitters — people who plainly have some affinity for a certain news site but aren’t willing to pay?

Welcome to the emerging world of value exchange. It’s not a new idea; value exchange has been used in the gaming world for a long time. As the Zyngas have figured out, only a small percentage of people will pay to play games. So they’ve long used interactive ads, quizzes, surveys, and more as ways to wring some revenue out of those non-payers.

It’s a variation on the an old saw that says much of life boils down to two things: money and time. It also brings to mind the classic Jack Benny radio routine, “Your Money or Your Life.” If people won’t pay for media with currency, many are willing to trade their time.

Now the idea is arriving at publishers’ doorsteps. It is being tested mainly, but not exclusively, as a paywall alternative. Yet, as we’ll see it, there may be many other innovative uses of time-based payment.

In part, this is part of the digital generational shift we might call “beyond the banner.” Static, smaller-display advertising is increasingly out of favor, with both prices and clickthrough rates moving deeper into the bargain basement. But marketers want to market, readers want to read, and viewers want to watch, so new methods that combine the marketing of brands and offers and the go-button on media consumption are au courant.

That’s where value exchange fits. Publishers are seeing double-digit, $10-$19 CPM rates from value exchange, and that’s more than many average for their online advertising. Annual revenues in the significant six figures are now flowing in to the companies that have gotten in early on the business.

The big player in publisher-oriented value exchange is Google Consumer Surveys (GCS), a year-old brainchild born out of the Google’s 20-percent-free-time-for-employees program (and first written about here at Nieman Lab). GCS now claims more than 200 publisher partners, including the L.A. Times, Bloomberg, and McClatchy properties. It says it has so far exposed some 500 million survey “prompts” to readers.

GCS will soon have more company in the value exchange game. Companies like Berlin-based SponsorPay, which offers interactive ad experiences in exchange for access mainly to games, is beginning to pursue publisher possibilities, both in Europe and the U.S, where half of its current clients are based. SponsorPay emphasizes mobile and social in its business.

L.A.-based SocialVibe, newly headed by hard-charging CEO Joe Marchese, is an ad tech company. It’s mainly oriented to non-newspaper media, especially TV companies.

How does this value exchange exactly work? Typical is the implementation at one smaller paper, the Whittier Daily News in the L.A. area., one of some 35 Digital First Media papers (both MediaNews and Journal Register brands) that have deployed GCS almost since its inception. Upon reading their 10th, and last, free metered article of the month, readers get a choice: buy a sub for 99 cents for the first month — or take a survey. “Do you own a cat?” for instance.

Publishers get a nickel for each completed response. Response rates tend to fall between 10 and 20 percent. “Completion rates” improve by targeting specific questions to specific audiences. The nickels add up.

For publishers, then, we have a new acronym: PAM, Paywall Alternative Monetization.

Consider the innovation a by-product of the paywall revolution. If you haven’t created a barrier to free access, you have less leverage to force wannabe readers to choose the lesser of two choices to proceed with their reading. Now, publishers can say, pay me for access with money — or with time. The time is short — measured in seconds or maybe minutes, depending on a video’s length or a survey’s questions.

What does the consumer get for answering a question? It varies. Respondents can get as little as a single “free” article, or an hour, or a day of access.

These programs can offer side-by-side offers. For instance, someone like a Press+ (which now powers some 380 newspaper sites) may power a subscription offer in one box, and Google Surveys or a SocialVibe can offer up an alternative in a neighboring one.

Digital First Media, long a public skeptic of paywalls, is using value exchange as an adjunct to its paywalls, many of which were deployed before DFM took over management of the MediaNews papers. While it is using it successfully as a paywall alternative, says Digital First Ventures managing director Arturo Duran, it’s also finding a couple of other ways to wring money out of surveys.

At many of its digital properties, including The Denver Post, its photo- and video-heavy Media Center hub offers Google surveys as speed bumps for continued access. Readers perceive value; enough of them are willing to pay with a few seconds of time to keep getting access to visuals. Similarly, Boston.com’s The Big Picture “news stories in photographs” uses GCS.

This approach, putting up a speed bump — in the form of a survey — instead of paywall explores the nuances of differing consumer valuation of differing parts of news sites. The Texas Tribune has offered a similar approach, having used Google surveys on its extensive data section. How often a survey is deployed can be adjusted by the publisher, working with Google, to maximize both revenue and reduce traffic lost. The search here is for the magic sweet spots.

The Christian Science Monitor is also an earlier surveys adopter. “We don’t have a paywall,” says online director David Clark Scott. “So we tried an experimental speed bump.” Those bumps were installed first on a single section, and now have grown, popping up on much of the site. One CSM twist: If you come to the site directly, you won’t see the surveys. If you come via some search, social, or other referrals, you will.

Digital First is also testing survey deployment for a group notoriously hard for the news industry to monetize: international readers. “We can’t sell [ads] in Kenya, Japan, and India,” says Duran. Instead of fetching bottom-of-the-ad-network prices, as low as 25 cents, surveys can return money in the whole dollars. One lesson so far: “It’s a much better experience than an ad,” for many readers, says Duran.

Publishers are also finding other ways to get readers to “pay.” At the Newton (Iowa) Daily News, the paywall also provides these two alternatives: answer a survey question or a share an article (via Twitter, Facebook, or Google+) in exchange for continued passage.

“It wasn’t about market research at all — it was about trading time for content,” says Paul McDonald, head of Google Consumer Surveys. McDonald, who developed the product along with engineer Brett Slatkin, says they tested out what people would most likely be willing to do, in exchange for some good. They tested a million impressions at The Huffington Post and found that question-answering was the most likable activity. Hence, Google Consumer Surveys.

“Most research is stuck in old ways — paper, email, and phone. It’s a stagnant industry, ” McDonald says. The industry, of course, has responded, offering its own critique of GCS’ rapid-fire — surveys can be commissioned and deployed within a day, with complete results, broken down by customized demographics (at an extra cost to survey buyers) within 48 hours — disruption of the market survey space. Still, industry reaction is more than mixed, with the positives of Google’s new technique winning adherents among bigger brands and smaller businesses. It’s a self-service buying technique, borrowing from Google’s flagship AdWords model.

Interestingly, Google itself is using Surveys to obtain consumer insight. Yes, the company that derives more data from our clicks than anyone still finds asking a human being a question can yield unexpected learning — which, of course, can be combined with clickstream analytics. YouTube is among the many GCS deployers.

It’s a new frontier, and one that I think offers a number of curious potentials.

  • At scale, if there is scale to the business, it’s about significant new sources of revenue.
  • As a paywall alternative, it may be a detour that leads back to the road to subscription. If a reader is engaged enough with a news brand over time — kept engaged in part through value exchange — maybe he or she will eventually subscribe. Does a value exchange-using customer have a higher likelihood of subscribing in the future? It’s too early to know, but we may have soon have sufficient data to see.
  • Value exchange could expand the ability to gain customer data. Each time someone trades some time for reading, she or he could be asked for an additional piece of profiling information. Essentially “registered,” that new customer becomes more targetable for subscription offers or advertising.
  • We can start to widen the idea of trading time for access. Remember the idea of the “reverse paywall,” espoused by then-Washington Post managing editor Raju Narisetti and Jeff Jarvis? Spend enough time with a news product, and get rewarded, they proposed. Value exchange begins to structure that kind of relationship, providing value both to readers and publishers. Rough equalization of value would be a painful process, but it may be doable through much experimentation.
  • Let’s combine two things: the rise of mobile traffic and value exchange. Mobile may not be ad-friendly, but customers might be far more willing to watch a video or touch through a quick questionnaire on a cell phone — and that can ring a different key on the digital cash register. “Mobile is already more diversified,” says SponsorPay CEO Andreas Bodczek, explaining that it is moving beyond gaming companies for value exchange and will soon include publishers.
  • GCS is an easily deployable tool for small- and medium-sized businesses. As such, it could be an interesting add-on for publishers’ emerging marketing services businesses (“The newsonomics of selling Main Street”). That’s a line Google could allow newspaper companies to resell, just as many resell Google paid search.

January 17 2012

18:00

NewsRight’s potential: New content packages, niche audiences, and revenue

When NewsRight — the Associated Press spinoff formerly known as News Licensing Group (and originally announced by the AP as an unnamed “rights clearinghouse”) — began to lift the veil a couple of weeks ago, most of the attention and analysis focused on “preserving the value” of news content for content owners and originators. In the first round of reports and commentary on the launch, various bloggers and analysts quickly made comparisons to Righthaven, the infamous and all-but-defunct Las Vegas outfit that pursued bloggers and aggregators for alleged copyright violations.

But most of that criticism misses an important point: Would NewsRight’s investors, all legacy news enterprises, really invest $30 million in a questionable model just to enforce copyrights? Or are they investing in a startup that has the capacity to create revenues from new, innovative ways of generating, packaging and, distributing news content?

While some of the reactions point to the former, I believe the opportunity (and NewsRight’s real intention) lies in the latter: NewsRight has the potential to create revenue for any content creator large or small, and to enable a variety of new business models around content that simply can’t fly today because there hasn’t been a clearinghouse system like it.

(As background, here at Nieman Lab in 2010, I first described the potential benefits of a news clearinghouse months before AP announced the concept. Then after AP made public their plans, I described a variety of new business models it could enable, if done right.)

First, let’s have a look at some of the critics:

  • TechDirt, disputing whether NewsRight would actually “add value,” asked: “AP finally launches NewsRight…and it’s Righthaven Lite?”
  • InfoWars, posting a video talk with Denver radio talk host David Sirota, inquired: “Traditional media to bully bloggers with NewsRight?” In the interview Sirota said, “What I worry about is that it ends up being used as a financial weapon against those voices out there who are citing that information in order to challenge it, scrutinize it, and question it.”
  • GigaOm’s Mathew Ingram pointed out that while NewsRight itself says it will stay out of pursuing copyright infractions via litigation, “one of the driving forces behind the agency is the sense on the part of AP and other members that their content is being stolen by news-filtering services…and news aggregators.” Ingram concludes: “What happens when an organization like The Huffington Post says no thank you? That’s when it will become obvious how much of NewsRight’s business model is based on carrots, and how much of it is about waving a big stick.”
  • Nieman Lab’s own coverage by Andrew Phelps also focused on the tracking and enforcement aspects of NewsRight’s core technology.

NewsRight’s launch PR didn’t do much to dispel these concerns. CEO David Westin said himself in a video: “NewsRight’s designed…to make sure that the traditional reporting organizations that are investing in original journalism are reaping some of the benefits that are being lost right now.” And the company’s press release, quoting Westin, went no further that the following in hinting that there were new business opportunities enabled by NewsRight: “[I]f reliable information is to continue to flourish, the companies investing in creating content need efficient ways to license it as broadly as possible.”

Those traditional news organizations (29 of them, including New York Times Co., Washington Post Co., Associated Press, MediaNews Group, Hearst, and McClatchy) are the investors who scraped together $30 million to launch NewsRight. The Associated Press also contributed technology and personnel to the effort.

Given those roots — along with the initial PR, Westin’s own background as a lawyer, and the fact that NewsRight’s underlying AP-derived technology, News Registry, was explicitly developed to help track content piracy — it’s not hard to see where all the skepticism comes from.

But ultimately, if NewsRight is to be successful, it will have to create a new marketplace. It’s going to have to do more than trying to get paid for the status quo — that is, to collect fees from aggregators and others who are currently repackaging the content of its 29 owners. It can do that, but in addition, like any business, it will have to develop new products that new customers will pay for; it will have to bring thousands of content sources into its network; and it will have to enable and encourage thousands of repackagers to use that content in many new ways. And it will have to focus on those new opportunities rather than on righting wrongs perceived by its investors.

I spoke last week with David Westin about where NewsRight was starting out and where it might ultimately go. While he repeated the company mantra about returning value to the originators of journalistic content — “NewsRight is designed with one mission: to recapture some of the value of original journalism that’s being lost in the internet and mobile world” — it’s clear that his vision for NewsRight goes well beyond that. Here’s some of what we covered:

NewsRight’s initial target is “closed-web” news aggregators. Media monitoring services like EIN News, Meltwater News, and Vocus provide customized news feeds to enterprise clients like corporations and government entities, typically at $100 per month or more. Essentially, they’re the digital equivalent of the old clipping services. Currently, these services must scrape individual news sites, and technically, they should deliver only snippets with links back to the original sources (although whether they limit themselves to that is not easy to monitor). What NewsRight offers the monitoring services is one-stop shopping that includes (a) fulfillment: an accurate content feed (obviating the need to scrape, and eliminating uncertainty by always delivering the latest, most complete version of a story); (b) rights clearance; and (c) usage metrics. The monitoring services will have the option to improve their offerings by supplying full text (or they can stick with first paragraphs); the content owners share the resulting royalties.

While NewsRight currently must individually negotiate content deals, it’s working toward a largely-automated content-exchange system. Clearly, as NewsRight grows, there will have to be an automated system with self-service windows. “I hope that’s right, because that means we will have been successful,” Westin said when I suggested that would have to happen. The deals with private aggregators being worked on now all require one-off negotiations for each deal, both with the aggregators and with the content suppliers. That’s marginally possible when there are 800 or so content contributors to the network, but to be a meaningful player in the information marketplace, the company will need to grow to encompass thousands of content creators, thousands of repackagers, republishers, or aggregators of content, and many millions of pieces of content (including text, images and video) — requiring a sizable infrastructure and high level of automation.

Any legitimate news content creator can join NewsRight for free for the duration of 2012. “Anyone who generates original reporting, original content, can benefit from this. We’re open to anyone who’s doing original work.” Westin says. That includes not only newspapers and other traditional news organizations — it can include hyperlocal sites and news blogs. Basically, that free membership will bring you back information on how and where your content is being used. NewsRight’s system is currently tracking several billion impressions for its investor-members and is capable of tracking billions more for those want to use the service. (All this is rather opaque on the website right now, but if you’re interested, just click on the “Contact us to learn more” link on their homepage, and they’ll get back to you.)

Down the road, NewsRight is looking for ways to create new content packaging opportunities. Westin: “There is a large number of possible businesses [that we can enable]. We don’t have any of them up and running yet; it’ll be a better story when we’ve got the first one up. But I do envision a number of people who might say, ‘I wanted to create this product, dipping into a large number of news resources on a specific subject, but it’s simply been too cumbersome and difficult to do’…We should be able to facilitate that.” What he envisions is something that reduces the friction and the transaction costs in setting up a news feed, app, or site on a niche topic and allows a multiplicity of such sites to flourish — “new products based around the content that don’t exist now.” That includes personalized news streams — products for one, but of which many can be sold: “As we continue to expand News Registry and the codes attached to content, it makes it possible to slice and dice the news content with essentially zero marginal cost.”

While the initial offerings to private aggregators carry a price tag set by NewsRight, in the ultimate networked and largely automated point-to-point distribution arrangement — individual asset syndication — NewsRight will likely stay out of pricing. The “paytags,” or the payment information embedded in the Registry tags, will be able to carry information on a variety of usage and payment terms — not only what the price is, but nuanced provisions like time constraints (e.g. this can’t be used until 24 hours after first published), geographic constraints (to limit usage by regional competitors), variable pricing (hot news costs more than old news), and pricing based on the size of the repackager’s audience. Content owners would likely have control over these options, but there’s also the potential for a dynamic pricing model — something similar to Google’s auction mechanism for AdWords — in order to optimize both revenue and usage.

The NewsRight network could make it possible to monetize topical niche content that’s too difficult to syndicate today. There a lot of bloggers, hyperlocals, and other niche sites today that earn zero or minimal revenue and are operated as labors of love. The potential for NewsRight is to find new markets for the content of these sites. And general publishers like newspapers might find it profitable to jump into specialized niches for which there’s no local audience, but which might generate revenue via redistribution through NewsRight to various content aggregators.

Could that grand vision come to fruition? As I’ve pointed out before, a very similar system has worked very nicely for ASCAP and BMI, the music licensing organizations, which not only collect royalties for musicians but enable a variety of music distribution channels. (This is on the performance and broadcast side of the music biz, not the rather broken recorded music side.) Both AP CEO Tom Curley in launching NewsRight and Westin in discussing it refer to ASCAP and other clearinghouses as models — not just for compensating content creators but for enabling new outlets and new forms of content. NewsRight’s is purely a business-to-business model — it doesn’t involve end users. So the traction it needs will come when it can point not just to compensation streams from private aggregation services, but to new products and new businesses made possible by its system.

December 08 2011

17:00

The newsonomics of Google’s retail push

It looked like just more head-butting among the mammoths of our time: Google will match up with Amazon, said the Wall Street Journal last week: “The Web-search giant is in talks with major retailers and shippers about creating a service that would let consumers shop for goods online and receive their orders within a day for a low fee.”

Most of the stories played on that Goliath vs. Goliath theme, and of course that’s an increasingly familiar one as the businesses of Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple overlap, intersect, and collide. Who is a bookseller? Well, Amazon, and Apple, and Google, kind of. Who is selling and renting media — well, who isn’t or preparing to do so? Who is in the hardware biz — all except Facebook? Who’s reaching for the digital ad riches, now generating $80 billion worldwide; Google, the king, and Facebook, the fast-threatening prince.

Yes, the Google/Amazon match-up over delivering goods is a good and real storyline. As big brains butt, it could be thunderous and landscape-changing. That landscape includes the news business, and you can almost feel the rumbles underfoot just with the word of Google’s move.

Let’s look at the newsonomics of Google’s would-be one-day-shipping program — let’s call it Google Tomorrow™© — and its wider impacts and strategic rationale. First, we’re talking about a lot of potential money. U.S. retail e-commerce is forecast to hit almost $200 billion this year, with the global total adding up to $700 billion. So there are many companies trying to get in the middle of it.

The idea of website-facilitated buying — and shipping — from fairly local retailers isn’t a new one by a longshot. Storerunner plied this territory, too early, a decade ago. Webvan, the best funded of the grocery deliverers went from brilliance to punchline in about 30 seconds. Shoprunner is currently out there, pitching the same idea as Google Tomorrow. Newspaper companies have been more steadfast, more the tortoise in the race for perfection of our emerging online/offline commercial world.

Companies like the Gannett-owned ShopLocal and independent Travidia, with its FindnSave product used by McClatchy and other news chains, have been building the know-the-local-retail-inventory, compare-prices-and-buy terrain for years. Unlike what Google may do, they don’t deliver one-click buying and delivery. They offer product selection, availability and then click off to retailer’s own sites for buying and shipping or store pickup. The idea seems like a great one, a merger of the best of online and offline, yet it’s been slow to grow. Every time I’ve checked out the sites, I’ve found the promise smart, but the inventories too uneven or the hierarchy of results skewed to preferred shops — not my preferences. Consumers have clearly opted for Amazon over these kinds of sites.

The impact on the ShopLocals and FindnSaves is not what should concern newspapers, though. The big issue: retail advertising.

While the web has greatly damaged newspapers’ classifieds and national ad businesses, retail has been a relatively stronger area. Worth about $13 billion last year — or half of daily newspapers’ ad revenue — it’s a lifeline at this point in the tough print-to-digital transition. Retail is being challenged on several fronts, with the Sunday preprint business a big concern. In fact, both Google and newspapers are pursuing e-circulars to counter the inevitable print downturn in that area.

Wait a minute, you may say — that $13 billion is advertising money and Google, like Amazon, wants to make money facilitating actual commerce. But the division between advertising and selling is an old one, fast blurring. Think about where we’ve come from the era of impression-based (newspaper, TV, radio, magazine) ads into the era of pay-per-click, pay-per-lead, pay-per-acquisition, and more.

Retailers don’t want to advertise; they want to sell stuff.

Give them new routes to sell stuff, and deliver it more cheaply than they could before, and they’ll migrate their ad/marketing/lead generation dollars. So if Google can really make it easier to personalize, routinize and make more efficient the selling process, it will place itself between the seller and the buyer. As it does that, it replaces the newspaper as middleman, further reducing much of the revenue that is keeping newsrooms staffed, even if many of them are now half-staffed at best.

Is the replacement of newspaper as advertising-oriented middleman inevitable? Probably, but over a longer term. Since the dawn of the web, people have been chasing the perfection of commerce, and it’s been a tough slog with far more losers than winners. Amazon, of course, is the big winner, but with relatively small profits, a paltry $63 million in the last quarter on sales of $10.8 billion. While Amazon is perfecting commerce, it’s got a long way ago. Since it was born in 1994, four years before Google, it has built a one-of-a-kind business on customer obsession and brilliant analytics. Its recommendations engine is ready for the web hall of fame, and its latest foray with Prime membership (“The newsonomics of Amazon’s prime moves“) shows it knows how to build on its foundation.

Google lacks some of Amazon’s core strengths. It’s a mix-and-match technology company, famously trying lots of things and at times more quickly abandoning losers. In commerce, Google is moving forward with a spate of moves. Google OnePass is a restyled content buying system, with some prominent publishers signing on. Add in Google Latitude, Google Local, Google Local Shopping, Google Shopper, Google Tags, and Google Places, all relating to local commerce. Google Offers is gaining steam and is working with publishers on syndicating local daily deals.

There’s an irony to such publisher partnerships, of course. On the one hand, Google is a “partner,” magnifying publisher businesses through its ad and search products. On the other, initiatives such as Google Tomorrow are a potential dagger to newspapers’ jugular. That’s the way of the web world. For Google, or Amazon, or Apple, or Facebook, any new initiative it takes on has its own internal logic. Should another industry — say newspapers — be wounded in the process, it’s just collateral damage. Given the size of these digital behemoths, as they decimate legacy industries, you can almost hear them say, “Sorry, did I sideswipe you? I didn’t feel anything.”

If everyone is a frenemy these days, and Google is taking on Amazon, media companies have to ask: Who is the frenemy of my frenemy?

One last point to ponder about Google Tomorrow. Consider it, in part, a defensive move.

If, in fact, selling and advertising are blurring, Google has to move more in the selling direction. Right now, it’s an ad company, pure and simple. About 97 percent of its revenue comes from advertising (and you thought newspapers relied too much on that revenue source). It has brilliantly moved to expand its digital ad dominance (now taking in about 40 percent of the dollars in the U.S.) by merging its paid search foundation with big acquisitions in display advertising and mobile. Just last week, the feds let it buy AdMeld, an ad optimizer — and Google’s 57th acquisition so far this year. Now, the Doubleclick ad management system offers a singular approach, incorporating in one place display, search and mobile, to the delight — and terror — of publishers and others in and around the ad industry.

The dominance is a sight to behold. Yet as digital innovation continues to disrupt everything in its path, the ad business is vulnerable, with companies, led by Amazon trying to eliminate the cost and friction of finding buyers. So let’s look at the Google Tomorrow battle plan as one aimed at Amazon surely, but with ammo that may hit newspapers as well — and one that may allow Google to find that big, elusive second revenue stream.

Photo of Amazon warehouse by Chris Watt/Scottish Government used under a Creative Commons license.

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

July 18 2011

16:00

Alden Global Capital drops a shoe: Is the Journal Register acquisition prelude to more consolidation?

On Thursday, Journal Register Company announced that it had been acquired by Alden Global Capital, a secretive hedge fund that specializes in “distressed opportunities,” such as companies emerging from bankruptcy — including newspaper groups. The acquisition may foreshadow additional moves by Alden, which is interested in two strategies to add value to its investments: (a) it wants its newspaper holdings to aggressively develop digital capabilities and revenues, and (b) it wants to see consolidation (mergers) among newspaper groups.

In its capacity as a distressed-opportunity specialist, as I detailed here in January, Alden acquired stakes not only in JRC, but also in MediaNews Group, Philadelphia Media Network, Tribune, Freedom Communications, and the Canadian newspaper group Postmedia Network . Among publishers that avoided bankruptcy filings, it has stakes in A.H. Belo, Gannett, McClatchy, Media General and Journal Communications. (I detailed those investments in this post in March.) In addition to its newspaper holdings, Alden has other media investments, including in Emmis Communications and Sinclair Broadcast Group. Only the investments in public companies are detailed in SEC filings — they add up to about $210 million in media holdings. Together with the non-public investments in JRC, MediaNews, Freedom, Postmedia, and Philadelphia, Alden may have as much as $750 million of its total assets of $3 billion invested in newspaper and broadcast media properties.

At the time of that January post, Alden had just asserted itself at MediaNews Group by shaking up the executive suite and naming three new directors to the seven-member board. (Disclosure: I spent 13 years as a publisher at a MediaNews Group newspaper.) That move was important because it enabled Alden to use MediaNews as a platform from which to drive consolidation in the still-fractured U.S. newspaper industry. (The largest player, Gannett, owns only about 13 percent of the industry in terms of daily circulation.) Under SEC rules, by taking a position on the board, Alden was no longer allowed to speculate in MediaNews stock; hence, their assumption of board seats signalled an intent to use their MediaNews holdings strategically rather than speculatively. Until the JRC acquisition, Alden had not done the same at any of the other firms in which it had invested.

The first strategic move MediaNews made after the January shakeup was to make a bid for Freedom Communications, publisher of the Orange County Register and other papers and owner of broadcast properties, which put itself up for sale in March. Alden is believed to own about 40 percent of Freedom, a stake similar to its MediaNews holdings, but by not taking board seats, it had remained on the speculative side of the fence at Freedom, and therefore could not influence Freedom’s choice of an acquisition partner. But clearly, the ideal marriage from Alden’s point of view would be between Freedom and MediaNews.

Last month, the Wall Street Journal reported that talks between MediaNews and Freedom had broken down, with a Freedom valuation of about $700 million at issue. Other suitors, including Tribune (in which Alden has a stake), may be in the picture, but with its relatively debt-free post-bankruptcy structure, and its heavy presence in the California newspaper market, MediaNews was in the strongest position in the bidding for Freedom. As Denver-based Westword (which keeps a close watch on MediaNews) said about the talks breakdown, “expect MediaNews Group and Freedom to sit down again in the coming months despite the current state of negotiation interruptus.”

Meanwhile, the Alden takeover of JRC gives it a second operating platform for its consolidation goals. Its JRC investment is now strategic rather than speculative as well; it can call the shots. Clearly, it likes JRC CEO John Paton, one of the prime exponents of a “digital first” strategy. Paton has also had a relationship with Alden’s Canadian interest, Postmedia, including a spot on its board and a role in recruiting its CEO, Paul Godfrey.

Since Paton took over JRC as it emerged from bankruptcy in 2009, he has built a reputation as a visionary by replacing old proprietary systems with open source software and cloud-based services. In 2010, the company said it earned $41 million in cash flow and increased digital revenues about 70 percent.

JRC, with Alden backing, could now become an east-coast consolidator by scooping up other newspapers and newspaper groups — perhaps even acquiring the East Coast holdings of MediaNews, papers in Pennsylvania and New England which, although dear to the heart of chairman Dean Singleton, are mostly a distraction to its Denver-based, California-centric holdings.

Obviously, the Philadelphia newspapers could be part of the reshuffle/consolidation, and other owners, including Gannett, could join the fray. (Gannett already is partnered with MediaNews in California.) It’s not hard to imagine an east-west strategy, with newspaper properties flowing into a western-U.S. consolidation led by MediaNews and an eastern grouping led by JRC. Even without mergers, there are places where Alden could encourage strategic partnerships between companies it owns or has invested in — for example, between JRC and the Philadelphia newspapers.

Shira Ovide of the Wall Street Journal noted, in response to the Alden acquisition of JRC, that there hadn’t been much action in the newspaper acquisitions market for some time. But the market could be loosening up. During the recession and beyond, owners held on, remembering the inflated values of the 1990s and early 2000s. It’s now clear both that those days will not come back and that Alden has its fingers on key factors that could build value: digital first, and consolidation. And Alden seems to have a nice cash pipeline.

Nostalgia for “local newspaper ownership” notwithstanding, the market will push owners into sales and mergers until there are just a few major owners of newspapers across the country. Even if this happens, daily print publication may still not be sustainable in many markets for more than a few years — but that’s another topic. The gamble for Alden and others is to accumulate a stake in a consolidated newspaper industry in the hopes that its local brands can retain (or regain) value as mainly digital enterprises.

Still, neither JRC’s digital-first focus nor industry consolidation strategies are magic bullets. Alden’s money chases risk in order to earn high rewards, and there’s a lot of risk in this picture.

On the digital-first side, we’re still waiting to see if newspapers can catch up and increase their share of the online ad market. JRC may have grown its online revenue by 70 percent, but in 2010 digital revenue for the daily newspaper industry as a whole grew just 10.9 percent, and still showed less online revenue than it had in 2007 ($3.042 billion in 2010 versus $3.166 billion in 2007). And much of what newspapers count as digital revenue is sold in print-dominated packages, not as pure online advertising.

As for consolidation, as I noted in a comment to Ken Doctor’s March post, “The Newsonomics of roll-up,” we could be looking at a classic industry mop-up operation — where the consolidator knows it’s all downhill from here, but is able to buy assets so cheaply that just milking them until they run dry produces a nice return. I wrote at the time in that comment:

While newspaper values have bounced back from rock bottom, you can still buy newspaper assets for a fraction of what they were worth at the peak six years ago (20 to 25 cents on the dollar, at most, depending on the company), with cash-flow paybacks in the range of 5-6 years, plus the consolidation benefits, plus, in many cases, valuable real estate that can be flipped. And with some luck, a digital spinoff or residual asset a few years down the road. So without much risk, maybe you can double your money over five years. (And if you’re really lucky, the economy keeps improving and you can find a bigger sucker and double your investment in just in a couple of years.) I believe that’s the Alden Global strategy. They have put their people on the board at MediaNews (and nowhere else) in order to use it as a launching platform for consolidation.

Let me temper that with the benefit of the doubt. John Paton says that Alden believes in digital-first. But if that strategy doesn’t begin to deliver the returns Alden expects — at JRC, MediaNews, or any other media outfit where Alden chooses to exercise the influence that comes with its ownership stake — the mop will come out of the closet and we’ll see a consolidation that’s driven purely by financial strategists at Wall Street firms, with no particular concern for journalism, digital or otherwise.

May 05 2011

14:30

The newsonomics of the new ABCs of journalism

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

This week brought us the long-worked-on new counting metrics for American daily newspaper journalism.

ABC, the Audit Bureau of Circulations, has long provided The Number.

The Number — really The Numbers, a daily number and a Sunday number — have been the reader numbers dailies measured themselves by, twice a year, spring and fall. Who’s up, who’s down, who’s number one — it’s really a horse-race number, simple to report by the publishers and simple to report by those covering the industry. Of course, The Number has been in horrific decline. Take a look at the State of the News Media circulation chart (a third of the way down a long page) and you can see 15 straight reporting periods in single-digit decline, tracked since 2003. Clearly, circulation is still dropping, though it will take the next six-month comparisons, using these new metrics, to establish new benchmarking.

That’s one of the reasons The Number is gone — optics do count — but more importantly the nature of ad buying has changed dramatically in that same period. Newspaper ad revenues have been halved while online ad revenues will approximate newspaper ad revenues this year or next. While halved to $25 billion annually or so, newspapers, with the new ABCs, have made a directional shift to satisfying those advertisers; recall that even the New York Times, the digital leader with 25 percent of its ad revenues being digital, still depends on the print for three-quarters of its dollars.

So The Number is all but gone. Sure, there’s still “Total Circulation,” and that’s led some to do apples-to-apples comparison to the last set of numbers from last fall. It’s not a fruitful exercise, given the magnitude of the changes.

“ABC and the industry never intended that ‘total circulation’ to be a metric of success,” John Murray, the Newspaper Association of America’s vice president of audience development told me this week.

That’s because there is a now a whole raft of numbers, a new set collected by publishers, verified by ABC and used, over time, quite differently by advertisers. Trying to understand the difference between the old report and the new report is best done either dead sober or after a six-pack; anywhere in between may leave you wanting. I appreciate Poynter’s Rick Edmonds thorough picking through the changes, the new lexicon and taxonomy, and I won’t repeat his observations.

What’s significant to me about the changes are two big things, one theoretical and one practical, and therein, I think, lie the newsonomics of the new ABC report.

The big picture recognition here, as publishers and major advertisers have wrestled the new system to the ground, is that the age of simple mass is gone. Counting is increasingly about niche. How many of the readers are paid readers of print? How many read e-editions, and, of those, how many read replicas and how many read dynamic products? How many readers get free, but requested, packets of news and ads, and how many readers get the packets because they’ve been targeted (affluent households) just because of where they live? And there’s more nuance than that.

Just as the digital marketing world has increasingly provided agencies and advertisers with a trove of audience data, the print world is slowly responding. While advertisers can only track these differing print niches with differing coupon codes, or a spectrum of differing 1-800 call-in numbers, print at least can be niched in some ways, even though it doesn’t offer the intensive harvesting of data that digital does. Of course, the various e-alternatives, from “online” to tablet to smartphone, are offering advertisers the ability to say “I’ll take this, but not that” and to mix and match print and digital buying as never before. While advertisers could do some picking and choosing before, they were often flying blind and these new categories of circulation counting — verified circulation and branded editions to “requested” or “targeted” delivery — give them better data on which to make those choices. Consider the data advertisers get with this first report just the beginning of new sets of metrics to come.

On a practical level, we can see a couple of fundamental ways the new ABCs will impact the marketplace:

  • Sunday and preprints: Sunday Select is the flavor of the age, as companies from Gannett to McClatchy to Belo eagerly make up for declining paid Sunday circulation with packets of news and ads delivered to non-payers. “Paid is no longer the determinant of value,” says Murray — and that’s a huge change for an industry that long differentiated its ad appeal on the basis of paying customers. If readers opt in (“requested”), that’s a big plus for advertisers. Why? That shows “engagement,” that magic word all online publishers seek. Opt-out (or “targeted”) denotes a little lesser value, but since those being targeted are higher-demographic households, advertisers still like to reach them. In the new stats, though, they’ll be able to see how many paid, how many requested and how many targeted editions got distributed on Sunday. Some will try to differentiate results among the three. I asked John Murray where advertisers are at in tracking the differing results among paid, requested, and targeted, on a scale from one to ten. “I’d put them at 2s and 9s,” he told me, explaining with a couple of numbers how much in transition we are. Some — think Best Buy, for instance — are 9s, trying to track and compare everything, including differing print deliveries. Others are 2s, still essentially buying mass, but planning on doing more tracking over time.

Sunday is huge for newspapers, as a third or more of their revenue is driven by that one day. And preprints, or the Sunday circulars — all those glossy colorful ad inserts from the big box stores — are now make or break for that Sunday take. “Media [reading] habits are changing faster than ad habits,” says Randy Novak, a Gatehouse veteran and now vice president of industry research and relations for Geomentum, a local focused ad agency. “People like to touch those preprints.”

Let’s complete the value circle here. Who loves those preprints? Twenty-five to 44-year-old women, says Murray, and they are coveted consumers. Consider Sunday and its preprints to be the biggest raison d’etre of the new ABCs.

Further, add in a Wednesday or a Thursday midweek market day, says Novak, and you’ve got a newer, winning formula. We begin to see further definition of a strategy that is emerging at daily newspaper companies. That strategy: Sunday print/daily digital, especially tablet, as a coming subscription/ad satisfying program coming to a city near you by 2013-14 (“The newsonomics of Sunday paper/daily tablet subscriptions“). Or Sunday/Wednesday print, and the rest digital. We’re headed there, I believe, as the economics of advertising and the emerging reading habits of news readers merge to forge new revenue and cost-saving plans. (One thing to watch closely in the next sets of ABC reports: How well Sunday print paid is doing.)

  • Proving — and disproving — e-edition value: E-replica editions have been used by some papers to artificially pump up those sagging circulation numbers (“How much can we trust e-edition numbers?“). Publishers have told me privately that while they packaged — and counted — those replica products, only a small percentage of readers actively used them. Starting with the ABC fall report, there will be some effort to count usage — a nod to advertisers who figured out the scheme. In addition, we’re already seeing “replica” and “non-replica” parsed out, which should help separate out the e-chaff. More interestingly, as we see increasingly nuanced reporting of specific tablet and smartphone usage, we’ll be getting an emerging picture both of how news is really being read and how marketers can effectively read readers via these new platforms.

Just as we’re moving away from the One Number for print, we’re emerging from a time of counting those rudimentary uniques and pageviews online, with time spent digitally the big issue of the day for all publishers, but especially for those trying to sell those digital subscriptions. Where we may be headed: Time on Brand, as the biggest — and/or best — news brands try to satisfy readers, and bring along marketers to serve them — on a changing-through-day array of devices.

April 29 2011

14:30

This Week in Review: WikiLeaks’ forced hand, a Patch recruiting push, and two sets of news maxims

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

Leaking gets competitive: WikiLeaks made its first major document release in five months — during which time its founder, Julian Assange, was arrested, released on bail, and put under house arrest — this week, publishing 764 files regarding the Guantánamo Bay prison along with 10 media partners. (As always, The Nation’s Greg Mitchell’s WikiLeaks über-blogging is the place to go for every detail you could possibly need to know.)

That’s more media partners than WikiLeaks has worked with previously, and it includes several first-timers, such as the Washington Post and McClatchy. As the Columbia Journalism Review’s Joel Meares noted, the list of partners doesn’t include the New York Times and the Guardian, the two English-language newspapers who worked with WikiLeaks in its first media collaboration last summer. Despite being shut out, those two organizations were still able to force WikiLeaks’ hand in publishing the leak, as the Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone explained.

The Times got their hands on the documents independently, then passed them on to the Guardian and NPR. This meant that, unlike the news orgs that got the info from WikiLeaks, they were operating without an embargo. As they prepared to publish last Sunday, WikiLeaks lifted its embargo early for its own partners (though the first to publish was actually the Telegraph, a WikiLeaks partner).

The New York Times’ Brian Stelter and Noam Cohen said the episode was evidence that WikiLeaks “has become such a large player in journalism that some of its secrets are no longer its own to control.” But, as they reported, WikiLeaks itself didn’t seem particularly perturbed about it.

Patch’s reaches for more bloggers: AOL seems to be undergoing a different overhaul every week since it bought the Huffington Post earlier this year, and this week the changes are at its hyperlocal initiative Patch, which is hoping to add 8,000 community bloggers to its sites over the next week or two in what its editor-in-chief called a “full-on course correction.”

While talking to paidContent, AOL’s folks played down the degree of change it’s implementing, explaining that these new bloggers (who will be recruited from, among other sources, the sites’ frequent commenters) aren’t disrupting the basic Patch model of one full-time editor per site. In fact, they’ll be unpaid, something that’s been a bit of a headache for AOL and HuffPo lately.

Business Insider’s Nicholas Carlson liked the plan, saying volunteer bloggers can become “extremely effective word-of-mouth marketers” and “excellent pageview machines” with, of course, “manageable” salaries. Others from MediaBistro and Wired were a little more skeptical of the no-pay factor. Lehigh j-prof Jeremy Littau took issue with a more systemic aspect of the new blogs, which will exist both on the writer’s own site and on Patch. Splitting up the conversation with that arrangement won’t be helpful for the individual blogs or for the local blogosphere as a whole, he said: “I see something developing that leads to less population in the local blogosphere and a walled-off system that operates on Patch. At worst, it will lead to parallel and fracture[d] conversations online, which is death when we’re talking about hyperlocal.”

Two new media manifestos: Two New York j-profs — and two of the more prominent future-of-news pundits online these days — both published manifestos of sorts this week, and both are worth a read. Jay Rosen summed up what he’s learned about journalism in 25 years of teaching and thinking about it at NYU, and CUNY’s Jeff Jarvis gave a few dozen bullet points outlining his philosophy of news economics.

Rosen’s post touched on several of the themes that have colored his blog and Twitter feed over the past few years, including the value of increasing participation, the failure of “objectivity,” and the need for usefulness and context in news. But while the ideas weren’t exactly new, the conversation they generated was stimulating. The comments chase down some interesting tangents, and GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram expanded on Rosen’s point about participation, arguing that even if the number of users who want to participate is relatively low, opening up the process can still be immensely important in improving journalism. Rosen also inspired TBD’s Steve Buttry to write his own “what I know about the news business” post.

Like Rosen’s post, Jarvis’ wouldn’t break a whole lot of ground for those already familiar with his ideas, but it summed them up in a helpfully pithy format. He focused heavily on providing real value (“The only thing that matters to the market is value”), the importance of engagement, and finding efficiencies in infrastructure and collaboration. His post contains plenty of pessimism about the current newspaper business model, and Mathew Ingram and FishbowlNY’s Chris O’Shea defended him against the idea that he’s just a doomsayer.

Times paywall bits: The New York Times spent a reported $25 million to develop its paid-content system, and it will be spending another $13 million on the plan this year, mostly for promotion. Women’s Wear Daily detailed those promotional efforts, which include posters around New York as well as TV spots. PaidContent’s Robert Andrews compared the Times’ pay plan to that of the other Times (the one in London, owned by Rupert Murdoch), noting that the New York Times’ plan should allow them to draw more revenue while maintaining their significant online influence, something the Times of London hasn’t done at all (though it’s largely by choice).

Meanwhile, Terry Heaton found another (perhaps more convoluted) way around the Times’ system, tweeting links to Times stories that he can’t access. And elsewhere at the Times, the Lab’s Megan Garber explored the Times’ R&D Lab’s efforts to map the way Times stories are shared online.

And elsewhere in paywalls, the CEO of the McClatchy newspaper chain has reversed his anti-paywall stance and said this week the company is planning paywalls for some of its larger papers, and Business Insider introduced us to another online paid-content company, Tiny Pass.

Apps, news, and pay: In his outgoing post on Poynter’s Mobile Media blog, Damon Kiesow had a familiar critique for news organizations’ forays into mobile media — they’re too much like their print counterparts to be truly called innovative. But he did add a reason for optimism, pointing to the New York Times’ News.me and the Washington Post’s Trove: “Neither is a finished product or a perfect one. But both were created by newspaper companies that put resources into research and development.”

Media analyst Ken Doctor said local news needs to start moving toward mobile media to reach full effectiveness, laying out the model of an aggregated local news app pulling various types of media. For maximum engagement, that app had better include audio, according to some NPR statistics reported by the Lab’s Andrew Phelps.

There may a bigger place for paid apps than we’ve thought: Instapaper’s Marco Arment twice pulled the free version of the app for about a month and found that sales actually increased. He made the case against free apps, saying they bring low conversion rates, little revenue, and unnecessary image problems. Meanwhile, makers of one free app, Zite, said they’re releasing a new version to deal with complaints they’ve been getting from publishers about copyright issues.

Reading roundup: No big stories this week, but tons of little things to keep up on. Here’s a bit of the basics:

— On social media: Facebook launched a “Send” plugin among a few dozen websites (including a couple of news sites) that allows private content-sharing. The Next Web’s Lauren Fisher argued that journalists should spend more time using Facebook, and Canadian j-prof Alfred Hermida wrote about a study he helped conduct about social media and news consumption.

— The Guardian shut down a local-news project it launched last year, saying the local blogs were “not sustainable.” PaidContent’s Robert Andrews said that while the blogs were useful, there are few examples of sustainable local-news efforts, and Rachel McAthy of Journalism.co.uk rounded up some opinions to try to find the value in the Guardian’s experiment.

— The news filtering program Storify launched in public beta this week, prompting a New York Times profile and pieces by GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram and the Knight Digital Media Center’s Amy Gahran on the journalistic value of curation.

— Thanks to its most recent content-farm-oriented algorithm tweak, Google’s traffic to all Demand Media sites is down 40%, which caused Demand stock to slide this week. Google, meanwhile, added some more automatic personalization features to Google News.

— The Lab’s Andrew Phelps wrote a great piece expounding on the journalistic utility of the humble (well, kind of humble) smartphone.

— And for your deep-thinking weekend-reading piece, Harvard researcher Ethan Zuckerman’s thoughtful take on overcoming polarization by understanding each other’s values, rather than just facts.

April 28 2011

15:00

The newsonomics of story cost accounting

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

What’s a story worth?

Last week, I looked at a single investigative story (California Watch’s “On Shaky Ground“), and we saw the tab of half a million dollars for a 20-month-long tale of sleuthing. What about that ordinary daily story, quotidian journalism as we know it — the grinding out of less eventful articles, the kinds of things that keep us informed but don’t offer epiphanies? How much does it cost, and how much does that matter to the future of the news business?

It’s not an academic question. This week, McClatchy added to the long line of down financial reports, telling us that it was down 11 percent, year over year, in ad revenues and 9 percent in overall revenues, for the first quarter. That announcement follows on from similar reports from The New York Times Co., especially its regional properties, and Gannett. The U.S. news industry is extending its unwanted record: 21 straight quarters of revenue down quarter to quarter. That’s a lost half-decade.

Add up those down revenues and the need to maintain profitability — for public or private owners — and there’s but a single answer: cut costs. Certainly, the industry has cut out major costs in the last three years, but cost-cutting is slowing, if you look at the company reports. The New York Times’ costs were flat in the first quarter, Gannett’s down 0.9 percent and McClatchy’s down 6.5 percent. That’s in large part due to rising newsprint prices, making it harder to get costs more appreciably down. With those continuing revenue declines, though, expect more cost-cutting. It’s a given.

So, let’s ask about that daily story. What’s it cost?

Of course, we’ve never looked at it that way. We’ve hired people, told them to write, at times monitoring their production, but rarely taking a look at the cost of what they’re producing. Given the pressures of the day, given the Demand Media model and given the predilection to start counting whatever can be counted (“The newsonomics of WaPo’s reader dashboard 1.0“), story cost accounting is inevitable.

In fact, it’s already started. Let’s take a brief look at what is bound to become a bigger topic in the months ahead, the newsonomics of a single story.

Clark Gilbert, Salt Lake’s dean of disruption, is getting into the nitty-gritty of retooling editorial content production, top to bottom, and that includes getting a handle on differing costs of content. Gilbert is a key part of the team that is transforming the media properties of the daily Deseret News and leading local TV and radio stations KSL, all owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, better known as the Mormon Church. Last August, Gilbert announced one of the most major restructurings in journalism, making major staff cuts — a prelude to the re-architecting now being done. That restructuring includes the launching of Deseret Connect, an initiative to round up pro-am user-generated content from around Utah, and around the globe.

The new CEO of Deseret Media will soon be able to tell you exactly how much articles cost him. He’ll specify the differing price points of local, proprietary content, of AP content, of a blog post written halfway around the world, and lots more.

For now, he draws upon his experience as a Harvard Business School prof and strategic consultant. From that career work, he estimates the following, general cost metrics for the content offered by news companies in print and online:

  • $250-$300 per staff-written story;
  • $100 per stringer story;
  • $25 per Associated Press story;
  • 5-12 for “remote” stories, largely written by the emerging class of bloggers

“You better know your cost per story,” he says. “That’s the kind of rigor you need.”

As focused as he is on building digital ad revenues, he makes the point directly: “You have to work both sides [revenue building, cost reduction] of this.”

“It doesn’t mean I’m not willing to pay for content,” says Gilbert. “I’m paying a boatload for stories that are a commitment to my audience.” It’s a straightforward strategy: If you are going to pay a boatload for some stuff, you better pay a lot less for other stuff.

Still, those numbers are bound to chill many a journalist. You think posting reader metrics in newsrooms is still a point of contention — wait ’til story cost accounting becomes mainstream. And it will. It’s just simple manufacturing, and like it or not, that’s what the news business has long been. Manufacturing, with lots (New York Times, Wall Street Journal) of quality added or with (insert your favorite rag here) just enough to draw ads. News creation used to be a sunk cost, with headcount a small and usually polite battle between editors and publishers. That was in stable times. In these times, knowing business drivers, down to the dollar, is going to be part of the new world.

The metrics-driven thinking may have been first demonstrated by Demand Media, with its $10, $25, and $50 stories (“The newsonomics of content arbitrage“), but once opened, that Pandora’s Box won’t be closed.

Clark Gilbert is early in the game, but others are taking a parallel cost-conscious approach.

John Paton, CEO of the new, continuous-revolution Journal Register Company, breaks it down differently, but is highly cost-aware.

“We’re not looking to save money on local, professional content,” Paton told me this week. Notice the emphasis on “local” and “professional.” Like many others, Journal Register is beginning to round up hundreds of local bloggers (as Patch joins that club), who will be largely unpaid.

What Paton emphasizes, though, in his cost-of-content analysis, is the 60 percent of JRC’s content — across print and digital — that is national. He’s done a careful counting of what’s in his products, and says that while 40 percent is local (above average for dailies, he says), 60 percent is national. So Project Thunderdome, newly headed by D.C. veteran Jim Brady, has put a bullseye on that content. The notion: Lower the cost, and where possible, raise the quality of national content. That thinking is behind JRC’s recent deal with TheStreet.com, which is now providing its national business news. It’s a revenue share, with JRC gaining national revenues. In addition, says Paton, it has increased its local business content-related revenue, given both the new inventory of ad impressions made possible and the quality of TheStreet.com content. That’s a model Paton intends to extend to other non-local content.

Further, he’s taken dead aim at the cost of getting content through the mechanics of a newsroom. Saying that about half of U.S. editorial staffs are engaged in producing content for publication — not creating it — he’s focused on changing that ratio. Instead of five of ten journalists engaged in production, he’s aiming for two of ten, to be accomplished through centralization and templating of the production functions. “Then, two or three more of the ten can create content,” he says.

Both plans will, in effect, reduce the cost of content overall. And, as with Clark Gilbert’s philosophy, the intent is to invest in unique, local, proprietary content, even though it’s far more expensive.

Let’s consider one more take on story cost accounting. As CEO of Huffington Post, Betsy Morgan pioneered the unique brand of higher-end, often personality-driven aggregation that distinguished the site’s offerings. Out of that experience, and in her new role as CEO of Glenn Beck’s The Blaze site, she’s evolved her own metrics. They divide nicely into thirds.

  • One-third original, professional content, largely reported journalism.
  • One-third voice and opinion.
  • One-third aggregation, or to use the updated term, “curation,” as editors aggregate, honing off-site story selection given their understanding of their unique audiences.

Morgan tells me that “the thirds” form both an audience strategy and a cost strategy. Clearly, as the venture-backed HuffPo began its life, it watched its dollars very carefully. That meant that curation wasn’t just an audience-pleasing idea, of course, but a cost-saving one, as bloggers (at least then!) willingly forked over content in exchange for play and recognition, not money.

Going forward, the “thirds strategy” offers another twist on Clark Gilbert’s and John Paton’s (and Arianna Huffington’s) strategies. Obviously, you don’t pay for the curation part, other than for the technologies or smaller staff to handle it. You can pay for some of the voice and opinion, but there’s a hell of a lot of it you can get for free or cheap. And, once again, you concentrate your costs of content on the high end — original, professional, largely reported journalism.

The new AOL/HuffPo’s been doing that with pro hire after pro hire. Morgan herself is doing it, as recently as this week with the hiring of former Denver Post columnist David Harsanyi.

Add it all up, and it’s a new cost structure for the craft of journalism. As with all metrics, the good or bad they inspire depends on who is using them. What’s clear is that those news outfits — local, national or global — which only concentrate on paying staff, like in the old days, will find themselves out-strategized by those who take the blended approach.

Is it all about thirds? No, but it’s a good place to start.

I think of it as a pyramid. Original content — content that distinguishes news brands — is at the top, and, yes, is the most costly. At the bottom is clearly aggregation, because as Morgan points out, “[readers] can’t easily find and read what’s of interest to them.” Then, there’s the middle third or so. For regional news companies, that includes hyperlocal bloggers and subject-specific (transportation, public health, sports) experts; for national sites, it’s non-staff “contributors” of differing skills and costs. That third is quite open to innovation.

It’s a great whiteboard exercise, at least, for anyone in the news business. Pass the marker, please, and work the pyramid.

March 31 2011

14:00

The newsonomics of oblivion

So, how long do newspapers have?

Two years ago, that question was on the lips of many as newspapers cut back deeply — in staff, in number of pages, in the very size of the page, and in selling their very headquarters and flagship buildings — in the depth of Deep Recession. We hear it less now. In part, that’s because many publishers and editors decided writing their own obituaries — talking about the sorry state of their enterprises and detailing the cutbacks for the public — wasn’t smart. In part, like any tired story, we’ve moved on and now occupy ourselves with digital reader payment strategems and with the discussions of how tablets and smartphones are, and aren’t, forever changing journalism.

Yet the question looms in the dark corners, in private conversations, and occasionally bursts into public view: “How long do newspapers have?”

Saturday, in Dallas, I moderated an on-stage conversation between two immoderate forces in daily journalism: The Deseret NewsClark Gilbert, aka “the baby-faced dean of disruption,” as his alternative rival, the Salt Lake City Weekly, has called him; and John Paton, the Digital First, bomb-throwing CEO of the post-bankrupt (and up from cardboard desks and leaky newsroom pipes) Journal Register Company, not long ago the bottom feeder of the industry.

Paton had tossed aside his usual JRC change presentation. Instead, he went with 10 tweets, each, in turn, well-retweeted.

The first and second: “The newspaper model is broken & can’t be fixed” and “Newspapers will disappear in less than 10 years unless their biz model is changed now.”

His point: Piecemeal change is a dead-end, given the converging downward spirals of the business. Only massive, digital-first strategies and re-organizations that scrap old structures, budgets, job descriptions — and, massively, costs — have any hope of porting today’s newspaper companies to that other side of a mainly digital news age.

He’s right, of course. No, not necessarily about the 10-year prediction. It could be five or fifteen, but that makes little difference to the notion. Today’s daily newspaper companies have little chance of surviving in anything resembling tomorrow’s form very far in the future.

In fact, as I talk, privately, to those running the companies, they, too, are largely in agreement. While they talk little publicly these days, the fact remains: You can’t find anyone who says he yet has a proven, sustainable business model for moving forward.

That’s the reason we’re seeing such significant embrace of digital reader walls and fences. The New York Times, the Dallas Morning News, and the Augusta Chronicle all share a goal: get off the road to oblivion and somehow find a new route, a life-saving detour, in uncharted territory. Fear of oblivion is becoming, finally and for more publishers, a motivator for more systematic change. If it works, a new digital reader revenue line could be one important building block of a stable new business model, though it won’t be enough by itself.

Oblivion like the once-famous “revolution” in Gil Scott-Heron’s song won’t be advertised. No one’s going to send out a press release or hold a news conference to say, “It’s over.” Newspapers have numerous fellow travelers among legacy media on the road. As we heard this week, CBS News’ ratings have been in decline since 1992. Somehow we will finally pull the plug on that format, but in the meantime, it’s a long winding-down, marked by lesser and lesser capacity to both do the work of journalism and to see its impacts.

Let’s look at several data points as we explore this notion of the newsonomics of oblivion.

How can we measure the threat of disappearance, of slipping away into history?

Let’s start with this number: 20 quarters. It has been 20 quarters since the U.S. newspaper industry experienced a quarter’s performance that was better than that same quarter a year earlier. It was way back in the second quarter of 2006 that the industry last experienced growth.

Things just keep getting worse, in deep recession, in lesser recession, in timid recovery, and now in a wider economic recovery that has lifted into positive (year-over-year, actual dollar growth) territory all other media that depend on advertising for much of their income. Broadcast and cable TV, radio and magazines have all regained a positive revenue path, as online media’s growth has shot out in the growth lead, the recession itself accelerating the movement of dollars to it.

Gannett’s recent public report, saying publishing division revenues will be down between 6 and 7 percent for the quarter now concluding, is indicative of the continuing deep malaise.

While first quarter industry numbers won’t be publicly reported ’til mid-April, look for them to be down 6 to 10 percent in ad revenue. Print advertising just isn’t recovering. Even good growth rates of 15 to 30 percent in digital — helped by more “online-only,” and fewer bundled-with-print, ad products — can’t come close to making up for print decline. “We’re now growing digital at almost 30 percent,” one CEO recently told me. “But we’d have to grow it at 80 percent or more to make up the [print] losses.”

The numbers suggest that only more cost-cutting retains profitability, which is running 5 to 10 percent currently, the black maintained only by the ongoing staff and other reductions of the past several years. (Witness the recent cuts at Gannett and McClatchy.)

The story is the same throughout the industry, with similar trends in Japan, continental Europe, and the UK; only one of London’s half-dozen quality dailies is even turning a profit these days.

We can look at the models built by Axel Springer. Not well known to Americans, the German publisher is the largest newspaper publisher in Europe, with huge reach overall in 36 countries, including 170 newspapers and magazines, over 60 online offerings for different target groups, and TV and radio properties. In print, it’s the leader in Germany, in both ad revenue and market reach, touching 53 percent of the German population annually. It says it is second only to innovator Schibsted in digital (as percentage of total) revenues.

And yet: Its own forecast future is highly problematic.

By 2020, those extended lines paint a blurry picture, says Gregor Waller, who has just left Axel Springer as vice president for strategy and innovation to start a new digital venture. Waller’s presentation at a recent World Association of Newspapers/IFRA conference is among the best I’ve seen among news publishers. It looks honestly at what’s happening now — and what’s likely to happen — and draws logical, if heart-stopping, conclusions.

Citing the familiar trends of increased advertiser choice, mobile reader migration, the social web revolution, and print decline, Waller’s “conservative” projection forecasts that, by 2020:

  • Print circulation revenue will drop by 50 percent;
  • Classifieds revenue will drop by 90 percent;
  • Display revenue will drop by 30 percent;
  • With online ad revenue, growing at a compounded maximum 11 percent rate, there will be “no way to close the revenue gap with online advertising.”

All of which results in a “huge revenue gap.”

Waller’s conclusion: “Digital advertising will play an important role, but without paid content, publishing houses with a big editorial infrastructure for daily quality news will not survive.”

Which is another way to describe oblivion for the industry as we now know it.

Axel Springer is aggressively testing paid metered models at its Berliner Morgenpost and Hamburger Abendblatt, paralleling The New York Times’ major move this week, and that of more than two dozen U.S. dailies — which have, or soon will, paid schemes.

Waller would be the first to tell you that digital reader revenue isn’t the panacea, but one important piece to creating a sustainable new business model.

John Paton will tell you that digital reader revenue is a distraction, and that the radical restructuring of newspaper companies is their own possibility of finding that future.

They’re both right.

In 2011, it’s a Rubik’s Cube that can’t be solved, with one of Hollywood’s looming, time-ticking-down deadlines. A big twist here, a little one there, and then lots more, we can only hope, will provide a solution. We can be agnostic as to whether that model comes out of the legacy companies, out of cable and broadcast, out of public media, out of for-profit start-ups, or, likely, some combination of those. But we need solutions that provide stable funding for, as Waller puts it, “big editorial infrastructure for daily quality news.”

The threat of oblivion should be a powerful motivator, and we now see — finally — after a decade of decline, its specter moving us away from incremental, “experimental” tests to a fundamental restructuring of the business of news.

Image by Thomas Hawk used under a Creative Commons license.

February 24 2011

15:30

The Newsonomics of the digital mercado

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

It’s as old as organized humanity itself: the mercado, the bazaar, the marketplace. We love to visit Old World marketplaces as we travel abroad. At home, our own shopping is now a mish-mash of malls, big box stores, neighborhood shops, and online commerce. Amazon, itself, is now a $34 billion business, and its Prime delivery program can deliver just about anything (my favorite buy: an electric mower) right to your door, seeming so local.

We can research almost any purchase. We can compare prices. We can get advice and reviews from hordes we’ll never meet.

Yet it’s far from nirvana. Navigating the byways of web commerce, other than great walled gardens like Amazon, can be frustrating. Numerous culs-de-sac interrupt us. Price-comparison sites like Price Grabber, Google Product Search, Shopzilla, and UK’s Kelkoo only seem to give us a partial view of what’s available. It’s tough to know when reviews may be gamed. Sites like preprint-digitizer Shop Local (“Your Local Weekly Ads, All in One Place”), owned by Gannett, seems curiously backwards, like replica E-Edition newspaper products for reading. Trying to compare model numbers, on sites like CNET or Best Buy, can give us digital nervous breakdowns.

Within the infinity of shopping choice, a lot of us would like some order.

That’s what the new Find n Save product aims to provide, and for the benefit of newspaper companies. Find n Save is the latest effort from newspaper companies to reclaim what they consider to be their birthright, maybe a third generation of such marketplaces following the ShopLocals and the earlier Storerunners.

Find ‘n Save focuses us on a decade-old-plus newspaper company problem.

While the daily newspaper — with its display and classified ads, its Sunday circulars, and its Wednesday food coupon – used to be the leading local marketplace, it now is just part of the pack. One number — print ad revenue halved in 10 years to $24.8 billion in 2009 (no final tally is yet in for 2010, which was still lower in single-digit decline) in the U.S. — gives real meaning to this splintering of commerce.

Digital media, with its search-led research/price comparison abilities and, now, with the new couponing craze, has wrought havoc with the newspaper business model.  All of that digital commerce has been disruptive and disintermediating. Yet there’s been more disintermediation (of traditional publisher/merchant relationships) than remediation.

We turn to lots of digital media to research and shop, but we have few go-to places of habit, again with Amazon making the greatest inroads into our shopping lives so far.

From a customer-centric perspective, it’s never been more confusing to find good deals. Yes, they seem to come from every quarter — print circulars, the web overall, direct mail, eBay alerts, Amazon “notifications” — but they’re disordered.

A recent study by the BIA/Kelsey group puts a number on the proliferation of marketplace choice. The annual study points to consumers using an average of 7.9 different media to make buying decisions in 2010, compared to only 5.6 in 2007. Buying’s gotten more complex.

The flipside, of course, is that merchants’ own choices about how to market have gotten more complex (“The Newsonomics of  Eight Per Cent Reach“), with small- and medium-sized businesses using 4.6 media to reach customers in 2010, as compared to 3 in 2007.

So taking a look at Find n Save, let’s look at the Newsonomics of the would-be new mercado, and what it will take to make these new marketplaces bigger business for local media.

McClatchy’s newspapers are the first big clients for Find n Save, a product of Travidia, a long-time player in the print-to-digital ad conversion business. Find n Save replaces Marketplace 360, the company’s former regional marketplace product.

Two big McClatchy papers — its hometown Sacramento Bee and the Kansas City Star — launched Find n Save in November. The company’s other big sites, from the Miami Herald to its North Carolina properties (Charlotte and Raleigh) and the Fort Worth Star Telegram, should feature it by July 1, with the rest of the company’s 30 markets putting Find n Save in place by year’s end. MediaNews’ flagship Denver Post will also launch it soon.

It’s not the only new effort at a regional marketplace.

Find n Save will soon by joined by another regional commerce portal. FYI Philly will launch this spring, in the greater Philadelphia region, two of its principals tell me. It’s conceived as a commerce portal, details to come. Significantly, it’s the result of unprecedented cooperation among four newspaper competitors in that region: Philadelphia Media Network (the new parent of the Inquirer and Daily News), the Journal Register company, Gannett, and Calkins Newspapers.

For Chris Hendricks, McClatchy’s VP/interactive, the Find n Save push is about a grand goal: reclaiming retail advertising. While the destruction of print classifieds has been well chronicled, the steady decline of local retail has been less so. You can figure that retail advertising has declined about $7 billion annually since its 2001 height. Yes, online display advertising has yielded some retail revenue, but doesn’t come close to recreating the lost revenue — or the lost sense of marketplace. 

So Hendricks talks about “blowing up retail” — and reordering it with Find n Save. “People are searching more and more for local services and products,” he says. “And they’re getting more and more confused.”

Find n Save aims to bring some simplicity to that confusion. Take a look at it, and you can see it’s a work in progress. What we notice about it — very prominently — is the deal of the day. Yes, Find n Save aims to take advantage of the Groupon revolution. Some Find n Save sites are partnered with Groupon, while others offer their own deals of the day. The idea is that the deal of the day isn’t just a new ad play, a new revenue source, for news sites; it’s also a new gateway to local commerce. The rest of Find n Save shows its ambitions:

  • It gives prominence to other local couponing, deals without the social must-buy incentives of the daily deal. Subway sandwiches, vacuum cleaners, lots of restaurants, and car care — but all in one place.
  • It incorporates product search, as have previous versions of the product. Consumers can search by product, brand, and store, among other attributes, narrowing or expanding search as they wish, and see where that product is available locally. The big allure, here, is the ability to check whether a product is in stock, at multiple, close-by locations. Search for lamps or shoes or spas, and you’ll find a motley assortment of offers.

So far, the November-launched sites have seen their marketplace traffic “quintuple,” says James Green, chief marketing officer of Travidia and an alum of Raleigh’s pioneering Nando Media. He says that’s due mainly due to “product-centric search engine optimization,” providing a new level of prominence in Google search results. If that base can keep growing, Chris Hendricks sees the sites becoming commercial magnets. Possible new, related streams can include display ads, offering prominence and placement, charging local retailers for ingestion of their inventories and conversion of their print material generally and topical directories, he says.

“Deals are the content,” says Hendricks. He notes, for instance, that news sites’ attempts to connect up editorial content with restaurant directories — using newspapers’ unique and core strengths — hasn’t produced the dividends many of us thought they would. Forget the packaging of feature content with ads; just focus on the ads.

So what can we make of this step forward?

Well, it’s a step, but probably many more are needed. Fronting a site with coupons makes some sense, and will pull in additional audience. Yet the overall research and shopping experience will have to be fuller if these are to become go-to sites with masses of local buyers.

It’s hard to know how many years we are away from the perfection of commerce — you know, getting each of us the kinds of timely and meaningful shopping offers that bring order out of the digital shopping chaos. Certainly, though, here is some of what will be needed:

  • Broader, deeper databases of products: That’s simple to say, and hard to achieve. I asked James Green whether Find n Save is a breakthrough product. Not yet, he said, saying that there’s not yet “enough conversion.” That translates as product search being too spotty; provision of retailers’ real-time inventories is still a work-in-progress. If we as consumers run into more dead-ends than usable deals, we’ll stop coming back.
  • Reviews and recommendations: Find n Save contains none. In a world of imperfect knowledge, we love seeing what dozens of others think of products and services, just like in the early mercados. What’s new, good, and fresh? Throw out the reviews that are outliers, and we’ve got a better-than-even shot of making a better buying decision. Sites without them lack the critical component found in sites from Amazon to Best Buy to Yelp.
  • Preferences and customer knowledge: While some of us are highly concerned about privacy, many others say, ‘Just use your tracking to give me what I want — including deals — and stop spamming me with useless ads.’ So the ability to state preferences and to have my digital behavior intelligently watched — for my benefit — will be a big differentiator.
  • A great tablet product. James Green says Find n Save’s mobile app will be ready soon. Apps are, of course, becoming a price of admission for mobile customers. More importantly, the winning local marketplace will figure out how to combine deep, broad shopping info, social reviews, deals — and to fully embrace the interactive and visual capabilities of the tablet. Just as the iPad — and its newer cousins — are the big do-over opportunity for news companies’ reader business models, they’re also literally a blank slate for the new mercado.

Who will build it? It could be a Travidia, or an Amazon or a Google or a Facebook or a Flipboard-for-commerce so far unborn. There are billions of dollars baiting the hook.

February 10 2011

15:00

The Newsonomics of overnight customers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our four psychologies:

The psychology of the overnight customer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Forrest Gump psychology

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

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

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

The psychology of the maze

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

The psychology of the psych-out

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

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

January 20 2011

21:00

The shakeup at MediaNews: Why it could be the leadup to a massive newspaper consolidation

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

Back in the early 1990s, Dean Singleton predicted that ultimately there would be just three newspaper companies left standing, and he intended his MediaNews Group to be one of them.

It was an audacious prediction, because at the time, after a decade of wheeling, dealing and sometimes ruthless management, MediaNews Group still consisted of just a dozen newspapers, and the company’s board meetings, as he was fond of saying, “could be held in the front seat of a pickup truck.” But Singleton often repeated his prediction of industry consolidation, and it was the driver behind MediaNews’s growth into the sixth largest newspaper company (in terms of circulation) over the past 15 years. Today MediaNews has 54 daily newspapers with a total of 2.4 million weekday circulation. (On its own site, MediaNews claims to be the “second largest media company,” but that’s a double stretch: Its properties are nearly all newspaper entities, and, by my count, Gannett, Tribune, News Corp., McClatchy and Advance have more daily paid print circulation — and are certainly all bigger media companies than MediaNews.)

MediaNews’s growth was accomplished not only through acquisitions but through innovative regional partnerships such as the California Newspaper Partnership, and was paid for through a complex and ever-changing leverage structure put together by the financial wizardry of Singleton’s associate Joseph “Jody” Lodovic IV.

But over the past few years, opportunities for Singleton to pursue his vision came to a halt. MediaNews could not outrun the ticking clock of debt accumulation; revenues plummeted; newspaper values tumbled; and lenders threatened foreclosure. Lodovic engineered a strategic and very quick bankruptcy that wiped out $765 million in debt by placing nearly all of the company’s stock in the hands of the former bondholders. Remarkably, the bankruptcy reorganization left him and Singleton in charge and with a small equity stake, plus the opportunity to earn back an equity position up to 20 percent. They also had theoretical control in the form of the power to appoint a majority of the board.

The shakeup

It was an unusual outcome — in other major newspaper bankruptcies, the lenders have imposed new management. For example, there have already been several changes at the top in Tribune’s ongoing bankruptcy process; at Freedom Communications, longtime chief Burl Osborne was replaced by Mitchell Stern, whose background includes CEO stints at Fox Television Stations, Inc. and Direct TV; at the Phildelphia Media Network, the publisher of the Inquirer and Daily News, Greg Osberg, a veteran of Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report, was handed the reigns; and at the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Michael Klingensmith, a longtime Time Inc. executive, became CEO following the paper’s emergence from bankruptcy.

And then there is Journal Register Company, which emerged from bankruptcy in August 2009 and was once known as one of the most rapacious of publishing firms. “Tell me a Jelenic story,” Singleton would ask new refugees from Journal Register hired by one of his papers, referring to the sometimes ludicrous anecdotes of skinflint budget management attributed to Journal Register CEO Robert Jelenic and his lieutenant, CFO Jean Clifton. But under its post-bankruptcy CEO, John Paton, Journal Register Company has become a forward-thinking, innovative organization with a digital-enterprise management style, and has even instituted a profit-sharing plan which was on track, as of October, to make a substantial year-end payout.

So given that the normal pattern is for the post-bankruptcy owners to dump the old leadership team, it should not be surprising that the MediaNews creditors-turned-owners considered Singleton and Lodovic to be on probation. And it turns out that their trial period is over. On Tuesday, MediaNews announced a shakeup in which Lodovic (who has no street-level newspaper or digital operating experience, and whose financial skills were no longer relevant in the post-bankruptcy structure) was ousted and Singleton was reassigned to “executive chairman of the board” — ostensibly with strategic and deal-making responsibilities described specifically as “opportunities to optimize the company’s portfolio of properties and consolidation opportunities in the newspaper industry.”

On the surface, this looks like a way for Singleton to pursue his vision of consolidation, something he alluded to at the time MediaNews emerged from bankruptcy. But in reality, the shakeup robs him of nearly all his clout. The Singleton-Lodovic appointees to the MediaNews board are gone, replaced by new directors representing the stockholders group led by Alden Global Capital, a hedge fund firm which has acquired a large, though not controlling, stake. Several interim executive positions were also filled by people related to Alden or its parent, Smith Management LLC. While Singleton may have ideas for strategic consolidations, without Lodovic he lacks the necessary financial engineering savvy, and without control of the board, he can’t make anything happen. The new title for Singleton looks and feels like a face-saving ambassadorial position.

Consolidation?

So the question becomes, what will happen next? For clues, it is worth digging into Alden Global Capital and a web of investment cross-connections that tie it and several other hedge funds and investment banks to most of the major newspaper firms that have experienced bankruptcies in the last few years.

Consider the following list of investment banks, hedge funds and investment managers that have been reported to be involved in various bankrupt or post-bankrupt publishing companies (note, though, that because most of these are private investments by relatively secretive players, it’s not possible to know whether all of them are still involved as listed, or what their ownership percentages are):

MediaNews Group: A large stake is held by Alden Global Capital; the reorganization was led by BankAmerica and involved 116 lender-creditors.

Philadelphia Media Network (publisher of the Inquirer and Daily News): Alden Global Capital, Angelo, Gordon & Co, Credit Suisse, Citizens Bank, CIT Group.

Journal Register Company: Alden Global Capital, JPMorgan Chase.

Freedom Communications: Alden Global Capital.

Tribune Company: Alden Global Capital, Angelo, Gordon & Company, Greywolf Capital, Oak Tree Capital Management, JPMorgan Chase. (Note, in this case, the players are not on the same page yet, with Alden and others filing suit against JPMorgan and others.)

Minneapolis Star-Tribune: Angelo, Gordon & Company, Credit Suisse, Wayzata Investment Partners.

Postmedia Network Inc.: The Canadian group acquired the newspaper holdings of bankrupt Canwest Global Communications Corporation with backing from Golden Tree Asset Management as well as Alden Global Media and a number of smaller investment funds. John Paton, CEO of the above-listed Journal Register Company, serves as an advisor and recruited its CEO, Paul Godfrey, a media executive who also did a stint as CEO of the Toronto Blue Jays.

Morris Communications: The lone publisher with no apparent overlapping investors shared with the others; its principal creditor in bankruptcy was Wilmington Trust FSB. But Wilmington is a bank, and in most of these cases the banks have been flipping their holdings to the hedge funds.

Clearly, Alden is the outfit with the most skin in the game, having investments in MediaNews, Freedom, Philadelphia Media, Journal Register, Freedom, Tribune and Postmedia. (Incidentally, as a further extension of this network, JP Morgan Chase, which has been involved in the Tribune, Freedom and Journal Register reorganizations, is the largest stockholder at Gannett, with a 10.2 percent “passive” investment.)

With all these interrelationships among investors and “distressed” newspaper firms, it’s not hard to see why Dean Singleton might say that achieving some kind of “consolidation” will be a full-time job. Still, it seems unlikely that Singleton will get to pull the strings, when the money behind the interlocking investment structures is controlled by billionaire Randall Smith, Alden’s founder, who built his fortune through investments in junk bonds and distressed properties. Alden acquired most of its newspaper stakes through its Alden Global Distressed Opportunities Fund, which it launched in 2008 and which is now worth nearly $3 billion. Alden has offices in New York, Dallas, Dubai and Mumbai, along with a tax-haven presence on the Channel Island Jersey.

The tip of the iceberg of consolidation shows in rumors of a possible merger between Freedom and MediaNews. This would be of strategic value particularly in California, where MediaNews already controls about 26 percent of the newspaper market by circulation through its California Newspaper Partnership created by Singleton and Lodovic. MediaNews, Gannett and Stephens Media Group all contributed newspapers to the partnership, in which each firm holds a proportionate equity stake and profit share, but which is controlled and managed by MediaNews. Combining MediaNews and Freedom would add another 7 percent, bringing the total to 33 percent. Antitrust is unlikely to be a big hurdle, since the MediaNews and Freedom holdings compete only at territorial margins and the continuing decline in newspaper revenue and circulation is a sufficient argument for the need to consolidate.

Alden could be seeing the California opportunity not only as a chance to find additional cost savings through production efficiency, but more importantly as a way to gain revenue through market share, both in print and online. Conceivably, because of Alden’s role in Tribune, the Los Angeles Times could end up as part of the partnership as well, boosting the consortium to about half the state’s paid circulation.

This California consolidation opportunity could be used as a model for similar possibilities elsewhere. For example, in New England, a combination of MediaNews, Journal Register and Tribune would have properties in Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts — totaling about 25 percent of circulation in those states, on a par with the current California partnership. On a countrywide basis, the companies in which Alden appears to have a stake and some degree of influence, as detailed above, have about 15 percent of all circulation and if fully merged, would be about 10 percent bigger than the current champion, Gannett. Gannett currently holds only about 13 percent of total circulation, and when compared with most other media such as television, cable, radio and magazines, the patchworked map of newspaper ownership and its lack of concentration of ownership both now seem outdated and inefficient. Singleton’s early vision of three principal players owning most of the newspaper landscape is increasingly likely.

But it must be done right. Strategic geographic consolidations, if operationally led (one hopes) by someone of Paton’s caliber, could be a potent force for the rejuvenation of the industry, including a renewed focus on what, after all, is the principal product and potential strength of all three companies: local journalism, along with Paton’s strong emphasis on digital-first, print-last thinking.

MediaNews’s own statement on the reorganization seems to echo this: “These measures will strengthen the company’s performance in its core markets, and continue the transformation of the business from a print-oriented newspaper company to a locally focused provider of news and information across multiple platforms.”

It’s really the last hope for the newspaper business, but a pessimistic view is possible, of course. Randall Smith, Alden’s CEO, is a shrewder and more sophisticated financial engineer than Lodovic was as Singleton’s second-in-command, and Alden’s ultimate interest is in earning a strong return on its investments, not in the future of journalism, so its strategy is at heart a financial one. And, yes, consolidation will come at the cost of jobs.

But Smith also knows that the only way to win his big bet on the future of newspapers is to turn them into nimble, modern digital news enterprises, and even Singleton (who rarely touches a computer) seems to agree.

Let’s hope they both listen to Paton, who said in a December speech:

Stop listening to newspaper people. We have had nearly 15 years to figure out the Web and as an industry we newspaper people are no good at it. No good at it at all. Want to get good at it? Then stop listening to the newspaper people and start listening to the rest of the world. And, I would point out, as we have done at JRC – put the digital people in charge – of everything.

Disclosure: I worked for MediaNews Group for 13 years as a publisher in its newspapers in Pittsfield and North Adams, Mass. and Brattleboro, Vt. In a previous post, I asked whether Singleton could steer MediaNews to a digital future.

January 13 2011

15:30

The Newsonomics of 2011 news metrics to watch

[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.]

In the digital business, the old aphorism — “If you can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist” — is rapidly moving from article of faith to fundamental operating principle. Measurement systems are just getting better and better.

Yes, there are still quite a few naysayers in the digital news business, those who believe that editorial discretion is superior to any metric the digital combines can kick out. They’ll say you can’t measure the quality of journalism created — and, of course, they are partly right. The truth of the moment is that good (to great) editors, armed with good (to great) analytics, will be in the winners in the next web wars. The same is true for digital marketers working for news companies. Unless they combine their knowledge of markets, customers, and advertisers with often real-time numbers about performance, they’ll lose business to those who do.

The counting of numbers, though, is tricky. So many numbers, so little time, as 24/7 digital keystrokes stoke endless reams of data. Which ones to count, and which to pay closest attention? Meaningful numbers, of course, are called metrics, and meaningful interpretation of those numbers we now call analytics. These analytics, discovered or undiscovered, then drive the business, and they are particularly important in great times of change, when whole industries move profoundly digital. As that old investigative reporter Sherlock Holmes said, “Data. Data. Data. I can’t make bricks without clay.”

In the spirit of the new year, let me suggest some of the more valuable emerging metrics for those in the news business in 2011. Further, in that spirit, let’s pick 11 of them. These aren’t intended to be the most important ones — the mundane price of newsprint, trending up recently, still is a hugely influential number — but ones that are moving center stage in 2011.

1. How much are news companies getting for tablet advertising? Or, in more numerical terms, what’s the effective CPM, or cost-per-thousand readers? In 2010, those with tablet news products reaped a small windfall, gaining rates as high as $150 per thousand readers, which would be 20 times what many of them get for their website ads. Much of that business was “sponsorship,” meaning that advertisers paid simply for placement, not actually based on number of readers. It was the blush of the new, and the association with it, that drove that kind of money. While early 2011 pricing is still very good, as the tablet market goes mass, what will happen to the rates news companies can charge advertisers? This is a huge question, especially if tablet news reading does hasten movement from ad-rich newsprint (see “The Newsonomics of tablets replacing newspapers“).

2. What percentage of unique visitors will actually pay for online access? It’s going to be a tiny percentage — maybe one to five percent of all those uniques, the majority tossed onto sites by search. If it’s less than one percent, paid metered models may be of little consequence. At two percent, especially for the big guys, like The New York Times with its imminent launch, the numbers gets meaningful and model-setting.

3. Where are the news reading minutes going? The Pew study showing that Americans are reading news 13 minutes a day more, probably given smartphone usage, was a thunderbolt — a potential sign of growth for a news industry that has felt itself melting away. With tablet news reading joining even more smartphone reading (only 20 percent of cellphones are “smart” right now), each news company will have to look at its logs to see which readers are reading what with what kind of device — which will tell where reading is increasing and where (let’s guess, print) it is decreasing. Then comes the job to adjust products accordingly.

4. How good are the margins in the fast-developing marketing services business? Tribune’s 435 Digital, GannettLocal, and Advance Internet are among the leaders selling everything from search engine marketing and optimization to mobile and social to local merchants. It’s a big shift for big newspaper companies used to selling larger ticket ads to relatively few customers. There is no doubt that local merchants want help in digital marketing. The number to watch for the newspaper companies is their margin on sales — after paying off technology partners from Google to Bing to WebVisible. Once we see how those margins settle in, we’ll know whether marketing services is a big, or small, play to find local news company profit growth.

5. How much of digital revenue is being driven by digital-only ad sales? McClatchy has been a leader in unbundling print/online sales, with digital-only now approaching 50 percent. That’s a big number for all media companies to watch. Not only is the market pushing them to offer unbundled products, but the sooner they sell digital separately on its own merits, the faster they grasp the growing business and slowly cut the cord to the declining one.

6. How much of news traffic is now being driven by Facebook and Twitter? A few companies, including The Washington Post, know daily how much of their traffic is driven by social media; many others have little clue. Those that do watch the number know that Facebook and Twitter are the number one growth driver for news “referral” traffic, and that social traffic (friends don’t let friends read bad news) converts better to more regular readership than does search traffic. This metric then pushes newsrooms to more greatly, and more quickly, participate in the social whirl.

7. How much will membership grow at the highest-quality, online-only local news start-ups? MinnPost just hit 2,300, an impressive number, but it’s been a three-year road to get there. It is hiring a membership director and trying to better convert regular readers to members. The Texas Tribune is pushing toward 2,000 and Bay Citizen 1,500. Can membership be a significant, and ramping, piece of the new news business model, or will it have to look elsewhere — advertising, syndication, events, more grants — to find sustainable futures?

8. How many titles — and readers — is Journalism Online able to bring into its Press+ network? Journalism Online has moved from a question mark to a well-situated player in the iPad-fueled universe of paid content. Its Press+ network offers the promise of that elusive “network effect” — but only if it gets real scale.

9. How much “extra” do news companies charge for digital access? Okay, every publisher wants to be paid for news content. But as they test out pricing, they’re all over the board in how much to charge. Some want to charge as much for digital as for print; others are willing to throw in digital access for “free” if readers maintain print. The number to watch is one probably about 10-20 percent higher than print alone — as an opt-out upsell — and see how much that sticks with print readers. If that works, new “circulation” revenue helps replaces some of that disappearing ad money — and provide a route to a time of mainly digital, partially paid access.

10. What’s your cost of content? No journalist likes to be thought of as a widget producer, but news is a manufacturing trade, as the Demand Media model has shown us. How can news companies lower the cost of content while creating more? That’s why we see new Reuters America deals, Demand partnerships, more user-gen, more staff blogging. Editors are more needed than ever to make quality judgments about new content, but they and their business leaders must understand what content — high-end and low — really costs to produce.

11. How much do you spend on analytics? Ultimately, investing in the collection and interpretation of data is a big test of news companies’ ability to play digital. I’ve noted (“The Newsonomics of the FT as an Internet retailer“) how the Financial Times has set the pace for the industry in establishing a new team of (non-newspaper) people to run its analytics arm. That operation now numbers 11, up from nine last year. A good beginning metric for any news company to ask: How much money are we investing in understanding our business with the tools of the day?

December 22 2010

17:00

Keeping Martin honest: Checking on Langeveld’s predictions for 2010

Editor’s Note: This year, we’re running lots of predictions of what 2011 will bring for journalism. But our friend Martin Langeveld has been sharing his predictions for the new-media world for a couple of years now.

In the spirit of accountability, we think it’s important to check back and see how those predictions fared. We did it last year, checking in on his 2009 predictions. And now we’ll check in on 2010.

Check in next year around this time as we look back at all the predictions for 2011 and how they turned out.

Newspaper ad revenue

PREDICTION: At least technically, the recession is over, with GDP growth measured at 2.8 percent in Q3 of 2009 and widely forecast in Q4 to exceed that rate. But newspaper revenue has not followed suit, dropping 28 percent in Q3. McClatchy and the New York Times Company (which both came in at about that level in Q3) hinted last week that Q4 would be better, in the negative low-to-mid 20 percent range. This is not unexpected — in the last few recessions with actual GDP contraction (1990-91 and 2001), newspaper revenue remained in negative territory for at least two quarters after the GDP returned to growth. But the newspaper dip has been bigger each time, and the current slide started (without precedent) a year and a half before the recession did, with a cumulative revenue loss of nearly 50 percent. Newspaper revenue has never grown by much more than 10 percent (year over year) in any one quarter, so no real recovery is likely. This is a permanently downsized industry. My call for revenue by quarter (including online revenue) during 2010 is: -11%, -10%, -6%, -2%.

REALITY: CLOSE, ONE CIGAR. Actuals for Q1, 2, and 3: -9.70%, -5.55%, – 5.39%. And Q4, while not a winner, will probably be “better” than Q3 (that is, another quarter of “moderating declines” in news chain boardroom-speak). So, a win on the trendline, and pretty close on the numbers.

Newspaper online revenue

PREDICTION: Newspaper online revenue will be the only bright spot, breaking even in Q1 and ramping up to 15% growth by Q4.

REALITY: CLOSE, ONE CIGAR. Actuals for Q1, 2, and 3: +4.90%, +13.90%, and +10.7%. Since Q1 beat my prediction and was the first positive result in eight quarters, I’d say that’s a win, and pretty close on the ramp-up, so far. Q4 might hit that 15%.

Newspaper circulation revenue

PREDICTION: Newspaper circulation revenue will grow, because publishers are realizing that print is now a niche they can and should charge for, rather than trying to keep marginal subscribers with non-stop discounting. But this means circulation will continue to drop. In 2009, we saw a drop of 7.1% in the 6-month period ending March 31, and a drop of 10.6 percent for the period ending Sept. 30. In 2010, we’ll see a losses of at lest 7.5% in each period.

REALITY: HALF A CIGAR. Actual drop in the March 31 period was 8.7%; actual drop in the Sept. 30 period was 5.0%. So, half a win here.

Newspaper bankruptcies

PREDICTION: I don’t think we’re out of the woods, or off the courthouse steps, although the newspaper bankruptcy flurry in 2009 was in the first half of the year. The trouble is the above-mentioned revenue decline. If it continues at double-digit rates, several companies will hit the wall, where they have no capital or credit resources left and where a “restructuring” is preferable and probably more strategic than continuing to slash expenses to match revenue losses. So I will predict at least one bankruptcy of a major newspaper company. In fact, let’s make that at least two.

REALITY: CORRECT — TWO CIGARS. Well, MediaNews Group filed its strategic bankruptcy in January, as did Morris Publishing. So this was a quick win. Canwest Ltd. Partnership, publisher of 12 Canadian papers, filed in January as well.

Newspaper closings and publishing frequency reductions

PREDICTION: Yup, there will be closings and frequency reductions. Those revenue and circulation declines will hit harder in some places than others, forcing more extinction than we saw in 2009.

REALITY: WRONG. Nope, everybody managed to hang on, nobody of any size closed.

Mergers

PREDICTION: It’s interesting that we saw very little M&A activity in 2009 — none of the players saw much opportunity to gain by consolidation. They all just hunkered down waiting for the recession to end. It has ended, but if my prediction is right and revenue doesn’t turn up or at least flatten by Q2, the urge to merge or otherwise restructure will set in. Expect to see at least a few fairly big newspaper firms merge or be acquired by other media outfits. (But, as in 2009, don’t expect Google to buy the New York Times or any other print media.)

REALITY: WRONG. Google didn’t buy the Times or any other newspaper, but by the same token, there were no significant mergers or acquisitions all year. So much for Dean Singleton’s promise of “consolidation” in the industry after MediaNews emerged from its quick bankruptcy.

Shakeups

PREDICTION: Given the fact that newspaper stocks generally outperformed the market (see my previous post), it’s not surprising that there were few changes in the executive suites. But if the industry continues to contract, those stock prices will head back down. Don’t be surprised to see some boards turn to new talent. If they do, they’ll bring in specialists from outside the industry good at creative downsizing and reinvention of business models. Sooner would be better than later, in some cases.

REALITY: NOT FLAT WRONG, BUT NOT CLOSE. Perhaps the closest any company came to truly shaking things up was Journal Register Company, which in January appointed as its CEO John Paton, an executive with experience in Hispanic media. He’s not an outsider, but he’s preaching a very different gospel that includes a clear vision for a web-based future for news. Elsewhere, Tribune, still dealing with bankruptcy, tossed CEO Randy Michaels, not for strategic reasons but because accusations of sexism and other dumb behavior were “tarnishing” the company’s name.

Hyperlocal

PREDICTION: There will be more and more launches of online and online/print combos focused on covering towns, neighborhoods, cities and regions, with both for-profit and nonprofit bizmods. Startups and major media firms looking to enter this “space” with standardized and mechanized approaches won’t do nearly as well as one-off ventures where real people take a risk, start a site, cover their market like a blanket, create a brand and sell themselves to local advertisers.

REALITY: CORRECT. This is happening in spades. AOL’s Patch launched hundreds of sites. It may be a “standardized” approach, but it’s not “mechanized,” and hired more journalists than any company has in decades. At the same time, one-off ventures continue to sprout in towns and cities everywhere.

Paid content

PREDICTION: At the end of 2008, this wasn’t yet much of a discussion topic. It became the obsession of 2009, but the year is ending with few actual moves toward full paywalls or more nuanced models. Steve Brill’s Journalism Online promises a beta rollout soon and claims a client list numbering well over 1000 publications. Those are not commitments to use JO’s system — rather, they’re signatories to a non-binding letter of intent that gives them access to some of the findings from JO’s beta test. Many publishers, including many who have signed that letter, remain firmly on the sidelines, realizing that they have little content that’s unique or valuable enough to readers to charge for. JO itself has not speculated what kind of content might garner reader revenue, although its founders have been clear that they’re not recommending across-the-board paywalls. So where are we heading in 2010? My predictions are that by the end of the year, most daily papers will still be publishing the vast majority of their content free on the Web; that most of those experimenting with pay systems will be disappointed; and that the few broad paywalls in place now at local and regional dailies will prove of no value in stemming print circulation declines.

REALITY: CORRECT. Most papers are still publishing the vast majority of their content free on the web. ALSO CORRECT: Broad paywalls have done little to stem the decline in print. JURY STILL OUT: But it’s too soon to tell whether those experimenting with paywalls are disappointed. All eyes are on the impending paywall start at the New York Times.

Gadgets

PREDICTION: The recently announced consortium led by Time Inc. to publish magazine and (eventually) newspaper content on tablets and other platforms will see the first fruits of its efforts late in the year as Apple and several others unveil tablet devices — essentially oversized iPhones that don’t make phone calls but have 10-inch screens and make great color readers. Expect pricing in the $500 ballpark plus a data plan, which could include a selection of magazine subscriptions (sort of like channels in cable packages, but with more a la carte choice). If newspapers are on the ball, they can join Time’s consortium and be part of the plan. Tablet sales will put a pretty good dent in Kindle sales. One wish/hope for the (as yet un-named) publisher consortium: atomize the content and let me pick individual articles — don’t force me to subscribe to a magazine or buy a whole copy. In other words, don’t attempt to replicate the print model on a tablet.

REALITY: CORRECT, MORE CIGARS. My iPad description and data plan price point were right on the mark. It’s hard to say for sure whether iPad sales have put much of a dent in Kindle sales, since Amazon doesn’t release numbers, but Kindle sales are way up after a price cut. The magazine consortium, now called Next Issue Media, still has no retail product, but it does look like it intends to “replicate the print model on a tablet” rather than recognizing atomization. Meanwhile, the Associated Press is recognizing atomization with its plan for a rights clearinghouse for news content.

Social networks

PREDICTION: Twitter usage will continue to be flat (it has lost traffic slowly but steadily since summer). Facebook will continue to grow internationally but is probably close to maxing out in the U.S. With Facebook now cash-flow positive, and Twitter still essentially revenue-less, could Zuckerberg and Evan Williams be holding deal talks sometime during the year? It wouldn’t surprise me.

REALITY: WRONG, MOSTLY. Twitter is still fairly flat in web traffic, but it’s growing via mobile and Twitter clients, so its real traffic is hard to gauge. No talks between Twitter and Facebook, though.

Privacy

PREDICTION: The Federal Trade Commission will recommend to Congress a new set of online privacy initiatives requiring clearer “opt-in” provisions governing how personal information of Web users may be used for things like targeting ads and content. Anticipating this, Facebook, Google and others will continue to maneuver to lock consumers into opt-in settings that allow broad use of personal data without having to ask consumers to reset their preferences in response to the legislation. In the end, Congress will dither but not pass a major overhaul of privacy regs.

REALITY: CORRECT. Indeed, we don’t have any major overhaul by Congress, but we’re actually seeing more responsible behavior from all of the big players with regard to privacy, including better user controls on privacy just announced by Microsoft.

Mobile

PREDICTION (with thanks to Art Howe of Verve Wireless): By the end of 2010 a huge shift toward mobile consumption of news will be evident. In 2009, mobile news was just getting on the radar screen, but during the year several million people downloaded the AP’s mobile app to their iPhones, and several million more adopted apps from individual publishers. By the end of 2010, with many more smartphone users, news apps will find tens of millions of new users (Art might project 100 million), and that’s with tablets just appearing on the playing field. During 2009, Web readership of news (though not of newspaper content) overtook news in printed newspapers. Looking out to sometime in 2011 or 2012, more people will get their news from a mobile device than from a desktop or laptop, and news in print will be left completely in the dust.

REALITY: JURY STILL OUT, BUT LOOKING CORRECT. To my knowledge, nobody has a handle on how many news apps have been sold or downloaded, but certainly it’s in the tens of millions, counting both smartphone and tablet apps. One the other hand, a lot of people with apps on their phones don’t use them. As to where mobile ranks among news delivery media, the surveys haven’t picked up the trends yet, but wait till next year.

Stocks

PREDICTION: I accurately predicted the Dow’s rise during 2009 and that newspaper stocks would beat the market (see previous post), but neglected to place a bet on the market for 2010, so here goes: The Dow will rise by 8% (from its Dec. 31 close), but newspaper stocks will sink as revenue fails to rebound quarter after quarter.

REALITY: ON THE MONEY. As of mid-afternoon December 15, the Dow is up 10.19% for the year, so I claim a win on that score. The S&P 500 is up 11.11%, and the NASDAQ is up 15.63%. Among newspaper groups, McClatchy (up 33%), Journal Communications (up 26%) and E.W. Scripps (up 44%) handily beat the market, but all the other players indeed sank or underperformed the market: New York Times Company is down 23%, News Corp. is up 5%, Lee Enterprises is down 30 percent, Media General is down 30% and Gannett is up 4%.

October 21 2010

14:00

The Newsonomics of the ad recovery

[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.]

Reading the news about the news business, you may have missed this: advertising is booming, again. Well, booming may be too strong a word, but overall, it’s growing. Unfortunately, the news about the news ad business is still negative. Not as negative as the negativity of last year — down 27 percent for 2009 — but still down in single digits over 2009. Being less negative than last year is good, it’s better, but my math doesn’t add that up to a positive.

So what we have here is a trend that’s held true from boom to bust through tepid recovery: newspaper companies’ continue to be the laggards, losing market share in ad revenue, by the week, month, and year.

This week’s reports from The New York Times Co., Media General, and McClatchy, and last week’s from Gannett, all point to the same numbers with a minus sign in front of them. Let’s look at the numbers, and the newsonomics of the ad recovery.

Overall ad spending is up 2.5 to 4 percent through the first nine months of the year, and forecasts call for it to come in at that rate for the full year.

Let’s pick that apart.

Local TV advertising is up 13 percent in 2010, according to BIA/Kelsey. National broadcasting is putting up double-digit numbers. Cable advertising is growing in single digits. Radio’s up about 6 percent.

Even magazine advertising, subject to similar doldrums as newspapers, was up 5.3 percentin the third quarter, its second consecutive quarter of positive growth.

Digital advertising picked up its pace rapidly at the beginning of 2010: up 11.3 percent over the first half of the year to $12.1 billion, according to the Interactive Advertising Bureau. This digital growth is a long-term trend — online advertising is now a close No. 3 among advertising media in the U.S. (behind TV and newspapers). It’s surpassed TV, to become No. 2 in the UK, and surpassed newspapers to become No. 2 in Japan. (See The Newsonomics of online ad trending.)

As an aside, consider how much faster Google is growing than the online ad market, from which it derives almost all its revenue. In the third quarter, Google reported revenues of $7.29 billion — a 23-percent year-over-year increase.)

Now back to newspaper advertising. Gannett’s publishing revenues dropped 4.8 percent in the third quarter, while the The New York Times Co. was down 2.7 percent. McClatchy saw a 5.7-percent decline. Media General had even more problems: down 7.6 percent in pub revenues. Gannett’s and Media General’s revenues, overall, were helped by owning broadcast properties, as Media General’s 18.4-percent increase in broadcast helped it report an overall increase in year-over-year revenues. Broadcast revenues at Gannett were up 22.3 percent.

Why the great disparity between newspaper — meaning print newspaper — and the rest of the recovering ad world? We won’t take the space to parse it here and now. Suffice it to say that the long-term declines in classified categories — auto, real estate, and recruitment — have hurt the industry greatly. Now, though, even retail advertising is “coming back” quite unevenly, the bumpy road to recovery New York Times CEO Janet Robinson highlighted in her third-quarter report remarks.

The possible silver lining of the newspaper reports: Some digital revenue reports were on a par or better than the growth of online advertising overall. That hasn’t been the case consistently over the past couple of years, so the the latest numbers offer a ray of hope for the future.

If online advertising grew 11.3 percent overall, then compare that to the 3Q growth rates (not quite apples to apples, but not far off) at the New York Times Company (15 percent), Gannett (10 percent), MediaGeneral (15-22 percent, depending on how you count it) and McClatchy (1 percent). Those numbers indicate that some of those newspaper companies are doing a better job of selling digital advertising.

My talks with publishers and online directors point to several reasons for that good performance, ones long in discussion, but now becoming more routinely operational. The No. 1 reason: Publishers have simply focused more resources on selling digital products. They are also increasingly un-bundling products, not forcing as many print/digital buys. And, of course, they’re putting themselves in position to get spending in the fastest growing ad category — online — and devoting fewer resources to mining print revenues, which are declining in general.

So here’s the rub, and the conundrum. Newspaper companies are now pedaling as fast as they can, trying to get as digital as they as fast as they can, because that’s what the growth in ad dollars is happening. The New York Times Company says that 27 percent of its ad revenue is now driven by digital, and that’s up three points year over year. So it has a quarter of its ad business in the new world, and three-quarters in the old world. Add it up, and you get those negative numbers overall. The trick of the next several years: pedal (and peddle) even faster on the digital bike, while stoking the steady, if slowing train of print — and pray that the train doesn’t run out of coal too quickly.

October 14 2010

14:30

The Newsonomics of replacement journalism

[Each week, our friend Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of the news business for the Lab.]

Finally, we’re seeing light on the horizon. Journalism hiring is picking up.

The second half of the year has so far produced TBD’s hiring of 50 in Washington, Patch’s push to pick up 500 journalists across the country, and the new alliance for public media plan to hire more than 300 journalists in four major cities, if funding can be found in 2011. In addition, the brand-name journalist market has suddenly flowered, as everyone from National Journal to the Daily Beast to Bloomberg to AOL to the Huffington Post to Yahoo compete for talent. These are bigger numbers — and more activity — than we’ve previously seen, though they build on earlier hirings from ProPublica to California Watch to Bay Citizen to Texas Tribune to MinnPost and well beyond.

It’s a dizzying quilt of hiring, in some ways hard to make sense of, as business models (how exactly is Patch’s business model going to succeed? what happens when the foundation money dries up?) remain in deep flux. Yet, amid the hope, now comes this question: Are we beginning to see “replacement journalism” arriving?

Replacement journalism, by its nature, is a hazy notion. We won’t see some one-to-one swapping for what used to be with something new. Replacement journalism will though give us the sense that new journalism, of high quality, is getting funded, somehow, and that the vacuum created by the deepest cut in reporting we’ve ever seen is starting to be filled. It is an important, graspable question not just for journalists and aspiring journalists welling up in schools across the country, but also for readers: Are we beginning to see significant, tangible news coverage in this new, mainly digital world?

So, let’s assess where we on, on that road to replacement journalism. Let’s start with some numbers. Take the most useful census of daily newspaper newsroom employment, the annual ASNE (American Society of News Editors) census, conducted early each year and next reported out at its April 2011 conference. ASNE’s most current number is 41,500. That’s down from 46,700 a year earlier, from 52,600 in 2008 and from 55,000 in 2007. So, over those three-plus years, that’s a loss of 13,500 jobs, a 25-percent decline.

As we consider what’s been lost and what needs to replace it, we’ve got to look as much at possible at reporting. That news-gathering — not commentary (column or blog) — is what’s key to community information and understanding, fairly prerequisite in our struggling little democracy. While we don’t know how many of those 13,500 jobs lost are in reporting, we can do some extrapolation. Using that same ASNE census, we see that a little less than half (45 percent or so) of newsroom jobs are classified as reporting, while 20 percent are classified as copy/layout editors, 25 percent as supervisors and 10 percent as photographers and artists. So — while not undervaluing the contributions of non-reporters — let’s say, roughly, that half the jobs lost have been reporters. That would mean about 6,750 reporting jobs lost in three years.

Okay, so let’s use that number as a yardstick, against a quick list of journalist hiring:

  • Investigative and extended enterprise reporting: It’s tough to come up with any one number for investigative or long-form reporting in newspapers or in broadcast. We know that many newspapers and broadcasters have cut the investment in staff here, though, through the carnage of staff reduction. (One indication: “The membership of Investigative Reporters and Editors fell more than 30 percent, from 5,391 in 2003, to a 10-year low of 3,695 in 2009″, according to Mary Walton in the American Journalism Review.) Into this breach have come the new ProPublica, the restyled Center for Investigative Reporting (with its California Watch, most notably) and the growing Center for Public Integrity in Washington, D.C. They are joined by smaller centers from Maine to Wisconsin to California. Loss: Probably in the high hundreds. Gain: Probably in the small hundreds. Net: We’ve seen real high-quality replacement journalism, but need more, especially on the community level.
  • Washington, D.C. reporting: Dozens of D.C.-based reporting positions have been lost over the last several years, certainly, and the number may stretch into the hundreds. For awhile, the biggest news was that the Al Jazeera bureau was among the fastest-growing. Now, of course, there’s the goldrush in government-oriented reporting as the newly emboldened (and funded) National Journal group and Bloomberg Government add a couple of hundred positions, and join Politico in the D.C-based fray. With both new efforts still in formation, we’re not clear what kind of reporting they’ll do. If it’s mainly government-as-business (Bloomberg’s seeming model) and/or if it’s mainly behind pay wall, then then this new stuff will be less replacement-like. Covering public policy implications for all of us nationally, and the particular impacts on those of locally, is a key, yawning need. Loss: Significant. Gain: Substantial. Net: Unclear we see the words on our screens in 2011.
  • Hyperlocal reporting: The biggest news here is Patch, of course. With 500 sites in various stages of rollout, we can’t yet assess how much new reporting — and of what quality, what depth — will be added back, replaced. Add in the redeployment of many metro staff reporters from Hartford to Dallas to L.A., and the fact that smaller community dailies and weeklies have weathered the storms better than bigger papers. Loss: Uncountable, but real across the country. Gain: With Patch and with the re-attention of metros to smaller communities through staff redeployment and blog aggregation, it’s now substantial. Net: One of the most promising areas in replacement journalism.
  • Metro-level reporting: The devastation seems clearest here, with newspapers like the San Jose Mercury News cut to 125 newsroom staffers from 400 a decade ago, and many other dailies down by 50 percent or more. The bulk of cuts, as well chronicled by Erica Smith at Paper Cuts, appear to be at metros — and they are continuing; witness recent job losses in Sacramento and Miami and at USA Today. On the positive end of the ledger, the TBD-Bay Citizen-Voice of San Diego-MinnPost-Texas Tribune-Chicago News Cooperative parade has added real journalistic depth in selected markets. Yet, unless they grow substantially from the dozens they are — the public media push, though only in formation, is the most promising here — there’s a low replacement ratio. This is the biggest conundrum in front of us: how do we maintain current newsroom staffing of 340 at The Boston Globe or 325 at The Dallas Morning News, against the ravages of change? Loss: Huge. Gain: Spirited and of noteworthy excellence. Net: Biggest gap to fill — and the gap may be widening still.

“Replacement journalism,” of course, is a tricky term, and maybe only an interim notion — a handle that helps us from there to here to there. By the very nature of digital and business disruption and transformation, we have to remind ourselves that the future is never a straight line from past to future, and that it will offer us great positive surprises as well as continuing disappointments. William Gibson’s enduring line sums that up: “The future is already here. It’s just not evenly distributed.”

Photo by Matt Wetzler used under a Creative Commons license.

October 04 2010

14:00

John Walcott makes the switch to online, but wants to bring some traditional-media virtues with him

The whole newspapers vs. aggregators war of attrition doesn’t make much sense to John Walcott. As he sees it, newspapers have always been aggregators. So what’s the big deal?

“The New York Times motto, ‘all the news that’s fit to print,’ minus a few words — ‘all the news we see fit to print’ — is aggregation,” Walcott told me.

That kind of thinking may explain why McClatchy’s D.C. bureau chief is saying goodbye to newspapers and hello to SmartBrief, which compiles daily news summaries across a variety of industries, usually in partnership with a major industry association. In his new role as SmartBrief’s chief content officer and editor-in-chief, Walcott brings 38 years of experience at newspapers to a company that produces an online-only product. (We should note it’s also a company that has had Walcott on it’s advisory board for several years.)

Walcott says he sees little difference between the worlds of the daily newspaper and SmartBrief. The goal with both, is providing readers with “information that is timely and trustworthy to make their decisions.” What makes SmartBrief different is the way they approach that audience, through aggregation, curation, summaries, and links. Walcott says that could be a good model to emulate in the media business. “When you present a summary and a link you are offering readers a choice: Do I care enough to read about this?” he said. “That’s a pretty efficient way to gather information.”

Assembling those summaries takes what Walcott calls “intellectual rigor and honesty in deciding what are important stories.” It also demands a measure of trust from your audience, knowing that you’re going to provide reported, qualified information — in other words, a relationship not unlike the one readers have traditionally had with traditional media.

Walcott knows all about traditional media, having led Knight Ridder’s D.C. bureau before McClatchy’s purchase of the chain and previously having worked at Newsweek and The Wall Street Journal. He won the first I.F. Stone Medal for Journalistic Independence in 2008 (a prize administered here at Nieman) for McClatchy’s series investigating the Bush administration’s case for war in Iraq.

Of course, SmartBrief’s collection of specifically targeted audiences isn’t the same as a D.C. bureau’s broad, general one. The company curates summaries of the day’s news in industries like accounting, finance, health care, non-profits and technology. The newsletters SmartBrief produces are free to subscribers, thanks to its deals with trade associations, nonprofits, and other industry groups.

As audiences fragment, Walcott thinks media companies would be wise to find ways to tailor what they are doing to specific groups and the ways they consumer information. It’s not just that people want news that’s targeted for them, but it’s also increasingly hard to find that right signal/noise ratio. That makes aggregation all the more powerful, he said. “The job of aggregation as I see it is to drive readers to the source of content,” he said. “If we’re doing our job right, people producing the best content will benefit from that.”

Despite an increasingly flow of traditional media figures into online outlets, Walcott said he struggled with the idea of leaving newspapers. But he says SmartBrief is taking an active role in figuring out a path to success in media. And that’s something he wants to be a part of.

“At the end of the day the thing I’m trying to do is bring the virtues that good journalism posses and marry them with the new ways people are getting and sharing information,” Walcott said.

August 26 2010

16:00

The Newsonomics of news orgs surrounded by non-news

[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.]

The Washington Post Company has been much in the news recently, but not because of its flagship paper. It’s making news around its other holdings. It has shed Newsweek, staunching a $30 million annual bleed. More importantly to the company’s finances, its Kaplan “subsidiary” has been much in the spotlight, under investigation by the feds, along with other for-profit educators, for fraud around student loans.  Those inquiries have rocked The Washington Post Co.’s share price, sending it to a year-to-date low.

The Post’s case has also refocused public attention on how much the company is dependent on Kaplan revenues. Those revenues now amount to 62 percent of revenues, and 67 percent of profits. It became clear to even those who hadn’t been watching closely that the Post was more an education company than a newspaper one, though the family ownership of the Grahams clearly intend to use that positioning to protect and sustain the flagship paper.

The Post case is not an isolated one. Fewer news companies are, well, “news” companies in the way we used to think of them. More news operations find themselves within larger enterprises these days, and I believe that will be a continuing trend. It could be good for journalism — buffering news operations in times of changing business models — or it could be bad for journalism, as companies whose values don’t include the “without fear or favor” gene increasingly house journalists. That push and pull will play out dramatically over the next five years.

Let’s look, though, at the changing newsonomics of the companies that own large news enterprises.

Here’s a chart of selected companies, showing what approximate (revenue definitions vary significantly company to company) percentage of their overall annual revenues are derived from news:

News Corp.: 19 percent (newspapers and information services); 31 percent (newspapers and broadcast)
Gannett: 94.3 percent (newspapers and broadcast)
New York Times: 93 percent (newspapers and broadcast)
Washington Post: 21 percent (newspapers and broadcast)
Thomson Reuters: 2.3 percent (Media segment)
Bloomberg: <15 percent (non-terminal media businesses)
AP: 100 percent (newspapers and broadcast)
McClatchy: 100 percent (newspapers and broadcast)
Disney (ABC News): <14 percent (broadcast)
Guardian Media Group: 46 percent (newspapers)

The non-news revenues may be a surprise, but here’s one further fact to ponder: News, over the past several years, has continued to decline in its percentage contribution to most diversified companies. Given all the trends we know, it will continue to do so. Movies, cable, satellite, and even broadcasting all have challenges, structural and cyclical, but overall are all doing better than print and text revenues.

News Corp., the largest company by news revenue in the world with publications on three continents, is a great example. After all, although it is eponymously named, it is not really a “news company.” With only one in five of its overall dollars coming directly from traditional news, it’s much more dependent on the success of the latest Ben Stiller comedy or the fortunes of a blockbuster than on the digital advertising growth of The Wall Street Journal or the paid-content successes — or failures — of The Times of London. These matter, of course, but let’s consider the context.

In February, I wrote about the “Avatar Advantage” that News Corp.’s Wall Street Journal held in its increasingly head-to-head battle with The New York Times. At that point, Avatar had brought in $2 billion in gross receipts for News Corp., whose 20th Century Fox produced and distributed the movie. Now that number has grown by $750 million, to $2.75 billion in total. News Corp. shares that revenue with lots of hands, but what it keeps will make an impressive difference to its bottom line — and to what it can pour into The Wall Street Journal, as CEO Rupert Murdoch desires.

Compare that financial flexibility with the Times, and it’s night and day. The Times Co.’s total 2009 revenues: $2.4 billion, less than Avatar itself has produced. The Times is all but a newspaper pure play, deriving about 5.5 percent of its revenue from non-news Internet businesses, like About.com, after shedding TV and radio stations and its share of the Boston Red Sox.

It may be a one-of-a-kind pure play, in that it is the leading standalone news site and reaches vast audiences globally. Yet its pure-play nature can feel like a noose, which was tightening in the depth of the recession and only feels a lot looser now. The Times’ planned paid-content metering system, for instance, is a nervous-making strategy for a company with relatively little margin of error. Compare that to the revenue trajectories that News Corp.’s London papers may see after their paywalls have been in place for a year. Whatever the results, they’ll have de minimis impact to News Corp. fortunes.

Likewise, McClatchy — another newspaper pure play, like MediaNews, A.H. Belo, Lee, and a few others — is now betting wholly on newspapers and their torturous transition to digital.

While Gannett is heavily dependent on print newspapers, in the U.S. and UK, it has been benefited by the 13 percent of its revenues that come from broadcast. Broadcast revenues — buoyed by Olympics and election-year advertising — were up 18.6 percent for the first half of 2010, while newspapers were down 6.5 percent for Gannett. Broadcast may be a largely mature medium, too, but for the print news companies that haven’t jettisoned properties gained in an earlier foray into broadcast diversification, it has provided some balm. In addition to Gannett, MediaGeneral and Scripps are among those holding on to broadcast properties.

For the bigger companies, the consequences are more nuanced. I call these large, now globally oriented (in news coverage, in audience reach and, coming, in advertising sales) The Digital Dozen, twelve-plus companies that are trying to harness the real scale value of digital distribution.

The Digital Dozen’s Thomson Reuters is a great example. Until 2007, Reuters was a standalone, a 160-year-old news service struggling with its own business models in this changing world. Then, with its merger with financial services giant Thomson, it now contributes less than a tenth of TR’s annual revenue. That kind of insulation can be a good thing, both as it figures out how to synergize the Reuters and Thomson business lines (a complex work-in-progress) and to allow investment in Reuters products and staffing, even as news revenues find tough sledding. Meanwhile, its main competitor, AP, may have a strong commercial business (broadcast and print) worldwide — but it’s a news business, with no other revenue lines to provide breathing room.

National broadcast news, too, has seen rapid change, and much staff reduction in the past few years. GE, one behemoth of a diversified company, is turning over the NBC News operation to another giant, Comcast. ABC News is found within the major entertainment conglomerate Disney.

Meanwhile, Bloomberg — getting more than eight out of 10 of its dollars via the terminal rental business — is moving aggressively to build a greater news brand; witness the Business Week acquisition, and its push into government news coverage, formally announcing the hiring of 100 journalists for its Bloomberg Government new business unit. Non-news revenue — largely meaning non-advertising dependence — is what may increasingly separate “news” companies going forward. So we see the Guardian Media Group selling off its regional newspapers to focus, as its annual report proudly announces, on “a strong portfolio [of non-news companies and investments] to support our journalism.]

Journalism must be fed — but inky hands will be doing less and less of the feeding.

Image by John Cooper used under a Creative Commons license.

August 05 2010

14:00

The Newsonomics of the fading 80/20 rule

[Each week, our friend Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of the news business for the Lab.]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few of the numbers:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 15 2010

15:00

The Newsonomics of the dead cat bounce

[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.]

The season’s upon us, as newspaper and media companies announce their second-quarter earnings. At least some of the companies will announce: fewer than used to a couple of years ago, as Tribune has gone private (and banko), metros like Philly and Minneapolis have moved to private hands, MediaNews releases less information than it used to, and Dow Jones’ results are less decipherable, aggregated within News Corp. news division results.

Still, Gannett — the largest U.S. newspaper company — leads off Friday. The New York Times Co. follows on July 22. McClatchy comes in on July 29. We’ll also hear from A.H. Belo, Scripps, Lee, and Media General, dates TBA.

Let’s get ahead of it a bit and see what we can look for in the announcements and what that will mean for the news industry. Let’s look at a newsonomics primer of this struggling industry as the rest of the economy haphazardly improves around it.

I could call this post “The Newsonomics of newspaper quarterly earnings reports,” but much better is the story of the moment: How much will newspaper companies tout — and how will the reduced-but-remaining corps of those who cover the industry report — how positive their dead cat bounce is. “Dead cat bounce” is a phrase you hear — confidentially — from some newspaper executives. It’s an old Wall Street term, observing that even long-declining stocks will bounce a bit sometimes.

Let’s recall that last year’s ad revenue results had all the spring of a dead cat — down some $10 billion and 27 percent. So take a dead cat and pump a little life in it, with things less worse than they were in the disastrous 2009 and you get a bit of a bounce — but not one to crow about. Unless, that is, you don’t have much else to crow about, and that’s that’s the predicament, circa mid-2010, of most newspaper companies. They don’t have a big, positive story to talk about.

So, consider this a parsing guide to what we’ll hear in the next month:

  • How much was the second quarter down from 2Q 2009? First-quarter numbers were down largely in single digits, and that seemed a relief after comparable double-digit declines. We heard such CEO parsing as “improvement in comparables” and hopefully spun statements such as “Domestic classified advertising was just seven percent lower than March a year ago.” The problem: The rest of the economy, and even the TV and online ad economies, are all showing real growth — and taking market share from newspapers. Newspapers’ continuing inability to find real arithmetic growth doubles down on the theory that these revenue changes are more structural than cyclical — and that the Great Recession may have accelerated newspapers’ downward fortunes. Are there any positive growth numbers to report? Which categories may be turning positive — maybe national or retail display ads — as the sagging economy continues to plague the traditional classified strengths of auto, recruitment, and real estate?
  • How much will the prepared remarks focus on cost or debt reduction and how much on revenue growth? Play Earnings Bingo and count the comments involving “debt reduction” or “cost restructuring” as compared to “growth.”
  • How much of revenue is now coming from digital, and what’s the digital growth rate? Most newspaper companies increased their percentage of overall revenue attributed to digital to the 12-15 percent range in 2009 — but that was largely because print revenues dropped so precipitously. The news industry is becoming more digitally oriented, but still has a long way to go. Still, it’s a useful percentage to know; few companies report it routinely, but often mention it in Q&A. Most importantly, is the digital business growing, and at what rate, after being just north or south of flat in Q1? Such growth is key to these companies’ future.
  • How much of that digital revenue is coming from digital-only sales? McClatchy CEO Gary Pruitt was the first to make a point of digital-only sales, as it approached half of total digital revenue. Pruitt’s right; it’s an important barometer of where the business is going, not where it’s been. Since the mid-’90s, the industry has been overly reliant on “bundled” ad packages of print/online. Now as the digital marketing revolution matures, a number of companies — often spurred by the Yahoo Newspaper Consortium — are really pushing online-only packages.
  • How much revenue is coming from emerging marketing services business initiatives? Tribune and Gannett are among the leaders at selling website building, search engine optimization services, and more to small and medium-sized businesses. Will we hear about this big new push — and how many dollars it is starting to drive?
  • Is there any circulation revenue growth? Circulation numbers have continued to plummet, while newspaper companies have priced up substantially. The overall notion: Get long-standing, habituated print subscribers to pay more of the freight. For The New York Times, the strategy has worked and circulation revenue has continued to grow (up 11 percent in Q1). For other companies, Gannett (circ revenue down 5 percent) and Lee (down 4 percent), the math isn’t working as well. Pricing up and losing both revenue and circulation numbers that are the lifeblood of selling advertising is not the outcome desired. So watch circulation revenue numbers in the reports. If they’re still negative, that’d be an indication that newspapers’ circulation pricing power is waning.
  • Do we hear any strategies discussed for the second half of 2010 or into 2011? Any iPad/tablet plans or development? The discussions surrounding the earnings calls can focus just on numbers, sometimes arcanely so, or get into actual strategies that may lead from the tepid now to a better tomorrow. How much strategy do these companies have and/or are willing to share with investors?

Image by Eric Skiff used under a Creative Commons license.

June 03 2010

15:00

The Newsonomics of commercial crowdsourcing

[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.]

There are no new ideas in the digital business, just ones recycled from earlier dreams — ones that vaporware couldn’t make work, but newer technologies can.

Take business directories, for instance. The idea built huge Yellow Pages businesses, businesses now mature and, well, yellowing. You know you need a service — fix a broken water heater, a sore tooth, a cranky marriage — and you knew where to turn; let your analog fingers do the page-turning. Classic, order-taking annuity business. The web comes along and the Big Yellows, SuperPages and dozens of others — huge and small — take the print Yellow Pages business online. Of course, they struggle with the new medium, adding not much value, and usage is low; business growth is challenged. Angie’s List, Yelp and OpenTable come along, eating away the edges.

Now we’re seeing a next generation, best symbolized by PaperG’s new PlaceLocal product. In a nutshell, PlaceLocal creates instant ads for a business, drawn from the best of the available information out there on the web — photos, user reviews, basic address, phone, hours, menus.

It gives publishers — TimeOut, Hearst TV, and McClatchy are three of the first companies testing it — the ability to create ads on the fly, spec ’em out and use their sales staffs to do the selling. Victor Wong, one of the young geniuses behind the PaperG’s innovation — its first product, FlyerBoard, simply updated for the digital age the old notion of the ubiquitous kiosk flyers found around college campuses — tells me he thinks PlaceLocal will be a bigger product. It should sell for a higher rate, and that’s what his publisher customers are hoping. Initial rates — we’re talking about smaller businesses which aren’t frequent advertisers — run in the hundreds up to a thousand dollars monthly. That $1,000 target would more than double the pricing of the FlyerBoard product, a key in PaperG’s growth plan as the company of a dozen plus leaves the friendly confines of New Haven for Silicon Valley North, San Francisco.

Why a higher rate? Well, it’s potentially a highly actionable piece of commerce. As the commercial world moves increasingly beyond online display ads (a fairly static category of spending), beyond paid search (where almost half of today’s digital ad dollars are spent), to cost per call and various flavors of cost per acquisition, a PlaceLocal-kind of product — expect many knockoffs — is well-positioned.

One big lesson here for everyone to get their heads around. This is commercial crowdsourcing. Why outsource the collection, organization and checking of “directory data,” as numerous Yellow Pages companies have done over time, when you can have the crowd do it — for free. It’s using the web, as a whole, to find, value, and associate commercial content. We can see roots of Google PageRank, Demand Media content organization and Yelp user reviews in the thinking behind the product.

Newspaper companies have cut the cost of their ad production markedly over the last several years, as they’ve outsourced to companies like 2adpro, Affinity Express and Express KCS, with much of the work done in India. Those companies have made it possible for newspaper companies to cut their print (and increasingly online) ad production — often at union wage — costs by 40 percent or more. Now, a PaperG comes along, with a new kind of disintermediation notion, replacing that outsourcing with websourcing. Of course, we don’t yet have an apples-to-apples comparison of the advertising done the traditional way — asking a business what they want to sell and creating the ad from there — vs. the web-scraping PlaceLocal will test out. PaperG takes a revenue-share percentage of the ad sold, so publishers will have lots of comparisons to make on ad quality, ad effectiveness, net profit, and the ability to sell new customers.

My Newsonomics Law 9 — “Apply the 10-percent rule; the heavy lifting of journalism can be aided and abetted by smart use of technology” — comes into play here. Sometimes it takes 10 percent of the effort it used to to create news products — through smart aggregation, for instance. In this commercial case, we’re seeing a different twist on the 10-percent rule, and one that bears watching as city-based news and entertainment operations look for new revenue streams as the older ones morph rapidly.

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