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April 04 2013

12:47

April 03 2013

18:50

The newsonomics of the Orange County Register’s contrarian paywall

angel-stadium-cc

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. A paywall without discounted digital access

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

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

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

2. Time-based digital access

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

3. Day passes

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

4. All archives open to the public

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 03 2011

17:00

California Watch expands south with a new partnership

The nonprofit California Watch, just shy of its second birthday, opens its new Southern California bureau today — and the location says something about the evolution of the news business.

A reporter and community engagement manager will be leaving the outfit’s Berkeley headquarters and taking up residence in the newsroom of the Orange County Register. And the rent is unbeatable: free.

“As traditional newsrooms have cut back, they have been left with vast stretches of open space inside their newsrooms or buildings,” said Mark Katches, editorial director for California Watch and its parent organization, the making the announcement last month. “We are able to capitalize in a way that benefits our organization and our hosts.”

A couple of years ago, when California Watch was new and unknown, the outlook for this kind of team-up might not have been so sunny. The O.C. (don’t call it that) Register, for one thing, might have viewed California Watch simply as a competitor encroaching on its turf. Other reporters setting up shop here, digging for the same dirt?

No longer, though: Now, they’re teammates. (The Register already pays annual licensing fees to run California Watch stories in its own pages.) “There’s just so much news in California that, two years in, there really has not been a case where we have overlapped,” says Robert Salladay, California Watch’s senior editor. “I think that alleviated a lot of fear on the part of reporters and our partners.”

Not everyone they talked to was as receptive to a team-up as the Register, Salladay said, but at the same time, California Watch was actually getting partnership invitations from some papers. “The situation with newspapers is so critical. I think everyone’s happy for the copy, happy that stories are getting done. It is a much more collaborative industry now,” Salladay told me. “I can imagine that, 10 years ago, this model just wouldn’t have flown at all.”

The Center for Investigative Reporting launched California Watch in fall 2009 to do the kind of time-consuming, data-driven reporting that many newspapers can’t afford anymore. Since then, the site has launched its own initiatives: a statewide distribution network, a radio partnership with public broadcasting giant KQED, and a television unit that works in collaboration with WGBH’s Frontline and ABC News. In addition to more than 1,200 news posts last year, the site pumps out, on average, three investigative pieces a month, Salladay told me — and a half-dozen major series a year.

Financially, California Watch continues to subsist on grants from foundations, but the organization is raising some revenue, as well. In January, the outfit changed the way it charges for its content. Members of the California Watch Media Network — among them the San Francisco Chronicle, the Sacramento Bee, and, yes, the Orange County Register — now choose from a menu of stories each year and pay membership fees that vary according to their circulation and audience reach. (Previously, California Watch negotiated the price of each story, a la carte.) Salladay would not disclose the membership rates, but he said it can’t be so much that a newspaper can’t afford it. Newspapers’ financial struggles, after all, are the reason California Watch exists in the first place.

California Watch’s move into Southern California is overdue, Salladay said — especially because it’s where most Californians live. “One of the reasons we want to be in Southern California is that here are a lot of neglected communities that don’t get a lot of coverage, so we’re hoping to get out to some of the smaller communities to do a lot of work on low-income people, disadvantaged communities, work on the border, work on migrant farmworkers. You’d be surprised how many small towns there are down there that aren’t being watched. I think with what the L.A. Times found with the city of Bell, there’s a lot of fruitful work that can be done.”

Looking beyond Orange County, Salladay would also like to get a reporter in Los Angeles, add a border bureau in San Diego or Imperial County, and maybe hire a staff photographer. In just two years, now with 25 employees, California Watch has become the largest investigative reporting team in the state. The organization’s biggest challenge now, Salladay said, is staying on mission.

“We have to constantly remind ourselves that the mission is investigative reporting — looking at waste, fraud, and abuse,” he noted. “There’s a great temptation to pull ourselves away for some great mini-scandal somewhere or some great enterprise story about a social issue. We want to do those, but I think it’s important for us to stay focused.”

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.

April 21 2011

14:00

The newsonomics of a single investigative story

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 week to celebrate great investigative work. ProPublica made some history with its Pulitzer for online-only work about the financial meltdown, and the Los Angeles Times crowned its success with the larger-than-life Bell corruption tale, winning its own top prize. Both well deserved.

Meanwhile, as journalists sat around their terminals awaiting the Pulitzer bulletin, an investigative series broke across California, perhaps reaching more audience more quickly than any previous investigative piece. There were no bodies to count, nor billions or millions of ill-gotten gains to uncover.

Rather, California Watch’s “On Shaky Ground” series is aimed at preventing disaster, getting ahead of the Grim Reaper. The series took a big look at the likely safety issues in the state’s schools when (not if, right?) The Big One hits. It found, not surprisingly, that although state law mandated seismic preparations, all kinds of bureaucratic nonsense has contravened that intent. It found that about 1,100 schools had been red-flagged as in need of repair, with no work done, while tens of thousands of others were in questionable and possibly illegal shape. The so-what: Some of the very institutions providing for the kids of California have a certain likelihood of actually falling on top of them and killing them.

It’s old-fashioned, shoe-leather, box-opening, follow-the-string journalism, and it is well done.

While it’s fun to celebrate great journalism, anytime, it’s vital to look at the newsonomics of this kind of investigative journalism. What did it take to get it done? How much did it cost and who paid for it? And, to look at the plainly fundamental question: How do we get lots more of it done in the future?

The series took more than 20 months to complete. The interactive timeline, “On Shaky Ground: The story behind the story,” tells that tale with tongue in cheek; it’s a great primer for any beginning journalism class. Corey G. Johnson, freshly hired from North Carolina and part of a young reporting contingent that has been mixed and mentored well by veterans like editorial director Mark Katches, stumbles on a list of 7,500 “unsafe schools” as he’s doing a routine story on the 20th anniversary of the Loma Prieta earthquake.

Along the way, the story grows in import and paperwork. California Watch, the less-than-two-year-old offshoot of the Berkeley-based Center for Investigative Journalism (CIR), adds other staff to the effort, including reporter Erica Perez, public engagement manager Ashley Alvarado, distribution manager Meghann Farnsworth, and director of technology Chase Davis, among other reporters.

In the end, the series rolled out in three parts — with maps, databases, historical photos, its own Twitter hashtag, a “My Quake” iPhone app — and a coloring book (“California Watch finds a new consumer group, kids“), intended to reach kids, the most important subject and object of the reporting. Already, the state legislature has scheduled hearings for April 27.

The reach of the roll-out is one of the new lessons here. Six major dailies ran at least some part of the series. ABC-affiliate broadcasters took the story statewide. Public radio news leaders KQED, in the Bay Area, and KPCC, in L.A. ran with it. KQED-TV. The ethnic press signed on: La Opinion ran two seismic stories Sunday and Monday, while at least two Korean papers, one Chinese paper, and one Chinese TV station included coverage as well. More than 125 Patch sites in the state (California is major Patch turf) participated.

A number of the distributors did more than distribute. They localized, using data from California Watch, and reporting on their local schools’ shape. KQED-TV produced a 30-minute special that is scheduled to air on at least 12 PBS affiliates in the state.

San Francisco Chronicle managing editor Steve Proctor is frank about how priorities and resource use have changed in the age of downsizing. When Proctor came to the paper in 2003, he says, the paper had five to seven people assigned to a full-time investigative team. Now there’s no team per se, with the Chronicle investing investigative resources in an “investigate and publish” strategy, getting stories out to the public more quickly and then following up on public-generated leads they create. It’s an adjustment in strategy and in resource allocation — and the California Watch relationship makes it even more workable. “We’ve been pretty sympatico with them from the beginning,” he said. “We’ve used the majority of what they’ve produced.”

So let’s get deeper into some numbers, informed by this series, and see where this kind of work can go:

  • “On Shaky Ground” cost about $550,000 to produce, most of that in staff time, as the project mushroomed. That’s now a huge sum of money to a newsroom, even a metro-sized one. Ask a publisher whether he or she is willing to spend a half a million on a story, and you know the answer you’ll usually get. It’s a sum few newsrooms can or will invest. Consequently, the economics of getting a well edited, well packaged series for a hundreth of that price is an offer few newsrooms can (or probably should) refuse.
  • California Watch, not yet two years old, runs on a budget of about $2.7 million a year. That budget supports 14 journalists, whose funding takes up about 70 percent of that $2.7 million number. That’s an intriguing percentage in and of itself; most daily newspaper newsrooms make up of 20 percent or less of their company’s overall expenses. So, disproportionately, the money spent on California Watch is spent on journalists — and journalism.

The project is about midway through its funding cycles. The ubiquitous Knight Foundation (which has contributed about $15 million to a number of investigative projects nationwide through its Investigative Reporting Initiative), the Irvine Foundation, and the Hewlett Foundation, all of which have provided million-dollar-plus grants, are reviewing new proposals.

The key word, going forward here, is “sustaining.” Will foundations provide ongoing support of the “public good” of such journalism? There’s lots of talk among foundations, but no clear consensus among journalism-facing ones. “There really isn’t a foundation community that thinks with a common brain — same situation as in the news community,” Knight’s Eric Newton told me this week. “Each foundation makes its own decisions using different criteria. Some foundations see their role as launching new things and letting nature take its course.” CIR executive director Robert Rosenthal is among those trying to find a new course. Although he’s a highly experienced editor, he finds that most of his time is found fund- and friend-raising.

  • California Watch is building a syndication business, feeling its way along. Already, six larger dailies — the San Francisco Chronicle, the Sacramento Bee, the Orange County Register, the San Diego Union-Tribune, the Fresno Bee, and the Bakersfield California — are becoming clients, paying a single price for the all-you-can-eat flow of daily and enterprise stories California Watch produces. They, a number of ABC affiliates (L.A.’s KABC, the Bay Area’s KGO, 10 News San Diego, 10 News Sacramento, KSFN in Fresno), and KQED public radio and TV in the Bay Area are also annual clients pay between $3,000 and $15,000 a year each. A la carte pricing for individual projects can run from $3,000 to $10,000. The California Watch media network, just launched in January, is an important building block of the evolving business model. It is clear that while syndication can be a good support, at those rates, it’s a secondary support.
  • So, if California Watch were to be totally supported by foundation money, it would take an endowment of $54 million to throw off $2.7 million a year, at a five percent spend rate. Now $54 million raised one time isn’t an impossible sum. Consider just one gift: Joan Kroc left NPR more than $200 million eight years ago. Consider that the billionaires’ club started by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett (encouraging their peers to give away half of their wealths) is talking about newly raising a half a trillion dollars for the public good. Last summer, I suggested the group tithe a single percentage point of the club’s treasury for news-as-a-public-good. It seems to me that stories like “On Shaky Ground” make that pivotal education/health/journalism connection; send “Shaky Ground” to your favorite billionaire and urge him to sign on.
  • Let’s do some cost-benefit analysis. How much is a single child’s life worth? How about a school of 250? We could consult a liability lawyer, who undoubtedly would put assign a six- and seven-figure number per life, and then tie up the courts, post-disaster, making the math work. So if California, bereft as it is of capital, were to invest in the infrastructure, per its own laws, wouldn’t it be ultimately cost-effective? Of course it would be, and in this case we see in microcosm, the question of American infrastructure writ large. Are we a country that will let more bridges fall into mighty rivers, more schools fall onto our children and more poor roads cause preventable injury and death? You don’t need my political rant here. Rather, let us just make the point that journalism — old-fashioned journalism, newly digitally enhanced — is a key part of forcing America to face its own issues, whatever the solutions.

In this project and in California Watch generally, we see the reconfiguring of local media. An owner — whether AOL, Hearst, or private equity — can hardly reject the offer of paying one-hundreth of the cost for space-filling, audience-interesting content. Welcome to a new kind of content farm, to use that perjorative for a moment. Yes, California Watch operates on the same Demand Media-like principle of create-once-distribute-many, realizing the digital cost of the second copy is nil. Let’s consider it the organic, cage-free content farm. It makes sense for a state the size of a country (California = Canada); smaller versions of it make equal sense for Ohio, North Carolina, or Illinois.

Older media outsources journalism and in-sources (affordable) passion. There are lots of lessons here (“3 Reasons to Watch California Watch“), but that fundamental rejiggering of who does the work and how it is distributed and customized is a key one. As Mark Katches points out, “They [distributing partners] put their voices on our story.” That’s a new system in the making.

Old(er) editors can learn new tricks. For a good show-and-tell of that principle, check out Rosenthal’s talk to TEDxPresidio two weeks ago. I first saw him give the talk at NewsFoo in Phoenix in December. Amid more tech-oriented talks, his stood out and was much applauded. It’s a clarifying call for real journalism, perfected for the digital age. Share it.

January 05 2010

18:00

California Watch: The latest entrant in the dot-org journalism boom

“Ten years ago,” says Mark Katches, editorial director of California Watch, “there were 85 reporters covering the California state house; today there are fewer than 25.”

Katches sees California Watch, which officially launched yesterday after a soft launch period and months of preparation, as stepping into a “big void in doing investigative work in California.” Katches has assembled the largest investigative team in the state: seven reporters, two multimedia producers, and two editors.

The site is focused on investigative watchdog journalism. It won’t cover the ins and outs of the California legislature or other governmental minutiae, aiming instead to “expose injustice, waste, mismanagement, wrongdoing, questionable practices and corruption, so that those responsible can be held to account and the public is armed with the information it needs to debate solutions and spark change.” Besides political topics, the site will cover higher education, health and welfare, and criminal justice.

Assembling the team

Based in Berkeley, California Watch has a four-person team in Sacramento, and hopes to open a Los Angeles office as well. 

The team’s credentials are impressive. Katches is a California native who lived in the state most of his life; he directed investigative teams at The Orange County Register and for the past two years at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The team’s director is Louis Freedberg, a longtime reporter on California affairs for the San Francisco Chronicle and other state and national publications. Senior editor Robert Salladay is a veteran of the L. A. Times; senior reporter Lance Williams has 32 years of California coverage experience and was one of the two reporters at the Chronicle who uncovered the Barry Bonds-BALCO steroid doping scandal.  Web entrepreneur Susan Mernit, a veteran of AOL, Netscape and Yahoo, supplies web strategy. Multimedia guru Mark Luckie (of 10,000 Words fame) is producing content. And longtime Philadelphia Inquirer journalist Robert Rosenthal, director of CIR, and others on the CIR staff supply development and administrative support.

I asked Katches whether California Watch is doling out the kind of salaries reported to be going to the top talent at recent nonprofit startup Texas Tribune ($315,000 to CEO Evan Smith, $90,000 to top reporter Brian Thevenot). “Not even close,” he said. Top California Watch executives are paid closer to what Texas Tribune reporters get, but Katches says the pay scales are competitive and appropriate for the levels of talent and scope of management involved.

The model

The site aims for up to a dozen updates every weekday, including daily blog entries by most staffers. A rotation of four top stories are featured front and center, followed by the “WatchBlog” and an inside-the-newsroom feature. Like The Texas Tribune, the site offers an extensive data center, currently featuring information about stimulus-funding distribution, campaign finance, educational costs, and wildfires. It’s not as extensive or interactive as the Texas Trib databases and document collection, but the intent is to build up its contents over time.

California Watch is a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting, the oldest nonprofit investigative news organization in the country (founded 1977), and joins a growing list of state and regional nonprofits that have in common a serious journalistic mission but take a variety of approaches to funding, coverage and distribution. The highest profile, best-funded members of that list now include The Texas Tribune, MinnPost, the St. Louis Beacon, Voice of San Diego, and (at a national level) ProPublica. “The dot-org boom” is really one of the top journalism stories of 2009, Katches says.

CIR garnered about $3.5 million in funding to start California Watch (roughly the same amount as The Texas Tribune), enough for more than two years of operations at its $1.5 million annual budget. Major funding came from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation [also a supporter of this site —Ed.], the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the James Irvine Foundation.

Going forward, California Watch plans to develop a business model that includes continued philanthropic support, along with revenue from sponsorship, individual memberships, advertising, and licensing. The site is offering its content to the state’s newspapers and other media on a fee basis. One of its first stories during the development period was carried by 25 of the state’s papers, all on the front page. (This fee-based model differs from The Texas Tribune, which is offering its content free to Texas media outlets for now; Texas Tribune also covers day-to-day politics in addition to doing investigative journalism.) California Watch partners with KQED in San Francisco for radio and TV distribution; with the Associated Press for distribution through its Exchange marketplace; and with New America Media for distribution of translated versions to ethnic media.

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