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August 02 2012

14:00

6 Questions for Rafat Ali on Skift.com, His New Travel Startup

Rafat Ali is one of those rare people in the media industry who understands the power he wields with his written words, yet can be so humble and friendly in person. I was struck by that quality in him when we first met probably 10+ years ago when he was first starting the paidContent blog as a one-man operation focused on digital media.

What he accomplished with that site was a lesson for all of us who are running small media ventures, taking a one-man operation and expanding it into a full-fledged online business. Ali received venture funding, expanded staff and built more sites, and eventually sold the site to the Guardian (which later sold it to GigaOm).

rafat mongolia.jpeg

After selling his baby, Ali decided to take time off to travel the world and disconnect from the intense 24-hour news cycle that consumes everyone who lives on Internet time for breaking news. And now that he has resurfaced, his new baby is Skift.com, billed as a "travel intelligence media company."

As he has described the startup on various Mediatwits podcasts (we co-host the show together for MediaShift), Skift will put a laser-sharp focus on the business of travel, the travel business and business travelers, disrupting the current incumbents who cover the industry in a less intense fashion.

We recently connected by email, and he answered my six burning questions about Skift and his plans for the site.

6 Questions for Rafat Ali

1. Why did you decide to target the travel business with Skift? From all your trips abroad?

Rafat Ali: It is in the travel sector, but not really built upon my own travels over the last two years. The cliche is: A startup guy sells his company, goes off to travel the world, and through his experiences during his travel, hits a brainwave in the middle of Mongolia on how to solve all the travel woes in the world. Thankfully, mine isn't that.

My travels inform my worldview on how we want to build Skift, how broadly we look at travel, but the genesis of Skift is more prosaic: We saw a big white space in the travel information industry, and we're attacking it.

2. What lessons did you learn from paidContent, and how did you apply them to Skift?

For one, we're bringing the same energy of the saturation coverage of the digital media industry that we did for years at paidContent, and now bringing it to the world's largest sector: travel. We'll be a digital native, 24/7, breaking news, analysis, opinion, somewhat similar to what we did with paidContent.

Also pC, back when it started in 2002, brought together then disparate silos of the larger media-information-entertainment industries, and with Skift, we're attempting the same with the very large silos of aviation, hospitality, destinations, cruises, technology and others, and bringing them together. The underlying assumption, that these silos will collapse, is the same as paidContent. We'll see if they're borne out.

3. Who are your first investors, and how did you find them?

A long list of 17 angels, 14 disclosed: Chris Ahearn, Luke Beatty, Gordon Crovitz,
Craig Forman, Jim Friedlich, Tom Glocer, Vishal Gondal, Jason Hirschhorn, Peter Horan, Alan Meckler, Mohamed Nanabhay, Sanjay Parthasarathy, Amol Sarva, Chris Schroeder.

These are all very accomplished business execs in the media-tech industry that I've known for years, covered them at paidContent, they spoke at pC conferences, and I have developed relationships with.

So they're betting on us, the team, to build a large media+information+data business in a very large sector.

rafat medillin.jpeg

4. How is it different starting a site in 2012 vs. when you started paidContent?

We realize trying to scale just using media/content will not cut it; we're trying to build a very large travel intelligence company, and that means we have to go beyond what we did at pC.

For us, that means building the company at the intersection of travel and data, and that means first pulling in that data, and then building services on top, all of which we hope the industry will pay for.

Also unlike paidContent, where we tried in small ways to do some crossover stories, with Skift we really will attempt it, aimed on the consumer side at business travelers. While paidContent helped define the digital media industry as it exists now, our ambition was to go deeper into the vertical, not go broad and consumer.

Skift hopes to redefine a new generation of data- and information-heavy media companies, built to break out of the vertical media ghettos and scale.

5. Tell me more about the "studio model" and how much revenue you think you'll get from services vs. ads.

This for us means we'll build a slew of data services, some of which will succeed and some won't. It means we'll be quick to prototype, and quick to discard if it doesn't work -- that's what we mean by studio model. It means we'll learn what the information and services black holes are for the travel industry and professional travelers as we grow, and we'll adapt quickly to address those needs.

We think we'll get a majority of our revenues from services. Ads will be a decent part, both on B2B and especially on the business traveler side. Business travelers are a very addressable and lucrative category for all sorts of advertisers, including travel brands, financial services, luxury and others.

6. Will you ever look at travel the same way again after getting so deep in the weeds on the business side? How will things change?

Great question. I hope I don't lose my sense of wonder in travel. If I can keep traveling to the kinds of places I have over the last two years, then I surely won't, but if I just restrict myself to work and business travel, then I'll always be in work mode!

*****

What do you think about Skift.com and its "studio" business model? Can an upstart disrupt the business travel industry? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian and fiancee Renee. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit. and Circle him on Google+

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July 30 2012

20:41

Rafat Ali on building a media company on top of public data

Ten years ago, Rafat Ali wanted to build a company that could chronicle the transformation of media and technology. Now he hopes to do it again, this time in the world of travel. His new project Skift sounds at first a lot like paidContent: a mix of original reporting and aggregation tailored for a savvy, niche, information-hungry audience.

But this time around, Ali is placing his bet less on a stable of journalists and more on a team of product designers, developers, and, yes, journalists. Skift wants to be a media company in the same way Politico or Bloomberg is a media company: an information provider with a news wrapper. Skift bills itself as a “travel intelligence media company,” not a standalone news site.

Ali told me the way Skift will grow its audience and its fortunes will be through information services, not just news. “What we’re trying to do with Skift is scale quickly on content,” he said. “The more fortunate part for us is everybody covers travel in bits and pieces, so for us it’s a matter of bringing it all together.”

But Skift is more than just a curator of travel news. Ali and cofounder Jason Clampet want to collect a vast data library to build tools that would be useful not just to the travel industry but anyone hoping in a car, train or bus to get away. Ali has funded the site himself up to launch and has raised $500,000 from investors like former Wall Street Journal publisher Gordon Crovitz and former MySpace president Jason Hirschhorn. As designed, Skift — the Swedish word for “shift” — would be a media company built on a stable of products, not just content. “We’re starting with what we’re grandly sort of calling the world’s largest data warehouse of publicly available travel industry data,” he said.

That means things like visit and occupancy information that tourism boards report to the government, departures and delay information from airports, and flight data supplied by airlines to agencies like the FAA. It’s the type of information typically hidden away in Excel spreadsheets on seldom visited agency websites. “We’re gonna try and collect it, clean it, normalize it, put it in a dashboard that humans can understand, and then build services on top,” he said. He said they will also create APIs for the travel data they harness on the site.

Skift has a staff of four, including Ali, and they’ll be announcing the hire of a product development person soon. Ali stresses that as Skift grows they will hire more writers — but the writers will be focused on original reporting, not the things aggregation and curation can pick up more easily. Ali said curation is still an undervalued asset that can prove useful to content creators as well as their audiences. The day-to-day news of airlines’ fuel prices or the ebb and flow of tourism can be aggregated from elsewhere. Ali wants the site to chase the big stories, the airline bankruptcies and innovations in travel tech. “We’ll not get there in the next year, but we’ll get there in due time,” he said.

Ali has been around the media game for a while, having sold paidContent to The Guardian in 2008 and left the company in 2010. He’s gained an insight into how a media business can stay viable today. Focusing on a niche audience is one method of doing that, especially if that audience is highly engaged and willing to spend. Business travelers and travel industry executives are just such an attractive bunch. “We look at business travelers, professional travelers a bit like tech fanboys, where they like to consider themselves like experts in what they’re doing,” he said.

Ali said it’s not enough to simply provide people with news — it has to be valuable or actionable information. It also helps if you can package multiple resources together. In the travel industry, businesses are divided into areas like editorial (travel guides), transactional (booking flights and hotels), and organizational (plan your trip, track your flight). But there’s a fair amount of randomness that goes along with that. You may look up art museums through Frommers, find your flight through Hipmunk, and use GateGuru to navigate airports. “With Skift, on the business traveller side, we’re trying to take the randomness out of the equation and make a more directed way of delivering information,” he said.

Also in the long-term plans for Skift: a membership or subscription service. Ali believes the possibility of better data tools for travel is a step in that direction. But another option would be to create events, something paidContent has had success with. Ali said the they plan to hold one major event, a travel analog to All Things D’s D conference, which would appeal to travel industry executives, travelers, and technologists. “We’re trying to build a crossover media brand, a new kind of media company where the underpinning will be data, and then media as the layer on top of it,” he said.

Image of Rafat Ali by Brian Solis used under a Creative Common license.

15:31

February 10 2012

14:00

Mediatwits #37: Merger Mania: CIR-Bay Citizen; GigaOM-PaidContent; Twitter Censorship

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Welcome to the 37th episode of "The Mediatwits," the weekly audio podcast from MediaShift. The co-hosts are MediaShift's Mark Glaser and Jillian York, who is filling in for Rafat Ali. It's been a crazy week in media + tech, with important mergers abounding! First up is the Center for Investigative Reporting announcing that it will try to merge with another non-profit, the Bay Citizen, making a powerhouse investigative team to cover local, state and national issues. We get all the key players in that deal as guests on the show: CIR chairman Phil Bronstein, CIR executive director Robert Rosenthal and Bay Citizen interim CEO Brian Kelley.

Next up, there's a merger of key tech sites, both started by Indian-born bloggers who turned them into startup businesses. GigaOM announced it was buying PaidContent from the Guardian for an undisclosed sum. The Guardian will get stock in GigaOM's parent company and get a seat on the board. Special guests OM Malik, founder of GigaOM and Staci Kramer, SVP at ContentNext (and sometimes co-host of Mediatwits), talked about the deal and how the "synergy" in this case didn't mean layoffs. And finally, we discussed the recent move by Twitter to censor some tweets in countries that had more stringent free speech controls. Was Twitter right to implement these rules?

Check it out!

mediatwits37.mp3

Subscribe to the podcast here

Subscribe to Mediatwits via iTunes

Follow @TheMediatwits on Twitter here

Intro and outro music by 3 Feet Up; mid-podcast music by Autumn Eyes via Mevio's Music Alley.

Here are some highlighted topics from the show:

PhilBronstein.jpg

Intro

1:00: Jillian York explains her work at the EFF

2:20: Blogs, online forums, social media only places for free expression in many countries

3:35: Rundown of topics for the podcast

CIR and Bay Citizen

4:30: Special guests Phil Bronstein, Robert Rosenthal, Brian Kelley

8:00: Rosenthal: Want to create engaged audience in Bay Area and globally

11:10: Kelley: Should be excellent synergy between organizations

12:45: Kelley: Striking about timing of executive departures, but not connected

17:20: Bronstein: Sustainability is something we talk about every day

GigaOM buys PaidContent

20:00: Special guests Om Malik and Staci Kramer

22:30: Malik: We can now cover a broader spectrum of topics

22:40: Kramer: In this case, synergy won't mean layoffs, cost-cutting

26:30: Kramer: We're not new media, we're media

28:50: How is Om any different than Michael Arrington as VC?

Twitter censoring tweets

32:30: Micro-blog service will comply with rules in other countries

33:45: Is the #TwitterBlackout a good idea?

35:50: York: The laws in the countries are the problem, not the companies' policies

38:10: York: I don't think these companies should be in China

More Reading

Bay Citizen, Center for Investigative Reporting Plan to Merge. Now What? at MediaShift

Bay Citizen in Merger Talks With Another Nonprofit at Wall Street Journal

The Bay Citizen's short, strange saga in nonprofit news could be coming to an end at SF Business Times

Bay Citizen, Center for Investigative Reporting Announce Intent to Merge at Bay Citizen

GigaOM + PaidContent = Perfect Sense at MediaShift

Is GigaOM Buying paidContent? at AllThingsD

Why We Are Buying PaidContent at GigaOM

GigaOM And paidContent Join Forces at PaidContent

Twitter Censorship Move Sparks Backlash: Is It Justified? at Wired

Twitter's censorship is a gray box of shame, but not for Twitter at Reuters

Twitter Censorship: Outkast's Big Boi Involved In Beyonce Tweet Takedown at Huffington Post

South Korean Indicted Over Twitter Posts From North at NY Times

Weekly Poll

Don't forget to vote in our weekly poll, this time about Twitter censoring tweets:


What do you think about Twitter censoring tweets?

Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit. and Circle him on Google+

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February 09 2012

22:10

GigaOM + PaidContent = Perfect Sense

When the U.K.-based Guardian Media Group bought PaidContent in 2008, it was portrayed as an attempt to expand into the U.S. market. The Guardian newspaper was a forerunner in its use of the web, and already got a large portion of its traffic from North America.

But I had trouble seeing why a general interest news organization, even a forward-looking one, would buy what was a essentially network of niche sites geared toward media and technology executives.

Now, a company that's steeped in the businesses of Silicon Valley, GigaOM, has a acquired "the best chronicler of the media industry," founder Om Malik wrote on his blog yesterday. "The ethos of PaidContent and our company are in sync."

The founder of ContentNext Media (PaidContent's parent company), Rafat Ali, who is co-host of this site's Mediatwits podcast, seemed equally pleased.

"Just married the woman of my dreams & the company I founded got the best owner possible. Both after false starts," he tweeted from New Delhi.

When news of the acquisition spread this week, it wasn't a particular surprise to anyone who'd been watching either company over the last several years. It made perfect sense -- and actually, a lot more than the Guardian purchase in 2008.

So, the news signals two things: 1) the formation of a tech media super-group and 2) a shift in strategy for the Guardian.

The Players

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New York-based PaidContent has since its founding in 2002 been one of the leading properties covering the business of media, especially digital. It expanded into coverage of mobile with MocoNews, Indian tech media with ContentSutra, and launched PaidContent:U.K. The sites in January received more than 700,000 unique visitors, according to reports.

The GigaOM network, founded by Malik in 2006, is based in Silicon Valley and covers tech industry verticals such as clean tech, broadband and Apple. It says it receives 4.5 million unique visitors monthly.

Both networks were founded by Indian-born journalists who'd worked in the heady 1990s of New York's Silicon Alley, Ali for Silicon Alley Reporter, Malik for Red Herring and Forbes. Malik moved to Silicon Valley in 2000 to work for Business 2.0.

Ali and Malik are also good friends, and Ali is on GigaOm's board of advisers.

Malik has talked of wanting to try his hand in business after covering it for so long. He worked tirelessly to build his company from a blog covering technology to a network, a research subscription service, and an events company.

Standing with Ali and Malik in the fall of 2007, I heard Ali quietly caution his friend to take care of his health. "Blogging can kill you," I remember him saying. Eerily, a couple months later, Malik suffered a heart attack. He has recovered but is said to be more careful about his work habits today.

Ali, whom I have worked for and with and who is also a friend, has told me of running the business off his laptop both in London and from his apartment in Santa Monica, Calif., where he lived before coming to New York a few years ago.

He, too, worked tirelessly and because of that, PaidContent developed a reputation for never missing a beat. He formed the company almost by accident, having launched it as a way to get a job after Silicon Alley Reporter, and was able to sustain himself with speaking engagements and a few sponsorships.

He hired noted journalist Staci Kramer, who helped him build the site and the staff and became senior vice president at the parent company ContentNext.

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"This is a great outcome of an intense process," Kramer wrote me last night in an email. "Guardian News & Media gave us a great vote of confidence with the initial acquisition and again now by making sure we were matched with the right company, then staying as minority shareholders."

GigaOm Gets Quality Staffers

Malik wrote that the "first and perhaps most important reason" for the deal was "people. I have been an admirer of PaidContent's editorial team from the very beginning of its journey. Rafat Ali and Staci Kramer were two of my favorite writers in the early days of professional blogging."

He also cited others on the team, including Ernie Sander (whom I worked with at the AP), who he said would become "executive editor of our sprawling online editorial operations."

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Together, Ali, Kramer and others built an event business and launched ContentNext Dex, a financial index of media-related sites and a research arm, neither of which seemed to take hold. Ali told an M.B.A. class of mine he visited last year that ContentNext, which he left in 2010, made a significant share of its revenue from events.

After 2008, New York media types sometimes marveled how Ali & Co., and Mediabistro.com founder Laurel Touby, my former boss, both sold just before the "nuclear winter," as a friend from Mediabistro called the subsequent economic collapse.

Mediabistro was paid $23 million by what's now WebMediaBrands, $3 million of that in longer-term "payout" bonuses should the company hit certain performance markers. The Guardian paid 4 million pounds (about $6.3 million at today's exchange rate) for PaidContent in 2008, the Guardian reported yesterday.

The guardian as PaidContent's guardian

It's not surprising that in the recent environment and focused on other areas, the Guardian couldn't quite make its new venture thrive.

One of the smaller of leading U.K. media organizations, and solely owned by a trust to keep it independent, the Guardian Media Group has struggled financially in recent years, reporting a before-tax profit for 2011 of 9 million pounds (about $14.24 million) after losses of 96.7 million and 171 million pounds, respectively, in the previous two years.

It has, meanwhile, pushed to get more of its operations into digital, an area where it could be innovative and expand its footprint to new markets.

It has launched blogs headed by aggressive reporters, had "hack days" that invited developers to figure out new ways to cover and present news, developed multiple feeds that allowed seamless intake and display of news and information, even given rather open access to its wider database via APIs (application programmer interfaces) that let others build applications on its proprietary data.

In the annual report, the company said its re-version-ed iPhone app had 322,000 downloads in less than its first three months. It last month ended a three-month free trial of its iPad app, opting to charge 9.99 pounds (about $16) after a week.

Guardian News & Media, the division that bought ContentNext, announced last November that "following a strategic review" it was looking for a buyer for ContentNext while it turned its U.S. focus to "building the Guardian." Guardian Media Group's 2011 annual report said the company was "looking ahead to further digital launches ... most importantly a major expansion in the U.S. with a new digital-only operation based in New York."

It recently launched the U.S.-focused GuardianNews.com.

Under terms of the deal, Guardian News & Media gets a minority stake in GigaOM alongside venture investors such as Reed Elsevier, Alloy Ventures and True Ventures. It also gets an observer seat on GigaOM's board, Malik said.

'A Fraction' of the Original Price

Neither Malik, the Guardian nor ContentNext named a price. Ad Age reported it was a "fraction" of the original deal. Guardian representatives pointed me to their statement online.

By taking a seat on GigaOM's board, the Guardian perhaps hopes to learn more about how the digital world works at the cutting edge. In turn, GigaOM gets more knowledge of media and the international sphere.

GigaOM, in acquiring ContentNext, gets a presence in covering the New York-centric media world, a crowded arena in which it has made forays but never solidified its hold.

They will turn the New York offices of ContentNext into GigaOM East, just blocks from where Ali and Malik used to work.

A GigaOM representative told Ad Age the company would keep PaidContent at its current web address and hadn't decided whether to fold it into GigaOM.com.

"By blending [PaidContent's] coverage with ours, we hope to watch this fast-changing industry ever more closely," Malik wrote.

The GigaOM purchase is hardly an "OMG" -- it just makes good sense.

An award-winning former managing editor at ABCNews.com and an MBA (with honors), Dorian Benkoil handles marketing and sales strategies for MediaShift, and is the business columnist for the site. He is SVP at Teeming Media, a strategic media consultancy focused on attracting, engaging, and activating communities through digital media. He tweets at @dbenk and you can Circle him on Google+.

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December 07 2011

15:20

Tear Down the Wall Between Business and Editorial!

For too long, reporters and editors have been unaware, even hostile to the business sides of their organizations. Those attitudes have helped push the news industry into its current dire state.

And that's why I say: Tear down the wall between business and editorial.

Before you start sharpening your pitchforks, hear me out.

I'm not proposing a free-for-all money-grab that destroys journalistic imperatives. I am calling for those who make the "product" to learn how it's sold so they can better do their jobs and contribute to the bottom line.

If editorial staff is the first to be pared in news organizations, perhaps that's in part because they haven't known enough to make a strong business case for what they contribute.

Jim Brady, the former executive editor of WashingtonPost.com, and now the editor in chief of Journal Register Company, seems to agree that journalists need to learn the business ropes.

Jim Brady

"We don't want to see people sent out into the world slaughtered by the wolves because they don't know anything about the business side," he said at this year's Online News Association conference when I asked his thoughts on journalists learning business principles.

MediaShift managing editor Courtney Lowery Cowgill, co-founder and former editor in chief of the now-defunct New West, was also encouraging. She told me that while she and others were building their sites, they were stymied while trying to get advice on how to support the news businesses while maintaining proper standards.

"Friends in similar startup situations were struggling with how to blur the lines in an intelligent and ethical way," she said. "There was nobody to help us with that. They were all just saying, 'No, no. Don't do it.' We all need a roadmap for how to do it, a good guide on how to do that ethically, intelligently and efficiently."

Here, I hope, is a start.

Remember: It's a Business

One place to start is attitude.

Can you name another business in which the people who make the key product are allowed, even encouraged, to be ignorant of how they make money?

I've found many journalists to be uncomfortable with money. But money is lifeblood. As much as you might labor to get a story in before deadline, you'll sweat bullets when you're responsible for payroll and the money isn't there.

A for-profit business is just that. That profit is what lets you not only continue another day, but also gives you the freedom to determine your own mission.

Yes, the news business is special, and has a special trust. But many businesses are, and some of them -- such as health care and food -- deal much more literally with issues of life and death. They, too, must juggle ethical and commercial imperatives while doing their work.

Keeping the public trust, even one protected by the Constitution, is not contradictory with the the idea of making your enterprise financially self-sustaining.

The more revenue you have, the more creative ways you can use it to produce a better product, and the more diverse the revenue is, the less beholden you will be to any single source.

Know the Business

The more you know about the business workings, the better arguments you'll be able to make to gain resources to do good work. You can point out the profits one section you're handling brings in that can support another effort you believe in.

You may be able to make a case that something that seems like a cost center will, over time, create new efficiencies or revenue-enhancements. You can note that an investigative story may not bring in advertising, but it could bring in page views that you can show lead to new advertising or subscription revenues.

Even better is if you can back up your case in a way a business person can understand, by using data to make a cogent case that applies to the bottom line.

Understand the Finances

The more literate you are about the finances, not just income, assets and depreciation, but also cost of capital and market conditions, the better you'll understand the reasoning behind some decisions.

The better grounding you have in the finances, the more respect you'll have for the business on both the income and expense sides -- and the more you'll want to control costs, or spend appropriately to get the job done.

You'll be able to see the company through a business lens. You'll put yourself in a cooperative, collegial position, rather than going begging to the money people with hand out.

If you're running your own operation, the better you'll know how close you are to meeting payroll, or how creative you can be to raise some funds.

If Sales Influences Editorial, It's OK

Do you think newspapers run separate real estate, car or fashion sections for editorial reasons? Or could it be because those sections generate healthy profits?

It's fine if commercial reasoning influences editorial projects, as long as the projects fit into your overall mission. Let me give an example from MediaShift.

We have sometimes adjusted timing on stories or special series if there was no good reason not to in order to accommodate a client who wanted to sponsor them.

Sometimes we've even extended a series by a couple more stories than we might have without the added funds. Producing that extra content can be additive and contribute to the richness of the site.

If we can serve our community and earn revenue at the same time, that's a home run.

We are mindful of the danger of working so hard to serve sponsors that we neglect the needs of the larger community. That's very important.

Create Things That Make Money

Sometimes, you'll package material in a way that garners interest from viewers and sponsors. Packaging and repackaging can be a great device.

It's easy to demean "link bait" such as "Top 10" or "How To" lists, but if your users like and share them, and they generate profitable page views, is there really harm? If there's sponsor interest, all the better.

You can also launch efforts to make money in order to support other operations that don't. I'll later be writing a column about news companies that have done everything from sell web consulting services to hand out sponsor postcards at local gatherings.

Try to Get to 'Yes'

A former managing editor at Newsweek (where I used to work) once told me proudly of throwing a salesperson for the magazine out of his office with harsh words.

Perhaps, instead, he could have worked to help craft a solution that met the advertiser's needs without violating Newsweek's core principles.newsweek_headroom_max4aa.jpg

There were times at ABCNews.com, where I was a liaison between the sales and editorial sides after having been a managing editor, when I created products the editorial team accepted while explaining justifiable limits to the sales team.

I have, as a journalist doing business deals, sometimes had to fight the urge to give a sponsor an outright "no" to one of their ideas, and instead tried to glean their ultimate goals and worked together to find an acceptable way to meet them.

Be Willing to Say "No"

You also have to be willing for the long-term health of the business to say "no." You may be asked to do things you consider unsavory. You have to have the spine to make a sponsor uncomfortable, as MediaTwits podcast co-host Rafat Ali did at his former site, PaidContent, when he reported on a sponsor in a way they didn't appreciate.

Advertisers rooted in your community (whether that's a community of professionals, of like-minded individuals, or of geographic proximity) will usually understand if you explain that a request they're making could damage the operation's credibility. That damage will also damage their ability to have their message in front of a happily engaged community you've worked hard to amass.

You do need core principles that can't be bent -- even if that means the business doesn't meet payroll. Remember the point above about diversified revenue streams? The more there are, the less any one sponsor can damage you.

Be Prepared for Uncomfortable Conversations

In smaller communities, the people who sponsor a news operation can be the ones being reported on. They'll ask for favors. You and people you work with have to be able to explain, even in the midst of reporting, what can and can't be done on their behalf.

At the risk of repeating: The more profit your company makes, the more leeway it has to do its work, to remain independent of government or other interference, and the more freedom to do good work.

An award-winning former managing editor at ABCNews.com and an MBA (with honors), Dorian Benkoil handles marketing and sales strategies for MediaShift, and is the business columnist for the site. He is SVP at Teeming Media, a strategic media consultancy focused on attracting, engaging, and activating communities through digital media. He tweets at @dbenk and you can Circle him on Google+.

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November 22 2010

19:00

How much can we trust e-edition numbers? Depends on the paper

The latest numbers from the Audit Bureau of Circulations, tracking from March 2009 to September 2010, show a major proliferation in the number of e-editions reported by newspapers. Nearly 450 papers currently have weekday e-editions, which tallies to over 2 million subscribers and a 47-percent increase since this time last year.

As print circulation falls, e-editions swell in numbers. Not so startling. But the data can be misleading: Ballooning e-edition numbers don’t necessarily point to wholesale reader rejection of print, or even widespread usage of e-editions. For some local newspapers, if you want a print subscription, newspapers make it very financially agreeable — and in some cases give you no choice — to throw on an e-edition subscription as well.

Look no further than some of the smaller-market papers that cracked paidContent’s top-25 chart of newspaper e-edition subscriptions. Like, say, number 18, The Bend Bulletin, which grew from 1,108 e-edition subscriptions to 24,611 between Sept. 2009 and Sept. 2010. That’s an increase of over 2,000 percent (!) for a company that doesn’t circulate more than 35,000 weekday papers. But local Bulletin readers don’t even have the option of a print-only subscription, according to the paper’s website: It’s an e-edition or bust.

Or take number 25, The Schenectady Gazette. After launching a free site three years ago, the paper put up a paywall 18 months later and began offering a weekly print-plus-e-edition subscription package for one penny more per day than the print-only option — $3.99 versus $4.00 a week. You’d be hard pressed to find a better way to spend 52 cents a year.

Around the time the Gazette changed its subscription offering, weekly paid print circulation sat at 45,421. By September 2010, that number jumped by 16,052, nearly 35 percent. In roughly that same period, Gazette e-edition circulation increased by 17,796. The paper’s e-edition actually generates ad revenue by proving to potential advertisers that readers are local, Gazette general manager Dan Beck told me. “We have created, in an odd way, a more valuable reader to our advertisers,” Beck said. “We know they are our readers and they are local, they’re from here.”

“My overall sense is that this is more about marketing and new, more favorable metrics for newspaper companies than any kind of dramatic change in reading habits,” says Newsonomics author and Lab contributor Ken Doctor. Indeed, it’s difficult to tell whether e-edition subscriptions equate in any way to usage. Doctor cites “the snowbird reader of a northern paper” as one possible explanation.

The traditional e-edition essentially replicates the print product in digital format; ABC numbers cover these replicas, plus non-replica e-editions, like The Wall Street Journal and the soon-to-be-paywalled New York Times. ABC tracking includes online-only and Kindle subscriptions, which exist on a different account than print subscriptions, and products like TimesReader or GlobeReader as well.

All but two of the top 25 saw percentage increases in that September-to-September period, a phenomenon Doctor partly attributes to the slew of subscription bundles that surfaced over past year. He suggests the conventional e-edition isn’t attractive enough to compete with tablet versions as they continue to improve: “It’s a small, niche product, useful to those who like the newspaper in the format of the print paper. As tablets offer greater choice as digital news reading devices, e-editions will probably wither.”

We’ll see in March 2011, when ABC begins itemizing its e-edition circulation report by weekly subscription versus single-issue purchases, university subscriptions, and mobile readership.

September 30 2010

15:07

Digital ad revenue up 30 per cent at Wall Street Journal

The Wall Street Journal’s latest revenue statistics, detailed in a staff memo from Dow Jones & Company CEO Les Hinton (published on PoynterOnline), show an increase in digital ad revenue of more than 29 per cent.

According to the figures, the publication has recorded year-on-year growth across all platforms in the first quarter of the fiscal year 2011.

Print and online revenues for the publication are reportedly up by more than 17 per cent on the previous year’s figures for the same period, while total print advertising revenue increased by more than 21 per cent.

Print circulation revenue was also reportedly up more than 9 percent, or 13 per cent when including digital.

But while in his memo Hinton makes a comparison to competitor the New York Times Company’s release of revenue statistics last week, paidContent clarifies the potential differences of each in its own report on the figures.

Hinton specifically refers to the New York Times Company’s own figures “as a basis of comparison.” He pointed out that the NYTCo forecast last week that online ad sales would be up 14 percent for the quarter, while print ad revenue would be down five percent. It’s worth noting, however, that those figures include the NYTCo as a whole, while the figures Hinton cites for his company seem to refer only to the performance of the Wall Street Journal.

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September 16 2010

09:41

Times and Sunday Times sites launching new dashboard feature

News International’s paywalled newspaper sites TheTimes.co.uk and SundayTimes.co.uk are launching a new feature which aims to enable readers to keep track of stories of interest.

The Dashboard tool will become available to readers on the site over the next few days, an announcement on TheTimes.co.uk says.

We hope this latest addition to our websites will help you to personalise your news and get straight to the stories that are important to you.

The tool will notify readers when their favourite sections publish new articles and when a previously read article is updated. It also provides them with a history of read articles which they can quickly link back to.

Commenting on the new feature, paidContent’s Robert Andrews said the tool shows how the service is taking advantage of its online platform.

You can’t do that in print. It’s also somewhat unique amongst news websites, even if it is essentially a friendlier version of RSS-type functionality.

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September 07 2010

15:17

Content I will pay for: farts

“The internet needs you,” I said to Howard Stern when I called into the show this morning as he was ranting about his contract negotiations with Sirius XM and the possibility that he could take his show and more to the net.

Do it, Howard.

“You made satellite radio,” I told him. “You will make the internet.” For Stern is the one media entity who can absolutely, positively get people to pay online — even me, the alleged opponent of all things paid. Today I pay $12 a month for Stern — more, actually, with my internet account and my wife’s and son’s cars. Stern is talking about charging $5 a month and for that we’d get his radio show plus his TV shows plus much more, even music — and no advertising (“why should I hire a sales force?” he asked).

Sold.

Why the hell would I pay for Howard Stern and not pay for news? Because Howard is unique. News isn’t. There’s no end of potential competition for any news provider and its unique value expires in seconds. Not so Howard. Arianna Huffington was wrong when she says that people will pay for business news and porn. There’s no need to pay for porn because there’s no scarcity of people who will strip and shtupp in front of a webcam. But there’s only one Howard.

I wrote about Howard’s potential internet empire here. Fellow Howard fan Doc Searls wrote about the potential here. Way back in 2005, I wrote an open letter to Sirius’ Mel Karmazin urging him to embrace the internet and see satellite as just as transitional delivery mechanism for his valuable content (ignore the fucking spam links on the post). He didn’t listen. Apparently, he’s not listening to Howard, either.

Fine. Even though I’m a Sirius shareholder and even though his departure would lead to a plummet in the stock price (from 2¢ to 1¢), I want him to leave because he will turn the internet into a credible, sustainable, mass entertainment medium. The delivery’s tricky but that will be fixed quickly as we carry connected devices all the time, everywhere: our phones, computers, TVs, cars, tablets, and devices we can’t imagine will all be connected (if the phone companies don’t fuck it up). The critical last six inches for Stern are not his penis but the means by which his show gets from my phone to my car speakers. But it’ll be cheaper to install a bluetooth transmitter than a Sirius radio. If we millions of Stern fans went to the trouble of subscribing to and installing Sirius, we’ll do it with something even easier that gives us the entire internet all the time.

For Stern, the economics have to be extremely tempting. He should not work for a company. (Howard: Don’t get sucked into signing on with another employer!) He should be the company. He can charge us less than half what we pay now. He can build the infrastructure for next to nothing (as he said today, he can build a studio — big deal). All he needs is a billing mechanism (Paypal?) and a bandwidth provider (Akamai?). He won’t need to market; he already is viral. And he gets to keep the profits. Sweet.

For us, we get to listen to Stern whenever and wherever we want. (Howard: Please let us listen to repeats on our own schedule, on demand!) We pay less and don’t suffer through ads for itchy-ball cures.

For the internet, we get to prove to unique entertainers everywhere that they can cut out the middlemen — networks, studios, all that — and create valuable relationships directly with their fans, getting much richer in the process. And that, in turn, forces entertainers, studios, networks, and cable companies to sell us entertainment a la carte, so I can stop paying for the damned 95% of my channels I never watch.

What’s not to love?

Do it, Howard. Leave old technology. Build the next medium, our medium. To hell with all the old media companies that have screwed you and us all these years. This is real freedom.

August 17 2010

11:12
09:46

paidContent: AOL hyperlocal network Patch plans 400 new sites

paidContent reports today that AOL’s hyperlocal venture Patch could become the biggest new employer of full-time journalists in the US, with plans to add hundreds more sites by the end of the year.

According to the media site, Patch’s president Warren Webster told them the company plans to add 400 new hyperlocal sites to its network of 100 so far, doubling its current advertised state coverage.

Webster says that Patch is selecting towns to expand to based in part on a 59-variable algorithm that takes into account factors like the average household income of a town, how often citizens vote, and how the local public high school ranks; the company is then talking to local residents to ensure that targeted areas have other less quantifiable characteristics like a “vibrant business community” and “walkable Main Street”. Patch hires one professional reporter to cover each community; each “cluster” of sites also has an ad manager who is the “feet in the street” selling ads.

See the full post here…Similar Posts:



August 09 2010

15:22

paidContent: Decline in consumer magazine circulations slows

Consumer magazine circulations appear to be improving according to a report by PaidContent on the Audit Bureau of Circulations’ Fas-Fax report today.

The downward trajectory of consumer magazine circulation appears to have slowed in the first half of the year. While publishers weren’t able to muster the slightly positive growth that ad pages have had lately—the Publishers Information Bureau recorded its first increase in ad pages and rates after two negative years last month—but as mags rely more on paid circ to pay the bills, these numbers are becoming more crucial. So far, paid circ is becoming more stable, but newsstand sales are struggling much harder.

According to the report, total paid and verified circulations for the first six months of this year still saw a decrease of 2.27 per cent on the same period last year.

See the report here…Similar Posts:



July 16 2010

14:00

This Week in Review: Paying for obits online, ESPN’s news-ad fusion, and the great replacement debate

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

Should papers charge for obits on the web?: We’ve written a whole bunch about Steve Brill’s paid-online-news venture Journalism Online around these parts, and the company’s first Press+ system went live on a newspaper site this week, with Pennsylvania’s LancasterOnline obits section going to a metered pay model for out-of-town visitors. PaidContent has a good summary of how the arrangement works: Out-of-towners get to view seven obits a month, after which point they’re asked to pay $1.99 a month or $19.99 a year for more access. Obits make up only 6 percent of the site’s pageviews, but the paper’s editor is estimating $50,000 to $150,000 in revenue from the paywall.

Poynter’s Bill Mitchell offered a detailed look at the numbers behind the decision and said the plan has several characteristics in its favor: It has valuable content that’s tough to find elsewhere, flexible payment, and doesn’t alienate core (local) readers. (He did note, though, that the paper isn’t providing anything new of value.) Most other media watchers on the web weren’t so impressed. MinnPost’s David Brauer was skeptical of Lancaster’s revenue projections, but noted that obits are a big deal for small-town papers. Lost Remote’s David Weinfeld was dubious of the estimates, too, wondering how many out-of-towners would actually be willing to pay to read obit after obit. GrowthSpur’s Mark Potts’ denouncement of the plan is the most sweeping: “Every assumption it’s based on — from projected audience to the percentage of readers that might be willing to pay — is flawed.”

TBD’s Steve Buttry posted his own critique of the plan, centering on the fact that the paper is double-dipping by charging people to both read and publish obits. The paper’s editor, Ernie Schreiber, fired back with a rebuttal (the experiment is intended to help define their online audience, he said, and no, they’re not double-dipping any more than charging for an ad and a subscription), and Buttry responded with a point-by-point counter. Finally, Buttry came up with the most constructive part of the discussion: A proposal for newspapers on how to handle obituaries, with seven different free and paid obit options for newspapers to offer families. Jeff Sonderman offered a different type of proposal, arguing that obituaries should be free to place and read, because if they aren’t, they’re about to be Craigslisted.

Meanwhile, MinnPost’s Brauer discovered that all you need to bypass the paywall is FireFox’s NoScript add-on, and Schreiber added a few more work-arounds while responding that he’s not worried, because the tech-geek and obit-junkie crowds don’t have a whole lot of overlap. Reuters’ Felix Salmon backed Schreiber up, arguing that a loose paywall is much better than a firm one that unwittingly harasses loyal customers.

A new degree of news-advertising mixture: We may have caught a glimpse into one less-than-savory aspect of the future of journalism late last week through the sports media world, when ESPN aired “The Decision.” Here’s what happened, for the sports-averse: 25-year-old NBA superstar LeBron James was set to make his much-anticipated free agency decision this summer, and ESPN agreed to air James’ announcement of which team he’d play for last Thursday night on a one-hour special. The arrangement originated from freelance sportscaster Jim Gray and James’ marketing company, which dictated the site of the special, James’ interviewer (Gray, naturally), and a deal in which the show’s advertising proceeds (all lined up by James’ company) would go toward James’ designated charity, the Boys and Girls Club. ESPN insisted that it would otherwise have full editorial control.

The show — and particularly the manner in which it was set up — received universally scathing reviews from sports media watchers: Sports Illustrated media critic Richard Deitsch called it “the worst thing ESPN has ever put its name to,” legendary sportswriter Buzz Bissinger said ESPN’s ethical conflict was so big it can never be fully trusted as a news source, Baltimore Sun TV critic David Zurawik fumed that “never in the history of sports has the media behaved in a such a whored-out, dazed, confused and crass a manner,” and L.A. Times media critic James Rainey accused ESPN of playing up both sides of a spectacle it created.

The ethical conflict seemed even worse when there was a report that Gray, the interviewer, was paid by James, rather than ESPN (as it turned out, ESPN covered his expenses, but other than that he says he wasn’t paid at all). But the true details, as revealed by Advertising Age, were almost as shocking: ESPN had previously hoped to arrange a special program before its sports awards show, the ESPYs, with James handing out the first award just after his announcement.

Ad Age’s phenomenal article hammered home another important point for those concerned about the future of news: This program represented a new level of integration between advertising and news, and even a new breed of advertiser-driven news programming. Ad Age detailed the remarkable amount of exposure that the program’s advertisers received, and included superagent Ari Emanuel, the man who orchestrated the arrangement, boasting that “we’re getting closer to pushing the needle on advertiser-content programming.” In his typically overheated style, Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi called the show “the prototype for all future news coverage,” in which a few dominant news organizations create their own versions of reality in a race for advertising money, while a few scattered web denizens try to ferret out the real story.

Replacing the newspaper, or complementing it?: This week, the University of Missouri School of Journalism publicized a study that its scholars published this spring comparing citizen-driven news sites and blogs with daily newspaper websites. The takeaway claim from Mizzou’s press release — and, in turn, Editor & Publisher’s blurb — was that citizen journalism sites aren’t replacing the work that was being done by downsizing traditional news organizations. Not surprisingly, that drew a few people’s criticism: Ars Technica’s John Timmer said the study provides evidence not so much that citizen-driven sites are doing poorly, but that legacy media sites are embracing many of the web’s best practices. He and TBD’s Jeff Sonderman also pointed out that if one startup news site is lacking in an area, web users are smart enough to just find another one. The question isn’t whether a citizen journalism site can replace a newspaper site, Sonderman said, it’s whether a whole amateur system, with its capacity for growth and specialization, can complement or replace the one newspaper site in town.

TBD’s Steve Buttry (who must have had a lot of free time this week) delivered a point-by-point critique of the study, making a couple of salient points: It ignores the recent spate of professional online-only news organizations and vastly over-represents traditional news sites’ relative numbers, and, of course, the long-argued point that the question of whether one type of journalism can replace another is silly and pointless. One of the Mizzou scholars responded to Buttry, which he quotes at the end of his post, that the researchers had no old-media agenda.

After hearing about all of that debate, it’s kind of strange to read the study itself, because it doesn’t actually include any firm conclusions about the ability of citizen-led sites to replace newspapers. In its discussion section, the study does make a passing reference to “the inability of citizen news sites to become substitutes for daily newspaper sites” and briefly states that those sites would be better substitutes for weekly papers, but the overall conclusion of the study is that citizen sites work better as complements to traditional media, filling in hyperlocal news and opinion that newspapers have abandoned. That’s quite similar to the main point that Buttry and Sonderman are making. The study’s guiding question may be deeply flawed, as those two note, but its endpoint isn’t nearly as inflammatory as it was publicized to be.

Looking at a BBC for the U.S.: A few folks went another round in the government-subsidy-for-news debate this week when Columbia University president Lee Bollinger wrote an op-ed column in The Wall Street Journal advocating for a stronger public-media system in the U.S., one that could go toe-to-toe with the BBC. Bollinger argued that we’re already trusting journalists to write independent accounts of corporate scandals like the BP oil spill while their news organizations take millions of dollars in advertising from those companies, so why would journalism’s ethical standards change once the government is involved?

The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson agreed that government-funded journalism doesn’t have to be a terrifying prospect, but several others online took issue with that stance: CUNY j-prof Jeff Jarvis said we need to teach journalists to build self-sustaining businesses instead, and two British j-profs, George Brock and Roy Greenslade, both argued that Bollinger needs to wake up and see the non-institutional journalistic ecosystem that’s springing up to complement crumbling traditional media institutions. But the people who do want an American BBC are in luck, because the site launched this week.

Reading roundup: A few cool things to think on this weekend:

— Curtis Brainard of the Columbia Journalism Review has a long story on what is a safe bet to be one of the two or three most talked about issues in the industry over the next year: How to bring in revenue from mobile media.

— French media consultant Frederic Filloux asks what he rightly calls “an unpleasant question”: Do American newspapers have too many journalists? It’s not a popular argument, but he has some statistics worth thinking about.

— Adam Rifkin has a well-written post that’s been making the rounds lately about why Google doesn’t do social well: It’s about getting in, getting out and getting things done, while social media’s about sucking you in.

— The New York Times and the Lab have profiles of two startups, Techmeme and Spotery, that are living examples of the growing role of human-powered editing alongside algorithmic authority. And Judy Sims urges newspapers to embrace the social nature of life (and news) online.

— Finally, news you can use: A great Poynter feature on ways news organizations can use Tumblr, from someone who used it very well: Mark Coatney, formerly of Newsweek, now of Tumblr.

March 22 2010

09:23

paidContent:UK: Browser extension for beating the paywall

PaidContent:UK reports on a new browser extension, BreakThePayWall.

Available for Internet Explorer and, soon, Firefox, BreakThePayWall works mainly – and merely – by deleting cookies sites use to limit the number of stories users can read before having to subscribe. Deleting the cookies means the publisher’s site forgets how close the reader is to the “pay up” threshold.

Full post at this link…

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March 15 2010

14:22

The money graph

A new Pew study on the economics of news does not give comfort to news sites planning pay schemes. It also does not give me comfort that we’re wasting precious time futzing over walls when we should be paying attention to the big problems we have — one of which this Pew study points out: dreadful engagement and loyalty — and should be looking at other ways to give and gain value in our relationships with the public. The Pew data:

Over all, the evidence suggests the outlook is difficult both for paywalls and for online display advertising. While most people have not been asked to pay for content, even among the most avid news consumers online, only about one in five at this point say they would be willing to pay, and this does not include less voracious news consumers. At the same time, the vast majority of those online, 8 out of 10, say they basically ignore online ads.

In short, a good deal must change, the data suggests, before the digital age will begin to sustain itself.

About 71% of internet users, or 53% of all American adults, get news online today, a number that has held relatively steady in recent years.

Most of these online news consumers graze across multiple sites without having a primary one that they rely on. Only 35% of online news consumers have a favorite site.

To put it another way, 65% of online news consumers do not have a site that is so important to them that it stands out in their minds above all other sites they visit.

The users who do have a favorite site are pretty faithful. Some 65% of them check in with that favorite site at least once a day.

Yet even among these most loyal news consumers, only a minority (19%) said they would be willing to pay for news online, including those who already do so and those who would be willing to if asked.

Instead, a large majority – 82% – of those with a favorite site said they would find somewhere else to get the news.

Because so few online news consumers even have a favorite site this translates to only 7% of all people who get news online having a favorite online news source that they say they would pay for.

This is a sign of just how much initial difficulty the movement toward pay walls could have.

In sum, there appears to be only a very small cohort of voracious news consumers who have to have their news from a particular site, even if they have to pay for it. The vast majority of online news consumers, though, seem willing to browse for news from many sites, do not have a favorite online news source, and even if they do, are not willing to pay for that site’s content.

This is not to say that resistance might breakdown over time. . . .

All these findings speak to the natural disadvantage of news content: Most news is covered by more than one organization and people do not place enough value on the difference between the various reports. In other words, if a user had to pay for a New York Times article on Haiti, evidence suggests that he or she would just look for another source that could provide the basic information. The nuances of depth or breadth in the pay story may not be valued enough to induce payment over a free alternative.

Thus, if the news industry is going to make headway with pay-walls, they are going to have to break through what for now appears to be continuing reluctance, even among its most avid consumers.

February 22 2010

17:29

US Digest: paidContent 2010, Tiger Woods, Scientology vs. journalism, and more

Starting today, the editor’s blog will feature an afternoon roundup of all things media from over the pond. From the hugely important to the very inconsequential, check in for a choice of America’s journalistic goings on.

paidContent 2010

The issue of paid content was high on the agenda at the end of last week with the paidContent 2010 conference in New York. In attendance were big names from the New York Times: Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., chairman and publisher; Janet Robinson, president and CEO; and Martin Nisenholtz, senior vice president of digital operations, who were interviewed at length by ContentNext’s Staci D. Kramer on “metered news and more”.

According to the paidContent coverage, “while they were willing to buy lunch, they weren’t ready to feed the appetite for detail about plans for NYTimes.com to go metered in 2011″.

See the video here

And the full conference coverage from the paidContent site here

“Does the bleeding ever stop at 425 Portland?”

image by Stephen Cummings

Presumably, ways of making newspaper journalism pay were also high on the agenda over in Minneapolis at the end of last week, where the Star Tribune announced that five voluntary redundancies would be offered to reporters and editors. “Does the bleeding ever stop at 425 Portland?” asks MinnPost.

Staff memo here

Pessimistic stories of this kind, including this one, continue to be thoughtfully aggregated by blogger and pessimist extraorinaire Fading To Black. Not featured on this chronicle of US newspaper decline was the story that down in South Florida, rather than asking him if he’d like to pack his things, the Sun Sentinel handed production maintenance manager Bob Simons a $25,000 spot bonus and a Caribbean holiday. Simons’ suggestion of a different supplier for equipment apparently saved the paper $1 million.

A very different staff memo here

AP underperforms on non-profit content distribution

An interesting story from the Nieman Jounalism Lab reports on the outcome of Associated Press’ decision to distribute content from America’s top four non-profit news outlets: ProPublica, Center for Public Integrity, Centre for Investigative Reporting, and the Investigative Reporting Workshop.

The six-month project was launched back in June 2009 at the Investigative Reporters and Editors conference in Baltimore, “with great fanfare” according to Bill Buzenberg, executive director of Centre for Public Integrity.

It seems however that the scheme hasn’t been successful so far, with admissions from both the AP and the non-profit directors that very little content has made it into print. A poor distribution model is to blame apparently, with new non-profit content not being sufficiently flagged.

“They haven’t done the technical backup work to really make it work,” said Buzenburg. “They haven’t made it a priority.”

However, hope remains for the project from both sides. Buzenburg added: “This is a good idea. I’d like it to work [...] The potential of this remains.”

“It’s early yet – we’re only six months into it,” said John Raess, AP’s San Francisco bureau chief.

“We want our celebrities to show a little leg”

image by Jim Epler

Much of the weekend’s media coverage in the US was given over to Tiger Wood’s much-publicised public apology on Friday morning. Mediabistro nailed the best format for coverage by inviting readers to pen Haikus for the Mediabistro facebook page. Submissions include this clear frontrunner from Pamela Ross:

“Questions? Don’t go there.
My Thanksgiving meal was ruined.
Thanks. Now. Watch this swing.”

With more syllables at his disposal, David Carr of The New York Times’ Media & Advertising pages goes into a little more detail, considering the relationship between celebrity sportsmen and the media:

Athletes and actors would like for us to focus on the work, while reporters know that their editors and audience want more, because while the work is visible, we want our celebrities to show a little leg.

But once this bit of leg, so strictly concealed by Woods for so long, has been shown, why are the media who feed on it so relentlessly owed some sort of apology?

Those of us who have had some experience with human frailties all know why Tiger Woods did what he did last Friday, which was to get in a room with people he had hurt or embarrassed to say he was “deeply sorry” for what he had done. That part made sense, the beginning of a process of amends.

I just don’t know what the rest of us were doing there.

A sentiment echoed this side of the pond by Charlie Brooker today in the Guardian.

There are those that must hope that, now this enigmatic character has addressed his hushed audience, and delivered his much anticpated talk, that the hype, rumour, pontificating, and endless media coverage will die away.

Apple wields knife over TV show prices

It is fair to say that at least a few people thought exactly the same thing about Steve Jobs’ unveiling of the iPad. But the so-called saviour of the newspapers is back in the media spotlight this week with news that Apple are considering halving the current price of television shows on iTunes from $1.99 to 0.99 cents. Media commentators have hailed the iTunes store’s 125 million registered customers as a potential liferaft for sinking newspaper publishers, and major networks may be wary of waving a pin anywhere near that customer base by rejecting the move, instead gambling on even a small percentage increase in those paying for TV offsetting the significant price drop.

image by curiouslee

Meanwhile, Adobe and Conde Nast have jumped right aboard the good ship iPad, unveiling “a new digital magazine experience based on WIRED magazine” at the TED Conference in Long Beach, California.

The Church of Scientology vs. the St. Petersburg Times, Round 1

And finally, from Howard Kurtz’s Media Notes at the Washington Post, the improbable story that the Church of Scientology, in a tit-for-tat response to investigations by the St. Petersburg Times of Tampa Bay, has organised some investigative journalism of its own.

image by Ben Sutherland

The church has officially hired three ‘veteran reporters’ – a Pulitzer Prize winner, a former “60 Minutes” producer, and the former executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors – to look in detail at the newspapers’ conduct. Steve Weinberg, the former IRE executive, who was paid $5,000 to edit the study, says that the agreement stipulates the church publish the study in full or not at all.

Weinberg claims that in spite the study being bankrolled by the church, it would be objective. Neil Brown, executive editor of the St. Petersburg Times, thinks otherwise:

“I ultimately couldn’t take this request very seriously because it’s a study bought and paid for by the Church of Scientology.”

Brown seems to feel a bit hard done by in this instance:

“I counted up something like six or seven journalists the church has hired to look into the St. Petersburg Times. I’ve just got two looking into the Church of Scientology,” he complained.

No fair.

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February 05 2010

12:13

Common Sense Journalism: Obits behind the paywall?

Doug Fisher picks up on plans by one of Journalism Online’s first public clients, the Intelligencer Journal-Lancaster New Era. The title wants to monetise its obituaries behind a partial paywall, according to paidContent’s report:

In Lancaster, publisher Steinman Enterprises will charge readers outside the circulation area for access to obits, starting with a certain number free and then requiring a fee.

“It’s an interesting move, since obits are one of the most popular landing points at many smaller papers. But I’m not sure they are one of the most monetisable, at least not this way,” comments Fisher.

Full post at this link…

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January 28 2010

18:03

The danger of the wall

The European, a German online news service, asked me to write a commentary for a debate on paid content. Here it is in German. And here’s the English text:

I have nothing against charging for content, if you can. After all, I’m selling a book. But I believe building pay walls around online news is a bad business decision.

The discussion about charging for content rises from a sense of entitlement—“we deserve to be paid,” which is an emotional argument—rather than from rational economics.

Charging is an attempt to replicate an old business model in a profoundly changed media economy that is no longer built on scarcity—on publishers’ control—now that everyone can publish. The new link economy rewards openness and collaboration.

Charging is also a distraction from the real goal: profitability and sustainability. We must rethink the entire ledger of the business of news, starting with costs, which must and can be reduced through collaboration, working in networks, and through the efficiency that comes with the specialization the internet demands.

More important, charging brings many costs:

• It creates the expense of marketing (when, online, your audience will market you for free, if you deserve it).

• It reduces audience.

• It reduces advertising revenue.

• It reduces links and clicks, which reduces Googlejuice, which reduces discovery, which limits growth.

But more than any of this, pay walls curtail a news organization’s relationship with its public, with its customers. On the internet, it’s in those relationships where value lies.

The New York Times plans to charge its best customers—its most frequent readers—while enabling what Rupert Murdoch calls the worst customers—those who stop by once from a search engine or an aggregator—to get what they want for free. That might make sense if you are selling a scarce resource: those who drink the most wine pay the most. But online, content and news are not scarce. They are the magnets that draw readers to you so you can build a valuable relationship.

Online also brings new opportunities to find value there. Hubert Burda said at DLD that Focus Online is profitable not because of advertising but because of ecommerce. The Telegraph in London brought in a quarter of its profit a year ago from direct sales of everything from clothes hangers to wine. So media companies are becoming in part, retailers. Does it make sense to put a toll booth at the door to your store to keep people out?

Once you have a lasting relationship, there are more ways to serve customers and make money. Some newspapers are holding events. Some are charging for education. Some are even selling real estate. But to do this, you need to invite, not drive away more readers.

There is one more cost to building a wall, a cost to journalism. Alan Rusbridger, the innovative editor of the Guardian in London, just delivered a monumental speech arguing that charging “removes you from the way people the world over now connect with each other. You cannot control distribution or create scarcity without becoming isolated from this new networked world.”

Rusbridger also warns that there are competitors lying in wait to step in when news organizations build walls. “Let’s not leave the field.” Rusbridger said, “so that the digital un-bundlers can come in, dismantle and loot what we have built up, including our audiences and readers.”

Charging could be dangerous business indeed.

January 18 2010

02:23

The cockeyed economics of metering reading

The irony of the report that The New York Times is going to start metering readers and charging those who come back more often is this: They would would end up charging — and, they should fear, sending away — the readers who are worth the most while serving free those who are worth least.

That’s according to the math of News Corp., which argues that readers who come via links from search and aggregators and bloggers and such are worthless because they’re not local and they don’t stay; they’re one-click-wonders. The readers who come back again and again, the ones you know more about and can rely on and target better and build relationships with, goes this logic, are worth more. And News Corp. is also threatening to charge them.

So why charge your best customers? Why single them out? Why risk driving them away?

The logic eludes me. So do the economics.

I know, the argument is that these readers use the content more so they should be charged more. But that is based on the assumption that content is a consumable, a scarcity that drains the more it is read. Of course, it isn’t. Content is, instead, a magnet that can create relationships of value; whether that happens is up to the creator of the content and the quality of service and relevance is gives. That, dare I repeat it, is the basis of the link economy.

But note the verb that started off the paragraph above: should. Readers who read more should pay more. This is the product of journalism’s sense of entitlement.

So why would The Times charge? There are a few possible reasons:

* It has failed at advertising, as I said of News Corp. recently.

* Its costs are too high — and rather than cutting them into a rational business, it desperately seeks some other revenue.

* It is falling prey to PR, to the pressure of outsiders who keep nattering on about charging.

* It has forgotten its own lessons with TimesSelect sees amnesia as a strategy.

I think the risks are great and grave. The Times could have fought to become the preeminent news brand on earth, fighting it out with the BBC for that title. Instead, I fear, it will duck into its shell as the Washington Post has.

I already pay for The Times at home. I hope they would not charge me again. If they do, I will cancel the paper. If they charge me for using the paper more, I will use it less. I will find other very good substitutes for much of what I get from it — indeed, this will push me to discover and curate new sources. I will read what matters most to me from The Times and discover just how much that is — a calculation the paper should not want to force me to make, not when there is so much new and good competition out there.

Clay Shirky has ridiculed micropayments, saying that we don’t like being nickel-and-dimed. I’ll ridicule metering, reminding those who contemplate it to remember what we think of meter maids. We curse them.

There is only one thing that can happen should The TImes put a meter on us. It will shrink.

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