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August 15 2012

16:01

July 25 2012

13:22

AOL says Patch continues to double its revenue from last year

Poynter :: In its second-quarter earnings report, AOL says Patchgrew traffic and engagement at double digit rates year-over-year and quarter-over-quarter” and that revenue more than doubled in the second quarter compared to a year earlier.

A summary by Steve Myers, www.poynter.org

Tags: AOL Patch

April 12 2012

16:01
16:01

February 11 2012

09:08

Jim Romenesko: Patch plans to reduce staff and change its editorial format

I found PIP to be the most disturbing part of the post. Jim Romensko published the replies of Janine Iamunno, head of Patch communications and Patch editor-in-chief Brian Farnham as well. Their references to their answers follow this post of course as well.

Jim Romenesko :: A Patch insider tells Jim Romenesko readers that the AOL-owned hyperlocal news sites plan to cut staff and freelance budgets and start producing “easy, quick-hitting, cookie-cutter copy.” Examples: Best Ofs, and features like “What’s happening to this vacant storefront?”  I’m told that this is in the works: Every Patch employee given a rating of “Developing” on the recent 2011 Employee Annual Review will likely be placed on a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP) that begins a 30-day countdown to either improve or lose your job. 

Continue to read Jim Romenesko, jimromenesko.com

Tags: Patch

February 10 2012

06:55

Where does Arianna fit into AOL’s new patch plans?

paidContent :: AOL has hired a new Chief Content Officer in its latest attempt to reboot Patch, the network of hundreds of sites that offer “hyper local” coverage. The appointment of Parenting.com’s Rachel Fishman Feddersen comes at a high time when AOL CEO Tim Armstrong is promising impatient shareholders that Patch is “not a pet project” and that he will turn around the sites that reportedly lost $100 million last year.

While a turnaround strategy is clearly in order, there’s a big wild card here. Namely, what role will Arianna Huffington now play in the Patch properties?

Continue to read Jeff Roberts, paidcontent.org

January 13 2012

15:00

Boston.com adds tweets to news feed for Your Town sites

The Boston Globe is quietly testing a redesign of its Your Town product on Boston.com to give the locally focused sites a more engaged, real-time feel. And “real-time feel” is short for a blog-like, Twitter-like stream of stories and information.

Your Town is a network of 50 sites dedicated to local news in the towns surrounding Boston proper, places like Cambridge (home of the Lab), Quincy, Salem, and Brookline. It’s the Brookline site where the Globe is testing out a new two column look — change from the three-column layout before — with a main well dedicated to aggregating local news and a left rail that’s home to ads, local services, an events calendar and links for SeeClickFix.

It’s a clean, open kind of design, which, on first glance is very bloggy and a little Twitter-esque. Jim Bodor, director of product development for Boston.com, said that’s exactly the idea. Over email Bodor told me they wanted to create a “dashboard for a reader’s community.”

“The design changes are aimed at giving the Your Town home pages a more social and real-time feel,” he said.

The Your Town sites, which are staffed by an editor and a writer, are by and large aggregators, combining regional town coverage from the Globe, but also incorporating local blogs and other community news sites (like the blog of the local police department). But the new look also aggregates individual tweets hand-plucked from locals on Twitter, displaying them inline with other news in the feed. A tweet earns the same visual rank as a Globe story, each its own solo news item.

It’s common for news sites to include Twitter widgets displaying their own tweets or those from trusted sources, but it’s rare to see tweets themselves — particularly non-staff-produced tweets — displayed as a unit of news. Bodor said what’s happening on Twitter is part of the broader news discussion in a community, one that a segment of readers already knows about. This amplifies that to a larger audience and creates a richer site, he said.

“Before we launched the new site, we identified prominent tweeters in Brookline who we know tweet regularly about local topics, and are automatically incorporating those tweets into the stream,” he said.

Employing Twitter makes for a good two-for-one opportunity. By sourcing and prominently featuring tweets from the community Your Town not only can add to the amount of content on sites but also extend a hand to readers and create a more engaged audience. That’s important because the Your Town sites are in a competitive local-news space that includes Patch sites as well as the Wicked Local network competing on school coverage, traffic and road updates, and sports from Pop Warner on up.

And now with the recent split between Boston.com and BostonGlobe.com, readers, especially those in the ring around the bay, have a stark choice to make between free and paid, not just regional and local news. A redesign, and the inclusion of Twitter, while not exactly earth shattering moves, could help move readers in the direction of Boston.com and Your Town sites.

It’s been three years since the Your Town sites launched and, aside from the usual town-by-town fluctuations, they maintain steady traffic. While not going into specifics, Bodor said Your Town “is driving significant, material traffic throughout Boston.com,” and is consistently among the 10 best performing parts of Boston.com.

Since the Brookline site went live a few weeks ago, Bodor and his team have been monitoring readers responses as well as any bugs or issues that pop up. They’re calling the Brookline site a beta, but plan to rollout the same design scheme across the rest of the sites in the next few months.

January 11 2012

16:50

Daily Must Reads, Jan. 11, 2012

The best stories across the web on media and technology, curated by Nathan Gibbs


1. Justice Alito: "It is not going to be long before [broadcast TV] goes the way of vinyl records and eight-track tapes" (New York Times)

2. Finding success through pay walls (Monday Note)

3. UK to reintroduce computer science teaching in schools (Geek) 

4. Patch triples traffic year-over-year, claims growth across network 'consistent' (Street Fight)

5. Piano Media wants national paywalls all over Europe (Nieman Journalism Lab)

6. Q&A with Nick Kristof on journalism in a digital world (Fast Company)



Subscribe to our daily Must Reads email newsletter and get the links in your in-box every weekday!



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December 18 2011

19:19

AOL's Patch will lose at least $100m this year and revenue is tiny

Business Insider :: AOL's local business, Patch, will lose at least $100 million this year and generate paltry revenues, according to documents we've obtained from a source. Analysts say that, during 2011, AOL CEO Tim Armstrong invested approx. $160 million into Patch, a network of 850 or local news blogs. His big bet was that AOL could, eventually, richly profit by filling one of the last remaining "white spaces" on the Internet by creating local content and selling local ads against it. 

How did the bet do this year?

Continue to read Nicholas Carlson, www.businessinsider.com

December 10 2011

18:11

Tom Stites: layoffs, cutbacks, and the new world of news deserts

Journalism as a public good? - No, I don't think so. Instead information is a public good and journalism is a transport protocol for how information will be transferred to "readers"; journalism forms a crucial part of a larger nervous system of a society, a part definitely essential for any society to stay healthy.

Niemanlab :: Isn’t it a crucial issue that a huge part of the American people, the less-than-affluent majority, is civically malnourished due to the sad state of U.S. journalism — and that the nation’s broad electorate is thus all but certainly ill informed? It has long troubled me, and many others, that an issue so central to democracy has such a peripheral role in the discourse about journalism’s future, which tends to focus more on crowdsourcing, Twitter and Facebook, aggregation vs. original reporting, how AOL is faring with Patch, and search engine optimization. These are important topics, but

[Tom Stites:] ... perhaps an energizing frame like “news desert” can widen the aperture of thinking about journalism’s future and sharpen the focus on people’s and democracy’s needs — on journalism as public good.

Continue to read Tom Stites, www.niemanlab.org

October 07 2011

19:20

Huffington Post to launch Detroit and Miami Sites, but what about Patch?

AdWeek :: The Huffington Post will launch two new city pages in November, Adweek has learned: HuffPost Detroit and HuffPost Miami. HuffPo has been launching a lot of new topic pages lately, enough so that the announcement of two additions might normally not be newsworthy. But the launch of these two local sites, confirmed by AOL's vice president of communications, renews the concerns about another AOL property: Patch, the company’s costly venture into citizen-generated local news.

Continue to read www.adweek.com

September 15 2011

20:46

July 08 2011

14:00

This Week in Review: What Google+ could do for news, and Murdoch’s News of the World gets the ax

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

Google’s biggest social effort yet: This is a two-week edition of This Week in Review, so most of our news comes from last week, rather than this week. The biggest of those stories was the launch of Google+, Google’s latest and most substantial foray into the social media landscape. TechCrunch had one of the first and best explanations of what Google+ is all about, and Wired’s Steven Levy wrote the most comprehensive account of the thinking at Google behind Plus: It’s the product of a fundamental philosophical shift from the web as information to the web as people.

Of course, the force to be reckoned with in any big social media venture is Facebook, and even though Google told Search Engine Land it’s not made to be a Facebook competitor, Google+ was seen by many (including The New York Times) as Google’s most ambitious attempt yet to take on Facebook. The design looks a lot like Facebook, and pages for businesses (like Facebook’s Fan Pages) are on their way.

Longtime tech blogger Dave Winer was unimpressed at the effort to challenge Facebook, and Om Malik of GigaOM said Facebook has nothing to be afraid of in Google+, though All Facebook’s Nick O’Neill said Google+’s ubiquity across the web should present a threat to Facebook.

But the biggest contrast people drew between Google+ and Facebook was the more intuitive privacy controls built into its Circles feature. Ex-Salon editor Scott Rosenberg wrote a particularly thoughtful post arguing that Google+ more accurately reflects social life than Facebook: “In truth, Facebook started out with an oversimplified conception of social life, modeled on the artificial hothouse community of a college campus, and it has never succeeded in providing a usable or convenient method for dividing or organizing your life into its different contexts.” His thought was echoed by j-prof Jeremy Littau (in two posts) and the Guardian’s Dan Gillmor.

Google’s other ventures into social media — Buzz, Wave, Orkut — have fallen flat, so it’s somewhat surprising to see that the initial reviews for Google+ were generally positive. Among those enamored with it were TechCrunch’s MG Siegler, ReadWriteWeb’s Marshall Kirkpatrick, social media guru Robert Scoble, and the Huffington Post’s Craig Kanalley (though he wondered about Google’s timing). It quickly began sending TechCrunch loads of traffic, and social media marketer Chris Brogan brainstormed 50 ways Google+ could influence the rest of the web.

At the same time, there was some skepticism about its Circles function: TechCrunch’s Siegler wondered whether people would use it as intended, and ReadWriteWeb’s Sarah Perez said they might not be equipped to handle complicated, changing relationships. In a smart piece, marketing exec A.J. Kohn said Circles marks an old-fashioned form of sharing. GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram, meanwhile, said Circles look great, but they aren’t going to be much use until there’s a critical mass of people to put in them.

Google+ and the news: This being a journalism blog, we’re most interested in Google+ for what it means for news. As Poynter’s Jeff Sonderman pointed out, the aspect of Google+ that seems to have the most potential is its Sparks feature, which allows users to collect recommended news around a specific term or phrase. Former New York Times reporter Jennifer 8. Lee said Sparks could fill a valuable niche for news organizations in between Facebook and Twitter — sort of a more customizable, less awkward RSS. The University of Missouri’s KOMU-TV has already used it in a live broadcast, and Breaking News’ Cory Bergman gave a few valuable lessons from that organization’s first week on Google+.

CUNY j-prof Jeff Jarvis gave his thoughts on a few potential uses for news: It could be very useful for collaboration and promotion, but not so much for live coverage. Journalism.co.uk’s Sarah Marshall listed several of the same uses, plus interviewing and “as a Facebook for your tweeps.” Sonderman suggested a few changes to Google+ to make it even more news-friendly, including allowing news org pages and improving the Sparks search and filtering. Still, he saw it as a valuable addition to the online news consumption landscape: “It’s a serendipity engine, and if executed well it could make Google+ an addictive source of news discovery.”

A bit of Google+-related miscellany before we move on: Social media marketer Christopher Penn gave some tips on measuring Google+, author Neil Strauss condemned the growing culture of Facebook “Likes” (and now Google +1s), and GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram offered a rebuttal.

Murdoch kills News of the World: In one of the most surprising media-related moves of the year, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. suddenly shut down one of its most prominent properties, the 168-year-old British tabloid News of the World, on Thursday. The decision stemmed from a long-running scandal involving NotW investigators who illegally hacked into the phones of celebrities. This week, the Guardian reported that the hacking extended to the voicemail of a murdered 13-year-old girl and possibly the families of dead soldiers, and that the paper’s editor, Rebekah Brooks (now the head of News Corp. in Britain) was informed of some of the hacking.

Facing an advertising boycott and Parliamentary opposition, Murdoch’s son, James, announced News of the World will close this weekend. (The Guardian has the definitive blow-by-blow of Thursday’s events.) It was a desperate move, and as the New York Times, paidContent, and many on Twitter noted, it was almost certainly an attempt to keep the scandal’s collateral damage away from Murdoch’s proposed BSkyB merger, which was put on hold and possible in jeopardy this week.

Though the closing left hundreds of suddenly out-of-work employees, it may prove less damaging in the big picture for News Corp. than you might expect. NotW only published on Sundays, and it’s widely suspected that its sister tabloid, the Sun, will simply expand to include a Sunday edition to cover for its absence. As one Guardian editor stated, the move may simply allow News Corp. to streamline its operation and save cash, and Poynter’s Rick Edmonds called it a smart business move. (Its stock rose after the announcement.)

There’s plenty that has yet to play out, as media analyst Ken Doctor noted: The Guardian pointed out how evasive James Murdoch’s closing letter was, and Slate’s Jack Shafer said the move was intended to “scatter and confuse the audience.” Brooks, the one that many thought would take the fall for the scandal, is still around, and the investigation is ongoing, with more arrests being made today. According to The New Yorker’s Ken Auletta and CUNY’s Jeff Jarvis, though, the buck stops with Rupert himself and the culture he created, and the Columbia Journalism Review’s Ryan Chittum said the story has revealed just how cozy Murdoch is with the powerful in the U.K.

Making journalism easier on Twitter: Twitter has been reaching out to journalists for quite some time now through a media blog, but last week it took things a step further and launched Twitter for Newsrooms, a journalist’s guide to using Twitter, with tips on reporting, making conversation, and promoting content. The Lab’s Justin Ellis gave a quick glimpse into the rationale behind the project.

A few people were skeptical: TechCrunch’s Alexia Tsotsis suspected that Twitter’s preaching to the choir, arguing that for the journalists who come across Twitter for Newsrooms, Twitter already is a newsroom. The Journal Register’s Steve Buttry called it “more promotional than helpful,” and suggested some other Twitter primers for journalists. Ad Age’s Matthew Creamer added a tongue-in-cheek guide to releasing your anger on Twitter.

Meanwhile, the Lab’s Megan Garber reported on the ideas of NPR and Andy Carvin for improving Twitter’s functionality for reporting, including a kind of real-time influence and credibility score for Twitter sources, and a journalism-oriented meme-tracking tool for developing stories.

Mobile media and tablet users, profiled: There were several studies released in the past two weeks that are worth noting, starting with Pew’s report on e-reader and tablet users. Pew found that e-reader ownership is booming, having doubled in six months. The Knight Digital Media Center’s Amy Gahran reasoned that e-readers are ahead of tablets right now primarily because they’re so much cheaper, and offered ideas for news organizations to take advantage of the explosion of e-reader users.

Three other studies related to tablets and mobile media: One study found that a third of tablet users said it’s leading them to read print newspapers and magazines less often; another showed that people are reading more on digital media than we think, and mostly in browsers; and a third gave us more evidence that games are still king among mobile apps.

Reading roundup: Bunches of good stuff to look through from the past two weeks. I’ll go through it quickly:

— Turns out the “digital first” move announced last month by the Guardian also includes the closing of the international editions of the Guardian and Observer. Jeff Jarvis explained what digital first means, but Suw Charman-Anderson questioned the wisdom the Guardian’s strategy. The Lab’s Ken Doctor analyzed the economics of the Guardian’s situation, as well as the Mail and the BBC’s.

— This week in AOL/Huffington Post news: Business Insider revealed some leaked lackluster traffic numbers for Patch sites, and reported that Patch is undergoing a HuffPo-ization. That prompted Judy Sims and Slate’s Jack Shafer to be the latest to rip into Patch’s business model, and Shafer followed up to address rebuttals about non-Patch hyperlocal news.

— Google+ was the only interesting Google-related news over the past two weeks: The Lab’s Megan Garber wrote about Google’s bid to transform mobile ads, potential new directions for Google News, and Google highlighting individual authors in search returns. The New York Times’ Virginia Heffernan also wrote on Google’s ongoing war on “nonsense” content.

— A couple of paywall notes: The Times of London reported that it has 100,000 subscribers a year after its paywall went up, and Dorian Benkoil said the New York Times’ plan is working well, the Lab’s Megan Garber wrote about the Times adding a “share your access” offer to print subscribers.

— Three practical posts for journalists: Poynter’s Jeff Sonderman has tips for successful news aggregation and personalized news delivery, and British j-prof Paul Bradshaw reported on his experience running his blog through a Facebook Page for a month.

— And three bigger-picture pieces to think on: Wetpaint’s Ben Elowitz on the shrinking of the non-Facebook web, former Guardian digital editor Emily Bell on the U.S.’ place within the global media ecosystem, and Paul Bradshaw on the new inverted pyramid of data journalism.

July 07 2011

15:00

The newsonomics of the Swift Street Courtyard

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.

You want local? The Swift Street Courtyard is local.

Amid all the many abstractions about local and hyperlocal, Patch and reader/ad match, print migration and monetization, the institution of the Swift Street Courtyard whispered something to me about “local” last week.

The Swift Street Courtyard is a small, commercial development on the west side of Santa Cruz, my new hometown. It’s the brainchild of bakers Kelly and Mark Sanchez, who developed and own the two-acre complex overall and run Kelly’s French Bakery, the courtyard’s hub. It sprung out of a fallen-down light industrial area (packing Brussels sprouts in the old days), opening in 2003. Now it’s a cool destination, a tiny slice of post-industrial paradise, housewares and lighting stores, salons and yoga studios, gift, silk, and knitting shops and a just-opened, direct-from-the-ranch butcher. People regularly use the courtyard, a “playpen” as Kelly Sanchez calls it, as a meeting and chatting spot. It’s on the mental map of Santa Cruzans, drawing 20,000 people or so a month. Across an alley, another developer has matched the Courtyard style, building a burgeoning center of wine tasting, so now the more than half dozen Santa Cruz Mountains wineries, an organic brewpub, and the four-star Cellar Door restaurant attract still more visitors. (There’s even a gin joint, literally a new boutique gin maker, a block or two down.)

Yet, if you look up Swift Street Courtyard on Google, you find little helpful. Of course, there are lots of links: 2.4 million without quotes around the name, a mere 436,000 if you add “Santa Cruz.” We find little helpful, useful — or indicative of why this local institution is an institution. While we get links to sites that mention the place, we don’t get a sense of the place, a feel of the place — or, really, much useful information. What we get — and my sense is this is increasingly true of online-delivered search results — is a kind of Yellow Pages 2.0. It’s not as simple as the old YP: In its mass, and clutter, there is far more information than the old YP, yet there’s little depth or breadth. I don’t need 74 sites offering me the same phone number, address, or “Map It” functions.

In the Swift Street Courtyard example, I think we see both a big, current problem of local and a huge opportunity, for readers, publishers, and marketers. If Gordon Borrell’s merry research band is close to right, there’s a cornucopia of local digital advertising spend developing: $13.5 billion in 2011, rising to $25 billion, when it could be 25 percent of the local ad spend. So let’s look at the newsonomics of the Swift Street Courtyard to see what we can learn and how the next generation of digital media can earn some of those dollars.

Let’s start with what we now find, via Google, in order, because that tells us how far local has to go:

  • Wine Country Getaways gives us a bare-bones paragraph, plus a brief mention of some lunch options. It’s one of those sites with a smattering of directory content for northern California wineries, offering lots of links to marketing partners and, apparently, great search engine optimization. It holds the top two search rankings.
  • Yelp, with a page, listing five of the Courtyard’s businesses.
  • An events page from the local daily, the Santa Cruz Sentinel. Here’s what it looks like:

Rather minimal.

Then, there are real estate sites, foodie sites and local wiki sites, each featuring a paragraph or two of directory-like info. Zvents follows with a map and nothing more. SFGate (the Chronicle’s website) offers the exact same non-information as the Sentinel (didn’t the Justice Department say that the Hearst-owned Chronicle and the MediaNews-owned were supposed to remain competitive?). Google Places pops up, you guessed it, more directory info.

Then, into the second page, we find some individual websites for the courtyard’s shops.

Local media? Good Times, an above-average alt weekly in print, only gives us some detail from its calendar. Its paler competitor, Santa Cruz Weekly, offers no search online, no Swift info. The same is the case for Santa Cruz’s small public radio station site, KUSP.org, and the larger KAZU.org, Central Coast public radio.

Patch shows up nowhere in the top three pages, though its page would rank as second-best to Yelp’s, with five listings of individual stores, and a ton of photos, most of them mediocre and unhelpful. (From how many angles can you shoot asphalt? Does anyone edit Patch photos?) Examiner.com puts Swift Street Courtyard on its Oakland (some 70 miles north) site.

Interestingly, the only video of the place, a self-conscious bit of a visit, can be found on TurnHere (“Short Films, Cool Places”), though I only found it because Mark Sanchez told me about it; it doesn’t turn up easily on Google.

So: Is it any surprise when we hear “local doesn’t work”? As consumers, as readers, what we get for local, largely, is what’s been repurposed from print. Local words, in text. But words and nothing more don’t fit us in 2011. Seeing is believing.

When we say local, we mean our whole local experience. Certainly, the news from City Hall and the schools and the cops report, prep sports, and the like. Community life, though, is far larger.

So, let’s return to Swift Street Courtyard. Imagine a world in which consumers can move their finger around a magic tablet surface, watching, listening, reading reviews and more? That world is here, but consumers and readers are way ahead of media. For local media, or others, the question is who, and first, will take advantage of the tablet/smartphone/visual era? Digital tools — those available cheaply today to anyone — will enable somebody to:

  • Bring video to the Courtyard party. The scene is about people, shopkeepers, shoppers, sippers, yoga enthusiasts, and conversationalists. The best way to describe the place is with video. Create video that tells the story of the place, update it from time to time, as part of a wider Santa Cruz video guide. I’m sure the Sentinel and the weeklies have done some good features about the Courtyard, its shopkeepers, and its openings. Good luck even finding them on their sites. Text features do have their place and their value, but are especially valuable in context, in organization, and fronted by video.
  • Bring tours, mapping and a bit of gaming to the Courtyard party. Pull in a little of the fluidity of Trulia’s mapping and searching, a little of the cinéma réalité of Grand Theft Auto, a little of the 360 views of real estate tours.
  • Bring events to the Courtyard party. Yes, if you meander through online listings of the daily, the weeklies, and Patch, you can find stuff happening there. Why not put it in single place? Events aren’t just unusual events. What kind of soup does Kelly’s French Bakery have today? What is Sones Winery tasting today? What’s new and fresh at the brand-new El Salsichero handcrafted charcuterie (I told you this was Santa Cruz)? That’s news, events — and shopping.
  • Yes, bring shopping to the Courtyard party. I recall Village Soup‘s Richard Anderson telling me a few years ago about his innovation: letting lunch places tell would-be patrons about the daily hot plate special. Visit Village Soup, and you see BizOffers and OrgOffers giving you very specific offers about what’s on tap, today, now. It’s a step beyond Groupon. Shopping here, commerce here, has lots of potential edges. A local medium could put up the whole Courtyard online, charging for its service. (That’s hardly a new idea. I remember Philly.com, under Chris Mills, offering sophisticated commercial video in the late ’90s; great idea, just too early.) In fact, the digital courtyard idea offers lots of selling and buying opportunities around search engine optimization and marketing, sponsorship, customer-list-building, deals of the day, location-aware deals of-the-moment, and lots more.

Sure, I may sign up for GotDailyDeals.com from the Santa Cruz Sentinel, but how cool would it be, if I could specifically select Courtyard deals and avoid offers from oil-change shops I’m not interested in? And how valuable would such segmenting be to merchants?

Take all of what local media are trying to sell and apply it to this micro-community, the Swift Street Courtyard. (Yes, you can also apply it to schools, and parks, and downtowns — some with more direct commercial opportunity than others.) The Courtyard is only a small piece of Santa Cruz, and Santa Cruz is only a tiny corner of the terrestrial and digital worlds. Yet it gives us a sense of how local could work, work differently and work profitably for merchants and for consumers. Start small, make it work and expand from there. Suddenly, local commerce — and understanding that $13.5 billion number — can look different.

What’s your Swift Street Courtyard?

So who will step up? Dailies and weeklies have such a tough time escaping their legacy of text, and seeing the world differently, though I do see some rumblings I’ll write about soon. Public radio stations understand audio, but the small ones have few staff. Patch has the benefit of several feet on the street, but they seem to be running as fast as they can. City guide sites have always stopped short, delivering templated information that now feels so ’90s. Maybe the merchants themselves, aided by smart marketers who can use today’s tools, will do it themselves, bypassing media “help”; our handcrafted charcuterie already has one impressive little site (sans video) for an a butcher shop. Maybe it’s nonprofits; the city of Santa Cruz has already engaged a WayFinding group to “to evaluate and improve upon the experience of navigating around Santa Cruz,” as a half dozen other cities are also doing.

It’s an opening, and a huge one. We may see some media grab on to the possibility, testing and developing models, which could spread through chains or franchises or simply best practice. Or we may see media further decrying the difficulty of defining and selling “local,” upping their sales attempts as their products continue to disappoint and fail to engage readers.

I’d like to believe in the former, but history has so far proven out the latter. Maybe 2012, with 50 million iPads in the U.S. — by my estimate, that means as many as 40,000 residents of Santa Cruz Country — will prove differently.

June 17 2011

05:47

Report finds a “surprisingly small audience for local news traffic”. What about Patch?

Niemanlab :: Local news outlets get less than one half of one percent of all pageviews in a typical market, according to a new report (free pdf download) called “Less of the Same: The Lack of Local News on the Internet.” Nikki Usher points out: "Patch makes almost no appearance in the data at all, suggesting that local and commercial online-only news enterprises aren’t reaching significant traffic numbers."

The report, commissioned as part of the FCC’s quadrennial mandated review of broadcast ownership regulations, was intended as a comprehensive look to evaluate just what the rough times in the news industry have meant for local news, according to Matthew Hindman, the author George Washington University professor who authored the report.

Continue to read Nikki Usher, www.niemanlab.org

May 20 2011

14:30

This Week in Review: What Twitter does to us, Google News gets more local, and making links routine

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

Twitter on the brain: Last week, New York Times executive editor Bill Keller got a rise out of a lot of folks online with one of the shortest of his 21 career tweets: “#TwitterMakesYouStupid. Discuss.” Keller revealed the purpose of his social experiment this week in a column arguing, in so many words, that Twitter may be dulling your humanity, and probably making you stupid, too. Here’s the money quote: “But my inner worrywart wonders whether the new technologies overtaking us may be eroding characteristics that are essentially human: our ability to reflect, our pursuit of meaning, genuine empathy, a sense of community connected by something deeper than snark or political affinity.”

This, as you might imagine, did not go over particularly well online. There were a couple strains of reaction: Business Insider’s Henry Blodget and All Twitter’s Lauren Dugan argued that Twitter may indeed be changing us, but for the good, by helping make previously impossible connections.

Alexia Tsotsis of TechCrunch and Mike Masnick of Techdirt countered Keller by saying that while Twitter isn’t built for deep conversations, it is quite good at providing an entry point for such discussion: “What you see publicly posted on Twitter and Facebook is just the tip of the conversation iceberg,” Tsotsis said. GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram, meanwhile, defended Twitter’s true social nature, and sociologist Zeynep Tufekci gave a fantastic breakdown of what Twitter does and doesn’t do culturally and socially.

Two of the most eloquent responses were provided by Nick Bilton, one of Keller’s own employees, and by Gizmodo’s Mat Honan. Bilton pointed out that our brains have shown a remarkable ability to adapt quickly to new technologies without sacrificing old capacities. (Be sure to check out Keller’s response afterward.)

Honan made a similar argument: Keller, he said, is confusing the medium with the message, and Twitter, like any technology, is what you make it. “If you choose to do superficial things there, you will have superficial experiences. If you use it to communicate with others on a deeper level, you can have more meaningful experiences that make you smarter, build lasting relationships, and generally enhance your life,” Honan wrote.

Google gets more local with news: Google News unveiled a few interesting changes in the past week, starting with the launch of “News near you.” Google has sorted news by location for a while now, but this feature will allow smartphone users to automatically get local news wherever they are. ReadWriteWeb’s Dan Rowinski explained why newspapers should be worried about Google moving further onto their local-news turf, and GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram criticized newspapers for not coming up with like this themselves.

Poynter’s Jeff Sonderman, on the other hand, said Google’s feature is still in need of some human curation to go with its algorithmic aggregation. That’s an area in which local newspapers can still dominate, he said, but it’ll require some technological catchup, as well as a willingness to get over fears about linking to competitors.

Another change, not publicized by Google News but spotted by the folks at Search Engine Land, was the addition of an option to allow users to filter out blogs and press releases from their results. This raised the question, what exactly does Google consider a blog? Google told Search Engine Land it relies on a variety of factors to make that decision, especially self-identification. Mathew Ingram ripped this classification, and urged Google to put everything that contains news together in Google News and let readers sort it out. (Former Lab writer Zach Seward wrote about the problems with Google News’ blog label back in 2009.)

Fitting linking into news’ workflow: A discussion about linking has been simmering on Twitter on and off over the past few weeks, and it began to come together into something useful this week. This round of the conversation started with a post by web thinker and scholar Doc Searls, who wondered why news organizations don’t link out more often. In the comments, the Chicago Tribune’s Brian Boyer suggested that one reason is that many newspapers’ CMS’s and workflows are print-centric, making linking logistically difficult.

CUNY j-prof C.W. Anderson responded that the workflow issue isn’t much of an excuse, saying, as he put it on Twitter: “At this point ‘linking’ has been around for twenty years. The fact that this is STILL a workflow issue is almost worse than not caring.” This kicked off a sprawling debate on Twitter, aptly chronicled via Storify by Mathew Ingram and Alex Byers. Ingram also wrote a post responding to a few of the themes of resistance of links, particularly the notion that information on the web is inferior to information gained by old-fashioned reporting.

British journalist Kevin Anderson took on the workflow issue in particular, noting how outdated many newspaper CMS’s are and challenging them to catch up technologically: “It’s an industrial workflow operating in a digital age. It’s really only down to ‘that’s the way we’ve always done it’ thinking that allows such a patently inefficient process to persist.” Publish2′s Scott Karp gave an idea for a solution to the CMS mess.

AOL’s continued makeover: Another week, another slew of personnel moves at AOL. PaidContent’s David Kaplan reported that AOL is hiring “a bunch” of new (paid) editors and shuffling some current employees around after its layoff of hundreds this spring. Overall, Kaplan wrote, this is part of the continued effort to put the Huffington Post’s stamp on AOL’s editorial products.

One of the AOL entities most affected by the shifts is Seed, which had been a freelance network, but will now fall under AOL’s advertising area as a business-to-business product. Saul Hansell, who was hired in 2009 to run Seed, is moving to HuffPo to edit its new “Big News” features. In a blog post, Hansell talked about what this means for HuffPo and for Seed.

Meanwhile, the company is also rolling out AOL Industry, a set of B2B sites covering energy, defense, and government. But wait, that’s not all: AOL’s Patch is launching 33 new sites in states targeting the 2012 election. The hyperlocal news site Street Fight also reported that Patch is urging its editors to post more often, and a group of independent local news sites is banding together to tell the world that they are not Patch, nor anything like it.

Reading roundup: As always, plenty of other stuff to get to this week.

— We mentioned a Pew report’s reference to the Drudge Report’s influence in last week’s review, and this week The New York Times’ David Carr marveled at Drudge’s continued success without many new-media bells and whistles. Poynter’s Julie Moos looked at Drudge’s traffic over the years, while the Washington Post disputed Pew’s numbers. ZDNet’s David Gewirtz had five lessons Drudge can teach the rest of the media world.

— A few paid-content items: A Nielsen survey on what people are willing to pay for various mobile services, Poynter’s Rick Edmonds on The New York Times’ events marketing for its pay plan, and the Lab’s Justin Ellis on paid-content lessons from small newspapers.

— A couple of tablet-related items: Next Issue Media, a joint effort of five publishers to sell magazines on tablets, released its first set of magazines on Google Android-powered Samsung Galaxy. And here at the Lab, Ken Doctor expounded on the iPad as the “missing link” in news’ digital evolution.

— Columbia University announced it will launch a local news site this summer focusing on accountability journalism, and the Lab’s Megan Garber gave some more details about what Columbia’s doing with it.

— The Columbia Journalism Review’s Lauren Kirchner had an interesting conversation with Slate’s David Plotz about Slate’s aggregation efforts, and in response, Reuters’ Felix Salmon made the case for valuing aggregation skills in journalists.

— This weekend’s think piece is a musing by Maria Bustillos at The Awl on Wikipedia, Marshall McLuhan, communal knowledge-making, and the fate of the expert. Enjoy.

April 29 2011

14:30

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 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.

March 10 2011

15:00

The newsonomics of AOL/Patch buying Outside.in

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.

There are two ways to be local, we’ve learned.

You can create local news, as newspapers, TV, and some radio stations — and more recently, tens of thousands of bloggers — have done. Or you can aggregate local, sorting through what those newspapers, TV and radio stations, and bloggers have created, picking up what you want, lifting a headline and quick summary and providing a link.

Over the years, the aggregators have often laughed — not publicly, of course — at those silly people who sink millions into creating local news, or content of any kind, while creators have joked — sometimes publicly — that some day those aggregators will have to turn out the lights, when all the content creators have gone bankrupt and out of business. Creation is hugely expensive, when all you have to do is build a better algorithm, scoop up what’s already there, organize it better than someone else, and sell advertising against it. That’s why the first decade of this century has been largely the decade of the aggregators, with the Googles, Yahoos, MSNs and AOLs, among the leaders in aggregation — and revenue.

So as much as AOL CEO Tim Armstrong talks about sparking a content revolution and creating lots of original content, in the background, he also needs to up his aggregation game, using more and more of other people’s content. That’s how I read the recent announcement that AOL’s Patch is buying Outside.in, a company that uses technology to roundup local content, dividing it into the categories of local news and local blogs — and which has partnered with newspaper companies in its four-year history. (Sadly, the memorable url construction, owing to an Indian .in domain, will probably fade into history.) It’s a small play, but one that may have bigger impact on the emergence of hyperlocal news — and local advertising/marketing dollars — in the years ahead. Let’s look at the newsonomics of the Outside.in deal, and what it tells us about the future of Patch itself and AOL’s play to get bigger audiences faster.

The deal — for a purchase price of less than $10 million — is small when compared to the investment ($14.4 million) put into Outside.in by some high-profile investors (Union Square Ventures, Marc Andreessen, John Borthwick, Esther Dyson, and CNN) and when compared to AOL’s $315 Huffington Post buy. It’s tiny, also, when compared to AOL’s spending of $606 million for 14 acquisitions since the beginning of 2010 — a number, of course, that itself pales against Google’s 48 purchases for $1.8 billion over roughly the same period.

Yet it parallels the HuffPo buy in a major way: It’s an attempt by AOL to get bigger faster. Look at AOL’s financials and it’s clear Armstrong is in a race against time. As one savvy newspaper veteran pointed out to me last week, AOL looks, ironically, a lot like a newspaper company. It has a legacy circulation product, in slow, but unmistakeable decline — its AOL-brand Internet access service — and a digital ad business (in turnaround mode) that isn’t growing fast enough to turn the company sustainably profitable in the future. So The Huffington Post not only pasted the face of Arianna atop the site, in hopes her followers will follow, but acts as the wished-for rocket fuel for overall company traffic growth over the next couple of years, especially as the election season, with its political interest, dawns once again.

Patch is part of that strategy for audience growth, drawing into AOL customers through the local pipeline.

The Outside.in deal aims to do a simple thing to support that growth: create more page views around local content, at a lower cost to AOL. Or putting it even more simply: bulking up Patch, on the cheap.

And isn’t that what critics of fast-growing Patch — more than 800 served up across the country, the fastest-growing news startup and hirer of journalists in the last several years — have said since Armstrong and Patch President Warren Webster announced its hypergrowth plan last summer. For all of you who have said, “I don’t get the business model, they’re paying too much for content,” Armstrong and Webster apparently agree with you.

Patch still needs to make its one editor/reporter per Patch pencil out, but it can do something about the costs of lassoing other content. Peruse the Patches around the country — mainly on the coasts, but with a growing representation in the Upper Midwest — and you see lots of vitality and lots of variable quality. At the top sites, you’ll find the site updated with posts and tweets every few hours, and that owes itself both to the hard-working Patch editors (10-plus hour days are still not uncommon) and their ability to pull in good stringers. The budget for those stringers actually varies by the month, as Patch balances budgets and getting its allocations right. Take a bigger Patch site — serving a city of 80,000, for instance — and it may get more than $2,500 a month in freelance budget, while smaller ones serving communities of 20,000 may only get $1,200.

What Outside.in offers Patch is a new tool to manage how much local content it offers through aggregation — rounding up news from other local sources, including local dailies and weeklies and blogs, and how much it decides to pay for directly. Add Outside.in to Patch pages and you may get the sense of a fuller news report, Patch+. Sure the plus requires readers to link off the site, but that’s the nature of the aggregation game. You get more readers to come to because you’ve created one of the largest centers of local content. If you do it right, you can be ahead of the game — and trim costs.

Let’s look at it on a pure cost basis. If Patch gets 1,000 sites up and going, which should happen this year, and it can trim what it spends on stringers by an average of $500 per site per month, that’s $6000 a year in savings per site. For the Patch network in general, that’s $6 million a year. With Outside.in costing no more than one and a half times that number, you’ve paid for the acquisition in less than two years. (Of course, there are also ongoing operating costs as Outside.in CEO and able web serial entrepreneur Mark Josephson and some other team members join Patch.)

The tweaking, of course, is both about the algorithm — tour Santa Cruz Outside.in today, and the top five news stories are from the local Patch!; where’s the local daily, the Sentinel? — and in the content model. What’s the mix of paid, fresh voices and local aggregation that pulls in, and retains, audience?

That question is, of course, what leading local newspaper sites have been trying to figure out as well. A number of newspaper partners of Outside.in itself have tried, without significant commercial success, to figure out the formula. Other sites like SeattlePI.com have used aggregation (SeattleTweets) and innovators from the Miami Herald to the Journal Register papers have signed up local bloggers, in distribution and ad-revenue-sharing programs. All of these are works-in-progress at getting the local original content creation/aggregation model right.

Patch could get it right, or righter, and become a more formidable challenger to local newspaper sites — especially as they go to paywalls of various kinds. (Although that also reopens the question of how findable and linkable their own local content is for the aggregating algorithms of Outside.in and others.) If it does get it righter, it could also become a more likely potential partner for media companies looking to cut their own local costs and reach audience. It’s all in getting that cost of content unit/ad yield per unit of content right, and no one’s yet minted the winning formula.

We can see the dilemma in one current market. Journal Register CEO John Paton (who talks about competing with Patch, here) has been working with Outside.in, to supply aggregated content for the planned fyi.Philadelphia site. He put that relationship on hold this week, and delayed the product launch, as he conjures the question: Is the new Patch/Outside.in a friend, a foe, or some in-between still to be figured out?

February 10 2011

16:00

Lance Knobel: For hyperlocal news, we local players will have the edge

Editor’s Note: In the increasingly competitive world of journalism, it’s easy to start declaring winners and losers. The reality will likely be somewhere in between; just as television didn’t kill radio, there’ll be room for lots of different kinds of news outlets in the Internet age.

So today, we’re going to feature two pieces by people whose medium of choice some have recently forecast to come up short: print newspapers (facing threats from tablets) and homegrown local news sites (facing threats from national networks).

First, Lance Knobel, cofounder of Bay Area news site Berkeleyside, argues that, despite the challenge from networks like Aol’s huge-and-growing Patch, sites at the grassroots have a stronger chance to succeed.

In the torrent of analysis on AOL’s acquisition of Huffington Post, relatively little attention has been given to the fate of Patch, AOL’s ambitious attempt to build a national network of local news sites. I have a dog in this fight: I’m one of the three founder-editors of Berkeleyside, the leading news site for Berkeley, California. So the growth of Patch — and its supposedly imminent expansion to Berkeley — has been something I’ve watched with keen attention.

The only concrete remarks I’ve seen on the Patch part of the AOL/HuffPo deal have referred to it as providing “local infrastructure” and to the benefits Huffington’s “reader engagement tools” will bring to the sites. I’m not sure I buy into either theory. I can perhaps see some logic in HuffPo having access to tons of very local journalism when, for instance, there’s a national election. What’s the mood in Walnut Creek? But when Arianna Huffington has spoken in the past about a desire to move into local she has clearly meant building city sites, not sites for towns in the 40,000 to 100,000 population where Patch is active.

There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of local online news sites, most of them run by local entrepreneurs, bootstrapping their way to sustainability (I avoid the term hyperlocal because it’s meaningless to most people). They get virtually no attention from most media observers. When attention is paid to what’s happening in local journalism the focus is on well funded ventures like Bay Citizen (Berkeleyside partners with Bay Citizen) or experiments by The New York Times and others.

I have nothing against these sites (although I’d like some share of the attention), since I believe we’re in a pre-Cambrian age of local online journalism. There is a bewildering variety of lifeforms and the likelihood is many won’t survive. We need all this experiment to find the proper evolutionary path. The truth is the bulk of the experimentation, the stretching of form, the innovative thinking is happening on sites like Berkeleyside, West Seattle Blog, The Rapidian, and many, many others. (Michele McLellan at the Reynolds Journalism Institute has been tracking this thoroughly.)

Those are the places, crucially, where the best journalism is being done as well. I know we cover Berkeley better than anyone else. We’re wholly dedicated to that task (well, wholly dedicated other than the work all of us need to do outside Berkeleyside to earn a living). We break stories, we engage the community, we’re deeply involved in the crucial debates in our city, we convene important live discussions as well. We write about the best of our city as well as the problems (that last link is not for the squeamish). Our commenters are overwhelmingly civil because they know they are dealing with their neighbors. We’re a source for action as well. We know of two businesses that survived largely because Berkeleyside wrote about them.

So isn’t Patch doing the same thing? Not quite, to my mind. There are some individual Patch sites that do a good job (our nearest neighbor, Albany Patch, is one). I have no belief, however, that you can create great or even good local sites out of a production line, no matter how much money you throw at them (Ken Auletta suggested AOL was spending $30 million a quarter on Patch). The constraint for local sites isn’t technical infrastructure or web skills — it’s finding the right people who combine a passion for their town or city with real journalism skills (and I make no distinction between those who come from conventional journalism backgrounds, like the three Berkeleyside founders, and people who have figured it out for themselves by leaping in and doing it).

Perhaps I’m old fashioned in thinking this can only happen organically. It’s not something that emerges from a strategic plan. If it did, we’d be creating Anytown-sides all over the place at the moment. We’re constrained by capital, of course, but the bigger constraint is people. We know that Anytownside wouldn’t be as good as Berkeleyside unless we could find people a lot like me and my co-founders.

Perhaps it’s easy to look at the media landscape and think local journalism belongs in big national networks. After all, in local papers you have behemoths like Gannett and Newhouse. But the papers inside these corporations were started one by one, just as Berkeleyside and others are being created today. Where I grew up there was a local weekly paper that was part of a network of a half dozen other local papers. It’s a fair guess that before that it was the creation of a lone entrepreneur. After I moved someone did a roll-up of these and other Chicago-area local papers, and that in turn was bought by the Chicago Sun-Times at some point. No one had the delusion they could create dozens or hundreds of local newspapers in one go.

I know our bet is that real journalism wins against “content” (see this excellent analysis of AOL/HuffPo to understand the distinction). I’m happy with that in the long run.

There’s also a commercial logic to our approach that I think is very difficult to duplicate at a national or even regional level. Look at the ads on any Patch site. (That’s a trick: There aren’t any on many Patch sites.) We’re doing well with advertisers, although we still have a long way to go. Why is that? Have you ever spoken to a local business owner? Online marketing is not top of their concerns. They are busy running their business, often struggling to survive in a punishing economy. So our job as a fellow local business is to help them understand just what marketing on the web is all about, a patient task of education. We often have to design their ad. We have to work with them one at a time. That’s only going to happen at an intensely local level.

If and when Patch launches in Berkeley I’ll welcome it. I’m in favor of more news providers rather than fewer. I also believe in the benefits of competition. I can crow about how good Berkeleyside is, but we can certainly improve. A competitor will push us. But in the battle between the truly local and the big corporate giants I think we local yokels have all the crucial assets on our side.

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