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September 04 2012

19:10

Tuesday Q&A: Bill Marimow on his new old job, and the future of the Philadelphia Inquirer

Here’s an understatement: It’s been a wild ride at Philadelphia’s daily newspapers. In April, The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Daily News were sold, after ratcheting concern over the political influence of the buyers. In May, the Inquirer’s chief executive stepped down.

And somewhere in between, former Inquirer editor Bill Marimow was rehired to helm the paper. Marimow had been demoted to the city desk in 2010 before leaving Philly to helm Arizona State’s Carnegie-Knight News21 digital journalism program last summer.

Now he’s back. Not many ousted editors get a second go-round. We caught up with Marimow (a former Nieman Fellow, Class of ’83) to find out how things are going, and what he’ll do differently this time. Here’s our conversation, lightly edited and condensed.

Adrienne LaFrance: I’m curious how your first day back compared with your last day with the Inquirer before.
Bill Marimow: Well, my last day was July 22, 2011. And I left the Inquirer as a reporter, general assignment on the city desk. My first day back was late April, and I came back as the editor-in-chief for the second time. To be honest with you, the experience is as invigorating as it is improbable.

I’ll tell you a funny story: This morning, we just got news of the Society of Professional Journalism awards that the Inquirer won for coverage last year. As I’m looking down this list, which was very impressive, I discover the following: Ongoing news coverage, first place: five Inquirer reporters, including me! It was for coverage of the Philadelphia school district. It’s quite a transformation for me, personally.

LaFrance: It wasn’t all that long that you were away, but the paper went through some major changes in that period.
Marimow: Well, for one thing it’s a smaller staff. I don’t know the precise number of people we had when I left, but the newsroom is now significantly smaller. Still talented, energized, and ambitious, but definitely smaller. It’s probably one of the realities of news economics right now, particularly in the print world. But it still makes it difficult to fulfill the mandate in terms of breadth coverage.

“At this point, we’re making discernible progress but the distance we have to go is greater than the distance we’ve come.”

LaFrance: How’s morale?
Marimow: I think to find that out you’d have to talk to people on the staff other than I. As the editor, I see things, I believe, objectively. We just moved from our ancestral home on North Broad Street in Philadelphia to Center City. I think that has been a real boost in morale for the staff, because the new newsroom glistens. It’s just the right size. In contrast to our old newsroom, where you had the features departments and several other groups on the mezzanine floor, everyone is now on the same floor. So it makes for a lot more collegiality.
LaFrance: You’ve said that being away from the Inquirer helped you realize the importance of a multi-platform approach. What specifically are your plans in this regard?
Marimow: Everyone knows that in this era we have to be excellent in every aspect of multimedia. So we’ve got to produce a good paper for traditionalists, people who want to have something that’s portable that they can carry around. We want to have great, quality information on our website, philly.com. We want to have great apps. We want to have a great replica product. We need to be excellent on the iPhone. Anywhere that you can get news and content, we need to be doing stellar work. At this point, we’re making discernible progress, but the distance we have to go is greater than the distance we’ve come. I’ll give you one example: Last year, the Inquirer’s iPad edition was named one of the best new apps of 2011 by Advertising Age. It hasn’t been highly publicized yet because under the old ownership they were really emphasizing Android. But it’s really impressive.
LaFrance: On the long list of areas where you want to achieve excellence, what are you tackling first? What are the specific steps you’ll take?
Marimow: We need to really develop a strategy for Philly.com. If you look at it now, it’s a hybrid website. It consists of content from the Inquirer, from the Daily News, and from other sources. It’s my feeling that the company has to have a unified, coherent strategy that will embrace the Inquirer’s values and standards on one hand, the Daily News’ values and standards on the other hand, and then all of the other components that make up Philly.com. I can express my opinion on this, but ultimately that has to be a decision for the publisher and the ownership. My opinion is that there needs to be a website that really is exclusively the province of the Inquirer, that people who want Inquirer content and Inquirer judgment have a place where they can go.
LaFrance: There was an article published the other week that proposed what the author characterized as a radical idea: to have the Inquirer move to digital-only, while keeping the Daily News in print. I wonder if you’ve seen that piece and what your reaction to it was.
Marimow: I did see that. Earlier I said we need to be excellent in every shape and form. Well, if the Inquirer were to go digital-only, it would deprive a whole generation of older readers. For instance, my mother is 89-and-a-half years old. She lives in Northeast Philadelphia and reads the Inquirer every day. She doesn’t own a computer. Her knowledge of computers, I would say, is minuscule. If there were no Inquirer in print, she would have to buy a computer, and at the age of almost 90, master new technology, or go to the Daily News, or stop reading. To me, that would be a big mistake. I’m a big advocate of making sure that everyone who values our content can get it in whatever format they want it, and that includes print.
LaFrance: Of course there’s that generation of usually older readers who only use print. But if there were some magic-wand way to give them all computers and technological literacy, would there be any other argument to keep print, other than affection for the medium?
Marimow: The argument would be: If every single Inquirer reader wanted something other than print, you could argue there should be no print. But in my opinion, there are a lot of people who may read the Inquirer or another paper online as a matter of convenience as opposed to a matter of preference. If their preference is print, then I think we should give them print, at least until an overwhelming number of our audience is totally converted.
LaFrance: What’s something that, now that you’re back in this position, you feel like you’re able to have another crack at?
Marimow: Number one, unifying a strategy for the web. Number two, trying to find a way to make the Inquirer accessible on every single kind of platform, pulling together a universal app that we could use on a five-inch device like Samsung’s, a three-and-a-half-inch device like the iPhone, a seven-inch device like the Kindle Fire or Google Nexus, or the Motorola tablet. I’m not technically proficient, but I really believe that to be successful in this generation we need to be accessible, available, and excellent on every device.
LaFrance: What’s something that you’d like to redo but realistically realize you can’t — something where you can acknowledge, “That ship has sailed.”
Marimow: I’m someone who looks forward. To me, what we really need to do is take the traditional skills of journalism — reporting and writing, the mastery of the beat, development of sources, how to use public records, interviewing techniques, the detection of a pattern — taking the traditional tools and adapting them to the multimedia world. Use those tools not only to do the great story in print or on the web but also do an accompanying video, an interview on television, on radio, whatever is required.
LaFrance: Looking more broadly, I’m curious to hear your thoughts on the future of two-newspaper towns — generally, but then specifically in Philadelphia.
Marimow: The Daily News and the Inquirer are distinctly different. The Daily News is irreverent. It’s saucy. It’s fun. It covers the city intensively. It’s got a great sports section. It covers crime and urban affairs extremely well. The Inquirer’s a lot more serious. That’s not intended to be pejorative toward the Daily News. It’s more authoritative. It does more comprehensive work in South Jersey and the Philadelphia suburbs, more in-depth coverage of business and medical science. There’s room for two newspapers in town, but there has to be a real distinction between the two.
LaFrance: You talked about having a distinct web presence, but how else do you want to distinguish the brands?
Marimow: Sixty percent of our readers are in the suburbs, and I think we have to do a much better job of covering the suburbs. Twenty percent are in South Jersey — we have to do a much better job of covering South Jersey. We need to cover those communities in greater depth than we have the resources to do now.
LaFrance: So how do you plan to do that without the resources?
Marimow: This is all a matter of news organization economics. There are only two ways to increase profitability: One is decreasing costs and the other is increasing revenue. The owners that hired me in November 2006 paid well over $500 million for this company. They incurred an enormous debt — I believe it was over $300 million. The current owners purchased the company for $55 million, and they have no debt. So they have an opportunity to both strive for increasing revenues and also tightening their belt economically. If we’re successful in restoring the company to profitability, the more possibilities there are for increasing the newsroom coverage both in terms of space in the paper and staffing.
LaFrance: In terms of the more recent staff cuts, the number I saw was 37, either through buyouts or involuntary cuts. Is that accurate?
Marimow: To be honest with you, this happened before I returned to the fray. I don’t have the precise figures. Honestly, I don’t know.
LaFrance: What kinds of staff cuts are expected?
Marimow: No cuts to the newsroom that I know of. Believe me: I am going to do everything I can to expand the staff, not reduce the staff.
LaFrance: I notice you’re on Twitter but you don’t do a lot of tweeting — you at least need an avatar! You’re still an egg.
Marimow: I know, I know! When I was at Arizona State teaching last year, I began to tweet a little bit. When I came back, I found myself wanting to tweet and promote the best work, and tweet about journalistic issues. But I found that my discipline for tweeting was superseded by the necessity for me to communicate with my staff.
LaFrance: You know you can communicate on Twitter, right?
Marimow: I know that, but then I’m communicating with the world. Having been back for just three or four months now, what I’m hoping we can do is really inspire and work with the staff. My outside-world communications have been limited. This conversation is one of them.

January 11 2012

19:00

The Philadelphia Experiment: Why a media company wants to be a tech incubator

One side effect of downsizing at most newspapers: a surplus of office space. That may be a cold blooded way of seeing the empty desks that haunt newsrooms and advertising departments, but in an era where newspapers get bought largely for the value of their underlying real estate, the fact is that’s square footage that could be put to use.

Consider the example of the Philadelphia Media Network, owner of The Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News, which has welcomed three startups inside their walls with the launch of the Project Liberty Digital Incubator. Thanks to some funds from the Knight Foundation the media company is offering itself up as a rent-free test kitchen for six months to CloudMine, SnipSnap, and ElectNext, early-stage tech companies starting out in Philly.

PMN isn’t offering up a couch to crash on purely out of the kindness of its heart: As a condition of the incubator they get an early look at whatever apps, tools, or projects the teams are working on. That would be great in itself, particularly because the companies are focused on markets that align with newspapers: SnipSnap is working on an app to scan and save coupons for mobile, ElectNext is building an app to help better connect voters to candidates, and CloudMine is creating a platform for seamless app development.

But what PMN wants more is to better expose their staffs to the world of startups and tech. There are clear lessons for journalism from people whose work emphasizes identifying audiences, monetization, and rapid iteration. If the journalists and geeks can bump into one another, there’s potential for some beneficial cross-pollination, Philadelphia Media Network CEO Gregory Osberg told me. The media network is working on its own digital offerings (Remember, this is the same company offering Android tablets to readers) and the best way to get that process to speed up is through learning from companies operating in markets like e-commerce and mobile, Osberg said. The three companies each signed non-disclosure agreements to gain access to PMN data that might be helpful as they progress their work. That means within the next few months, we could see apps from the three companies branded under the Inquirer, Daily News, or Philly.com.

It’s like having a skunkworks without paying full retail price. In the media world, that’s a bonus considering the length of time it takes to recruit and build a team of developers, producers, and others who want to work in journalism. Even better: After this six-month period, they’ll bring in a fresh group of tech companies for a new round. “This takes us to market much quicker than if we were to staff up, which takes a big investment but takes a long time in the product development cycle,” Osberg said.

One thing Osberg is clear about is that while CloudMine, ElectNext, and SnipSnap are in the building and sharing the elevator with the rest of the staff of the media network, they’re not employees — their work is their property. And that’s a good thing. “We’re rooting for their success,” Osberg said. “We’re not here to absorb their companies or slow them down. We’re here to stimulate and become a catalyst for them.”

Lots of media companies are trying to adopt the methods, philosophy and talent of the independent (read: non-journalism related) tech community. In some cases, it’s through straight-up acquisitions (CNN and Zite, Financial Times and Assanka). Other times, it’s investment, as with Digital First Media, which runs the Journal Register Co. and MediaNews Group, announcing its own plans to invest in startups that align with corners of the journalism business like advertising, content, and audience development.

The Boston Globe has an informal incubator with people from a half-dozen small firms at various stages of development, all working out of the Globe’s headquaters. Jeff Moriarty, vice president of digital products for the Globe, told me over email “We had extra space here at the Globe and wanted to create an environment around our digital lab and digital development area where we have smart people working on interesting things.” The companies (Twine, Muckrock, Schedit, among others), work in areas like video and social media, were a natural fit, and could provide support to the Globe’s own products in the future. “We figure that the more smart people we have in the room, the better our opportunities to test and explore new ideas and also to expand our network of contacts in the digital space in Boston,” he said.

In many cases, media companies are taking a quieter approach, offering hack day events like those at the Globe and The New York Times. Or it’s through grant-funded collaborations like the Knight-Mozilla News Technology Fellows, which dropped developers right in the middle of newsrooms at places like Al Jazeera English, Zeit Online, The Guardian, and the Globe.

When I asked Osberg what would the best outcome for the project, he talked in terms of the impact to the Philadelphia community, not just his media properties. “Success would be that we would have some of their technology utilitized in our product offerings, and that they were able to leverage the success of that offering in the marketplace to take their company to the next level,” he said.

Image by the University of Iowa Libraries used under a Creative Commons license

September 13 2011

06:29

New details on Philly papers' bold tablet plan

AdWeek :: Making a big bet on the tablet market, the Philadelphia Inquirer and sibling paper Philadelphia Daily News in July announced a plan to sell deeply discounted tablets containing subscriptions to its digital editions. Now, with the program set to kick off Sept. 13, Greg Osberg, the papers’ publisher, shared details of the program along with device and pricing information.

Continue to read Lucia Moses, www.adweek.com

October 14 2010

16:00

Badges? We might need some stinkin’ badges! Badgeville tries to bring a little gameplay to the news

Is good content alone enough to build reader loyalty? Or could adding a little gameplay — and some circular icons — turn casual readers into engaged ones?

Early next week, The Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News’ philly.com will launch a virtual rewards program to build reader engagement. Registered users will earn points each time they visit the site, read an article, or post a comment. These points will translate into a series of virtual trophies, which will appear alongside the articles the users read and be displayed next to their usernames whenever they comment on a story.

Philly.com’s partner in this project is a tech startup called Badgeville, which won the audience choice award at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference earlier this month. The company’s name puns on FarmVille, the Facebook game which convinced as many as 85 million users to trade virtual vegetables from virtual farms. Badgeville uses similar social gaming techniques, like awarding points, trophies, and badges, to help web sites retain users. This is not a new idea: The Huffington Post already rolled out their own system of badges this April. But Badgeville is expecting newspaper and media sites to become some of their most enthusiastic clients.

As users grab their news from the swiftly moving streams of Twitter or Facebook, homepages can seem increasingly irrelevant, and traffic spikes from successful stories soon melt away. Two years ago, the focus of philly.com execs was on pageviews, said Yoni Greenbaum, philly.com’s vice president of product development. Now, as at many newspapers, what matters at philly.com isn’t just clicks, but engagement. How long are visitors spending at the site? How often do they return?

I spoke to Badgeville’s CEO and founder Kris Duggan about the company’s overall strategy for news sites, as well as to Greenbaum and Christopher Branin about why and how Philly.com is adding points and trophies.

Building on the lessons of social gaming

Duggan told me that he doesn’t think news sites should move beyond just adding Facebook widgets to their pages as their social media strategy. “You’re just promoting Facebook, which is kind of your competition,” he said. Instead, he thinks news web sites need to leverage the same kinds of tactics that make Facebook so additive. The goal is for users to spend time as part of the news site’s own community, rather than just viewing the organization’s content occasionally through the lens of another site. (The New York Times, of course, has already implemented their own on-site version of this, Times People, which has yet to really take off.)

In order to encourage users to hang around, Badgeville can create built-in frameworks to incentivize any kind of behavior with any kind of reward, Duggan said. Rewards might be completely virtual, like shiny pixel trophies, or more real, like coupons or access to premium content. The key, Duggan said, is “communicating with the user at the right moment in time to drive behavior.”

What news sites need to do, Duggan said, is build on incentives that have worked elsewhere on the web — anything from the badges that powered Foursquare, as TechCrunch suggested, to the little profile completion bar on LinkedIn that tells users that they’ve only filled in 60 percent of their profiles.

“I really do believe that people want to see their face on web sites,” Duggan said. News sites right now use their sites to highlight their content. Duggan suggests they might need to become more like Facebook, and highlight their loyal users, as well. Why not add a widget with the faces of the users who have emailed the most stories, he told me, as well as a typical “most emailed list” of stories getting a lot of attention?

While Badgeville bills itself as a loyalty and rewards system, at the core, Duggan said: “We think of us as an analytics product…I don’t think they [news sites] really understand who their audience is. I don’t think they have the analytics to say, ‘here are our high-loyalty users, and our medium-loyalty users.’ They don’t know who’s sharing, they don’t know who’s commenting, they don’t know who the high-quality commenters are. They might have little tools for each of these things, but none of these things are unified…We think the next generation of analytics is actually influencing outcomes and changing behavior, and we think we’re in the forefront of that.”

Fitting gameplay into a newspaper context

For philly.com, partnering with Badgeville is a substantial investment. While Greenbaum said the monetary terms of their partnership were private, he did say that among philly.com’s third-party partnerships, it was “in the top three” in terms of cost.

Philly.com’s Badgeville roll-out, tentatively slated for Tuesday, will start off with a very simple incentive system. Users will get one point for visiting the site, one point for reading an article, and one point for commenting. The trophies they are awarded will be generic ones from Badgeville’s trophy library, but the “badges,” awarded for certain milestones — like posting a given number of comments — have been custom designed for philly.com. Branin said Badgeville’s service includes some barriers to keep people from gaming the points system — users can only get a point for visiting the site once every half hour, for instance, and for commenting once per article.

Branin said that they hope the points system will convey status on the site’s more enthusiastic, dedicated readers and commentors, and that the system might have an impact on the commenting culture, as HuffPo’s badge system set out more deliberately to do. As they get initial feedback on how the system is working, they’ll continue to add incentives and rewards.

I asked both Greenbaum and Branin and Duggan about how they thought reporters would react to the new system. After all, Badgeville operates on the assumption that giving out digital gold coins will attract loyal readers in a way writing good stories won’t. To a certain segment of journalists, the ones who pounce on tech entrepreneurs for referring to articles generically as “content,” Badgeville is likely to look like another step towards the total trivialization of news.

“I don’t think we’ve done a really in-depth analysis in talking with our reporters on how they’re going to feel,” Branin said, adding later that he didn’t think readers would be clicking on stories just to earn points.

Greenbaum said he thought Badgeville was friendlier to reporters than other social media tools. “It’s not that an article will have a value attached to it. It won’t be: ‘1,000 people liked this article and 10,000 people didn’t'…It’s really a tool on the publisher level and not the reporter level,” Greenbaum said.

Greenbaum and Branin also noted that the information gained from the points-and-trophies strategy could be used to direct traffic to stories that might otherwise languish unread. Philly.com might create a special badge for people who read, say, land use and development articles, or other worthy reporting that doesn’t tend to draw a lot of eyeballs.

For his part, Duggan noted that implementing a Badgeville reward system won’t fix sites with bad content or no community. A news organization needs a certain amount of community already in place for the points and trophies to have an impact. Philly.com is using Badgeville to build on what they already have; last month, that was roughly 6 million unique visitors, 76 million page views, and nearly 70,000 comments. They will be watching how the system affects the outcome of the complex algorithm they use to measure engagement. (Right now, that equation spits out a score of 73/100 for sports content engagement on philly.com, and only about 30/100 engagement for news.)

On the other hand, Duggan said, “Right or wrong, it’s just how it is. Facebook and Twitter have transactionalized your relationship with content.” In a world where content is shared freely, and articles sleep into the stream and disappear, news sites need something to “suck people back” to their home pages, Duggan said. “If you don’t have a magnet to keep people there, you’re dead.”

September 22 2010

19:00

Journal Register Company joins with Outside.in for a hyperlocal news/ad portal in Philadelphia

At the Suburban Newspapers of America conference in Philadelphia this morning, Journal Register Company CEO John Paton made an announcement: The newspaper chain will soon be launching an online, hyperlocal news portal in Philly. A new step forward in the company’s “digital first” business model, the yet-to-be-named site’s content will come from a mix of journalists professional and amateur, curated by JRC editors. And it will leverage the partnerships the JRC already has in place with Yahoo (audience targeting) and Growthspur (contributor training).

Or, as Paton puts it: “crowd and cloud.”

The site will be a direct competitor to Philly’s existing establishment news sources: the Inquirer and the Daily News. It’s no accident that Paton announced the project the day before the financially plagued papers are to be put to auction. “They’ve had that town to themselves for a long time,” he told me. “And I think there’s room in this new ecosystem for a whole bunch of people to play. I’m sure they’ll think we’re no threat at all — and I hope they keep on thinking that.”

The idea of the new site is to bolster both content and audience — on the cheap. (JRC, you’ll recall, declared bankruptcy last February; since Paton took the helm of the company shortly after that — with an advisory board that includes new media thinkers the likes of Jay Rosen and Jeff Jarvis — it’s been engaged in the Herculean task of restoring a network of small, Rust Belt papers to profitability. Remarkably, it’s getting close.) The new effort will tap into Philly’s existing content infrastructure — the hyperlocal blogs that have already sprung up to cover the area — and then give that content, via the hyperlocal news provider Outside.in, a singular publishing platform. (The site will also mark a continuation of JRC’s partnership with Growthspur, which trains would-be journos in both blogging and the dark arts of content monetization.) The details are still being worked out, but the idea is a mutualization of resources and revenues that will benefit all involved, from the local bloggers to the Journal Register Company to its partners — to, of course, the site’s consumers. Think TBD, Philly edition.

Think also: TBD, “inexpensive tools” edition. Though JRC will dedicate some of its resources to the new site — in particular, staffers will provide additional content, curation, and general editorial oversight — “we’re hoping that this will be largely crowd-supported,” Paton notes. JRC, after all, doesn’t have papers in metro Philly. “We’ve surrounded Philly with our properties, and so we’re able to provide some context” — but, then, generally not “right-downtown context.” For that, the site will rely on the bloggers who know the terrain; and in turn, Paton says, “we can bring depth to this, and we can bring curation to this.”

And that’s true of audience, as well. The site will apply JRC’s “digital first” approach…to users. Last week, JRC expanded its partnership with Yahoo — the latter company provides behavioral and geographical ad targeting to the newspaper chain — to include the Philadelphia market. That was “the sales piece,” Paton notes; the new site will be “the content piece.” The hoped-for end result? “We’re collectively creating audience, collectively creating content, at a very low price point.”

It’s a “hoped-for” result, though, because the site is still in its development stages. (Hence, again, the lack of name — “I figured TBD was taken,” Paton laughs.) But the CEO values transparency, even if it means unleashing a gestational product onto the market. “It’s a work in progress,” he says of the site. But he and the JRC staff figured, he says, “Let’s just announce it — we’ll get some help in finalizing it just from the announcement. And our solution will come out of that.”

January 07 2010

19:11

Keeping Martin honest: Checking on Langeveld’s predictions for 2009

[A little over one year ago, our friend Martin Langeveld made a series of predictions about what 2009 would bring for the news business — in particular the newspaper business. I even wrote about them at the time and offered up a few counter-predictions. Here's Martin's rundown of how he fared. Up next, we'll post his predictions for 2010. —Josh]

PREDICTION: No other newspaper companies will file for bankruptcy.

WRONG. By the end of 2008, only Tribune had declared. Since then, the Star-Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times, Journal Register Company, and the Philadelphia newspapers made trips to the courthouse, most of them right after the first of the year.

PREDICTION: Several cities, besides Denver, that today still have multiple daily newspapers will become single-newspaper towns.

RIGHT: Hearst closed the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (in print, at least), Gannett closed the Tucson Citizen, making those cities one-paper towns. In February, Clarity Media Group closed the Baltimore Examiner, a free daily, leaving the field to the Sun. And Freedom is closing the East Valley Tribune in Mesa, which cuts out a nearby competitor in the Phoenix metro area.

PREDICTION: Whatever gets announced by the Detroit Newspaper Partnership in terms of frequency reduction will be emulated in several more cities (including both single and multiple newspaper markets) within the first half of the year.

WRONG: Nothing similar to the Detroit arrangement has been tried elsewhere.

PREDICTION: Even if both papers in Detroit somehow maintain a seven-day schedule, we’ll see several other major cities and a dozen or more smaller markets cut back from six or seven days to one to four days per week.

WRONG, mostly: We did see a few other outright closings including the Ann Arbor News (with a replacement paper published twice a week), and some eliminations of one or two publishing days. But only the Register-Pajaronian of Watsonville, Calif. announced it will go from six days to three, back in January.

PREDICTION: As part of that shift, some major dailies will switch their Sunday package fully to Saturday and drop Sunday publication entirely. They will see this step as saving production cost, increasing sales via longer shelf life in stores, improving results for advertisers, and driving more weekend website traffic. The “weekend edition” will be more feature-y, less news-y.

WRONG: This really falls in the department of wishful thinking; it’s a strategy I’ve been advocating for the last year or so to follow the audience to the web, jettison the overhead of printing and delivery, but retain the most profitable portion of the print product.

PREDICTION: There will be at least one, and probably several, mergers between some of the top newspaper chains in the country. Top candidate: Media News merges with Hearst. Dow Jones will finally shed Ottaway in a deal engineered by Boston Herald owner (and recently-appointed Ottaway chief) Pat Purcell.

WRONG AGAIN, but this one is going back into the 2010 hopper. Lack of capital by most of the players, and the perception or hope that values may improve, put a big damper on mergers and acquisitions, but there should be renewed interest ahead.

PREDICTION: Google will not buy the New York Times Co., or any other media property. Google is smart enough to stick with its business, which is organizing information, not generating content. On the other hand, Amazon may decide that they are in the content business…And then there’s the long shot possibility that Michael Bloomberg loses his re-election bid next fall, which might generate a 2010 prediction, if NYT is still independent at that point.

RIGHT about Google, and NOT APPLICABLE about Bloomberg (but Bloomberg did acquire BusinessWeek). The Google-NYT pipe dream still gets mentioned on occasion, but it won’t happen.

PREDICTION: There will be a mini-dotcom bust, featuring closings or fire sales of numerous web enterprises launched on the model of “generate traffic now, monetize later.”

WRONG, at least on the mini-bust scenario. Certainly there were closings of various digital enterprises, but it didn’t look like a tidal wave.

PREDICTION: The fifty newspaper execs who gathered at API’s November Summit for an Industry in Crisis will not bother to reconvene six months later (which would be April) as they agreed to do.

RIGHT. There was a very low-key round two with fewer participants in January, without any announced outcomes, and that was it. [Although there was also the May summit in Chicago, which featured many of the same players. —Ed.]

PREDICTION: Newspaper advertising revenue will decline year-over-year 10 percent in the first quarter and 5 percent in the second. It will stabilize, or nearly so, in the second half, but will have a loss for the year. For the year, newspapers will slip below 12 percent of total advertising revenue (from 15 percent in 2007 and around 13.5 percent in 2008). But online advertising at newspaper sites will resume strong upward growth.

WRONG, and way too optimistic. Full-year results won’t be known for months, but the first three quarters have seen losses in the 30 percent ballpark. Gannett and New York Times have suggested Q4 will come in “better” at “only” about 25 percent down. My 12 percent reference was to newspaper share of the total ad market, a metric that has become harder to track this year due to changes in methodology at McCann, but the actual for 2009 ultimately will sugar out at about 10 percent.

PREDICTION: Newspaper circulation, aggregated, will be steady (up or down no more than 1 percent) in each of the 6-month ABC reporting periods ending March 31 and September 30. Losses in print circulation will be offset by gains in ABC-countable paid digital subscriptions, including facsimile editions and e-reader editions.

WRONG, and also way too optimistic. The March period drop was 7.1 percent, the September drop was 10.6 percent, and digital subscription didn’t have much impact.

PREDICTION: At least 25 daily newspapers will close outright. This includes the Rocky Mountain News, and it will include other papers in multi-newspaper markets. But most closings will be in smaller markets.

WRONG, and too pessimistic. About half a dozen daily papers closed for good during the year.

PREDICTION: One hundred or more independent local startup sites focused on local news will be launched. A number of them will launch weekly newspapers, as well, repurposing the content they’ve already published online. Some of these enterprises are for-profit, some are nonprofit. There will be some steps toward formation of a national association of local online news publishers, perhaps initiated by one of the journalism schools.

Hard to tell, but probably RIGHT. Nobody is really keeping track of how many hyperlocals are active, or their comings and goings. An authoritative central database would be a Good Thing.

PREDICTION: The Dow Industrials will be up 15 percent for the year. The stocks of newspaper firms will beat the market.

RIGHT. The Dow finished the year up 18.8 percent. (This prediction is the one that got the most “you must be dreaming” reactions last year.

And RIGHT about newspapers beating the market (as measured by the Dow Industrials), which got even bigger laughs from the skeptics. There is no index of newspaper stocks, but on the whole, they’ve done well. It helps to have started in the sub-basement at year-end 2008, of course, which was the basis of my prediction. Among those beating the Dow, based on numbers gathered by Poynter’s Rick Edmonds, were New York Times (+69%), AH Belo (+164%), Lee Enterprises (+746%), McClatchy (+343%), Journal Communications (+59%), EW Scripps (+215%), Media General (+348%), and Gannett (+86%). Only Washington Post Co. (+13%) lagged the market. Not listed, of course, are those still in bankruptcy.

PREDICTION: At least one publicly-owned newspaper chain will go private.

NOPE.

PREDICTION: A survey will show that the median age of people reading a printed newspaper at least 5 days per week is is now over 60.

UNKNOWN: I’m not aware of a 2009 survey of this metric, but I’ll wager that the median age figure is correct.

PREDICTION: Reading news on a Kindle or other e-reader will grow by leaps and bounds. E-readers will be the hot gadget of the year. The New York Times, which currently has over 10,000 subscribers on Kindle, will push that number to 75,000. The Times will report that 75 percent of these subscribers were not previously readers of the print edition, and half of them are under 40. The Wall Street Journal and Washington Post will not be far behind in e-reader subscriptions.

UNKNOWN, as far as the subscription counts go: newspapers and Kindle have not announced e-reader subscription levels during the year. The Times now has at least 30,000, as does the Wall Street Journal (according to a post by Staci Kramer in November; see my comment there as well). There have been a number of new e-reader introductions, but none of them look much better than their predecessors as news readers. My guess would be that by year end, the Times will have closer to 40,000 Kindle readers and the Journal 35,000. During 2010, 75,000 should be attainable for the Times, especially counting all e-editions (which include the Times Reader and 53,353 weekdays and 34,435 Sundays for the six months ending Sept. 30.

PREDICTION: The advent of a color Kindle (or other brand color e-reader) will be rumored in November 2009, but won’t be introduced before the end of the year.

RIGHT: plenty of rumors, but no color e-reader, except Fujitsu’s Flepia, which is expensive, experimental, and only for sale in Japan.

PREDICTION: Some newspaper companies will buy or launch news aggregation sites. Others will find ways to collaborate with aggregators.

RIGHT: Hearst launched its topic pages site LMK.com. And various companies are working with EVRI, Daylife and others to bring aggregated feeds to their sites.

PREDICTION: As newsrooms, with or without corporate direction, begin to truly embrace an online-first culture, outbound links embedded in news copy, blog-style, as well as standalone outbound linking, will proliferate on newspaper sites. A reporter without an active blog will start to be seen as a dinosaur.

MORE WISHFUL THINKING, although there’s progress. Many reporters still don’t blog, still don’t tweet, and many papers are still on content management systems that inhibit embedded links.

PREDICTION: The Reuters-Politico deal will inspire other networking arrangements whereby one content generator shares content with others, in return for right to place ads on the participating web sites on a revenue-sharing basis.

YES, we’re seeing more sharing of content, with various financial arrangements.

PREDICTION: The Obama administration will launch a White House wiki to help citizens follow the Changes, and in time will add staff blogs, public commenting, and other public interaction.

NOT SO FAR, although a new Open Government Initiative was recently announced by the White House. This grew out of some wiki-like public input earlier in the year.

PREDICTION: The Washington Post will launch a news wiki with pages on current news topics that will be updated with new developments.

YES — kicked off in January, it’s called WhoRunsGov.com.

PREDICTION: The New York Times will launch a sophisticated new Facebook application built around news content. The basic idea will be that the content of the news (and advertising) package you get by being a Times fan on Facebook will be influenced by the interests and social connections you have established on Facebook. There will be discussion of, if not experimentation with, applying a personal CPM based on social connections, which could result in a rewards system for participating individuals.

NO. Although the Times has continued to come out with innovative online experiments, this was not one of them.

PREDICTION: Craigslist will partner with a newspaper consortium in a project to generate and deliver classified advertising. There will be no new revenue in the model, but the goal will be to get more people to go to newspaper web sites to find classified ads. There will be talk of expanding this collaboration to include eBay.

NO. This still seems like a good idea, but probably it should have happened in 2006 and the opportunity has passed.

PREDICTION: Look for some big deals among the social networks. In particular, Twitter will begin to falter as it proves to be unable to identify a clearly attainable revenue stream. By year-end, it will either be acquired or will be seeking to merge or be acquired. The most likely buyer remains Facebook, but interest will come from others as well and Twitter will work hard to generate an auction that produces a high valuation for the company.

NO DEAL, so far. But RIGHT about Twitter beginning to falter and still having no “clearly attainable” revenue stream in sight. Twitter’s unique visitors and site visits, as measured by Compete.com, peaked last summer and have been declining, slowly, ever since. Quantcast agrees. [But note that neither of those traffic stats count people interacting with Twitter via the API, through Twitter apps, or by texting. —Ed.]

PREDICTION: Some innovative new approaches to journalism will emanate from Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

YES, as described in this post and this post. See also the blogs of Steve Buttry and Chuck Peters. The Cedar Rapids Gazette and its affiliated TV station and web site are in the process of reinventing and reconstructing their entire workflow for news gathering and distribution.

PREDICTION: A major motion picture or HBO series featuring a journalism theme (perhaps a blogger involved in saving the world from nefarious schemes) will generate renewed interest in journalism as a career.

RIGHT. Well, I’m not sure if it has generated renewed interest in journalism as a career, but the movie State of Play featured both print reporters and bloggers. And Julie of Julie & Julia was a blogger, as well. [Bit of a reach there, Martin. —Ed.]

[ADDENDUM: I posted about Martin's predictions when he made them and wrote this:

I’d agree with most, although (a) I think there will be at least one other newspaper company bankruptcy, (b) I think Q3/Q4 revenue numbers will be down from 2008, not flat, (c) circ will be down, not stable, (d) newspaper stocks won’t beat the market, (e) the Kindle boom won’t be as big as he thinks for newspapers, and (f) Twitter won’t be in major trouble in [2009] — Facebook is more likely to feel the pinch with its high server-farm costs.

I was right on (a), (b), and (c) and wrong on (d). Gimme half credit for (f), since Twitter is now profitable and Facebook didn’t seem too affected by server expenses. Uncertain on (e), but I’ll eat my hat if “75 percent of [NYT Kindle] subscribers were not previously readers of the print edition, and half of them are under 40.” —Josh]

Photo of fortune-teller postcard by Cheryl Hicks used under a Creative Commons license.

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