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September 30 2010

17:00

The Newsonomics of journalistic star power

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

Maybe it’s a trend, or maybe it’s a bubble, but Jim Romenesko’s blog is chockablock with high-level journalist movement. The Newsweek Six are on the auction block, sought by eager bidders, as Time Warner solidifies its relationship with Fareed Zakaria, making him a wholly owned, cross-platform phenomenon, and Howard Fineman gets tapped on the shoulder by The Huffington Post, soon after it hired away The New York Times’ Peter Goodman.

Daniel Gross jumps from his long-time Slate home to Yahoo Finance. The National Journal makes acquisition after acquisition, this week reeling in Dave Beard, the well-respected editor of Boston.com, where he joins numerous other veterans (AP’s Ron Fournier, Newsweek’s Michael Hirsh, The Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder, Fox’s Major Garrett, among them) who’ve recently made a switch. After an apparent flirtation with AOL, Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg stay safely in the News Corp bosom, while AOL spends its bonus dough on TechCrunch, buying a brand and an established news operation.

Other well known journalists are also suddenly fielding calls of interest — and often moving on to new adventures. Bloomberg’s been hiring pedigreed journalists by the dozens, for Bloomberg Government and other initiatives. Patch is snatching many of its regional editors from daily newspaper ranks.

What we’re seeing is a market develop. This is market that newly prizes talent, but a certain kind of talent. Most of the hiring is at the minor star level, though the lumens emitted vary. How do you measure — critical to digital success — the light?

First off, the hiring companies believe they know sustainable models of building businesses on higher-quality content. That may seem basic, but when we look at the much of the newspaper, broadcast, and consumer magazine worlds, that belief is flagging. They look at well salaried, professional staffs and see high “cost structures,” which are harder to justify, given current levels of advertising and the lack of successful digital revenue models.

We know that Yahoo and AOL, increasingly competitive with each other, believe they’ve found a working formula to make good content pay profitably. Tim Armstrong, AOL’s CEO, talks about “sparking a content revolution.” His formula, and Yahoo’s, is fairly straightforward, and borrows its commandments from the Demand Media bible. It’s all about the efficient ad monetization of content, with analytics — know the nature of the content, target the reader and align the advertiser — that seem to grow better week by week (see The Newsonomics of content arbitrage).

(AOL, ironically, is milking its online access business — yes, lots of people still think of AOL and Internet service as the same thing — drawing 43 percent of its revenue from it. That’s similar to newspapers milking the print business for as long as possible, as they can make the inevitable digital transition. By that comparison, AOL’s lifeline is much shorter, with a 25-percent 2Q drop in customers paying for that access, while most newspaper companies’ circulation revenue down only in low single digits.)

The newsonomics of the star hires is intriguing. Think of these “star” hires as individual SKUs, “products” whose value can be estimated against the customers they bring in the door. Those conversion customer metrics are evolving. Counting pageviews is the simplest way. Take those views at whatever (premium?) rate you can sell them, and you’ve got a first number. The intangibles are how many new unique visitors the Zakarias, Finemans, and Grosses bring with them from their old haunts. How many of those new customers become regular customers of the outlet? That gets you to some annual and/or lifetime value metrics. As metrics are collected and tested, we’ll see some more science brought to what is now a star-search art form.

There certainly are other intangibles. What is Yahoo News exactly? What is HuffPo? What is AOL? As they define themselves as legitimate news companies, the new stars bring cred — and legitimacy. In addition, they are magnets to other, lesser-known talent, signaling, “it’s okay to come here.” There’s economic value in that, too.

Notably, few established legacy brands are hiring new top-end talent; Time’s Zakaria hire is a smart, though unusual one, enabled by the Newsweek uncertainty and Time/CNN linkage. For the most part, legacy news companies’ growth scenarios are borrowed, curiously, from those now hiring those stars: multiplying the amount of content available under their brands, harnessing amateur and lower-cost stuff from local bloggers, licensing from Demand Media and aggregating content through FWIX, Outside.in, and OneSpot. They’re the ones paying heed, at least indirectly, to Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales’ observation that hiring six-figure columnists in this time is silly: “The best of the political bloggers are easily the equal of the opinion columnists at the New York Times. I don’t see the added value there and question whether a newspaper should be paying large sums of money for that any more.”

The hirings at the National Journal and Bloomberg point to a different kind of business model. Those companies have found niche models involving significant reader and/or enterprise payment, and now are building out, and around, those businesses. They, too, believe they can make a new business out of superior content.

It’s complicated, and there are more than two phenomena happening here. Yes, some players that have built successful enterprises — think Yahoo, AOL, Huffington Post — on non-professional staff content (through aggregation, pro-am sites, and more) are now adding the pros at the top, to reinforce brands and put faces on them. At the same the high-cost, pro-based enterprises are going the other way.

It’s not an equilibrium, nor will these models meet in some neat middle, but there’s some sense of coming at a similar solution from two ends of the spectrum. It’s a blend of old and new, expensive and cheap, and no one yet knows the best formula.

Arianna Huffington explains it as a maturation, and indicates the hiring of pros was part of the original Huffington Post plan: “From the day we launched, it was our belief that the mission of The Huffington Post should be to bring together the best of the old and the best of the new. Bringing in the best of the old involved more money than we had when we launched. But now that our website is growing, we’re able to bring in the best of the old.”

The likely result of these moves? By 2015, news companies will pay top dollar, and pound, euro and yen, for top-end talent, and they’ll pay as little as possible for good-enough newsy content that fills many topical and local niches. Over the next several years, the most successful media brands will have mastered better the economics of pro-am journalism.

Infrared image of a star cloud courtesy of NASA.

September 02 2010

15:00

The Newsonomics of less-is-more, more or less

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

It is a head-turner, which seems to be, at first, an only-in-Utah story. The Deseret Morning News, KSL TV, and KSL Radio, all owned by one company, the Deseret Management Co., a for-profit arm of the Church of Latter-Day Saints, are combining operations.

One headline: “Salt Lake City paper axes 43% of its staff”.

Another: “Deseret News a model of growth and innovation for the entire industry”.

One’s a fact; the other is aspirational.

Remove the religious subtext, for a moment, and I believe we see a model that will appear ordinary in many American cities, within a few years. Think about it. If we as readers, viewers and listeners want words, photographs, videos, and audio, and expect it to be served up in an easy-to-use, relevant-to-me way, then why would the companies that produce news in those various forms be separate?

They’re separate, of course, because those words/picture/audio used to be called newspapers/magazines, network and cable TV and radio broadcasters. Those words, though, describe the old world, those packages the content came wrapped in. In our digital world, we’re seeing delivery blur through the Internet. And, that inevitably, and now more quickly, means that single companies will produce words, pictures and sound — and they’ll find ways to do it more cheaply and efficiently.

If you own the Salt Lake properties, or if you’re Tribune and own the Chicago Tribune, WGN-TV and WGN radio, you practically have a fiduciary responsibility to rearrange assets that will make the company more efficient. If you own a broadcast station or a newspaper, you can more easily see the rationale in buying or combining with the other, to meet customer (reader/viewer and advertiser) demands of the coming age.

So the Salt Lake Experiment joins TBD’s (“The Newsonomics of TBD“) in putting together the text and video pieces. They are the next generation in this attempt to make convergence work. Call it News Convergence 2.0, with Tampa’s Tribune/WFLA experiment the best poster child for 1.0. How well the Deseret operation (or TBD) executes is, of course, the key. Journalism isn’t about white-board theories, in any era; it’s about getting the news gathered, analyzed, and distributed to readers, and doing it better than the competition.

Let’s look at the newsonomics of the Deseret decision, though. The numbers in play are curious ones, as Deseret News President and CEO Clark Gilbert lays out a “less is more” theme in the major restructuring of his company. In fact, let’s use the more and less theme to gauge the moving pieces of the new business model.

  • Less is More: Take that “43%” headline. The legacy news staff of the Deseret News has indeed been cut 43 percent — 85 jobs, including those of the editor and publisher of the paper. That number includes both full-time and part-time positions. So we’d expect a lot less coverage, right? With a bit of frustration in his voice, Deseret News President and CEO Clark Gilbert tells me bluntly “That’s an Old Media world view. We have access to more journalists, hyperlocal contributors, national sports figures than ever before.” His point, and his plan: The combined operations of the remaining Deseret News staff and the sister news staffs at KSL TV and radio will operate smarter and more efficiently.

    “Say there’s a story on Capitol Hill [in Salt Lake City]. Right now, the paper sends a reporter and a photographer and KSL sends a reporter and videographer. That’s four people, and that story may end up on B3,” says Gilbert. “Now we’ll send one.”

    So, step one: “Reduce duplication.”

    So the news math changes dramatically. The new staff of something more than 200 (Gilbert is being cagey about the number) will be expected to multitask, with remaining staffers increasingly cross-trained and “new employees expected to have those skills.” Do the math. If it took four people to do a story and now it takes only one, you can afford to jettison one of those positions and get more productivity out of the other two.

    Step two: “Deepen coverage,” meaning the re-allocating of resources to cover issues most important to the readers. Gilbert says that about half of the remaining news staffers will serve in the “integrated newsroom,” with the remainder staying in more traditional journalistic roles. In that integrated newsroom of roughly a hundred, a third will serve as first responders/rewrite and two-thirds as field reporters. “You’re sandwiching the reporters between first responders [getting to news and getting it out quickly] and rewrite [those taking the reporters work and purposing it for various platforms],” explains Gilbert. Those who first-respond also do rewrite — so that’s going to be a busy staff.

    The journalistic question: How do the new stories compare to the old ones?

  • More Costs Less: Borrowing basic notions of getting cheap and free content from the Huffington Post and Demand Media, Gilbert is putting into action what he has long preached in academic and consulting circles. I’ve called this emerging time the Age of Cheap Content. That principle means that the new Deseret operation will leverage bigger-name writers (especially those consistent with its Mormon roots and values, like former BYU football star and current Philadelphia sports anchor Vai Sikahema) for little financial compensation. That’s the HuffPo model. And they’ll leverage Salt Lake and Utah reporters to address both topical and hyperlocal coverage, through the new Deseret Connect. That’s the Demand side of the idea, bringing together a large database of qualified writers — “not random bloggers,” says Gilbert — and keeping their payments low or non-existent. “Some of the best don’t write for money.”

    Deseret Connect already has received more than 100 applications, and Gilbert says he can see it scaling to a thousand or more contributors within the year, using management system techniques developed outside the news industry for BYU/Idaho faculty.

    Gilbert says the non-pros will work on a path from generalists to columnists to doing editorial features, with pay increasing along that continuum — though he’s clear to point out that people doing the writing won’t be looking to the company “as their main source of income.”

    So, looking at cost per content unit — a Demand-like analytic — the new company will be able to house lots more content under its brand, at a far lower cost point.

  • More Beats Less: The Deseret play aims to bring together text stories and blogs, video, and audio. That supposes that readers want all kinds of coverage brought together for them. It’s a bet that products that converge video and stories for readers will beat the competition, competition like MediaNews’ Salt Lake Tribune, the biggest non-church-owned news presence in the state. One big question here: How will the customer experience be converged? In Washington, two ongoing TV stations folded their websites into the new TBD at launch. How separate and how unified will the DeseretNews.com and KSL.com sites be?
  • More is More: The new Deseret operation doesn’t just focus on geography — Utah’s more than 700,000 households. It’s taking a twin approach to being a general interest news site — and a new worldwide voice for the Mormon faithful of 13 million or so worldwide. In the company’s strategy, that’s described as a values-oriented approach, and you can already read that six-point values mantra widely. The six: “the family, financial responsibility, excellence in education, care for the needy, values in the media, faith in the community.” They make for a strong philosophy, but in marketing, that’s quite a straddle — one that may be difficult to pull off, especially as Salt Lake City itself has become majority non-Mormon.

The economics of it are clear, though. Pay (or don’t) to get a story written or a video shot once, and then distribute it many times over. It’s basic Internet economics, with a nichy, religious angle, one of many variations we’ll soon be seeing on these increasingly popular themes.

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