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June 28 2013

14:00

ProPublica introduces a magazine to reach new readers on mobile

propublicamagProPublica wants to get in the magazine business.

The investigative news nonprofit is launching a monthly digital magazine for iOS devices that will collect the best of its reporting on current topics in the news. The first issue of ProPublica The Magazine, “In the Crosshairs,” is focused on war and gun violence, with stories on drone strikes and the Guatemalan civil war.

ProPublica The Magazine is free and will be delivered via Apple’s Newsstand. And that, more than developing a new line of revenue, is the point for ProPublica: finding a new avenue to reach readers. Specifically, as ProPublica president Dick Tofel told me, to get mobile readers.

“The real point is this puts us in the Newsstand, that pushes us to people, which we hope is a big plus,” he said.

As a news organization, ProPublica has always used partnerships with others to spread its work to new readers. But as the site has matured, staffers have invested more time in building their own audience. A big area of desired growth, Tofel told me, is in mobile, and on iOS devices in particular.

The way Tofel sees it, the magazine is like a monthly version of ProPublica’s work packaging stories for ebooks. But the magazine will allow ProPublica to be a little more timely, while also being thematic around issues that are important to readers. Or, Tofel puts it another way, “It’s a little like This American Life, where he does those multi-story episodes.”

ProPublica is not alone in wanting to develop a product that can repackage reporting and is a good fit for mobile devices. Earlier in June, The Atlantic introduced The Atlantic Weekly, which collects the work of The Atlantic, The Atlantic Wire, and The Atlantic Cities for $2.99 a month. ProPublica partnered with 29th Street Publishing to create the magazine. The company, which has also helped publishers like The Awl create magazines for iOS, uses a relatively lightweight CMS that makes it easy for publishers to transform existing stories into mobile-friendly reads.

Since ProPublica isn’t bringing on additional staff to produce the monthly magazine, they needed something easy to use, said Krista Kjellman Schmidt, ProPublica’s deputy news apps editor. Schmidt will be responsible for preparing the magazine each month, working with other editors to identify a theme and combing through ProPublica’s archive to select the best stories. Schmidt said she’s already at work on the second issue, which looks at race and housing in America. “These stories we’re trying to patch together in a new way so readers can see the long arc of an investigation,” she said.

Schmidt said the magazine is an experiment for ProPublica. While they have an iPhone app, many readers also prefer reading the site on a mobile browser. The magazine puts ProPublica into another venue on iOS devices in Newsstand, setting it up to be discovered by new readers. The richer magazine-like design encourages publishers to find new ways to curate stories and push users to read deeply, she said. Schmidt said they decided to deliver the magazine monthly to gauge reader interest and how the production process fits into their other routines. She said they’ll evaluate the project over the course of the next year.

May 27 2011

06:58

ProPublica's Richard Tofel on the future of news, crucial role for nonprofits

ProPublica :: ProPublica General Manager Richard Tofel joins the podcast this week to discuss the future of the news industry and where ProPublica's work fits in as a leading nonprofit outlet. Although Tofel emphasizes that ProPublica alone cannot save the news business, he does foresee nonprofits playing a crucial role in advancing journalism as print newspapers continue to decline in the face of current and future recessions.

Continue to read the podcast Minhee Cho, www.propublica.org

February 15 2011

18:00

1,900 copies: How a top-selling Kindle Single is generating new audiences for ProPublica

Listing the eight big trends journalism will see over the next year, Josh highlighted the increasing role that the singles model will play in the news. He was talking about the disaggregation of the author and the publisher — “a way for an individual writer to kind of go around getting the approval of a glossy magazine editor or getting a newspaper editor’s approval to get something to an audience.” But the idea has another intriguing twist, as well: individual news organizations using the singles model to circumvent traditional constraints on publishing.

One outlet that’s making a go of that approach is ProPublica, which, at the launch of Amazon’s Kindle Singles platform late last month, published a story as a Kindle Single: staff writer Sebastian Rotella’s nearly 13,000-word-long exposé, “Pakistan and the Mumbai Attacks: The Untold Story.”

The piece, also available for free on the web, is a work of long-form investigative journalism, telling the story of the complex stew of relationships and circumstances that led to the 2008 terror attack on Mumbai. It’s long for a web piece, short for a book — right in the sweet spot Kindle Singles are trying to hit.

Selling it through Amazon for 99 cents was an experiment, Richard Tofel, ProPublica’s general manager, told me. From the looks of things, though, it’s been a successful one: The story’s been a regular in the top 10 of Kindle Singles bestsellers (it’s been as high as #2, as far as I’ve seen; it’s #6 at this writing). It’s also currently #1 in books about both terrorism and international security — and #1, for that matter, across all books (e- and otherwise) in Amazon’s International Security category. That, with almost no marketing effort (besides the placement of the story on Amazon’s site itself) on the part of ProPublica.

And if you’re wondering what being a top-10 Kindle Single gets you in terms of actual sales: In the first two weeks of its availability in the Singles Store, the piece sold more more than 1,900 copies, Tofel says.

The 1,900 sales number is certainly not a lot compared to other metrics (pageviews and the like). And given the story’s 99-cent pricing (the minimum amount for a Single) and the 35 percent royalty rate, the direct financial gain isn’t much, either. “The money will be nice, but even if you multiply the eventual sales of this by ten — and multiply that by 20 — it still doesn’t turn into enough money to float our boat,” Tofel notes.

Then again, pageviews — while they’re good at measuring a story’s popularity and decent at measuring its impact — don’t accrue to much direct financial gain, either, even on a site that accepts advertising. The Singles model, instead, allows ProPublica to take a new twist on the old “diversify your assets” maxim: It’s one more revenue stream for the outfit. And, given the broad brand exposure that being listed on Amazon’s site allows, the Singles model could allow separate (and sometimes contradictory) goals to be achieved on the same publishing platform: editorial impact and financial gain.

Besides, the value proposition here lies more in the cultural proposition that the Kindle Single and its counterparts represent: the editorial normalization of long-form. The web isn’t bringing about the long-predicted “death of long-form”; on the contrary, it seems, the digital world is heralding a renaissance in long-form reportage. “The economics of book and magazine publishing for the last 100 years have had the effect of saying that you cannot write narrative nonfiction at longer than 10,000 words,” Tofel says — and, for that matter, shorter than book length.

Sheri Fink’s story on the chaos at a hospital devastated by Hurricane Katrina — the New York Times Magazine piece that won ProPublica its Pulitzer — was about the same length as Rotella’s story, around 13,000 words. And “that’s pretty much the outer edge of the range for a magazine piece,” Tofel notes. On the other side of the equation, you have books, where short of a certain length, Tofel notes, “it’s hard to charge enough for a book to make money.” Essentially, magazines have had a maximum length for stories, while books have had a minimum. The end result: “There’s this void,” Tofel notes. “And the void is dictated not by narrative, but by economics.” Despite the web’s ability to remove the physical constraints from the editorial process, until now, there hasn’t been a platform that’s been well suited to the length. Journalism hasn’t had its equivalent of the novella.

“One of the things that people were saying a few years ago is that long-form is dead,” Tofel notes. In reality, though, “long-form was never alive as a mass medium.”

Selling 1,900 copies at 99 cents doesn’t make for a mass medium either, exactly, but the hope is that the Singles model might allow for a kind of renaissance of pamphlet, with benefits accruing to reported pieces. The platform allows users to get used (re-used) to the idea of journalism as a long-form, immersive proposition. And for an outfit whose specialty is deep-dive, attention-requiring narrative, that’s valuable. “Anything that promotes ways for people to effectively consume long-form journalism in the modern world is good for us,” Tofel notes. If the big question is whether there’s an audience for longform, he says, “this, to us, looks like an interesting way to find an audience.”

January 05 2011

14:05

Why ProPublica is publishing web ads — and what that means for the nonprofit outfit’s funding future

Check out ProPublica’s website today, and you might notice — along with blog posts, donation buttons, links to special projects, and the kind of deep-dive investigative journalism that the nonprofit outfit is celebrated for — a new feature: advertisements. Starting today, the outfit is serving ads on its site to complement the funding it takes in from foundation support and reader contributions, its two primary revenue streams.

“This has been something we’ve been expecting to do for some time,” Richard Tofel, ProPublica’s general manager, told me in a phone call. “It was a question of when.”

ProPublica isn’t alone in venturing into the realm of dot-org advertising. A number of ProPublica’s nonprofit peers, California Watch, Texas Tribune, Voice of San Diego, and MinnPost among them, already run sponsored messages on their sites, served directly and via community partnerships and corporate underwriting. As Tofel noted in a blog post explaining the decision to take on ad support: “We’re doing this for the usual reason: to help raise revenue that can fuel our operations, promoting what people in the non-profit world call ’sustainability.’”

The revenue raised, though, won’t likely be much in comparison to that offered by ProPublica’s other funding streams. The site had 1,300 donors in 2010, Tofel notes, providing $3.8 million on top of the funding provided by the Sandler Foundation; web advertising being what it is, the revenue that comes from the ads will likely be a trickle compared to the site’s donation-based funding streams. “Given what’s happened to web advertising in the last five years, on any kind of reasonable projection of the size of our audience” — though the number fluctuates, ProPublica currently averages a little more than a million pageviews a month, he told me — “we’re not talking about a great deal of money.”

So HuffPost this is not. And that will be true not only in terms of the revenue generated by the ads, but also in terms of their content itself. ProPublica’s ads will be served as part of the Public Media Interactive Network, a digital ad network — operated by National Public Media — that started in 2008 to sell remnant ad space on NPR.org and PBS.org, but which recently expanded to include nonprofit news sites. (According to this press release, Texas Tribune and MinnPost are also members.) The network sells packages; publishers can either opt into or opt out of running those packages’ ads on their sites. And while “we’ve looked at the range of their clients, and I don’t see any at the moment that we’d have a problem with,” Tofel notes — none of those “lose inches of belly fat!” monstrosities here, folks — ultimately, “it’s our decision about whether to accept a particular advertiser that they have found.” As ProPublica explains in its new Advertising Acceptability Policy statement:

First, ProPublica reserves the right to accept or decline any advertisement or sponsorship it is offered.

ProPublica will decline to accept advertising that it knows or believes to be misleading, inaccurate, fraudulent or illegal, or that fails to comply, in ProPublica’s sole discretion, with its standards of decency, taste or dignity.

ProPublica, like all quality publishers of original journalism, maintains a clear separation between news and advertising content. Advertising that attempts to blur this distinction in a manner that, in ProPublica’s sole judgment, confuses readers will be rejected.

It’s an expect-the-best/prepare-for-the-worst approach to ceding a bit of control over what readers see when they visit the site, Tofel explained. “You just want to leave yourself the latitude so that you don’t get into a situation that is uncomfortable — or that undermines, most importantly, readers’ faith in what they’re reading.”

And that transaction with readers — one that, ultimately, understands an audience not as an anonymous collective of eyeballs and click-givers, but as individuals and, in the best sense, message-amplifiers — will remain a constant even as ProPublica tweaks its revenue strategy. As will, Tofel notes, the outlet’s partnerships with other news organizations (48 last year alone!) — and its rare-in-the-media-world comfort with sending users away to other outlets, partner and otherwise. While, yes, the inclusion of web ads represents an interest in keeping — and growing — direct traffic to ProPublica’s own site, “we are not in business to make money,” Tofel says. “We are in business to make change. And that’s still very much the case. But we do need to come up with enough money to float the boat, not just today and tomorrow, but on into the future.”

March 31 2010

17:28

John Thornton: Nonprofit news outlets will be a bigger part of our future than Alan Mutter thinks

[Yesterday, Alan Mutter wrote a post detailing why he thinks nonprofit news outlets "can't possibly save news." An interesting discussion ensued in the comments (including contributions from Jay Rosen, our C.W. Anderson, Dick Tofel, and others). John Thornton, chairman of the nonprofit Texas Tribune, wrote a response to Mutter; I'm republishing it below. —Josh]

Alan Mutter is one of the keenest observers of today’s topsy turvy media landscape. I am therefore pleased that he payed me a compliment on his highly trafficked Newsosaur blog:

An amazing number of smart and sophisticated people continue to harbor the fantasy that philanthropic contributions can take over funding journalism from the media companies that traditionally have supported the press.

At least I think it was a compliment. You see, as a co-founder of The Texas Tribune, I am one of those fantasy-harboring loonies who believes that nonprofit journalism is important. But, now that Alan — who I consider a friend — also considers us smart and sophisticated, I suppose we should all be able to call the whole thing off and get back to our day jobs.

Or not. Alan gets so many things right that I can’t resist arguing the other side. I think he is gloriously, deliciously, spectacularly wrong here. Alan’s logic runs aground on the shoals of three m’s: math, model, and motive.

Math

Alan asserts that replacing the $4.4 billion spent in American newsrooms will require an $88 billion endowment, which he points out is a gargantuan proportion of the $300 billion or so of annual charitable giving in the U.S. There are at least three problems with this statement. The first is that it confuses a balance sheet concept (endowment) with an income statement concept (annual giving). In the parlance of Econ 101, Alan has confused a stock variable with a flow variable. Fox news anchors are known to resort to this trick when they want to make our government seem more profligate than it is (no easy task, that). It’s a little like confusing the federal debt with the deficit. If you take a big number and multiply it by 20: shazam! It’s a bigger number! An endowment is built up over a number of years, and so comparing it to annual giving is mixing apples and pomegranates. And besides, none of the nonprofits I know is considering raising an endowment any time soon.

That leads to problem number two. A tiny fraction of nonprofits of any type receive meaningful support from an endowment. And other than foundations, none of them lives entirely on an endowment’s investment income. Consider any nonprofit in your community: it likely operates primarily on a combination of earned income and annual giving. If it’s lucky, it has an operating reserve to shield it from rainy days and enable it to take care of special opportunities. It it’s really, really lucky, it might receive 10 percent of its operating budget from the income off its endowment.

Third, none of us sophisticated, nonprofit dingleberries is proposing that our efforts will replace commercial news. We do assert that what I call “Capital J” journalism is in trouble, because it’s not very profitable. Turns out that it never was. But now that, as Google’s Marissa Mayer asserts, every article on a paper’s web site needs to be a standalone profit center, the jig is really up, and we’re trying to figure out how to help.

You’ll never confuse what you read on Voice of San Diego or ProPublica or The Trib with content you can get on TMZ, TV Guide, Epicurious, or ESPN. We in Fantasy Land are trying instead to help shore up what Alex Jones calls “the iron core” of journalism in his book, Losing the News. Jones’s analysis reveals that this core of serious content constitutes about 15% of newspaper content, so let’s say it accounts for 15% of newsroom costs, as well. If we had the unhappy task of replacing all serious newspaper journalism with what nonprofit skeptics refer to derisively as “handouts,” we’d be staring at a $660 million annual problem. No doubt that’s real money, but consider this: according to Alan’s numbers, it’s about what people give to environmental causes in a year. In handouts, that is.

Model

But the $660 million number still overstates the size of the issue. No two nonprofit journalism organizations have exactly the same business model, but almost all of us are doing our best to practice what I call “revenue promiscuity.” At The Tribune, in addition to philanthropic support from wealthy individuals and foundations, we’re also chasing corporate sponsors for our events and for our web site. We’ll bring in about 15% of our expenses in subscriptions to Texas Weekly, a newsletter business we own and are working to expand into a string of highly valued niche titles. Our intermediate-term goal is a $3 million annual budget, split roughly equally between membership, corporate support, and specialty pubs. We’re a long way from that, but are making progress — and note that we’re not assuming any foundation support at all.

If organizations like ours can find non-handout sources for two thirds of our budget, Alan’s $88 billion problem becomes more like a couple hundred million. That’s considerably less than ballet companies raise in the U.S. every year. But the real point is this: not only will philanthropy alone not save journalism, it can’t likely support even the majority of our modest efforts. We need to run our businesses like businesses, even if our goal is public service rather than profitability.

Motive

Alan closes his post with these valedictory remarks to us fruit loops:

While there is a pressing need to save the press, a major shift in the philanthropic paradigm seems unlikely, especially in an era in which most folks — with the notable exception of a fortunate few — seem to be tightening their belts.

So, let’s stop dreaming about a visit from the Non-Profit News Bunny and get serious about discovering some realistic possibilities.

It’s a common refrain. I hear it from my friend Jeff Jarvis all the time (I have this mental image of Jeff in the classroom of his “new models for news” course, crying “THINK HARDER, DAMMIT!” to a group of j-school students with their eyes tightly clinched). But like lots of common refrains, I’m tired of it. Here’s why.

First of all, it’s not an either/or proposition. Fantasy Land could easily quadruple in population without meaningfully diluting the talent pool trying to figure out ways to make money in the news business. And although I admire his since of urgency, I should remind Alan to look at one of his own slides — the one that shows newspapers losing media spend share every single solitary year since 1959. Although the combination of the Great Recession and the digital revolution has caused the line on Alan’s chart to auger in recently, this is not exactly a new problem.

Second, the “think harder, dammit” refrain assumes that market solutions are inherently superior to non-market solutions in every situation, even though the existence of public goods (think clean air, national defense) is discussed in the early going of a basic economics course. My mentor in business was fond of saying, “get the big picture right.” It seems to me that the big picture at hand is that when atoms become bits, content consumers win and content producers get hammered into cost-cutting smithereens. If some of that content happens to be vital to the functioning of our society, I simply think it’s prudent to look around for other means of funding it.

Finally, Alan’s admonition for all of us wingnuts to get back to work reflects a view of capitalism which is totally opposite my experience as an investor. I can say with great confidence that markets are more efficient than not, that there is more than enough investment capital looking for profitable places to go, and that nobody had to yell “think harder” at Larry Page and Sergei Brin. I can say with even greater confidence that the world is a better place because investment capital tends to flow where it garners the highest risk-adjusted returns. This just in: the business of serious journalism news ain’t in the top 100, probably never was, and certainly won’t be again. Commercial efforts will persist because they just will. But expecting investors to continue to fund for-profit, Capital J journalism just ‘cuz: doesn’t that sound a lot like charity? And for the love of Zeus, please don’t talk to me about “patient capital” and “lower return expectations for noble causes.” It’s all just another form of philanthropy, but with the added confusion about whether service to God or Mammon is the order of any given day.

I’m about two years into my foray into non-profit journalism, and I’m more firm than ever in this conviction: Public media, privately funded, will be a bigger part of the media landscape in ten years than it is today. This will require the inhabitants of Fantasy Land to do a good deal of consciousness raising in the general public for membership support, and among foundations and major donors to give us the runway we need to establish sustainable business models.

We can use all the help we can get. Alan, we’ll leave the light on for you. And let me know if you see that Bunny!

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