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June 27 2013

15:17

The newsonomics of Advance’s advancing strategy and its Achilles’ heel

Another city. Another melange of limited information, confused storytelling, and an unsuccessful attempt to put on a happy face to mask a huge change in newspapering and civic life.

Last week, Oregon’s dominant paper, The Oregonian, followed in the footsteps of other Advance papers and announced it would be delivering to homes only four days a week come fall. It will be greatly slimming down staff, including dozens in the newsrooms, formally going digital-first, reorganizing into two companies, and producing newsstand editions on the days it won’t home deliver. It’s Advance’s Slim-Fast, Phase 2, tweaked after its torturous New Orleans rollout last year (“The newsonomics of Advance’s New Orleans strategy”).

That’s the new Advance playbook, as the company — a top 10 newspaper company by revenue in the U.S. — proceeds with a revolutionary restructuring of the local news business. It’s a play that serves at this point as a contrarian example. Most publishers believe the Newhouse family, owners of the very private Advance, is downsizing its own business, and about to give away the local market dominance in readership and commerce monopoly regional dailies have long had in the United States.

Within Advance, you hear that its strategy isn’t just on plan — it’s ahead of it. How do we put together what’s really happening and figure out what to make of it?

It’s not easy. Working with sources up and down in Advance cities is one way, gathering lots of partial views. While top editors are willing to talk, Advance’s business leaders are mum. That’s just silly: Newspapers have a special responsibility to the public, one that although further tested by Advance’s new strategy, is universal. Newspapers are citizens of their community — leading ones, we’d hope — and clamming up about changes of this significance is contrary to the values of the trade.

Just as curiously, Advance isn’t sharing much with its peers in the industry. If Advance has really developed the new secret sauce, why not share it with other newspaper publishers nationally and globally? After all, they’re not the competition. Yet Advance’s omerta-light DNA is a sideshow here. What we care about is the Advance strategy and what it means to the readers, to the journalists, and to the business of news going forward.

So let’s look at the updated newsonomics of the Advance strategy, Phase 2, as it rolls out in Portland in October, two months after Cleveland’s Plain Dealer takes the same plunge. Let’s look the strategy — which has a fair amount of smarts built into it — and its challenges, pitfalls and, likely, its Achilles’ heel.

Planning for print decline

As a strategy, think shock therapy and you’d be close. For decades, the Advance papers had been the epitome of corporate paternalism. The no-layoff pledge, generous health benefits, and good salaries all said job-for-life. Advance’s separation of its local digital sites (OregonLive.com in Portland, for instance) from the newsroom — literally 10 blocks away and reporting to corporate, not the publisher or editor — greatly hampered a singular reader focus.

As other companies struggled mightily with the digital transition, the huge staffs of the Advance dailies found themselves too often sitting on the sidelines. Individual editors, with great variability, tried to innovate. Overall, though, Advance dailies were falling behind the peers in trying to meet the digital revolution.

After years of waiting, waiting, and waiting, the company is now in a mad rush to change. When it came time to acknowledge basic truths about newspapering, Advance management reached for the hand grenade rather than the scalpel.

Reading the same tea leaves of print decline as their brethren, they decided that blowing up the enterprise (reassembling it in two pieces) and downsizing their operations, their home delivery, and their community service was the answer.

Their analysis, curiously, parallels that of iconoclast John Paton, the mastermind behind Digital First Media, as Journal Register and now MediaNews properties experience their own more evolutionary revolution. The in-common belief: As print ad revenues show accelerated decline, companies must greatly reduce their legacy costs and concentrate on the digital future. In fact, Paton has somewhat endorsed Advance’s efforts.

While the experiments began in Michigan in 2009, it was the the New Orleans Times-Picayune downsizing that riveted public and industry attention. In fact, 60 Minutes, which had sought the one moment for years to finally talk about the decline of the U.S. press, used the Times-Picayune’s réduction des effectifs as Exhibit A.

Everyone acknowledges that Advance publicly handled the New Orleans changeover as poorly as it could. Marketing. Messaging. Engagement. All subpar.

The T-P seemed to be at odds with the community that went into the streets to demand its very pulp-based existence. The community’s clamor for a seven-day paper went unheeded — until Monday, when the street edition of The Times-Picayune hit pavement, in 60 glorious tab pages. The New Orleans paper had borrowed a page from its northern cousin, the Post-Standard, which cut back home delivery Feb. 1, publishing a print edition even on days that it no longer offered home delivery. The changeover, Phase 2.

Now The Plain Dealer, which just announced a set of layoffs last week, and The Oregonian are following the same five-point model:

  • Massively cut expenses: At The Oregonian, about a sixth of the 650 staffers will lose their jobs. At Syracuse, the number was closer to 30 percent of about 400. Overall, I’ve extrapolated that Advance is aiming for an about 25 percent expense reduction (mainly in staff, printing, and distribution); I’ve been told that is close to the mark.
  • Pixelate the remaining ink-stained wretches: As Oregonian editor Peter Bhatia made (solely, he says) the layoff decisions that eliminated the jobs of about four dozen journalist staffers — about a quarter of the newsroom — he’s been quite clear that digital skills played a part in his decision-making. “How well [people] will work in the new world order” is key, he told me this week. (For the depth of the tumult within The Oregonian, check out Willamette Week’s takeout here.)
  • Separate out the old business from the new: In all its restructured cities, two separate companies have emerged to replace the old print. In Portland, it’s the Oregonian Media Group (yes, the already much-satirized OMG) that will now employ the content and sales people. As I’ve argued over the years, it is content and sales, quite simply, that are the foundation of the new business. The Advance strategy recognizes that and takes it to an operational level. The other new company Advance Central Services Oregon houses “support” of OMG. So it’s mainly made up of the print-oriented parts of the business — production, printing and distribution — along with HR, finance, and technology.
  • Provide seven-day print, but not home delivery: In New Orleans, and at Advance’s two Alabama dailies, the end of seven-day print was cold-turkey. One day: seven days a week of print; after the changeover, only three days. Then, Advance learned something from the Syracuse model. Pushed to continue (at least for a while) the semblance of seven-day print, the Post-Standard found that a by-product of daily print — the durable, seemingly vestigial e-edition — achieved a market purpose. Today in Syracuse, with a daily circulation of about 75,000, about one in ten readers downloads that daily e-edition. E-editions have been around for 15 years; essentially, they’re replicas of the final edition of the printed paper, ones that can be updated during the next day, but often aren’t.

    Why would anyone want to read a static copy of yesterday’s news? Think older readers. They own computers, but are more comfortable with the format of the newspaper they’ve read for decades. This is an interim market, to be sure, but serving it is a subscriber retention must. To publish an e-edition, you need a print edition. If, like the Oregonian, you’re making substantial revenue printing other publishers’ papers, adding a short run of single-copy papers can be done very cheaply. Hence, single copy editions.

    In Portland, there will be four days of home delivery. The Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday editions are clearly full papers. The content emphasis of a Saturday paper — first called a “bonus” in its announcement — is still taking shape, says Bhatia. Consistent with Advance’s marketing and messaging faux pas, it has also named its daily e-edition, “My Digital O,” to the guffaws of many. Talk about service journalism.

    This single-copy story may get more interesting. Whereas Syracuse has stuck to a 16-page edition, with a single ad — to facilitate that e-edition — New Orleans’ TP Street debuted with 60 pages and a good run of ads, adding three to its print team to produce it. Both cities’ papers are delivered to hundreds of newsstands. An ironic question: What would Advance have to charge to restart seven-day home delivery, coming full-circle in its digital-first, cost-cutting exercise?

  • Keep digital access free — at least for now: Most puzzling in Advance’s strategy is its reliance on advertising, which continues to go south for the whole industry — including Advance. As more than 500 dailies in the U.S. move to charging for digital access, including all of Advance’s peer chains, Advance eschews paywalls. Why? Well, given the tight lips, we’re not sure.

    The lack of an All-Access model, I believe, looks like the Achilles heel of the Advance strategy, even if that strategy works in other ways. Why? Advance depends and will depend much more on ad revenue than its peers. Many of those peers believe that reader revenue may reach 50 percent of total revenue within two to five years. They believe that print advertising’s fade looks near-irreversible. Further, they’ve learned that the sharp growth curve upward in digital ad revenue has hit a wall. Some struggle for growth at all; most are in single-digits, well below the 15 percent growth of digital ad revenue overall. Sure, The Oregonian, The Post-Standard, or The Harrisburg Patriot-News could institute a paywall. It would likely, though, yield much less than it could have.

    Getting the order of things right on a paywall is important: Much better to improve the seven-day print product, add usable mobile apps, and then price up, even if you have a mind to cut home delivery. That way, you’ve established a new, higher price — and the monetary value of digital. Instead, Advance maintains what now seems like a nonsensical approach to paid print and free digital, and that bodes ill for holding on to current print subscribers, much less convincing many people to pay much for all-access down the road.

    If other publishers believes half of their 2016 revenue will come from digitally oriented readers, how will Advance newspapers deal with the lack of that revenue? It will have two major choices: find currently unknown large sources of revenue — or keep cutting expenses, including newsroom staff.

Stand back from this audacious strategy — with all its staff-cutting pain, its inducing of reader pain, and the promise of its digital-first, future-is-now thinking — and it’s hard to get past the point of its missing digital reader revenue strategy.

That said, Advance’s more immediate bet is that it can radically reduce its costs and maintain its dominating presence in local news and commerce.

It’s too early to assess the local advertising challenge. It’s a hyper-competitive marketplace, and Advance seems to succeeded in corralling seven-day advertisers into three days. (I’d projected it would hold on to 85 percent of its print advertising revenue in New Orleans; the number appears to be closer to 90 percent.) It still faces, though, a fast-declining (high single digits loss in metro markets) print market. Further, its ability innovate fast enough in the digital ad marketplace is unproven.

As one observer put it to me today, does the new Oregonian plan to make its future on display banner ads? I’m sure execs would answer that no. But its work in newer forms of digital advertising, from content marketing to marketing services to a major video presence, all seem relatively nascent. Is it ready for prime time as a digital-heavy company? Not yet, certainly, and the clock shows two more big Advance dailies going digital-first within 90 days or so. As it fights for digital ad revenue, it faces many competitors from Google and Facebook nationally to lots of local players.

New competition

In news impact, so far, there is mixed evidence.

Observers in both New Orleans and Syracuse tell me it is a crazy-quilt. Yes, with time-stamping on the website, more stories and posts are being pumped out of the newsroom.

The new operations break their share of news, and some second-day stories do a great job of summing up major news events. Sometimes, though — more than they used to — both papers drop the ball on breaking news. Other news players, from NewsChannel 9 WSYR in Syracuse to The Lens and the just-launched Baton Rouge Advocate’s greatly energized New Orleans play (“The New Orleans Advocate”), are competing more consistently. The Advance papers are still the biggest dog in town, but the dog park is now more diverse. Come fall, The Plain Dealer and The Oregonian will wake up to find their traditional alpha status more challenged day by day.

Times-Picayune editor Jim Amoss believes he is already seeing the dividends from the wrenching change the newsroom has seen. His staff is thinking news, not the next day’s paper.

“We’ve had eight months of having the news gatherers and editors separate, physically separate, from the print team and not having to think about the print product. The new rhythms have been inculcated in everybody,” says Amoss. “The total number of people in news went from 181 pre-change to 160 now. We’re still in the process of filling some of those positions. That total includes 91 reporters (including metro area news, sports, entertainment, Baton Rouge, and Washington correspondent). The number of reporters pre-change was roughly the same.”

Digital audience has grown, as we would expect given the print stoppage. Overall pageviews are up 15 percent, and “eyes on content” — meaning views of articles, videos, and photos across the site — are up 35 percent. A significant part of that is huge photo growth, up 150 percent year over year; photos represent 16 percent of the site’s traffic.

With the changeover, editors and ad directors have more direction of their own digital presentations and business. Advance Digital, to whom the separate sites used to report, still provides digital product development, sales strategy, news and information content product development, and centralized technology for the digital products.

Oregonian editor Peter Bhatia echoed Amoss’ newsgathering point to me this week: The Oregonian newsroom today has about 90 reporters and will have about the same in the fall. The newsroom cutting has fallen disproportionately in middle editor and copy editing ranks in all the Advance cities, a strategy well-employed by others over, including the Star Tribune, over the past several years in making cuts.

The big questions, of course, are who those reporters are, how much experience they have and what beats they cover. In any newsroom restructuring, newsroom managers can use the opportunity to make changes they long wanted to make, but found inconvenient. In this great shuffle, some areas, like environmental beat experience, have been wiped out at the Oregonian.

Further digital skills may have trumped journalistic skills in such Sophie’s Choice decision-making. Finally, The Oregonian — as keenly aware of its newsroom dollar budget as of its actual headcount — cut many high-salaried people, as well as some younger staffers, weighing, I’m sure, one more factor: exposure to age discrimination suits, as any employer in such a situation would do.

All of that change means The Oregonian, come fall, will find new areas in which to excel — and will leave its flanks more open to competition. In Portland, there’s a lot of it. Pulitzer Prize-winning Willamette Week provides city-smart, well-established news coverage. Oregon Public Broadcasting has been adding coverage area after coverage area. Add in a strong TV news presence and several niche print players, and The Oregonian may find what its sister papers in New Orleans and Syracuse have found: breaking news and analysis becomes more of a multi-horse race.

It’s not just news-gathering and writing that matters on the web, of course. A digital-first news operation should be the go-to news aggregator for the region; The Oregonian isn’t. It should have the best tablet and smartphone apps — news and entertainment — and its offerings so far are nothing special, open to competition. It could leverage community, user-generated content far better, borrowing a page from its Northwest neighbor, The Seattle Times, but hasn’t moved in that direction.

Broadly, let’s say the strategy — at least parts of it — may be right. Then the question becomes: Is the Oregonian ready to execute on it?

There’s little doubt that most of Advance’s employees — whose work will make or break the strategy — have little confidence in the “the plan.” It’s paternalism gone awry, and the sense of abandonment is clear. The lurch in strategy is offering little comfort, as Advance and its publisher largely keep the staff in the dark about how the new business is going to create successful products and long-term employment.

What Advance has done is buy some time. In radically cutting its cost base, it may have given itself a couple of extra years to get its new strategy right. It will need that time, at least, to work the prodigious to-do list it has handed itself.

Photo by Josh Bancroft used under a Creative Commons license.

December 07 2011

19:20

Your 2011 holiday gift guide, brought to you by the news

Santa running down the street in Algers, France

If you want to save journalism, you might turn to journalism this year for all your Christmas shopping.

This weekend at NewsFoo, an O’Reilly “un-conference” for about 170 journalists and tech disrupters, the tech writer Mónica Guzmán posed a question: “Can’t we [news organizations] sell anything besides articles?” Yes, it turns out, and there are numerous examples of them trying it.

A couple of months ago Guzmán was talking to an entrepreneur in Seattle who had just sold his latest startup to Google. “We got to talking about journalism, and I’m always fascinated to listen to people who come from an innovative mindset, but not a news mindset, look at news. What he said, basically, is I don’t see how news is really going to innovate and move forward unless they can get past this idea that what they sell is just content.”

News organizations have one big advantage in business: They know their audience.

“We have a huge leg up when it comes to organizing information communities,” she said. “[News outlets] build those communities that can be really specific and really well defined.” (NewsFoo is generally off the record, but Guzmán talked with me after her session.)

Here are a few examples of all the ways news companies are selling non-news products to consumers. Some might look better wrapped up under the tree than others, but if you feel like supporting the news, maybe there’s room on your credit card for one or two of them.

Merchandise!

For the oenophile in your life, buy a gift subscription to the New York Times Wine Club. Six rare wines (four red, two white) for $90 per shipment, or $180 for the most exquisite Reserve Club varietals. Each bottle is paired with tasting notes and an NYT recipe. Europeans can sample Telegraph Wines, “one of the UK’s most respected wine merchants.” A case of six bottles of Prosecco goes for £54 and includes two complimentary Champagne flutes.

Spaceballs: The Flamethrower

The Telegraph doesn’t stop at wine. There’s a Telegraph Garden Shop, Motoring Shop, a travel shop for holiday cottages. You can buy earrings, duvet covers, snow boots, and clothes hangers. “They are the leading retailer of clothes hangers in the U.K.,” said Jeff Jarvis in an April 2010 Editor & Publisher story. The newspaper raked in a quarter of its profit in 2009 from selling things, he said.

The Onion cheaply repurposes tons of its own content into coffee-table books and framed prints. NPR, almost true to stereotype, sells “green gifts,” “gifts for gardeners,” and “gift for tea lovers.” None of those items have NPR branding, just the kind of things a typical NPR listener might like to buy. (And shoppers know their purchase helps support the news.)

The überaggregator Boing Boing sells stuff as weird as that which it aggregates, e.g., rubber finger tentacles, a remote-controlled flying shark, a bacon-scented air freshener. That site outsources the e-commerce software and payment processing.

Specialty iPhone apps

Santa's Hideout screen shot

There are plenty of smartphone and iPad apps that try to generate revenue for news organizations, but it’s less common for there to be an app that doesn’t have anything to do with the outlet’s journalism. Just today we wrote about Condé Nast’s new Santa app, which helps parents assemble and share lists of what their kids want for Christmas.

This summer Hearst Corp. launched its App Lab, a sort of digital R&D unit for the ad agencies who work with Hearst. It was Hearst that developed Manilla, a financial management product for consumers, earlier this year.

Events

In September, the web-only Texas Tribune launched the Texas Tribune Festival, a first annual symposium that brought together politicians, wonks, lobbyists, and others from the universe of Texas politics. (I interviewed editor Evan Smith about it this summer.) Tickets cost $125, but the real money comes from corporate sponsorships. In 2010, before the festival existed, the Tribune raised about $600,000 in event sponsorship, Smith told me. The Tribune festival was modeled on the New Yorker Festival, which also sells tickets and big-name sponsorships. Forbes follows a similar model for its CEO conferences around the world, but those tickets are a lot pricier.

Digital marketing services

Rubber finger tentacles

435 Digital is a Chicago consulting firm that does web design, SEO, and social media — actually, it’s a division of Tribune Co., but you would never know that from looking at its home page. The group is made up of the people who gave us Colonel Tribune and the ChicagoNow blog network.

GannettLocal, too, offers marketing services for local businesses that advertise in Gannett-owned papers. Condé Nast sells its in-house creative talent to advertisers, competing with the very agencies whose work fills the pages of its magazines.

Using reporters’ smarts

The Chronicle of Philanthropy, as I wrote this summer, packages its reporters’ in-house expertise about particular topics as paid webinars that cost as much as $96 apiece.

The premium content, the merch, the events, the consulting, the apps — they are all specialty products for niche audiences. Whether all of the offerings are making money is for another story.

“Last-minute shopping?” by Louise LeGresley used under a Creative Commons license.

March 01 2011

15:07

DocumentCloud Passes Major Milestone: 1 Million Pages Uploaded

DocumentCloud's Jeremy Ashkenas collaborated on this post.

It has been less than a year since DocumentCloud began adding users to our beta. Late Monday morning, a user uploaded our millionth page of primary source documents.

The thousands of documents in our catalog have arrived in small batches: five pages here, twenty there. The vast majority of the 65,000 documents that those million pages comprise remain private, but we're fast closing in on 10,000 public documents in our catalog.

Broad Appeal

Journalists are using DocumentCloud to publish all sorts of documents, including these:

Remaking History

Documents in our catalog reach back into the past, as well. In 1970 Ruben Salazar was killed by police while covering an anti-war protest in east Los Angeles. A story rife with controversy, questions, and suspicions, his death became a rallying point in the Mexican American civil rights movement. Forty years later -- after refusing a public records request for documents that might shed some light on the circumstances of his death -- the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department agreed to turn the files over to the Office of Independent Review.

While Los Angeles Times reporters waited for the report, they assembled their own folio of early clippings on Ruben Salazar. Readers can review FBI files obtained by the Times in 1999 and LAPD records on the department's repeated clashes with the journalist as well as a draft of the report prepared by the Office of Independent Review.

Join the Cloud

You can browse recently published documents by searching for "filter: published" or read up on other searches you might want to run. Here's hoping that the next year brings millions more pages, and more great document-driven reporting.

November 18 2010

15:00

The Newsonomics of news anywhere

[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.]

Facebook isn’t trying to replace Gmail or Yahoo Mail — it’s just trying to bring a little order to our world, right? This week’s Facebook Messages announcement is stunningly simple, and in line with the next phase of the web, both overall and for news.

Take MSNBC’s description of Facebook Messages:

Instead of dealing with the dilemma of reaching people via e-mail or direct message or SMS, all of these will be combined, so that you’ll be able to reach someone the way they prefer to be reached, without you having to think about it. ‘All you need is a person and a message,’ said Andrew Bosworth, director of engineering for Facebook.

That’s the next web (r)evolution in a nutshell. It’s a unified theory of messaging. And it can be easily extended into the unified theories of TV, movies, shopping — and news.

Make a few substitutions, and you’ve got “All you need is a person and a movie,” or “All you need is a person and a shopping list” or “All you need is a person and the news.” For news creators, and aggregators, it’s a big thought that will be play out more dramatically in the tablet-inflected world of 2011. Only those who grok its meaning and execute properly may make digital reader revenue a reality.

In short, it’s about simplification, about interconnection, about consolidation, and it’s a principle that is beginning to — and should — form the foundation of the much of the next-generation thinking about the news business.

Though we’ll continue to see a panorama of new digital services and products, much of the early digital vision has been built out. We may live in a find-anything-anytime-anywhere world, but it’s also a digital fumbleathon, as we bounce from mobile apps of three distinct platforms, mail and preference settings, interminable demands for passwords, multiple hard-to-combine “friend” and contact lists, Twitter decks, Facebook walls, RSS feeds, preference popups, security hiccups — not to mention TV remotes and cable guides that seem like visitors from a distant analog planet.

Facebook Messages says: We get it. We’ll make it easier for you to keep in touch with those you want to stay in touch with. We’ll see how well Facebook delivers on that promise, but it’s the right one for our age. We can see its echoes multiplying.

On Wednesday, HBO announced that its HBO Go initiative will make HBO available through digital devices for its cable channels subscribers by year’s end. That initiative is part of parent Time Warner’s TV Everywhere push, which likewise says: You paid us once. Now get what you paid for wherever you want it. It’s the unification of the premium TV business, as cable companies are starting to see unprecedented churn, given piecemeal availability of programming through the Internet, legally or illegally.

Comcast is making a similar promise, as it newly announced app promises to connect up its customers’ experience. The app’s functionality is rolling out over time, but will ultimately allow viewing of all Comcast’s Xfinity content via devices, plus provide programming services, such as remote DVR taping, and let an iPhone replace that dreaded remote — borrowing a little bit from Tivo, a little bit from Sonos.

Netflix, of course, grasped the concept earlier, as CEO Reed Hastings has noted (“Six Lessons for the News Industry from Reed Hastings“): “We knew that the DVD business was temporary when we founded the company. That’s why we named it Netflix and not DVD by mail. We wanted to become Netflix.” Netflix’s current promise: “Unlimited TV.” You guessed it: one relationship with the brand, and you get what you paid for however you want it.

Where are the news promises? Well, the first generation has been Yahoo News. Remember your first time seeing all those wondrous headline links from the BBC, the Post, the Hindu, and CNET all in one place? First-generation aggregation was cool, but we haven’t really progressed much beyond it, though we’ve seen nuances, with personality added to aggregation (HuffPo) and some regional aggregation (Seattle Times, TBD.com). We’ve seen some good smartphone apps and a few new iPad apps. Come 2011, we’ll begin to see more News Everywhere experiences.

The first big one in the U.S. should be The New York Times. The Times will launch its metered pay system early in the year. If tech issues can be solved, expect paying customers to get access — aiming toward seamless, but likely with a few wrinkles — across devices, an intending-to-be-unified reader experience. The Times’ Martin Nisenholtz explained recently: “It’s not just about the website anymore. It’s about all of the brands where you can read the Times…it’s about the website, smartphones, the slates, iPad…it’s a hugely different world than it was five years ago.” So, the Times will say give us a single price, and we’ll let you read about you want of the Times where you want, recognizing you across digital experiences and — nirvana — allowing you to keep track of what you’ve shared and read, and with whom, without you having to recall whether you sent that story to your best buddy on your iPhone.

I’ve called that approach All-Access, and I think it’s the news industry version of TV Everywhere. So far, the best example of all-access pricing is the Financial Times, upon whose experience the Times’ model is built. Its “newspaper + online” top-of-the-line subscription allows full digital access plus the paper for one price.

The Everywhere notions seem friendly — and they have to be consumer friendly to be successful — but they’re actually quite darwinian. How many entertainment and news brands will we pay for? Only a handful, probably, especially at premium rates. So in the news business, that battle means only a few brands win the reader revenue sweepstakes, unless a Hulu-for-news proposition (AP’s digital rights clearinghouse expanded; a second life for Rupert Murdoch’s Alesia?) succeeds big-time.

To win, news companies will have work on the principle of the Field Theory. No, not the unified field theory, though unification of message and of service is fundamental. It’s the Sally Field Theory, which you remember the 1984 Oscars speech: “I’ve wanted more than anything to have your respect…I can’t deny the fact that you like me, right now, you like me!” Well who wants renewed respect than newsies? Who keeps talking about the trusted brand relationship that newspapers have long had with readers?

If news companies want to “own” the news customer (and be able to mine his data deeply), then they, large or small, newly minted or history-encrusted, have to bring their games to a new level. For the Times (or the Journal), the current breadth of content may be sufficient, if the execution manages to bring a little delight of ubiquity to paying subscribers.

For local news companies, the bar is probably a different one. Yes, they’ll have to put their tech development in high gear (many are woefully behind on tablet apps, just as the devices explode under this year’s Christmas trees), but they’ll also have to up their local value proposition. That means not just repurposing their own staff’s local news output, but really reaching out to community blog aggregation, broadcast partnership, working Yelp-like guide magic (probably through partnership) and/or creating a new level of digitally enhanced local shopping experiences. It’s unclear how much limited local news across devices is worth to news consumers.

News Anywhere, or unified news, or All-Access, whatever we want to call it, demands the singular focus, product development and messaging that Netflix, HBO, Comcast, and Facebook are bringing to it. Those are all skills that have been problematic in the news industry. Yet, here we are, in a new age, in a mobile news age about to unfold, giving the journalism, and journalists, another chance to get it right.

April 15 2010

15:26

The Newsonomics of content arbitrage

[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.]

We’re into a new age of digital news content. Every conceivable kind of company is starting to produce it and find homes for it. Smarter advertising strategies are matching up against the new content. Mix and match exploding content creation with ahead-of-the-curve ad targeting, and you’ve got a new math.

Presto: Content arbitrage. Forget “curators”; an accurate but museum-musty term for judgment. As news sites have branched out, bringing in community bloggers and sites, “hiring” top-end bloggers, we’ve come up with the genteel “curation,” a popular term at this week’s ASNE conference, a hot (well, warming) bed of such forward-reaching ideas.

So if want to move beyond “editors,” with its old-world connotations, to get at a reaching out, an aggregation of more content, what’s the proper word? Well, aggregator is technically correct, but it’s Terminator-like. News people don’t like to think of themselves copying the the first, big aggregators like Yahoo, Google, MSN and Huffington Post. (Each of which, not incidentally, sees great next-stage opportunity in content brokerage and are competitors to news companies in this area going forward.)

So let me suggest a title that fits what is going on, though it will make “editors” uneasy: “Content brokers.” I’m not suggested that anyone change a job title to “content broker,” but rather to recognize that’s a huge role going forward. (And even backwards, for us veteran features editors who understood that buying content from diverse syndicates, wires and freelancers was an essential part of the business.)

Let’s go to the newsonomics of content brokering.

Demand Media, fairly and not, has become the poster child of the content-and-ad arbitrage. It’s both been derided as an amoral, slave-wage content farm and marveled at for its absolute smarts about the value of content, and its creation. Just last week, Demand announced a deal to power a “Travel Tips” section for USAToday.com; earlier it had done a lower-profile deal with AJC.com, in Atlanta

It’s just one example of news companies starting to get it about content brokering. The principle is simple: Obtain the highest quality content you can (or at least sufficient to what the market of readers and advertisers demand) at the lowest possible cost. Then, make sure you can make a profit over each set of obtained content. We all understand the idea: Buy low, sell high.

Demand will pay, say, $35 for an article of new treatments for spring allergies, knowing how many pageviews its distribution networks can generate and what cost-per-thousand rates it can get. Maybe it makes $100 or $300 on that article. Maybe it makes a lot more. You can do lots more arithmetic here, with thousands of stories, higher-priced ones and even “free” user-gen ones. The principle, though, is the same.

Newspapers understand that principle. For decades, they employed large newsroom staffs, paid them what they had to, sold advertising, at expectable and rising rates, and took in margins of 20-percent-plus. That’s content-and-ad arbitrage, though it moved at glacial speed and seemed more like a constitutional principle than an evolving business, subject to change.

Now, the arbitrage business is moving at warp speed. Consider just a few of many brokerage initiatives:

  • The New York Times is “buying” content from the Chicago News Cooperative to power its local Chicago edition. It will soon do the same with the emerging Bay Citizen in California. The economics are key here: The Times can’t afford to add full-time staffers at $100k a pop; it can afford something less to get its standard of journalism from other sources.
  • Seattle is hosting the battle royale to aggregate local bloggers. The now-online-only Seattle P-I, led by Michelle Nicolosi, has been signing up bloggers for years, and hosts more than 200 of them, who use the P-I’s publishing system. Across town, Bob Payne, communities director of The Seattle Times, is working with 22 hyperlocal sites in the region. That’s a J-Lab-funded project, which the Miami Herald and Charlotte Observer are also trying. All the newspaper sites get more content, as blogs and bloggers get more notice and traffic.
  • Hearst recently signed up Bleacher Report to provide fan-generated sports content for its sites.
  • Demand’s growing list of competitors to provide brokered content to news companies (and others) includes Associated Content, Helium, Seed, and Examiner, although there are signal differences among them. Outside.In and FWIX both offer pointers to local content of interest and have done deals with news websites.
  • Poynter Institute is even putting a finer point of the business of getting cheaper content, hosting a “Stretching Your News Budget with User Content” seminar in May.

Some of this content brokering brings in community-oriented “user-gen.” Some of it brings in useful content in niche areas, like sports, travel, family, religion and much more. Some does both.

Is there a danger in content arbitrage? It’s value-neutral; it’s all in how you do it. Let’s remember that journalism is essentially a manufacturing process, with as much or as little value added as we want.

On a brand- and content-integrity level, it’s all in exercising good judgment — but against a much wider array of choices. On a business level, it’s making sure you are buying low and selling high. Ironically, many news companies are starting to bring in more content — mostly from local bloggers and sites — but few are seeing ad departments monetize it well. That’s buying cheaply, but if you don’t sell it, it’s not really much of a business advance. That should be temporary, if news publishers and editors take content brokering to heart.

Photo by Petra Sell used under a Creative Commons license.

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