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August 03 2011

17:00

California Watch expands south with a new partnership

The nonprofit California Watch, just shy of its second birthday, opens its new Southern California bureau today — and the location says something about the evolution of the news business.

A reporter and community engagement manager will be leaving the outfit’s Berkeley headquarters and taking up residence in the newsroom of the Orange County Register. And the rent is unbeatable: free.

“As traditional newsrooms have cut back, they have been left with vast stretches of open space inside their newsrooms or buildings,” said Mark Katches, editorial director for California Watch and its parent organization, the making the announcement last month. “We are able to capitalize in a way that benefits our organization and our hosts.”

A couple of years ago, when California Watch was new and unknown, the outlook for this kind of team-up might not have been so sunny. The O.C. (don’t call it that) Register, for one thing, might have viewed California Watch simply as a competitor encroaching on its turf. Other reporters setting up shop here, digging for the same dirt?

No longer, though: Now, they’re teammates. (The Register already pays annual licensing fees to run California Watch stories in its own pages.) “There’s just so much news in California that, two years in, there really has not been a case where we have overlapped,” says Robert Salladay, California Watch’s senior editor. “I think that alleviated a lot of fear on the part of reporters and our partners.”

Not everyone they talked to was as receptive to a team-up as the Register, Salladay said, but at the same time, California Watch was actually getting partnership invitations from some papers. “The situation with newspapers is so critical. I think everyone’s happy for the copy, happy that stories are getting done. It is a much more collaborative industry now,” Salladay told me. “I can imagine that, 10 years ago, this model just wouldn’t have flown at all.”

The Center for Investigative Reporting launched California Watch in fall 2009 to do the kind of time-consuming, data-driven reporting that many newspapers can’t afford anymore. Since then, the site has launched its own initiatives: a statewide distribution network, a radio partnership with public broadcasting giant KQED, and a television unit that works in collaboration with WGBH’s Frontline and ABC News. In addition to more than 1,200 news posts last year, the site pumps out, on average, three investigative pieces a month, Salladay told me — and a half-dozen major series a year.

Financially, California Watch continues to subsist on grants from foundations, but the organization is raising some revenue, as well. In January, the outfit changed the way it charges for its content. Members of the California Watch Media Network — among them the San Francisco Chronicle, the Sacramento Bee, and, yes, the Orange County Register — now choose from a menu of stories each year and pay membership fees that vary according to their circulation and audience reach. (Previously, California Watch negotiated the price of each story, a la carte.) Salladay would not disclose the membership rates, but he said it can’t be so much that a newspaper can’t afford it. Newspapers’ financial struggles, after all, are the reason California Watch exists in the first place.

California Watch’s move into Southern California is overdue, Salladay said — especially because it’s where most Californians live. “One of the reasons we want to be in Southern California is that here are a lot of neglected communities that don’t get a lot of coverage, so we’re hoping to get out to some of the smaller communities to do a lot of work on low-income people, disadvantaged communities, work on the border, work on migrant farmworkers. You’d be surprised how many small towns there are down there that aren’t being watched. I think with what the L.A. Times found with the city of Bell, there’s a lot of fruitful work that can be done.”

Looking beyond Orange County, Salladay would also like to get a reporter in Los Angeles, add a border bureau in San Diego or Imperial County, and maybe hire a staff photographer. In just two years, now with 25 employees, California Watch has become the largest investigative reporting team in the state. The organization’s biggest challenge now, Salladay said, is staying on mission.

“We have to constantly remind ourselves that the mission is investigative reporting — looking at waste, fraud, and abuse,” he noted. “There’s a great temptation to pull ourselves away for some great mini-scandal somewhere or some great enterprise story about a social issue. We want to do those, but I think it’s important for us to stay focused.”

August 02 2011

18:27

Boston Globe creates a Twitter board for the newsroom

There once was a time (cue the piano music, sepia tones, and Ken Burns effect) when one of the major components of newsrooms was the Teletype machine, a novel technology that delivered dispatches from the tiniest reaches of the United States and the farthest corners of the globe.

Newsrooms outgrew the technology, or at least grew into newer, faster technologies, like Twitter. Which could explain why the Boston Globe newsroom now has a funky bank of monitors that displays Tweets throughout the day, as well as headlines from their websites (more on that in second).

They’re calling it the Information Radiator. The name may sound a little super-villain-y, but it’s accurate: Goal One of the experimental installation is to increase the dissemination of information. Goal Two is to increase familiarity with the new world order at the Globe, which this fall will split into two online entities, the free Boston.com and the subscriber-focused BostonGlobe.com. Goal Three is to encourage more Globe staffers to get active on Twitter.

A big task for six monitors, three mini-PC’s, a pole, and some Velcro.

“Really what drove the concept was the need to show the newsroom the new reality of all these digital tendrils that the Globe newsroom is publishing to,” Chris Marstall, the Globe’s creative technologist, told me. “It’s not just print and Boston.com anymore. It’s print, Boston.com, BostonGlobe.com, and Twitter.”

The idea originated with the Globe’s Media Lab team as well as Managing Editor Caleb Solomon and Deputy Managing Editor for Multimedia Bennie Dinardo. Ideally, the radiator will be a raw wire of what the Globe’s staff is reporting and following, showing others what stories are developing (or at least letting editors know what reporters are trying to put together). The displays could find different applications in different scenarios — following what competing news organizations are up to, or following sources within select beats (say @Ochocinco for the sports desk and @raytheoncompany for business).

The radiator itself is a fairly inexpensive and simple kit: All told, the setup cost about $2,000. It works by pulling the feed from the @BostonUpdate Twitter list of Globe staffers, a list with 173 accounts at the moment.

Some inspiration, Marstall told me, came from their friends at the New York Times Research and Development Lab, who you may recall from Megan’s post, developed quite the shiny story visualization tool. Their effort, Project Cascade, showed how stories from the Times spread across Twitter. While the Information Radiator is not as ambitious, it serves a similar purpose of demonstrating the new reach Twitter allows the Globe and its journalists.

“The newsroom is this nexus of information, this big group of people all about gathering information, cohering it and publishing it,” Marstall said. “And we have the ability now to draw together and follow all these newsmakers, much more easily and quickly than in the past.”

The project also has the benefit of giving an early glimpse of BostonGlobe.com, which promises subscription-supported premium content, a break from Boston.com, which will become more focused on breaking news and local events. Since BostonGlobe.com has largely been under wraps and away from the eyes of all but a small team of developers, the Information Radiator is an opportunity for the staff to see how the new site is sorted out in terms of layout and design. All together the three screens show a new kind of workflow, as information works its way from reporters on Twitter to either (or both) site.

It’s also more than a little Gawker-esque. The radiator, much like Nick Denton’s infamous display, could have a notable side effect of encouraging a little friendly competition among the staff. It may not be a pageview bounty, but Marstall hopes it inspires more of Globe journalists to get on Twitter. Even with more than 170 Twitter accounts, there’s still plenty of progress to be made. Even as Marty Baron, the Globe’s editor joined Twitter last week, Dan Shaughnessy, one of the Globe’s most celebrated sports columnists, recently got a little twitchy on the subject, writing: “Pardon me if I sound like Larry King, but what’s up with this Twitter madness? It strikes me as trendy, immature, and entirely unnecessary.”

Clearly there is work to be done, and Marstall said the project is only in its first iteration. By showing what people are Tweeting, who they are connecting with on Twitter and what stories are developing, the Information Radiator is a valuable new information feed that also happens to suggest “Hey, give this Twitter thing a try.” One of the biggest obstacles may be trying to make the display itself as unobtrusive, but useful, as possible. “We want to try and find a way to make this ambient in the newsroom,” Marstall said, alluding to something like a muted TV turned to CNN. Or something else altogether: “Basically like the NORAD screen, where it’s just essential information, it’s there, and you can’t ignore it.”

Ah yes, the big board. Always have to be careful giving people a peak at the Big Board.

August 01 2011

13:00

The Vidiots strategy: From commodities to communities

The Times had a noteworthy article in yesterday’s paper, about the approaches independent video rental stores are taking as they battle behemoths like RedBox and Netflix. While many indie shops have simply shut down — R.I.P, Kim’s — others, as the video-world equivalents of Amazon and Walmart encroach on their formerly solid business models, are choosing fight over flight. And they’re fighting, specifically, by reinventing themselves and the products they sell. As corporate Goliaths undersell them — with prices that are, some cases, pretty close to full-on free — some indie stores are simply changing the products they offer.

It’s an old story, to a large extent — much of the article has a 2002 called, wants its trend back vibe to it — but it’s one whose thesis is made fresh by Netflix’s recent announcement of its updated pricing, which could have a big (and good) effect on smaller video stores. (Not only has the move provoked ire in some customers, leading them to defect from the brand altogether; there’s also “the notion that Netflix’s future appears to be in online streaming, not DVD’s, may return some business to video stores, given that fewer movie titles are now available via streaming.”)

For the Lab’s purposes, though, the main story here isn’t just that the video stores are adapting themselves to a new video-consumption environment, but how they’re doing it: through creating community around the products they’re selling. Vidiots, a popular video-rental spot in L.A., opened a community space, the Annex, last year. It uses the space to hold classes (“Film Studies“) and to host events: lectures from filmmakers, spoken-word performances, movie sing-alongs (yesterday’s: Jesus Christ Superstar), and more. (Vidiots also rents out the space when it’s not being used.)

“We felt that with Netflix and the Internet, what we should be focusing on was community and people talking to each other,” Patty Polinger, Vidiots’ co-owner, tells the Times’ Nicole Laporte. “We just wanted to go the other extreme and be more interpersonal.”

Vidiots is a unique case compared to, say, national news organizations: It’s in L.A., and so has special access to filmmakers and their fans; and it deals in movies, which are leisure activities and inherently social and so lend themselves rather seamlessly to in-person cultural events. Still, though, the store’s success (“success,” at this point, in the sense of “survival”) could be instructive for news orgs. Vidiots isn’t just engaging in community for community’s sake, desperately carving out a new revenue stream for itself; it’s taking what you could call its core mission — providing people with entertainment — and simply translating that mission into a new source of sustainment. It’s changing the product it sells, subtly: from movie rentals to movie-based experiences.

Or, in business terms, it’s reconsidering what customers actually “hire” a movie to do. In his course at Harvard’s Business School, the innovation theorist Clayton Christensen tells the story of a fast-food chain that wanted to improve its milkshake sales. It hired one of Christensen’s fellow researchers to analyze how, exactly, people were using milkshakes — and discovered that a whopping 40 percent of the chain’s shakes were purchased first thing in the morning, largely by commuters. Though the customers’ moms would be horrified by this, what the researcher discovered was that, to them, the shakes weren’t actually “milkshakes” at all, but rather portable breakfasts that they could nurse through long drives, easily and without mess. The customers weren’t just ordering shakes; they were, essentially, “hiring” the shakes to do a job. Once it had that insight, the chain could focus on offering products that could do that job for its customers.

That simple shift in perspective — thinking in terms of jobs accomplished rather than products offered, and profiting from it — is key to what Vidiots is doing. And it’s intriguing to consider what the shift might look like when applied to journalism. News outlets are certainly getting into the community game — through social media, of course, but also through IRL events like the NYT’s TimesTalks, the Journal’s Weekend Conversations, the Texas Tribune Festival, the Register-Citizen’s newsroom cafe, and on and on — but often those happenings are presented as subsidiary products, as events that are separate from the news itself. They’re just another revenue stream — just another product sold, just another milkshake.

But: What if they were more than that? What if news outlets were to consider themselves as doing a job rather than selling a product? What would happen to organizations’ business models if we started to think of “the news,” at its core, not as a product, but as an event?

July 28 2011

14:00

The newsonomics of Netflix and the digital shift

Editor’s Note: Each week, Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of news for the Lab.

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings says he is surprised that customers weren’t more upset with Netflix’s digital shift. After all, he expected more upset, in his role as a pioneer, early in the game of forcing the digital shift. That’s the kind of digital shift now confronting news companies, so Netflix’s customer experience and strategy is highly relevant.

Hastings is quite clear in that strategy, telling investors on Monday:

“Believe it or not, the noise level was actually less than we expected, given a 60 percent price increase for some subscribers. We knew what we were getting into, we tried to be as straightforward as we could, and that has worked out very well for us.”

When Netflix shocked everyone by pricing way up DVD-by-mail subscriptions — up to a 60-percent increase — that’s what he was doing: forcing the digital shift. The digital shift is what Hastings wants to happen faster. Right now, 60 percent of his 25 million subscribers are DVD takers, and the majority of the revenue is on that side of the business. He knew when he started the business that he would start with DVDs, but that the long-term business was streaming (“Six Lessons for the News Industry from Reed Hastings“). He just had to wait for the rest of the world to catch up to that vision.

The economics of his business is clear. Charge consumers less (for now) for streaming ($7.99 a month) — and profit more. As he shifts the business, the cost of revenues has already decreased almost two percentage points in a year, from 64.6 percent to 62.8 percent. Lower cost of revenues means higher cross margin, and that’s what investors have loved about the company.

In the new strategy, we can see how Netflix can both push the digital transition faster and manage the DVD decline better. We can assume that the digital customer is worth more in profit to Netflix than the digital customer. Then, Netflix wants to take out as much of that cost infrastructure (Post Office, warehouses, associated customer service) as possible, as fast as possible. Differential pricing is one way to do that.

In the meantime, if we as consumers really want those DVDs, we’re going to pay significantly more for them, in the neighborhood of $16-20 a month. The Netflix analog customer, used to holding the hunk of burning love in his hands (and increasingly aware of the spottiness of Netflix’s streaming choices, even as they grow monthly), now has a tougher choice to make. Netflix has a better way to manage its business.

DVD-by-mail used to be the whole operation. Now with two years of successful streaming, it’s becoming simply one part of a streaming-focused company.

It’s now a division “within Netflix, with a  P & L”,said  Hastings in an earnings call. “We think it will be a small investment in its growth and sustainability, and we’ll figure that out over the next several quarters. The DVD can last a long time as a successful platform. Growth [of the DVD business] would be overstating it. It will shrink slowly rather than rapidly with a little operating investment.”

We can hear the great resonance in this transition for news and magazine publishers. First the principle: Spend your time on tomorrow, not today. For print publishers, that means moving as much of the thinking and as many of the resources to digital as possible — now. How about making “print” a division of a news(paper) company?

Netflix’s experience is early, and directional for news and consumer publishers. What Reed Hastings is essentially saying is that once a company has figured out its route to digital business model success, it doesn’t want to dally, straddling too long the old and the new. That’s tough, expensive — time- and mind-sharing-consuming. Better to get on with the transition.

For publishers, the path is not yet clear, but at least in the age of the tablet and of mobile generally, they now see the rough outlines of a route. While for Netflix, that route is a simpler single consumer revenue stream proposition, it is more complex for publishers.

The greater complexity for newspapers and magazines involves their two-part business model. The first part is similar to the Netflix consumer transition, though with differing twists.

Newspaper publishers started this process several years ago, saying, “Let’s have these print customers pay more of the freight of creating and delivering print.” Since then, community dailies that used to cost a quarter a day have tripled to 75 cents, and The New York Times goes for $6 on Sunday. They have priced in more of the cost of that expensive newsprint, ink, and delivery.

Now, this year, we’ve seen added in the charging for digital access. We’ve begun to see the answer to this question: How much will consumers pay for digital access? That’s still uncertain, though early evidence is coming in from The New York Times, Time Inc., and Journalism Online experiments, among others. In newspapers and in magazines, we see the interim play: the bundled, all-access subscription — pay us once and get both analog and digital, print and pixel. That’s a move for more consumer revenue in the short-term, but also a longer-term pricing play to get pure digital revenue as readers give up print.

Imagine 2020, and the always-out-there-question: Will we still have print newspapers? Well, maybe, but imagine how much they’ll cost — $3 for a local daily? — and consumers will compare that to the “cheap” tablet pricing, and decide, just as they doing now are with Netflix, which product to take and which to let go.

The print world ends not with a bang, but with price increase after price increase.

These economics of transition have a second, big piece for publishers that Netflix doesn’t have to worry about: advertising. With advertising accounting for 70 percent of newspaper revenues worldwide, the huge question for publishers is how much ad revenue they can make from purely digital customers. In the U.S, newspaper publishers know they make more than $500 a year on a Sunday print subscriber. With reduced digital product cost (like Netflix’s reduced cost of streaming), newspaper and magazine publishers won’t need the same level of revenue, but they will need a substantial part of what they are getting today. Those economics are just being modeled now in 2011, as the promise of higher-priced and higher-value tablet (and smartphone) advertising looks like it may be real and buildable.

Magazine and newspapers aren’t yet ready to more forcibly shift the audience in the direction of digital-only.

Timing is a big question here. Reed Hastings is flipping the Netflix switch more heavily toward digital, even though fewer than half his revenues are yet there. For newspaper publishers, with no more than 20 percent of their overall revenues in digital, the time may be one to three years away.

When publishers flip that switch — pushing customers more heavily toward digital — they want the force to be with them, not against them. The news and feature businesses are different than Netflix’s. Yet the strategies involved — make the old business a division, model out the new business model, move to it as quickly as you can once you’ve got it figured out — all apply. In mid-2011, Netflix is a canary in a (circulation) coalmine, with lessons to be learned.

Image by Laura Fries used under a Creative Commons license..

July 27 2011

18:30

A superhero can’t fix the debt crisis, but he can explain it

Captain America

Not even Captain America can bust through the debt ceiling. What’s a hero to do while the politicians quarrel?

Employ his superhuman powers of explanation, that’s what. For the last four weeks, National Journal reporter and newly minted columnist Major Garrett has channelled Captain America to explain the intricacies of the crisis. The Star-Spangled Avenger sets his shield aside and fields imaginary calls from citizens who are concerned about the prospect of imminent economic calamity. The transcripts of their “conversations” serve as detailed explainers.

“Because Captain America does care about the country and cares about his future, he has invested himself with a deep knowledge of treasury yields, the flow rate of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid payments, and the intricacies of the Gang of Six,” Garrett told me.

If you’re willing to suspend disbelief and imagine Captain America sporting a headset in a call center, it works. He is calm, authoritative, and hopeful, just as you expect him to be.

Here is an excerpt from the latest conversation, posted today:

Caller: So, this is what the abyss looks like?

CA: Actually, we’ve been in it for a while. The pressure’s just starting to get to you.

Caller: Me and everyone else. Is there a way out?

CA: There’s always a way, if there’s a will.

Caller: Hey, if I wanted a Hallmark card, I’d have gone to the drugstore. I need something tangible, something I can hold onto.

CA: So do markets from Tokyo to London to Wall Street. They’re still searching.

Caller: Can Speaker John Boehner’s bill pass the House?

CA: It doesn’t have the votes now. Grassroots GOP groups are divided, but Boehner’s gaining strength. That makes it a jump ball—with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor doing the toss (bet Boehner).

Caller: How many GOP votes can Boehner afford to lose?

CA: No more than 33. And that assumes he picks up 10 Democrats—a stretch since the stronger medicine, “cut, cap, and balance,” pulled only five Democrats.

Garrett said he has gotten a tremendous response both from Washington power players and ordinary readers — exactly the groups he had hoped to reach. National Journal delivers a print product for a specific, highly informed readership, but the material that makes it online reaches a much broader audience. “Straddling those two is a challenge,” he said.

In addition to explaining a complex story, the über-patriot Captain America stands as kind of a beacon of hope in hopelessly combative Washington. A commenter summed it up best: “It isn’t a mess too big for Cap. If he were real, he would do just what he did to the caller — inspire Americans. Captain America’s TRUE super power lies in his ability to be a symbol — a symbol of what America aspires to be, but perhaps isn’t yet.”

The series — which will continue until the world is saved — solves two problems for Garrett. One, it lets him tell an important but — let’s face it — boring story in a fresh and accessible way. And two, it lets him figure out how to become a columnist. He only got the column, “All Powers,” last month, and he’s searching for his voice. In his 27 years of reporting, Garrett has never had a column.

“The only way I could get over my writer’s block, and the sense of fear of doing it strictly in my voice, was coming up with this mechanism,” Garrett said.

“In one sense he’s a superhero to only one person, me. If he helps me get this column done.”

Photo by Andy Roth used under a Creative Commons license

July 21 2011

15:30

The newsonomics of U.S. media concentration

The rise and potential fall of Rupert Murdoch is a hell of a story. It is, though, closer to the Guardian’s Simon Jenkins’ description Tuesday, “not a Berlin Wall moment, just daft hysteria.” Facing only the meager competition of the slow-as-molasses debt-ceiling story, the Murdoch story managed to hit during the summer doldrums. Plus it’s great theater.

Is it just imported theater, though? We have to wonder how much the cries of “media monopoly” will cross the Atlantic. Is there much resonance here in the States for the outrage about media power in the U.K.? Will the sins (its newspaper unit now being called to account by a Parliamentary committee for deliberately blocking the hacking investigation) of News International impact its cousin, Fox Television, the one part of its U.S. holdings regulated directly by government — or can it build a firewall between the different parts of News Corp.? (See “New News Corp. Strategy: Become Even More of an American Company.”)

Certainly, the tales of News International’s ability to strike fear in the London political class are chilling. Our issues in the U.S., though, are largely different. Both come down to who owns the media, and what we need in the diversity of news voices.

The question of media concentration here is tricky, complex, and a profoundly local question. Yes, there are national issues — but the forces of cheaper, digital publishing and promise of national and global markets easily reached by the Internet have spawned much more competition on a national level.

As to what kind of local reporting we get, we see powerful forces at work, shaping who owns what and how much. Likely, we’ll see some News Corp. fallout in FCC debates now re-igniting in and around Washington, D.C. — as the fire of regulating media burns more brightly here, even as Ofcom, the British regulator, grapples with similar issues.

That said, the question of media concentration, or what I will call the newsonomics of U.S. media concentration, will be fought out on two battlegrounds in the U.S. One is at the regulatory level, as the FCC looks at cross-ownership and the cap on local broadcast news holdings by a single national company, like News Corp., and may take into account its U.K. misdeeds. (Especially if the 9/11 victim wiretapping claims are borne out.) Second, and probably more important, sheer economic change is rapidly re-shaping who owns the news media on which we depend. The fast-eroding economics of the traditional print newspaper business are changing the face both of competition and of journalistic practice faster than any government policy can affect.

So this is how our time may play out. Smart, digital-first roll-ups align with massive consolidation.

First, let’s look at the print trade, at mid-year. The numbers are awful, and getting no better. We’ve seen the 22nd consecutive quarter of no-ad-growth for U.S. dailies, the last positive sign registered back in 2006. Further staff reductions, albeit with less public announcement, continue at most major news companies. This week, Gannett — still the largest U.S. news company — reported a 7-percent ad revenue decline for the second quarter, typical among its peers. Its digital ad revenues were up 13 percent, a slowing of digital ad growth also being seen around the industry.

We see a strategy of continuing cost-cutting across the board, with a new phenomenon — roll-up (“The newsonomics of roll-up“) — trying to play out.

Hedge funds — which bought into the industry through and after 14 newspaper company bankruptcies — are having their presence felt. Most recently, Alden Global Capital, the quietest major player in the American news industry, bought out its partners and now owns 100 percent of Journal Register Company. Alden, with interests in as many as 10 U.S. newspaper chains, apparently liked the moves of CEO John Paton. Paton’s digital-first strategies have more rapidly cut legacy costs than other publishers’ moves, and moved the needle more quickly in upping digital revenues.

No terms were announced, but Paton says “all its lenders were paid in full.” That would be a qualified success, given the bath everyone involved in the newspaper industry has taken in the last half-decade.

In JRC’s case, we’d have to say the push of hedge funds for faster change has been more positive than negative. Pre-bankruptcy, it was derided for its poor journalism and soul-crushing budgeting. Under Paton, who has brought in innovators like Arturo Duran, Jim Brady, and Steve Buttry, the company is trying to reinvent new, digital-first local, preserving local journalism jobs as much as possible. A work very much in early progress.

You can bet that Alden’s move is just one of its first. Sure, as a hedge fund, it may just be getting JRC ready to sell; hedge funds don’t want to be long-term operators. Before that happens, though, expect the next shoe to drop: consolidation.

JRC owns numerous properties around Philly, and a roll-up with Greg Osberg-led (and Alden part-owned) Philadelphia Media Network, has been talked about. Meld the same kind of synergies, and faster-moving print-to-digital strategies of Paton with Osberg’s new multi-point, Project Liberty plan, and you have a combined strategy. Further combine the operations into a single company — removing more overhead, more administration, more cost — and you have a better business to hold, or sell, or still further combine with still more regional entities.

It’s not just a Philly scenario.

In southern California, the question is how the three once-bankrupt operations — Freedom Communications, MediaNews’ Los Angeles News Group and Tribune’s L.A. Times (still not quite post-bankrupt, but acting like it is) — will mate. Over price, talks broke down about merging Freedom and MediaNews (both substantially owned by Alden; see Rick Edmonds’ Poynter piece for detail). Yet, everyone in the market believes consolidation will come. Now with Platinum Equity, another private equity owner, putting its San Diego Union-Tribune back on the market just two years after buying it for a song, we could see massive consolidation of newspaper companies in southern California.

Media concentration, perhaps in the works: Southern California, between L.A. and San Diego, contains at least 21 million people — or a third of the total population of the U.K. Philly and Southern California may among the first to consolidate, but the trends are the same everywhere.

So this is how our time may play out. Smart, digital-first roll-ups align with massive consolidation. It’s time to get our heads around that. That won’t necessarily mean that Alden, or other hyper-private owners, keep the new franchises. Their goal probably is to sell. But to whom, with what sense of public interest?

Which brings us back to broadcast, to which newspaper people give much too little shrift.

Both those in the old declining newspaper trade and those in the mature and largely flat broadcast trade (as an indication, Gannett’s broadcast division revenues grew to $184.4 million from $184 million in the second quarter) are beginning to figure the future this way: there may only be enough ad revenue in mid-metro markets (and smaller) to maintain one substantial journalistic operation. Not one newspaper and one local broadcaster. But, one, presumably combined text and video, paper and air, increasingly digital operation.

So, finally, let’s turn back to the FCC. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals just returned cross-ownership regulations back to the FCC, largely on procedural (“hey, you forgot the public input part”) grounds. In addition, it will likely soon take up the national cap on local broadcast ownership. (Good sum-up of FCC-related action by Josh Smith at the National Journal.)

Which brings us back to the News Corp story. The national cap — how much of the U.S. any one national company can serve with local broadcast — is 39 percent. Fox News does that with 27 stations, and, of course, has lobbied for more reach. So, the media concentration issue may play out as the cap is further debated, and as cross-ownership — a News Corp. issue in and around New York/New Jersey — returns as well. Will Hackgate’s winds blow westward, as local broadcast news concentration comes up again?

Though it may be shocking to many newspaper people, though, local TV news is a major source of how people get the news. Some 25 to 28 million viewers watch local early-evening or late-evening TV news, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism. That compares to about a 42-million weekday newspaper circulation, so those numbers aren’t quite apples to apples. In my research for Outsell, I noted that local survey data indicated that reliance on TV news equaled that of newspapers.

As Steve Waldman’s strong report for the FCC pointed out, local TV news is “more important than ever” — but thin on accountability reporting.

So while much of the media concentration questions centers on print, local broadcast ownership, and direction of news coverage, matters a lot.

Combine that local concentration — 39 percent or more — with the sense that the market may only support single journalistic entitities and we’re back to the theme of media concentration, perhaps on a scale hitherto unseen.

A declining local press, with signs of impending roll-up. Stronger local TV news, weaker in accountability reporting, and pushing for more roll-up. Winds of outrage wafting over the Atlantic. Regulatory breezes gaining strength.

These are powerful forces colliding, and in the balance, the news of the day won’t be quite the same.

July 20 2011

19:45

AP will link back to newspapers who get scoops

News organizations that break big stories will soon get a little more credit — and maybe even a little traffic — from The Associated Press. Beginning Aug. 1, whenever the AP picks up a local story from a member for rewriting and distribution, the text of AP’s story will include a link back to the original report.

For example: When the Boston Globe reported that TV producers had doctored the CBS broadcast of the July 4th fireworks show, the AP picked it up and the story went national. The Globe got credit on the hundreds of news sites that carried the story — but no link back to the original story. That’ll change.

“The days are long past that you’re writing a story and you’re only thinking about…rewriting it so that you can put it into the paper,” said Martin Kaiser, editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, who brought the idea to the AP. “Why spend the time rewriting? Why not link back?”

Pickups will now include a parenthetical bit.ly link to the original story, in addition to the credit. So in the fireworks story, you might see: “According to the Boston Globe report (http://bit.ly/pDHZ6h)…” The change will be most noticeable on state wires, where pickups are common. (Most of the AP’s national content is original reporting. Less than 2 percent of the national wire is material picked up from members.)

Kaiser said he has been pushing the AP for years to act more like an aggregator and less like a rewrite desk. And while this new policy doesn’t directly save AP staffers the time they spend rewriting a member’s copy, it’s a step toward more transparent credit and could drive some marginal amount of traffic to local news sites. 

Kaiser remembers breaking stories at smaller papers and seeing them edited, sanitized, and byline-less on the wire the next day. Several years ago, the AP added an “Information From” footnote to credit the news organization. Then the footnote got a link to that organization’s home page. About a year ago, the AP started crediting newsrooms in the body of the story.

Because the AP is a cooperative, it has no legal obligation to credit its members. But “that’s a legal point, not a journalistic one,” said Mike Oreskes, AP’s senior managing editor.

“We came to the conclusion last year that proper journalistic practice was to credit the member newspaper in all cases where an article was picked up, especially in an Internet age when the origins of information are really important to understand,” Oreskes said.

Oreskes said the linking rule does not change the AP’s existing attribution standards. “Nothing about this change alters our existing policy on attributing to other organizations information that we haven’t independently reported. Nor does it change our policy to give credit to another organization that broke a story first, even when we match it or advance it through our own reporting,” he said in a memo to staff.

The AP tested several link-shortening services, Oreskes said, before settling on Bit.ly. He was sold on the compactness of Bit.ly URLs (20 characters), the stability of the service, and the fact that Bit.ly links never expire (as long as Bit.ly is in business, anyway).

While more credit for original reporting is a good thing, and the Jeff Jarvis/link economy school of thought should welcome AP’s new policy, it risks running into one of the biggest potential roadblocks of any large-scale technological change at news organizations: the sometimes cruddy back-end systems that run news websites and print workflows.

The AP has been testing the idea in Wisconsin and Minnesota, and there’ve been some kinks. The URLs cross the wire in plain text, without the familiar-to-nerds <a href=”…”> HTML code that makes a link clickable. News sites will have to handle that digital chore, either leaving the links unlinked, automating that bit of HTML on each story, or dealing with the code by hand. (The AP’s change appears to have broken the code on several news sites.) And some newspapers may not see much value in putting URLs in to their print products, which would mean someone stripping them out in production. Oreskes said the AP will listen to feedback from members and continue tinkering with the policy to get it right.

The AP’s full staff memo follows. (“Elvis,” by the way, refers to the AP’s internal content-management system.)

Colleagues,

Last year, we introduced a new policy for the crediting of other news organizations in our reporting. The goal was to introduce consistency into our proud practice of being transparent in our handling of information that originated elsewhere than in our own reporting.

Since that time, several of our newspaper members have asked us to take an additional step in offering additional credit when we “pick up” a story from them.

In addition to offering a link to the contributing member’s home page at the end of a text story in the “Information From” tag, they have asked that a direct link to the actual story from which the pick-up originated be placed in the text of the AP version.

We have tested this practice since the start of the year, and are ready to enact it as AP policy starting Aug. 1.

This new policy only applies to what we call a “straight pick-up” — when the entirety of the story is derived from a single member’s contribution. These are found most often on the domestic state print/online and broadcast wires, but on rare occasion move nationally and beyond.

As you are aware, AP sells only a selection of its staff-generated international and national news stories to Google and other commercial customers. A very small slice of this material sold to commercial customers— less than 2 percent— are picked up from member newspapers, and they typically are scoops credited to the papers.

Stories from member newspapers make up a larger piece of AP’s state wires — but the state wires are not available to Google and others outside the AP membership.

Nothing about this change alters our existing policy on attributing to other organizations information that we haven’t independently reported. Nor does it change our policy to give credit to another organization that broke a story first, even when we match it or advance it through our own reporting.

We should provide this new direct link attribution whenever we pick up a story from any single AP member, newspaper or broadcaster. (It’s important to note that we shouldn’t write a “straight pick-up” from a non-member news organization, even with credit.) It applies equally to stories that are limited to APNewsNows and those we expand into longer versions, and to spot stories as well as enterprise and investigative pieces.

As always, our standards editor, Tom Kent, is available to help think through the application of this new policy. In addition, David Scott, who oversaw the testing of this in Central Region, will be happy to consult. We’ll schedule a few WebEx tutorials on the new policy for later this month.

Best,

Mike Oreskes

Senior Managing Editor for U.S. News

Direct Linking FAQ

Q. In the United States, we’ve long given attribution to members with the “Information From” tag. What’s changed?

A. The way we consume information has changed, driven in no small part by the Internet and news online. Our members increasingly want us to drive readers to the specific content they have shared with the cooperative, and this is a way we can comply with those requests.

Q. Should we still use the “Information From” tag?

A. Yes. By using both, we address the concerns of members who want the direct link in the text and those who prefer the homepage link at a story’s conclusion.

Q. The “Information From” tag is generated automatically by Elvis [editorial system]. Will the new direct link also be inserted into our text automatically?

A. No. You will need to copy and paste the URL to the story into the text manually, using bit.ly to shorten the link.

Q: What is bit.ly?

A: bit.ly is a service that takes a long URL (and direct links can be very long) and shortens it into something that fits much more neatly in a text story. There are several tools that make creating bit.ly links quite easy, and they’ll be explained during the WebEx tutorials.

Q: What if the member has a paywall?

A: In those instances, the link will generally direct a reader to a page informing them the story they seek is behind a paywall and explaining how they can purchase access to that content. That will work for the purposes of this policy.

Q: What if our direct link gets around a member’s paywall?

A: If you find that to be the case, or receive any other complaints about this new approach, please email the member’s information to Tom Kent and your chief of bureau.

Q: Sometimes our reporting goes so far beyond the other organization’s report that AP’s story is substantially our work. In such a case, should we still provide a link to the member’s story?

A: No. We should only provide a direct link in text stories that are substantially crafted from a single member’s contribution.

Q: We often supplement a pick-up with some original reporting, such as to call an attorney for comment or to update the condition of a patient. Should we still provide the direct link in those cases?

A: Yes. In such an instance, the substance of the story is still derived from a single member’s contribution and should get the credit.

Q: What if I combine information from two or more members into a single pickup?

A: Do not provide a direct link in these instances. Instead, provide credit for the reporting offered by each member in the text of the story per the AP’s general policy on crediting.

Q: Often in a breaking news story, we begin coverage with a straight pickup that evolves over time into an AP story. Should we still include the direct link if we expect that to happen?

A: Yes. Include the link for as long as the text story remains a straight pick-up from a single member. Drop the link at the point the story evolves, but continue to include a “first reporting by” credit in the text on merits.

Q: What if I pick up a story from a print edition or an electronic carbon, before the story is posted online? Do I need to go back and add the link later?

A: No. Please check to see if there is an online version, but be quick about it. If there’s not, move on to the next story. If there is, please add the link.

Q. Does this policy apply to U.S. broadcast as well as newspaper/online copy?

Yes.

New Pickup Crediting Example

BC-WI–Milwaukee Police-Complaints, 1st Ld-Writethru Report: 3 Milwaukee police officers still wear badges despite sexual misconduct complaints

MILWAUKEE (AP) — Three Milwaukee police officers who were disciplined after women accused them of on-duty sexual misconduct are still wearing badges.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported Sunday that their cases show that without a criminal conviction, officers who are the subject of sexual misconduct complaints deemed credible by the department can keep their jobs even if the police chief wants them fired.

The Journal Sentinel report (http://bit.ly/gCChEq) said its investigation found that one of the officers, Scott D. Charles, served a 60-day suspension and was later promoted to sergeant. The other two, Reginald L. Hampton and Milford Adams, were fired but reinstated after appealing to the Fire and Police Commission, a civilian board that has the power to overturn punishments imposed by the chief.

Chief Edward Flynn said he has no choice but to live with the commission’s decisions.

“The decision was made by higher authority that they are competent to be officers,” Flynn said. “It’s my responsibility to make sure they’re properly supervised and are held accountable.” …

For Milwaukee police officers, it’s up to the Fire and Police Commission to decide if the “just cause” standard has been met. Commissioners conduct their own investigation but can also consider what happened in the internal affairs investigation, said Michael G. Tobin, who has been executive director of the Fire and Police Commission since November 2007. ___ Information from: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, http://www.jsonline.com

July 18 2011

13:00

Pew: Nonprofit journalism doesn’t mean ideology-free

Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism is out with a new study this morning that looks at the new universe of nonprofit journalism — and tries to get beyond the ProPublicas of the world to see who else is producing journalism under the legal structure of a 501(c)3 exemption. After all, remember, “nonprofit” signals a tax status, not a belief system or a commitment to any particular ideals, journalistic or otherwise.

The study found more than a little ideology lurking under that IRS umbrella. Of the 46 sites examined — 39 nonprofit and 7 commercial as a control — around half “produced news coverage that was clearly ideological in nature,” the researchers report.

Pew had the expected nice things to say about the usual nonprofit rock stars, like ProPublica, the Texas Tribune, MinnPost, and California Watch. They’re transparent about their funding sources, which are numerous; their doesn’t skew too far in one political direction; they produce a lot of journalism, compared to their nonprofit peers. But the major national networks of state politics sites — the conservative Watchdog.org sites and the liberal American Independent News Network — don’t reveal much about who’s paying their bills, and their work skews clearly in one direction, both in the topics they cover and the content of individual stories.

(Because it attempted to cover an entire universe of nonprofit outlets, researchers had to limit their targets to a reasonable number. As a result, older news orgs like the Center for Public Integrity and metro-scale outlets like Voice of San Diego were both excluded.)

PEJ does a great job, with this and other studies, of moving past barroom debates and gathering real-world data on the new worlds of journalism. And while this research doesn’t draw explicit moral conclusions, it won’t be hard for others to: These nonprofits aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. They’re not objective; they’re hidden tools of politicos; they’re no replacement for newspapers. Beyond the flagships like ProPublica and Texas Tribune, it’s a mucky world.

And there’s some truth in that! But two points: First, few of even the most ambitious nonprofit outlets consider themselves true replacements for newspapers. The scale just isn’t there; as Pew’s study notes, the median editorial-staff size at the nonprofits they studied was three. (Although those three people are usually more topic-focused than their print peers — a nonprofit site covering a statehouse might be the biggest player in town with three reporters.) Replacement is a straw man; the vast majority of nonprofits, ideological or not, view themselves more as supplements.

Second, a little ideology isn’t such a bad thing. Take the right-of-center Watchdog.org sites, which we wrote about last year. They say their mission is to “promote social welfare and civil betterment by undertaking programs that promote journalism and the education of the public about corruption, incompetence, fraud, or taxpayer abuse by elected officials at all levels of government.” They investigate Democrats a lot more than Republicans, and they’re no great fans of what they see as wasteful big government.

The left-of-center American Independent News Network sites works the other side, saying its reporting “emphasizes the positive role of democratically elected government in securing the common good and social welfare, and the continuing benefits of our founding culture of egalitarian government by the people, for the people.” They take on the GOP more than Democrats, and they write a lot about the environment and labor issues.

Viewed as replacements, they fall short of what we’d expect from a good newspaper. But as supplements, I’m happy that both exist — that in a state with both a Watchdog site and an Independent site, both sides of the aisle will be poked and prodded, and that stories will surface that otherwise wouldn’t. I’d draw a distinction between ideological outlets as drivers of political culture — Fox News being a prime example — and as drivers of new information. The biggest risk posed by the loss of reporting manpower in places like our nation’s statehouses is that real stories will go unreported. Adding ideological outlets to the mix reduces that chance; at least someone will be paying attention to environmental issues or fraud at the DMV. And, unlike with Fox News, the readers of many of these sites tend to be high-information consumers of political news; a statehouse-news-only site isn’t ever going to reach the broader general audience of a newspaper or TV station.

Anyway, that’s just one take on what is a data-rich analysis, a snapshot of an important group of new players in the news world. Go read the full paper.

July 07 2011

15:00

The newsonomics of the Swift Street Courtyard

Editor’s Note: Each week, Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of news for the Lab.

You want local? The Swift Street Courtyard is local.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rather minimal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s your Swift Street Courtyard?

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

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

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

July 06 2011

20:00

Another perk for NYT subscribers: “Share your access”

Are you a New York Times subscriber? Are you related to one? If so, today’s your lucky day: The Times, in an email just sent out to print subscribers, is announcing that subscribers will now be able to share their digital access with a family member of their choosing. Think of it as the Frank Rich Discount, bring-a-plus-one edition. (The Times is also offering the deal to digital-only types who subscribe to the most expensive, $35-every-four-weeks package.)

It’s an interesting move. For one thing, it’s another way for the Times to differentiate its price points, which for digital-only are currently $15 for web and smartphone app, $20 for web and tablet app, or $35 for web, smartphone, and tablet. That $35 top-tier item has always seemed a little high next to its peers, and bringing this sharing mechanism only to those subscribers could give another reason for some to pony up.

But, more interestingly, the move shifts the calculus of the NYT’s porous paywall, for which the locus of subscription has been a single person. In print, a family was able to share the paper among husband and wife, son and daughter — maybe even with a neighbor. Digital subscriptions, with their logic of one-subscription-per-person, reframed that community ethos: When the paper rolled out its pay meter, its core consumer became the individual, not the group.

So while today’s share-a-subscription move may be a way, of course, for the Times to collect more email addresses and other user data, and to build its user base, and to encourage Times subscribers to sync up their print and their digital accounts…it’s a move that also seems aimed at recapturing some of the communal aspects of paper subscription and consumption — just on a digital plane. (I’m sure the Times would love nothing more than to spark a few intra-family squabbles over who gets to share Mom’s digital access.)

And its language announcing the new policy bears that out. As of today, the Times stresses, digital subscribers can share digital access with a family member — not a friend, not a coworker, not an acquaintance, but an actual relative. “Now you can share your All Digital Access with a family member at no additional charge,” the email says. Click on the link included in the email, and you’re sent to a “Share All Digital Access” page that, though fairly sparse, repeats the term “family member” three times.

And in the Shared Access FAQ, the “family member” count jumps to seven.

Which is curious, since the invite page uses a text field that could be filled in with the name and email address of anyone, family or no. (Dear Colin Firth: You don’t know me, and we’re not related. But I’ve got a New York Times Digital Access invite with your name on it…)

And leaving aside the pesky philosophical questions (what is family, really?), what the move also means is that people who are already NYT subscribers, as of today, have been granted one of the more powerful perks of the early adopters: invitations to a fairly exclusive party. (You didn’t have to be on Twitter the day Google+ rolled out to appreciate the sway of the phrase “I’ve got invites.”) Which is a nice thing for the paper’s existing subscribers — and a nice incentive for more people to join their ranks.

June 30 2011

14:00

The newsonomics of the British invasion

Editor’s Note: Each week, Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of news for the Lab.

With the United Kingdom one of the countries suffering the economic doldrums more than the U.S., maybe it’s no surprise that we’re witnessing a British online invasion. In short order, the Guardian, Mail Online, and the BBC, among others, are targeting American eyeballs and wallets in the urgent search for growth.

With Independence Day (from you know who) upon us, and memories of the Beatles’ assault on America rapidly fading into history, let’s look at the newsonomics of this new invasion. It tells us reams about the precarious states of news companies. As they scrape for revenue in the traditional home markets, and transition from print or broadcast to digital, they’re looking for new digital revenue building blocks.

The arithmetical imperative is crystal clear: The huge audiences that the distance-defying Internet has given UK news companies has not yet, largely, been accompanied by huge, even significant, pots of revenue.

Companies like the Guardian have seen this phenomenon: A third of its traffic comes from the U.S., a third from the UK, and a third from elsewhere. I’ve heard that tale widely, from the pre-wall Times, the Telegraph, and the FT, among others. When we first spotted big numbers for UK publishers among U.S. audiences, a lot of people attributed it to George W. Bush, whose cowboy policies alienated some Americans from American media, the idea went, delivering them into the hands of the more trustworthy Brits. But the big U.S. population — a population five times greater than the UK’s — is, W or no W, is still embracing non-national news sites. Maybe the math is fairly simple: We’ve got about a third of the English-reading people in the world, so serving up a third of the audience makes some sense.

While America provides the audience, it doesn’t provide much revenue for most UK news companies. The Guardian derives all but a couple of points of digital revenue from its home market — leaving two-thirds of its audience, in the U.S. and elsewhere, effectively un-monetized. That’s largely true of the other UK-based general news dailies, with the Financial Times much more effective at driving print and digital revenue in the U.S., and the Wall Street Journal, conversely, having figured out how to drive non-U.S. revenue as well. Both, in addition to The New York Times’ long-established sales operations in Europe, are the exceptions that prove the rule about foreign market digital monetization.

As the Guardian, BBC, and Daily Mail plan new offense, each reacts to its woes back home.

The Guardian is in danger of running out of cash within three to five years, at its current trajectory, Guardian CEO Andrew Miller said plainly in mid-June. So he’s leading a top-to-bottom reappraisal of the outfit’s 190-year-old enterprise. On the examination table: a restructuring of the entire company, reducing the number of pages in the six-day-a-week print paper; rethinking (under digital innovator and Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger‘s leadership) what readers expect in print and what online; upping its re-commitment to its open platform strategy led by Matt McAlister; doubling its digital revenue (which currently stands at 17 percent of its total revenue); and getting more money out of the U.S. market.

The Guardian’s U.S. plan includes the deployment of a revitalized editorial staff under Guardian vet Janine Gibson, and a re-strategizing of ad sales in the States. The Guardian’s new plan follows on a failed one, the Guardian America plan, tried and abandoned over several years. The new idea: Don’t put an American face on the trusty Guardian; keep the British face, but offer more British perspective on and from the U.S. The thinking: The Guardian’s very Britishness is why American readers come to its site.

For the Daily Mail, it’s about finding growth in a national news business (Associated Newspapers) that struggled toward revenue break — even last year, even as its parent, the diversified, global DMGT (events, B2B publishing, and institutional investment products), produced £320M in profits.

Mail Online, of course, is the new darling of those who religiously follow Big Numbers. It has surpassed HuffPo to claim the #2 unique visitor trophy globally, behind the New York Times, and a few days ago claimed 77 million global uniques, about a third of those from the U.S. The outlet’s rocket fuel is a heady mix of tabloid gossip fodder, great SEO, aggressive mobile productization, and, now, expanded commercial and editorial staffs in New York and L.A.

The BBC, funded by household TV licenses back home, has seen significant public funding cutbacks and staff reductions, buffeted both by UK politics and by the deep recession. While in the UK, the BBC can’t sell advertising, it can do so outside its home territory. Consequently, it has placed a first big target on the U.S., where it now claims about 18 million uniques.

The BBC’s American build-up is well underway. Herb Scannell, ex of Viacom, and Ann Sarnoff, ex of Dow Jones, joined to head up BBC Worldwide America as president and COO, respectively, last year. Seven weeks ago, Nick Ascheim, ex of the AP and The New York Times, became senior vice president for digital media. Back in 2008, ad veteran Mark Gall began building out the BBC Worldwide America ad sales team, focusing on multi-platform (BBC America TV  + BBC.com) revenue.

Ascheim identifies two major initiatives, as BBC.com — the BBC’s first separate-from-the-mothership website — tries to leverage and build on its found audience. One is video — a core strength of broadcaster BBC, which dominates much of online news video in Britain with its iPlayer — and the other is feature verticals, building beyond the Travel section that BBC built out, with its Lonely Planet acquisition, last year.

Let’s take a quick look at what it will take for the new invasion to be successful, doing a little handicapping of these three entrants:

  • Ad revenue: All the newbies face hyper-competition in the world’s most competitive digital marketing marketplace, one built both on the seemingly paradoxical tricks of leveraging long-term buyer/seller relationships and satisfying the dreaded “23-year-old” media buyer, one who may never have heard much about these foreign brands. Here, give a big lead to the BBC. It’s got a couple of years’ head-start on U.S. sales, and the brand that is most recognizable — and it can sell multi-platform, TV, and digital. Mail Online has a tough effort here, with comparatively little brand recognition and the suspicion that its pageviews are less-than-premium, more TMZ than NYT. The Guardian has a good story, but a history of failed ad attempts, including a Reuters network deal that fizzled. For all three of them, breaking through the noise — and providing more actionable audience analytics — is key.

    Beyond the sales infrastructure, these companies have different experiences monetizing their UK traffic, and that informs what may happen in the U.S. Compare the digital ad revenue per unique visitor for the Guardian and the Mail Online, and we see a differential of four-to-one, in the Guardian’s favor. (The BBC doesn’t break out digital ad revenue well enough for comparison.)

    The Guardian took in £37.5 million in digital revenue in 2010. Using the December ABCe number of 39 million uniques, each unique is worth about £.96, or $1.53 at today’s exchange rates.

    For the Mail, I extrapolate about £16 million in digital revenue for last year. Using the March (aligning with its reporting period) ABCe unique number of 66 million, I figure each unique visitor is worth about £.24, or 38 American cents, to the Mail.

    That’s a 4x greater yield for the Guardian than Mail Online, relating to some combination of brand, sales packaging, and engagement beyond simple unique visitor metrics. How much would/could that differential carry across the sea?

  • Brand: It’s clear that both the BBC and the Guardian have real brand meaning among certain news followers, but it ‘s not clear how growable the brands are. Are they second or third reads, or can they break through top-of-mind? Yes, they may both believe that Americans want a Brit take on things, but just how much of one do they want? Mail? Online? Wasn’t that the one with Meg Ryan? Does having a dot.com domain make a big difference? BBC and Mail have them; the Guardian doesn’t.
  • Digital circulation: That’s a big N/A — not applicable. The Guardian has been one of the most outspoken proponents of “open,” and while that doesn’t equate with free, it’s a close cousin. As the outlet moves away from print, it faces a huge question of where it is going to get “circulation” money. In the short-term, in the U.S., look for Guardian to try app or niche vertical reader revenue streams. The BBC’s news play is high-end mass and free, while Mail Online plies the pop free market.
  • Video: Hands down, the BBC has the edge here. Ascheim talks about adding new original U.S.-produced video to the riches of what BBC produces daily. In a coming 4G world, video may be BBC.com’s major point of differentiation in the States.
  • Mobile: Consider this the wild card. As mobile, especially the tablet, reshapes what we think is true about news reading “The newsonomics of the missing link“), it re-levels the field. So newer entrants, like all three of these invaders, can establish new habits for readers. Mail Online is already attributing 15 percent of its UK uniques to its new iPhone app. Guardian’s Eyewitness iPad app has seen a half million downloads and good sponsorship money from Canon. BBC has seen more than two million downloads of its BBC.com iPad app. As new habits form for iPad news reading, listening, and watching, these new contenders all have new shots at the American audience.

It could well be we’re reaching the end of the line for a much-cited quote often attributed to Churchill: ”England and America are two countries separated by the same language.” Well, he or G.B. Shaw may have said it, but marketers believe the differences are becoming more minor. It’s not just news people who grok the revolutionary economics in re-using and redistributing the same content you’ve already paid for; both Netflix and Hulu are moving to license more Brit TV for the same reason. In strong part, the new Brit invasion is just a re-stating of the produce-once, distribute-many core digital principle. In this case, though, it’s produce-once, (profitably) distribute overseas as well.

Image by Andy Helsby used under a Creative Commons license.

June 27 2011

22:00

Twitter for Newsrooms as a relationship-building guide

One of the most novel things about Twitter is that, from the beginning, they let the audience discover the best ways to use it. From hashtags to retweets, many of Twitter’s best features bubbled up from users, and journalists have developed, by trial and error, our own special tricks for writing and sourcing stories and drawing eyeballs to our work.

That may have shifted subtly today with the launch of Twitter for Newsrooms, an official comprehensive guide on using Twitter in the world of news.

The guide, also known as #TfN, was developed by the Twitter Media team and aims to be a one-stop shop, from learning the basics up to more advanced ways of using the network in journalism.

Covering subject areas like reporting, engagement, and publishing, the site seems like a combination of “how to” (use search, find sources, customize your profile) and a directory of services (a Twitter-related tools, an Extra page, with handy links for support). It’s also not without a few celebrity (okay, news celebrity) appearances. ABC’s Jake Tapper, NPR’s Andy Carvin, and Katie Couric (of CBS most recently) serving as examples of effective tweeting.

Twitter for Newsrooms also appears to be a way for Twitter to give a boost to features journalists may have forgotten about. As this exchange between Reuters’ Anthony De Rosa and Twitter Media’s Robin Sloan and Chloe Sladden shows, even things like advanced Twitter search can be new if you’ve never seen it before.

I spoke to Erica Anderson, the newest member of the Twitter Media team, about the new resource, which she said is a culmination of a lot of work. “Twitter for newsrooms is a synthesis of a lot of resources the company has been working on for years,” she said. It’s also a response to a lot of questions Twitter receives from journalists on a regular basis, something Anderson said ranges from “‘my boss lost his password and can’t login’ to ‘we need to know the most effective way to search when news is breaking.’” But it also serves as a best practices guide, especially by highlighting the work other news outlets and individual journalists are doing, Anderson said. They’ll be regularly updating the site and are looking for feedback on what to include.

Twitter for Newsrooms has some commonalities with Facebook + Journalists, which similarly is a resource for helping reporters and editors navigate the new world of social-assisted journalism. But the two resources also seem to share a common wisdom: that it’s time to take back control of the expertise and resource market. It goes without saying that it helps Twitter and Facebook to have outreach programs and tools for journalists, especially as more of us use the services. With something like Twitter for Newsrooms, the more socially inclined journalist will have something to point their more skeptical colleague to. (“See, it works for Ann Curry!“) Will it change minds? Not necessarily, but it may help curry favor with uncertain editors and help push Twitter more into mainstream use for newspapers.

In a way, Twitter for Newsrooms is all about relationships. By offering itself up as a resource for reporters to engage with their audience, Twitter is also signaling it wants to get a little closer with journalists, who’ve collectively been one of the platform’s biggest promoters.

June 16 2011

13:00

ChicagoTribune.com redesign will feature real-time ads

In redesigning their website, the Chicago Tribune staff focused on what they could take out of the homepage, not what they could add in. So when you go to the new Chicagotribune.com today, it’s not hard to notice how simple the design appears: Plenty of white space, clear lines and boarders, clean fonts and a basic color scheme — dropping the familiar Trib blue in favor of black and white, not unlike its sister paper in Los Angeles.

I spoke to Bill Adee, the vice president for digital operations for Tribune Media Group, about the new look, an update from their last redesign two years ago. “It’s cleaner, more organized, there’s a sharper focus on breaking news. We tried to hint at that in the tag line, ‘Breaking News, Since 1847,’” Adee said. (They’ve got a nice breakdown of the new parts of the homepage)

In general, the new look is meant to serve breaking and personalized news, with more recent stories (ones that have been populated the Tribune’s breaking news blog) in the center and on the left rail and a widget for localized stories on the right. “We’re serving two kinds of local users,” Adee said. “Users who have read our newspaper in the morning and want the latest updates and the person who hasn’t read the newspaper and is coming to our site to see what the Chicago Tribune has to offer.” (Also worth noting: Adee made mention on Twitter that the Tribune would soon debut an iPad app.)

But one of the more interesting things Adee told me was that they’ll soon be launching real-time ads, through a partnership with Brad Flora of NowSpots, a winner of the Knight News Challenge last year. As Adee describes it, the ad — which can change on the fly by pulling in tweets or other content — will be featured high on the homepage. It’ll initially be used to market other Tribune content and eventually opened up to other businesses. Adee told me plans were already in the works to incorporate real-time ads into the site, and the redesign offered a good opportunity to launch.

What makes the ad (there will be one for the time being) unique, Adee said, is the flexibility it gives advertisers and the integration with social media. So along with pushing out tweets, ad information could come from Facebook, Tumblr, or Flickr. While the Tribune may be one of the biggest organizations to use a real-time ad, Flora’s Windy Citizen, MinnPost, and others have made use of the format.

What may also be significant for the Tribune is that aside from a prominent place on the page (before the first scroll on most screens), the real-time spot would be one of a small number of ad slots on the homepage. (Looking at the page now, there are currently only four ad positions.)

As part of his job Adee oversees much of the digital machinery for the Tribune Media Group, meaning not just the Tribune but the features- and culture-centered RedEye and ChicagoNow blog network. Like most news sites, all these publications rely on traffic that comes from multiple sources, including social media, search, newsletters, and RSS. I asked Adee how important a traffic driver the homepage remained.

“It’s one of the single most powerful pages in Chicago,” he said. “There aren’t many pages where you have that kind of (mass) audience. Everyone’s got their own Facebook, their own customized Twitter. This is still where people go.”

June 03 2011

16:00

The news/analysis divorce: Who gets custody of the cash?

Editor’s Note: Lab contributor Lois Beckett is a freelance journalist who focuses on meta-media reporting and the future of long-form journalism. Here, in a response to a much-discussed article predicting a “divorce” between news and analysis, she considers the economic aspects of longform. 

One of the must-read articles of the week is “The News Article is Breaking Up,” by Sulia CEO Jonathan Glick.

Glick makes the pretty standard evaluation that the traditional news article is an outdated medium for conveying information. Consumers, he argues, want either a quick, tweet-sized update — something that they can take in as part of the stream, particularly on increasingly ubiquitous smartphone platforms — or an immersive longform experience that puts those bits of information into context.

Unlike Jeff Jarvis, who argues that “the most precious resource in news is reporting,” Glick argues that “the news” should be given away for free, as a loss leader for analysis. “Long-form writing will survive and will do so by abandoning news nuggets,” he writes. Furthermore: “The good news for writers is that this dovetails with their financial and intellectual interests.”

Via a variety of social-mobile platforms, they will pass along facts and pictures as soon as they obtain them — or verify them, depending on the writer’s journalistic standards. Writers who are especially good at doing this real-time reporting will develop audiences who are attentive to their mobile alerts. News nuggets are highly viral, so successful reporters will very quickly be introduced to huge numbers of readers.

Through this loss-leading channel, writers will then be able to notify their readers about longer-form articles they have created…. These pieces will written to be saved to read later — for that time when the reader takes a moment to relax, learn, and enjoy resting by the side of the stream. Social and mobile platforms make payment much easier, so it will be practical to charge a small fee. Fifty cents for thoughtful analysis is inexpensive, and yet it is the cost of an entire newspaper today.

Let’s put aside the question of whether charging “fifty cents for thoughtful analysis” is a realistic price point. The problem with Glick’s proposed business model is that it misrepresents the relationship between explanation and appetite.

Consumers have an appetite for updates about stories they’re already following (industry news, celebrity relationships) or for big events whose importance is easy to grasp (tornadoes, sex scandals, revolutions). But for many issues, consumers develop an interest in ”news nuggets” about a topic only after reading a long-form story about it. This can be true of investigative journalism, and of almost every long-form story that isn’t about a celebrity or a piece of major breaking news. Explanatory journalism creates the appetite for news updates on many subjects, not the other way around.

For that kind of longform, Glick’s business model is nonsensical. The pieces of many stories — the chronologically gathered details — have little value, economically or otherwise, without relevant context. As a reporter, how can I tweet observations about a source my readers don’t know about, or new wrinkles in an investigation that is still a mass of contradictory evidence?

Glick also creates a dichotomy between Twitter’s raw “nuggets” of news and highly crafted long-form stories. But Twitter, as a reportorial form, is actually much richer and more flexible than that either/or framing would suggest.

Take Mother Jones human rights reporter Mac McClelland, who gained a larger audience through her vividly tweeted coverage of the BP oil spill. Her tweets aren’t exactly “highly viral news nuggets.” Some of them have a breaking-news quality, but the central appeal of her Twitter feed is cumulative. It’s a crafted narrative, with McClelland as the questing, sometimes outraged, protagonist. Her feed is a long-form story that lives inside the news stream. To break it down to atomic elements seems, somehow, to miss the point.

That’s not to say that Glick’s notion of reporters propelling themselves to long-form stardom might not work for certain types of reporting — about big political campaigns, or revolutions, or natural disasters. These are situations in which readers have enough of a grasp of what’s going on to want real-time “news nuggets,” and enough questions to be willing (maybe) to pay for a well-crafted explainer that puts the updates together. In these cases, the loss-leaders might be tweets, or they might be the long-form stories themselves, which, in turn, might attract readers to pay for access to journalists’ live updates. Or, as Gerry Marzorati suggested earlier this year, nonfiction writing itself might become a loss-leader for another form of economic sustainment: book tours, events, and other direct encounters with the public.

Glick may not arrive at the right answer, but he is asking the right question: If short articles, once the journalist’s daily bread, can indeed be replaced in part by snappier, tweeted updates, how will reporters make money?

Image by Jez used under a Creative Commons license.

May 24 2011

17:00

Welcome to the new class of Nieman Fellows

It’s official: The 2011-12 class of Nieman Fellows has been announced. These 24 terrific journalists will come to Harvard a few months from now and spend the next academic year investigating subjects that will make them into even better journalists. Since I’ve talked about the fellowship many times before, I thought you might like a chance to see who this year’s winners are.

If you’d like to join their number next year, we’ll open up applications again in the fall. I don’t know for certain yet what the deadlines will be, but they’re traditionally December 15 for international applicants and January 31 for Americans.

U.S. Nieman Fellows in the class of 2012 and their areas of interest:

Jonathan Blakley, foreign desk producer, NPR, will study history, politics and social media in sub-Saharan Africa. He also will examine the domestic media environment in the United States on the cusp of the 2012 presidential election.

Tyler Bridges, an author and freelance journalist based in Lima, Peru, will study the changes, challenges and opportunities for delivering news in the digital era in both the United States and Latin America.

James Geary, editor of Ode magazine and a freelance journalist based in London, will undertake a multidisciplinary study of wit, exploring what wit is and how it enables us to understand and solve complicated social problems, identify and exploit political and business opportunities, achieve psychological and scientific insights and improvise in the arts and in daily life.

Anna Griffin, metro columnist, The Oregonian, will study the evolution and future of American cities, with an emphasis on the role government agencies play in combating poverty and controlling sprawl.

Maggie Jones, a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine based inNewton, Massachusetts, will study immigration public policy, law and literature, particularly as they relate to families in the United States and abroad.

David Joyner, vice president for content, Community Newspaper Holdings, Inc. in Birmingham, Alabama, will study the availability of local news and information and its effect on civic engagement. He is the 2012 Donald W. Reynolds Nieman Fellow in Community Journalism.

Dina Kraft, a freelance journalist based in Tel Aviv, Israel, will study dueling national narratives in conflict zones, examining how they are born, evolve and impact their societies. She also will look at attempts to reconcile narratives in countries and regions emerging from decades of unrest.

Kristen Lombardi, staff writer at the Center for Public Integrity, will study the legal and social conditions that promote wrongful convictions, particularly the impact of institutional misconduct and the consequences of systemic resistance to reform.

Megan O’Grady, literary critic for Vogue, will examine the relationship between women novelists, literary criticism and the canon, focusing on postwar American literature and the persistence of gender myths in cultural discourse. O’Grady is the 2012 Arts and Culture Nieman Fellow.

Raquel Rutledge, investigative reporter, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, will examine federal regulation and oversight of the nation’s food supply as it relates to public health. She is the Louis Stark Nieman Fellow. The fellowship honors the memory of the New York Times reporter who was a pioneer in the field of labor reporting.

Adam Tanner, Balkans bureau chief for Thomson Reuters, will study the expanding computer universe of personal data, including how private firms and governments assemble massive databases on individuals and the implications for business, journalism, the law and privacy. He also will examine techniques of narrative journalism in the Internet era.

Jeff Young, senior correspondent with PRI’s “Living on Earth,” based in Arlington, Massachusetts, will study the full costs of energy sources and how new media might spark a more meaningful discussion of energy choices. Young is the 2012 Donald W. Reynolds Nieman Fellow in Business Journalism.

International Nieman Fellows in the class of 2012 and their areas of interest:

Claudia Méndez Arriaza (Guatemala), editor and staff writer for El Periódico and co-host of the television show “A las 8:45,” which airs on Canal Antigua, will study law and political science to understand the shape of the rule of law in emerging democracies. She also will explore American literature and its links to Latin American culture. She is a 2012 John S. and James L. Knight Foundation Latin American Nieman Fellow.

Carlotta Gall (United Kingdom), senior reporter for Afghanistan/Pakistan, The New York Times, will study history, with particular focus on American expansionism, the Middle East and American diplomacy in the region. Gall is the 2012 Ruth Cowan Nash Nieman Fellow. Nash was a trailblazer for women in journalism, best known for her work as an Associated Press war correspondent during World War II.

Carlos Eduardo Huertas (Colombia), investigations editor, Revista Semana, will study how to design a journalism center to produce transnational investigations about Latin America. He is a 2012 John S. and James L. Knight Foundation Latin American Nieman Fellow.

Fred Khumalo (South Africa), “Review” editor, Sunday Times, will study the future of publishing in the digital age and the impact, management and financial implications of social media in a changing global society and in the developing world. He also will take courses in creative writing and script writing. His fellowship is supported by the Nieman Society of Southern Africa.

Wu Nan (China), a Beijing-based reporter, will study how new media is empowering people and businesses, changing political dynamics and sparking social change. She is the first Nieman Fellow at Harvard to be supported through Sovereign Bank and the Marco Polo Program of Banco Santander. She also is the 2012 Atsuko Chiba Nieman Fellow. The Chiba fellowship honors the memory of Atsuko Chiba, a 1968 Nieman Fellow.

John Nery, (Philippines), senior editor and columnist, Philippine Daily Inquirer, will investigate journalistic assumptions about history and, in particular, explore ways in which Southeast Asian journalists can use greater awareness of historical context to inform their work. Nery is the first Sandra Burton Nieman Fellow. His fellowship is supported by the Benigno S. Aquino Jr. Foundation and honors the memory of journalist Sandra Burton, who reported from the Philippines for Time magazine.

Samiha Shafy (Switzerland), science reporter, Der Spiegel, will study how public policy and economic principles shape the way scientific evidence is translated into action to address global challenges, especially in the context of natural resources management, sustainable development, energy, water, climate change and public health. Shafy is the first Nieman Fellow from Switzerland. She also is the Robert Waldo Ruhl Nieman Fellow. Ruhl, a 1903 Harvard graduate, was editor and publisher of the Medford Mail-Tribune in Oregon from 1910-1967.

Pir Zubair Shah (Pakistan), reporter, The New York Times, will study the art of narrative journalism to develop his ability to present investigative work in a compelling format and make it accessible to a broad audience. Shah is the 2012 Carroll Binder Nieman Fellow. The Binder Fund honors 1916 Harvard graduate Carroll Binder, who expanded the Chicago Daily News Foreign Service, and his son, Carroll “Ted” Binder, a 1943 Harvard graduate. Shah also is the 2012 Barry Bingham Jr. Nieman Fellow. Bingham, a 1956 Harvard graduate, was the editor and publisher of the Courier-Journal and Louisville Times in Kentucky.

David Skok (Canada), managing editor, globalnews.ca, will study how to sustain Canadian journalism’s distinct presence in a world of stateless news organizations and explore the impact new tools of journalism have on the role of the free press. Skok is the Martin Wise Goodman Canadian Nieman Fellow. Goodman was a 1962 Nieman Fellow.

Akiko Sugaya (Japan), a freelance journalist based in Boston, will study how social media can promote citizen journalism and enhance the democratic process. She also will explore the new media literacy skills needed to empower the public to actively participate in society through the use of social media. Sugaya is the William Montalbano Nieman Fellow. Montalbanowas a 1970 Nieman Fellow and a prize-winning Los Angeles Times reporter who reported from 100 countries during his 38-year career.

Global Health Reporting Nieman Fellows in the class of 2012 and their areas of interest:

Samuel Loewenberg (United States), a freelance journalist based in Los Angeles, will study neglected factors in global health interventions, foreign aid reform and the role of journalism in increasing accountability.

Rema Nagarajan (India) assistant editor, The Times of India, will study patterns and trends in mortality, fertility and population growth and their relationship with population health, the impact of poverty, class, gender and geography on access to health care and medical ethics.

May 19 2011

16:00

The newsonomics of the missing link

Picture Pre-Tablet Man (or Woman). Let’s go back to the time before Palm Pilots, at the dawn of consumer digital civilization itself, a time of AOL, Prodigy, and Compuserve. Hunched heavily by the analog world on his shoulders, Pre-Tablet Man has slowly begun to raise his head, through successive innovations of laptops (!), pocket-sized cellphones, smartphones, smarter phones and early e-readers. Now, as we enter Year 2 of the iPad era, it seems like our digital man is almost standing up straight. The digital world has moved from geek chic to consumer commonplace. Our digital devices have become on/off appliances, no manual necessary.

In this evolution, the iPad is so far our human pinnacle, though it will be followed by wonders to come. It also marks a signal change in digital usage, and especially in digital news consumption. I think of it as the likely missing link in the digital news evolution. It’s a link that, out of the blue — or maybe out of the darkness — has offered news companies, old and new, the unlikely (last?) chance to get a new sustainable business model.

We’re now approaching the second half of this highly transitional year, with its multiplying paid circulation tests, continuing print revenue declines, and greater re-focusing on digital ad sales. As we do, let’s look at the newsonomics of the tablet as the missing link. Let’s do that in light of what I think are the six major realities confronting news companies at mid-year.

1. Reality: Print is in permanent decline.

That’s what 21 consecutive quarters of decline (year over year) in U.S. newspaper print ad revenue tells us (“The newsonomics of oblivion“). Consumer magazine revenue has moved barely positive, but is still substantially below pre-recession levels. Print is there to be milked, as long as it can, in the digital transition. Fewer newspapers are being sold, and they are thinner and thinner.

The tablet link: The tablet is a print-like replacement for newspapers and magazines. Publishers privately report (and an increasing spate of reports from Instapaper to RJI to Yudu) that tablet readers read the tablet much more like the newspaper than the way they read news websites. Longer session times. Longer stories. Early morning and evening reading. Pre-tablet, publishers had no potential replacement. Yes, smartphones have been a great check-in short-form reader, but that’s more of a traditional online-like behavior. Now they’ve been given a gift by the technology gods.

Caveat: The tablet is print-like, but it’s not print. It’s a new medium, first inviting — and soon demanding — that publishers make use of its interactive, video-forward, and smooth-as-silk social sharing capabilities. If publishers persist in “going slow,” sticking with cheaper-to-produce replica tablet products, they’ll squander the tablet replacement-for-print opportunity, as new market entrants from the AOLs (including flag-in-the-local-sand Patch) to the Bay Citizens surpass them.

2. Reality: Online engagement is inadequate.

The tablet link: The tablet offers a way to re-engage readers, a corollary to the tablet’s replacement potential. The biggest problem for news publishers isn’t (a) that the digital ad world only produces pennies on the old ad dollar, (b) the low share of digital ad revenue they get, or (c) a changing cabal of digital startups from Yahoo to Google to Apple that are stealing their business. Their biggest problem is online engagement.

News producers work in a world of massive cost, funding well-paid newsrooms and all the legacy supports from advertising to finance to circulation. That investment made a lot of sense when readers really engaged with their products. Consider that in the heyday, your average newspaper would command 270 minutes (4.5 hours) of attention per household per month. Consider that online, the average engagement time is five to 15 minutes per month.

So, if early tablet reading patterns persist, publishers could find themselves on the road to re-engagement. The possibility: short-form, headline-and-blurb desktop/laptop reading may have been the news industry’s nuclear winter, with a greener spring on the horizon.

Caveat: It’s still way early to know whether more engaged reading patterns will last. I believe they largely will, but that publishers will soon find themselves fighting for engaged minutes with whatever successful aggregators emerge from new crowds of Flipboard, Pulse, Zite, Trove, Ongo, and News.me, just to name a few. Ventures like Next Issue Media address may address destination buying, but not product aggregation in ways that consumers have shown they love. Aggregation won Round One of the web, as individual publishers lost. We may be seeing history repeating.

3. Reality: Google juice is wearing thin.

The tablet link: The tablet is driven more by direct traffic, by apps, and by direct browsing than by search; early publishers results show a healthy majority of tablet news visitors coming direct, unlike the online experience. Search isn’t over, but it’s being pushed aside as the beginning and the center of our online news activity. Publishers never found Google juice all that nourishing; it provided lots of calories, but too little muscle tone in new direct revenue created.

Caveat: Again, this is early behavior. While Google juice may stay thin, Facebook and Twitter juice are getting tastier, and will, in part, replace Google as important referrer of potential new customer traffic.

4. Reality: The only big growth is digital.

The tablet link: The tablet may be the path to getting print-like ad revenues.

News publishers have one story to tell, and that’s what we hear in quarterly reports and increasingly infrequent interviews: the growth in digital ad sales. The New York Times touts that 24 percent of its ad revenue is now digital, with McClatchy and Gannett just below 20 percent. Journal Register CEO John Paton talks about the digtital EBITDA his company will be able to throw off by 2014. At the same time, digital ad growth isn’t coming close to making up for print ad decline at most companies.

With current high ad rates, approaching print ones, high national advertiser and ad agency focus, tablets may be a great ad platform, unlike online or smartphone.

Caveat: Newspapers current earn more than $500 a year in Sunday revenue from print subscribers. Can tablets, if they replace print, ever come near that number?

5. Reality: Digital circulation revenue essential is essential to a new sustainable business model.

The tablet link: Consumers appear willing to pay for some kinds of tablet content. Imagine the paid proposition today without the tablet. Selling online/print? That’s a tough proposition. Print/smartphone? Well, maybe. The tablet gives publishers a much better value proposition to offer readers. All Access — including tablets — may prove to be a winning proposition.

Caveat: Early paid experiments aren’t producing much digital circulation. Why? In part, the tablet-wow products are in their infancy, and engagement remains too low. If too few readers bump into the pay wall, even fewer will pay up.

6. Reality: The News Anywhere Era is becoming real.

The tablet link: The tablet is a part of this new News Anywhere expectation. Getting news wherever we are has moved from something cool to something expected overnight. News Anywhere has offered a new playing field and a new value propostion that publishers can offer readers. In the era in which Netflix, HBO, and Comcast offer Entertainment Anywhere, news publishers have been presented a model — an All Access model — that readers can easily grasp.

Caveat: Readers grasp the model — and have high expectations. That means news publishers must more quickly satisfy those News Anywhere habits, properly formatting for each device and understanding how consumers are using news differently on their iPhones, their iPads and on their desktops. Most are simply not yet prepared to take advantage of this revolution.

Image by Bryan Wright used under a Creative Commons license.

May 12 2011

14:00

The newsonomics of old dipsy-doo

Editor’s Note: Each week, Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of news for the Lab.

Fifteen years ago, the Chronicle of Higher Education put up its first paywall. Since then, the wall’s developed lots of cracks — most of them intentional ones, as the U.S.’ most trusted voice on university and college coverage evolves its digital offerings, who it charges, and how it charges. For all the change it’s seen in those 15 years, what’s been tried seems like prologue as the company moves into the iPad and mobile age — and as it tries to figure out how best to drive up revenue in the confusing push-pull of the digital world.

“It’s like the ESPN model,” says editor Jeff Selingo. “We connect the content to what people are actually willing to pay for.” Selingo came to the Chronicle 14 years ago, starting as a reporter, and now oversees an editorial staff of 75. He knows the daily newspaper world, having worked at two before moving into the world of education journalism.

The Chronicle’s approach, while distinctive, isn’t unique. Talk to execs at the Financial Times, Consumer Reports, the Economist, the Wall Street Journal, or ESPN, and you hear the fruits of experience. They talk nuance and flexibility, not all-or-nothing paywalls.

How useful is the Chronicle’s experience to daily newspapers? Yes, the privately owned, 45-year-old Chronicle is something quite different, a high-end trade publication. (Though I do like newspaperman Pete Hamill’s description of the news business as “permanent grad school,” in his recent, highly recommended Fresh Air interview).

The trade, of course, is higher education. These are discerning readers, about half administrators and half faculty, who can be hard to please. As a must-read publication, with little direct competition (although seven-year-old online-only Inside Higher Ed is making a play for its audience and ads), the Chronicle has a market position many dailies would envy. Still a must-use for academic recruitment, from which it derives lots of ad revenue, it depends on circulation dollars for only about 20 percent of its overall income.

That said, it faces the same issues as everyone else in the print business. Three years ago, it had a circulation of more than 76,000, with 71,135 print and 5,157 digital subs. Its most recent count shows 66,000 total subscribers, but 16,020 of those are digital subs. (The Chronicle doesn’t do single-copy sales, but has expanded its site license program to colleges — so some of the “lost” subscribers now get delivery through their institution, but are uncounted.)

The Chronicle, too, is struggling with the increasingly familiar economics of transition, and with the irony is front of everyone in the business: It is reaching more readers than ever, courtesy of the web, but its business is struggling to grow.

So while trade publishing can differ from general news, the questions of how to make that digital transition, how to find workable hybrid models, and what kind of content to make free are fairly similar. The Chronicle has faced many of the same questions on pricing and access that newspapers are now knee-high into. Therein lie most of the lessons to be learned and applied in mid-2011.

It’s not a matter simply of to charge or not to charge, of allowing access to all proprietary (usually local) content or none of it. Or of setting the meter, and leaving it at a 20- or 25-article-per month level. Some of the early tests of paid digital access are stuck in a rut, as conservative experiments have retained large audiences but resulted in too little new revenue to be meaningful. The Chronicle’s nuances give publishers some new tools as some move on to Stage 2, and others are about to begin tests.

In talking with Selingo, who served on a recent ASNE panel I moderated on pay plans, I’ve picked out six key lessons from the Chronicle’s experience, collectively suggesting the newsonomics of the old dipsy-doo.

Why dipsy-doo? It’s a delightfully old-fashioned term, taking us back when people did what they could do to sell stuff. A dipsy-doo is a kind of twist, a zigzag take on getting something done. Starbucks doesn’t sell cooked coffee beans and Coke doesn’t sell brown, sugar water. They sell comfort, a piece of the good life, a good place to be.

News companies have always taken their selling too literally. They thought they were selling news, when in fact they’re selling currency, shopping deals, and packaged convenience. So, in this wannabe golden age of new digital content sales, we need to look for lots of examples of how and what newsy companies are selling. It’s not simply a matter of selling the stuff (staff-written local content) that cost you the most to produce; you sell the stuff for which people are most likely to pay you.

So, with that in mind, six learnings, down that road, from the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Do the print/online dipsy-doo

Check out the Chronicle’s subscription page and you see two choices. One’s a print subscription ($82.50/year) and one’s a “digital” subscription ($72.50/year). Ah, the web’s cheaper than print, you say. Well, no. The digital sub is actually a replica e-edition, complete with the same advertising as the weekly print edition. You get online access to the Chronicle’s impressive site, with either sub. You have to take either the e-edition or the paper one to get the access, though.

You can see the same kind of print/digital hybrid thinking/pricing in The New York Times’ recent digital access pay scheme. By telling readers to pay up for digital access, the Times is leading its most loyal online customers back — the old dipsy-doo — to print. Readers have quickly figured out it’s better to order some print edition and get “included” digital access than to just pay for digital access. Lead customers one way — and then do a quick turn on them.

The Chronicle, with less competition than the Times, doesn’t even feel the need to offer “online-only” subs, though it will begin offering iPad-only subs through Apple’s App Store in June, testing that new market; it has already seen 14,000 downloads of its free app.

Make your wall artful

Selingo says that deciding what will premium (paid) and what free is more art than science. “We’re deciding on a day-to-day basis what’s distinctive.” The distinctive — more than mundane work that readers are unlikely to find elsewhere — may include any kind of story, investigative piece, or data. There is a lot of free content — 40 percent of the site, estimates the editor.

In data lies power

The Chronicle’s front-and-center Facts and Figures section offers lots of in-depth databases (“What Professors Make,” “Who Are the Undergraduates”) and these spur lots of readership. “The power is in data,” says Selingo. “The story [often the lead-in, sum-up] is the promotional piece.” That’s a lesson we’ve heard often from Everyblock to the Sacramento Bee to Dallas’ Pegasus News to California Watch (“The newsonomics of a single, investigative story,“), but one too little implemented at dailies.

“The differentiating factor is how we visualize, how we present,” says Selingo, giving credit to Ron Coddington, a veteran of USA Today and Knight Ridder Tribune, who now serves as the Chronicle’s assistant managing editor for visuals.

Play the clock

It’s not just what you put where, but what you make free when. Selingo says the Chronicle will sometimes put up a big data-impressive project, making it free for a week or two, knowing that its utility will entice readers to come back over time and read it. If they come back, and it’s now premium (or paid), then they’re more likely to pay up. Conversely, some content may be paid at the outset and then become free. The bigger notion: Get readers to use — and come to rely — on the site. Usefulness precedes ability to pay. Sampling is key.

One size does not fit all

Even as it has tested, twisted, and turned its techniques, Selingo believes that a lot more nuance should be tried. He talks about pricing “pieces of content” — packages here and there, some data products, maybe niche internationally oriented modules. The challenges there: deciding what to package, how to package it and how to price it — and doing that without a major investment in time or staff. This is the mastery of the medium- and long-tail to come, probably abetted by dynamic technologies. Why not, I wonder, let readers make their own packages, and enable algorithms to price them?

Work the funnel

The Chronicle of Higher Education, courtesy of the Internet, has an impressive funnel to work, like every other good news company. With Google, Facebook, and the rest of the relationship web feeding news sites traffic at an incomprehensible (literally) pace, it’s a matter of learning how to work that funnel on traffic. At the top end: 1.7 million monthly unique and 14.3 million page views that the Chronicle gets, according to Selingo. At the bottom end: those 66,000 subscribers.

On the one hand, that seems like an awfully small number, not quite four percent. On the other, it represents the huge opportunity of free web access, providing a constant stream of would-be customers — all monetizable to some degree by advertising, and a tiny percentage of whom who will become core paying customers.

It’s no coincidence that The New York Times’ math is similar: Get three percent of its monthly uniques to pay for digital access, one way or another, and the Times would get as many as 900,000 new subscribers.

It’s the new new math — more students needed.

May 05 2011

14:30

The newsonomics of the new ABCs of journalism

Editor’s Note: Each week, Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of news for the Lab.

This week brought us the long-worked-on new counting metrics for American daily newspaper journalism.

ABC, the Audit Bureau of Circulations, has long provided The Number.

The Number — really The Numbers, a daily number and a Sunday number — have been the reader numbers dailies measured themselves by, twice a year, spring and fall. Who’s up, who’s down, who’s number one — it’s really a horse-race number, simple to report by the publishers and simple to report by those covering the industry. Of course, The Number has been in horrific decline. Take a look at the State of the News Media circulation chart (a third of the way down a long page) and you can see 15 straight reporting periods in single-digit decline, tracked since 2003. Clearly, circulation is still dropping, though it will take the next six-month comparisons, using these new metrics, to establish new benchmarking.

That’s one of the reasons The Number is gone — optics do count — but more importantly the nature of ad buying has changed dramatically in that same period. Newspaper ad revenues have been halved while online ad revenues will approximate newspaper ad revenues this year or next. While halved to $25 billion annually or so, newspapers, with the new ABCs, have made a directional shift to satisfying those advertisers; recall that even the New York Times, the digital leader with 25 percent of its ad revenues being digital, still depends on the print for three-quarters of its dollars.

So The Number is all but gone. Sure, there’s still “Total Circulation,” and that’s led some to do apples-to-apples comparison to the last set of numbers from last fall. It’s not a fruitful exercise, given the magnitude of the changes.

“ABC and the industry never intended that ‘total circulation’ to be a metric of success,” John Murray, the Newspaper Association of America’s vice president of audience development told me this week.

That’s because there is a now a whole raft of numbers, a new set collected by publishers, verified by ABC and used, over time, quite differently by advertisers. Trying to understand the difference between the old report and the new report is best done either dead sober or after a six-pack; anywhere in between may leave you wanting. I appreciate Poynter’s Rick Edmonds thorough picking through the changes, the new lexicon and taxonomy, and I won’t repeat his observations.

What’s significant to me about the changes are two big things, one theoretical and one practical, and therein, I think, lie the newsonomics of the new ABC report.

The big picture recognition here, as publishers and major advertisers have wrestled the new system to the ground, is that the age of simple mass is gone. Counting is increasingly about niche. How many of the readers are paid readers of print? How many read e-editions, and, of those, how many read replicas and how many read dynamic products? How many readers get free, but requested, packets of news and ads, and how many readers get the packets because they’ve been targeted (affluent households) just because of where they live? And there’s more nuance than that.

Just as the digital marketing world has increasingly provided agencies and advertisers with a trove of audience data, the print world is slowly responding. While advertisers can only track these differing print niches with differing coupon codes, or a spectrum of differing 1-800 call-in numbers, print at least can be niched in some ways, even though it doesn’t offer the intensive harvesting of data that digital does. Of course, the various e-alternatives, from “online” to tablet to smartphone, are offering advertisers the ability to say “I’ll take this, but not that” and to mix and match print and digital buying as never before. While advertisers could do some picking and choosing before, they were often flying blind and these new categories of circulation counting — verified circulation and branded editions to “requested” or “targeted” delivery — give them better data on which to make those choices. Consider the data advertisers get with this first report just the beginning of new sets of metrics to come.

On a practical level, we can see a couple of fundamental ways the new ABCs will impact the marketplace:

  • Sunday and preprints: Sunday Select is the flavor of the age, as companies from Gannett to McClatchy to Belo eagerly make up for declining paid Sunday circulation with packets of news and ads delivered to non-payers. “Paid is no longer the determinant of value,” says Murray — and that’s a huge change for an industry that long differentiated its ad appeal on the basis of paying customers. If readers opt in (“requested”), that’s a big plus for advertisers. Why? That shows “engagement,” that magic word all online publishers seek. Opt-out (or “targeted”) denotes a little lesser value, but since those being targeted are higher-demographic households, advertisers still like to reach them. In the new stats, though, they’ll be able to see how many paid, how many requested and how many targeted editions got distributed on Sunday. Some will try to differentiate results among the three. I asked John Murray where advertisers are at in tracking the differing results among paid, requested, and targeted, on a scale from one to ten. “I’d put them at 2s and 9s,” he told me, explaining with a couple of numbers how much in transition we are. Some — think Best Buy, for instance — are 9s, trying to track and compare everything, including differing print deliveries. Others are 2s, still essentially buying mass, but planning on doing more tracking over time.

Sunday is huge for newspapers, as a third or more of their revenue is driven by that one day. And preprints, or the Sunday circulars — all those glossy colorful ad inserts from the big box stores — are now make or break for that Sunday take. “Media [reading] habits are changing faster than ad habits,” says Randy Novak, a Gatehouse veteran and now vice president of industry research and relations for Geomentum, a local focused ad agency. “People like to touch those preprints.”

Let’s complete the value circle here. Who loves those preprints? Twenty-five to 44-year-old women, says Murray, and they are coveted consumers. Consider Sunday and its preprints to be the biggest raison d’etre of the new ABCs.

Further, add in a Wednesday or a Thursday midweek market day, says Novak, and you’ve got a newer, winning formula. We begin to see further definition of a strategy that is emerging at daily newspaper companies. That strategy: Sunday print/daily digital, especially tablet, as a coming subscription/ad satisfying program coming to a city near you by 2013-14 (“The newsonomics of Sunday paper/daily tablet subscriptions“). Or Sunday/Wednesday print, and the rest digital. We’re headed there, I believe, as the economics of advertising and the emerging reading habits of news readers merge to forge new revenue and cost-saving plans. (One thing to watch closely in the next sets of ABC reports: How well Sunday print paid is doing.)

  • Proving — and disproving — e-edition value: E-replica editions have been used by some papers to artificially pump up those sagging circulation numbers (“How much can we trust e-edition numbers?“). Publishers have told me privately that while they packaged — and counted — those replica products, only a small percentage of readers actively used them. Starting with the ABC fall report, there will be some effort to count usage — a nod to advertisers who figured out the scheme. In addition, we’re already seeing “replica” and “non-replica” parsed out, which should help separate out the e-chaff. More interestingly, as we see increasingly nuanced reporting of specific tablet and smartphone usage, we’ll be getting an emerging picture both of how news is really being read and how marketers can effectively read readers via these new platforms.

Just as we’re moving away from the One Number for print, we’re emerging from a time of counting those rudimentary uniques and pageviews online, with time spent digitally the big issue of the day for all publishers, but especially for those trying to sell those digital subscriptions. Where we may be headed: Time on Brand, as the biggest — and/or best — news brands try to satisfy readers, and bring along marketers to serve them — on a changing-through-day array of devices.

May 02 2011

19:20

At the NYT, no paywall exemption for Bin Laden

When The New York Times announced its pay meter back in March, publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. also announced that — along with the many, many other pores and passages the paper had built into its gate — the Times had built into its new system the ability to open the gate for breaking-news stories that were, essentially, must-reads. “Mr. Sulzberger wanted a flexible system,” the paper reported at the time, “one that would allow the company to adjust the limit on the number of free articles as needed — in the case of a big breaking news event, for example.”

Or, as Sulzberger told Times reporter Jeremy W. Peters:

“Let’s imagine there’s a horrifying story like 9/11 again,” [Sulzberger] said in an interview. “We can — with one hit of a button — turn that meter to zero to allow everyone to read everything they want,” he said. “We’re going to learn. We built a system that is flexible.”

Last night’s news about the death of Osama bin Laden would seem to qualify as one of those big must-read stories. So it’s interesting to note that the Times’ coverage of the news — all of its articles and blog posts — remained behind the paper’s gate last night. And they’ll remain there. “There are no current plans to open up the news and features about Bin Laden for free on NYTimes.com,” a Times spokesperson told me. “As you know, readers get 20 articles free each month, and they can access Times content through other means, such as blogs, social media and search.”

The Bin Laden story broke on May 1, just a few hours after all non-subscribing Times readers had seen their monthly 20-article count reset to zero. Barring a big Sunday-morning reading binge, most were probably still at the very beginnings of their monthly allotments. And while “any decision to make any content free on NYTimes.com will be made on a case by case basis,” the spokesperson notes, “in this case in particular, the fact that the story broke on May 1 was certainly a factor.”

The Times’ pay meter is probably the most analyzed edifice in the news industry at the moment. And it’s not as if there were nowhere else online (or on television, or in print) to learn about the bin Laden raid.

Still, it’s remarkable how little we know about how the paywall’s breaking-news caveat works. The notion of stories that are so big that they shouldn’t be paid for — or, more accurately, so big that the Times shouldn’t require people to pay for them — is a complicated, but also crucial, one, particularly considering the careful balance the Times has struck between business interest and public interest in its rhetoric about its pay scheme.

If and when a story is taken from outside the wall, who makes the decision about the exemption? Is it someone on the business side or the editorial side— or a collaboration between both? Is the exemption something that the Times will announce publicly, or something it will simply enact, without comment? And if the day of the month on which a story breaks is a factor, as it was in this case…on what day would a big story become exemption-worthy?

The biggest question, though: If Osama’s demise didn’t make the cut, what story would?

17:30

Coming soon to a theater near you: The New York Times

The New York Times just announced a new initiative: The paper is teaming up with the theater network Emerging Pictures to produce “Times in Cinema,” a branded preshow tailored for independent theatrical venues. Times in Cinema — a ten- to twelve-minute-long affair that will run prior to the trailers at movie showings — will screen original, high-definition videos produced by the Times. (The paper, overall, currently creates more than 100 original videos per month.)

The show will also, yep, be used as a platform for selling advertising.

It’s a smart move: captive audience + art house audience + audience sick of being served up trivia questions about George Clooney as it waits for movie trailers to start = an audience that may be more receptive to brand messaging than a print or digital audience alone. When it comes to news consumption on traditional news platforms — the print product, the web, even the smartphone and iPad — we users have gotten pretty good at ignoring commercial content. When the screen you’re looking at is several hundred times the size of a PC, though, ads become several hundred times harder to ignore. Engagement is almost implicit.

And art houses house precisely the kind of audiences the Times wants to serve ads to. As Yasmin Namini, the Times’ senior VP for marketing and circulation, put it in a press release: “The New York Times attracts an educated, discerning audience that overlaps strongly with the art house audience. Times in Cinema allows us to leverage The Times’s incredible wealth of high-quality videos and create a unique, engaging brand experience to reach theatergoers in a relevant environment.”

Theatergoers, importantly, who might not also be Times readers. As consumers, they’ve opted in to a cultural experience; the news experience — and the branded Times experience — is layered on top of that, separate but also integrated. Though Pathé News 2.0 this is not — Times in Cinema’s videos will focus primarily on entertainment, travel, and lifestyles stories — the move has a definite back-to-the-future sensibility to it, reminiscent of those pre-movie newsreels so popular in the ’30s and ’40s. And, most importantly, it could be yet another ad platform — and, thus, revenue stream — for the Times, one that looks beyond traditional methods of distribution to deliver branded content — even to people who haven’t actually sought that content. In a world (er, IN A WORLD…) where news organizations need to think creatively about new ways to surprise and intrigue and otherwise engage us, the cinema screen could be just the ticket.

Image by David Gallagher used under a Creative Commons license.

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