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June 28 2013

17:11

How The Texas Tribune kept its servers up as the world watched a filibuster

At Source, the Trib’s Travis Swicegood tells the tale:

Before the night was over we had over 15,000 concurrent users on texastribune.org and more than 183,000 people watching our YouTube live stream on various places around the net as the proceedings wound down shortly after midnight local time (we peaked at 12:03, as the final votes were cast too late).

We handled all of this traffic with no downtime and no additional servers.

The main credit goes to Varnish, a sort of super-charged version of the caching plugins WordPress users will be familiar with, which lets parts of the Trib’s site be served from memory rather than disk.

Protect your application servers. The bottom line is that you can’t handle massive volumes of scale and serve all of your content dynamically all of the time. You don’t have to strip your site down, either, just use what’s available to you. Use Varnish to protect your app servers and make sure that they don’t get slammed. Use external services for the really hard parts so you don’t have to worry about that.

May 23 2013

16:33

The newsonomics of value exchange and Google Surveys

whittier-daily-news-google-survey-paywall

What happens when a reader hits the paywall?

Only a small percentage slap their foreheads, say “Why didn’t I subscribe earlier?” and pay up. Most go away; some will come back next month when the meter resets. A few will then subscribe; others just go elsewhere.

So what if there were a way to capture some value from those non-subscribing paywall hitters — people who plainly have some affinity for a certain news site but aren’t willing to pay?

Welcome to the emerging world of value exchange. It’s not a new idea; value exchange has been used in the gaming world for a long time. As the Zyngas have figured out, only a small percentage of people will pay to play games. So they’ve long used interactive ads, quizzes, surveys, and more as ways to wring some revenue out of those non-payers.

It’s a variation on the an old saw that says much of life boils down to two things: money and time. It also brings to mind the classic Jack Benny radio routine, “Your Money or Your Life.” If people won’t pay for media with currency, many are willing to trade their time.

Now the idea is arriving at publishers’ doorsteps. It is being tested mainly, but not exclusively, as a paywall alternative. Yet, as we’ll see it, there may be many other innovative uses of time-based payment.

In part, this is part of the digital generational shift we might call “beyond the banner.” Static, smaller-display advertising is increasingly out of favor, with both prices and clickthrough rates moving deeper into the bargain basement. But marketers want to market, readers want to read, and viewers want to watch, so new methods that combine the marketing of brands and offers and the go-button on media consumption are au courant.

That’s where value exchange fits. Publishers are seeing double-digit, $10-$19 CPM rates from value exchange, and that’s more than many average for their online advertising. Annual revenues in the significant six figures are now flowing in to the companies that have gotten in early on the business.

The big player in publisher-oriented value exchange is Google Consumer Surveys (GCS), a year-old brainchild born out of the Google’s 20-percent-free-time-for-employees program (and first written about here at Nieman Lab). GCS now claims more than 200 publisher partners, including the L.A. Times, Bloomberg, and McClatchy properties. It says it has so far exposed some 500 million survey “prompts” to readers.

GCS will soon have more company in the value exchange game. Companies like Berlin-based SponsorPay, which offers interactive ad experiences in exchange for access mainly to games, is beginning to pursue publisher possibilities, both in Europe and the U.S, where half of its current clients are based. SponsorPay emphasizes mobile and social in its business.

L.A.-based SocialVibe, newly headed by hard-charging CEO Joe Marchese, is an ad tech company. It’s mainly oriented to non-newspaper media, especially TV companies.

How does this value exchange exactly work? Typical is the implementation at one smaller paper, the Whittier Daily News in the L.A. area., one of some 35 Digital First Media papers (both MediaNews and Journal Register brands) that have deployed GCS almost since its inception. Upon reading their 10th, and last, free metered article of the month, readers get a choice: buy a sub for 99 cents for the first month — or take a survey. “Do you own a cat?” for instance.

Publishers get a nickel for each completed response. Response rates tend to fall between 10 and 20 percent. “Completion rates” improve by targeting specific questions to specific audiences. The nickels add up.

For publishers, then, we have a new acronym: PAM, Paywall Alternative Monetization.

Consider the innovation a by-product of the paywall revolution. If you haven’t created a barrier to free access, you have less leverage to force wannabe readers to choose the lesser of two choices to proceed with their reading. Now, publishers can say, pay me for access with money — or with time. The time is short — measured in seconds or maybe minutes, depending on a video’s length or a survey’s questions.

What does the consumer get for answering a question? It varies. Respondents can get as little as a single “free” article, or an hour, or a day of access.

These programs can offer side-by-side offers. For instance, someone like a Press+ (which now powers some 380 newspaper sites) may power a subscription offer in one box, and Google Surveys or a SocialVibe can offer up an alternative in a neighboring one.

Digital First Media, long a public skeptic of paywalls, is using value exchange as an adjunct to its paywalls, many of which were deployed before DFM took over management of the MediaNews papers. While it is using it successfully as a paywall alternative, says Digital First Ventures managing director Arturo Duran, it’s also finding a couple of other ways to wring money out of surveys.

At many of its digital properties, including The Denver Post, its photo- and video-heavy Media Center hub offers Google surveys as speed bumps for continued access. Readers perceive value; enough of them are willing to pay with a few seconds of time to keep getting access to visuals. Similarly, Boston.com’s The Big Picture “news stories in photographs” uses GCS.

This approach, putting up a speed bump — in the form of a survey — instead of paywall explores the nuances of differing consumer valuation of differing parts of news sites. The Texas Tribune has offered a similar approach, having used Google surveys on its extensive data section. How often a survey is deployed can be adjusted by the publisher, working with Google, to maximize both revenue and reduce traffic lost. The search here is for the magic sweet spots.

The Christian Science Monitor is also an earlier surveys adopter. “We don’t have a paywall,” says online director David Clark Scott. “So we tried an experimental speed bump.” Those bumps were installed first on a single section, and now have grown, popping up on much of the site. One CSM twist: If you come to the site directly, you won’t see the surveys. If you come via some search, social, or other referrals, you will.

Digital First is also testing survey deployment for a group notoriously hard for the news industry to monetize: international readers. “We can’t sell [ads] in Kenya, Japan, and India,” says Duran. Instead of fetching bottom-of-the-ad-network prices, as low as 25 cents, surveys can return money in the whole dollars. One lesson so far: “It’s a much better experience than an ad,” for many readers, says Duran.

Publishers are also finding other ways to get readers to “pay.” At the Newton (Iowa) Daily News, the paywall also provides these two alternatives: answer a survey question or a share an article (via Twitter, Facebook, or Google+) in exchange for continued passage.

“It wasn’t about market research at all — it was about trading time for content,” says Paul McDonald, head of Google Consumer Surveys. McDonald, who developed the product along with engineer Brett Slatkin, says they tested out what people would most likely be willing to do, in exchange for some good. They tested a million impressions at The Huffington Post and found that question-answering was the most likable activity. Hence, Google Consumer Surveys.

“Most research is stuck in old ways — paper, email, and phone. It’s a stagnant industry, ” McDonald says. The industry, of course, has responded, offering its own critique of GCS’ rapid-fire — surveys can be commissioned and deployed within a day, with complete results, broken down by customized demographics (at an extra cost to survey buyers) within 48 hours — disruption of the market survey space. Still, industry reaction is more than mixed, with the positives of Google’s new technique winning adherents among bigger brands and smaller businesses. It’s a self-service buying technique, borrowing from Google’s flagship AdWords model.

Interestingly, Google itself is using Surveys to obtain consumer insight. Yes, the company that derives more data from our clicks than anyone still finds asking a human being a question can yield unexpected learning — which, of course, can be combined with clickstream analytics. YouTube is among the many GCS deployers.

It’s a new frontier, and one that I think offers a number of curious potentials.

  • At scale, if there is scale to the business, it’s about significant new sources of revenue.
  • As a paywall alternative, it may be a detour that leads back to the road to subscription. If a reader is engaged enough with a news brand over time — kept engaged in part through value exchange — maybe he or she will eventually subscribe. Does a value exchange-using customer have a higher likelihood of subscribing in the future? It’s too early to know, but we may have soon have sufficient data to see.
  • Value exchange could expand the ability to gain customer data. Each time someone trades some time for reading, she or he could be asked for an additional piece of profiling information. Essentially “registered,” that new customer becomes more targetable for subscription offers or advertising.
  • We can start to widen the idea of trading time for access. Remember the idea of the “reverse paywall,” espoused by then-Washington Post managing editor Raju Narisetti and Jeff Jarvis? Spend enough time with a news product, and get rewarded, they proposed. Value exchange begins to structure that kind of relationship, providing value both to readers and publishers. Rough equalization of value would be a painful process, but it may be doable through much experimentation.
  • Let’s combine two things: the rise of mobile traffic and value exchange. Mobile may not be ad-friendly, but customers might be far more willing to watch a video or touch through a quick questionnaire on a cell phone — and that can ring a different key on the digital cash register. “Mobile is already more diversified,” says SponsorPay CEO Andreas Bodczek, explaining that it is moving beyond gaming companies for value exchange and will soon include publishers.
  • GCS is an easily deployable tool for small- and medium-sized businesses. As such, it could be an interesting add-on for publishers’ emerging marketing services businesses (“The newsonomics of selling Main Street”). That’s a line Google could allow newspaper companies to resell, just as many resell Google paid search.

May 09 2013

14:54

The newsonomics of influentials, from D.C. to Singapore to Raleigh

singapore-skyline-cc

It’s a season of new product launches, but you have to roam around the country and the world to find them. You have to look for the niches they’re trying to serve. These launches tell us a lot about the emerging digital news economy and the new building blocks that form its foundation.

Our journey takes us from Washington, D.C. to Singapore to Raleigh and back again to D.C. Publishers — and broadcasters — are basing these new businesses on a set of surprisingly similar features.

In D.C., Atlantic Media — in the beehive of activity that is its headquarters in the Watergate Building, overlooking the Potomac — is putting the finishing touches on its latest launch: Defense One. The new digital-just-about-only product will debut this summer, Atlantic Media president Justin Smith told me last week.

Defense One aims to disrupt a set of incumbent defense-oriented publications: Jane’s, Gannett-owned Defense News, and Breaking Defense, among them. Atlantic Media believes it’s found an opening — a wide one — to exploit.

“We saw a gap,” says Tim Hartman, president of the Government Executive Media Group, the Atlantic Media brand under which Defense One will take flight. The company believes It may offer a market as much as three to seven times greater than Government Executive itself, a 40-year-old title that has largely made the transition to digital.

Hartman says the understanding of the opportunity popped out of strategic planning that began two and a half years ago. Quartz, the business site launched last fall (“The Newsonomics of Quartz’ business launch”) was the first new product to come out of the work. Defense One is the second. A third one will likely launch within the next two years, says Hartman.

If analytics derived from Government Executive’s audience and usage provided the notion, in-depth interviews with 40 defense sector players filled in a roadmap. The company conducted initial hours-long interviews with them, and then returned to a number of them for second or third talks as plans solidified.

Over time, Hartman says Defense One’s staff size will be similar to that of Quartz — about 18-20 in content creation and production. While the company is looking for a top editor, Hartman says its editorial mandate is clear: “an orientation for the future.” That’s what industry leaders want, a sense of what is more likely than not to happen tomorrow, and why.

Much of Atlantic Media’s sales, marketing, analytics and financial functions can be leveraged to support the new product, minimizing what would be similar expense for a one-off start-up. Also like Quartz, it is going free, looking to marketers to make it profitable. It isn’t just an ad play. Rather, it looks to an emerging model of higher-end sponsorship and content marketing — with the important adjunct of events marketing — to propel it forward.

Its offer to marketers will follow the playbook of what Atlantic Media’s half-dozen other publications (The Atlantic, The Atlantic Wire, The Atlantic Cities, Quartz, National Journal, Government Executive) now offers. It’s on-site sponsorship/share-of-voice placement, content marketing, and marketing services aid and placements and sponsorship of physical events.

That events business rides right alongside inclusion on its websites, providing marketers with a brand association that fluidly moves from online to off and back. It’s a strategy now well-employed in D.C. — also exploited by Politico and The Washington Post — and among events leaders like The Texas Tribune. Atlantic Media has turned events into a potent, higher-margin revenue source, now accounting for around 16 percent of revenues.

Even before Defense One’s product launch, it is well along in lining up speakers for its first event in November.

Atlantic Media targets influentials. It is a term you hear often in conversation with the company’s president, Justin Smith. Quartz targets business influentials. Government Executive and National Journal target government influentials. Now Defense One targets national security influentials. It’s a spin on the Meredith marketing positioning I noted a couple of weeks ago, as that company morphed from a women’s magazine company to a company expert at marketing to women.

“It’s really a B2B model,” says Smith, explaining in a few words much of Atlantic Media owner and chairman David Bradley’s plan to double company revenues and profits within five years. The best B2B companies deeply know their audiences and then plan numerous touchpoints to yield revenue. If they are number one in their field, they reap the benefits.

There are a lot of influentials in this world. The trick is in picking the right targets.

Seeking influentials across Asia

That’s who HT Media, publisher of a leading national Indian daily (the Hindustan Times) is targeting in Singapore. Mint is HT Media’s business newspaper, now six years old and published in eight Indian cities. The paper was cofounded by Raju Narisetti, who has since done stints at The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal and was recently named senior vice president and deputy head of strategy for the emerging, separate News Corp.

For Mint and its digital Livemint, a highly readable, authoritative business news source, finding growth included finding influentials abroad and expanding upon its mission to be “a fair and clear-minded chronicler of the Indian dream.”

One month ago, it launched MintAsia in Singapore. Its targets: the large Indian expat business community. There are 4,500 Indian-owned companies in Singapore, which is fast becoming the multinational business center for its region. MintAsia is also aimed at those multinationals, for whom better knowledge of India, its economy, and its policies are central to their own growth plans.

The new MintAsia is both a weekly newspaper published on Fridays and a website. About a quarter of the weekly content is originated for the Singapore market — largely produced by Mint’s India-based staff of 140, with stories like “Top 10 Indian Health Startups” targeted for the strong health care business sector of Singapore. The rest of MintAsia’s content is chosen from Mint’s stream of web-first and daily print content. HT is sending a former head of ad sales to head up the MintAsia operation, and has employed a handful of Singapore locals to deal with circulation and logistics.

“The whole idea is to leverage our strength,” Sukumar Ranganathan, Mint’s editor, told me in Delhi. “For Singapore, it’s marginal costing.”

So, its costs are small, and its potential gain — in revenue, in branding, and in influence — is large.

Its business model is au courant. MintAsia is an all-access, print + digital product. It’s printing 3,000 copies to start, with a goal of reaching 10,000 within a few years. By branching out of its home market, it is not only testing a pay strategy; it’s a pay strategy that greatly exceeds what it can charge in its home market. India is just about the only major nation not suffering from the worldwide newspaper turndown. Advertising is growing robustly, and circulation is holding as well. That’s what adding millions of literate, better educated, striving-into-the-middle-class citizens a year will do for you.

But Indian dailies are among the cheapest in the world. Mint daily costs four rupees per copy — seven cents American! An annual subscription will set you back 500 rupees, or about $9.26.

In Singapore, Mint Asia costs six Singapore dollars, or US$4.87. Buy a year of print with access to the LiveMintAsia, and the price is 180 Singapore dollars or US$146. (Its paywall is now a hard one, but will go metered, powered by Press+, next month).

So we see minimal costs, good ramping all-access circulation money, and two other familiar streams of revenue: advertising targeting the financial and other needs of Singapore-based Indian influentials and events. MintAsia’s formal launch comes on May 28, when it hosts a conference in Singapore that includes the head of the Indian equivalent of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. That event already has two paying sponsors; more sponsored events are in the works.

As with Atlantic Media, the niche strategy is more than a one-off. Hong Kong may be the next logical market, with other Asian markets farther down the list. If Mint moves into those markets, it will likely proceed much as it has in Singapore — checking its data for critical masses of likely readers and then following up with in-person visits to new cities, talking to to the influentials about influential publication potential.

Seeking influentials in North Carolina

Back in Raleigh, North Carolina, the WRAL’s TechWire product isn’t new, but its paywall is. It is certainly one of the first paywalls put up by a broadcaster, though in this case, Research Triangle (Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill) digital market leader WRAL isn’t putting one up on its main site — it erected its paywall on its technology vertical about a month ago. It follows the paywall paradigm, with a couple of twists.

TechWire charges $24.99 for an Insider annual membership, which includes numerous industry events and other discounts. Until May 16, the annual price is discounted by half. It also offers monthly passes for $2.49 and day passes for 99 cents.

So far, WRAL general manager John Conway says he happy with the early results. Most subscribers are opting for the annual plan; unique visitor and pageview loss has been minimal for the site that’s recently averaged 125,000 unique visitors a month, the majority of whom are local. His goal: get 5-10 percent of those uniques paying for something.

The paywall is powered by Amsterdam-based Cleeng, a paywall provider whose clients include Epicurious, DailyMotion, and now, TEDMED, and which offers an architecture that works well with video content access control.

TechWire offers a hard paywall, with first paragraph offering for free on staff-written stories. (AP, Bloomberg and other non-local content makes up 50-60 percent of the site, and that remains accessible.)

Seeking influentials in D.C. politics

Up the road and back in D.C., Politico continues to build on its impressive Pro line of products (“Politico Pro grows into 1,000 organizations, moves into print”) — following the influential methodology. Roy Schwartz, the company’s chief revenue officer, now counts seven Pro products. Three of these — finance, tax and, interestingly, defense — debuted last September. They followed energy, health care, and technology, all launched in February, 2011, and transportation, which followed a year later.

These Pro products, too, borrow from the same marketplace understandings that drive Atlantic Media and Mint. In Politico’s case, it’s working richer veins of revenue. Politico Pro now claims more than 7,000 users, across more than 1,000 organizations.

Politico sells institutional subscriptions, on a largely per-seat basis, to groups within each niche that want an insider’s time and knowledgable view. Politico takes in mid-four digits a year for each subscriber, with pricing variable by niche and what the market will bear. It also sells sponsorships into the Pro products, the same kinds of marketing that funds its free Politico site. Then those sponsors’ reach is further extended — at an additional price, of course — into events. Last year, Politico hosted 90 events. On its roadmap, it makes sure that each of the Pro verticals will host an event a quarter. It’s sponsorship-fueled, value-added-to-membership relationship marketing.

Schwartz says the events are free to attendees and strive to match the allure of the Pro coverage. “It’s about convening thought leadership. What we find interesting, our audience finds interesting.”

So what do you do when you’ve bound together targetable groups of influentials? You put together an Influencer Upfront. On Wednesday, Politico hosted its first Influencer Upfront.

The upfront was a day of presentations, editorial and advertising, to significant advertisers. Politico is borrowing a page from the long-standing TV network upfronts, events held to showcase shows and sell fall ad campaigns in the spring. Digital upfronts are becoming all the rage, as this spring saw several in New York City’s, including one sponsored by Digiday.

Lessons learned

It’s no accident that each of these four newer products all touch business audiences and markets. The truism hold: It’s easiest to make money where money is changing hands. Make yourself an effective intermediary, and you can grab a little of it as it moves. It’s easiest to see these opportunities, clearly, in and around business. It’s an in-the-know kind of market, and it’s one — because of scale — that national publishers are now tending to exploit first.

Can it work regionally? Can regional newspapers find big enough niches to replicate this model? If I were a regional publisher, I’d be doing a whiteboard exercise bouncing off these emerging influentials models.

Among these four newer products, we can see the emerging new rules of publishing creation. Among them:

  • Critical mass enables growth. Niche product creation that builds on existing company infrastructure, knowledge and marketplace learnings is the cost-effective way to go. Each of these companies adapted what they learned to these new launches. Politico’s seven Pro products illustrate this most clearly; Atlantic Media’s cousin-by-cousin launches put a parallel spin on the notion. (Intriguing side note: Politico owner Robert Allbritton put his once-core TV station holdings on the market last week, saying he wanted to further invest in and around Politico. The “around” could include replicating the Politico business model in a new coverage niche.) This is a new power of incumbency. It’s not the ownership of a printing press, as it was for newspaper publishers in the old days.
  • Analytics leads the way; in-person follow-up seal the deal. You may have an intuition about a new market, but checking it out — doubly — is essential.
  • Help your audience deal with future and present shock. Covering a sector is one thing; covering in a way that embraces — and tries bring a bit of order to — the multiple change issues of any audience is another. That’s an aspirational and competitive editorial positioning, but we can see ongoing examples of it in the work that Mint, Quartz, and Politico already produce.
  • Events are emerging as both a vital new revenue source and an almost counterintuitive high-touch part of the mostly digital business mix. HuffPost Live, Google Hangouts, and assorted other ways to assemble online community are great experiments and promising tools, but old-fashioned in-person events are gaining strength as we all go more digital. That’s an important learning about the value of relationship, and how to reinforce it, even in the age of MOOCs.
  • It’s not print or digital. It’s digital and print, suited to audience reading habits — which of course are a moving target. Influentials, like all of us, toggle between the two.

Photo of Singapore skyline by Thibault Houspic used under a Creative Commons license.

March 29 2013

14:15

Texas Tribune expands its niche email business with In the Flow

texastribuneflowThe Texas Tribune is getting into the niche newsletter business. The Tribune’s new twice-a-month newsletter, In the Flow, takes a look at water issues and related topics like droughts and fracking. But the newsletter won’t be delivered to subscribers inboxes; email alerts will direct readers to TexasTribune.org when new issues are available. It’s email as push notification rather than email as delivery platform.

Evan Smith, editor-in-chief and CEO of the Tribune, said they’re taking a lesson from that world of push notifications and alerts: Prodding people to go to the website, rather than just reading in their inbox, can expose them to more content and advertising, he said.

It’s another data point in the surprising continued life of email newsletters which — despite the rise of social media, usage shifts among young people, and the feeling of persistent dread with which many people approach their inboxes — has been an unexpected point of strength at many news organizations. (At the Lab, we didn’t even start a daily email for two years after our launch in 2008, thinking the action had moved elsewhere; today, our email has over 10,000 subscribers. It drives about 3 percent of our monthly pageviews.)

For readers, newsletters can represent a more focused, and digestible, version of the news they are interested in. For media companies, they’re another way to reach readers and develop additional lines of advertising. “At the end of the day what this is about is a sustainable business model that allows us to produce great journalism,” Smith told me.

In the Flow is also interesting because it’s a partnership for the Tribune — it’s jointly producing the newsletter with the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University. That center has already been producing a version of the newsletter since 2005, and will now offer “original reporting from the Trib, interactive maps and other data journalism, and stories and research from trusted outside sources,” Smith wrote on Wednesday.

Stories in the newsletter will be written by freelancer Carol Flake, with editing and additional content supplied by the Tribune. The plan, according to Smith, is for the Tribune to reimburse the Meadows Center for producing the newsletter through sponsorship revenue. Anything above the cost to the Meadow Center will go back into the Tribune, he said. The idea for partnering came from the Meadows Center, but Smith told me he’s been wanting to get deeper into the newsletter business since the Tribune started. “We thought this is the perfect petri dish for us to experiment with the idea of a newsletter vertical,” he said.

Through reporting, events, and database projects, the Tribune has focused on Texas government and the civil sector. Smith said niche newsletters are a way to go deeper into specific policy areas for “people who live in that policy world all day, every day, and they almost speak another language.” Water is a big issue in Texas: It intersects with the energy industry, but is also a concern on the local level as communities try to manage water reserves amid population growth. Smith said for a certain population of readers, whether they work in water-related industries or are just interested, there’s a — pun coming — thirst (sorry) for this kind of information. “There are a lot of generalists out there in the world, but at the end of the day you want special knowledge, and that adds value to what you do,” he said.

For the Tribune, it also could add up to a new line of business. Because the newsletter will live on the Tribune’s website, they can be accompanied by existing ad runs. But Smith said In the Flow, and other newsletters, create an opportunity for targeted advertising from sponsors interested in specific topic areas. “In the perfect world, your lines of business are complementary and help one another,” Smith said. “I think that’s what’s going to happen here.” So if you’re a company interested in water issues or the environment, and you’ve already sponsored events with the Tribune, there’s a chance you’d want to advertise in a niche product that aligns with your mission, Smith said. Because of the select nature of the newsletters — in this case people really interested in water — that represents a targeted audience, Smith said.

The nonprofit Tribune has taken an aggressive approach to diversifying how it makes money. In 2012 they ended the year upwards of $4.5 million in revenue, a new high for the organization, which relies on a mix of memberships, corporate underwriting, and sponsorships to operate. Smith thinks that newsletter sponsorships, or even paid-subscription newsletters, could produce new revenue in the six figure range.

In the Flow is not the first newsletter for the Tribune, which also produces Texas Weekly, a newsletter focused on state government and politics. Texas Weekly, which was founded in 1984, became part of the Tribune when the site launched in 2009. Smith said he’d like to see additional newsletters from the Tribune — specifically in policy areas like education, clean energy, transportation, and health care.

April 12 2012

15:12

The newsonomics of small things

If the news business were sexy enough (it’s not) to fuel Hollywood or Bollywood filmmaking, we might envision this wake-me-from-the-dead screenplay: A publisher (I’m thinking Tom Hanks, now almost old enough to look sufficiently weary), lured by the sirens on the Isle of Profitos, falls into a deep, deep sleep.

Awakened 10 years later, he finds his golden egg of a business withered, an ellipse of uncertain provenance or fertility, halved in size. He pokes around the egg — surely the once-thriving thing can be revived somehow. Finally, after what seems like years, he gives in to nature, and set outs to find a new, big golden egg.

Yet search as he might, through forest, beach, and urban landscape, he can find none. All he finds is little eggs. They seem puny. Egg analysts calculate that these little finds will never reach the size of the prized golden egg, and advise they be discarded. They are no replacement for that big golden egg.

But maybe, say a couple of advisers, you need to learn how to assemble a bunch of those golden eggs. Some will never grow big, to be sure — but some may thrive, and if you add three or four of them together, maybe they will begin to approach the size of that golden egg.

That’s the news industry today.

Until recently, the holy grail was summed up in two words: replacement revenue. Now the jig’s up. No matter how fast you shovel digital dirt into the chasm of print loss, you can’t recreate the past; you can’t fill the hole. Now, though, we see new foundations being set and fresher building — with more realistic expectations — begun. The change is a huge one. Where once top newspaper company execs eschewed new initiatives as too small with which to bother, the awareness that the old business simply is never coming back has almost sunk in.

Meinolf Ellers, managing director at dpa-infocom, crystallized the Small Things phenomenon for me last month. At a Moscow conference of MINDS International, a five-year-old network of 22 of the world’s news agencies, he invoked Steve Jobs and talked about “getting small things right.” People have talked about the Apple founder’s attention to small product details, to doing fewer things better and to pricing some things low (think iTunes songs at the uniform and now ubiquitous price point of 99 cents). Start small, get it right, and then maybe if the universe aligns, get big.

For Ellers, one of the best forward thinkers in the news business, thinking small works, for now, on at least two levels.

He thinks of the lessons of the digital gaming industry (“The newsonomics of gamification”) and how luring in customers step-by-step — first with freemium techniques, and then with low (yup, 99 cents) incremental pricing — builds customer engagement and purchasing.

Secondly, he thinks of it on a more global level: “What we all see — newspaper publisher or news agency — is that the bundle is eroding, losing its power. The more we see the bundle losing market share and reaching the end of its lifecycle, the more we have to work on smaller, fragmented products that, not each by each, but overall, can compensate. That’s the strategy.”

So, let’s call it the newsonomics of small things, with a nod to Mr. Jobs and to Meinolf Ellers’ realization. Let’s focus on Small Things as opposed to Big Things — meaning traditional advertising and circulation, the long-in-the-tooth double-digit contributors to newspaper company revenues.

It would be great to replace those-end-of-lifecycle business lines with other Big Things, but those are few and far between. Google developed the Next Big Thing of paid search advertising, and continues to dominate that $40 billion global industry, with 76 percent market share in the Americas and 94 percent in EMEA, according to Covario, an large, independent search marketing agency. AT&T and Verizon replaced their cycle-ending landline business by going Triple Play, adding broadband and cable to their revenue lines. Facebook cornered the market on a little segment called global social connectivity. Newspapers have been searching in vain for two decades for such Big Things and have come up short.

So let’s touch on six Small Things — each now a small egg, at best a single digit contributor to overall revenue. Then let’s toss in a couple of Wild Things, fliers of businesses that might work.

We can turn our eyes to Texas to see at least half of them, an indication of how fast the Small Things movement is accelerating.

In Houston and San Antonio, Hearst has been leading the marketing services push, among newspaper companies. In Dallas, the Morning News is making a significant business of in-sourcing, becoming a major printer and distributor of Old World print, at the same time it is launching (with Hearst) its own marketing services foray. In Austin, the Texas Tribune has created an events business model, widely, if quietly, being studied and adopted in various parts of the country.

In Morning News publisher Jim Moroney’s sum-up of his push, I think we see a common thread among these and of Small Thing moves: “Print editions are not going away anytime soon. So take the extra capacity of your print facility and bring in as much commercial broadsheet or tab newsprint work as you can. There’s no reason to have idle capacity.”

In a word, capacity. What kinds of skills, knowledge and abilities do you have in your company, assets that can be used newly and differently? What kind of job needs to be one by someone who has the budget and has no go-to supplier…yet?

Let’s look at those six Small Things, just as first examples, through the lens of capacity and revenue potential.

Marketing services

That push (“The newsonomics of 8 percent reach”) is indicative of the fastest-growing digital ad line for many news publishers. Hearst Media Services and its Local Edge push, Tribune 365, Gannett Local, Advance Digital, and McClatchy are among the many companies plying this territory.

John Denny, VP of marketing for Advance Digital, recently spoke in Boston to the Kelsey Interactive Local Marketing East Conference. He outlined well the value of the marketing services push: “[There's a] growing importance of ‘services’ in the world of marketing priorities for businesses. That money is now shifting from what has always been viewed as ‘advertising’ (whether traditional or digital media) to a whole host of growing priorities including search engine optimization, social media optimization, blogs, and content marketing.” Every merchant faces the same kind of blur of too many choices — digital marketing choices — and some will take a newspapers’ help in sorting them out.

Talk to marketing services execs and they’ll tell you that today marketing services revenues — money paid by local merchants to publishers who help them with their advertising, in addition to any ads those merchants buy on publisher websites or in the paper — amounts to at least 10 percent of overall digital ad revenues. Some are pushing that number towards a quarter or a third of the total; several say they expect marketing services to account for half of all digital ad-related revenue within three years.

Capacity use: Makes great use of newspaper brand equity capacity. While many companies employ a separate (from their own ad selling) salesforce, some company infrastruture can also be used.

Revenue contribution: 1-3 percent of total revenue in 2012; could reach 10-15 percent by 2015.

In-sourcing printing and distribution

From recent quarterly reports, figure that the Morning News (good interview with publisher Moroney in News & Tech) is now getting close to using the full capacity of its printing and distribution resources. You won’t find a Morning News thrower with a single paper; they toss USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and a couple other titles.

Capacity use: Rather than outsourcing, more common among daily papers, the insourcing is making almost full use of the Old World asset.

Revenue contribution: Figure about five percent of Morning News revenues, with fair margins, are derived from insourcing.

Custom publishing

Journalism companies know how to create readable content, though we often take that for granted. In London, the Press Association, the AP’s cousin, is building a substantial business in bespoke — or as Yanks would say, custom — publishing. News agencies, of course, are native B2B industries. They are used to selling the same content stream — the wire — to many comers, a good business for a long time, but now threatened as their newspaper customer budgets decline.

So Tony Watson, PA’s managing director, has now extended that B2B publishing customer relationship. Working with top portal customers, providing them unique content they can monetize, he’s grown that business more than 50 percent year over year. It’s still small, but growing rapidly, as newspaper revenue contributions to his budget decline markedly in the UK recession.

Watson isn’t alone, but custom content marketing — whether performed by an auxiliary staff or the core one — is nascent in much of the news industry.

Capacity use: For Watson, that’s what it’s about: using PA’s “significant product development capability” — though the agency is careful to avoid conflicts of interest.

Revenue contribution: Low single digits at this point, but could make up 10 percent within three to four years. In addition, it’s a cousin to commercial content creation, noted under marketing services.

Events

Newspapers have long sponsored bridal fairs and the like. What we see in Texas Tribune’s new event model (“For the Texas Tribune, events are journalism — and money makers”) is connecting public service journalism with worthy civic events that make money. CEO Evan Smith told me that he expects $900,000 in revenue from events sponsorships this year, plus attendee income. I hear a lot of ferment among publishers wanting to borrow the model.

Capacity use: While the events staff is focused on that work, the piggybacking on the Tribune’s excellent journalism doubles its value.

Revenue contribution: Maybe about 20 percent now — a big number for a start-up finding its model — and could grow to around 33 percent, while supporting other revenue lines like site sponsorship and membership.

Syndication

California Watch, now newly expanded with the CIR/Bay Citizen merger, has smartly considered itself largely a B2B business, a new wire for a new time. Its stories reach hundreds of thousands of print, online, and broadcast news consumers.

Capacity use: That’s the once (and future) beauty of the wire business. Produce once, customize a little, and distribute many times over.

Revenue contribution: California Watch stories are still underpriced, contributing less than 10 percent of the organization’s revenue. With scale and a greater track record, it may be able to wring closer to 20 percent of its revenue from syndication in three years.

Ebooks

Last week, I wrote about the coming explosion of ebook publishing by news and magazine publishers; in the past week, I’ve heard from many more publishers whose ebook plans I hadn’t known about. Getting into the ebooks business — or “mining the archive” — is becoming mainstream. Ellers’ dpa is one of those stepping up its business, out of its News Lab. It will soon produce ebooks on both wacky subjects and the historically significant, like the 1972 Munich Olympics killings of Israeli athletes.

Capacity use: Excellent. Content is already paid for, edited, and largely ready to go.

Revenue contribution: Tiny in 2012; at least five percent by 2015, if publishers execute well.

A couple of Wild Things that could become Small Things:

Journalism company journalism schools: College education is going digital and virtual anyhow, so why can’t journalists (and marketers) get into the business. The Guardian is tiptoeing into it, and you can imagine what a diploma from The New York Times or Wall Street Journal might be worth. Journal Register is already retraining its own staff at its Digital Ninja schools; why not go bigger?

Professional services: Several publishers have told me how they idolize the Financial Times for its pricing schemes, product initiatives, and intensive use of analytics. As the FT goes forward, and at least some other publishers get proficient at newer parts of the business, professional services — or, to use the old-fashioned world — will make sense for some.

Overall, it’s much better to move into the future with a half-dozen revenue streams — even if some are now just trickles — to stick with only two big-but-slowing ones. It should be more lucrative than selling the same old things. And maybe more fun, too.

“As a news agency guy,” says Meinolf Ellers, “I’m used to being disrupted. Now I can be the disruptor [with ebooks] to the book industry.”

December 07 2011

19:20

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

Santa running down the street in Algers, France

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

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

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

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

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

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

Merchandise!

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

Spaceballs: The Flamethrower

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

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

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

Specialty iPhone apps

Santa's Hideout screen shot

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

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

Events

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

Digital marketing services

Rubber finger tentacles

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

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

Using reporters’ smarts

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

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

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

September 15 2011

15:00

The newsonomics of 1, 2, 3, 4

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.

Ah, the joys of print — and real world — serendipity.

Arriving in Berlin to speak at the annual Medienwoche, part of the IFA 2011 content-meets-tech conference, I took a post-flight stroll around my hotel. I picked up a Wired U.K. at a local newsstand (newsstands chock-full of magazines and newspapers seem ubiquitous in Germany, their big-city absence in America made more noticeable). It’s a good issue, exploring the top digital entrepreneurial hotspots across Europe, from a U.K. perspective.

Across from p. 82, my eye caught a house ad. It was selling all things Wired U.K., but selling them in a customer-centric way I hadn’t before seen. Reproduced below, you see how it focused on how customers may variously access Wired. It speaks “multi-platform,” “multimedia” and “news anywhere” much better than those compounded nouns (which, when you think of it, are starting to sound like multisyllabic German constructions).

It’s masterful in telling the reader simply, and with a bit of fun, what the Wired U.K. brand stands for, how you can pick your timeliness (now to annual), mode of ingestion (reading, listening, or attending conferences) and more.

In a second bit of terrestrial serendipity, it turned out that Wired U.K. Editor David Rowan was speaking at IFA two hours after my talk. He and his art director, Andrew Diprose, had already supplied a digital copy of the house ad. I told him how well I thought the ad captured a business model in the making, with a clear customer-centric approach. He thanked me for the comment, and added, “It’s just something we tossed together when we had an extra page.” Well, it may have been, but it shows how this Wired crew is thinking of their business, eating some of the digital dog food it dishes out in each issue.

The ad had particular resonance this week as I’ve been thinking about the question on everyone’s minds in the newspaper and magazine businesses: What’s the new business model — that hybrid print/digital or digital/print — going to look like? It’s clear to everyone at this point that while print has a significant role for as far forward as we can see, it’s receding in importance, and revenue, and that digital is the growth engine on which to focus.

It’s one thing to say that and quite another to say what the new business model will look like. How much revenue will come from what, when, and who?

Now approaching 2012, we see that 2011 has provided a few clues to that new business model. No one, though, even the world’s digital revenue news leader, Oslo-based Schibsted (with 30 percent of overall revenues driven by digital) will tell you that even the industry’s leader has not yet found a big, sustainable model able to support a large newsroom.

Let me propose a model I’m testing out, as we watch the rollicking developments in the industry. As paid digital-access plans roll out weekly, as Digital First becomes not just a catchphrase but a company, as tablet development moves to the front burner and as the TV business continues to outpace both newspapers and magazines, what are the common threads we can see?

It’s purposely a simplified, bare-bones structure. I call it the newsonomics of 1, 2, 3, 4 and welcome flesh to be added to the skeleton — and/or chiropractic adjustment as well.

It’s 1, 2, 3, 4, as in:

  • 1 brand
  • 2 major sources of revenue, advertiser and reader
  • 3 products: print, computer, and mobile
  • 4G, as in the coming of faster connectivity

Let’s look at each one, briefly:

1 brand

The first decade-plus of the web was all about collecting, bringing things together. That meant major wins (63 percent of U.S. digital ad revenue in 2011 is going to Google, Yahoo, AOL, Microsoft — and Facebook) for those who aggregated. The act of collecting (curating if you prefer) was rewarded at the expense of those being aggregated. Now, as we approach 2012, we’re seeing a major re-assertion of brand, and its primacy.

Steve Jobs’ tablet-launching assertion that search is so yesterday was part sales pitch, part prophecy. The app is nothing if not the re-ascendance of brand, encapsulated in a few pixels. These tiny apps — from ESPN, The Atlantic, Time, the Guardian, and Berliner Morgenpost to The Boston Globe, The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal — all convey new promise. That promise has found a business model — all-access — to accompany. After years of wandering in the wilderness of customer confusion and self-doubt, news companies are saying: “You know us, you know our brand; you value us. Pay us once and we’ll get you our stuff wherever, whenever, however you want it”. Call it “entertainment everywhere” or “news anywhere,” or “TV Everywhere,” major media are now re-training their core audiences to expect — and pay for — ubiquity.

News companies are following the lead of Netflix, HBO, and Comcast (Xfinity), all now basing their hybrid old world (TV/cable/post office) and new world (smartphone, tablet, computer, and connected TV) on the same simple idea. In the first digital decade, news and entertainment was atomized by aggregators, dis-branded, as readers and viewers often flipped through Google, YouTube, or Yahoo without knowing who actually produced news or entertainment.

Now, we see brand re-emerging to signal top-of-mind awareness — and to earn those one-click credit card payments. These are friendlier brands, attempting to leverage and master the new social curation of news and entertainment.

2 major sources of revenue, advertiser and reader

For that first decade plus of the web, news publishers relied on one revenue source — digital advertising. That’s been like wheeling into the future on a unicycle, lots of careening and too little forward progress. As publishers have taken a long-term view of the business, the conclusion from Arthur Sulzberger and Rupert Murdoch to Dallas’ Jim Moroney and Morris’ Michael Romaner has been the same: We have little hope of creating a successful digital business without robust digital reader revenue. Reader revenue doesn’t have to be mean only digital subscriptions. Schibsted and Australia’s Fairfax are pioneering “services,” with Schibsted’s story-aided weight-loss programs prototypical. Newbies Texas Tribune and MinnPost are showing how reader-attended events are moneymakers. The tablet will spawn lots of new one-off paid reader products.

And advertising doesn’t mean just selling space. Most major news chains, from Advance to Gannett to Hearst, are becoming regional ad agencies, selling and re-selling everything from deals to Yahoo (or in Advance’s case, Microsoft) to search engine marketing to Facebook and Google to local merchants large and small. The New York Times pulled Lincoln “ad” money into digital circulation push. Sponsorships are coming back in a big way for mobile.

So, two revenues, tried, true, but twisting new. Will they be 50/50 supports of new models? Too early to say, but they provide us the rivers and tributaries to build new revenue stream models.

3 products: print, computer, and mobile

“Online,” of course, was first re-purposed print. Too much of mobile is, again, re-purposed online. Yet, the smarter all-access players, mostly national, are looking at their audience data and seeing how different usage is by device or platform. There are new products — MediaNews’ TapIn is emblematic — that are made for the tablet, with even smartphone utility in question and desktop a distant third. We’ll see three distinct ways of thinking about product: print, lean-forward desktop/laptop and lean-back tablet/on-the-move smartphone. Newspaper print becomes just another platform. This triad becomes more than a smart way to think about product development — it becomes a way of measuring costs, revenues, and metrics like ARPU.

4G, as in the coming of faster connectivity

Only in the last couple of years have we passed 50 percent broadband access in the U.S., which currently ranks ninth worldwide at 63 percent of households. We’ve forgotten the days when pressing on the play button on a website’s video player was a crapshoot. Between buffering and bumbling of all sorts, video only sometimes worked. Now, take a look at the just-launched WSJ Live on the iPad, and you see how far we’ve come. 4G is now on the mainstream horizon, and with it comes the higher valuing of news video. That’s a challenge for text-based newspaper companies, most of whom have taken only first steps to becoming truly multimedia companies. You can see the 4G glow in the eyes of John Paton’s new Digital First Media company. I’m told his New Haven Register now outproduces the local TV stations in digital video news creation; few newspaper peers can yet say the same. With ad rates for news video are still markedly higher than for text stories, any successful model must put video at the center of new products.

So, it’s 1, 2, 3 and 4, good tests of evaluating new company strategies — from the inside or out.

July 25 2011

16:00

For the Texas Tribune, “events are journalism” — and money makers

Texas Tribune Festival logo

When Evan Smith helped launch the nonprofit Texas Tribune in 2009, he set out to get people engaged in their government again, especially in places where newspaper coverage has dwindled. The Tribune introduced blogs, multimedia, troves of government data, and something old-fashioned for an online news startup: face-to-face conversations.

The Tribune has hosted more than 60 public events — all free — attracting top influencers, big audiences, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in corporate sponsorships. Now the Tribune is blowing up the event and throwing The Texas Tribune Festival, a weekend of ideas for policy wonks, lobbyists, and anyone else invested enough in local government to pay $125 for a ticket.

“Events are journalism — events are content. And in this new world, content comes to you and you create it in many forms,” says Smith, the Tribune’s chief editor and chief executive.

One goal: to combat low levels of public engagement on a lot of the issues the event will address. “We think much of the technology world embraces ‘push’ as opposed to ‘pull’ as a way to reach people,” Smith says. “We are taking a ‘push’ approach to content, and that means going to people with content where they live.”

The speaker list includes top names in the universe of Texas politics: energy tycoon T. Boone Pickins, former U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro. And the topics covered are also the Tribune’s core coverage areas: health and human services, energy and the environment, public and higher education, and race and immigration.

Evan Smith

If that all sounds familiar, it’s because the idea is modeled on the New Yorker Festival. In 2009, Smith hired the person who created that festival, Tanya Erlach, the former senior talent manager for The New Yorker. (“She’s not reinventing the wheel; this is her wheel,” Smith says.) Erlach handles everything from programming to logistics.

Smith is the first to admit that events don’t only produce journalism. They also produce revenue. And even the free events, including the TribLive speaker series, have been money-makers. They are cheap to produce, for one thing, and often underwritten by corporate sponsors. Smith estimates the Tribune raised about $650,000 in corporate support last year, which includes events. He expects to raise $1.3 million this year. While major gifts from philanthropists represented almost all of the Tribune’s revenue in 2009, Smith expects more financial diversity in 2011, with income from philanthropy, corporations, and events evenly split. Altogether, the Tribune has raised $9.3 million in barely two years — far more than like-minded nonprofit startups elsewhere.

“A lot of better established nonprofit news organizations — and I’m not counting the public broadcasting TV and radio stations but the sites that are similar to ours, ones that have been in existence longer — really have not approached the task of soliciting corporate support, underwriting, and sponsorships. We’ve just not seen other folks approach this, and they started to call us and ask us and our folks, you know, ‘How are you doing this?’”

If journalism is to survive, Smith says, business must be in the DNA. It’s in the Tribune’s DNA. Another Tribune co-founder was a venture capitalist, John Thornton, who initially raised $4 million in startup funding, including $1 million of his own cash and a large grant from the Knight Foundation. While Smith does not handle fundraising, he does reach out to executives personally to solicit their support.

Is Smith sheepish about that? “Hell, no.” Is there a conflict of interest? “Our only bias is in favor of Texas.” Public radio and television, he points out, rely heavily on corporate underwriting. The Tribune is neither paying people to speak at the festival nor covering their expenses. And the only reward for a corporate sponsorship is “a handshake and a tax letter,” he says.

“The work we do is important. And it needs to be paid for,” Smith explains. “There are appropriate sources of revenue out there. There is nothing to be ashamed of when putting a ‘for sale’ sign on as much stuff as possible, provided that it doesn’t have a negative impact on the work that you do or doesn’t create a negative perception of your integrity.”

Besides the financial value of the Tribune’s events, Smith says, there’s also value in the B word — you know, the word that tends to be uncomfortable in journalism circles. “Just as some other organizations may shrink from associating with corporate interests, there are some organizations, I suspect…that don’t fully appreciate the value of branding,” he says. A big festival is a platform for the Tribune to present itself as a grown-up operation, to build credibility and attract new readers.

Tickets went on sale July 11, with a discount for Texas Tribune contributors. Smith is working out a deal with sponsors to make admission free for college students.

July 08 2011

20:32

Reinventing the newspaper - The rise of philanthrojournalism

Economist :: What's now being tried across America, is to build new, internet-native metropolitan news organisations supported by philanthropy. Examples include the Voice of San Diego, the St Louis Beacon, the MinnPost in Minneapolis, the Texas Tribune in Austin and the Bay Citizen in San Francisco.

Where they exist, they are doing a very good job, in some cases exceeding the quality of dailies,” says Ken Doctor, a news-industry analyst at Outsell. Because traditional newspapers are in trouble, these not-for-profit online news organisations can take their pick of experienced journalists, many of whom are also attracted by the new sites’ focus on politics, civic engagement and accountability journalism.

[Jonathan Weber, editor of the Bay Citizen] We believe the gap that we’re trying to fill has to do with reporting. There’s a lot of opinion out there, and a dearth of reporting.

Continue to read from the print edition, www.economist.com

January 13 2011

15:30

The Newsonomics of 2011 news metrics to watch

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

In the digital business, the old aphorism — “If you can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist” — is rapidly moving from article of faith to fundamental operating principle. Measurement systems are just getting better and better.

Yes, there are still quite a few naysayers in the digital news business, those who believe that editorial discretion is superior to any metric the digital combines can kick out. They’ll say you can’t measure the quality of journalism created — and, of course, they are partly right. The truth of the moment is that good (to great) editors, armed with good (to great) analytics, will be in the winners in the next web wars. The same is true for digital marketers working for news companies. Unless they combine their knowledge of markets, customers, and advertisers with often real-time numbers about performance, they’ll lose business to those who do.

The counting of numbers, though, is tricky. So many numbers, so little time, as 24/7 digital keystrokes stoke endless reams of data. Which ones to count, and which to pay closest attention? Meaningful numbers, of course, are called metrics, and meaningful interpretation of those numbers we now call analytics. These analytics, discovered or undiscovered, then drive the business, and they are particularly important in great times of change, when whole industries move profoundly digital. As that old investigative reporter Sherlock Holmes said, “Data. Data. Data. I can’t make bricks without clay.”

In the spirit of the new year, let me suggest some of the more valuable emerging metrics for those in the news business in 2011. Further, in that spirit, let’s pick 11 of them. These aren’t intended to be the most important ones — the mundane price of newsprint, trending up recently, still is a hugely influential number — but ones that are moving center stage in 2011.

1. How much are news companies getting for tablet advertising? Or, in more numerical terms, what’s the effective CPM, or cost-per-thousand readers? In 2010, those with tablet news products reaped a small windfall, gaining rates as high as $150 per thousand readers, which would be 20 times what many of them get for their website ads. Much of that business was “sponsorship,” meaning that advertisers paid simply for placement, not actually based on number of readers. It was the blush of the new, and the association with it, that drove that kind of money. While early 2011 pricing is still very good, as the tablet market goes mass, what will happen to the rates news companies can charge advertisers? This is a huge question, especially if tablet news reading does hasten movement from ad-rich newsprint (see “The Newsonomics of tablets replacing newspapers“).

2. What percentage of unique visitors will actually pay for online access? It’s going to be a tiny percentage — maybe one to five percent of all those uniques, the majority tossed onto sites by search. If it’s less than one percent, paid metered models may be of little consequence. At two percent, especially for the big guys, like The New York Times with its imminent launch, the numbers gets meaningful and model-setting.

3. Where are the news reading minutes going? The Pew study showing that Americans are reading news 13 minutes a day more, probably given smartphone usage, was a thunderbolt — a potential sign of growth for a news industry that has felt itself melting away. With tablet news reading joining even more smartphone reading (only 20 percent of cellphones are “smart” right now), each news company will have to look at its logs to see which readers are reading what with what kind of device — which will tell where reading is increasing and where (let’s guess, print) it is decreasing. Then comes the job to adjust products accordingly.

4. How good are the margins in the fast-developing marketing services business? Tribune’s 435 Digital, GannettLocal, and Advance Internet are among the leaders selling everything from search engine marketing and optimization to mobile and social to local merchants. It’s a big shift for big newspaper companies used to selling larger ticket ads to relatively few customers. There is no doubt that local merchants want help in digital marketing. The number to watch for the newspaper companies is their margin on sales — after paying off technology partners from Google to Bing to WebVisible. Once we see how those margins settle in, we’ll know whether marketing services is a big, or small, play to find local news company profit growth.

5. How much of digital revenue is being driven by digital-only ad sales? McClatchy has been a leader in unbundling print/online sales, with digital-only now approaching 50 percent. That’s a big number for all media companies to watch. Not only is the market pushing them to offer unbundled products, but the sooner they sell digital separately on its own merits, the faster they grasp the growing business and slowly cut the cord to the declining one.

6. How much of news traffic is now being driven by Facebook and Twitter? A few companies, including The Washington Post, know daily how much of their traffic is driven by social media; many others have little clue. Those that do watch the number know that Facebook and Twitter are the number one growth driver for news “referral” traffic, and that social traffic (friends don’t let friends read bad news) converts better to more regular readership than does search traffic. This metric then pushes newsrooms to more greatly, and more quickly, participate in the social whirl.

7. How much will membership grow at the highest-quality, online-only local news start-ups? MinnPost just hit 2,300, an impressive number, but it’s been a three-year road to get there. It is hiring a membership director and trying to better convert regular readers to members. The Texas Tribune is pushing toward 2,000 and Bay Citizen 1,500. Can membership be a significant, and ramping, piece of the new news business model, or will it have to look elsewhere — advertising, syndication, events, more grants — to find sustainable futures?

8. How many titles — and readers — is Journalism Online able to bring into its Press+ network? Journalism Online has moved from a question mark to a well-situated player in the iPad-fueled universe of paid content. Its Press+ network offers the promise of that elusive “network effect” — but only if it gets real scale.

9. How much “extra” do news companies charge for digital access? Okay, every publisher wants to be paid for news content. But as they test out pricing, they’re all over the board in how much to charge. Some want to charge as much for digital as for print; others are willing to throw in digital access for “free” if readers maintain print. The number to watch is one probably about 10-20 percent higher than print alone — as an opt-out upsell — and see how much that sticks with print readers. If that works, new “circulation” revenue helps replaces some of that disappearing ad money — and provide a route to a time of mainly digital, partially paid access.

10. What’s your cost of content? No journalist likes to be thought of as a widget producer, but news is a manufacturing trade, as the Demand Media model has shown us. How can news companies lower the cost of content while creating more? That’s why we see new Reuters America deals, Demand partnerships, more user-gen, more staff blogging. Editors are more needed than ever to make quality judgments about new content, but they and their business leaders must understand what content — high-end and low — really costs to produce.

11. How much do you spend on analytics? Ultimately, investing in the collection and interpretation of data is a big test of news companies’ ability to play digital. I’ve noted (“The Newsonomics of the FT as an Internet retailer“) how the Financial Times has set the pace for the industry in establishing a new team of (non-newspaper) people to run its analytics arm. That operation now numbers 11, up from nine last year. A good beginning metric for any news company to ask: How much money are we investing in understanding our business with the tools of the day?

January 05 2011

14:05

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 25 2010

18:25

5 Ways to Improve the Non-Profit Journalism Hub

The Voice of San Diego, one of the oldest of the new guard of non-profit news orgs that have been popping up, has teamed up with some academics from San Diego State University to launch The Hub, a handy database of information about non-profit community news organizations. If you're looking to start your own non-profit news org or want to learn more about what's already out there, this is the place to start. 

Megan Garber over at NiemanLab has a detailed rundown on the who's and what's involved.


I'm a big fan of things that solve problems, and The Hub clearly does that. Voice of San Diego CEO Scott Lewis told Garber the site was created in response to "many, many occasions in which VOSD execs and editors found themselves fielding requests for consulting and advice from people hoping to start their own non-profit news sites."

I spent some time cruising around and think it shows a lot of promise. I've also got five ideas for how it could be made even better and more useful.

Inside The Hub

The piece that I'm most interested in is the simple directory of existing non-profit news orgs that The Hub has put into motion. This is a great idea. Structured directories are almost always awesome. The Hub's directory is pretty simple, currently listing just 13 organizations that qualify as non-profit, community-based news organizations. All the big players you usually read about in stories are there: New Haven Independent, Texas Tribune, Bay Citizen, etc. Each profile page includes a quick rundown on the org's background and then a short Q and A with someone from the organization answering basic questions about its goals and origins.

It might not sound like much, but this is really useful stuff for people looking to learn more about this area. That said, there are a few ways these profiles could be improved on to make the site as a whole much more useful:

  1. More structured data -- I'd love to see The Hub focus more on structured data over narrative. The interviews I read were fairly interesting, but the ability to take in all the important details about an organization at a glance is more valuable than the ability to read a Q & A that may or may not contain the same information. What I'd love to see would be for The Hub to borrow a page from CrunchBase in how all the data is structured and links to clickable search results. An emphasis on getting more structured data would be a bigger win than getting more narrative info on these profile pages.
  2. Funding information -- The biggest piece of structured data missing is the funding for each organization. As a reader, I want to know how much funding each news org has received so far and what the source of it is. From my own reading, I know that there's a vast disparity in funding levels between some of these organizations. Visitors need to be able to see this at a glance so they can put the rest of the information into the proper context.
  3. Rundown on key personnel -- Similarly, the structured data for each news org should include the names of the top editors and the publisher of each organization. These pages could link to "people" pages on The Hub, or they could just link out to LinkedIn profiles or Twitter accounts. Either way, people will want to know who's in charge at these news orgs so they can get a better sense of what they're doing and how they're doing it.
  4. Subscriber/follower counts for social media accounts -- The Hub's profile pages helpfully link out to the social media accounts for each news organization. What they don't tell you, however, is how many followers that news organization has right now. This might seem like a small thing, but it could actually be very useful information if acquired automatically. It would be great to be able to rank non-profit news orgs based on how many followers they have on Twitter, or by number of fans on Facebook, for example.
  5. Info on how freelancers can pitch them and how interested parties can support them -- My final suggestion would be for The Hub's profile pages to prominently include information aimed at freelancers looking to learn more about how to pitch non-profit news organizations and for fans and avid readers looking for how to support these new enterprises and their work. These are two use cases I think will be pretty common among visitors to The Hub and they don't appear to be addressed specifically on the profile pages.

The Hub is a useful project off to a great start. People working on the edges of journalism need more projects like these that give shape and voice to what's happening in the field. I look forward to seeing how this develops.

October 14 2010

14:30

The Newsonomics of replacement journalism

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

Finally, we’re seeing light on the horizon. Journalism hiring is picking up.

The second half of the year has so far produced TBD’s hiring of 50 in Washington, Patch’s push to pick up 500 journalists across the country, and the new alliance for public media plan to hire more than 300 journalists in four major cities, if funding can be found in 2011. In addition, the brand-name journalist market has suddenly flowered, as everyone from National Journal to the Daily Beast to Bloomberg to AOL to the Huffington Post to Yahoo compete for talent. These are bigger numbers — and more activity — than we’ve previously seen, though they build on earlier hirings from ProPublica to California Watch to Bay Citizen to Texas Tribune to MinnPost and well beyond.

It’s a dizzying quilt of hiring, in some ways hard to make sense of, as business models (how exactly is Patch’s business model going to succeed? what happens when the foundation money dries up?) remain in deep flux. Yet, amid the hope, now comes this question: Are we beginning to see “replacement journalism” arriving?

Replacement journalism, by its nature, is a hazy notion. We won’t see some one-to-one swapping for what used to be with something new. Replacement journalism will though give us the sense that new journalism, of high quality, is getting funded, somehow, and that the vacuum created by the deepest cut in reporting we’ve ever seen is starting to be filled. It is an important, graspable question not just for journalists and aspiring journalists welling up in schools across the country, but also for readers: Are we beginning to see significant, tangible news coverage in this new, mainly digital world?

So, let’s assess where we on, on that road to replacement journalism. Let’s start with some numbers. Take the most useful census of daily newspaper newsroom employment, the annual ASNE (American Society of News Editors) census, conducted early each year and next reported out at its April 2011 conference. ASNE’s most current number is 41,500. That’s down from 46,700 a year earlier, from 52,600 in 2008 and from 55,000 in 2007. So, over those three-plus years, that’s a loss of 13,500 jobs, a 25-percent decline.

As we consider what’s been lost and what needs to replace it, we’ve got to look as much at possible at reporting. That news-gathering — not commentary (column or blog) — is what’s key to community information and understanding, fairly prerequisite in our struggling little democracy. While we don’t know how many of those 13,500 jobs lost are in reporting, we can do some extrapolation. Using that same ASNE census, we see that a little less than half (45 percent or so) of newsroom jobs are classified as reporting, while 20 percent are classified as copy/layout editors, 25 percent as supervisors and 10 percent as photographers and artists. So — while not undervaluing the contributions of non-reporters — let’s say, roughly, that half the jobs lost have been reporters. That would mean about 6,750 reporting jobs lost in three years.

Okay, so let’s use that number as a yardstick, against a quick list of journalist hiring:

  • Investigative and extended enterprise reporting: It’s tough to come up with any one number for investigative or long-form reporting in newspapers or in broadcast. We know that many newspapers and broadcasters have cut the investment in staff here, though, through the carnage of staff reduction. (One indication: “The membership of Investigative Reporters and Editors fell more than 30 percent, from 5,391 in 2003, to a 10-year low of 3,695 in 2009″, according to Mary Walton in the American Journalism Review.) Into this breach have come the new ProPublica, the restyled Center for Investigative Reporting (with its California Watch, most notably) and the growing Center for Public Integrity in Washington, D.C. They are joined by smaller centers from Maine to Wisconsin to California. Loss: Probably in the high hundreds. Gain: Probably in the small hundreds. Net: We’ve seen real high-quality replacement journalism, but need more, especially on the community level.
  • Washington, D.C. reporting: Dozens of D.C.-based reporting positions have been lost over the last several years, certainly, and the number may stretch into the hundreds. For awhile, the biggest news was that the Al Jazeera bureau was among the fastest-growing. Now, of course, there’s the goldrush in government-oriented reporting as the newly emboldened (and funded) National Journal group and Bloomberg Government add a couple of hundred positions, and join Politico in the D.C-based fray. With both new efforts still in formation, we’re not clear what kind of reporting they’ll do. If it’s mainly government-as-business (Bloomberg’s seeming model) and/or if it’s mainly behind pay wall, then then this new stuff will be less replacement-like. Covering public policy implications for all of us nationally, and the particular impacts on those of locally, is a key, yawning need. Loss: Significant. Gain: Substantial. Net: Unclear we see the words on our screens in 2011.
  • Hyperlocal reporting: The biggest news here is Patch, of course. With 500 sites in various stages of rollout, we can’t yet assess how much new reporting — and of what quality, what depth — will be added back, replaced. Add in the redeployment of many metro staff reporters from Hartford to Dallas to L.A., and the fact that smaller community dailies and weeklies have weathered the storms better than bigger papers. Loss: Uncountable, but real across the country. Gain: With Patch and with the re-attention of metros to smaller communities through staff redeployment and blog aggregation, it’s now substantial. Net: One of the most promising areas in replacement journalism.
  • Metro-level reporting: The devastation seems clearest here, with newspapers like the San Jose Mercury News cut to 125 newsroom staffers from 400 a decade ago, and many other dailies down by 50 percent or more. The bulk of cuts, as well chronicled by Erica Smith at Paper Cuts, appear to be at metros — and they are continuing; witness recent job losses in Sacramento and Miami and at USA Today. On the positive end of the ledger, the TBD-Bay Citizen-Voice of San Diego-MinnPost-Texas Tribune-Chicago News Cooperative parade has added real journalistic depth in selected markets. Yet, unless they grow substantially from the dozens they are — the public media push, though only in formation, is the most promising here — there’s a low replacement ratio. This is the biggest conundrum in front of us: how do we maintain current newsroom staffing of 340 at The Boston Globe or 325 at The Dallas Morning News, against the ravages of change? Loss: Huge. Gain: Spirited and of noteworthy excellence. Net: Biggest gap to fill — and the gap may be widening still.

“Replacement journalism,” of course, is a tricky term, and maybe only an interim notion — a handle that helps us from there to here to there. By the very nature of digital and business disruption and transformation, we have to remind ourselves that the future is never a straight line from past to future, and that it will offer us great positive surprises as well as continuing disappointments. William Gibson’s enduring line sums that up: “The future is already here. It’s just not evenly distributed.”

Photo by Matt Wetzler used under a Creative Commons license.

September 07 2010

19:55

DocumentCloud Helps Newspapers Bring Transparency to Government

Since we last updated readers on DocumentCloud's progress, we've made it much easier to upload a lot of documents at once, and introduced a related documents search that uses data about names and places provided by OpenCalais to find documents that are probably related to the one you're looking at. We've also added a bit more contextto the data we help reporters comb through. Most of this work is happening inside the gates of the DocumentCloud workspace, but it is resulting in some lively reporting. For example...

Using Documents to Tell the Story

This summer, as the federal 5th Circuit Court of Appeals prepared to hear arguments in a challenge to the University of Texas's affirmative action policy, Texas Tribune complemented its coverage of the case with nearly 200 pages of annotated court documents, including the original district court ruling, the university's appellate brief, as well as that of the plaintiffs in the case.

The Las Vegas Sun incorporated quite a trove of documents into its series on hospital care in Las Vegas. Readers were invited to browse everything from Department of Health and Human Services reports to individual records, right along with the Sun's reporters. When they say that hospital-acquired infections cost the country $30 billion per year or account for close to 100,000 deaths, they back each number up with original documents.

The Columbia Missourian annotated the city budget and took a local blogger to task for exaggerating Columbia, Missouri's cash reserves.

When Texas Governor Rick Perry challenged reporters to find anyone who can out-work him, Texas Tribune posted the governor's May 2010 schedule alongside that of Florida's Gov. Crist, New York's Gov. Paterson and California's Gov. Schwarzenegger and invited readers to help them skim over a hundred pages of briefings, receptions and photo ops for stories deserving of a closer look.

The Washington Post supplemented its reporting on the cozy relationship between the oil industry and the federal agency assigned to regulate them with an annotated report on the prospects for "Moving beyond Conflict" between regulator and regulated. Their document cache also included reports outlining just how cozy things had gotten by 2008. As Emily Keller pointed out in Free Government Info, a transparency project, documents like these give more transparency to journalism itself.

New Features in the Testing Lab

We're also hard at work fine tuning the document viewer, transforming it into something that users could reasonably plug into a template with a narrower content column. Thus far folks have been stuck with a full page viewer. We haven't fully rolled it out yet, but we've worked with a couple of our beta testers to implement it already.

Iowa State has a new men's basketball coach, and the Des Moines Register included all 14 pages of his contract to their coverage of the finer points contained in it. Among the unusual clauses? Hoiberg can walk away if the university decides to increase academic standards for student athletes beyond the NCAA's minimum.

Meanwhile, at the Santa Fe Reporter, Alexa Schirtzinger opted not to publish tables of information right inside her story on elder abuse in New Mexico, but she did use her staff blog to share the data that she had such a hard time tracking down. An annotation highlights the numbers that showed her that New Mexico fields more abuse complaints per nursing home bed than any other state.

DocumentCloud watchers will notice that they posted the contract right on the same page as Randy Peterson's writeup instead of displaying the document in a full page. We'll be making tweaks like this a lot easier for all of our users. In the meantime, if you're skilled at the art of reverse engineering JavaScript, you can view the source of the Register's story (or the Reporter's) to see just how they toggled the sidebar or zoom on those documents.

August 19 2010

18:30

Seeking Sustainability, Part 3: VOSD’s Scott Lewis and others on engagement, community-building

Seeking Sustainability: Presentation on engagement and community-building from Knight Foundation on Vimeo.

This spring, the Knight Foundation hosted a roundtable discussion exploring a crucial issue in journalism: the sustainability of nonprofit news organizations. This week, we’re passing along some videos of the conversations that resulted (and, as always, we’d love to continue the discussion in the comments section). We posted Part 1 of the series, a talk focused on business-model viability over time, on Monday, and Part 2 — on revenue-generation — yesterday.

In today’s pair of videos, Scott Lewis, CEO of Voice of San Diego, leads a discussion on the crucial topic of community engagement: how to leverage limited resources to build community, how to develop meaningful comments boards and conversations, how to use new technologies to develop audience affection, how to translate loyalty into money — and how to measure the murky issue of “audience engagement” in the first place. Scott’s introduction is above; the video below features a conversation among Knight’s panel of heavy-hitters.

Among them, in general order of appearance: the Center for Investigative Reporting’s Robert Rosenthal, Texas Tribune’s Evan Smith and Higinio Maycotte, The Bay Citizen’s Lisa Frazier, the St. Louis Beacon’s Nicole Hollway and Margaret Wolf Freivogel, the Chicago News Cooperative’s Peter Osnos, Voice of San Diego’s Buzz Woolley and Andrew Donohue, the New Haven Independent’s Paul Bass, the Gotham Gazette’s Gail Robinson, the FCC’s (and formerly Beliefnet’s) Steven Waldman, the Huffington Post Investigative Fund’s Nick Penniman, and Seattle CrossCut’s David Brewster.

Seeking Sustainability: Discussion on engagement and community-building session from Knight Foundation on Vimeo.

August 18 2010

16:30

Seeking Sustainability, Part 2: John Thornton and others on strategies for nonprofit revenue generation

This spring, the Knight Foundation hosted a roundtable discussion exploring a crucial issue in journalism: the sustainability of nonprofit news organizations. This week, we’re passing along some videos of the conversations that resulted (and, as always, we’d love to continue the discussion in the comments section). We posted Part 1 of the series, a talk focused on business-model viability over time, yesterday. And in today’s pair of videos, John Thornton, chairman of the excitement-inducing Texas Tribune, leads a discussion about a topic near and dear to the hearts of even, yes, nonprofit news outlets: revenue generation.

“It is nowhere in the mid-life venture capital playbook to start a nonprofit news organization,” Thornton noted; “and so none of us would be doing this if the central mission weren’t about public service.”

Thornton’s introduction is above; below is a discussion that it sparked among the nonprofit all-stars Knight brought together for the occasion — among them The Bay Citizen’s Lisa Frazier, the Chicago News Cooperative’s Jim O’Shea and Peter Osnos, the Texas Tribune’s Evan Smith, Voice of San Diego’s Scott Lewis, The Atlantic PhilanthropiesJack Rosenthal, Seattle CrossCut’s David Brewster, the New Haven Independent’s Paul Bass, California Watch’s Mark Katches, J-Lab’s Jan Schaffer, and the St. Louis Beacon’s Nicole Hollway. The group discussed finance-crucial issues like publicity, community, membership incentives, collaboration, demographic measurement, branding, corporate sponsorship, and more…not from a theoretical perspective, but from the point of view of practitioners who spend their days thinking about how to keep their organizations thriving.

The conversation, by the way, is well worth watching all the way to the end: The video closes with group members discussing some of their more outlandish — and, so, intriguing — ideas for revenue-generation.

August 12 2010

14:00

The Newsonomics of TBD

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

Thirsting for good news, the welcome given TBD.com by news observers has been a bit overwhelming. In a desert of too-scarce good news about the news business, TBD represents one of the potential oases, like its smaller — and largely nonprofit — counterparts from San Diego to Austin to the Twin Cities to New York.

Most of the first appraisals have focused on the site’s product innovations. Let’s now take an early look at the size of this possible oasis and the unique business model under it, to gauge what kind of a test it may be. Let’s look at the Newsonomics of launching what is the nation’s first combined local online news startup/24-hour news channel.

That combination is the most basic to understanding the business of TBD, informing both TBD’s cost structure and revenue models. If TBD turns profitable within two to three years, it may become a prototype for digital/video/TV city-based news businesses.

While there may be two dozen or more metro news channels in the U.S, none has yet combined with a online news site to the extent that TBD is doing. The only parallel may be Cablevision’s News 12, its longstanding Long Island/Connecticut/New Jersey-oriented station that got a new cousin when the parent company bought Newsday from Tribune in 2008. In a post on that acquisition, I noted the potential synergies in the deal:

  1. Joint ad sales.
  2. Synergistic news-gathering and production.
  3. Monetizing cable-produced news video through Newsday’s site.

Since then, we haven’t seen a lot of that synergy in New York, as the cable news site and Newsday.com remain separate, with those who don’t subscribe to either having to pay for direct access. A cursory look at the sites doesn’t betray much sharing, but there may be more under the hood.

It is those three principles, though, plus an all-important fourth one — promotion — that should define this next, and bigger, experiment, as TBD.com and TBD TV (which has been rebranded from the former NewsChannel 8) take flight.

Let’s look first at the costs of TBD. TBD has added 50 new positions, all additional to the approximately 50 jobs ported over from the former NewsChannel 8. Jim Brady, TBD’s general manager, outlined the 50 for me: “About 30 doing news, including 15 reporters, six editors, two senior editors, six community engagement people. Another 20 doing tech, sales, product, and design.”

That tells us that the nut for TBD is about $3.5-4 million, salaries and operating costs combined. It needs to find new revenue — exclusive of what the former NewsChannel 8’s sales staff of seven brought in — to get to profitability. Profitability is a key goal for this for-profit company, and one key to proving out the model for use in other metro areas. The cost side is one of the areas that distinguishes the TBD experiment; it’s two to four times bigger than most of the local online news startups we’ve seen.

Key to our understanding here is that TBD — the website and the cable news station — is one organization. Brady is in charge of the P&L of it, though he has a dotted-line relationship to the ad sales heads. While it adds costs to do 24-hour cable news as well as 24-hour digital news, it offers more revenue opportunities as well.

The key synergy: a kind of virtuous circle of promotion to stoke growth of audience and advertising dollars.

“They have the big megaphone [of promotion],” points out Phil Balboni, now CEO of startup GlobalPost, but also a veteran of New England Cable News, which he built and operated. “They can push TBD on every program. Within a short period of time, they will get great brand awareness.” So, yes, TBD TV pushes people to the website, but TBD.com also pushes people to the cable news channel. And WJLA, the ABC7 affiliate also owned by Allbritton, promotes both. JLA’s been the second-ranked station in the broadcast market.

The idea: Big promotion drives in samplers. Then the site must convert a good 20 percent of them to regular customers.

So what does TBD need to get to profitability — and make itself the model to match? Let’s quickly look at the two big qualifiers, audience and sales.

A big audience: Let’s remember that TBD starts with a significant audience, though one far smaller than WashingtonPost.com, just to drop a name. It gets traffic from both WJLA and the former NewsChannel 8; both of their former websites now point to TBD.com. According to Nielsen, WJLA pulled in about 327,000 unique visitors and 1,516,000 page views in July, while NewsChannel 8 appeared to attract a small fraction of that.

Make no mistake: Gaining attention in a crowded media marketplace won’t be simple — and is one of the reasons for the fast-out-of-the-chute TBD Community Network of 129 bloggers.

The Post is formidable competition. It is a premier regional website (built by Brady and others) and in a June Nielsen report, showed a 5.27-percent increase in unique visitors year over year, to 10,089,000 unique visitors and 106,387,000 pageviews. It zigged — up — while the news category zagged down 2.74 percent overall for the same period.

So figure that TBD.com needs a web audience of between 10 and 20 million page views a month at some point in the next 24-36 months to get to profitability. That’s a fifth to a tenth of the Post’s online audience, which, we should keep in mind comes more from outside D.C. than in within it.

Significant new revenue from both TBD.com and TBD TV: The revenue will be mainly advertising. As a for-profit, TBD.com is taking a different route than non-profits MinnPost and Texas Tribune, for instance, both of which are focusing strongly on membership and corporate/institutional sponsorships. The nonprofits are thinking that maybe a third — or less — of their revenue will come from traditional “advertising.” For TBD, though, it’s all about the sale of advertising. Just as TBD TV is critical to TBD.com site promotion, its own revenue growth will be key.

Figure that as much as 30 percent of new revenue generated out of the new enterprise could come from new TV revenue; to the extent it does, the site’s growth could trend more to the 10 million monthly page views, than 20 million, and still be profitable.

Brady says a new online-only sales staff of four will drive both online-only and bundled sales, working with the established sales force. “You start with a sales force that has relationships with an auto dealer, for instance, ” says Brady. “You don’t need a million uniques to get a meeting with them.”

The questions here are familiar ones for local broadcasters and for newspaper publishers: How do you a traditional ad sales staff — one mainly used to selling “time” — to sell the web effectively? How do you blend the online-only sales force with TV-oriented one? How much do you emphasize online-only sales, or continue a focus on bundling with TV time?

It’s a complex sell, combining sales of space, time, and pay-for-performance advertising. “They need to sell four or five different kinds of advertising,” says Arul Sundaram, an industry consultant who formerly was vice-president of strategy for Internet Broadcasting, which has powered dozens of local broadcast station websites. Beyond selling cost-per-thousand display advertising, Sundaram ticks off various pay-for-performance (largely search-based), video, and mobile ad products that the operation should learn to sell as well.

Pioneering models is a tough business. As the news business looks for new models, the man of the moment is man behind the TBD curtain, Robert Allbritton, CEO of his eponymous company. Allbritton’s gotten credit for seeing, and seeing through, Politico, his first web venture, to on-again, off-again profitablity. Importantly, he’s been credited with allocating sufficient resources, even in cash-negative startup times to create journalistic products that attract audiences.

As Phil Balboni sees it, Allbritton’s move, especially in this economic climate, is “a gutsy statement.” In 2010, especially, no guts, no glory.

August 02 2010

14:00

The Newsonomics of membership, part 2

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

New news organizations have embraced the membership model (see part 1 of The Newsonomics of membership), but they don’t have to reinvent the wheel to do it. They can hone that wheel, for the digital-only and digital-first age. One of the best places to gain insight is in public radio, which has been plying the membership trade for more than 40 years now — learning the dos and don’ts and sharing some best practices internally.

As city sites begin to build on what MinnPost, Texas Tribune, and GlobalPost have started, they can certainly apply some of those lessons. I made an initial, unscientific foray into NPR membership, to feel the ground and see what’s shaking. I think at this point, pending much deeper study, we can see both some metrics and some lessons that have useful applications.

The Metrics

As I noted in my first membership post, there are at least three key metrics for new websites to master as they move forward:

  • What percentage of which part of the readership can news sites expect to contribute?
  • What’s the median gift?
  • How much of their going-forward budgets — and if and when foundation money dries up — can be made up by readers?

NPR station experience helps inform those metrics.

Percentage of listeners who become members: There is no single number to cite, but most reports come in at somewhere between 6 and 12 percent, though it’s clear that counting methodology is not consistent across the nation. KUT, Austin’s public radio station, is part of a group of eight like-sized stations which collectively pool their membership data. Those eight sign up 5.8 percent of listeners, Holly Gaete, KUT’s director of membership, told me. “Listeners” are those who listen for at least five minutes per week. KUT currently counts 17,338 contributors.

Oregon Public Broadcasting says it gets about 10 percent of its public TV viewers to become members, but has no similar data for the radio; that’s one of the nuances of counting, as a number of dual-license stations (public TV and public radio under one umbrella) complicate any apples-to-apples comparisons.

A few people make the point that it’s long-time listeners — those who’ve listened for two years or more — that make up the best universe of potential public radio members. That notion (akin to MinnPost’s Joel Kramer’s notion that frequent visitors offer greater potential than infrequent ones) makes sense, but is apparently not something widely measured in public radio.

What brings them in?: KUT’s Gaete makes the point that membership directors use diverse tools to gain members. Here’s her breakdown:

Radio pitches (those twice-yearly pledge drives): 37 percent
Mail: 36 percent
Web: 18 percent
Telesales: 5 percent
Other: 4 percent

Stewart Vanderwilt, KUT’s general manager, differentiates between those who make “intellectual” decisions to give — responding to mail, for instance — from those who make an “emotional” decision, often responding to an on-air appeal. The intellectual decision-makers’ average gift is higher, and they renew at a higher rate. KUT’s overall renewal rate is 58 percent.

The sweet spot of giving: Again, counting standards differ, but it’s the $50-$150 range that draws a majority of gifts. The buck-a-week or 10-bucks-a-month pitch seems to have resonance with donors, with some making the point that “that’s cheaper than the daily newspaper.”

What’s the trend line?: Interestingly, the recession’s not done a great deal of damage to membership, at least not as much as we’ve seen circulation fall at dailies. Some stations report membership mildly down, but giving flat or up a tad. Others report membership even up a little, but giving down. Stations’ recent membership performance may indicate a couple of things: Long-term relationships may help weather bad economic periods, and listeners understand the increasing role of public radio in filling the news vacuum.

How important is membership giving?: KQED’s Scott Walton, executive director of communications, reports that membership tops 200,000 — and accounts for 60 percent of the stations’ $55 million budget. Oregon Public Broadcasting — its number of contributors up two percent over the last year — counts 120,000 members, which account for 64 percent of its budget.

The Lessons

Beware the power of the barker. Bill Buzenberg, now director of the Center for Public Integrity, used to serve as vice president of news for National Public Radio. He’s in a unique position to observe membership, given that background. As he compares online news startups with public radio, he notes one big distinction that will affect membership sign-ups.

“The difference is that public radio has a ‘barker channel,’ meaning they have the radio megaphone to get people to come into the tent or become members in the first place during membership drives in which they can withhold the programming,” he says. “That barker channel is great for public radio and drives up the membership numbers, even if listeners hate the membership drives. MinnPost, or other non-profit centers, have no barker channel.”

If barking helps, just talking to potential donors — and current ones — about the deep journalism crisis, especially the local one, helps too. Donors feel an obvious kinship with the stations — maybe akin to a loyalty newspaper subscribers have traditionally felt. Or perhaps, the notion of voluntary donation itself creates a reinforced relationship, more so than a fee-for-service “subscription.” That’s a key question as we see membership pushes for online media ramp up just as paywalls are increasingly erected by legacy news companies.

“People have the tangible sense that journalism is troubled,” reports Oregon Public Broadcasting CEO Steve Bass, who says he hears that from donors, as newspapers from The Oregonian to smaller dailies cut back on coverage.

Borrowing lessons from public radio isn’t easy. Metrics within public radio vary and are not freely available. In addition, we’re in the early stages of thinking about what’s different and what’s similar between public radio and online news sites. Further collaboration here — maybe abetted by such groups as the Knight Foundation — could be a win/win, though potential competition as we see developing in the Twin Cities (MPR, MinnPost) could be an issue.

Finally, as member-based sites ramp up — or, in the case of public radio, morph into digital-first news producers — one curious question will be the the advertising value of these members. Membership and ads need not be two separate universes. In fact, member data — how they read, what they read, what they buy, where they are — can greatly help the targeting of ads. That could make members even more lucrative than readers, and listeners, overall.

July 29 2010

16:00

The Newsonomics of membership

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

New journalism is hungry for new business models. Beyond millions in foundation start-up support, what will sustain these enterprises?

One answer: membership. The notion is borrowed from NPR (née National Public Radio), which we must remind ourselves is no “experiment.” NPR is now more than 40 years old, trying to fight off its own middle-age doldrums by reinventing itself as public media, as digitally oriented as it is radio-oriented — but that’s a topic for another day.

While the daily press is testing paywalls — some with big holes, some with small, some with rungs, some without — news startups are taking a different route, that NPR model. That divide of how best to get readers to pay may be a decisive one when we look back in five years.

For startups, membership is all the rage these days, as these new companies look to it to provide a vital leg in the new stool supporting new journalism. Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith says his plan calls for a third of the site’s funding to come from memberships, aiming toward a goal of 10,000 members. The Tribune’s been a fast climber, signing up about 1,700 members at a median price of about $100, since launching in November.

MinnPost, though, claims the lead, having built to more than 2,000 members in its two-and-a-half year history. Within the next several weeks, GlobalPost, now one-and-a-half-years-old, will relaunch its own membership program, Passport. Perhaps significantly, GlobalPost built its new offer on the Journalism Online Press+ platform, and that, too, could serve as a model for others, if successful.  Those who run sites that have tested membership have fielded lots of calls from their news media start-up compatriots inquiring how to make membership work, and we can all expect to hear a lot more about it over the next year.

So let’s look at the very early Newsonomics of membership, talking to the architects about their building in process. In the second part of Newsonomics of membership, we’ll look at some public radio data that helps fill out the emerging online model.

MinnPost borrowed the NPR approach of letting readers determine how much they want to contribute, offering everything from a $10 “student” membership to a $500 “media mogul” one. Joel Kramer, CEO and editor, says that the average gifts are either $50 or $100. In 2009, membership contributed to 30% of the site’s $1.2 million, bringing in about $360,000.

Importantly, Kramer is trying to figure out the metrics of membership, and he may be farther along there than others as well.

As the former Star Tribune publisher and editor has moved online-only, he’s studied the new business. One thing that he knows is missing is consistent, useful audience measurement, and it’s interesting that his comments there parallel those of new Newspaper Association of America incoming chairman Mark Contreras, a senior vice president of Scripps. Apples-to-apples audience measurement is key to building digital businesses, and both Kramer and Contreras will tell you it’s missing today.

So Kramer has figured out his own fledgling metrics to assess how well membership is doing. He uses Quantcast data, and here’s his logic.  It’s those readers who come to MinnPost at least twice a month — 27 percent of MinnPost’s visitors — who are most likely to sign up as members. The rest are fly-bys, referred haphazardly by Google and others. That 27 percent now accounts for about 40,000 visitors a month. So Kramer figures that at the current rate, he can expect that five percent of those more frequent visitors — 2,000 people — will become members. (Remember that five-percent number, when we move to part two on membership and look at NPR’s experience.)

For Kramer, the metric is a snapshot. Double the number of more-frequent visitors, and he would expect a doubling of membership. Maybe, though, five percent is just an early number, and that the percentage itself will increase as the site’s service to readers grows in time. If MinnPost could yield 10 percent of its more-frequent visitors, it could have 4,000 members today. That could mean that membership will pay for 60 percent of the bills, or that MinnPost could expand its staff and site.

MinnPost eschews giving members special perks, the kinds of gifts that often accompany NPR pledge drives. “The only perk a member gets is an invitation to core events,” usually staff-hosted affairs where members can mingle with the journalists. MinnRoast, an annual MinnPost event, brought in another $100,000 last year — so we see in this budding business model the link between membership and events.

Membership may all be about building relationships over time.

GlobalPost CEO Phil Balboni believes in relationship-building as well. GlobalPost’s new Journalism Online (JO) model gives it a third try to tweak the membership model. At launch, it went premium, charging $199 annually, but finding few takers. Then, it moved to a $49.95 price point, and has picked up 500 members.

When it launches with Journalism Online, it will offer two membership prices, $22 a year or $1.99 a month. Key JO-powered approach is the ability to pop up membership offers after a half dozen or so “content triggers.” When users hit certain parts of the site, or read a certain number of pages, the voluntary membership offer will pop up. That’s key to Balboni, who estimates that one percent or less of those who see membership offers will act on them. One of the current roadblocks, he believes, is that few people see the Passport membership page; increasing membership offer visibility, he hopes, will multiply membership. Key to the Passport offer: Members get to select some story assignments that GlobalPost will pursue.

A veteran of the news trade, Balboni realizes it’s a long-term build: “This is a five- to 15-year effort to get consumer behavior changed.” Balboni would like to see membership build into funding half the budget.

Texas Tribune’s Evan Smith is aiming to make membership pay a third of the freight by the end of Year 3, which would be fall 2012. He figures the site has so far converted less than one percent of its total unique visitors (compared to a little more than one percent for the older MinnPost) as it has burst out of the gate in Texas with lots of promotion. His end-of-2010 goal is 2,600 members, up from the current 1,700. Members pick their level of giving.

Good or poor current audience metrics, make no mistake that this membership business is a game of metrics. Three stand out for now:

  • What percentage of which part of the readership can news sites expect to contribute?
  • How much of their going-forward budgets — and if and when foundation money dries up — can be made up by readers?
  • What’s the median gift?

Those are three key questions, as news people try to inculcate (or as least borrow from NPR) a membership ethic. In the meantime, those who care about nurturing the new news can do something: Join the favorite new enterprise of their choice. Here are the links: MinnPost, GlobalPost, and Texas Tribune.

Photo by Leo Reynolds used under a Creative Commons license.

June 28 2010

14:00

Opening up journalism’s boundaries to bring change back in: How Knight and its News Challenge have evolved

It was with considerable irony that I found myself last week missing much of the action surrounding the announcement of the latest winners of the Knight News Challenge, all because I was scrambling to put the finishing touches on a dissertation about…the Knight News Challenge.

Go figure.

Now that the dissertation is finished (at least temporarily, in the hands of my committee members), I’ve had a chance to reflect on how this fourth class of winners fits into the overall picture that has developed from the Knight News Challenge. This contest matters because, far and away, it’s the most prominent innovation effort of its kind in the future-of-journalism space. And so, in some sense, the News Challenge has an agenda-setting impact on the rest of the field at large, emphasizing certain trends over others and altogether giving shape to what we think of as “news innovation.”

But to understand the News Challenge in full, we have to step back and consider the organization behind it — the nonprofit John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the leading funder of journalism training for years and now the biggest philanthropic supporter of news-related startups and experiments. This, of course, is especially true in the nonprofit news sector: Just pick your favorite news upstart (Voice of San Diego, Texas Tribune, et al.), and chances are it has a good share of Knight funding. [Including this website — full disclosure, the Knight Foundation is a financial supporter of the Nieman Journalism Lab. —Josh]

So, the question that prompted my dissertation was simply this: With all this investment and influence in journalism innovation, what is the Knight Foundation trying to accomplish? (We can put this another way. Mark Dowie, in his 2002 investigation of nonprofit foundations, said, “If foundations are indeed ‘America’s passing gear,’ we need to ask what, or whom, they are passing, and where are they taking the country?” In our case, if Knight is akin to journalism’s passing gear, how — and toward what future — is it attempting to drive the field?)

The short answer is that Knight has sought to innovate journalism in part by stepping away from it, by making a strategic shift from “journalism” to “information.” This broadening of boundaries has created crucial space for innovators — from inside and outside journalism — to set forth a reformed view of what journalism is and ought to be. Chief among these new ethics is the emerging ethic of participation — the sense that journalism not only can be participatory, but indeed should be, and that something is missing if the public isn’t involved. In this sense, the foundation and its innovators, in rhetoric and action, are working to bring change to the rather ossified occupational ideology of journalism, or this professional culture that has developed much of its authority around the idea that it has gatekeeping control over what passes as “news.”

Now let me try to explain the longer answer. First, I came at this case study of the Knight Foundation and the Knight News Challenge from a number of angles: interviews with foundation leaders and more than a dozen KNC winners (namely, the ones who seemed to want to build a news organization/platform with their funding); an analysis of hundreds upon hundreds of pages of documents, such as foundation reports and News Challenge applications; and even some statistical analysis using a large body of data gathered on KNC applications from the first three years (the 2007, 2008 and 2009 contest cycles). There isn’t space in a single post to summarize my findings from each of these areas, but elsewhere I presented some early results on the KNC, and you can contact me if you’re interested in the final dissertation come July.

For now, I’ll touch on the big picture: how the Knight Foundation and its News Challenge have evolved in recent years.

From the news industry to the crowd

The Knight Foundation has long been a leading supporter of journalism education, and for much of the 1990s and early 2000s did this through the endowment of chaired professorships at journalism schools around the country. But after Alberto Ibargüen took over as foundation president and CEO in 2005, Knight began to realize that, as Ibargüen has said, it shouldn’t be in the business of teaching best practices for jobs that might not exist in the future.

Around the same time, Ibargüen and Knight became attracted to philanthropy’s growing use of challenge contests and other means of tapping into the “wisdom of the crowds” to find solutions to problems. If the “problem” for journalism in an era of digital disruption was the need to find new or refurbished models through which journalism’s core functions and societal benefits could be achieved — to “meet the information needs of communities,” in the foundation’s common refrain — then Knight was making a break from its past in turning away from faith in industry expertise and toward an acknowledgement that the solutions may well come from the aggregate expertise of a participatory crowd of contributors.

The Knight News Challenge was born in 2006 in this context: as a contest attempting to tackle a big professional problem (the shrinking of newspapers in many communities) by purposefully looking beyond the profession alone, seeking to engage a whole range of people — techies, entrepreneurs, activists, etc. — and their ideas that might shake up journalism. This crowdsourcing strategy is seen both in the nature of the contest — which is open to all — and in the actual content of the proposals that have been funded, many of which have a crowd-focused component of distributed participation (from Spot.Us in 2008 to Ushahidi in 2009 to GoMap Riga and Tilemapping in 2010).

From professional control to participation

These connected assumptions — that neither Knight nor the news industry had the solutions to its “informed communities” problem, but that answers could come through participation from distributed crowds that were newly connected online — led Knight to conclude that it should give up control over some facets of its philanthropy, as it did with its challenge contests, first the Knight News Challenge and more recently with the likes of Knight Community Information Challenge and Knight Arts Challenge.

What’s more, the foundation chose to give up control over maintaining journalism’s professional boundaries of exclusion — of defining journalism by one’s professional status — thus rhetorically opening the gates to greater participation from audiences. This was no small shift. Professionals, by nature, seek to be autonomous from outside influence, and so an acknowledgment of one’s lack of expertise or lack of control is a serious departure from the professional paradigm. Nevertheless, Ibargüen’s logic — of openness, of distributed control, of crowd wisdom and collective engagement — is more in tune with the digital media environment and its participatory culture. And, in this sense, his logic may reflect the Knight Foundation’s adaptation to the situation — its own way of “figuring out the flow” (Ibargüen’s words) and leveraging the momentum to accomplish its purposes.

All of this works to “open up” journalism in a way that allows something like crowd participation — which is still mostly at the margins of mainstream journalism — to become not only palatable but indeed truly valuable, a very ethic of good practice, in a rebooted formulation of journalism. This, in fact, is the general perspective of the KNC winners I interviewed, and is one of the core themes I explore further in the dissertation.

From journalism to information

In more recent times, the Knight Foundation has undergone a further evolution from “journalism” to “information,” both in rhetoric and practice. First, remember again that Knight’s ultimate goal is helping people get the information they need to function in (local) democracy. Historically, it was the newspaper that took care of providing that crucial information, and so the News Challenge was an effort to work on the problem of declining news at the community level.

But, as the News Challenge developed over time, Knight staff began to wonder if they were unduly focused on the “means” of informed communities — on the troubled journalism profession — and instead should be giving more emphasis to understanding and promoting the “outcomes” of informed communities, with less regard to how those outcomes were achieved. It’s kind of like being less concerned about the well-being of doctors and more concerned about public health, whether or not doctors are the ones doing the healing. As Ibargüen told me in an interview:

If you’re being agnostic about the form [i.e., digital delivery], shouldn’t you really focus on the end result? [Emphasis mine.] That is, stop trying to figure out how to fix current media and instead ask the question, “What does a community in a democracy need? What kind of information does it need in order to function well within a democracy? Where are we now, and what public policy can you support that will get us from where we are now to where we ought to be?”

In other words: Worry less about journalism and more about quality information, however it gets gathered and distributed. This line of thinking led to the formation of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy. This high-level commission produced a report that was among the major future-of-journalism treatises to emerge in 2009. While journalism does receive fairly substantial treatment in the report, Amy Gahran was “struck by how little [the report] had to say about how professional journalists and mainstream news organizations fit into the future of civic media.”

Even more, the Knight Foundation appears to have realized that it can have a broader impact in philanthropy and society to the extent it downplays “journalism,” a term that, like it or not, comes with the baggage of stereotypes and a professional identity complex. “Information,” by contrast, has no particular ideology, and therefore can be malleably shaped to suit the circumstances. By invoking “information” and “information needs,” the Knight Foundation has been able to communicate to and connect with a range of fields, foundations, and corporations in a way “that we almost certainly would never have done before,” Ibargüen said. Because “information” is an empty vessel, open to interpretation, it has enabled Knight to speak the language of other fields, even as it seeks to advance the interests of its own. As Ibargüen told me:

One of the lessons for me is that when I used to talk about this as journalism, I’d get the great glazing of the eyes, as people would say, “Get over yourself, you’re just not that important, you know!” And now I know to say, “OK, this matters, this is at the center of almost anything. You tell me your subject, and I’ll tell you how information matters.” [Emphasis mine.]

This journalism-to-information shift can be seen in how the News Challenge has developed. My own examination of winners over the years suggests that projects have become less and less about “producing journalism” and increasingly about “supporting information,” some of which might be considered journalism in a traditional sense. And this gets us to the big existential question: What is journalism, anyway? In a world where the boundaries (rhetorical and structural) around news gathering, filtering, and distributing are becoming increasingly hard to detect, when does information become journalism? It is in this soup of uncertainty and confusion that the Knight Foundation has sought to bring profession-wide change: opening the boundaries of journalism and its own philanthropy to the logic of crowd wisdom, and using its position as a boundary-spanning agent, straddling several fields, as a means of bringing fresh ideas into a field that sorely needs them.

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