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March 29 2012

14:00

Merger means the new Bay Citizen will be more investigative and experimental

Breaking: The Bay Citizen won’t be covering as much breaking news any more.

The merger of Bay Citizen with the Center for Investigative Reporting announced yesterday — with CIR forces coming out in charge — will mean structural changes for the nonprofit outlets. But it’ll also mean editorial changes, one of them being a reduction in covering the same big daily stories and subjects the competition is — at least not in the same way.

“There’s so much information, there’s so much newsgathering, there’s so much out there, and there’s so much clutter out there,” CIR executive director Robert Rosenthal told me. “Someone may have it first, but there’s almost no such thing as first anymore. News is a commodity. Information is a commodity.”

(The Bay Citizen’s own story on the merger puts it this way: “The Bay Citizen will likely no longer cover breaking news or culture, as CIR leaders have said they see those as commodities that don’t fit the expanded organization’s core mission.”)

Today, a Bay Citizen reporter “might post several times a day on a breaking story or a story on the Bay Area that they were covering maybe in a unique way,” Rosenthal said. “We’re not going to do that. If we get into a major developing story, it will be in an investigative or explanatory way…For a beat reporter, to suddenly not have the obligation of potentially filing I-don’t-know-how-many stories a day or week — it liberates you.

“You know as well as I do that one of the key elements of this kind of reporting is time: time to develop sources, time to do that extra step, having the time not to be chasing deadlines, quickly running out to events that are covered by multiple other people.”

Developing a focus

From its launch in January 2010, Bay Citizen took a broader approach to its coverage than many of its nonprofit peers, which tended to focus on narrow, specific areas like investigative reporting or a particular beat. Founded at a time when many were concerned the San Francisco Chronicle could close, Bay Citizen mixed in daily breaking news coverage, cultural coverage, and even sports with more investigative and enterprise work.

When the San Francisco Giants were in the 2010 World Series, Bay Citizen had author Dave Eggers attend games and do notebook drawings of players and fans. Indeed, Bay Citizen has done game stories, fan slideshows, and even fifth-inning updates from Giants games and other area sporting events — something not many other nonprofit outlets would do.

In particular, it’s probably not something you’d see from the CIR-founded California Watch, the statewide investigative news service. The Bay Citizen will adopt an approach that parallels the guiding principles at California Watch, only on a more local level, Rosenthal said. The combination of Bay Citizen, California Watch, and CIR can give the organization wide reach.

“Here’s an example: We’ve been looking very hard at issues on homeland security, and we have lots of data sets on a national scale,” Rosenthal says. “A reporter looking at that is thinking, ‘What’s the story for California?’ We may [also] be looking at a national story around surveillance. It’s a very flexible model.”

Bay Citizen is one of three regional nonprofit news outlets to have partnered with The New York Times to provide content for the Times’ regional editions; the others were the Chicago News Cooperative and the Texas Tribune. The Times, in addition to a small amount of money, gave status and prestige to the new local brands, plus the promise of some local print readers. But the deals also committed the outlets to producing a certain amount of newspaper-ready content — stories of a certain length and covering a newspapery mix of beats — that helped define its approach. Stories were due to the Times late Tuesday for Friday publication, so stories had to be able to hold a few days.

The Chicago News Cooperative has faced challenges even greater than Bay Citizen’s, suspending operations last month. Of the three Times partners, only the Texas Tribune — which keeps a tight focus on matters of state government and public policy — has thrived. And the Trib is known for ignoring even big breaking news that falls outside its editorial mission. (The New York Times’ Texas report does include culture coverage, but it’s provided by Texas Monthly instead of the Tribune.)

Rosenthal said CIR is currently re-evaluating The Bay Citizen’s relationship with the Times, noting that the deal carries an agreement of “exclusivity” that raises “concerns.”

Multiple platforms, multiple revenue streams

The flexibility of the model may be the key to the Center for Investigative Reporting’s success, and it’s about more than a newsroom-culture shift away from the kind of crime coverage you’re already going to get on the six o’clock news. Freeing up reporters to spend more time digging deeply into stories is the foundation. But the real opportunity for innovation comes in experimenting with a variety of distribution methods and multiple sources of revenue. That’s at least in part because the fundamental instability of the industry is directly tied to questions about how people get information today.

“It’s very difficult to be ambitious and build something in a newsroom where you’re getting smaller and the business model is broken — and it is broken,” Rosenthal said. “It has been broken. It’s not the journalism that’s broken, it’s the business model. We’re in a completely different world.”

“The process can be very iterative, it can be messy, but at the same time you get some great ideas.”

Adapting — and ultimate survival — in this new world requires deftly crossing platforms to tell stories that matter. Rosenthal bristles at the idea of having “readers” because CIR doesn’t just produce news websites, it produces news across platforms.

CIR’s revenue strategy mirrors the spirit of the diversification with which it approaches content production. Rosenthal says that the funding that flows into The Bay Citizen will, like California Watch, have multiple channels: philanthropic support from “major donor efforts,” content fees, fees from membership, fees from events, corporate underwriting. More opportunities for revenue translate into more journalism, which further fuels a newsroom’s ability to try different kinds of storytelling.

“You’re working simultaneously with the video people, you’re working with a radio reporter, you’re working with people who are doing interactive data, you’re working with people who might be doing animation,” Rosenthal says. “The process can be very iterative, it can be messy, but at the same time you get some great ideas…There’s a tremendous amount of involvement from everybody. It’s a very lively, creative, ambitious culture.”

It’s also a culture that encourages ideas that might not even be discussed in a traditional newsroom. Remember California Watch’s “Ready to Rumble”coloring book? That came out of an investigative series on earthquake safety in schools. Next up: Puppets.

“We’re going to be very experimental,” Rosenthal says. “We’re really thinking of how people of all ages get, use and want information at this revolutionary moment we’re all in. This is a good opportunity— a terrific, unique opportunity to be entrepreneurs.”

Photo of Golden Gate Bridge by Marco Klapper used under a Creative Commons license.

February 23 2011

17:00

The context-based news cycle: editor John O’Neil on the future of The New York Times’ Topics Pages

“There’s are a lot of people in the news industry who are very skeptical of anything that isn’t news,” says The New York Times’ John O’Neil. As the editor of the Times’ Topic Pages, which he calls a “current events encyclopedia,” O’Neil oversees 25,000 topic pages, half of which — about 12,000 or so — include some human curation.

While the rest of the newsroom is caught up in the 24-hour news cycle, constantly churning out articles, O’Neil and his team are on a parallel cycle, “harvesting the reference material every day out of what the news cycle produces.” This means updating existing topic pages, and creating new ones, based on each morning’s news. (The most pressing criterion for what gets updated first, O’Neil said, is whether “we would feel stupid not having it there.”) A few of the Times’ most highly curated topics include coffee (curated by coffee reporter Oliver Strand with additional updates by Mike White) and and Wikipedia (curated by media reporter Noam Cohen),  as well as more predictably prominent topics like Wikileaks and Egypt.

The Topics team includes three editors and two news assistants, who work with Times reporters. “People give us links to studies they’ve used for stories or articles they’ve looked at, and this is something that we do hope to expand,” O’Neil said.

But half of the topic pages are “purely automated,” O’Neil said. And O’Neil is even contemplating contracting the number of curated topic pages, as people and events drop out of relevance. (The Topic pages garner 2.5 percent of the Times’ total pageviews.) O’Neil said he had read a statistic that roughly a third of Wikipedia’s traffic came from only about 3,000 of its now more than 17 million pages. “We’re concentrating more on that upper end of the spectrum.”

In a phone conversation, I talked with O’Neil about why the Times has ventured into Wikipedia territory, how the Times’ model might be scalable for local news organizations, and why creating a “current events encyclopedia” turns out to be easier than you might think. A condensed and edited version of that conversation is below.

LB: How did the topic pages develop?

JO: Topic pages began as part of the redesign in 2006. Folks up in tech and the website realized they could combine the indexing that has actually gone on for decades with the ability to roll up a set of electronic tags. The first topic pages were just a list of stories by tag, taking advantage of the fact that we had human beings looking at stories every day and deciding if they were about this, or were they about that. Just that simple layer of human curation created lists that are much more useful than a keyword search, and they proved to be pretty popular — more popular than expected at the time.

LB: What’s the philosophy at the Times behind the topic page idea?

JO: Jill Abramson’s point of view when she started looking at this: When she was a reporter, she would work on a story for days on end, weeks on end, and pile up more and more material. You end up with a stack of manila folders full of material, and she would take all of that and boil it down to a 1,200-word story. It was a lot of knowledge that was gained in the process, and it didn’t make it to the reader. The question was: How can we try to share some of that with the reader?

My impression is that people find these pages terrifically useful. Not everybody comes to a news story with the knowledge you would have if you’d been following the story closely all along. News organizations are set up to deal with the expectation [that people] have read the paper yesterday and the day before.

LB: How do you go about transforming news stories into reference material? What does the process look like?

JO: What we found, as we did this, is that the Times is actually publishing reference material every day. It’s buried within stories. In a given day, with 200 articles in the paper, about 10 percent reperesent extremely significant developments in the field. Now we can take a small number of subjects, like Tunisia or Egypt or Lebanon or the Arizona shootings, and keep on top of everything, set the bar higher. We can really keep up with what the daily paper’s doing on the biggest stories.

LB: As you note, there’s a lot of wariness among “news” folks  around putting  effort into topic pages. For instance, when I talked with Jonathan Weber of The Bay Citizen, the Times’ San Francisco local news partner, about topic pages, he told me: ”people are looking for news from a news site….We’re not Wikipedia. You don’t really go [to a topic page] for a backgrounder, you go there for a story.” How would you respond to that?

JO: Our experience has been that that’s never been entirely true, and it’s becoming less true all the time. Look at the pound-and-half print New York Times, and think how much of that is about things other than what happened yesterday. Even in the print era, that was a pretty big chunk.

Then again, it makes sense for folks at a place like The Bay Citizen to be more skeptical about topic pages. A blog, after all, is all about keeping the items coming. And a site focused on local news would feel less need to explain background — hey, all our readers live here and know all that! — than if they were covering the Muslim Brotherhood, for instance.

LB: So what about the Wikipedia factor? Why should the Times be getting into the online encyclopedia business?

JO: I think Wikipedia is an amazing phenomenon. I use it. But there’s no field of information in which people would find there to be only one source. On Wikipedia, there’s the uncertainty principle: It’s all pretty good, but you’re never sure with any specific thing you’re looking at, how specific you can be about it. You have to be an expert to know which are the good pages and which are the not-so-good ones.

Our topic pages — and other newspaper-based pages — bring, for one thing, a level of authority or certainty. We’re officially re-purposing copy that has been edited and re-edited to the standards of The New York Times. It’s not always perfect, but people know what they can expect.

LB: What’s the business-side justification for the Topic Pages?

JO: We know that the people who come to the topic page are more likely than people who come to an article page to continue on and look at other parts of the site. It helps bring people to the site from search engines.

It’s also brand-building; it’s another way people can form an attachment. People can also subscribe to topic pages. (Every page produces an RSS feed.) We’ve begun to do some experimenting with social media. There are lots of people who want to like or follow or friend The New York Times, but a topic pages feed gives you a way of looking at a slice of this audience. It turns the supermarket into a series of niche food stands, so to speak.

LB: The Times obviously has a lot more resources than most local news outlets. Is developing topic pages something of a luxury, or is it something that makes sense to pursue on a more grass-roots level?

JO: At the Times, less than one half of one percent of the newsroom staff is re-purposing the copy. That makes it of lasting value, and makes it more accessible to people who are searching. If you think about a small regional paper, three editors would be a huge commitment. On the other hand, the array of topics on which they produce a significant amount of information that other people don’t is small. There’s a relatively small number of subjects where they feel like, “We really own this, this is key to our readership and important to our coverage.”

If people think of topic pages as the creation of original content on original subjects, it never looks feasible. If you think about it as re-purposing copy on your key subjects, I think it’s something more and more people will do.

January 21 2011

05:54

“There’s a lot of pressure to play for the short term”: The Bay Citizen’s editor on its $15 million future


Seven months into its bid to reinvent the metro newspaper, The Bay Citizen has hired a staff of 26, rolled out daily online news and culture coverage, and, during November, attracted a monthly audience of approximately 200,000 unique visitors. Yesterday, the San Francisco-based nonprofit announced that it’s so far raised a total of $15 million in philanthropic gifts.

I interviewed editor-in-chief Jonathan Weber in The Bay Citizen’s downtown San Francisco office, and later by e-mail and over the phone, to find out what he’s learned from the site’s first half-year of operation — editorially and financially. This is the second post in a two-part series.

The double-edged sword of a New York Times partnership

One question I brought to the interview was why, given a blank slate, generous funding, and the resources of a tech capital, The Bay Citizen had created a largely conventional news website. The Bay Citizen produces two pages of content twice a week for the local edition of The New York Times — and it turns out that partnering with a leading print paper can be a double-edged sword for an online news startup.

“The partnership, I think, has tended to push us in a little bit more traditional direction than we might have gone otherwise,” Weber told me. “There’s definitely an issue of orientation. If you’re thinking about something as a New York Times story, you think about it differently than if it’s just going to run on baycitizen.org. I think it’s made the coverage feel a little bit more traditional in its approach.” Were it not for the partnership, quite possibly, “we would be further along in developing the kind of voice and style of our own kind of journalism.”

The pull of producing New York Times journalism has also meant, to an extent, less focus on innovation. While the site has a great tech team, Weber noted, they have yet to take advantage of potential tech and design collaborations in the Bay Area — including nearby companies like Twitter, Fwix, and Stamen Design, which won a Knight News Challenge grant to create an open-source data visualization tool.

Not that Weber’s complaining. “The flip side of it: The Times relationship has given us tremendous credibility and clout out of the gate, which we never would have had otherwise, and it also gives us a lot of distribution: 65,000 papers twice as week, plus the traffic from www.nytimes.com. That’s a non-trivial thing, and it’s very clearly a worthwhile trade-off for us, even though it does make life more complicated.”

That NYT credibility was also, Weber noted, a factor in The Bay Citizen’s ability to raise money — again, that extra $10 million — in philanthropic gifts. (The business experience of CEO Lisa Frazier, a former management consultant at McKinsey, clearly didn’t hurt, either.)

Doubling down on data journalism

The Bay Citizen has a 26-person-staff, 18 of them (including Weber) editorial employees. It also has a four-person tech team, including CTO Brian Kelly. One of his major areas of focus moving forward, Weber said, is data journalism, with data apps both large and small — including those that build off San Francisco’s DataSF.org. The Bay Citizen currently has two job postings related to data journalism: Software Engineer for News Applications and Data Researcher for Interactive News. The outlet has an iPhone app in the works and an iPad app on the way later this year.

Another big push will be to build community on multiple fronts, Weber noted. Right now, when readers send a tip/suggest a story, they get a generic message notifying them that their tip has been passed on. Ideally, he said, these tips will be the start of a back-and-forth conversation.

Weber also wants to follow the lead of TBD in building a strong dialogue with readers over Twitter and crowdsourcing breaking news. The Bay Citizen’s community efforts will, true to its name, include recruiting more citizen bloggers — and providing better prompts to help them frame their contributions. The outlet also has plans for a dozen events in which community editor Queena Kim will bring volunteers together to do multimedia explorations of particular topics. (One of the first experiments in this collaborative citizen journalism was A Night at the Opera, in which Kim convened a group of volunteer reporters and a photographer to do minute-by-minute backstage coverage of a performance of Aida.)

What not to do: “engage” before you have a community

When I asked Weber to look back over the first months of The Bay Citizen’s operation and say what he would do differently, he had an immediate answer: It had been a waste, he said, to put too much initial energy into community engagement. “You have to build audience first before you can really understand how to engage that community,” he noted. The Bay Citizen’s staff, right out of the gate, offered a discussion forum — but “it wasn’t very robust.”

And that was largely because the site hadn’t yet convened a community of people to do the discussing. “We’ve spent a lot of time talking about comments, and how to manage comments and encourage comments and whether to feed Facebook comments into the site,” he said. But “those are things that are really related to the scale and reach of the product, and you can’t really do much until you’ve really got that community.”

A new rhythm for news

Unlike most large online news sites, The Bay Citizen is only partially tethered to a print publication, which gives it more potential flexibility in how it approaches public-interest reporting. Had Weber considered ditching the daily news cycle and charting a different kind of journalistic course?

In a word: no. “You basically have to be daily,” he said. “Other rhythms just don’t really work very well online,” largely because “people are looking for news from a news site.” In terms of using The Bay Citizen’s site to provide backgrounders on certain topics — an idea that comes from the discussion about future-of-context journalism — Weber was skeptical about how much context users would want on a news site.

“We do have topic pages,” he said. “We haven’t done a very good job of highlighting and calling out those pages, and depending on the circumstances, we can put more or less effort into customizing those pages.”

Then again: “We’re not Wikipedia. You don’t really go [to a topic page] for a backgrounder, you go there for a story.”

Wide-angle thinking

“Our goal is not to replace the Chronicle,” Weber noted. “I think it’s healthy for communities of all sizes to have multiple, large-scale journalistic enterprises (which actually was the norm until fairly recently).” The CEO of REI once told him that their biggest competitor wasn’t another sporting goods company, but the video game companies, and Weber thinks about local journalism the same way. “The question is not whether we’re going to compete well or not well with the Chronicle, the challenge is: are we going to be able to engage people in news as opposed to all the other things — playing FarmVille or reading TMZ or making stupid videos for YouTube.”

“Despite what people might assume, a lot of people do not have an intrinsic interest in local news,” he said. “It takes time. Media is a very habit-driven thing. People do today what they did yesterday. People have been predicting the death of newspapers for 20 years — and while, certainly, newspapers have a lot of problems, they’re not dead yet, and they’re not going to be dead in the near future. And the reason for that is people have been reading newspapers every day for 20 years — and they like that, and they don’t want to read the news on the Internet just because it’s more efficient.”

As far as news outlets go, “there’s a lot of pressure to play for the short term,” Weber noted. Just as there’s a lot of pressure to experiment — which can be hugely beneficial, but detrimental if it’s done chaotically. “‘Let’s try it and see if it works’ — anything you try on the first day is not really going to work,” he said. You have to get to know your community just as they have to get to know you. And, most importantly, “you need to have a long-term view.”

January 19 2011

18:30

“Gee, you guys are spending an awful lot of money”: The Bay Citizen editor on funding quality news

Seven months into its bid to reinvent the metro newspaper, The Bay Citizen, the San Francisco-based nonprofit news site, has so far raised a total of $14.5 million in philanthropic gifts, rolled out daily online news and culture coverage with a 26-person-staff, and, during November, attracted a monthly audience of approximately 200,000 unique visitors. It’s on track to spend $4 million during its first year.

I interviewed editor-in-chief Jonathan Weber in The Bay Citizen’s downtown San Francisco office, and later by e-mail and over the phone, to find out what he’s learned from the site’s first half-year of operation — editorially and financially. This is the first in a two-part series.

“There is nothing especially virtuous about being broke”

In a world where many local nonprofit startups are shoestring operations run by refugees from downsized or shuttered metro papers, The Bay Citizen’s relatively large budget continues to attract scrutiny — and some hostility. (As a quick comparison, the national investigative nonprofit ProPublica spent approximately $9.3 million last year, and the local civic news outlet Voice of San Diego spent approximately $1 million.)

“I’m honestly mystified as to why so many journalist-commentators seem to think that spending real money on journalism is a bad thing,” Weber told me. “I’ve been there, and there is nothing especially virtuous about being broke.” Moreover, he said, “I would challenge anyone to take a hard look at what we do — and I mean really dive in in a serious way over a period of time — and tell me that we are wasting money.”

F. Warren Hellman, the San Francisco investor who provided $5 million in seed money for The Bay Citizen, initially described it as a journalistic mainstay during the “inevitable” demise of local newspapers, and said it “might put journalism, broadly defined, on a much more stable foundation.”

Since then, the outlet has emerged as a general interest site for the entire Bay Area: It provides lists of weekend events, covers breaking news, and has even commissioned local author and artist Dave Eggers to produce a series of whimsical sketches of a World Series game. Instead of focusing, as most sites do, on a smaller geographical area, or a content vertical (like the Gawker Media blogs, or NPR’s local, topic-based Argo blogs, which launched this fall), The Bay Citizen is assuming the entire portfolio of a print paper.

“Others might disagree, but I have never seen any critique related to what we actually do journalistically,” Weber said. “It’s sort of this abstract, ‘Gee, you guys are spending an awful lot of money’ — and that kind of criticism makes no sense to me.”

The latest debate over The Bay Citizen’s finances came late last month, after an item in the Chronicle detailing (and mocking) The Bay Citizen’s solicitation of $50 memberships implied that the outlet had spent all its $5 million in seed money — rather than the $4 million it had actually spent. (The Chron item also didn’t mention the additional $9.5 million the organization had raised.) Other journalists involved in smaller nonprofit and local news ventures tweeted their skepticism, including Howard Owens, publisher of the online-only Batavian in western New York, who wrote, “My question is, why do they need more than $1mill operational cost per year in SF?”

Weber responded that for a staff of 26, a $4 million budget was reasonable. (Steve Katz, publisher of the San Francisco-based nonprofit magazine Mother Jones, backed up that math.) But The Bay Citizen is also finding ways to amplify the work of its staff. Perhaps its most innovative step so far has been to position itself as a partner and umbrella site for the Bay Area’s many hyperlocal blogs.

“A different philosophical view about partnership”

The content on The Bay Citizen’s website is the product of a “range of different relationships,” Weber notes. On the front page, for instance, there are articles by staff reporters and paid freelancers. There is also content from the outlet’s community blog partners, who typically get paid $25 for every article The Bay Citizen re-posts from their sites. (The re-postings also appear on pages that are branded with the blog partners’ names and three additional links to articles on their homepages.) Weber has said repeatedly that he wants The Bay Citizen to be “a connector and a hub for an emerging ecosystem” of local blogs.

The site also features a Citizen Blog, which is open to pretty much anyone who wants to blog on local topics. (The Chron features a similar mix of content on its homepage, including citizen blog posts and stories from local partner sites, together with national wire stories, a “Daily Dish” of entertainment news, sports coverage, photo slideshows, and, of course, lots of advertising.) The Bay Citizen’s homepage features a single ad, as well as a jar of change with the slogan “$1 a week helps. Save Independent Reporting.”

The Bay Citizen’s local blog partnerships also include joint reporting projects between staffers and outside bloggers. The finished articles run both on the Bay Citizen and the local blog. They’re partnerships, Weber said, that can bring together the inside-baseball knowledge of local bloggers with the bigger-picture political perspective of staff reporters. “We have a different philosophical view about partnership and the role of non-staff people of various descriptions, and what role they play in the bigger project,” he notes. “I think traditionally mainstream media organizations have always had a religious view that ‘all news comes from here’ and ‘we don’t really publish other people’s news,’ and we definitely don’t.”

The Bay Citizen has also found “a sweet spot in mid-range enterprise news,” Weber said, as in its story about a payment scandal in the San Francisco Unified School District. These aren’t three-month, “capital I-investigative reporting” projects, as Weber put it, but quicker stories that might need only a single records request to pull together. (The Center for Investigative Reporting and its offshoot California Watch, which specialize in long-term investigative reporting projects, are right across the Bay in Berkeley.)

The value of business experience

While the idea for The Bay Citizen was conceived at a time when the San Francisco Chronicle was hemorrhaging millions and seemed close to shutting down, the outlet is now competing with a more stable Chronicle (whose print circulation, at last reporting, was 223,549 on weekdays) as well as a slew of other Bay Area news outlets, large and small. It’s doing so with the ambitious plan of leveraging its first few years of philanthropic funding into the kind of popular support that makes public broadcasting-style membership drives viable.

For all that, Weber said, employing a large staff — with business-side as well as journalistic expertise — makes sense. “The rationale on staff size is pretty simple,” he notes. “If you’re going to bite off something big and ambitious like doing daily and enterprise news and multimedia on a wide range of subjects for a large region, and producing 2 pages twice a week for The New York Times, you need the people to do it. ‘Big’ is a relative term. We have a big staff compared with New West or many other local start-ups, but we’re very small compared with any metro newspaper, and also smaller than ProPublica and CIR, as comparisons.”

While the $400,000 salary of Lisa Frazier, The Bay Citizen’s CEO, has generated particular criticism ever since it was announced last year, Weber has repeatedly said that “journalists tend to undervalue business experience.” And he told me that The Bay Citizen’s four-part revenue plan — which starts with large gifts and grants, and then aims to ramp up membership revenue over several years, bringing in additional money through syndication and underwriting — is complicated enough to need a sophisticated business manager. He also noted that The Bay Citizen’s ability to raise so much money in large gifts is indicative of the fact that major donors feel more comfortable giving to organizations with experienced businesspeople at the helm.

How does Weber expect it all to pay off? “By creating a great news operation that produces and supports important and interesting journalism and attracts a wide audience, which in turn will create financial support.”

September 09 2010

14:00

The Newsonomics of public radio’s Argonauts

[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.]

Overnight, it seems, journalism has been transformed from a daily grind to an heroic quest. Rupert Murdoch has dubbed his adventure to get readers to pay for tablet (and other) content Alesia (after a Roman/Gauls battle) and now public radio formally launches Project Argo. Ah, journalists pursuing the golden fleece. Forget Woodstein — the pursuit of journalism itself is now an against-all-odds mythic trip against budget monsters and business model slayers.

If last year was the year of massive cutting, this is the year of new news creation popping up from unusual quarters. AOL’s Patch is probably the biggest hiring agent, with more than 400 new full-time jobs covering local communities. Sites like TBD.com and Bay Citizen are crafting new products and strategies and hiring dozens of journalists. Now Argo pushes forward, in a quest to stick a new flag of public media in terra incognita, and is hiring journalists in the process.

Argo is intended to bring a high level of attention to hot button topics, covered from a regional perspective. “We want to be the best means of authoritative coverage,” NPR Digital Media G.M. Kinsey Wilson told me recently. [We want] to be the top-of-mind choice for issues like immigration [now covered out of L.A. by KPCC with the Argo site Multi-American].”

Coverage is handled by the increasingly familiar reporter/blogger/curator, finding the most relevant coverage for readers. Largely providing a single new full-time position for each new site, “hosts” come from some impressive reporting backgrounds, like WBUR’s Carey Goldberg, former Boston bureau chief of The New York Times, and Rachel Zimmerman, former health and medicine reporter for The Wall Street Journal. Much of the content — and there’s an impressive amount at launch — is text, not audio.

At first, Argo seems hard to put in context. It’s public radio becoming public media becoming locally topical, but in ways that can inform more than local audiences — which we used to think of as public radio listeners, but who are now public media listeners and readers. Got that?

I’ve talked to a number of people in the emerging public media landscape — a fairly merry lot of Argonauts and other dragon slayers who see lots of upside — so let’s take a look at the emerging newsonomics of projects like Argo.

By the raw numbers, Argo is a $3 million investment. That’s not much by traditional journalism standards, but in this day and age, it wins headlines, like the minor economic development miracle of a new big-box store being covered on the Metro front. The money comes both from a foundation — the omnipresent Knight Foundation at $1 million — and from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting at $2 million.

That Knight funding reminds us of the good that’s still being done by the once dependable profits of newspaper companies, as Knight Ridder funding built one of the 25 foundations in the country, one that has been instrumental in seeding sprouts of the new new journalism.

That CPB funding reminds us that our tax dollars have been supporting news for more than four decades now, even as the debate rages abstractly on whether it’s a good idea to have “government” in the news business. NPR’s news effort — supported by members, philanthropists like Joan Kroc and yes, our tax dollars — makes a pretty good case that some government funding is a good idea, especially if we compare NPR radio news to what is elsewhere generally available in the growing desert of commercial radio news coverage.

Argo itself is 12 sites, produced by 14 public radio stations (two sites are jointly produced), each specializing in major topics like education, health, immigration, and ocean health, and exploring that topic regionally. Journalists are hired by individual public radio stations, each of which applied for the funding. The initial funding is intended to sustain the sites through the end of next year — and to provide “prototype products,” according to Wilson.

So that funding is one of the first things that tells us about the business of this effort. Like Silicon Valley startups, the effort is about building a product that seems to meet a clear audience need, building that audience — and then finding a sustainable business model. That’s what has built companies for decades in the valley, and it’s in contrast to how much of the journalism business has long gotten funded.

Looking under the covers, though, here are three more things to watch about the emerging economic model underneath Argo:

  • It’s local and vertical. In the conundrum that the web has been for newsies, publishers often felt compelled to choose “local” or “vertical,” the fancy term for topical. Of course, readers’ concerns encompass both, and an education site that focuses on local education (such as Minnesota Public Radio’s Argo site On Campus) creates double value and may multiply audience. Even though, it’s “local,” just as WBUR’s CommonHealth, it will find national audiences as well.
  • It’s built for networking. Public radio used to a fairly one-way street, with national NPR and then Public Radio International and American Public Radio essentially licensing or syndicating shows to local stations, of which there are more than 250. Now built on increasingly flexible technologies like NPR’s emerging API and PRX’s exchange, local stations can increasingly both syndicate their own work, Argo-funded and other, to each other — and pick up other stations’ work more easily. In a sense, we see an alternative wire in creation, especially as the Public Media Platform goes forward.
  • It builds on public radio stations’ local news push. A number of stations represented in Argo have also begun building out their local/regional/statewide news presences. KQED, in the Bay Area, which is launching MindShift through Argo, just hired eight new news staffers as it launched KQEDNews.org (Good piece by MediaShift’s Katie Donnelly on the initiative and its context.) So in KQED’s case, as in WBUR’s, KPCC in L.A.’s, and Oregon Public Broadcasting’s, the topical initiative receives more play due to the expanded news reach — and the expanded news reach gets more public notice because of the new topical coverage.

Each of those factors are multipliers, multipliers of public radio’s emerging digital news business. They multiply audience. They multiple the ability to get members and membership income. They multiply sponsorship opportunities, the “advertising” of public radio. That’s on the business level. On the journalism level, public radio’s news values — the closest to newspaper’s traditional ones — get to flex their muscles, another early test of just how far public media wants to go in filling the yawning local news vacuum.

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.

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