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June 27 2013

15:17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Planning for print decline

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New competition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Josh Bancroft used under a Creative Commons license.

August 30 2012

15:02

The newsonomics of leapfrog news video

Our political conventions reminds us that this is not the summer of love. But it may be the season we’ll remember as the summer of video.

Certainly, video’s — news video’s — growth has been noteworthy for awhile. But now there’s a bursting of new news video forms, a hothouse of experimentation that is both refreshing and intriguing. The blossoming has implications far and wide, not just for “news,” but for tech companies like Facebook and television brands from Ellen to Piers to The View. Within it, we see the capability of non-TV companies to leapfrog the TV people.

Just Monday, both The Wall Street Journal (“The Wall Street Journal wants its reporters filing microvideo updates for its new WorldStream”) and The New York Times made video announcements. A couple of weeks ago, the ambitious Huffington Post Live launched, hiring the almost unbelievable number of 104 staffers. In these three forays, and in the thinking in and around them, we see the boundaries of old media being slowly broken. We’re on the edge, finally, of new ways to both create and present news — and how to talk about the news.

It’s funny: “Video,” as a term, as a category, barely defines what we’re seeing. All video means is moving pictures, and we’ve had those since George Méliès (as Martin Scorcese reinterpreted in Hugo). We’ve known broadcast news and then cable news, witnessed their triumphs and now the declines of both. Because of twin technologies — all the iGadgets reintroducing us to the world as we know it and the behind-the-scenes digital pipes making content creation and distribution increasingly seamless — we’re seeing what creative people can do with moving pictures.

While this week’s Journal’s announcement focused on WorldStream, that semi-raw feed (all staff contributions are okayed one-by-one for public view) is but one of the full handful of Journal experiments with video.

Watch video now better embedded into stories (as the Times also has done with QuickLinks). Get appointment programs on WSJ Live (“The newsonomics of WSJ Live”). Watch on demand, in a variety of formats. Go directly to a video page, where all of the video output is categorized. And now, WorldStream, that rawish feed the Journal is doing, because it can — and because such video becomes great bait for the social web. Pick up the url, tweet it, and the Journal has happened on a social video strategy that is curiously akin to Upworthy’s.

It’s a multi-point access world for video producers. The Times will tell you that its viewing is roughly divided in thirds among its video center, its homepage video player and embedded-within-stories video. The Journal says more than half its views are now coming from embedded videos, with less than five percent of its views come from its video page. It makes sense that “video center” usage will decrease over time; these are transitional pages. Convergence is now becoming real, and we expect to see the content, text, voice, and pictures delivered in context. Finally. We don’t go to a place on sites called “Words.”

What’s most important about we’re seeing flickering before our eyes? Try these, as we look at the newsonomics of leapfrog news video.

  • It’s about money. Video advertising rates are holding up far better than display-around-text rates. “Give me inventory” is a cry heard from the salespeople, who find agencies and top advertisers’ pre-roll appetites nowhere near satiated. For top premium brands, $45-60 CPM (cost per thousand views) are still available, as display rates fetch as little as a tenth and as much as one-half of those numbers. In addition, companies are selling video packages and sponsored tile ads in addition to pre-rolls to sweeten their take. So production of video makes financial sense — even as news companies cut back, lay off, and pinch, pinch, pinch. The smarter companies are investing in video — staffers, training, technologies — even as they make those cuts, while other companies find themselves just stuck. Video is the second-fastest growing ad category in the U.S., according to IAB, up 29 percent year-over-year. It will be worth about $2 billion this year.
  • It’s about platforms. The Journal’s Alan Murray, who heads digital news efforts, says the company’s video traffic has doubled in six months. Why? It’s not mainly because of more use on Journal platforms, even though it’s been an innovator on the tablet. Most of that growth comes from the deals the Journal has done with an astonishing 26 “platforms.” They range from the ubiquitous iPad and Kindle to lesser known 5Min and LiveStation.1 By way of comparison, The New York Times is currently using three (Hulu, Google TV, YouTube).
  • It’s about technologies. The Times and the Washington Post have been using Google + Hangout, to facilitate conversation, and we’ve seen the fruits this week at the Republican Convention. As well-described by The Daily Beast’s Lauren Ashburn, Google Hangouts are a major, disruptive force; “no longer needed are satellite trucks or underground cables to beam talking heads to people’s living rooms. A simple Internet connection and a camera are rendering expensive gadgets obsolete.” The Journal is touting Tout, a Silicon Valley start-up that has taken much of the “friction” out of the business of video production. “Make it drop dead simple,” CEO Michael Downing says is his goal. That means taking the background tasks of uploading smartphone video from the field, “transcoding” it and then translating it to work in all the various formats (devices, screen sizes, operating sizes). That removes the work from media companies, and lets them focus on content and audience. In addition to the Journal, broadcasters including CNN, CBS, and ESPN have become customers.
  • It’s apparently not about appointment TV. HuffPo’s Live is the most interesting here. While it has 10 telegenic anchor/producer/hosts, those hosts don’t have standard daily program times. Segments will last between 12 and 35 minutes (most average 20-25), HuffPost Live president Roy Sekoff told me this week. Yet, they are fluid, with segment length adjustable on the fly. Readers pick topics — before, during, and after “Live” — from a reader-activated conveyor belt at the top of the page. “It’s the Internet,” says Sekoff pointedly, meaning it’s a flow, not a TV Guide-like grid in how readers/viewers use it. The Journal agrees. Even with on-the-hour blocks of News Hub programs, the majority of its viewing is on demand. Even for HuffPo, all of that live programming is then chunked into segments, and Sekoff estimates that he’ll have about 10,000 of them archived and ready for long-tail viewing by year’s end. We want what we want when we want it — and expect it to be there. Thus, findability becomes the issue, and the multiple points of access now being offered are very much a live test of consumer behavior and want.
  • It’s about simplicity. The Times’ announcement basically said this: You’ve proven you like video. Now we’re cleaning it up and making it more pleasurable to watch and easier to find. In the cleanup, the Times moved to 11 “navigation items” from 25, says Peter Anderson, director of video product. We see that translation in more uniform positioning of video panels on NYTimes.com pages, and a more elegant 16 × 9 video player format, replacing the oh-so-20th century 4 × 3.
  • It’s about the news — and talk about the news. In the approaches of the Times and the Journal on the one hand, and of HuffPo on the other, we see two quite different philosophies and strategies, but ones that may find meeting points. Both the Journal and the Times see their reporters as the foundation of the video process; Murray calls Dow Jones’ 2,000 journalists “the core asset.” So both are putting cameras into the hands of journalists, or enabling them to better use smartphones, thereby creating more impactful, multi-dimensional, multi-platform journalism. HuffPo, from its early days of being mainly a curator/aggregator, has had its pulse on what its progressive audience is wondering and talking about. Those topics, mostly off the news (Marissa Mayer’s pregnancy, veterans and poverty), are the ones front and center in its Live pages. Some, of course, derive from its journalists’ work, and now staffers like Howard Fineman are suggesting video segments as they prepare stories. By and large, though, the talk-about-news drives the 12-hours-a-day site (5 days a week), with actual news supplementing. Sekoff says some 1,300 HuffPo community members have “raised their hands” and been featured as talking contributors on its segments. They’re unpolished and a far more diverse (for all the good and bad that implies) lot than we see among the too familiar faces of cable TV. For the Journal and the Times, traditional stories drive the video, and then, as Peter Anderson describes it, “The New York Times starts the conversation.” (Here, the Times brings civilians more prominently into its Opinion pages.) How these somewhat opposite approaches come together will be something to watch.

Maybe, most intriguingly, this video revolution may be morphing into a social revolution.

Watch a few of the HuffPo Live segments. Call them semi-slick. The technology works. The production values are okay, even if blogger/contributors faces seem a bit low-def, as TV itself moves moves from HD to Ultra. Some raise interesting, unorthodox issues and views; some are deadly boring. They are not, though, the lookalike programming of traditional news outlets. In their socialness, they cross lines.

Here’s what I find fascinating as I watch those, and smaller steps toward engagement taken by the Times, Journal, and others. As we all watch more video, where will the minutes come from? They may come from other news, text news. They may also come from Facebook. Compare HuffPo Live to Facebook and we see lots of social/sharing commonalities — but in picture form. Discussions — less in linear words than with in-motion video. They may come from morning talk shows like “Ellen” or “The View,” or compete with The Young Turks.The minutes will come from somewhere, as these technologies are more universally adopted and the world of competition only gets more complicated. This is the world in which news companies now compete.

For the news industry specifically, we see that legacy lines are written in disappearing ink, as the Journal, for instance, out-innovates ABC. One dirty little secret of broadcasting is being revealed, as technologies like Google+ Hangouts even the playing field for the print guys: it’s a game of numbers. The number of journalists in newspaper newsrooms still far outnumber those in broadcast ones. In addition, traditional TV has demanded many staffers to do the technical work of creating the broadcast. So, newspapers — if they can rapidly connect their workforces with the new technologies — have a chance to do what seems illogical: leapfrog broadcast and outflank them in the move to fully available, multi-platform news video.

Notes
  1. The full list: YouTube, iPad, iPhone, Apple TV, Google TV, Boxee, Roku, Hulu, Ustream, DailyMotion, Panasonic Internet-connected TVs, Samsung Internet-connected TVs, Sony Internet-connected TVs, Vizio Internet-connect TVs, Yahoo Internet-connected TVs, Windows Phone, Xbox (announced, not yet launched), Kindle Fire, Google Nexus 7, Pulse, 5Min, TouchTV, Flud, WatchUp, LiveStation, Tout, Etisalat.

August 15 2012

20:28

The newsonomics of breakthrough digital TV, from Aereo to Dyle and MundoFox to Google Fiber

In 1998, when Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. bought the Los Angeles Dodgers, the storied franchise was worth $380 million. News Corp. sold the team in 2003 for $430 million. After winning the ability to negotiate a new multi-billion sports TV contract this fall, they sold earlier this year for $2 billion, blowing the lid off sports property values.

In 1994, the San Diego Padres were worth $80 million. After recently signing a 20-year deal with Fox Sports for $1.2 billion, they sold (pending league approval) for $800 million.

Meanwhile, in 2000, the Los Angeles Times was worth at least $1.5 billion when it was sold as part of Times Mirror to Tribune Company. Today, as it is newly readied for market out of the Tribune bankruptcy, it would go for something less than $250 million. The San Diego Union-Tribune, once valued near a billion dollars, sold for about $35 million in 2009 and about $110 million in 2011.

It’s a reversal of fortune: Newspaper franchises that once outvalued baseball teams by 3-1 or 5-1 or 10-1 now see the inverse of that ratio. Why?

Two letters: TV.

Those numbers tell us a lot about the continuing power of television, in worth, in value creation, and in the news business itself. If we look just at recent events in the ongoing transformation of broadcast and cable to digital, we now see multiple breakthroughs on their path to digital. They give us indications of what the news business, video and text, will look like in the coming years. While we can argue endlessly about the relative virtues and vices of print and TV news, we must acknowledge the relative ascendance of TV and think about what that means for the news business overall.

TV’s revenues are holding up far better than newspaper companies’, and TV is better positioned to survive the great digital disruption.

TV has continued to have great audience. Nearly three in four Americans tune in to local TV news at least weekly, surpassing newspaper penetration, even as Pew Research points out they mainly do it for three topics: breaking news, weather, and traffic. Further, it retains great ad strength — 42 percent of national ad spending, matching the actual number of minutes Americans spend with the medium and making it the only medium still ahead of digital spending as digital has surpassed print (newspapers + magazines this year, both in the U.S. and globally). Yes, TV remains a gorilla. While Netflix won headlines when it announced it had streamed one billion hours of TV and movies in a single month, that huge number compared to about 43 billion hours of U.S. TV consumption, according to Nielsen’s 4Q 2011 Cross-Platform report.

In a nutshell, that’s the difference between TV and video, circa 2012. Video is the next wave — incorporating TV perhaps, but still the very young kid on the block.

Today, TV is no longer a box. Sure, even with all the Rokus, Boxees, and Apple TVs, it seems like TV isn’t yet an out-of-the-box experience. But with Hulu, Netflix, and Comcast’s Xfinity, it’s emerging quickly, escaping our fixed idea of what it once was — the boob tube in the living room. If it’s not just a box anymore, it’s a platform. From that platform, we see both the disruptors and the incumbents doubling down their bets. As in most things digital, few of these launches will be huge winners — but some will drive big breakthroughs. Some of the iconic legacy companies we’ve long known will be absorbed in the woodwork as new brands supplant them. Consider the spate of recent innovation, as we quickly assess the newsonomics going forward:

  • NBC, bashed up and down Twitter, nonetheless proved out a new business model with its multi-platform approach to Olympics coverage. Whatever you think of the tape delays or the suspended reality of Bob Costas’ gaze, NBC made the economics work, surprising itself and others. Its live streaming has ratified the development of cable- and satellite-authenticated, all-access digital delivery. That reinforces cable/satellite value. Further, it whetted prime-time viewing appetites, boosting ratings and earning NBC more ad revenue than it had projected. That’s icing on the cake for NBC, which, under Comcast ownership, has rocketed forward in digital strategy. The network has made a number of moves to transform itself into a global, video-forward, digital news company, joining the Digital Dozen global news pack. Recently, it bought out Microsoft’s share of msnbc.com, a leading Internet news portal. It immediately rechristened it NBCNews.com. In short order, it appointed Patricia Fili-Krushel as the new head of NBCUniversal News Group, an entity made up of NBC News, CNBC, MSNBC, and the Weather Channel. A former president of ABC, with 10 years of experience at Time Warner, she heads a growing news operation. Earlier this year, NBC combined its sports properties into a unified NBC Sports Group, merging NBC’s broadcast sports unit and Comcast’s regional sports networks. NBC is growing out of its digital adolescence. (See “One year after she was hired, Vivian Schiller’s ‘wild ride’ at NBC is just beginning.”)
  • Aereo, the TV startup funded by media magnate Barry Diller, is expanding its footprint from its current New York City base, and starting to offer multiple promotional deals. Diller’s in-your-face challenge to over-the-air broadcasters (CBS, NBC, Fox, ABC, CW, PBS) takes their signals and delivers that programming via the Internet. It charges consumers $12 a month, or as little as a dollar a day. They can then watch those TV stations on up to five devices; in addition, they can deliver these signals to a TV via Apple TV or Roku. Aereo also offers DVR capability, with 40 hours of storage. It’s classic disruption, with Aereo upping the pressure on the cable bundle and messing with the “retrans” fees that broadcasters get from cable companies to run their programming. Is it really legal, as a court recently found? It may be as legal as Google presenting snippets from every publisher and directory provider.
  • Local broadcasters — representing a broad swath of ownership groups organized in a newer company called Pearl — are bringing local TV to our mobile devices themselves. Just a week ago, Metro PCS started selling a Samsung Galaxy S phone with a TV receiver chip in 12 markets. That’s just the first push of Mobile Content Ventures, a collection of Pearl, NBC, Fox, and others. Expect mobile TV, marketed as Dyle, to be available for other phones and tablets, either with built-in chips or after-market accessories — although price points are an issue, with $100-plus premiums likely over the next year. So what does this innovation mean? Simply, that broadcasters are going direct to mobile consumers — no Internet needed, no data charges applying, and maybe providing more consistent video connectivity — with live programming; whatever is on TV at that moment is also on your phone or tablet. Broadcasters just use part of their digital signal to, uh, broadcast to us on our phones. It’s that antenna, and its cost, that’s the issue. Business questions abound. Given the timing of the launch, Dyle seems like an aspiring Aereo killer, and certainly broadcasters would like to see it do that, if further court action doesn’t. More deeply, though, broadcasters want to maintain their direct-to-consumer brand identity as they do a balancing act and try to keep those retrans fees from cable and satellite companies. They don’t want to be left out of the digital party.
  • Social TV pulls up a chair. First it was startup Second Screen, matching tablet ads to real-time TV viewing. Now ConnecTV, partnered with Pearl, is trying to corner the activity as it takes off. Its promise: “synchronization of local news, weather, sports, and entertainment programming along with social polls.” Ah, synchronicity, a Holy Grail of our digital aspirations. Last week, Cory Bergman (a man of at least three full-time digital lives, with MSNBC, Next Door Media, and Lost Remote) sold his Last Remote social-TV site to Mediabistro.
  • Then there’s the disruptor of everything on planet Earth, Google. The company recently announced it is putting another $200 million into YouTube Channels, building on its initial $150 million investment. The move emphasizes how quickly YouTube is growing beyond its homegrown, user-generated roots. Now partnering with dozens of prime video producers, creating more than 100 new channels, it is trying to establish itself in viewers’ lives as a go-to video aggregation source. Major video producers are still wary of Google getting between them and their customers, both ad and viewer, but many others are signed on. Meanwhile, in Kansas City, Google Fiber TV (TV that’s healthier for you?) launches. It’s a rocket shot at the cable, telco, and satellite incumbents. It’s also a demonstration project: providing more, cheaper. The more: interactive search for TV that combs your DVR and third-party services such as Netflix. (Yes, The Singularity ["The newsonomics of Google ad singularity"] marches on.) Google Fiber TV combines DVR and third-party (Netflix-plus) search. Its DVR holds 500 hours of storage of shows in 1080p and the ability to record eight TV shows simultaneously. Bandwidthpalooza. Google’s goal: Toss a hand grenade among the TV-as-usual business models, and pick up some of the pieces, adding new significant revenue lines.
  • CNN moves to break out of its identity funk, figuring out what that powerful global brand means in this fast-changing digital news world. CNN President Jim Walton recently stepped down, clearly acknowledging that his 10-year run had reached an end. “CNN needs new thinking,” he said in a farewell note. On TV, CNN has been beaten up badly both both Fox News and MSNBC. In 2Q, CNN showed its worst numbers in 20 years, down 35 percent year-over-year. On the web, it’a a top-three news player. But overall, it’s become the Rodney Dangerfield of news entities, getting little respect. Its cable fees — the strength of its revenues — could be challenged by low ratings. Going forward and competing against other global news brands — many of which are transitioning their own businesses to gain far greater digital reader revenue — it is, at this moment, caught betwixt and between. How it brings together a single — and global — digital/TV identity is at the core of its continuing journalistic importance and financial performance.

That’s a short list. We could easily add HuffPo’s streaming initiative and The Wall Street Journal’s wider video embrace. Or Les Moonves’ digital moves at CBS. And Fox’s new MundoFox, Spanish-language TV network, taking on Telemundo and Impremedia. The new network, at birth, offers a strong digital component, working at launch with advertisers along those lines. Let’s note some quick takeaways here, all of which we’ll be talking about in 2013:

  • Note how much you see the names News Corp. and Fox here. While segregating its text assets (and liabilities), News Corp. is investing greatly in the video future.
  • Cable bundling’s longevity is uncertain. There’s a lot of residual power here, but we know how quickly that can fade in legacy media. Yes, the unbundling of cable and satellite has been overestimated by some, as Peter Kafka pointed out recently. Yet, these multiple digital strategies may still push a tipping point. Clearly, legacy TV media, despite their public protestations, sees that potential and is acting in multiple ways to prepare for it.
  • Though broadcasters are making major digital pushes, they start from a lowly digital position. Many broadcasters can count no more than 5 percent of their total revenues coming from digital. That compares to 15-20 percent or more for newspaper companies. While there are other sources of revenue have been more stable than those of newspapers, they need to grow digital revenues quickly to make up for inevitable erosion of older money streams.
  • TV ≠ newspapers. Much of broadcasters’ revenues are made on non-news programming, as much as one-half to two-thirds for most local broadcasters. While learning from TV experience here is useful, given lots of differences, the learnings must be smartly applied. As news consumers and advertisers move increasingly digital, though, that thick line that separate local TV from local newspapers thins by the day.

The all-access, news-anywhere, entertainment-everywhere era has created a new massive business competition. Which brands will be top of mind? Who will consumers pay? How valuable is news itself in this contest?

Comcast, Time Warner, Verizon, AT&T — pipes companies — are in one corner. CNN, NBC, CBS, ABC, Fox, HBO, Showtime, and other known-to-consumer brands in another. Aggregators like Netflix and Hulu over there. Media marketers like Amazon and Apple holding court. Google. The local broadcasters fighting for their place in this digital ring. This new battle of brands, in and around “TV,” is now joined.

August 02 2012

15:04

The newsonomics of syndication 3.0, from NewsCred and NewsLook to Ok.com and Upworthy

Of the many failed digital news dreams, digital syndication is one of the greatest enigmas. We’ve seen companies like Contentville, Screaming Media, and iSyndicate (Syndication 1.0) followed by companies like Mochila (Syndication 2.0), all believing the same thing: In the endless world of digital content, there must be a big business in gathering together some of the world’s best, creating a marketplace, and selling stream upon stream.

In the abstract, the idea makes lot of sense. Producers of content — AP, Reuters, Bloomberg, The Street, Al Jazeera, Getty Images, Global Post, and many more — want all the new revenue they can get. They want to see the content they produced used and reused, over and over again, helping offset the high cost of news creation. The enduring problem is the buy side. We’ve gone oh-so-quickly from Content is King to a content glut. In a world of endless ad inventory and plummeting ad rates, why take syndicated content just to create a greater glut of news, information, and ad spots? That dilemma still hangs in the wind, and has bedeviled news industry consortium startup NewsRight, as it tries to find a future. Yet I’ve been surprised by a new wave of news syndication that’s been developing, here and there. It’s worth paying attention to, because it tells us a lot about how the digital news world is developing.

In part, it’s about new niches being found and exploited. In part, it’s about responding to deep staff cuts at many newspapers. In part, it’s about a slow-dawning wave of new product creation, aided by the tablet. Each of the newer efforts sees the world a little differently, and that’s instructive, though technology and video (see The Onion’s “Onion Special Report: Blood-Drenched, Berserk CEO Demands More Web Videos”) play increasingly key roles. So let’s look at the newsonomics of Syndication 3.0, and a few of the newer entrepreneurs behind it.

NewsCred

As 31-year-old CEO Shafqat Islam notes cheerily, finding investors for his startup was complicated by the fact that “there are a lot of dead bodies in this space.” With 100 fairly top-drawer sources and a staff of 50 (35 of them in tech), NewsCred is the big new mover in text and still image syndication, launched earlier this year (“NewsCred wants to be the AP newswire for the 21st century”). Its 50-plus customers divide roughly equally into two groups: media and big brands.

Media, says Islam, are using NewsCred for two reasons. One is to build new products, as the New York Daily News has done with its March-launched India news site, recognizing a locally under-served audience. Skift, Rafat Ali’s new travel B2B start-up, is getting 30 to 40 percent of its content through NewsCred. The other is the emergence of the paywall: Charging for digital access, he says, has meant some news companies are wanting to bulk up, offering a better value pitch to would-be digital subscribers. The Chicago Tribune launched a biz/tech “members only” product, powered by NewsCred, at the end of June.

The brand use of news content has a bigger potential. Check out several case histories, showing the use Pepsi, Orange Telecom, and Lenovo has made of NewsCred-distributed entertainment and tech content. Brands are publishers and want an easy, one-source way to populate their sites. Islam says his seven sales people are working as consultants of a sort, especially with such brands. Figuring out how to create content experiences for brands-turned-publishers is one part of the syndication puzzle.

Lessons Learned:

  • In a sense, this is syndication meets marketing services: As news companies both produce content and try to act as regional ad agencies, the synergies between the two are becoming more evident.
  • Timing is everything: We’ve seen a maturation in curation technologies, as metatagging gets easier and cheaper, allowing niched feeds. Then, an increased emphasis on niche product creation is combining with brand need for news content, creating new potential markets.

NewsLook

With 70-plus top video news sources and 35 clients, the three-year-old NewsLook also hopes to build on the archeology of syndication ruin. Like NewsCred, it positions itself as a technology and curation company, adding value to a mass of content. For CEO Fred Silverman, the technology means, importantly, better integration of text and video content.

“We see an awful lot of guys with a video page, or a video way down at the bottom — it’s not integrated. Our push with the publishers we work with is to fluidly integrate it into a news page. You are eleven times more likely to watch that video if it is integrated into a story.” That seems like common sense — put the words and pictures together — but Silverman’s experience resonates way too deeply if you journey through news websites. For his part, he’s been working on improving both NewsLook’s own video metatagging and the ability to match that with text. Now he’s got to convince more customers to make the integration.

Using a license model — “we’re not really an ad company” — NewsLook has found its customers in three segments. He sells to content aggregators like LexisNexis and Cengage, and he sells to news companies. It’s the third area, though, vertical sites, that represent the biggest growth opportunity, especially in the tech area. NewsLook, with its video emphasis, is now partnering with text-centric NewsCred, looking for joint opportunities.

Lessons Learned:

  • Think niche. Think video. Both have audiences that may be paying ones; video ad rates are still holding up far better than text.

Deseret News Service and Ok.com

Clark Gilbert caused quite a stir when he took the reins at Utah’s largest newspaper company two years ago (“Out of the Western Sky, It’s a Hyperlocal, Worldwide Mormon Vertical”). Combining Harvard Business smarts, wide media knowledge, and traditional religious values, Gilbert promised to reshape the LDS-owned media Utah media properties in a way no one else could. Now, midway through that Utah transformation, he’s also moving on a wider world of syndication.

Ok.com has launched. It’s a movie guide like no other. Less Rotten Tomatoes and more wholesome salad, it is a “family media guide.” It’s social (Facebook login) with user-generated comments and ratings, and it offers many of the features (trailers, photos, theater times, online ticketing) that you’d expect. It’s also just the beginning. Ok.com will add TV listings, books, music, and other media to its site. Just syndicated, it so far has signed up a half-dozen customers.

“We want to own the family brand,” Gilbert says, citing his own commissioned research to indicate that it could be a large market. His segmentation of faith-based readers finds not only great dissatisfaction with the perceived amorality of Hollywood, but also questioning of the values of mainstream media.

To address the latter market: the new Deseret News Service, a “values-oriented syndication service.” That service, available for both print and digital, now reaches five markets, with a couple of dozen more on the horizon.

Business models, like cars.com, Gilbert notes, include both straightforward license fees and revenue share models, with Deseret selling advertising.

Gilbert, ever the modeler, believes Deseret is creating one for the industry.

“If you look at the product strategy, we started with the newspaper. We knew we couldn’t be good at everything…..For the Deseret News, that meant our six areas of emphasis [Family, Financial Responsibility, Values in Media, Education, Faith, and Care for the Poor]. For other newspapers, that can be something else. For Washington Post, it is politics. For Sarasota, it is retirement. What I’ve seen in the failure of the newspaper industry is that we’ve lost half our resources, but we’re going to cover it all rather than having the rigor to say, ‘What are we the best at?’

“The web rewards deep expertise. You have a lot of newspapers with high cost structures, producing average commodity news. [We looked] at what can can be the best in the country at. That led to a national edition in print and now syndication.”

Lessons Learned:

  • Combine your values — editorial, religious, or whatever — with the best web tools of the day to satisfy currently unsatisfied audiences. Then scale.

The AllMedia Platform

Critical Media CEO Sean Morgan may be the last man standing whose career has spanned syndication from 1.0 through 3.0. A founder of Screaming Media, circa 1995, his Critical Media company has been building syndication and other products (media monitor Critical Mention, video capture and creation platform Syndicaster, news video licensor Clip Syndicate) since 2002. Now, his company has produced AllMedia. Its primary function: a platform allowing clients “to collect and curate user-generated video content from their online communities.” It’s another component of its analytics-based enterprise business.

Morgan’s play here is wider than syndication, but syndication plays a key role. Critical Media’s technologies offer publishers (and others) value. In return, Critical gets the right to license news video assets, and it has amassed three million of them, and 100,000 are being added monthly; 350 (200 newspaper; 150 broadcast) local media companies are participating in Critical products. Clip Syndicate, its news video product, isn’t yet well promoted, but when it is, it could be powerful. It already enables “grab a channel” functionality for licensees. Clip Syndicate operates on a 50/50 revenue share model, with Morgan saying he is getting $21.40 CPM rates. The goal: monetize the “the biggest news video archive.”

Lessons Learned:

  • Syndication may be a long-term proposition, taking years of building infrastructure, or partnering with those who do.
  • It’s not the content — it’s the metadata about the content that unlocks its value, allowing niching and enabling product creators and editors to find what they need.

California Watch

Now incorporating content from its Bay Citizen merger, California Watch continues to expand out its syndication business. Executive director Robert Rosenthal estimates the news startup will take in about $750,000 this year in licensing money, funding about 10 percent of its budget (“The newsonomics of the death and life of California news”). California Watch offers yearly, monthly, and à la carte sales.

Its model really is the old-fashioned media wire, vastly updated with multimedia at the core and a strong enterprise journalism emphasis. With 16 significant media partners throughout California, just adding NBC Bay Area and including big TV stations and newspapers, it has been able to double some of the prices it charges over time. Further, it’s on the verge of syndicating to a major national/global news player. “Don’t silo potential audience by geography. A good story from a neighborhood in San Francisco may be the top story on the Internet one day,” Rosenthal says.

Like a traditional wire, its value is in more than its stories. It also acts as a news budget or tipsheet for subscribing news editors. With one of the largest news contingents in the state capital, Sacramento, for instance, it helps drive coverage overall.

Lessons Learned:

  • Collaboration with customers creates utility as well as content itself — and cements financial relationships.
  • Syndicated content, here, works on the older concept of scale: Do it once and distribute to many, without the burden of legacy costs and constraints.

Upworthy

Upworthy is like Hollywood Squares for progressives. No Whoopi Goldberg, but nine rectangles of meaningful video, well described by the Times’ David Carr.

Launched in March. It’s an on-ramp for Facebook, feeding the kinds of videos it prizes into the social sphere with headlining that would make a tabloid editor proud. Founder Eli Pariser (of Moveon.org and author of The Filter Bubble) says he borrowed headlining techniques from Slate, which he says writes “the best headlines on the web,” without slavishly pointing at Google search engine optimization. (Examples: “Donald Trump Has Pissed Off Scotland” and “How a 6-Year-Old With Ignorant Parents Just Became the Best Republican Presidential Candidate“).

Its declaration defines its would-be audience: “At best, things online are usually either awesome or meaningful, but everything on Upworthy.com has a little of both. Sensational and substantial. Entertaining and enlightening. Shocking and significant. That’s what you can expect here: No empty calories. No pageview-juking slideshows. No right-column sleaze. Just a steady stream of the most irresistibly shareable stuff you can click on without feeling bad about yourself afterwards.”

Upworthy is really syndication simplified. It uses the social sphere to see content re-used. Its currency isn’t licensing fees; no money changes hands in its viral promotion of content. Currently, its single revenue source is referral fees it gets from progressive organizations that pay it on a cost-per-acquisition basis for traffic.

Lessons Learned:

  • People — many, many people — will do the syndication for you if you learn the tricks and trades of headlining, SEO, and the social rumble. While Upworthy’s referral-fee business model may have limited extension, its use of social to extend syndication (perhaps with sponsorships) can be used by others.

Consider Syndication 3.0 a puzzle, with more of the parts found but the full picture still incomplete. Technology, as in all things digital, plays a midwife role, but understanding customer use — and helping would-be customers imagine use — is fundamental. Let’s face it: Costly content creation must be paid for somehow, as ad revenues falter and reader revenues build slowly. Making more use of the content that has been created makes basic sense, and the basics of that business are being built out anew.

July 30 2012

20:41

Rafat Ali on building a media company on top of public data

Ten years ago, Rafat Ali wanted to build a company that could chronicle the transformation of media and technology. Now he hopes to do it again, this time in the world of travel. His new project Skift sounds at first a lot like paidContent: a mix of original reporting and aggregation tailored for a savvy, niche, information-hungry audience.

But this time around, Ali is placing his bet less on a stable of journalists and more on a team of product designers, developers, and, yes, journalists. Skift wants to be a media company in the same way Politico or Bloomberg is a media company: an information provider with a news wrapper. Skift bills itself as a “travel intelligence media company,” not a standalone news site.

Ali told me the way Skift will grow its audience and its fortunes will be through information services, not just news. “What we’re trying to do with Skift is scale quickly on content,” he said. “The more fortunate part for us is everybody covers travel in bits and pieces, so for us it’s a matter of bringing it all together.”

But Skift is more than just a curator of travel news. Ali and cofounder Jason Clampet want to collect a vast data library to build tools that would be useful not just to the travel industry but anyone hoping in a car, train or bus to get away. Ali has funded the site himself up to launch and has raised $500,000 from investors like former Wall Street Journal publisher Gordon Crovitz and former MySpace president Jason Hirschhorn. As designed, Skift — the Swedish word for “shift” — would be a media company built on a stable of products, not just content. “We’re starting with what we’re grandly sort of calling the world’s largest data warehouse of publicly available travel industry data,” he said.

That means things like visit and occupancy information that tourism boards report to the government, departures and delay information from airports, and flight data supplied by airlines to agencies like the FAA. It’s the type of information typically hidden away in Excel spreadsheets on seldom visited agency websites. “We’re gonna try and collect it, clean it, normalize it, put it in a dashboard that humans can understand, and then build services on top,” he said. He said they will also create APIs for the travel data they harness on the site.

Skift has a staff of four, including Ali, and they’ll be announcing the hire of a product development person soon. Ali stresses that as Skift grows they will hire more writers — but the writers will be focused on original reporting, not the things aggregation and curation can pick up more easily. Ali said curation is still an undervalued asset that can prove useful to content creators as well as their audiences. The day-to-day news of airlines’ fuel prices or the ebb and flow of tourism can be aggregated from elsewhere. Ali wants the site to chase the big stories, the airline bankruptcies and innovations in travel tech. “We’ll not get there in the next year, but we’ll get there in due time,” he said.

Ali has been around the media game for a while, having sold paidContent to The Guardian in 2008 and left the company in 2010. He’s gained an insight into how a media business can stay viable today. Focusing on a niche audience is one method of doing that, especially if that audience is highly engaged and willing to spend. Business travelers and travel industry executives are just such an attractive bunch. “We look at business travelers, professional travelers a bit like tech fanboys, where they like to consider themselves like experts in what they’re doing,” he said.

Ali said it’s not enough to simply provide people with news — it has to be valuable or actionable information. It also helps if you can package multiple resources together. In the travel industry, businesses are divided into areas like editorial (travel guides), transactional (booking flights and hotels), and organizational (plan your trip, track your flight). But there’s a fair amount of randomness that goes along with that. You may look up art museums through Frommers, find your flight through Hipmunk, and use GateGuru to navigate airports. “With Skift, on the business traveller side, we’re trying to take the randomness out of the equation and make a more directed way of delivering information,” he said.

Also in the long-term plans for Skift: a membership or subscription service. Ali believes the possibility of better data tools for travel is a step in that direction. But another option would be to create events, something paidContent has had success with. Ali said the they plan to hold one major event, a travel analog to All Things D’s D conference, which would appeal to travel industry executives, travelers, and technologists. “We’re trying to build a crossover media brand, a new kind of media company where the underpinning will be data, and then media as the layer on top of it,” he said.

Image of Rafat Ali by Brian Solis used under a Creative Common license.

April 27 2012

14:00

This Week in Review: Rupert takes the stand, and the Post’s pressure on young aggregators

Fresh accusations and denials for News Corp.: After several months of investigation, News Corp.’s Rupert Murdoch and his son, James, testified this week before the British government’s Leveson inquiry into their company’s phone hacking and bribery scandal. Rupert made headlines by apologizing for his lack of action to stop the scandal and by admitting there was a cover-up — though he said he was the victim of his underlings’ cover-up, not a perpetrator himself (a charge one of those underlings strenuously objected to).

Murdoch also said he “panicked” by closing his News of the World newspaper last year, but said he should have done so years earlier. He spent the first day of his testimony defending himself against charges of lobbying public officials for favors, saying former Prime Minister Gordon Brown “declared war” on News Corp., which Brown denied. James Murdoch also testified to a lack of knowledge of the scandal and cozy relationships with officials.

Attention in that area quickly shifted this week to British Culture Minister Jeremy Hunt, with emails released to show that he worked to help News Corp. pick up support last year for its bid to takeover the broadcaster BSkyB — the same bid he was charged with overseeing. Hunt called the accusation “laughable” and refused calls to resign, though one of his aides did resign, saying his contact with News Corp. “went too far.”

The commentary on Murdoch’s appearance was, perhaps surprisingly, mixed. The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple mocked the fine line Murdoch apparently walked in his currying favor from public officials, and the Guardian’s Nick Davies said Murdoch looks vulnerable: “The man who has made millions out of paying people to ask difficult questions, finally faced questioners he could not cope with.” He antagonized quite a few powerful people in his testimony, Davies said, and the Leveson inquiry ultimately holds the cards here.

But Murdoch biographer Michael Wolff said Rupert doesn’t use his newspapers to gain officials’ favor in the way he’s accused of doing, and Reuters’ Jack Shafer argued that there’s nothing really wrong with lobbying regulators to approve your proposals anyway. “Don’t damn Murdoch for learning the rules of the regulatory game and then playing them as aggressively as he can,” he wrote.

Plagiarism and aggregation at the Post: A Washington Post blogger named Elizabeth Flock resigned last week after being caught plagiarizing, but the story went under the radar until the Post’s ombudsman, Patrick Pexton, wrote a column charging the Post with failing to properly guide its youngest journalists. Pexton said he talked with other young Post aggregators who “felt as if they were out there alone in digital land, under high pressure to get Web hits, with no training, little guidance or mentoring and sparse editing.”

Poynter’s Craig Silverman wrote a strong follow-up to the column, talking to several people from the Post and emphasizing the gravity of Flock’s transgression, but also throwing cold water on the “journalism’s standards are gone, thanks to aggregation” narrative. Reuters’ Jack Shafer thought Pexton went too easy on Flock’s plagiarism, but others thought it was the Post he wasn’t hard enough on. The Awl’s Trevor Butterworth said Flock’s mistake within the Post’s aggregation empire shed light on the “inherent cheapness of the product and the ethical dubiety of the entire process. You see, the Post—or any legacy news organization turned aggregator—wants to have its cake and other people’s cake too, and to do so without damaging its brand as a purveyor of original cake.”

BoingBoing’s Rob Beschizza made the same point, criticizing the Post for trying to dress up its aggregation as original reporting. The Raw Story’s Megan Carpentier used the example as a warning that even the most haphazard, thoughtless aggregated pieces have a certain online permanence under our bylines.

Technology, connection, and loneliness: A week after an Atlantic cover story asked whether Facebook was making us lonely (its answer: yes), MIT professor and author Sherry Turkle echoed the same point last weekend in a New York Times opinion piece. Through social and mobile media, Turkle argued, we’re trading conversation for mere connection, sacrificing self-reflection and the true experience of relating with others in the process.

Numerous people disputed her points, on a variety of different fronts. Cyborgology’s David Banks charged Turkle with “digital dualism,” asserting that “There is no ‘second self’ on my Facebook profile — it’s the same one that is embodied in flesh and blood.” At The Atlantic, Alexandra Samuel said Turkle is guilty of a different kind of dualism — an us/them dichotomy between (generally younger) social media users and the rest of us. Turkle, she wrote, “assumes conversations are only meaningful when they look like the conversations we grew up having.”

Like Banks, Mathew Ingram of GigaOM pointed out the close connection between online and offline relationships, and sociology prof Zeynep Tufekci argued at The Atlantic that if we are indeed seeing a loss in substantive interpersonal connection, it has more to do with our flight to the suburbs than social media. Claude Fischer of Boston Review disputed the idea that loneliness is on the rise in the first place, and in a series of thoughtful tweets, Wired’s Tim Carmody said the road to real relationship is in our own work, not in our embrace or denial of technologies.

New media lessons from academics and news orgs: The University of Texas hosted its annual International Symposium on Online Journalism last weekend, one of the few of the scores of journalism conferences that brings together both working journalists and academics. As usual, University of British Columbia j-prof Alfred Hermida live-blogged the heck out of the conference, and you can see his summaries of each of his 14 posts here.

Several people distilled the conference’s many presentations into a few themes: The Lab’s staff identified a few, including the need to balance beauty and usefulness in data journalism and the increasing centrality of mobile in news orgs’ strategies. At the Nonprofit Journalism Hub, conference organizer Amy Schmitz Weiss organized the themes into takeaways for news orgs, and Wisconsin j-prof Sue Robinson published some useful notes, organized by subject area.

A couple of specific items from the conference: The Lab’s Adrienne LaFrance wrote on a University of Texas study that found that the people most likely to pay for news are young men who are highly interested in news, though it also found that our stated desires in news consumption don’t necessarily match up with our actual habits. And Dan Gillmor touted the news-sharing potential of one of the conference’s presenters, LinkedIn, saying it’s the first site to connect news sharing with our professional contacts, rather than our personal ones.

[Editor's note: Mark's too modest to mention the paper he coauthored and presented at ISOJ.]

Reading roundup: Several interesting debates lurked just a bit under the radar this week. Here’s a quick lay of the land:

— Reuters’ Felix Salmon wondered why the New York Times doesn’t sell early access to its big business scoops to hedge funds looking for a market advantage, as Reuters and Bloomberg do. GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram argued that the public value of those is too great to do that, and Salmon responded to his and others’ objections. The conversation also included a lively Twitter exchange, which Ingram and the Lab’s Joshua Benton Storified.

— The Chicago Tribune announced its decision to outsource its TribLocal network of community news sites to the Chicago company Journatic, laying off about 20 employees in the process. The Chicago Reader and Jim Romenesko gave some more information about Journatic (yes, the term “content farm” comes up, though its CEO rejected the term). Street Fight’s Tom Grubisich called it a good deal for the Tribune.

— In a feature at Wired, Steven Levy looked at automatically written stories, something The Atlantic’s Rebecca Greenfield said she didn’t find scary for journalism’s future prospects, since those stories aren’t really journalism. Nebraska j-prof Matt Waite also said journalists shouldn’t be afraid of something that frees them up to do their jobs better, and GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram tied together the Journatic deal and the robot journalism stories to come up with something a bit less optimistic.

— This week on the ebook front: A good primer on the U.S. Department of Justice lawsuit of Apple and publishers for price-fixing, which The Wall Street Journal’s Gordon Crovitz said is a completely normal and OK practice. Elsewhere, some publishers are dropping digital rights management, and a publishing exec talked to paidContent about why they broke DRM.

— Gawker revealed its new commenting system this week — the Lab’s Andrew Phelps gave the background, Gawker’s Nick Denton argued in favor of anonymity, Dave Winer wanted to see the ability for anyone to write an article on it, and GigaOM talked with Denton about the state of tech.

— Google shut down its paid-content system for publishers, One Pass, saying it’s moved on to its Consumer Surveys.

— Finally, a few long reads for the weekend: David Lowery on artist rights and the new business model for creative work, Ethan Zuckerman on the ethics of tweet bombing, danah boyd on social media and fear, and Steve Buttry and Dan Conover on restoring newsroom morale.

Rupert Murdoch artwork by Surian Soosay and texting photo by Ed Brownson used under a Creative Commons license.

April 25 2012

15:43

Worldcrunch wants to be the Internet’s Rosetta Stone for news

As the translation-based news service Worldcrunch approaches the one-year anniversary of their launch, it’s also tweaking its business approach in three key ways that co-founders Jeff Israely and Irène Toporkoff hope will help it thrive.

Worldcrunch’s central goal is to find news that wouldn’t otherwise appear in English-speaking news sources at a time when U.S. news organizations have slashed their budgets for international coverage. You may recognize Israely, a former Time correspondent, from his regular column for Nieman Lab about the process of launching a news startup. A year in, he’s getting a better sense of what it takes to keep one going.

First, Worldcrunch has plans to increase its output. The most straightforward way to do this, as many news organizations have found, is to aggregate from other sources. But Worldcrunch will do so with a twist: Call it translaggregating — translating what you aggregate.

“That’s going to allow us to really be more dynamic, more reactive, and expand the kind of stories we can produce, and how we can produce them, and when we can produce them,” Israely told me from Paris, where Worldcrunch is based.

One way the site aims to bump up the volume of aggregated material is through a crowdsourced initiative it’s calling “Crunch It.” For now, Worldcrunch is calling on volunteers to nominate articles for translation, “English-ize” them, and vote for the best finished pieces. But Israely said the Worldcrunch team is still figuring out exactly how process will work. He calls the initative “in the neighborhood of crowdsourcing,” but he also wants to put certain quality safeguards in place. Making sure a story is right for Worldcrunch isn’t simply about impeccable multilingual skills — it has to be a story that doesn’t already appear in English.

“They think that content is self-generating, and you just need the tools to filter it, to aggregate it, to monetize it. We don’t agree with that.”

“In addition, the original story itself has to stand up,” Israely said. “It has to be a well written story. It has to be a story that has enough background material that allows it to travel. If Le Monde is writing a story about French schools, and if the story has too many references to things that only French people know, we’d have to transform the story and put in all kinds of context — our partners allow us to adapt the story and add in context when necessary — but if the whole process becomes rewriting and adding in context, it’s probably not a good story for us.”

The second key change Worldcrunch is making: it’s putting up “some kind of metered model” paywall “before summer.”

But even as the paywall goes up, Worldcrunch is shifting away from the idea that its website will be the sole hub for its readers. Arguably the most important development to the Worldcrunch business model is that it’s forging partnerships with English-language publications that will pay for translated content. Worldcrunch is already selling content to the Toronto Star, and is in talks with a U.S. publication about a similar deal.

Here’s how it works: A non-English news organization gives Worldcrunch permission to translate its content. Worldcrunch then posts the translated content to its website, and offers to sell it to English-language news organizations. Those organizations pay Worldcrunch an undisclosed amount, and Worldcrunch gives the original content producer a 40 percent cut.

Israely and Toporkoff see this distribution model as a win-win-win: The original publication gets a much wider audience for its stories (plus some extra revenue); English-language publications provide valuable international news to their readers; Worldcrunch can pay its bills and keep the cycle going.

With the slogan “all news is global,” the site operates with three editors and about a dozen freelance translators. Working with media partners across Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America, Worldcrunch translates about 30 articles per week into English from German, Turkish, French, Italian, Russian, Portuguese, Chinese, Arabic, and Spanish. Worldcrunch aims to do what even the old network of foreign bureaus had trouble doing: providing original, domestically produced coverage for an international audience.

Some examples that stand out for Israely and Torpokoff include diverse viewpoints about the economic situation in Turkey, coverage of tensions in the Middle East, an interview with maligned Italian former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi about his plans to resign, Russian election coverage by and for Russians, and a French-authored article about why French people reacted differently to the Dominique Strauss-Kahn scandal than residents of other countries. (Israely also points out the benefit of getting original French perspective about more lighthearted topics like perfume and food.)

Press freedom as a moving target

Earlier this month, German-language newspaper Die Welt published a column about a controversial poem penned by Nobel Prize winner and former Nazi Günter Grass (the poem was published in another German newspaper, Süddeutsche Zeitung), and Worldcrunch translated it.

While you could have read about the scandal in The New York Times, that story — published three days after the Worldcrunch piece — didn’t provide the same direct cultural perspective (the Times coverage has a joint byline from Israel- and Berlin-based correspondents). The Times reports that Grass’ views “are relatively common among European intellectuals,” though “strung together” in a way that incited outrage. But Henryk Broder’s column for Die Welt actually articulates those views in the context of the Grass imbroglio.

“The fact that [Grass] is accused of being anti-semitic and here you have the German press — this German writer in the German press — saying he is anti-semitic, and it’s not normal — I think that makes it interesting,” Toporkoff said. “Within Germany, there is debate. We have chosen to publish something that we found very interesting that says a lot about what’s happening in Germany, but also what happened in general.”

Then there is the “meta-example” that Israely gives of an article — from China’s Economic Observer — highlighting the global scarcity of press freedom.

“This was the Beijing paper reporting on this almost over-the-top sort of rabid, gossipy Hong Kong press right before the elections there,” Israely said. “Sort of explaining to Chinese readers how this is what a free press looks like with all its warts, and the beauty of being truly free and going after a candidate and sticking cameras into his backyard.”

Along those same lines, working with a (relatively) independent newspaper out of China can be unpredictable. Though there are certain boundaries he says The Economic Observer won’t cross (they won’t write about Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei, for instance), he has been surprised by how provocative, lively, and sometimes irreverent the paper can be.

“It’s a moving target, because it’s changing before our eyes,” Israely said. “The Economic Observer in Beijing actually does get shut down now and again. The site does get shut down, and our contact there says they’re in the penalty box essentially.”

Israely says that establishing partnerships in the first place is the hardest part. His job is to convince them of a principle that he says was best summed up in a recent TechCrunch article: Whoever creates the best content at the lowest cost possible will create the most value over time.

“It’s a very simple formula, but I think a lot of energy has been spent over the past few years where people — particularly on the tech side, thinking about the news business — they think that content isn’t an issue,” Israely said. “They think that there’s no shortage of content. They think that content is self-generating, and you just need the tools to filter it, to aggregate it, to monetize it. We don’t agree with that. We don’t think that news content just produces itself. It has to be produces and I don’t care about the labels — whether it’s journalists producing it, or in our case translators. But there needs to be a layer of journalism, or layers of journalism, to make it quality content.”

Photo of Earth by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center used under a Creative Commons license.

March 29 2012

15:00

The newsonomics of 100 products a year

Try this: Call up your local newspaper or online news organization. Tell them you want to buy something and ask them what they can sell you? Of course, at first, they’d be non-plussed: Sell you something? Then, after giving it some thought, they’d say you can buy a newspaper or a subscription or a membership — or, maybe, an ad? Would you like one of those?

Those days — mark it — are coming to an end. We’re on the brink of news companies producing hundreds of products for sale each year. While digital technology hath taketh (the easy ability to make money on news distribution), digital technology also giveth back, with the ability to create hundreds and thousands of newsy products at small incremental costs. The bonus: News organizations will be able to satisfy groups of readers and advertisers (often disguised thinly as sponsors) better than ever before. Double bonus: The let-a-hundred-products-bloom revolution fits neatly with the all-out embrace of all-access circulation initiatives, which news companies in North America, Europe, and Asia now can’t seem to implement quickly enough.

Can we call this the ebook revolution? Maybe, but that’s probably too narrow. Delivery of new products to new audiences can take several forms. A text-only ebook, a shinier iBooks-enabled product with video, or an app with all the glorious functionality apps offer. It’s not the form; it’s the content, content that satisfies niches rather than serves masses with one-size-fits-all newspaper or magazine products.

Call it the newsonomics of 100 products a year, or just one way to envision a much bigger future.

The 100-product-a-year model is a much-needed growth model. We can see how it fits nicely with all-access subscriptions, and together we have two interconnected Lego blocks of a new sustainable news model. We have two essential parts of a crossover model (“The newsonomics of crossover”) that I detailed here a few weeks ago. The big, hairy challenges of accelerating print ad loss and onerous legacy costs remain, but at least we’ve got a couple of building blocks we didn’t have two years ago. By we, I mean those of us who care about news and great professional content.

Is it a big moneymaker? We don’t know yet, though we can extrapolate some numbers below.

It’s directionally right, though, for at least a couple of strategic reasons. The notion of 100 smaller products reminds us that so much of the new world is based on volume. Google has built a monstrous advertising business on hundreds of thousands of smaller advertisers, while daily newspapers reaped huge profits on relatively few bigger advertisers. Even as movie watching by streaming surpasses DVD watching, more money is still in the old medium. Streaming will monetize at a lower rate, but end up generating bigger dollars over time. The same thing is true in the digital music business. Selling lots of stuff to lots of people at smaller price points is something the Internet enables superbly.

Yes, there are definitely new winners and losers in movies and music, as there will be in news. Those who transition best and fastest will win.

Second, it’s in line with the strategic push to satisfy the hell out of core customers. As publishers have figured out that it’s the top 15 percent of site visitors who make the big difference in building the new digital business — perhaps paying for subscriptions, consuming many more pages than fly-by users sent by Google — core customer satisfaction is key. Ebooks deeper the relationship to that reader customer.

This 100-product-a-year model may fit as well with the new California Watch/Bay Citizen combo (“The newsonomics of the death and life of California news”), finalized Tuesday, as its does with The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, the Charlotte Observer, GQ, or Conde Nast Traveler.

Let’s take one example. On Wednesday, the Boston Globe launched “Sunday Supper & More.” It’s a cookbook. It’s New England. And it could be the beginning of a new franchise: Expect summer, fall and winter editions each year to join this spring debut. The Globe’s staff built it with Apple’s iBooks Author tool, so it offers video within it.

Want to buy it? Not so fast. Today, Sunday Supper & More is only available to Boston Globe print, all-access, and digital subscribers. So subscription — think “membership” (the recent riff of the L.A. Times new paywall intro) — is gaining new benefits. Surprise, says the Globe, you not only get our paper, our spiffy new replica-plus edition, if that’s what you want, and our mobile apps — you also get our cool cookbooks, with more to come.

The Globe will sell the book to non-subscribers — probably at $4.99 — but will decide the timing of that sale after next week’s Globe confab at which execs and editors will plot an ebook plan for the company.

“Events and ebooks will be the two biggest perks” of the new Globe subscription push, says Jeff Moriarty, the Globe’s VP of digital products. Beyond Sunday Suppers and a new spin on the Fenway 100 historical Red Sox book, we can picture the Globe soon mining its archives in both sports and features to provide new value for customers and a new leg of revenue. It experimented early with three books on its Whitey Bulger stories, and learned some lessons in pricing, distribution, and the technical creation process along the way.

The Globe has plenty of company in this push. We see Canada’s National Post committing to a couple of dozen ebooks in the coming year, again from hard news to features (“To learn what works (quickly), Canada’s National Post dives into ebooks”). Guardian Shorts is an early innovator; Politico is churning out four campaign ebooks this year.

Magazine publishers, faster than newspaper publishers to embrace the tablet as the next-gen platform, are also ahead of most newspaper publishers in ebooks. Vanity Fair’s done more than a half dozen, and its parent Conde Nast is hosting an explosion of more single-purpose apps in the iTunes Store, some unrelated to Conde’s magazines. Hearst’s Cosmopolitan is embracing ebooks, and now partnering, along with ProPublica — an early tester of ebooks — with Open Road Integrated Technology. Open Road Integrated Technology?

Well, it’s a book company, an ebook company juiced on the possibilities of our age. Headed by former HarperCollins CEO Jane Friedman, the company is prototypical of a new group of middlemen. With book marketing savvy (cover design, marketing, distribution+), these companies are now feeding the emerging ebook marketplace. They are also partnering back for that old standby, print, as Open Road has done with book services company Ingram. In Canada, it was Harper Collins Canada that became the National Post’s partner in bringing news ebooks to market.

Just as the web has knocked many middlemen for a loop, it creates openings for new ones.

If you talk to publishers about ebooks, they are farther along in experimenting than they were a year ago. Yet some basic issues — producing the books, marrying them to commerce engines, placing them prominently in e-stores and more — are giving them headaches as they push forward. “How do we make the right offer to the right person at the right time?” one experienced exec asked.

The marketplace has been exploding (recall that Amazon announced last spring that its ebooks were now outselling its paper books), but those issues are setting the stage for a new group of companies, many staffed with graduates of the book industry, offering their help. Newspaper and magazine publishers are looking to the Open Roads for guidance.

Some are turning to their digital circulation partner, Press+. That company, which is powering more than 280 titles’ subscription commerce, says its system can handle the commerce and even help with identifying likely customers, based on tracked content usage, so its customers are just beginning to ply the ebook trade.

ProPublica general manager Dick Tofel opted for Open Road for the non-profit investigative publisher’s fifth and sixth books. He says the company will start producing a half dozen or more a year now and is now fielding calls from other publishers eager to get the benefit of his early ebook experience.

So far, ProPublica has put 90,000 ebooks into the market. The first couple were free downloads, but with the addition of new original introductions to work ProPublica had already published free online, Amazon and ProPublica agreed on test pricing of 99 cents and $1.99, and new revenue is rolling in. It’s small, but “pound for pound, it generates more than advertising,” notes Tofel, who is a Wall Street Journal veteran. And, of course, the incremental cost of creating ebooks is closer to zero, with most sales cost able to be a commissioned cost of sale.

As assistant publisher, Tofel oversaw the print books business that’s been a good Dow Jones sideline for a long time.

Those books — personal investing and more — are naturals for the ebook revolution now. Look for the Journal to experiment more with those titles, perhaps niching by life stage.

As news and magazine publishers look to this new revenue stream, here are six points to ponder:

It’s about product development: Yes, it’s editing, but fundamentally, it’s a mindset change for many publishers stuck in the one-size-fits-all world. Publishers either need staffers with new product chops or partners wanting to license publisher content and create the products for the marketplace.

Free the archives!: Digital archives have never been a big business for publishers, caught somewhere between Google and musty library connotations. Packaged archives — for specific audiences — can offer new life for older content.

Don’t think content; think problem solving: Publishers too often start with content. If we start with audience — college-planning students and parents, new mothers and fathers to be, bored cooks, and, big time, sports enthusiasts of all ages — we can see the motors of ebook publishing beginning to role. Think life stage, just for starters, and add the geo angle, and regional publishers can play.

Mining the database: As onesies and twosies, it’s fairly easy to pick content from publishers’ own databases. Think of bigger production cycle, going beyond the 100 a year, to a thousand, all niched products that could be semi-automated and templated over time. Better tagging of content for ebook usage then becomes a priority.

Ebook or app?: Early experimenters say let the content be your guide. The more multimedia, the better an app may work. Ebooks, though, can be sold through more distributors, while Apple continues to dominate the app business.

Pricing: What’s an ebook worth? If it solidifies a subscriber/member paying $300 or more a year, it’s worth a lot, even if it’s free. Think of the lifetime value of that subscriber.

To the right niche, some ebooks will be worth $1.99 and others — Retina perfect — will go for $19.99. Let’s take our 100 products a year. Let’s average 5,000 sales for each. Let’s price at $2.99 on average. That would be $1.5 million. Some books, though, could be blockbusters. We can play with this math and see where it goes.

For the ProPublicas, it’s a nice non-ad revenue stream. For other publishers, it’s at least a growing third leg of revenue (beyond ads and circulation) and one that may be nurtured into something significant. (Last fall, Will Sullivan offered a gaggle of reasons ebooks make sense for publishers.) As importantly, it can reinforce those two legs, pleasing subscribers/members with free (or discounted) perks and advertisers/sponsors who have new opportunities to represent themselves to niche audiences. That’s a pretty good combination, and one that publishers will soon embrace, just as they lately have all-access digital circulation.

January 05 2012

19:47
15:15

The newsonomics of the News Dial-o-Matic

It’s an emerging issue of our time and place. They know too much about us, and we know too little about what they know. We do know that what they know about us is increasingly determining what they choose to give us to read. We wonder: What are we missing? And just who is making those decisions?

Today, in 2012, those questions are more pressing in our age of news deluge. We’re confronted at every turn, at every finger gesture, with more to read or view or listen to. It’s not just the web: It’s also the smartphone and especially the tablet, birthing new aggregator products — Google Currents and Yahoo Livestand have joined Flipboard, Pulse, Zite, and AOL Editions — every month. Compare for a moment the “top stories” you get on each side-by-side, and you’ll be amazed. How did they get there? Why are they so different?

Was it some checkbox I checked (or didn’t?!) at sign-in? Using Facebook to sign in seemed so easy, but how is that affecting what I get? Are all those Twitterees I followed determining my story selection? (Or maybe that’s why I’m getting so many Chinese and German stories?) Did I tell the Times to give the sports section such low priority? The questions are endless, a ball of twine we’ve spun in declaring some preferences in our profiles over the years, wound ever wider by the intended or (or un-) social curation of Facebook and Twitter, and mutliplied by the unseen but all-knowing algorithms that think they know what we really want to read, more than we do. (What if they are right? Hold that thought.)

The “theys” here aren’t just the digital behemoths. Everyone in the media business — think Netflix and The New York Times as much as Pandora and People — wants to do this simple thing better: serve their customers more of what they are likely to consume so that they’ll consume more — perhaps buying digital subscriptions, services, or goods and providing very targetable eyes for advertisers. It’s not a bad goal in and of itself, but sometimes it feels like it is being done to us, rather than for us.

Our concern, and even paranoia, is growing. Take Eli Pariser’s well-viewed (500,000 times, just on YouTube) May 2011 TED presentation on “filter bubbles,” which preceded his June-published book of the same name. In the talk, Pariser talks about the fickle faces of Facebook and Google, making “invisible algorithmic editing of the web” an issue. He tells the story of how a good progressive like himself, a founder of MoveOn.org, likes to keep in touch with conservative voices and included a number in his early Facebook pages.

He then describes how Facebook, as it watched his actual reading patterns — he tended to read his progressive friends more than his conservative ones — began surfacing the conservative posts less and less over time, leaving his main choices (others, of course, are buried deeper down in his datastream, but not easily surfaced on that all-important first screen of his consciousness) those of like-minded people. Over time, he lost the diversity he’d sought.

Citing the 57 unseen filters Google uses to personalize its results for us, Pariser notes that it’s a personalization that doesn’t even seem personalized, or easily comparable: “You can’t see how different your search results are than your friends…We’re seeing a passing of the torch from human gatekeepers to algorithmic ones.”

Pariser’s worries have been echoed by a motley crew we can call algorithmic and social skeptics. Slowly, Fear of Facebook has joined vague grumbles about Google and ruminations about Amazon’s all-knowing recommendations. Ping, we’ve got a new digital problem on our bands. Big Data — now well-advertised in every airport and every business magazine as the new business problem of the digital age to pay someone to solve — has gotten very personal. We are more than the sum of our data, we shout. And why does everyone else know more more about me that I do?

The That’s My Datamine Era has arrived.

So we see Personal.com, a capitalist solution to the uber-capitalist usage of our data. I’ve been waiting for a Personal.com (and the similar Singly.com) to come along. What’s more American than having the marketplace harness the havoc that the marketplace hath wrought? So Personal comes along with the bold-but-simple notion that we should individually decide who should see our own data, own preferences, and our own clickstreams — and be paid for the privilege of granting access (with Personal taking 10 percent of whatever bounty we take in from licensing our stuff).

It’s a big, and sensible, idea in and of itself. Skeptics believe the horse has left the barn, saying that so much data about us is already freely available out there to ad marketers as to make such personal databanks obsolete before they are born. They may be forgetting the power of politics. While the FCC, FTC, and others have flailed at the supposed excesses of digital behemoths, they’ve never figured out how to rein in those excesses. Granting consumers some rights over their own data — a Consumer Data Bill of Rights — would be a populist political issue, for either Republicans or Democrats or both. But, I digress.

I think there’s a way for us to reclaim our reading choices, and I’ll call it the News Dial-o-Matic, achievable with today’s technology.

While Personal.com gives us 121 “gem” lockers — from “Address” to “Women’s Shoes”, with data lockers for golf scores, beer lists, books, house sitters, and lock combinations along the way, we want to focus on news. News, after all, is the currency of democracy. What we read, what she reads, what they read, what I read all matter. We know we have more choice than any generation in history. In this age of plenty, how do we harness it for our own good?

Let’s make it easy, and let’s use technology to solve the problem technology has created. Let’s think of three simple news reading controls that could right the balance of choice, the social whirl and technology. We can even imagine them as three dials, nicely circular ones, that we can adjust with a flick of the finger or of the mouse, changing them at our whim, or time of day.

The three dials control the three converging factors that we’d like to to determine our news diet.

Dial #1: My Sources

This is the traditional title-by-title source list, deciding which titles from global news media to local blogs I want in my news flow.

Dial #2: My Networks

Social curation is one of the coolest ideas to come along. Why should I have to rely only on myself to find what I like (within or in addition to My Sources) when lots of people like me are seeking similar content? My Facebook friends, though, will give me a very different take than those I follow on Twitter. My Gmail contact list would provide another view entirely. In fact, as Google Circles has philosophized, “You share different things with different people. But sharing the right stuff with the right people shouldn’t be a hassle.” The My Networks dial lets me tune my reading of different topics by different social groups. In addition, today’s announced NewsRight — the AP News Registry spin-off intended to market actionable intelligence about news reading in the U.S. — could even play a role here.

Dial #3: The Borg

The all-knowing, ever-smarter algorithm isn’t going away — and we don’t want it to. We just want to control it — dial it down sometimes. I like thinking of it in sci-fi terms, and The Borg from “Star Trek” well illustrates its potential maniacal drive. (I love the Wikipedia Borg definition: “The Borg manifest as cybernetically-enhanced humanoid drones of multiple species, organized as an interconnected collective, the decisions of which are made by a hive mind, linked by subspace radio frequencies. The Borg inhabit a vast region of space in the Delta Quadrant of the galaxy, possessing millions of vessels and having conquered thousands of systems. They operate solely toward the fulfilling of one purpose: to “add the biological and technological distinctiveness of other species to [their] own” in pursuit of their view of perfection“.) The Borg knows more about our habits than we’d like and we can use it well, but let’s have us be the ones doing the dialing up and down.

Three simple round dials. They could harness the power of our minds, our relationships, and our technologies. They could utilize the smarts of human gatekeepers and of algorithmic ones. And they would return power to where it belongs, to us.

Where are the dials? Who powers them? Facebook, the new home page of our time, would love to, but so would Google, Amazon, and Apple, among a legion of others. Personal.com would love to be that center, as it would any major news site (The New York Times, Zite-powered CNN, Yahoo News). We’ll leave that question to the marketplace.

Lastly, what are the newsonomics of the News Dial-o-Matic? As we perfect what we want to read, the data capturing it becomes even more valuable to anyone wanting to sell us stuff. Whether that gets monetized by us directly (through the emerging Personals of the world), or a mix of publishers, aggregators, or ad networks would be a next battleground. And then: What about the fourth wheel, as we dial up and down what we’re in the marketplace to buy right now? Wouldn’t that be worth a tidy sum?

November 27 2011

06:44

How The Harlan Daily Enterprise, Kentucky, ended up running a Huffington Post story

Niemanlab :: The Huffington Post is, in the minds of some journalists, the web’s bad guy, a nemesis that subverts the norms of legacy media, soaking up other people’s work in the pursuit of money and the all-powerful pageview. And maybe it is! But here’s one tiny tale where the content flows in the opposite direction. Readers of The Harlan Daily Enterprise, a small newspaper located in southeast Kentucky, found something strange on the front page a couple months ago — a Huffington Post byline.

[Justin Ellis:] It’s not the beginning of a new print partnership agreement for HuffPost, just a gesture of journalistic goodwill.

Continue to read Justin Ellis, www.niemanlab.org

06:44

How The Harlan Daily Enterprise, Kentucky, ended up running a Huffington Post story

Niemanlab :: The Huffington Post is, in the minds of some journalists, the web’s bad guy, a nemesis that subverts the norms of legacy media, soaking up other people’s work in the pursuit of money and the all-powerful pageview. And maybe it is! But here’s one tiny tale where the content flows in the opposite direction. Readers of The Harlan Daily Enterprise, a small newspaper located in southeast Kentucky, found something strange on the front page a couple months ago — a Huffington Post byline.

[Justin Ellis:] It’s not the beginning of a new print partnership agreement for HuffPost, just a gesture of journalistic goodwill.

Continue to read Justin Ellis, www.niemanlab.org

November 11 2011

17:32

A Strange, Sad Day in Journalism: Romenesko's Resignation

Aggregation is an underappreciated art. Sure, with a quick tutorial, almost anyone can perform some version of it. But I have stumbled across only a few individuals and media outlets who have done it really well for any length of time on the web.

Jim Romenesko has heavily influenced the practice of online aggregation. By many accounts, he was one of its inventors and early experimenters. For more than a decade on his eponymous blog, he aggregated news about the media industry with an astounding rapidity and regularity that made his updates as reliable as the rising of the sun (except, of course, on Saturdays and Sundays).

And yet now, here we are, minus Romenesko, at least in the role in which we most love and rely on him. The eye-poppingly stunning manner in which his association with The Poynter Institute was severed yesterday is the talk of the journalism cosmos. His own minders publicly flogged him in a post on his own blog for a practice that some are declaring questionable and others are defending with gusto.

I will leave it to the news media ethics cognoscenti to determine if there has truly been any actual fault in Romenesko's handling of the news copy to which he was linking. I am currently too dazed by this whole "bizarre spat" (as a New York Times Media Decoder post calls it) to really dive in. And I am possibly too entrenched in the pro-Romenesko camp to be able to judge it with objectivity.

Regardless of the ugly way in which he has been forced to say goodbye, his retirement (or at least retirement from uber-aggregation) had been imminent -- a few months away.

The Very Best of Aggregation

romenesko.jpg

Romensko's blog never sported a snappy header image, snazzy interface or a memorable web address. But it did, through its namesake, embody the very best of aggregation.

Romenesko spread the word about the big stories quick. He ferreted out the smaller stories deserving a spotlight. He maintained a professional, almost invisible, voice, displaying smidgens of snark or righteousness only when he was calling out individuals or organizations who deserved it. Until recently, when the blog format switched, he gave media watchers just enough to whet our appetites about an item without drowning us in minutia or holding us up from scrolling down. And he brought public attention to internal industry decisions and disputes with such frequency that those in power long ago came to accept and expect it.

St. Petersburg Times media critic Eric Deggans confirms: "Romenesko's site has been a favorite of reporters, editors, administrators and all sorts of folks connected to the media industry, especially in print. For about a dozen years, he's gathered together the most important news from all corners of the biz to one spot, creating an amazing platform for ideas and gossip that I have benefited from many times over."

Media Decoder accurately notes that for many of us, a spot on his blog was seen as a short-term land-grab of "the best real estate in American journalism." I vividly recall the most recent time I was mentioned in a summary. It triggered a torrent of sheer joy that lasted the full 24 hours or so that the post was on the homepage. It is a physical reaction only those in the journalism community can truly understand, one I would describe as Romenesko+.

Kerfluffle Over Attribution

Romenesko had announced over the summer that he was shifting his focus to larger projects and a new web base, JimRomenesko.com, "a blog about media ... and other things I'm interested in." He specifically (under)stated that he would no longer be providing "three-sentence summaries of other people's work."

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But he told The New York Times yesterday he had hoped to segue quietly. That is no longer possible. His legacy in respect to aggregation and online journalism also will now include an asterisk and an outline of what Deggans describes as a "kerfluffle over attribution" and what Felix Salmon from Reuters has dubbed "Romeneskogate."

It will also include the many statements of what Romenesko is calling "incredible support." They continue flowing into comment boxes, Twitter feeds, blog posts, and news reports. Many are from angry journalists declaring their allegiance to Romenesko and condemning the charges by Poynter as a "preposterous plagiarism assault," (Gawker) "a nothingburger" (Time's James Poniewozik)," and a heinous way to treat a man whose work "put Poynter on the map as an online destination" (American Journalism Review).

A Strange New Reality

Now on day two of this kerfluffle, questions hang in the air: What are the proper ethics for aggregators? Is Poynter's reputation among its core constituents forever tarnished? Who or what will fill the Romenesko void?

As a Pennsylvania native, it has been a weird few days, watching Joe Paterno, a man larger than the institution at which he was employed, be forced out. The departure has left a strange, new reality forced to soldier on in its wake. As one Penn State University superfan messaged me, "Will Saturdays ever be the same?"

The context surrounding that case and this one are, of course, monumentally different. But the similarities in respect to how they have played out are impossible to ignore. Romenesko, a man larger than the institution at which he was employed, has been prominently, suddenly and unceremoniously forced out, leading to raucous showings of support from his fans and a black cloud hanging over Poynter's future. Will every day but Saturday and Sunday ever be the same?

Dan Reimold is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Tampa. He writes and presents frequently on the campus press and maintains the student journalism industry blog College Media Matters, affiliated with the Associated Collegiate Press. His first book, Sex and the University: Celebrity, Controversy, and a Student Journalism Revolution, was published in fall 2010 by Rutgers University Press.

This is a summary. Visit our site for the full post ».

July 14 2011

15:24

Yes, aggregation has journalistic and can create business value

Poynter :: As Romenesko has taught us through the years, a leading, respected aggregator has the power to influence an audience by proposing what matters, by guiding readers to reliable sources, and by keeping them company as they travel through the newsosphere.

[Julie Moos, Poynter] (The power of an aggregator) is derived from originality.

No one needs a map to travel familiar roads. We need one — or a tour guide — to lead us into unfamiliar terrain. And as the familiar has been overtaken by the foreign during journalism’s remapping, aggregation has continued to play an important role.

Continue to read Julie Moos, www.poynter.org

July 13 2011

05:56

May 05 2011

18:40

How Front Porch Forum Connects Neighbors in Real Life

An awful situation for any parent ... my wife suddenly needed to drive four hours to Boston Children's Hospital to shepherd our son through a medical emergency. He was already in Boston, but Valerie couldn't get out of the driveway. A freak blizzard had drifted four feet of snow across it. If she didn't get on the road soon, the childcare lined up for our younger kids would fall apart. I was out of state and no help at all. What to do?

FPF_homepage.jpg

One simple posting to Front Porch Forum and a dozen neighbors materialized. Wielding snow blowers and shovels, they blasted a path so my wife could begin her journey to the hospital. Her arrival sparked our little boy's turnaround, and now, gratefully, he's home and doing well.

So is this one heartwarming tale important? Well, I can tell you that the news of a neighborhood kid being hospitalized and his mother being kept from him by the big blizzard got top billing that day in our area. Not only did neighbors talk about this story (I'm still asked about it months later), most amazingly, about 2 percent of the neighborhood actually dropped what they were doing as soon as they heard, suited up, and headed out the door to pitch in.

Going local

"Local" is hot in the online universe (or "hyper-local," whatever that means!) -- and for good reason. My neighbors-to-the-rescue story is one of hundreds that we've seen on Front Porch Forum. Thousands more emanate from local blogs, mailing lists, neighborhood websites, and other town-specific Internet outposts. Millions more await the arrival of a successful local online platform.

My wife and I launched Front Porch Forum in 2006 across our metro region after running a precursor for just our own Burlington, Vt., neighborhood for six years. Now, as a 2010 Knight News Challenge award winner, we're rebuilding our platform to incorporate lessons learned, and expanding to new regions.

Over the past decade, I've learned from hundreds of local sites. Some, like Craigslist, have taken over a whole sector, while others, like Backfence.com, informed many, but ultimately failed. To make sense of this growing body of experience, I've examined local sites along dozens of dimensions.

Is Walmart local?

Many tech blogs spin themselves dizzy over the likes of GroupOn, FourSquare, LivingSocial, Patch, etc. They focus on the giant well-funded dot-coms that are national or global in reach. But how can something be "local" when it's coming from far away? As Baristanet's Debra Galant said recently to StreetFight, "Patch certainly rubs all of the independents the wrong way. Patch is part of AOL. (It is) like Walmart coming into main street."

Increasingly, major companies like GroupOn and Patch are employing local sales and content staff in each area where they operate. This stands in stark contrast to the all-algorithm/no-people Google-type model. At the same time, it's more efficient than the traditional newspaper model. For example, Front Porch Forum reaches more households in Burlington than the local Gannett daily, and we employ three compared with its 300.

Aggregators vs. originators: What about the audience?

Several recent commentators divide local into two camps: aggregators and originators. Topix and AmericanTowns are two aggregators, while Datasphere is a network of originators. LocalWiki (another Knight News Challenge award winner) and iBrattleboro are examples of originators, too.

However, this view misses a crucial third source of content ... the locals! When you're talking about a story of interest to only several hundred nearby neighbors, then the community's contribution to the story is crucial. Many aggregators and originators have space for user comments, while other successful sites put the community first, ahead of the stories. For example, Front Porch Forum postings from our neighbors are picked up by local journalists and bloggers every week and spun into traditional news stories.

Who's creating the core content on these local sites: professionals, a few amateurs, or the crowd? Newspaper sites use professional journalists, one-off hyper-local bloggers often have one or more regular amateurs, and other sites, such as Front Porch Forum, get the content from the crowd. We found that half of one town subscribed to Front Porch Forum and an amazing three-quarters of them had posted ... the crowd speaks!

What about community conversation?

A growing list of services offer data aggregated by location, e.g., the innovative Everyblock (and fellow Knight News Challenge award winner). Other sites focus on reporting. Increasingly, these services are coming to realize the value of empowering community-level conversations among neighbors. Witness Everyblock's recent major upgrade to bring social into its mix.

Local secret sauce

chef_photo.jpg

So that's a taste of a few of the critical ingredients to consider when perusing the local online menu. In our decade of local online cooking, we've refined our secret sauce to make Front Porch Forum wildly successful in our pilot region. Half of Burlington subscribes to their neighborhood forums. Even more amazing, more than half of those members actively contribute. Most importantly, neighbor-helping-neighbor stories flow through Front Porch Forum daily, just like the one about the shovel-wielding neighbors who sent my wife on her way to the hospital.

These are but a few of the issues with which to grapple. Others include anonymity vs. pseudo-anonymity vs. real identities, scale, mobile, and lots more. We're currently hosting 150 online neighborhood forums, and our team learns something new every day. Local online is heating up! Stay tuned.

18:40

Design Decision for Local Online News: What's the Secret Sauce?

An awful situation for any parent ... my wife suddenly needed to drive four hours to Boston Children's Hospital to shepherd our son through a medical emergency. He was already in Boston, but Valerie couldn't get out of the driveway. A freak blizzard had drifted four feet of snow across it. If she didn't get on the road soon, the childcare lined up for our younger kids would fall apart. I was out of state and no help at all. What to do?

FPF_homepage.jpg

One simple posting to Front Porch Forum and a dozen neighbors materialized. Wielding snow blowers and shovels, they blasted a path so my wife could begin her journey to the hospital. Her arrival sparked our little boy's turnaround, and now, gratefully, he's home and doing well.

So is this one heartwarming tale important? Well, I can tell you that the news of a neighborhood kid being hospitalized and his mother being kept from him by the big blizzard got top billing that day in our area. Not only did neighbors talk about this story (I'm still asked about it months later), most amazingly, about 2 percent of the neighborhood actually dropped what they were doing as soon as they heard, suited up, and headed out the door to pitch in.

Going local

"Local" is hot in the online universe (or "hyper-local," whatever that means!) -- and for good reason. My neighbors-to-the-rescue story is one of hundreds that we've seen on Front Porch Forum. Thousands more emanate from local blogs, mailing lists, neighborhood websites, and other town-specific Internet outposts. Millions more await the arrival of a successful local online platform.

My wife and I launched Front Porch Forum in 2006 across our metro region after running a precursor for just our own Burlington, Vt., neighborhood for six years. Now, as a 2010 Knight News Challenge award winner, we're rebuilding our platform to incorporate lessons learned, and expanding to new regions.

Over the past decade, I've learned from hundreds of local sites. Some, like Craigslist, have taken over a whole sector, while others, like Backfence.com, informed many, but ultimately failed. To make sense of this growing body of experience, I've examined local sites along dozens of dimensions.

Is Walmart local?

Many tech blogs spin themselves dizzy over the likes of GroupOn, FourSquare, LivingSocial, Patch, etc. They focus on the giant well-funded dot-coms that are national or global in reach. But how can something be "local" when it's coming from far away? As Baristanet's Debra Galant said recently to StreetFight, "Patch certainly rubs all of the independents the wrong way. Patch is part of AOL. (It is) like Walmart coming into main street."

Increasingly, major companies like GroupOn and Patch are employing local sales and content staff in each area where they operate. This stands in stark contrast to the all-algorithm/no-people Google-type model. At the same time, it's more efficient than the traditional newspaper model. For example, Front Porch Forum reaches more households in Burlington than the local Gannett daily, and we employ three compared with its 300.

Aggregators vs. originators: What about the audience?

Several recent commentators divide local into two camps: aggregators and originators. Topix and AmericanTowns are two aggregators, while Datasphere is a network of originators. LocalWiki (another Knight News Challenge award winner) and iBrattleboro are examples of originators, too.

However, this view misses a crucial third source of content ... the locals! When you're talking about a story of interest to only several hundred nearby neighbors, then the community's contribution to the story is crucial. Many aggregators and originators have space for user comments, while other successful sites put the community first, ahead of the stories. For example, Front Porch Forum postings from our neighbors are picked up by local journalists and bloggers every week and spun into traditional news stories.

Who's creating the core content on these local sites: professionals, a few amateurs, or the crowd? Newspaper sites use professional journalists, one-off hyper-local bloggers often have one or more regular amateurs, and other sites, such as Front Porch Forum, get the content from the crowd. We found that half of one town subscribed to Front Porch Forum and an amazing three-quarters of them had posted ... the crowd speaks!

What about community conversation?

A growing list of services offer data aggregated by location, e.g., the innovative Everyblock (and fellow Knight News Challenge award winner). Other sites focus on reporting. Increasingly, these services are coming to realize the value of empowering community-level conversations among neighbors. Witness Everyblock's recent major upgrade to bring social into its mix.

Local secret sauce

chef_photo small.jpg

So that's a taste of a few of the critical ingredients to consider when perusing the local online menu. In our decade of local online cooking, we've refined our secret sauce to make Front Porch Forum wildly successful in our pilot region. Half of Burlington subscribes to their neighborhood forums. Even more amazing, more than half of those members actively contribute. Most importantly, neighbor-helping-neighbor stories flow through Front Porch Forum daily, just like the one about the shovel-wielding neighbors who sent my wife on her way to the hospital.

These are but a few of the issues with which to grapple. Others include anonymity vs. pseudo-anonymity vs. real identities, scale, mobile, and lots more. We're currently hosting 150 online neighborhood forums, and our team learns something new every day. Local online is heating up! Stay tuned.

April 28 2011

15:00

The newsonomics of story cost accounting

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.

What’s a story worth?

Last week, I looked at a single investigative story (California Watch’s “On Shaky Ground“), and we saw the tab of half a million dollars for a 20-month-long tale of sleuthing. What about that ordinary daily story, quotidian journalism as we know it — the grinding out of less eventful articles, the kinds of things that keep us informed but don’t offer epiphanies? How much does it cost, and how much does that matter to the future of the news business?

It’s not an academic question. This week, McClatchy added to the long line of down financial reports, telling us that it was down 11 percent, year over year, in ad revenues and 9 percent in overall revenues, for the first quarter. That announcement follows on from similar reports from The New York Times Co., especially its regional properties, and Gannett. The U.S. news industry is extending its unwanted record: 21 straight quarters of revenue down quarter to quarter. That’s a lost half-decade.

Add up those down revenues and the need to maintain profitability — for public or private owners — and there’s but a single answer: cut costs. Certainly, the industry has cut out major costs in the last three years, but cost-cutting is slowing, if you look at the company reports. The New York Times’ costs were flat in the first quarter, Gannett’s down 0.9 percent and McClatchy’s down 6.5 percent. That’s in large part due to rising newsprint prices, making it harder to get costs more appreciably down. With those continuing revenue declines, though, expect more cost-cutting. It’s a given.

So, let’s ask about that daily story. What’s it cost?

Of course, we’ve never looked at it that way. We’ve hired people, told them to write, at times monitoring their production, but rarely taking a look at the cost of what they’re producing. Given the pressures of the day, given the Demand Media model and given the predilection to start counting whatever can be counted (“The newsonomics of WaPo’s reader dashboard 1.0“), story cost accounting is inevitable.

In fact, it’s already started. Let’s take a brief look at what is bound to become a bigger topic in the months ahead, the newsonomics of a single story.

Clark Gilbert, Salt Lake’s dean of disruption, is getting into the nitty-gritty of retooling editorial content production, top to bottom, and that includes getting a handle on differing costs of content. Gilbert is a key part of the team that is transforming the media properties of the daily Deseret News and leading local TV and radio stations KSL, all owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, better known as the Mormon Church. Last August, Gilbert announced one of the most major restructurings in journalism, making major staff cuts — a prelude to the re-architecting now being done. That restructuring includes the launching of Deseret Connect, an initiative to round up pro-am user-generated content from around Utah, and around the globe.

The new CEO of Deseret Media will soon be able to tell you exactly how much articles cost him. He’ll specify the differing price points of local, proprietary content, of AP content, of a blog post written halfway around the world, and lots more.

For now, he draws upon his experience as a Harvard Business School prof and strategic consultant. From that career work, he estimates the following, general cost metrics for the content offered by news companies in print and online:

  • $250-$300 per staff-written story;
  • $100 per stringer story;
  • $25 per Associated Press story;
  • 5-12 for “remote” stories, largely written by the emerging class of bloggers

“You better know your cost per story,” he says. “That’s the kind of rigor you need.”

As focused as he is on building digital ad revenues, he makes the point directly: “You have to work both sides [revenue building, cost reduction] of this.”

“It doesn’t mean I’m not willing to pay for content,” says Gilbert. “I’m paying a boatload for stories that are a commitment to my audience.” It’s a straightforward strategy: If you are going to pay a boatload for some stuff, you better pay a lot less for other stuff.

Still, those numbers are bound to chill many a journalist. You think posting reader metrics in newsrooms is still a point of contention — wait ’til story cost accounting becomes mainstream. And it will. It’s just simple manufacturing, and like it or not, that’s what the news business has long been. Manufacturing, with lots (New York Times, Wall Street Journal) of quality added or with (insert your favorite rag here) just enough to draw ads. News creation used to be a sunk cost, with headcount a small and usually polite battle between editors and publishers. That was in stable times. In these times, knowing business drivers, down to the dollar, is going to be part of the new world.

The metrics-driven thinking may have been first demonstrated by Demand Media, with its $10, $25, and $50 stories (“The newsonomics of content arbitrage“), but once opened, that Pandora’s Box won’t be closed.

Clark Gilbert is early in the game, but others are taking a parallel cost-conscious approach.

John Paton, CEO of the new, continuous-revolution Journal Register Company, breaks it down differently, but is highly cost-aware.

“We’re not looking to save money on local, professional content,” Paton told me this week. Notice the emphasis on “local” and “professional.” Like many others, Journal Register is beginning to round up hundreds of local bloggers (as Patch joins that club), who will be largely unpaid.

What Paton emphasizes, though, in his cost-of-content analysis, is the 60 percent of JRC’s content — across print and digital — that is national. He’s done a careful counting of what’s in his products, and says that while 40 percent is local (above average for dailies, he says), 60 percent is national. So Project Thunderdome, newly headed by D.C. veteran Jim Brady, has put a bullseye on that content. The notion: Lower the cost, and where possible, raise the quality of national content. That thinking is behind JRC’s recent deal with TheStreet.com, which is now providing its national business news. It’s a revenue share, with JRC gaining national revenues. In addition, says Paton, it has increased its local business content-related revenue, given both the new inventory of ad impressions made possible and the quality of TheStreet.com content. That’s a model Paton intends to extend to other non-local content.

Further, he’s taken dead aim at the cost of getting content through the mechanics of a newsroom. Saying that about half of U.S. editorial staffs are engaged in producing content for publication — not creating it — he’s focused on changing that ratio. Instead of five of ten journalists engaged in production, he’s aiming for two of ten, to be accomplished through centralization and templating of the production functions. “Then, two or three more of the ten can create content,” he says.

Both plans will, in effect, reduce the cost of content overall. And, as with Clark Gilbert’s philosophy, the intent is to invest in unique, local, proprietary content, even though it’s far more expensive.

Let’s consider one more take on story cost accounting. As CEO of Huffington Post, Betsy Morgan pioneered the unique brand of higher-end, often personality-driven aggregation that distinguished the site’s offerings. Out of that experience, and in her new role as CEO of Glenn Beck’s The Blaze site, she’s evolved her own metrics. They divide nicely into thirds.

  • One-third original, professional content, largely reported journalism.
  • One-third voice and opinion.
  • One-third aggregation, or to use the updated term, “curation,” as editors aggregate, honing off-site story selection given their understanding of their unique audiences.

Morgan tells me that “the thirds” form both an audience strategy and a cost strategy. Clearly, as the venture-backed HuffPo began its life, it watched its dollars very carefully. That meant that curation wasn’t just an audience-pleasing idea, of course, but a cost-saving one, as bloggers (at least then!) willingly forked over content in exchange for play and recognition, not money.

Going forward, the “thirds strategy” offers another twist on Clark Gilbert’s and John Paton’s (and Arianna Huffington’s) strategies. Obviously, you don’t pay for the curation part, other than for the technologies or smaller staff to handle it. You can pay for some of the voice and opinion, but there’s a hell of a lot of it you can get for free or cheap. And, once again, you concentrate your costs of content on the high end — original, professional, largely reported journalism.

The new AOL/HuffPo’s been doing that with pro hire after pro hire. Morgan herself is doing it, as recently as this week with the hiring of former Denver Post columnist David Harsanyi.

Add it all up, and it’s a new cost structure for the craft of journalism. As with all metrics, the good or bad they inspire depends on who is using them. What’s clear is that those news outfits — local, national or global — which only concentrate on paying staff, like in the old days, will find themselves out-strategized by those who take the blended approach.

Is it all about thirds? No, but it’s a good place to start.

I think of it as a pyramid. Original content — content that distinguishes news brands — is at the top, and, yes, is the most costly. At the bottom is clearly aggregation, because as Morgan points out, “[readers] can’t easily find and read what’s of interest to them.” Then, there’s the middle third or so. For regional news companies, that includes hyperlocal bloggers and subject-specific (transportation, public health, sports) experts; for national sites, it’s non-staff “contributors” of differing skills and costs. That third is quite open to innovation.

It’s a great whiteboard exercise, at least, for anyone in the news business. Pass the marker, please, and work the pyramid.

April 22 2011

14:00

This Week in Review: The Flipboard dilemma, Trove and News.me arrive, and a paywall number for the NYT

Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week’s top stories about the future of news.

Is Flipboard a competitor or collaborator?: Flipboard has quickly become one of the hottest news apps for the iPad, and it continued its streak last week when it announced it had raised $50 million in funding. Flipboard’s Mike McCue told All Things Digital’s Kara Swisher he’d be using the money to hire more staff and expand onto other devices, including the iPhone and Android platform. But he also talked to TechCrunch about using the money to fend off a rumored competitor in development at Google. (The Houston Chronicle’s Dwight Silverman told Google not to bother, because Zite already does the trick for him.)

All this prompted a fantastic analysis of Flipboard from French media consultant Frederic Filloux, who explained why Flipboard’s distinctive user-directed blend of news media sites, RSS feeds, and social media is so wonderful for users but so threatening to publishers. Filloux argued that every media company should be afraid of Flipboard because they’ve built a superior news-consumption product for users, and they’re doing it on the backs of publishers. But none of those publishers can complain about Flipboard, because any of them could have (and should have) invented it themselves.

GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram advised media companies to be willing to work with Flipboard for a similar “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” reason: Its app has their apps beat in terms of customizability and usability, so they’re better off trying to make money off of it than their own internal options. ReadWriteWeb’s Dan Rowinski wrote about the possibility that Flipboard could be a better alternative partner for publishers than Apple, and Marshall Kirkpatrick wondered why publishers are up in arms about Flipboard in the first place.

Traditional media’s personalized news move: One of the reasons that media companies might be less than willing to work with Flipboard is that some of them are building their own personalized news aggregation apps, two of which launched this week: The Washington Post Co.’s Trove and Betaworks’ News.me, developed with the New York Times. INFOdocket’s Gary Price has the best breakdown of what Trove does: It uses your Facebook account and in-app reading habits to give you personalized “channels” of news, determined by an algorithm and editors’ picks — a bit of the “Pandora for news” idea, as the Post’s Don Graham called it. (It’s free, so it’s got that going for it, which is nice.)

All Things Digital’s Peter Kafka suspected that Trove will be most useful on mobile media, as its web interface won’t be much different from many people’s current personalized home pages, and David Zax of Fast Company emphasized the social aspect of the service.

News.me is different from Trove in a number of ways: It costs 99 cents a week, and it’s based not on your reading history, but on what’s showing up in other people’s Twitter streams. (Not just what they’re tweeting, but what they’re reading — Betaworks’ John Borthwick called it reading “over other people’s shoulders.”) It also pays publishers based on the number of people who read their content through the app. That’s part of the reason it’s gotten the blessing of some media organizations that aren’t typically aggregator friendly, like the Associated Press. [Note: We're one of the publishers licensed in the app. —Ed.]

Since News.me is based so heavily on Twitter, it raises the obvious question of whether you’d be better off just getting your news for free from Twitter itself. That’s what Business Insider’s Ellis Hamburger wondered, and Gizmodo’s Adrian Covert isn’t a fan, though Martin Bryant of The Next Web said it could be helpful in stripping out the chatter of Twitter and adding an algorithmic aspect. GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram looked at both services and concluded that they signal a willingness by some traditional media outlets to adjust their longtime broadcasting role to the modern model of the “Daily Me.”

A good sign for the Times’ pay plan: The overall news from the New York Times Co.’s quarterly earnings report this week wasn’t good — net income is down 57 percent from a year ago — but there was one silver lining for online paid-content advocates: More than 100,000 people have begun paying for the Times’ website since it began charging for access last month. (That number doesn’t include those who got free subscriptions via Lincoln, but it does include those who are paying though cheaper introductory trials.)

As Advertising Age’s Nat Ives pointed out, there’s a lot that number doesn’t tell us about traffic and revenue (particularly, as paidContent’s Staci Kramer noted, how many people are paying full price for their subscriptions), but several folks, including Glynnis MacNicol of Business Insider, were surprised at how well the Times’ pay plan is doing. (Its goal for the first year was 300,000 subscribers.) Here at the Lab, Josh Benton looked back at the numbers for the Times’ TimesSelect paywall and concluded that an initial influx of subscribers doesn’t guarantee continued growth after launch.

Those numbers are particularly critical for the Times given the difficulty its company has had over the past several years — as Katie Feola of Adweek wrote, many analysts believe the pay plan is crucial for the Times’ financial viability. “But this means the paper’s future rests on an untested model that many experts believe can’t work in the oversaturated news market,” she wrote. “And the Times has to pray the ad market won’t decline faster than analysts predict.”

A few other paid-content tidbits: Nine of Slovakia’s largest news organizations put up a paywall together this week, and the pope is apparently pro-paywall, too. At the Guardian, Cory Doctorow mused about how companies can (and can’t) get people to pay for the content online in an age of piracy.

Google’s hammer falls on eHow: When Google applied its algorithm adjustment last month to crack down on content farms, Demand Media’s eHow actually came out better off (though others didn’t fare so well, like the New York Times Co.’s About.com, as we found out this week). Google made a second round of updates last week, and eHow got nailed this time, losing 66 percent of its Google juice, according to Sistrix.

Search Engine Land’s Matt McGee speculated that Google might have actually been surprised when eHow benefited the first time, and may have made this tweak in part as an effort to “correct” that. Demand Media, meanwhile, called Sistrix’s eHow numbers “significantly overstated,” though the company’s stock hit a new low on Monday. Mathew Ingram said investors have reason to worry, as Demand’s success seems to be at the mercy of Google’s every algorithm tweak.

A Pulitzer first: The Pulitzer Prizes were announced this week, and while the awards were spread pretty broadly among several news organizations, there were a couple of themes to note. As Felix Salmon and others pointed out, an abnormally large share of the awards went to business journalism, a trend the Columbia Journalism Review’s Dean Starkman opined on in a bit more detail.

The biggest prize from a future-of-news perspective may have gone to ProPublica, whose series on some of the machinations that worsened the financial crisis was the first Pulitzer winner to never appear in print. The Lab’s Justin Ellis noted that other winners are including significant multimedia components, perhaps signaling a shift in the emphasis of one of journalism’s most elite institutions. If you were wondering where WikiLeaks was in all this, well, the New York Times apparently didn’t submit its WikiLeaks-based coverage.

Reading roundup: No huge stories this week, but a few little things that are worth noting:

— Your weekly AOL/Huffington Post update: Jonathan Tasini came out swinging again regarding his lawsuit on behalf of unpaid HuffPo bloggers, Business Insider’s Glynnis MacNicol responded in kind, Eric Snider told the story of getting axed from AOL’s now-defunct Cinematical blog, and HuffPo unveiled features allowing readers to follow topics and writers.

— Missouri j-school students are chafing against requirements that they buy an iPad (they previously had to buy an iPod touch, and they called that plan a bust). Meanwhile, Ben LaMothe of 10,000 Words had three ideas of social media skills that j-schools should teach.

— A weird little fake-URL spoof turned into an interesting discussion about the possibility of libel through fake URLs, in thoughtful posts by both the Lab’s Andrew Phelps and TechCrunch’s Paul Carr.

— Two interesting data points on news innovation: A group led by Daniel Bachhuber put together some fascinating figures about and perspectives from Knight News Challenge grant recipients. And journalism researchers Seth Lewis and Tanja Aitamurto wrote at the Lab about news organizations using open API as a sort of external R&D department.

April 13 2011

16:00

Gateway and takeaway: Why Quickish wants to cut the clutter and help readers get to the good stuff

It can be tough for a verbose writer to embrace the short form.

This is important, because in doing an email interview with Dan Shanoff about Quickish — his new site that offers (near)-instant analysis and news on sports — it quickly became clear the man is a lover of words. Shanoff burned through more than 3,000 words about Quickish, which finds its focus through short, deliberate analysis and lots of links. (Full transcript here.)

But most Quickish posts are at tweet length or not much longer — and that restraint makes it as much a conduit for news as it is a case study in why short- and long-form writing aren’t mutually exclusive. What both share, and what Quickish trades in, is “the takeaway,” as in the essential point of a story/event/game/trend, or the answer to the question all readers ask: “Why am I reading this?” It’s that need for understanding, combined with the accelerated pace of media, that Shanoff sees that as the underpinning behind news consumption and its the guiding principal of Quickish.

“The best reporters and pundits know that the real traction isn’t the commodified tidbit of breaking news — this person was traded, this person threw a key interception, this person said something provocative — but the entirely valuable (and hard-to-copy) piece of insight that helps us understand a story better,” Shanoff told me. “This new competition — not for the scoop, but for the fast take — forces everyone to raise their level of instant analysis to cut through the clutter. That the noise level might be raised by everyone rushing to say something is ok — as long as you have reliable filters (like Quickish hopes to be) set up to cancel out the crap.”

If we were to build a periodic table for new media, the elements that make Quickish work would be speed, accessibility, and brevity — all in the service of making sense of a news story. Quickish is what happens when you try to take a coherent focus on those events that everyone is tweeting about — it’s March Madness, the Oscars, the Super Bowl, or election night, but all the time. Quickish embraces the alternate-channel ethos that has developed around how we experience events and is built around that. A reader can get what everyone is talking about, but with the added bonus of context and insight, and they could follow it wholesale or dip in as needed.

“Once you recognize the ascendancy of short-form content — and, by the way, that doesn’t preclude longer-form content (at all!) — the next thing you build on top of that is a system to help people keep up with all that great content, to cut through the increasingly endless clutter that keeps you from seeing the really good stuff,” he wrote.

“And so depending on what the biggest topics are, to the widest possible audience, Quickish editors are looking for the most interesting short-form analysis or conversation about that topic — it doesn’t have to be part of a full-blown column; it could be a killer ‘money quote’ of a short blog post or a Tweet or a message board post or video; we’re source-agnostic. It could be from a ‘national’ outlet or a local/topical reporter or blogger with particular expertise,” he wrote.

This would be a good time to mention that in many ways what Shanoff is talking about is not new in journalism, we’ve come to talk about aggregation a lot in terms of the future of news (apologies to Mr. Keller). There is no doubt that what Quickish provides falls neatly into the category of aggregation. It’s Techmeme or Mediagazer, but for sports. Shanoff, though, is not a big fan of the “A” word.

“Why I wince at ‘aggregation’ is that it doesn’t necessarily distinguish between ‘dumb’ aggregation of automated, algorithm-based systems (that inevitably fail some critical test of judgment) and the ‘smart’ selective, qualified recommendation that comes from an editor (whether that editor is Quickish or a newspaper/magazine editor or someone smart you follow on Twitter or a blogger or anyone else who actively applies judgment whether something is worthwhile or not). Everything on Quickish has been recommended with intention; to me, that’s much more active — and valuable — than a system built on more passively ‘aggregating.’”

If Shanoff has his way the site would be powered primarily off recommendations from readers. News sites large and small typically have some call out for tips, but Quickish seems to have tip-based updates baked in thanks to its Twitter-like nature. Credit for stories or takes gets a nod similar to retweets or hat/tips, and that’s something that Shanoff said is a result of Quickish relying on Twitter as a source, but also wanting a more transparent interaction with readers. It also tracks with another basic idea behind Quickish: The link as the most powerful asset connected to a story or post.

This also tends to build strong connections with readers who can feel a buy-in by contributing to a site. What you end up with — hopefully — is a recommendation-go-round, where stories and links get tipped to your site from readers, readers direct their friends to the site, and the process repeats in perpetuity.

“It is a long-standing tenet of online journalism that you want to encourage readers to make just ‘one more click’ within your site after the page they land on. With Quickish, we are thrilled if that ‘one more click’ is to some great piece of longform journalism that we have recommended. Because if you appreciate that experience as a reader, you are much more likely to give us another try tomorrow or when the next big news happens; isn’t that much more valuable than gaming them into sticking around? Here is a fascinating and powerful stat we have never made public: Quickish readers actively click through to one of our recommended links on nearly half of all total visits. Every other visit results in the reader clicking on a Quickish recommendation,” he wrote.

Considering all of this, Shanoff said the site’s design, minimal and stripped down, is closely attuned to the the content it provides and the expectations of the audience. Shanoff recognizes that readers are coming into news from various destination and on different devices, and that feeds an immediate expectation, it’s the “Why am I reading this” question all over again. Shanoff said for many publishers the focus is less on utility and more on squeezing the most value out of visits to a site. His take: “Don’t be greedy.”

There are two ways to try to engage people: You can try to force them — blitz or confuse or harangue them, in many cases — to try to keep clicking. Is that increase from 1.5 page views per visit to 2.0 really worth it if the reaction from the reader is, “Wow, that really wasted my time.” How is that kind of publisher cynicism a way to create a meaningful relationship with a reader?

The other way is to make the experience so simple, so self-evidently useful, so valuable, so easy that the reader might only give you (in Quickish’s case) that one page per visit for now, but they will come back every day… or a couple times a day… or tell their friends… or trust your recommendations… and ultimately have a deeper relationship with you when you introduce new products and features.

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