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December 20 2011

15:20

7 Ways Salespeople Can Better Understand the Editorial Side of News

There was quite a reaction to my previous column, suggesting editors learn more about, and cooperate with, the business sides of their organizations.

This time, I'd like to talk to people on the business side about how they can cooperate with the editorial side to work effectively to keep a news organization solid while also increasing revenues and ensuring the organization's survival.

First, though, let me respond a bit to the critics. A lot of the comments, on Facebook, Google+, blogs and elsewhere indicated people had read the provocative headline, "Tear Down the Wall Between Business and Editorial," perhaps a subhed or two, but not the piece in full, or even half. Some were nasty, political or ad hominem attacks (one called me Mr. "Bank Oil," the kind of play on my name I hadn't heard since elementary school), others were amusing, and a fair number were supportive and thoughtful.

One careful and considered rebuttal came from the liberal Common Dreams site, which called me "oblivious to the dangers of basing your business model on giving the sponsors what they want."

I'm not. But I have seen multiple news sites struggle to survive, including ones where I've had to cut staff.

Common Dreams asks for donations, and I hope they get enough to support their operation. Most news organizations, though, cannot survive on charity. Many are in deep trouble and have gone out of business or are struggling to survive.

News media executives and entrepreneurs -- including one who praised the previous column -- have told me how pained they were at their inability to financially sustain sites they considered superior editorially.

Overcoming Skepticism from Editors

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"With many news publishers, the online brands haven't had the revenue to support the reporting and editorial operations, let alone the rest of the staff and infrastructure that's needed for a modern news organization," Tim Ruder, chief revenue officer of ad optimization company Perfect Market, told me last week.

Ruder has often faced skepticism and even the ire of editors at major news companies when offering his company's technology, which optimizes page layout and links to get more readers in and serve them higher-value ads. The editors, understandably, don't want their pages changed in any way.

But, Ruder continued, "If these type of revenue opportunities can support the newsroom without compromising reporting, that's not to be ignored."

The news is not all glum, either. I have seen entrepreneurs make a business out of news while cultivating their ability to do great work.

Part of the reason is their keen focus on what matters most. Which leads me back to the point of this column: How the business side can intelligently do its work to sustain and enhance the organization over time.

1. Remember, It's the News Business

Your product is news. News is nothing without credibility -- and that credibility can be damaged by the wrong kind of ads or sponsorship. I spent a lot of my time at ABC News explaining to the sales side why we couldn't do one thing or another while trying to suss out the advertisers' goals to reach them within the bounds of editorial tenets.

After all, the credibility and association with your site is a good part of the reason advertisers want to be on it. Without that credibility, they'll lose the venue to get the word out about their products.

If something you're proposing calls the reliability of the organization -- its credibility or trustworthiness -- into question, that damage is very hard to recover from.

2. Know and Advocate For the "Product"

I've worked with salespeople who seem to see a news page as an array of ads, with the text and pictures simply filling up the space in between.

Even if you think of the business as only a business, not a special public trust, you have to respect the product and not bastardize it in the name of making quick money. Part of your job should be to help sustain the business over the long-term.

You can't really sell the news unless you have a powerful, abiding respect for what it is and can do, the ways it serves, informs, motivates and even impassions a community. You'll be much better able to intelligently sell the advertiser on that community if you understand what motivates the people in that community, in addition to their demographic profile.

3. Get At The Client's Real Goals

Sponsors will sometimes try to push the envelope, or get something they've envisioned that's not on your site. They'll ask if they can put this extra doodad here, get that ad size or flashy thing there.

When it's not possible, any intelligent sponsor or media buyer should be able to tell you something of what the goals are. Maybe you can offer that special something in another way, or achieve their aim with an offering you already have in your arsenal.

Sponsors who are considering your organization are doing so not only because you offer them exposure to a certain user base or group, but also because of the environment they get to be in.

It can be a bit of work, especially when you're dealing with media buyers who are trying to fit you into a spreadsheet model as part of a larger buy. But I've found that more often than not, there's a way to help them understand, then reach an accommodation.

4. Understand the Line, Then Help Hold It

It's very tempting when there's money on the table to say "yes," then run to try to get the request fulfilled. Cultivate and listen to the voice in the back of your head that will tell you when something goes a little, or a lot, too far.

A sponsor may request something you are pretty sure won't fly. First you have to understand why. It's not enough just to know the rules. You have to grasp the reason you can't do something a sponsor is asking.

I give a flat "no" when asked if sponsorship would guarantee news coverage of a given client and am ready with very clear reasons for giving that answer. I also then work to get at the client's underlying goals to find a way to reach them within the strictures. (See the previous point.)

To salespeople, editors can seem like "no" machines. If an editor objects to something you're proposing to offer, he or she may seem obstructionist, but there may be a legitimate reason.

Just as I called on editors to work with the sales side, the sales side has to understand the editorial imperatives and try to work within them. It helps, too, if the business side works with the editorial side to devise the strictures.

5. Work With the Editors, and Let Them Help You

Having a strong relationship with editors can beget other benefits. Mike Orren, founder of Pegasus News, a site that serves the Dallas-Fort Worth area, put the newsroom and sales teams in the same room.

MikeOrren.jpg

"Our ex-newspaper restaurant critic was yelling across the room saying there was a review coming, and the sales team might want to pitch them," he said, noting that the critic didn't say whether the review was good or bad. Either way, the sponsor might want to be there -- if the article is negative, the sponsor may want the opportunity to counter that perception. But "never was she [the critic] going to let somebody tell her how to review a restaurant," Orren said.

The sales team also helped the editorial side. "Sales would tip the editorial team that someone wasn't paying bills and maybe were going to go out of business," Orren told me at the Street Fight Summit earlier this fall. "We got more scoops out of our sales team than probably anywhere else."

6. Don't Underestimate How Hard It Is To ...

  • Get a story. The text and video you see that magically appears day after day takes a lot of time and effort to gather, edit and produce -- especially in a reliable and trustworthy way. A lot of reporters work all hours and sacrifice health, sleep and social life to get a story. Understand and respect that dedication. It can be a lot harder than it looks.
  • Get people to look at it. A lot of the work of getting people to discover a story once it's been produced falls on the editorial team, especially in the digital realm. That, too, takes time, effort and understanding of the community.

7. Now, More than Ever

For a few decades, news in America had a heyday of nearly unsurpassed profitability brought about by advantages such as high barriers to entry, limited distribution channels, and advertisers with few other ways to reach consumers. Salespeople could literally sit and wait for the phone to ring.

"It's like printing money!" one publisher gleefully exclaimed to me, holding up a classified page on which every column inch represented more dollars.

Those reliable and hefty profits supported all kinds of editorial efforts that, unfortunately, can no longer be sustained in the same way.

As the industry restructures, I have suggested editors learn how the business works and how far they can go to help it without compromising the operation. Sales needs to understand that "money talks" but the people making "the product" are ultimately responsible for whether it's worthwhile for those who consume it.

I want to see news organizations survive and do great work, and I believe that today, the only way to ensure that is to take a more holistic approach to the business of news.

An award-winning former managing editor at ABCNews.com and an MBA (with honors), Dorian Benkoil handles marketing and sales strategies for MediaShift, and is the business columnist for the site. He is SVP at Teeming Media, a strategic media consultancy focused on attracting, engaging, and activating communities through digital media. He tweets at @dbenk and you can Circle him on Google+.

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December 07 2011

15:20

Tear Down the Wall Between Business and Editorial!

For too long, reporters and editors have been unaware, even hostile to the business sides of their organizations. Those attitudes have helped push the news industry into its current dire state.

And that's why I say: Tear down the wall between business and editorial.

Before you start sharpening your pitchforks, hear me out.

I'm not proposing a free-for-all money-grab that destroys journalistic imperatives. I am calling for those who make the "product" to learn how it's sold so they can better do their jobs and contribute to the bottom line.

If editorial staff is the first to be pared in news organizations, perhaps that's in part because they haven't known enough to make a strong business case for what they contribute.

Jim Brady, the former executive editor of WashingtonPost.com, and now the editor in chief of Journal Register Company, seems to agree that journalists need to learn the business ropes.

Jim Brady

"We don't want to see people sent out into the world slaughtered by the wolves because they don't know anything about the business side," he said at this year's Online News Association conference when I asked his thoughts on journalists learning business principles.

MediaShift managing editor Courtney Lowery Cowgill, co-founder and former editor in chief of the now-defunct New West, was also encouraging. She told me that while she and others were building their sites, they were stymied while trying to get advice on how to support the news businesses while maintaining proper standards.

"Friends in similar startup situations were struggling with how to blur the lines in an intelligent and ethical way," she said. "There was nobody to help us with that. They were all just saying, 'No, no. Don't do it.' We all need a roadmap for how to do it, a good guide on how to do that ethically, intelligently and efficiently."

Here, I hope, is a start.

Remember: It's a Business

One place to start is attitude.

Can you name another business in which the people who make the key product are allowed, even encouraged, to be ignorant of how they make money?

I've found many journalists to be uncomfortable with money. But money is lifeblood. As much as you might labor to get a story in before deadline, you'll sweat bullets when you're responsible for payroll and the money isn't there.

A for-profit business is just that. That profit is what lets you not only continue another day, but also gives you the freedom to determine your own mission.

Yes, the news business is special, and has a special trust. But many businesses are, and some of them -- such as health care and food -- deal much more literally with issues of life and death. They, too, must juggle ethical and commercial imperatives while doing their work.

Keeping the public trust, even one protected by the Constitution, is not contradictory with the the idea of making your enterprise financially self-sustaining.

The more revenue you have, the more creative ways you can use it to produce a better product, and the more diverse the revenue is, the less beholden you will be to any single source.

Know the Business

The more you know about the business workings, the better arguments you'll be able to make to gain resources to do good work. You can point out the profits one section you're handling brings in that can support another effort you believe in.

You may be able to make a case that something that seems like a cost center will, over time, create new efficiencies or revenue-enhancements. You can note that an investigative story may not bring in advertising, but it could bring in page views that you can show lead to new advertising or subscription revenues.

Even better is if you can back up your case in a way a business person can understand, by using data to make a cogent case that applies to the bottom line.

Understand the Finances

The more literate you are about the finances, not just income, assets and depreciation, but also cost of capital and market conditions, the better you'll understand the reasoning behind some decisions.

The better grounding you have in the finances, the more respect you'll have for the business on both the income and expense sides -- and the more you'll want to control costs, or spend appropriately to get the job done.

You'll be able to see the company through a business lens. You'll put yourself in a cooperative, collegial position, rather than going begging to the money people with hand out.

If you're running your own operation, the better you'll know how close you are to meeting payroll, or how creative you can be to raise some funds.

If Sales Influences Editorial, It's OK

Do you think newspapers run separate real estate, car or fashion sections for editorial reasons? Or could it be because those sections generate healthy profits?

It's fine if commercial reasoning influences editorial projects, as long as the projects fit into your overall mission. Let me give an example from MediaShift.

We have sometimes adjusted timing on stories or special series if there was no good reason not to in order to accommodate a client who wanted to sponsor them.

Sometimes we've even extended a series by a couple more stories than we might have without the added funds. Producing that extra content can be additive and contribute to the richness of the site.

If we can serve our community and earn revenue at the same time, that's a home run.

We are mindful of the danger of working so hard to serve sponsors that we neglect the needs of the larger community. That's very important.

Create Things That Make Money

Sometimes, you'll package material in a way that garners interest from viewers and sponsors. Packaging and repackaging can be a great device.

It's easy to demean "link bait" such as "Top 10" or "How To" lists, but if your users like and share them, and they generate profitable page views, is there really harm? If there's sponsor interest, all the better.

You can also launch efforts to make money in order to support other operations that don't. I'll later be writing a column about news companies that have done everything from sell web consulting services to hand out sponsor postcards at local gatherings.

Try to Get to 'Yes'

A former managing editor at Newsweek (where I used to work) once told me proudly of throwing a salesperson for the magazine out of his office with harsh words.

Perhaps, instead, he could have worked to help craft a solution that met the advertiser's needs without violating Newsweek's core principles.newsweek_headroom_max4aa.jpg

There were times at ABCNews.com, where I was a liaison between the sales and editorial sides after having been a managing editor, when I created products the editorial team accepted while explaining justifiable limits to the sales team.

I have, as a journalist doing business deals, sometimes had to fight the urge to give a sponsor an outright "no" to one of their ideas, and instead tried to glean their ultimate goals and worked together to find an acceptable way to meet them.

Be Willing to Say "No"

You also have to be willing for the long-term health of the business to say "no." You may be asked to do things you consider unsavory. You have to have the spine to make a sponsor uncomfortable, as MediaTwits podcast co-host Rafat Ali did at his former site, PaidContent, when he reported on a sponsor in a way they didn't appreciate.

Advertisers rooted in your community (whether that's a community of professionals, of like-minded individuals, or of geographic proximity) will usually understand if you explain that a request they're making could damage the operation's credibility. That damage will also damage their ability to have their message in front of a happily engaged community you've worked hard to amass.

You do need core principles that can't be bent -- even if that means the business doesn't meet payroll. Remember the point above about diversified revenue streams? The more there are, the less any one sponsor can damage you.

Be Prepared for Uncomfortable Conversations

In smaller communities, the people who sponsor a news operation can be the ones being reported on. They'll ask for favors. You and people you work with have to be able to explain, even in the midst of reporting, what can and can't be done on their behalf.

At the risk of repeating: The more profit your company makes, the more leeway it has to do its work, to remain independent of government or other interference, and the more freedom to do good work.

An award-winning former managing editor at ABCNews.com and an MBA (with honors), Dorian Benkoil handles marketing and sales strategies for MediaShift, and is the business columnist for the site. He is SVP at Teeming Media, a strategic media consultancy focused on attracting, engaging, and activating communities through digital media. He tweets at @dbenk and you can Circle him on Google+.

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

November 11 2011

12:20

Cartoonist Prototype Tackles the Most Visible News

At a recent demo day hosted by a Georgia Tech research center, our studio showed a working prototype of the Cartoonist engine for the first time. The whiz kids at UCSC's Expressive Intelligence Studio have been working overtime on the guts of our system in order to link together our user interface, the tool that converts user input into machine-readable form, the library of action verbs that drive each game, and a playable output.

While still in incredibly rough form, we can now generate a large number of games based on a small amount of information drawn from a current event. (We've capped that output at nine games for testing.)

Generating Occupations

One of my first demonstrations of the system was to see whether it could handle the most visible news event of the past few months: the Occupy Wall Street movement. I plotted a fairly simple relationship between protesters, riot police, and public awareness. Protesters were set to "grow" public awareness, police to "attack" protesters, and public awareness to "watch" police. At this time, all of these entities are represented by colored orbs. (We just hired an artist for the project, NY freelancer Rachel Morris.) From this tiny mapping of objects and actions, the system generated nine potential games. While many of them were broken in ways that showed where more coding is needed to flesh out verbs, a few of the results showed the exciting potential of our project.

In one generated game, protesters spawned randomly along an edge of the screen. Players controlled a bubble labeled "riot police," and could move in four directions while firing projectiles at the protesters. (These could later be skinned to look like gas canisters or rubble bullets.) On the other side of the screen, a "line of sight" marker inside a bubble labeled "public awareness" followed the movements of the player/police. Whenever a new protester appeared, the public awareness bubble became larger; whenever a projectile hit a protester, that protester entity was removed from the game. It was a rudimentary, playable editorial cartoon, and I'd generated eight others with just 15 seconds of work.

Some of the logic desirable for an "OWS: Oakland" game was clearly missing, because only a fraction of our action verbs have been fully articulated in the system. One obvious exemption here is the role of embedded journalists in the documenting and relaying of such events -- and, if we'd had a good verb for these, we could easily have more than three actor types on the screen.

Something about the system, about which we had no clue whether it would work or not, stood out to me: Player control is non-arbitrarily assigned to different actor-types in each of the nine game builds. Sometimes I controlled the protesters, dodging projectiles or the tackles of police; sometimes I was the police; and sometimes I simply moved around as public awareness, my line of sight trained on the police.

The View From Everywhere

The fact that we haven't yet been able to come up with a finalized name for our project testifies to the grayness of the territory that it occupies -- for those who haven't been following the project's development, we hope to replace the name "Cartoonist" out of respect for the work of political cartoonists.

An important aspect of this platform is that it's agnostic to ideological bent, the user's professional status, and the type of journalism that it is used to convey. While it would be possible to use the system for objective, professional reportage, anyone will be free to operate and modify it. The feature noted above -- the assignment of player control to different entities in each game build -- is actually one of many powerful devices for interrogating the view from nowhere.

Coverage of Occupy Wall Street (and similar events around the world) has foregrounded the rising importance of alternative media and new forms of journalism. Participants and supporters of Occupy are wary of a mainstream media ecology that has either ignored them or subjected them to exaggerated skepticism. A story of the firing of WNYC reporter Caitlin Curran for participating in an OWS rally stands in stark contrast to firsthand coverage of arrests in Oakland by graphic journalist Susie Cagle.

While traditional forms of news media have stuck to an outmoded concept of objectivity, alternative sources have delved into and personalized the Occupy movement to great effect.

There are a number of reasons why videogames about the news lend themselves so well to editorializing. First is the amount of time and expertise required to produce them: In a market where returns on political videogames are sadly minimal, developers tend to make their work an expression of their personal opinions and passions. Second, and slightly more theoretical, is the idea of the simulation gap: It is incredibly difficult to accurately model a real-world system in a playable form, so developers will naturally pick and choose the aspects of, and problems with, that system that they personally see as relevant (consciously or unconsciously). Finally, there's the strong, expressive power of role-playing.

ocw_screenshot.jpg

Because most games work best when the player has a clearly identified role, they lend themselves to explorations of hero and anti-hero viewpoints on a story or issue. So in Occupy: The Game, players control a protester seeking to collect money and supplies while dodging tear gas and garbage, while in Clear the Park the mindset of a greedy "1%er" will be satirically explored through a mix of tycoon sim and improvised siege warfare.

Research isn't conclusive on which points-of-view and camera angles create the most empathy or opinionated-ness during play, which is why our system is open in this regard. Our expectation is that users of the Cartoonist engine will be pleasantly surprised by control schemes and POVs that they hadn't predicted when they sat down to generate their games.

December 03 2010

23:36

A response to The Australian editorial on Twitter

So far I’ve been following the whole #twitdef saga from a distance. Whatever the rights and wrongs of that issue, this editorial by The Australian betrays a complete misunderstanding of Twitter.

It has a provocative headline, “Truth is Twitter’s First Casualty”, and goes on to rally against the social media service.

The Australian appears not to appreciate that Twitter is a platform. It is a way to publish and distribute content, just like printed newspapers, radio or TV.  The platform does not determine the content, people do.

I wonder if The Australian would run a headline like “Truth is Radio’s First Casualty”, or realise the absurdity of such a statement before publication.

The paper goes on to say:

The hothouse environment of Twitter has become a breeding ground for falsehoods that quickly become received wisdom with repeated telling. Twitter’s broken promise was that it would widen debate by connecting citizens on this vast continent in all their glorious diversity.

This is a sweeping generalisation.  Any media platform can become a breeding ground for falsehood, even ones we would describe as the mainstream media. Anyone remember how the mainstream media reported WMDs?

Twitter isn’t filtered in the way that journalists filter traditional news content. There is a greater emphasis on the individual to be media-literate, which means the people on the network are their own filters.

This creates the potential for a much broader debate than is possible on mainstream media controlled by a handful of editors.

It is far more messy, disorganised, and, at times, may be wrong too. But that is the one of the strengths of Twitter – it is open.

The tone of the piece is captured in this line:

If new media aspires to compete with traditional broadcasters and publishers, it must abide by the same civil codes.

In other words, follow our rules, do things our way, we know best.

I am not arguing that there is not a role for mainstream media. Rather, pointing out the futility of turning this into a them and us fight.

The Australian could do well to read Alan Rusbridger’s recent talk about Twitter and the idea of a mutualised future for journalism.

October 08 2010

14:07

Editorial and commercial: Part of a journalists job description

John Slattery picked up on a job ad at the MEN for two community reporters. Great stuff. But commenting on the job description, he points out:

In a sign of the times, the ad also says: “The ability to identify editorial and commercial opportunities is key” as well as an excellent knowledge “of contemporary social media and a solid understanding of multimedia gathering”.

I wish I had that with me yesterday when I talked to third-year students about convergence. I talked about how convergence contributed to the problems paying for journalism (both consumer and provider).

I mentioned how this issue was not a rarified one, distant from the journalistic process.  Its going to have a very real impact, especially as hyperlocal grows. And, of course process,will have to change to accept that.

To illustrate that point I used a quote from ‘godfather of hyperlocal’ Rick Waghorn talking to The Independent about the nervousness of journalists when it comes to ‘things commercial’

They really don’t like the idea of knocking on the door and asking for an advert. Fascinating that those same journalists will knock on a door after a teenage boy is killed in a road accident. They see that as part of their journalistic DNA. Ask that same journalist to knock on the door and ask for a ten pound a week advert and its ‘that’s not my job’.  I think it will be their job on a level. Certainly on that local level anyway. We have to master new skills and from mastering new skills there will come a demand for new tools.

I pithily commented that in the future would have to do a death knock and add that for 10 quid you’d could do a really nice job on a obituary.

That’s a step too far, I know. But maybe the job ad goes some way to proving both of us right (and what many of us already know) the economics of news is everyones business, especially  journalists.

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