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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.

May 23 2013

16:33

The newsonomics of value exchange and Google Surveys

whittier-daily-news-google-survey-paywall

What happens when a reader hits the paywall?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 09 2013

14:54

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

singapore-skyline-cc

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seeking influentials across Asia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seeking influentials in North Carolina

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

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

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

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

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

Seeking influentials in D.C. politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lessons learned

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

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

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

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

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

April 16 2012

15:28

Why the Huffington Post doesn’t equivocate on issues like global warming

The Huffington Post wants gobs of traffic. It also want reader engagement. But there are some things it just won’t do — like equivocate on whether climate change is real.

HuffPost Science recently featured a story on former astronauts and scientists upset with NASA’s position connecting carbon dioxide to climate change. It’s not new to see sides clash on the issue, and any editor knows it’s a debate that will predictably spill over into the comment thread on a story. HuffPost Science senior editor David Freeman offered up this question at the end of his piece: “What do you think? Is NASA pushing ‘unsettled science’ on global warming?”

One problem: The question violated one of the Huffington Post’s editorial policies. Not long after the piece was posted an editor’s note replaced the question, saying in part:

We’ve removed the question because HuffPost is not agnostic on the matter. Along with the overwhelming majority of the scientific community (including 98% of working climate scientists), we recognize that climate change is real and agree with the agencies and experts who are concerned about the role of carbon dioxide.

“The way the call for engagement was raised was as if we’re somehow agnostic about the reality of climate change,” Arianna Huffington told me.

Huffington framed the incident for me as one of editorial policy. But this isn’t a simple case of clashing stylebooks, of one outlet favoring the Oxford comma and another leaving it out. This is something more akin to a policy position: Within the editorial confines of HuffPost, issues like climate change and evolution are settled, Huffington told me. That doesn’t mean divergent viewpoints aren’t welcomed, she said — just that on certain issues the reporting won’t offer up a false equivalency.

“Where truth is ascertainable, we consider it our responsibility to make it very clear and not to — in the guise of some kind of fake objectivity, the media often pretend that every issue has two sides and that both sides deserve equal weight,” Huffington said. “That’s not the case, and that’s not our editorial stand.”

Traditionalists might find the idea of a mainstream, general-audience news organization staking out these kinds of stances in news stories radical. Huffington doesn’t see it that way, saying that traditional media spends far too much time trying to provide balance on issues that are, within certain facts and other data, settled. For her journalists, she said, that means doing reporting that assesses facts and doesn’t “pretend that the truth is supposed to be found in the middle,” she said.

“Editorially, we train our editors and reporters to basically not buy into what Jay Rosen calls the ‘View from Nowhere’ journalism,” she said. “We see our role more as doing everything we can to ferret out the truth, rather than be a kind of Pontius Pilate washing our hand of the possibility of truth.” That’s evocative of NPR’s new ethics guidelines, which make a similar distinction:

In all our stories, especially matters of controversy, we strive to consider the strongest arguments we can find on all sides, seeking to deliver both nuance and clarity. Our goal is not to please those whom we report on or to produce stories that create the appearance of balance, but to seek the truth…If the balance of evidence in a matter of controversy weighs heavily on one side, we acknowledge it in our reports. We strive to give our audience confidence that all sides have been considered and represented fairly.

Along with HuffPost’s internal editorial guidelines, this incident also demonstrates the value of comments and engagement to its brand. (Huffington told me the site had 7 million reader comments last month.) After all, this wasn’t about anything in the body of Freeman’s work — just his call-to-engagement question to readers.

Huffington Post standards editor Adam Rose told me they quickly added the editor’s note on Freeman’s story because they wanted to be transparent with readers about their editorial process. Instead of offering up a reworded question, they wanted to make it clear why the story had been changed. “I think it’s important that our readers know that and can trust that,” he said. “I think by being direct it develops a sense of trust with our readers who understand that we are not equivocating on the issue of climate change.”

The story’s racked up more than 3,300 comments and counting — not an unusual number by HuffPost standards but not an insignificant one either. Rose said he, Freeman, and Huffington were pleased with the quality of the conversation in the comments of the story.

This is where HuffPost’s stance on climate science and other issues has a practical element: The site is placing a marker to let readers know where it stands. Huffington says readers appreciate that kind of honesty and will reward news organizations for it. “Because we are clear about where we believe the truth lies, I believe we elicit a richer kind of response from our readers,” she said. It also helps in moving stories forward. The site already has a follow-up story to Freeman’s piece by reporter Lucia Graves that found that none of the former NASA personnel who signed the climate change letter actually worked in climate science.

Elevating the level of online comments is a fairly decent, if not constantly shifting, goal, but Huffington sees the editorial guidelines as promoting something broader. “To be able to see clearly where truth lies on on side or the other, as it happened in this particular instance, is not to abandon objectivity — it’s to, in fact, embrace a higher standard of journalism,” she said.

Image by JD Lasica used under a Creative Commons license.

February 10 2012

19:30

How NPR drove traffic to a local station by geotargeting stories on Facebook

NPR Facebook screen shot

Editor’s note: Our friends at NPR Digital Services, Eric Athas and Keith Hopper, wrote about an experiment of theirs using Facebook’s geotargeting features on the Digital Services blog. We thought their findings were interesting — geotargeting’s a tool not a lot of news organizations use — so they’ve kindly agreed to let us cross-post their story here.

NPR’s Facebook page and its 2.3 million-like audience is made up of users from thousands of cities across the world. We wondered: What if we focused on just one city?

The question arose after identifying a somewhat obscure Facebook feature that allows anyone with a Facebook page to customize posts by location. This means, for example, that you can post a story about Boston and modify it so that only users in Boston will see it in their Facebook feed.

Last October NPR Digital Services and Digital Media used this tool to launch an experiment with member station KPLU, in which we shared selected KPLU.org content on NPR’s Facebook page, but only for the eyes of the Seattle region (KPLU’s market). Four months into this experiment, we’ve made some unexpected discoveries around Facebook communities and the power of localization on a national platform.

How it works

From a technical standpoint, geofocusing page posts on Facebook is easy — just click the Public button next to Post prior to publishing. But before launching into this experiment — which is ongoing — we outlined how it would work, what it would look like and how we’d measure it.

The coffee shop test

We work with KPLU’s Online Managing Editor Jake Ellison each day to determine which KPLU.org story we’ll post. It must pass what we call the content coffee shop test: the conversation-style that NPR’s Social Media Desk has developed, mixed with a splash of local flavor. We want stories that will raise curiosity and be talked about in a Seattle coffee shop. Jake works with reporters to produce stories that will hit this sweet spot. If it does, Digital Services posts it to NPR’s Facebook page. If you live in the Seattle region and like NPR’s Facebook page, you may have noticed more Seattle-oriented stories from NPR, linking to KPLU.org. If you live outside of Seattle, this experiment hasn’t touched you.

Pacing

NPR’s Social Media Desk has a steady cadence — about every hour or so — for its Facebook posts. In a given day you may only see 10-12 NPR posts in your Facebook news feed. We don’t want to disrupt this pace and overflow Seattle users with too many stories, so we only post up to one KPLU story on NPR’s Facebook page per day.

Measurement

To our knowledge, no other news organization has used Facebook to geofocus content in quite this way. So before diving in we needed a way to closely measure the experiment. We wanted to know how this test would impact KPLU.org’s audience growth. For this we decided on campaign tracking — tacking a unique tag onto the end of each link we post. We also wanted to monitor engagement on Facebook to determine how users would interact with these local stories and whether or not the number of likes, shares and comments would differ from globally shared posts. For this we dug into Facebook Insights.

Audience growth

We knew posting a KPLU story to NPR’s Facebook page would result in a traffic bump to KPLU.org, even if only a small piece of the 2.3 million audience would see it. But we didn’t know how big of a boost this would give the site.

As it turns out, a big one. During the first four months of this experiment, we posted about 50 geofocused KPLU links — a fraction of all KPLU content — on NPR’s Facebook page. These posts accounted for 12 percent of KPLU.org’s sitewide visits during this four-month period. The test helped KPLU achieve three milestones: record traffic for a single day (January 19), second-highest traffic for a single month (October 2011) and the highest traffic for a single month (January).

High engagement

When a story is posted to NPR’s Facebook page the usual way (globally visible), the result is an instant flurry of likes, shares and comments from across the world. When a Seattle-targeted story is posted, it gets a high volume of likes, shares and comments, but usually fewer than a global post. This of course is because only a fraction of the NPR Facebook audience can actually see it.

Using data from Facebook Insights we were able to measure the relative engagement of stories, allowing for an apples-to-apples comparison. In other words, we looked at the number of likes, shares and comments on a Facebook post as a percentage of the number of unique people who viewed it. We call this a post’s engagement rate — of the people seeing it, how many likes, shares and comments are they generating.

We found that geofocused posts to the Seattle region usually had a much higher engagement rate than links shared to the global NPR Facebook audience.

For example, the KPLU story “Is Seattle a great but lonely place to live?” was posted to NPR’s Facebook page on January 6 to a geofocused Seattle audience. This story achieved relatively high levels of engagement compared to other local posts.

The NPR story “The Public Respects Civility, But Rewards Rudeness” achieved relatively high levels of engagement compared to other global posts and was posted to NPR’s Facebook page on January 26 to the entire global audience.

As is clear for these specific stories, the local post outperformed the global post in relative engagement across likes, shares and comments. After noticing this same trend for other individual posts, we wanted to know if this was the case more generally across local posts, so we rounded up the full body of posts and did the math. We found that during the first four months of this experiment, the average engagement rate across all geofocused post was six times higher than all global posts.

Throughout the course of this test we’ve had a lot of conversations about possible explanations for why this is happening. One concern we kept a lookout for was the possibility of confusion over where the content originated and where it linked to. However, steady growth in engagement throughout the experiment coupled with a lack of curious comments in the story threads seem to suggest that this is likely not a problem.

Community-driven conversations

Just a few days into this experiment, we noticed something different was happening. It was after we posted a KPLU story about Amanda Knox — a Seattle native — being flown back to her home town after Italian authorities freed her. The story focused on how SeaTac Airport was dealing with the media hysteria that would likely ensue.

Facebook screen grab

This story sparked the normal gut-reaction comments, but the users also reacted to how the story related to them — the Seattle resident. They began talking to one another, sharing information as local residents.

“Would have been a lot smarter to SAY they were flying into Sea-Tac, but instead, arrive in Portland and drive up I-5 to get home.”

“Glad I’m flying in tomorrow.”

“It’s kind of like when it snows here. Everyone freaks out over 3 inches, schools close, nobody can drive, and the east coast sits back laughing at us.”

We saw this trend continue throughout the experiment and develop as the content became more pointedly about Seattle. For example, one KPLU story tackled a question Seattleites know well: Why don’t people in Seattle use umbrellas?

Residents of New York, Boston, or D.C. wouldn’t have much to contribute to a conversation around this question — or even understand why the question was being posed. But Seattle users — the only ones who saw this post on NPR’s Facebook page — had a lot to say.

Facebook screen grab

“Because we spend more on rain gear than most people spend on computers.”

“It never rains hard enough to run makeup….you just get a misty glow. And umbrellas are for quitters ;)”

“Because it’s hard to open and close an umbrella with Coffee in your hand.”

What it all means

We’ve told you a lot about what we know from this experiment, but there are plenty of things we’re still investigating. We’re curious if this can be replicated in other markets and are exploring options for scaling it to more member stations. Some questions about this test will be answered when the experiment grows — something we’re looking to pursue. Although we’re still analyzing the results, we’re confident about the potential of this as a powerful journalism tool.

February 03 2012

16:30

Pew data: Facebook has room for passives as well as actives

If it’s so much better to give than receive, why are some Facebook users sitting on their hands?

The Pew Internet and American Life Project released a new report today that suggests Facebook users are not a uniformly active bunch. According to the study, the typical Facebook user gets more friend requests than she sends, is tagged in photos more than she tags, and has posts Liked more often than she Likes herself.

But wait — shouldn’t it all even out? After all, every friend request has a requester and a requestee. If a typical user is skews passive on Facebook, where’s all the action coming from?

The answer: a collection of “power users” who, according to the report, are becoming specialists of a sort. You know that friend who only posts tons of photos, or the one who goes on a Liking spree, or the one who seems to rack up an inordinate amount of friends? Yup, they’re doing the work for the rest of us. Even on a flat platform, behavior still moves toward a division of labor:

A proportion of Facebook participants — ranging between 20% and 30% of users depending on the type of activity — were power users who performed these same activities at a much higher rate; daily or more than weekly.

Essentially, in the funny parlance you could only get in a report about Facebook: “People are liked more than they like.” Some data:

Facebook users in our sample on average contributed about four comments for every status update that they made. On average, users make nine status updates per month and contribute 21 comments. Some 33% of Facebook users here updated their status at least once per week. Still, half of our sample made no status updates in the month of our analysis.

Discussion of social media circles around the word “engagement” — but even for many users of social networks, the experience is more about taking-it-all-in than about response and conversation. For a news industry with a long history of one-way communication, that might be a little…comforting? Facebook’s value, at least to media and other companies looking to tap into audiences, is that it’s a super-broad platform built for content and transactional activity. A link is posted; it’s rewarded with a like. A question is asked; it elicits comments. The Pew survey paints a picture where that action is less than reliable:

A third of our sample (33%) used the like button at least once per week during this month, and 37% had content they contributed liked by a friend at least once per week. However, the majority of Facebook users neither liked content, nor was their content liked by others, in our month of observation.

If Facebook activity disproportionately relies on a subset of power users with busy hands, that’s an opening for news outlets or individual journalists to fill that need. The conversation is far more distributed than it was pre-Internet, but it’s still not evenly distributed.

Pew says that Facebook comment-leaving is a bit more reciprocal than some other kinds of Facebook behavior:

More than half our sample (55%) commented on a friend’s content at least once in the month, and 51% received comments from a friend. A large segment of users, a little over 20%, contributed or received a comment every day. The average of 21 comments given on friends’ content was nearly identical to the average of 20 that were received. Again, there are some extreme users as well, about 5% of our sample contributed and received over 100 comments in the month of our observation.

Pew’s data is based on a sample of 269 Facebook users, initially identified through a random phone survey, but who then allowed Pew to track their trails on the site. While its findings may give a (slight) challenge to the idea that Facebook is a heavily engaged network where everyone’s sharing all the time, the report still found big, enticing numbers for any publishing looking to reach a big audience: The median user in their sample is within two degrees of separation (friends of friends) of 31,170 people on Facebook. (For one uber-connected user, that number was 7,821,772.) We already know Facebook is growing as a top referrer to many news sites, so what’s clear from this report is that they need to keep it up. If power users are the straw that stirs the drink on Facebook, then it’s more important than ever journalists and media companies play an active role.

Meh button by Ken Murphy used under a Creative Commons license.

December 19 2011

14:28

Why not a reverse meter?

As I ponder the future of The New York Times, it occurred to me that its pay meter could be exactly reversed. I’ll also tell you why this wouldn’t work in a minute. But in any case, this is a way to illustate how how media are valuing our readers/users/customers opposite how we should, rewarding the freeriders and taxing — and perhaps turning away — the valuable users.

So try this on for size: Imagine that you pay to get access to The Times. Everyone does. You pay for one article. Or you pay $20 as a deposit so you’re not bothered every time you come. But whenever you add value to The Times, you earn a credit that delays the next bill.
* You see ads, you get credit.
* You click: more credit.
* You come back often and read many pages: credit.
* You promote The Times on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, or your blog: credit. The more folks share what you’ve shared, the more credit you get.
* You buy merchandise via Times e-commerce: credit.
* You buy tickets to a Times event: credit.
* You hand over data that makes you more valuable to The Times and its advertisers (e.g., revealing where you’re going on your next trip): credit.
* You add pithy comment to articles that other readers appreciate: credit.
* You take on tasks in crowdsourced journalistic endeavors: credit.
* You answer a reporter’s question on Twitter and the reporter uses your information: credit.
* You correct an error in a story: credit.
* You give a news tip or an idea for an article The Times publishes: credit.
Maybe you never pay for The Times again because The Times has gained more value out of its relationship with you. If, on the other hand, you hardly do any of those things, then you have to pay for using The Times.

I’ve been thinking about this, too, in light of a few other trends I’ve seen with newspapers online. First, some that are trying meters are finding that very, very few readers ever hit the wall (which papers are setting at anywhere from 1 to 20 pages). That so few hit the wall is frightening. It means that most readers don’t use these sites much. That’s nothing to brag about. Engagement is criminally low. Second, I’ve seen many sites that get a surprising proportion of their traffic from out of their markets — traffic that is valueless (or even costly, in terms of bandwidth) to sites that sell only local ads. This comes from following a goal of pageviews, pageviews, pageviews — brought in with search-engine optimization — rather than valued relationships.

After hearing a few such stories, I suggested that a site with a meter might want to reward local readers by giving them more free content and charge out-of-market readers by charging them sooner.

You see, that values the local reader over the remote reader. My idea for the reverse meter values the engaged reader over the occasional reader — and even rewards greater engagement. And therein lies, I think, the key strategic skill for news businesses online: understanding that all readers are not equal; knowing who your more valuable readers are; getting more of them; and making them more valuable.

Now I’ll tell you why my reverse meter won’t work: When I spoke with all our journalism students at CUNY about their business ideas on Friday, I asked how many had hit the Times pay wall — many — and how many had paid — few. Abundance remains the enemy of payment. There’s always someplace else to get the news. The Times can make its present meter work because (a) it’s that good [the Steve Jobs exception that proves the rule], (b) it’s still sponsoring — that is, giving a free ride — to its most valuable readers, though that is supposed to end soon, and (c) its engagement is still too low and thus many readers don’t even confront the wall (that needs to change).

So never mind the idea of the reverse meter, but retain the lesson of it: Value should be encouraged, not taxed. Readers bring value to sites if the sites are smart enough to have the mechanisms to recognize, exploit, and reward that value, which comes in many forms: responding to (highly targeted and relevant) ads; buying merchandise; contributing information, content, and ideas; promoting the site…..

The key strategic opportunity for news sites is relationships — deeper, more valuable relationships with more (but not too many) people. Engagement.

December 08 2011

19:45

New Read It Later data: What does engagement look like in a time-shifted world?

This morning, Coco Krumme and Mark Armstrong — newly of Read It Later and always of @Longreads — released a study of Read It Later data examining stories that were saved by Read It Later’s 4 million-and-counting users over a six-month period (from May 1 to October 31, 2011). Together, David Carr put it, the data are part of a broader group of statistics that are emerging in the digital space to lend insight into “what kind of writing and writers are the stickiest.” (More bluntly: “What Writers are Worth Saving?“)

While the findings about overall article saves are pretty fascinating — go, Denton and Co.! — what I’m most interested in are the sample’s return rates, the stats that measure actual engagement rather than one-off story saves. Because, if my own use of Read It Later and Instapaper are any indication, a click on a Read Later button is, more than anything, an act of desperate, blind hope. Why, yes, Foreign Policy, I would love to learn about the evolution of humanitarian intervention! And, certainly, Center for Public Integrity, I’d be really excited to read about the judge who’s been a thorn in the side of Wall Street’s top regulator! I am totally interested, and sincerely fascinated, and brimming with curiosity!

But I am less brimming with time. So, for me, rather than acting like a bookmark for later-on leafing — a straight-up, time-shifted reading experience — a click on a Read Later button is actually, often, a kind of anti-engagement. It provides just enough of a rush of endorphins to give me a little jolt of accomplishment, sans the need for the accomplishment itself. But, then, that click will also, very likely, be the last interaction I will have with these worthy stories of NGOs and jurisprudence.

(“Saving…saved!…gone!”)

It’s when I’m actually looking at my Instapaper or Read It Later queue that things get real. That’s when the Aspirational Read and the Actual Read duke it out for my attention. Do I really want to read about how GOP senators’ positions on Consumer Financial Protection Bureau are aligned with that of the industry? Or would I — alone with my thoughts and my iPhone — really kind of prefer to read something from The Awl?

This is what makes the Read It Later dataset so interesting. There’s precious little overlap between the most-saved authors and the authors with the highest return rates. “Engagement” isn’t really “engagement”; it’s not a static thing. What we think we want in a given moment — life-improvement advice, tech news — may well be quite different from what we want once we’re removed from that moment. (Which is to say: Interest, like everything else, is subject to time.)

What does endure, though, the Read It Later info suggests, is the human connection at the heart of the best journalism. While so much of the most-saved stuff has a unifying theme — life-improvement and gadgets, with Boing Boing’s delights thrown in for good measure — it’s telling, I think, that the returned-to content can’t be so easily categorized. It runs the gamut, from sports to tech, from pop culture to entertainment. What it does have in common, though, is good writing. I don’t read all the folks on the list, but I read a lot of them — and I suspect that what keeps people coming back to them. When I’m looking at my queue and I see Maureen O’Connor’s byline, I’ll probably click — not because I necessarily care about the topic of her post, but because, through her mix of smarts and humor, she’ll make me care. The Read It Later suggests a great thing for writers: Stickiness seems actually to be a function of quality.

Or, as David Carr might put it: The ones worth saving are the ones being saved.

August 02 2011

08:33

August Net2 Think Tank: Surveying Your Community

As changemakers in our communities, it's important to take the time to learn from the communities that we serve about their impressions of our services. Whether your community is of volunteers, members of the public, internal stakeholders, or international organizations, it is valuable to ask them what they think of your work and invite them to help shape the future of your programs. In this month's Net2 Think Tank, we look forward to learning from you about surveying your community!

Topic:

What are your tips for creating community surveys? What types of questions are valuable? What distribution tools are available? What are the best ways to use community surveys to inspire a positive change to services? And, if you have an example of your own community survey, please share that too!

Deadline:  Saturday, August 20th

How to contribute:

  • Post your response online: Leave a comment below, write on your own blog or website, post on the NetSquared Community Blog, or share your feedback on Facebook or Linkedin.
  • Tag your post, comment, or tweet with net2thinktank.
  • Email Claire Sale the link to your post.
  • Have you written about this topic in the past? Great! Simply add the net2thinktank tag to your post and email us the link.

Be sure to get your submission in by emailing Claire the link to your post by Saturday, August 20th.

The roundup of contributions will be posted on the NetSquared blog on Monday, August 22nd.

About the Net2 Think Tank:

The Net2 Think Tank is a monthly blogging/social networking event open to anyone and is a great way to participate in an exchange of ideas.  We post a question or topic to the NetSquared community and participants submit responses either on their own blogs, the NetSquared Community Blog, or using social media.  Tag your post with "net2thinktank" and email a link to us to be included. At the end of the month, the entries get pulled together in the Net2 Think Tank Round-Up.

August 01 2011

20:00

“A great story to tell to advertisers”: How TPM increased its ad sales revenue 88 percent from last year

This June, Talking Points Memo had the biggest ad sales month in its eleven-year history, closing out a half-year period that saw ad sales revenue grow 88 percent over the same period in 2010.

First of all: Yowza. Second of all, though: That number, while big, isn’t entirely out of left field. “We’ve been growing at double-digit — sometimes approaching triple-digit — growth ever since we started our direct-sales ad program,” TPM’s founder/editor/publisher, Josh Marshall, told me. So while the 88 percent stat is a record, and “we love that number,” he notes, it’s also “not dramatically different from what we’ve had in previous years.”

Still, though, it’s worth a moment of pause. Because here is a web-native news organization that started as, you know, Some Guy’s Blog and that is now able to sustain itself — actually, grow itself — based on digital ad revenue. At a time when many news publishers are struggling in a sea of digital dimes, TPM, it seems, is finding a way to turn those dimes into dollars.

Marshall attributes the success largely to TPM’s organizational double-down on direct ad sales. In 2009, as it expanded its presence in D.C., the site — which had previously relied on networks like Blogads to support its operations — began investing in in-house advertising efforts, bringing on a sales VP and taking advantage of TPM’s famously loyal user base to make a compelling pitch to advertisers. And at higher CPMs.

“The big thing is really talented people doing the sales,” Marshall says.

And another thing is time: Ad sales are about relationships, and cultivating them can’t happen overnight. The real growth of TPM’s ad sales numbers really “started to kick in after we’d had some time to tell the advertisers about the site, about the value proposition of advertising with us,” Marshall notes.

And a big part of that proposition is the thing that advertisers are actually buying when they sign on with TPM: the TPM audience, the collective of dedicated (and also, generally: affluent, educated, influential) people whose eyeballs advertisers generally want to reach. Advertisers so far have included big national brands like Toyota, BP, HBO, Goldman Sachs, and CVS; media outlets like Current TV, The New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal; and organizations like Harvard Business School, America’s Natural Gas Alliance, the Association of American Railroads, the American Council of Life Insurers, and the Obama 2012 Re-Election Campaign. (That last group is a big part of TPM’s ad strategy, particularly for its D.C.-based audience. The advocacy market tends to have deep pockets — and “everybody wants to have their story told to the people who are calling the shots, who live in D.C.,” Marshall points out.)

But TPM’s readership isn’t limited to the District (indeed, this has been a pretty good month to remind us that Washington news is national news), and part of TPM’s pitch is that its audience nationwide is particularly engaged with its content and mission. (And also, again: affluent, educated, influential.)

And that’s evidenced in part by an annual reader survey that TPM conducts, consisting of over 30 questions, asking readers to send TPM data about themselves and their reading habits. TPM’s 2011 survey was introduced with a quick request for completion from Marshall; it was live for 24 hours; and it received, Marshall told me, some 26,000 completed results.

Again: Yowza.

So TPM offers not just a quality audience, in terms of the demographics advertisers like, but also a highly — even hyper- — engaged one. Readers often visit TPM multiple times a day. They trust it. They consider themselves, often quite literally, to be a part of it. Because of all that, Marshall says, “we have a great story to tell to advertisers.”

It’s a story, sure, that’s a fairly unique one in today’s news environment. Political coverage of the depth and intensity TPM offers may lend itself to reader engagement; it’s also hard to duplicate, though, especially at more general-interest publications. But as news outlets big and small, general-interest and niche, consider their futures, TPM’s experience can be instructive — not only editorially, but also financially. There are basically two TPMs: There’s TPM, the new media visionary and crowdsourcing pioneer and Polk Award winner and “prototype of what the successful Web-based news organization is likely to be in the future“; and then there’s TPM, the scrappy startup that is trying to make a viable business of web-native political reporting. TPM’s ad-sales success suggests the tantalizing possibility that, even in today’s murky media environment, TPM 1 and TPM 2 can actually be the same thing.

14:00

Newsbeat, Chartbeat’s news-focused analytics tool, places its bets on the entrepreneurial side of news orgs

Late last week, Chartbeat released a new product: Newsbeat, a tool that takes the real-time analytics it already offers and tailors them even more directly to the needs of news orgs. Chartbeat is already famously addictive, and Newsbeat will likely up the addiction ante: It includes social sharing information — including detailed info about who has been sharing stories on Twitter — and, intriguingly, notifications when stories’ traffic patterns deviate significantly from their expected path. (For more on how it works, Poynter has a good overview, and GigaOm’s Mathew Ingram followed up with a nice discussion of the decision-making implications of the tool.)

What most stood out to me, though, both when I chatted with Tony Haile, Chartbeat’s general manager, and when I poked around Newsbeat, is what the tool suggests about the inner workings of an increasingly online-oriented newsroom. Chartbeat, the parent product, offers an analytic overview of an entire site — say, Niemanlab.org — and provides a single-moment snapshot of top-performing stories site-wide. Newsbeat, on the other hand, can essentially break down the news site into its constituent elements via a permissioning system that provides personalized dashboards for individual reporters and editors. Newsbeat allows those individual journalists to see, Haile notes, “This is how my story’s doing right now. This is how my people are doing right now.”

On the one hand, that’s a fairly minor thing, an increasingly familiar shift in perspective from organization to person. Still, though, it’s worth noting the distinction Newsbeat is making between news org and news brand. Newsbeat emphasizes the individual entities that work together, sometimes in sync and sometimes not so much, under the auspices of a particular journalistic brand. So, per Newsbeat, The New York Times is The New York Times, yes…but it’s also, and to some extent more so, the NYT Business section and the NYT Politics page and infographics and and blogs and Chris Chivers and David Carr and Maureen Dowd. It’s a noisy, newsy amalgam, coherent but not constrained, its components working collectively — but not, necessarily, concertedly.

That could be a bad thing: Systems that lack order tend to beget all the familiar problems — redundancy, wasted resources, friction both interpersonal and otherwise — that disorder tends to produce. For news orgs, though, a little bit of controlled chaos can be, actually, quite valuable. And that’s because, in the corporate context, the flip side of fragmentation is often entrepreneurialism: Empower individuals within the organization — to be creative and decisive and, in general, expert — and the organization overall will be the better for it. Analytics, real-time and otherwise, serve among other things as data points for editorial decision-making; the message implicit in Newsbeat’s design is that, within a given news org, several people (often, many, many, many people) will be responsible for a brand’s moment-by-moment output.

Which is both obvious and important. News has always been a group effort; until recently, though, it’s also been a highly controlled group effort, with an organization’s final product — a paper, a mag, a broadcast — determined by a few key players within the organization. News outlets haven’t just been gatekeepers, as the cliché goes; they’ve also had gatekeepers, individuals who have had the ultimate responsibility over the news product before it ships.

Increasingly, though, that’s not the case. Increasingly, the gates of production are swinging open to journalists throughout, if not fully across, the newsroom. That’s a good thing. It’s also a big thing. And Newsbeat is reflecting it. With its newest tool, Chartbeat is self-consciously trying to help organize “the newsroom of the future,” Haile told me — and that newsroom is one that will be dynamic and responsive and, more than it’s ever been before, collaborative.

July 29 2011

07:27

Engage, don't bore your readers - "Gamification" of routine tasks and everyday life

mashable :: Can life, and all the menial or routine tasks that come with it, be transformed through game mechanics into an engaging, social and fun recreational activity? Such is the idea behind the emerging trend of “gamification.” Gamification is most often defined as the use of gameplay mechanics for non-game applications. The term also suggests the process of using game thinking to solve problems and engage audiences.

Jennifer Van Grove takes a deeper look at the term, the trend, the mechanics and the real world implications of Gamification.

Continue to read Jennifer Van Grove, mashable.com

July 28 2011

20:41

Measuring engagement - Newsbeat debuts as robust, real-time Web analytics tool for news publishers

Poyner :: The people behind the popular realtime analytics tool Chartbeat launched a new version today specifically designed for news publishers, called Newsbeat. Instead of e.g. PageImpressions, Visits we're already familiar with, Chartbeat introduced new metrics like "Active Views", "Reading", and "Writing" status, which measure engagement. Newsbeat is an even more powerful tool for understanding your Web traffic, but also comes at a higher cost. The new product shows real-time charts now for every article or page on your site not only for the 20 most active pages.

Jeff Sonderman reviewed Newsbeat's market offering for us.

Continue to read Jeff Sonderman, www.poynter.org

July 25 2011

19:37

Google Analytics tracks Google +1, Facebook's "Like" and Tweeter "Tweet"

Media companies using Google Analytics can now easily evaluate the social engagement of their online readers. If visitors "Like" or "RT" articles or click on +1, Google Analytics has integrated the measuring of social engagement into its available set of metrics.

practical ecommerce :: The new Google Analytics "Social" report tracks what Google calls "Social Engagement," "Social Actions," and "Social Pages." The Social Engagement compares visitors that clicked on a social sharing button with those visitors that did not engage. Social Action displays how many visitors clicked on a social-media-sharing button for a given date range. Social Pages, shows which site pages received social-sharing clicks for the given time period. 

Continue to read Armando Roggio, www.practicalecommerce.com

May 24 2011

18:10

Follow, Follow, Tweet Tweet (realities of microblogging)

Microblogs like Twitter are a great vehicle to help organize political demonstrations in countries run by corrupt governments (and an effective way to spread misinformation), but how can nonprofit organizations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), libraries, government programs, and other mission-based organizations really use microblogs to promote their work, increase attendance at an event, get donations or mobilize or support volunteers?

I've updated my resource on Microblogs and Nonprofits yet again, this time adding much more information about live microblog/live tweet events. This is a primer based in reality - you won't find a panting endorsement about how you will raise millions of dollars via Twitter or Facebook or any other technology-tool. Rather, this resource is, I hope, a no-nonsense, anti-fluff, anti-hype, practical list to help nonprofits, NGOs and other community-focused initiatives explore microblogging and use it effectively with volunteers, event attendees and others they are trying to reach and engage.

Being able to work online is now an essential and much-sought-after skill in the work place, no matter what your job at a nonprofit, NGO, government agency, etc. This isn't the domain of just your marketing department anymore: program staff, those that work with volunteers, and anyone that works with the public or with clients at a mission-based organization has a role in using online tools on behalf of mission-based organizations. This updated resource is just one of many pages on my site meant to help those at mission-based organizations who want to enhance their online skills quickly.

Remember: content is still king. Be thoughtful and be strategic about whatever communication tool you use, even the flavor of the month.

May 19 2011

16:00

The newsonomics of the missing link

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

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

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

1. Reality: Print is in permanent decline.

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

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

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

2. Reality: Online engagement is inadequate.

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

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

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

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

3. Reality: Google juice is wearing thin.

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

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

4. Reality: The only big growth is digital.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image by Bryan Wright used under a Creative Commons license.

May 12 2011

16:00

Vadim Lavrusik: How journalists can make use of Facebook Pages

Editor’s Note: Late last month, Vadim Lavrusik moved from his role as the community manager and social media strategist at Mashable to become Facebook’s first Journalist Program Manager. In his new position, Vadim is now responsible for building and managing programs that help journalists, in various ways, make use of Facebook in their work. Below, he shares some ways that journalists have been taking advantage of one of the site’s newest features: Facebook Pages.

The Facebook News Feed is essentially a social newspaper. With it, you’re able to read and discover news shared by your friends, journalists, and media organizations you like. The personalized news stream includes everything from news about your friends’ lives to their reactions to a news article. It’s not only what is being shared, but who is sharing it that’s important.

Journalists can be an even more active part of that conversation. Though many journalists already have personal profiles on Facebook, public Pages enable them to build a professional presence, opening them up to readers beyond Facebook’s 5,000 friend limit and, importantly, helping them to separate their professional presence from their personal on the site.

With that in mind, below are some ways journalists have been using Pages for their reporting and storytelling.

Distribution

Many news organizations and journalists with Facebook Pages use their presence to distribute content. This, of course, not only enables readers to engage with the content on Facebook, but it also drives traffic back to the reporter’s site. (The average news site saw Facebook referrals increase by more than 300 percent since the beginning of 2010.)

By distributing content on Pages, reporters are able to showcase the journalism they produce to the public beyond their friends. And for the members of that public, the ability to get content directly from journalists, rather than just news organizations, creates a richer news consumption experience. It’s no longer just about the story being shared, but about what the person sharing it has to say about it. So when you “like” Christiane Amanpour, it’s likely because you’re interested not just in the news she delivers — but in the way she delivers it.

Social storytelling

Great journalism deserves to be showcased. From short updates on-the-go, to videos, photo albums, or a more in-depth pieces using the Notes feature, Pages enable journalists to produce and showcase various types of content for readers. Journalists such as Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times have used their Pages to post regular updates while they’ve been reporting abroad. Sometimes Kristof’s updates have been a mere behind-the-scenes window into his reporting, while others he has posted detailed descriptions and short stories while reporting from the likes of the Bahrain. And those updates spread to the News Feeds of the more than 200,000 people who “like” his page. The content is social, and, as such, it spreads throughout the network.

Personal vs. professional

Facebook Pages enable journalists to have a professional presence on Facebook, giving readers a chance to connect with their professional identity instead of having only the option to be their friends. And that can be especially useful when it comes to the journalists’ relationship with their sources. If sources want to connect with a journalist on the platform, Pages provide an option in which journalists don’t have to worry (as much) about the content of their personal profiles, or, for example, the ethical implications of accepting a source’s friend request. (It’s also worth noting that many sources probably feel uncomfortable “friending” a journalist.) Now, when someone searches for a journalist’s name, they will see the Page as an option to connect.

Another bonus: While personal profiles have a 5,000 “friend” limit, Pages have no limit.

Building your journalistic brand

As journalists, we often squirm at phrases like “personal branding.” But the reality is that social media, and the social web in general, have created a shift from the institutional news brand to journalists’ personal brands. Prior to the web, the journalistic personal brand was mostly limited to columnists and the TV anchors who enjoyed lots of face time. The rest of us were shrouded in mystery behind our bylines.

But as a result of the proliferation of personal blogs and social profiles — not to mention web search — readers can now find information about a journalist instantly. And journalists themselves have a bigger platform than ever before to interact with their readers, one that allows them more freedom with tone and voice. The bigger platform, of course, has not been limited to journalists alone, and that has resulted in many more voices, and also more noise. But that makes a journalist’s personal brand even more important. If you write it, they will not necessarily come.

Sure, the institutional brand and the credibility attached to it should not be de-emphasized; but the social web has created a consumption environment that encourages conversation as much as content, and the personal as much as the professional. It’s a shift from the logo to the face. A professional Page is a way to grow your personal brand, and develop your audience and community. It’s part of your professional social identity. Though your work and your craft can certainly speak for themselves, the pieces that make up your personal brand online can affect reader perception of your credibility, and your identity, as a journalist.

Showcasing multimedia

With more than 100 million photos uploaded daily, Facebook is the web’s most popular photo-sharing site. And the popularity of video on the site continues to grow. As such, it’s a big platform for photojournalists and videographers to showcase their work.

Take the columnist Deb Petersen of the San Jose Mercury News, who posts photos on her Page as an album that tells a broader story. Or Diane Sawyer, whose Page includes behind-the-scenes videos of her meetings and interviews. Or the TV station in Tallahassee that used its Page to post its newscast after having technical difficulties that prevented it from broadcasting. The station was still able to deliver its nightly newscast to its viewers on Facebook — and users were able to share that newscast with friends, and comment on it.

Breaking news

The News Feed gives users flexibility to adjust their options and filter based on what they want to see. The two prominent options are Top Stories and Most Recent. And Most Recent, in particular, enables users to see content being posted in real-time. This enables journalists and news organizations to keep its readers updated when news breaks.

In April, for example, after the St. Louis Airport was hit with a tornado, KMOV, the local TV station, kicked up the frequency of its updates to real-time. It used its Page to post warnings to its readers, photos and videos of damage, and prompts soliciting content and updates from readers. Journalists posting to the TV station’s Page would status tag their own journalist pages so that readers would know who was posting the reports, adding a layer of transparency and accountability — and enabling readers to connect with them.

Community-sourced content

The more people who participate in the journalism process, the better informed we are as a result. This is something that Jay Rosen recently emphasized in his reflection after 25 years of teaching journalism, and echoed by Mathew Ingram of GigaOM.

In its tornado coverage, KMOV-TV was able to community-source photos and videos of storm damage using its Facebook Page, many of which were used on TV to enhance its broadcast coverage. Individual journalists, of course, are not exempt. Fareed Zakaria uses his Facebook Page to solicit questions from his viewers for interviews he’s preparing for. He also uses Facebook Questions to poll his audience on issues he’s covering.

Cultivating an active and engaged community

Because Facebook Page owners can be logged in as the page itself, it gives them a customized experience and enables them to engage as their Page, and not their personal profile. You also receive notifications for when readers engage on your Page. Though using Pages can be a great tool in building an audience that helps you in your reporting, it also enables journalists to cultivate an active community of readers. The conversation around a story is just as important as the story itself. It usually enhances the story and better informs its readers.

Curating a news stream

Pages also enable journalists to “like” other Pages to create a personalized News Feed. Journalists can use the Page to keep up with top officials or organizations that have Pages set up without having to use their personal profiles and worry as much about the perception of a conflict of interest or an endorsement of an organization.

This is especially applicable to political reporters, who may want to keep up with candidates from multiple parties, but are worried about “liking” those candidates’ Pages using their personal profile. “Liking” content from your public Page means you can more clearly separate your personal identity from your professional one, helping other users to understand that the action is part of your work — not a personal endorsement.

Mobile

A lot of news reporting happens on-the-go, with production taking place not on a computer, but on a mobile phone. Pages can be synced with your mobile device, so it’s easy to post to your Page by using the mobile site or the iPhone application. You can also post photos via e-mail or status updates through text messages by texting “f” to 32665. After the Page is linked with your mobile number, you can send status updates to 32665, and those will post to your Wall.

A richer experience through applications

Pages offer a plethora of custom applications that you can employ to enhance the user experience on your Page. Features such as a custom Contact Form can easily be added as a tab to your page — an option for readers or sources to contact you privately with questions or news tips. Depending on your needs, you can typically find the right application by searching through the Applications Directory.

News organizations and journalist Pages alike have used various applications, from those that enable unique content such as a video livestream integration, to ones that enable you to build a Welcome page for readers who land on your Page. These can be effective in improving the rates of “like” conversions; a simple welcome prompt to “like” the page or directions of how to connect with the page can do the trick. CNN’s Carol Costello, for example, has a tab for Livestream, which enables her viewers to watch her livestreams right on her Facebook Page. And news organizations like Al-Jazeera English have used custom tabs to stream live video on their Page after their site crashed.

Insights into readers

Journalists with public Pages also have access to Facebook Insights, which provides them with exactly that: insights into the activity and demographics of their readers. As journalists, we’ve often had to make assumptions about who our readers are, or rely on imprecise reader surveys for insight into our audiences. For example, a journalist may think her readers are mostly middle-aged Americans, only to find in Insights that her Page community consists of a young, international demographic.

Insights enables journalists to learn more about who their audiences and communities are — not necessarily to produce content based on what performs, but to be better able to consider their communities’ needs, and perhaps to discover where the holes in demographics might be. That said, however, understanding how, and what type of, content is performing well online is crucial. Journalists, after all, are no longer responsible for the production of content alone, but also for distributing that content — and maximizing its impact.

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 25 2011

17:00

A web community with a TV show: Inside The Stream’s efforts to turn broadcasting into a social medium

Al Jazeera English debuted the online edition of its show The Stream before an energized crowd last week at an Online News Association meetup in Washington, DC. A hybrid of high-velocity online conversation and TV analysis, The Stream’s TV component will broadcast out of the Newseum, starting in May, four days a week. And it will be complemented by a continuous online operation that will mine the social media ecosystem for stories of global importance.

Billing itself as an “aggregator of online sources and discussion, seeking out unheard voices, new perspectives from people on the ground and untold angles related to the most compelling stories of the day,” The Stream looks to be a distillation of Al Jazeera’s signature global coverage with an eye towards the social media reporting whose significance proved itself yet again during this spring’s revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt.

Since The Stream’s online launch, stories have included the use of the hashtag #estadofallido (“failed state”) by Mexican Twitter users to address escalating drug violence; an Internet blackout in Nepal; Twitter’s capacity to save a dying language; and a Syrian revolt in (yes) Orange County, California. The Stream’s web operation is powered by Storify, the relatively new tool that allows you to curate social elements from Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and elsewhere around the web. Everything from posts from a blogger in Yemen to snapshots of anti-Arab American graffiti in the OC are woven together into a evocative multimedia narratives.

A web community with its own TV show

“The Stream is reporting on and taking part in a global conversation,” says Andrew Fitzgerald, a senior producer for The Stream. “Our stories are about conversations being had online. When we talk about one of these stories on the show, we want to add to those conversations.” Derrick Ashong, The Stream’s charismatic host (and the subject of a viral video during the 2008 presidential campaign), explained to the assembled crowd that the program was “curating the kind of conversation that lots of us are having all the time.” Or, as he told Fast Company last week: “The concept of The Stream is actually a web community that has its own daily television show on AJ.”

The Stream seems like a logical next step given Al Jazeera’s newfound online clout. The network experienced massive digital growth during the Arab Spring, with web traffic exploding by 2,500 percent at the beginning of the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt as global audiences turned to Al Jazeera English for insight into the turmoil. When the network streamed Hosni Mubarak’s resignation, traffic jumped from 50,000 visitors to 135,371, with 71 percent of the increase coming from social media.

Overnight, Al Jazeera English became an essential online read for global affairs. (Its coverage was so widely praised that Hillary Clinton dubbed it “real news” — this despite its former status as network non grata in America during the Iraq War, when it fell into disfavor with the Bush administration over critical coverage of the war effort.)

Now, a whole class of young and tech-savvy American journalists has been reintroduced to the network through Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr. At The Huffington Post, Michael Calderone rightly speculates that buzz surrounding The Stream’s online game will serve as a vehicle for Al Jazeera English’s adoption into the American cable market — via, in particular, a generation of younger, hipper news consumers.

Voice to the voiceless

Regardless of The Stream’s place in Al Jazeera’s larger strategy, however, the network’s English-speaking operatives have other reasons to celebrate the launch of the innovative new program. With The Stream, Al Jazeera may succeed where the majority of American media organizations have fallen short: not only in fully integrating social media into a news operation, but also in embracing the medium as an inherent feature of the new news programming.

“Social media has the power to break down the centralized control of what constitutes news. If enough people are talking about something on the Internet it IS news. Communities thus have the power to define their OWN news,” notes consultant editor and executive producer Stephen Phelps, who has worked as a producer for the BBC for the past several decades, in an email. “Our job is to find those communities who are saying something which fits the Al Jazeera vision of giving voice to the voiceless and looking at the world from every angle and every side. And to do this on a broad basis through empowering our own community to crowd-source the news. The network’s opportunities to fulfill that goal are greatly enhanced by a program which taps social media.”

In practice, the actual manifestations of the idea of “social news” in Western media outlets have been lacking, generally less focused on utilizing the latest tools for reporting and storytelling and more intent on widespread distribution of branded content. For many media organizations, Facebook and Twitter appear to be first and foremost infrastructure companies: They provide highly efficient channels for spreading content or expanding an outlet’s audience. And until recently, they’ve been treated as such: Virtually every media outlet, from your small-town paper to The New York Times, has a presence on Twitter, Facebook, and (increasingly) Tumblr for promoting their latest stories and soliciting feedback from readers. But very few make the content of social networks a feature of regular news packages. Andy Carvin’s frenetic Twitter curation of the Middle East uprisings has been the de facto example of social media’s newsgathering power; but it’s also notable for being exceptional — in every sense. When stories based on happenings in the social space are published by major news outlets, the outlets seem fixated on a narrow scope of “what’s viral” rather than “what’s vital.”

Social + broadcast

“This is not a show simply about the hottest viral videos or trending stories on the Internet. #8millionBeliebers and #TeamSheen will not figure on The Stream,” proclaims The Stream. “Instead, our goal is to connect with unique, less-covered online communities around the world and share their stories and viewpoints on the news of the day.”

For American cable news providers like Fox, CNN, and MSNBC, the underlying incentive to deploy social media in the service of marketing and traffic goals rather than as an all-encompassing editorial tool may be out of necessity; where cable news used to be the growth sector of the American media industry, it is now on the decline. CNN fared worst in 2010, losing 37 percent of its primetime viewers, while Fox News shed 11 percent and MSNBC 5 percent. The organizations that do try to embrace social do it with the hope of bringing in (or retaining) viewers than developing a new form of storytelling.

In contrast to the shrinking U.S. cable market, Al Jazeera’s sudden growth makes it the perfect network to be creative and innovative in social journalism as a legitimate accompaniment to its regular online and broadcast programming. It should be noted that this is only partially due to the network’s recent online coup: Planning for The Stream started in November, well before protests broke out in Tunisia. “It was generated from the realization within the channel that social media was fast becoming a really important element of global information exchange,” says Phelps. “The revolutions only served to convince us we were on the right track.”

Operationally, the focus of The Stream is “purely editorial,” Phelps says. “The program comes under the over-arching banner of Al Jazeera’s model, which is about offering a different global voice. We are not constrained by the necessity to generate advertising revenue.”

“We’d certainly like to see a lot of web traffic — but engagement is for us an important part of our editorial process,” added Fitzgerald via email. “The Stream is meant to be a participatory online newsgathering community — the measure of our success in engagement will be how good the stories we cover are.”

A “truly global perspective”

While the program intends on being digital (and social) first, The Stream’s online component will certainly benefit from the global audience that Al Jazeera English already enjoys. The entire Al Jazeera network broadcasts to more than 220 million households in more than 100 countries worldwide, compared to the BBC World Service and BBC World News’ combined 241 million viewers in 2010 (BBC World Service projected a loss of 30 million listeners in 2011 due to budget constraints). Long-term plans for The Stream involve incorporating more social tools and a vast range of voices in conjunction with multiple daily broadcasts. “In a year or two I’d like the network to be doing four episodes a day, seven days a week, from two broadcast centers — in DC and Doha,” Phelps tells me. “And that our community is driving much of the editorial. Social media is about community. We must build one, and listen to it.”

“Like the rest of the network, our programme is meant to reflect the truly global perspective of a truly global network,” adds Fitzgerald. “That said, we think you’ll find the stories we cover and the tone in which we cover them might skew a bit younger than the rest of the network.”

The only limitations for The Stream’s television programming lie in the limited blocks of airtime and, as Phelps says, “in the ‘linear’ nature of TV (as opposed to the ‘distributed/randomized’ nature of information on the Internet).” The source of stories, he explains, “are now almost infinite. We are no longer constrained by our ability to get reporters/crews/satellites somewhere in order to cover it in a media-rich way.” The Stream’s format and focus are entirely flexible, to the extent that most of the technical challenges have involved translating the sleek curation of Storify into a broadcast setting. “Our guests are live via Skype; we’re showing Twitter on screen, highlighting short clips of YouTube videos played online,” says Fitzgerald. “It’s a very true experience to the web, actually. It just happens to be occurring on TV.”

April 21 2011

14:00

The newsonomics of a single investigative story

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.

It’s a week to celebrate great investigative work. ProPublica made some history with its Pulitzer for online-only work about the financial meltdown, and the Los Angeles Times crowned its success with the larger-than-life Bell corruption tale, winning its own top prize. Both well deserved.

Meanwhile, as journalists sat around their terminals awaiting the Pulitzer bulletin, an investigative series broke across California, perhaps reaching more audience more quickly than any previous investigative piece. There were no bodies to count, nor billions or millions of ill-gotten gains to uncover.

Rather, California Watch’s “On Shaky Ground” series is aimed at preventing disaster, getting ahead of the Grim Reaper. The series took a big look at the likely safety issues in the state’s schools when (not if, right?) The Big One hits. It found, not surprisingly, that although state law mandated seismic preparations, all kinds of bureaucratic nonsense has contravened that intent. It found that about 1,100 schools had been red-flagged as in need of repair, with no work done, while tens of thousands of others were in questionable and possibly illegal shape. The so-what: Some of the very institutions providing for the kids of California have a certain likelihood of actually falling on top of them and killing them.

It’s old-fashioned, shoe-leather, box-opening, follow-the-string journalism, and it is well done.

While it’s fun to celebrate great journalism, anytime, it’s vital to look at the newsonomics of this kind of investigative journalism. What did it take to get it done? How much did it cost and who paid for it? And, to look at the plainly fundamental question: How do we get lots more of it done in the future?

The series took more than 20 months to complete. The interactive timeline, “On Shaky Ground: The story behind the story,” tells that tale with tongue in cheek; it’s a great primer for any beginning journalism class. Corey G. Johnson, freshly hired from North Carolina and part of a young reporting contingent that has been mixed and mentored well by veterans like editorial director Mark Katches, stumbles on a list of 7,500 “unsafe schools” as he’s doing a routine story on the 20th anniversary of the Loma Prieta earthquake.

Along the way, the story grows in import and paperwork. California Watch, the less-than-two-year-old offshoot of the Berkeley-based Center for Investigative Journalism (CIR), adds other staff to the effort, including reporter Erica Perez, public engagement manager Ashley Alvarado, distribution manager Meghann Farnsworth, and director of technology Chase Davis, among other reporters.

In the end, the series rolled out in three parts — with maps, databases, historical photos, its own Twitter hashtag, a “My Quake” iPhone app — and a coloring book (“California Watch finds a new consumer group, kids“), intended to reach kids, the most important subject and object of the reporting. Already, the state legislature has scheduled hearings for April 27.

The reach of the roll-out is one of the new lessons here. Six major dailies ran at least some part of the series. ABC-affiliate broadcasters took the story statewide. Public radio news leaders KQED, in the Bay Area, and KPCC, in L.A. ran with it. KQED-TV. The ethnic press signed on: La Opinion ran two seismic stories Sunday and Monday, while at least two Korean papers, one Chinese paper, and one Chinese TV station included coverage as well. More than 125 Patch sites in the state (California is major Patch turf) participated.

A number of the distributors did more than distribute. They localized, using data from California Watch, and reporting on their local schools’ shape. KQED-TV produced a 30-minute special that is scheduled to air on at least 12 PBS affiliates in the state.

San Francisco Chronicle managing editor Steve Proctor is frank about how priorities and resource use have changed in the age of downsizing. When Proctor came to the paper in 2003, he says, the paper had five to seven people assigned to a full-time investigative team. Now there’s no team per se, with the Chronicle investing investigative resources in an “investigate and publish” strategy, getting stories out to the public more quickly and then following up on public-generated leads they create. It’s an adjustment in strategy and in resource allocation — and the California Watch relationship makes it even more workable. “We’ve been pretty sympatico with them from the beginning,” he said. “We’ve used the majority of what they’ve produced.”

So let’s get deeper into some numbers, informed by this series, and see where this kind of work can go:

  • “On Shaky Ground” cost about $550,000 to produce, most of that in staff time, as the project mushroomed. That’s now a huge sum of money to a newsroom, even a metro-sized one. Ask a publisher whether he or she is willing to spend a half a million on a story, and you know the answer you’ll usually get. It’s a sum few newsrooms can or will invest. Consequently, the economics of getting a well edited, well packaged series for a hundreth of that price is an offer few newsrooms can (or probably should) refuse.
  • California Watch, not yet two years old, runs on a budget of about $2.7 million a year. That budget supports 14 journalists, whose funding takes up about 70 percent of that $2.7 million number. That’s an intriguing percentage in and of itself; most daily newspaper newsrooms make up of 20 percent or less of their company’s overall expenses. So, disproportionately, the money spent on California Watch is spent on journalists — and journalism.

The project is about midway through its funding cycles. The ubiquitous Knight Foundation (which has contributed about $15 million to a number of investigative projects nationwide through its Investigative Reporting Initiative), the Irvine Foundation, and the Hewlett Foundation, all of which have provided million-dollar-plus grants, are reviewing new proposals.

The key word, going forward here, is “sustaining.” Will foundations provide ongoing support of the “public good” of such journalism? There’s lots of talk among foundations, but no clear consensus among journalism-facing ones. “There really isn’t a foundation community that thinks with a common brain — same situation as in the news community,” Knight’s Eric Newton told me this week. “Each foundation makes its own decisions using different criteria. Some foundations see their role as launching new things and letting nature take its course.” CIR executive director Robert Rosenthal is among those trying to find a new course. Although he’s a highly experienced editor, he finds that most of his time is found fund- and friend-raising.

  • California Watch is building a syndication business, feeling its way along. Already, six larger dailies — the San Francisco Chronicle, the Sacramento Bee, the Orange County Register, the San Diego Union-Tribune, the Fresno Bee, and the Bakersfield California — are becoming clients, paying a single price for the all-you-can-eat flow of daily and enterprise stories California Watch produces. They, a number of ABC affiliates (L.A.’s KABC, the Bay Area’s KGO, 10 News San Diego, 10 News Sacramento, KSFN in Fresno), and KQED public radio and TV in the Bay Area are also annual clients pay between $3,000 and $15,000 a year each. A la carte pricing for individual projects can run from $3,000 to $10,000. The California Watch media network, just launched in January, is an important building block of the evolving business model. It is clear that while syndication can be a good support, at those rates, it’s a secondary support.
  • So, if California Watch were to be totally supported by foundation money, it would take an endowment of $54 million to throw off $2.7 million a year, at a five percent spend rate. Now $54 million raised one time isn’t an impossible sum. Consider just one gift: Joan Kroc left NPR more than $200 million eight years ago. Consider that the billionaires’ club started by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett (encouraging their peers to give away half of their wealths) is talking about newly raising a half a trillion dollars for the public good. Last summer, I suggested the group tithe a single percentage point of the club’s treasury for news-as-a-public-good. It seems to me that stories like “On Shaky Ground” make that pivotal education/health/journalism connection; send “Shaky Ground” to your favorite billionaire and urge him to sign on.
  • Let’s do some cost-benefit analysis. How much is a single child’s life worth? How about a school of 250? We could consult a liability lawyer, who undoubtedly would put assign a six- and seven-figure number per life, and then tie up the courts, post-disaster, making the math work. So if California, bereft as it is of capital, were to invest in the infrastructure, per its own laws, wouldn’t it be ultimately cost-effective? Of course it would be, and in this case we see in microcosm, the question of American infrastructure writ large. Are we a country that will let more bridges fall into mighty rivers, more schools fall onto our children and more poor roads cause preventable injury and death? You don’t need my political rant here. Rather, let us just make the point that journalism — old-fashioned journalism, newly digitally enhanced — is a key part of forcing America to face its own issues, whatever the solutions.

In this project and in California Watch generally, we see the reconfiguring of local media. An owner — whether AOL, Hearst, or private equity — can hardly reject the offer of paying one-hundreth of the cost for space-filling, audience-interesting content. Welcome to a new kind of content farm, to use that perjorative for a moment. Yes, California Watch operates on the same Demand Media-like principle of create-once-distribute-many, realizing the digital cost of the second copy is nil. Let’s consider it the organic, cage-free content farm. It makes sense for a state the size of a country (California = Canada); smaller versions of it make equal sense for Ohio, North Carolina, or Illinois.

Older media outsources journalism and in-sources (affordable) passion. There are lots of lessons here (“3 Reasons to Watch California Watch“), but that fundamental rejiggering of who does the work and how it is distributed and customized is a key one. As Mark Katches points out, “They [distributing partners] put their voices on our story.” That’s a new system in the making.

Old(er) editors can learn new tricks. For a good show-and-tell of that principle, check out Rosenthal’s talk to TEDxPresidio two weeks ago. I first saw him give the talk at NewsFoo in Phoenix in December. Amid more tech-oriented talks, his stood out and was much applauded. It’s a clarifying call for real journalism, perfected for the digital age. Share it.

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