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August 20 2012

01:36

June 03 2011

21:10

The NYT rewards its paying users with subscriber-only content

Subscribers to The New York Times got a surprise in their inboxes this afternoon: a story-behind-the-story about the paper’s coverage of the death of Osama bin Laden, penned by the weekend editor who’d been helming the paper’s news coverage when it was announced that the terrorist leader had been killed by American commandos.

The story is the first, the email notes, in an ongoing series of occasional newsletters — created for subscribers, and for subscribers alone, as, ostensibly, a “thank you” for their subscriptions. As the Times puts it (we’ll save you the ALL CAPS):

This Story Behind Behind the Story e-mail newsletter from The New York Times newsroom has been prepared exclusively for Times subscribers and is the first of an ongoing series you’ll receive as part of your subscription.

The Times’ pay models, both of them, have been based on the walling-off (or metering-off, as it were) of existing content; this seems to be a case of the Times creating new content only for its subscribers. And it’s meta-content: a story about how the Times reported a story.

I’ve reached out to the Times to learn more about the mechanics of the newsletter, which seems to be dribbling out to (at least) print subscribers this afternoon. (Some of my questions: Is it being delivered to digital Times subscribers too? How often will the newsletters be sent out? Will the stories contained in the letter — the Osama backgrounder looks oddly formatted for the page and PDF-like — live anywhere on the web or in print, or are they email-only? Will there someday be ads against the newsletters?)

I’ll update this when I hear back. Meantime, though, it’s worth noting that the newsletter is launching against the backdrop of a Times digital subscription model that is still, in the scheme of things, nascent. The pitch the paper has been making since March, after all, has been something along the lines of “we’re worth paying for.” Subscriber-only content, however, suggests an addendum to that: “We’ll make the paying-for worthwhile.” It rewards subscription, obviously — but, in that, it also suggests that subscribers are, somehow, insiders. News organizations often default to that “behind the scenes” approach when considering how to reward devoted readers: Intimacy, after all, can be a good complement to loyalty.

It’s also worth noting why the Times can reward its subscribers via email. One advantage of the paper’s paid-content model — besides, you know, getting your readers to pay for the content they consume — is how it incentivizes subscribers to connect their digital and print accounts. (Print subcriptions get digital access, but only if they connect the two.) The Times can reach its subscribers (and reward them, then, however it sees fit) in some part because the paper has their digital information in the first place. Times Co. CEO Janet Robinson noted last month that 728,000 print subscribers had connected newsprint to website. Users have given the Times their data; the Times has used those data, in turn, to thank them.

In that, the newsletter seems to be a step toward the Times converting its subscriber base into something that looks more like a community. The Times itself has, in the past, considered “membership” as the proper metaphor for a paid-content strategy — remember those rumors of Gold and Silver offerings? While it ultimately opted for a subscription-driven approach rather than a membership-driven one, the special-for-subscribers content tips a hat to the core ideas of media membership. It’s a like a tote bag in story form.

And that’s significant. The conventional wisdom, after all, tends to be that creating community around news content is the first step toward monetizing that content. The Times’ pay meter has so far bucked that assumption, making its pitch mostly about the paper’s value to consumers on an individual level. Today’s inaugural newsletter suggests, though, that the paper is still actively exploring the more communal aspects of paid content — in this case, bolstering its brand by rewarding the people who prove willing to pay to keep it around.

November 15 2010

17:00

Comments and free samples: How the Honolulu Civil Beat is trying to build an audience (and its name)

“You’re starting from absolute scratch. That’s a big hill to climb.”

That’s not an excuse, but it is the reality of the news startup that John Temple is describing. Temple is the editor of the Honolulu Civil Beat, the online-only news source that made a big splash earlier this year because of its pay-first mentality. As envisioned by Temple, and by Civil Beat founders Pierre Omidyar and Randy Ching, most of the content on the Civil Beat site sits behind a paywall.

As far as startups go, the Civil Beat had news futurists curious about whether a media organization could get readers to pay for news upfront — particularly since Civil Beat has the advantage/disadvantage of starting from a paid subscription model out of the box, as opposed to introducing one after the fact. The big question — it almost seems like a sphinxian riddle — is how do you get people to pay for your work if they can’t readily access it?

In the first six months, the answer seems to be a lot of hustle on the part of Temple and his staff. They’ve aggressively pursued coverage on land use and money issues, placed an emphasis on data, and are engaging readers on and offline. And one other thing: They’re giving away free samples on CivilBeat.com.

“When you’re working at an established organization, you’re building on so much tradition. And here you’re not. You’re developing everything,” said Temple, who is more than familiar with established organizations having been editor and publisher of the departed Rocky Mountain News.

Doling out free content

Where Civil Beat has to be creative, Temple told me, is in making a connection to readers and turning them into site members. “The challenge of course is to have enough people feel that you’re essential that they want to support you and pay for your services,” he said. (Temple said they aren’t releasing numbers on Civil Beat memberships or site traffic just yet. Though he did say this: “People who are willing to sign up at the early phase of a new news product like this with high aspirations — there’s low churn rate with those people.”)

The paywall also sprouts leaks on certain days, when some Civil Beat stories are viewable to the public — generally reporting on the government or elections, Temple said. The Civil Beat homepage, as well as its Twitter feed, also provide a basic understanding of the day’s news in a less-than-closed off way. Temple said it’s been important, as a matter of marketing as well as gaining the public’s trust, to demonstrate to readers that their news is not completely hidden away.

Which is why they went one step further, offering the equivalent of “free ice cream sundaes!” with complete free access to the site on certain days. The free content days are timed around stories the staff believe are in the public interest or enterprise stories they’d like to see reach a wider audience. Temple said they recognize that in order for readers to decide whether they want to spend money on the Civil Beat, they should be able to sample it first.

What the Civil Beat shares in common with many news organizations is the belief in the strength of their journalism as the primary draw for the public, be it land development and environmental stories or campaign funding news. It’s a mix of news basics in new forms, with the Civil Beat reporter/hosts fact-checking (similar to PolitiFact) statements from politicians and parsing data for document-driven reports on subjects like public employee salaries.

“We share with the readership the experience in gathering those records and encountering government agencies,” Temple said. “In some ways that has been very provocative, because we’ve written about how difficult it is to get information and how government agencies treat us.”

Building community

As a small news organization willing to experiment with coverage areas, reader engagement, and ways readers can pay for content, Temple said it was necessary to have an open dialogue with members about changes to the Civil Beat. The company blog has become a place to discuss their journalism and ask for suggested interview questions. Temple said it’s also been useful as they’ve also tinkered with the subscription levels and pricing, offering a 15-day trial for $0.99 and adding a $0.99 cent per month discussion membership to take part in comments. (Comments are free to view, just not to leave.)

And speaking of comments, Temple says they have nothing but good things to report. Discussions have largely remained civil, even while spirited. Members use their real names or can use a screen name (though Civil Beat staff know members’ real identities, thanks to the subscription process). And what may be most surprising to editors dealing with comments elsewhere: “We don’t even have a profanity filter on our comments — anybody can post anything in our comments. It’s all self regulated,” Temple said.

The Civil Beat seems to be making its biggest bet on reader engagement, not just as a method of outreach, but also as content for the site. The debates between readers, ranging from education reform to a proposed Honolulu rail project are filled with long, thoughtful posts, often citing links for background. In turn, Civil Beat staff will invite members to write blog posts spun off from discussions or on other topical issues. “Obviously, the core content is the journalism that we produce, but the comments and the discussion create a whole other level of content,” Temple said.

They’re also reverse engineering the idea of comments as the new “public square,” by holding events (called “Beatups”) on issues like the judicial nomination process and the merger of the Honolulu Advertiser and Honolulu Star-Bulletin. The events are open to members, with non-members able to join for as little as the $0.99 commenting subscription.

Temple wants to not just inspire the daily conversation, but be a part of it — and yes, to get people to help pay for their work along the way. By making select stories open and comments visible, the strategy appears to be letting outsiders have just enough of a taste (or get them riled up for a debate) to pique their curiosity. The idea for the Civil Beat is to prove its worth as a news organization through their work while being open with readers about how they operate. And with substantial financial backing, it can afford to give its strategy some time to develop.

“If you look at most news organizations, and of course they’ve all evolved over the years, there’s still a pretty defensive posture,” Temple said. “We don’t think that’s a healthy way to approach it and I think our members have responded really positively to that. They want to feel that they can talk to you.”

15:00

Josh Marshall on Talking Points Memo’s growth over the last decade: Moving from solo blog to news org

It’s funny to think back to the Talking Points Memo of ten years ago, just a strip of text down a single blue page. (It also had a red-background phase before settling in on the beige color scheme it still has today.)

On November 13, 2000, Joshua Micah Marshall launched the site as a place to blog the presidential election recount in Florida. The tone was different then, much chattier; witness how often Marshall referred to himself as “Talking Points” in the third person, as in “Talking Points heard….” But over the next decade, of course, Marshall not only kept his blog going but grew it into one of the most cited models for online journalism, winning prizes, innovating with the crowd, attracting capital, and growing to a staff of almost 20. (Disclosure: TPM’s growth employed me at one point.)

In honor of TPM’s tenth anniversary, we emailed Marshall some questions about the growth of TPM and the direction it’s headed. He’s been dropping hints about future plans on Twitter, and he’s thinking a lot about what mobile devices will mean for news. And he says TPM is getting ready to experiment with a paid membership model early next year — but not a paywall.

There are some valuable lessons for anyone in the midst of, or considering launching a startup. Here’s the full transcript.

LKM: TPM is turning ten. Are you where you even close to where you thought you would be when you started? Are you where you thought you would be even five years ago?

JMM: Ten years ago, in November 2000, I don’t think I don’t think I gave any thought to where it was going. So I didn’t have any sense of where it would be. But five years ago was when I made the decision to build TPM into a multi-person news organization. Basically in the early spring of 2005. And on balance I’d say, yeah, this is about where I thought we’d be. Certain things are different. At the outset I thought more in terms of launching a series of basically distinct sites. But over time, I saw the logic of taking a more consolidated approach, making TPMMuckraker, for instance, more of a section within a TPM news site than a site in itself. But in terms of scale, topics I wanted us to cover, the move toward paid advertising as the core funding model, it’s about where I was shooting to be at this point.

LKM: You’ve tweeted about your disappointment in outlets repurposing content for the iPad rather than imagining something new. How did you think about TPM and the iPad or tablets? Do you think tablets will create a totally new form in the next few years, the way blogging emerged as its own form?

JMM: We’re focusing a huge amount of resources and thinking on mobile devices. Just to give an example, the percentage of visits to TPM that come from mobile devices is currently rising at almost 1 percentage point a month. So our first priority in 2011 is to make sure TPM is clean, fast and easy to use on all the key devices — iPhones, iPad, Android, etc. But my general sense is that while every digital publication thinks it has a “mobile strategy,” most actually don’t. They think they do, but they don’t. That’s because mobile devices will significantly change the mode of reporting and presentation, just like the web did a decade ago. If you go back to the mid-late 1990s, all the news organizations had websites. But it was basically print slapped onto the web. It was only in the beginning of this decade that you started to see presentational forms that were really native to the web and worked in the context of its strengths and weaknesses. I think mobile is about where web journalism was in maybe 1996-97. So we’re trying to keep in mind that the medium is still quite primitive and that we want to come up with some genuinely new, innovative uses of it.

I think it’s going to grow quickly, with two segments: one that’s basically tablets, things that look something like the iPad now does and then much smaller devices that people will carry with them/on them at all times. In the former category, I think you’ll have versions that look something like full-function websites, albeit designed very differently and around touch. It’s with the smaller devices that we’ll really be challenged to figure out ways to operate within much smaller screen sizes and interact with readers in fundamentally different ways. But as I said before, I don’t think anyone’s really come up with the break-out ideas for mobile yet.

LKM: A while back, you teased the idea of a membership model, where paid TPM members might get extra content or access. Do you imagine that model coming to fruition in the next year or two?

JMM: We’re hoping to do that in the first half of 2011. But to be clear, we’re never moving to a paywall model.

LKM: TPM’s expansion has been steady in the last few years. How do you balance maintaining quality with growth?

JMM: It’s a constant struggle. I knew something about journalism when I started doing this. And I actually knew a decent amount about the technology that powers a website. But I didn’t know anything about growing a company or an organization. So I’ve learned on the job. There are a lot of particular details about management and stuff like that. But I think the key is keeping in place a critical mass of people whose integrity and judgment I can trust. Building TPM taught me to be a businessman, and I enjoy that part of it. But really that’s what it comes to: a core of people who you trust.

LKM: What do you wish you knew ten years ago when you first started blogging?

JMMIt’s funny. I’m glad I didn’t know any of it. The pleasure for me has been exploring, learning, coming up with ideas or more often finding half-formed ideas and wrestling with them until I find some way to use them to improve what we do. I wouldn’t want to rob myself of that.

LKM: What does TPM look like ten years from now?

JMM: Stay tuned.

November 08 2010

15:00

Center for Public Integrity changes up its audience strategy to build a new revenue stream from readers

Nonprofit news outlets reach an audience in different ways. To borrow an analogy, imagine that there are two camps: wholesalers and retailers. Under the wholesale umbrella, we find organizations like ProPublica that primarily reach their audience through partnerships with established news organizations. Retailers, meanwhile, reach an audience directly, like Voice of San Diego or MinnPost.

Both strategies can make sense. But as journalism fundraising becomes increasingly competitive, that audience distinction is blurring. ProPublica, for one, is investing more resources into its website. And the Center for Public Integrity, a longtime wholesaler known for projects that appear in newspapers like the Washington Post or The New York Times, is now rethinking its digital strategy and wading into retailing, too. “It’s not an either or proposition,” the Center’s new executive editor John Solomon told me recently. With a $1.5 million investment from the Knight Foundation, they’re working on revamping their digital strategy to reach readers directly, via the web and mobile products. The strategy isn’t just about distribution for distribution’s sake — it’s about the bottom line.

“The Center had a different challenge than the rest of the journalism industry,” Solomon told me, referring to the for-profit world. “When the Center started, it was the center of the nonprofit world. Today there are 70, 80, 90, 100 groups all competing for the same limited pool of nonprofit dollars — the Knights, the Fords, the Carnegies, all these gracious funders of nonprofit journalism. So the Center has decided to take the leap aggressively and listen to funders and try to create earned revenue that augments our donations, that creates a sustainable model.”

Solomon’s goal is to produce $2 worth of journalism for every $1 a foundation donates. To do that, he’s looking beyond foundations to readers. That’s akin to a model very familiar to the Center’s executive director, Bill Buzenberg, who spent almost 30 years in public radio (supported by listeners, like you!) at NPR and Minnesota Public Radio. The Center isn’t alone in trying to rethink its nonprofit model. Knight recently announced a $15 million grant project to help figure out longterm funding solutions for journalism.

The first step toward that new revenue stream is pulling in a new audience. Since Solomon started on new digital projects a few months ago, including making its website more SEO friendly, time on the Center’s site is up dramatically, to a remarkable 12 minutes per user. (He showed me the Google Analytics chart for proof.) Pageviews have skyrocketed too. The site is in the midst of a complete redesign, which will make it feel more like a news site and less like a think tank’s. We recently wrote about a new HTML5 product that makes reading long-form journalism pleasant on any device and without an app.

I asked Solomon how he plans to round up these new, engaged readers. He pointed to some of the successes he pulled off in widening the audience both online and in print at the Washington Times, where he had been executive editor for a little less than two years. “One of the little dirty secrets in my last eight months at the Washington Times before the Moon family erupted and the paper fell apart, web traffic was up 500 percent,” he told me. “Digital revenues were up 360 percent and our national print publication grew circulation by 25 percent. There is no other print publication, that I can think of, in the middle of a recession that had that kind of double-digit gains.” (Although, to be fair, many conservative outlets saw increases in audience pegged to the election and administration of Barack Obama.)

Washington journalism is in a time of significant revenue rethinking — from the paywall-only National Journal opening up a free version of its site, to free Politico launching paid products, the movement toward multiple revenue streams is afoot. General manager of the Allbritton-backed startup TBD, Jim Brady, recently said at a Online News Association panel that his business model is “shrapnel” — “there isn’t one stream that’s going to make us successful.”

If the Center can figure out a way to monetize a new audience, there will likely be an eager audience watching that success. “I really believe the nonprofit journalism world can be the innovation lab where the business models change,” Solomon said.

September 27 2010

19:05

How Aftonbladet Varies Paid Content with Clubs, Micropayments

While newspapers in the U.S. are struggling to find ways to fund online content, Aftonbladet, the most read newspaper in Sweden has been successfully charging for online content for several years. Here's a look at how paid content is working in Sweden.

Aftonbladet: Early to the Web

Aftonbladet, founded in 1830, is one of the biggest daily newspapers in the Nordic countries. The paper's content is a mixture of news, entertainment, sports and lifestyle. As a typical Scandinavian evening paper, Aftonbladet isn't as sensational or punchy as one might expect in a British or American tabloid.

Aftonbladet has a daily circulation of roughly 360,000 and a readership of over 1 million in a country of 9.3 million people. The print paper is sold daily for the equivalent of $1.30, and the paper does not offer subscriptions or home delivery for the print edition.

Its print circulation has been on the decline, but Aftonbladet's growing online readership is now up to 5 million unique visitors a week. Aftonbladet was the first Swedish newspaper to go online in the mid-'90s, the first to charge for online content, and the first to find success with this strategy.

Schibsted, a Norwegian media conglomerate, owns 91 percent of Aftonbladet. Schibsted has been very successful at monetizing online businesses, with one example being a Craigslist-style online classifieds business.

Paid Content: Plus Service

Aftonbladet uses a freemimum model for its online content strategy. Most of its content is free, including news and commentary. But readers are charged for the "Plus" service content, and they can pay for it using micropayments or by purchasing a subscription. A subscription costs about $4 per month (or $43 per year). The service started seven years ago and currently has 115,000 subscribers.

plus.png

The Plus service includes lifestyle material, such as over 200 different travel guides, health articles, and reviews of cars, gadgets and other products and services. There are also instructional guides for everything from buying an apartment to dieting or owning a pet. The paper also charges for select news stories, such as those that have to do with the Swedish Royal family.

The service's most popular content are the health articles, travel guides, the yearly lists regarding taxation in Sweden, and the reviews.

"One of the most read articles was about how to get a 'Fight Club' body, a very well trained body," said Elsa Falk, the product development manager at Aftonbladet. "When the article was published, we got many new subscribers."

Falk said the paper works to get the most out of its popular content by changing the angle and pictures on articles in order to keep them fresh, which enables them to reuse content.

Most of the content offered in the Plus service is produced by Aftonbladet's staff writers. The paper has created a special editorial group with four editors and one managing editor for its paid service. They select the material that ends up going behind the pay wall.

Experiments with Micropayments

Aftonbladet introduced the micropayment option for the Plus service earlier this year. With this in place, readers can pick any paid article they want and pay a one time fee for that piece of content.

"The total number of purchases increased since we launched micropayments, but sales of subscriptions decreased drastically," Falk said.

That's a notable loss for the paper because there is a lack of information of average revenue per user (ARPU) when it comes to micropayment users. That makes it hard to analyze the business. On the other hand, with the micropayment model, the paper gets to see what kind of stories people are willing to pay for individually.

As a result, Aftonbladet shifted the way it's using micropayments. One big change is that not every Plus service article is available for single purchase.

"We deliberate now carefully about which articles will be available only for Plus subscribers, and which ones are also available for micropayments," Falk said. "We also raised the price of content available for micropayments."

Clubs and Movies

aftonplus.png

While the Plus service is a big part of the paper's paid content strategy, it's by no means the only offering.

Aftonbladet also operates different membership clubs. Currently, its site has a weight loss club and an insomnia club. The weight loss club costs $70 per year or can be joined for about $10 to $15 a month.

The weight loss membership provides a program for dieting, and the insomnia club is, of course, aimed at helping people sleep better. Each club is run by experts in the respective field. The weight loss club has had brought in 380,000 subscribers since its launch in 2003. The Insomnia club just launched, so Falk said it's too early to share figures or declare it a success.

Aftonbladet also sells documentaries on a pay-per-view basis, and delivers this content in collaboration with producers such as National Geographic and BBC.

"You don't get rich on showing one documentary, but it is the long tail that matters here more," Falk said.

The paper has also made it a priority to release iPhone apps, and will be launching an iPad app as soon as the device arrives in Sweden.

"It is necessary to be present in all the platforms, and it is important not to be there only for free of charge," Falk said.

The Future: More Experimentation

Aftonbladet's online revenue is growing, and it currently accounts for between 10 and 12 percent of total revenue. One fifth of Aftonbladet's online revenue comes from paid content. And of all revenue generated by paid content, the journalistic content (such as articles, reviews and guides) accounts for 55 percent. Membership clubs bring in a bit more than one third of total paid content revenue, and the rest comes from selling books and products such as yoga mats and even vuvuzelas.

There are many factors that have contributed to the paper's online success. For example, Aftonbladet was smart enough to be an early mover on the web in Sweden, and that has resulted in it gaining a large, loyal audience. Aftonbladet has also done a good job creating a sense of uniqueness around its Plus service, and in offering a wide range of content. There is something for a sports fan or celebrity junkie, as well as useful content for anyone buying an apartment, trying to lose weight, or planning a trip.

Falk said the paper continues to experiment with its paid content offerings.

"There are interesting possibilities with 'Long Tail' e-commerce, for example," Falk said.

She said Aftonbladet hasn't really operated with a holistic strategy for paid content, but that the paper is now developing one.

"We are very much entrepreneurs here at Aftonbladet, and it has been good enough so far," Falk said. "Now we want to apply more strategic thinking in our plans."

Tanja Aitamurto is a journalist and a Ph.D. student studying collective intelligence in journalism. She has studied innovation journalism at Stanford, and has degrees in journalism, social sciences, and linguistics. Tanja advises media companies and non-profit organizations about the changes in the field of communication. As a journalist, she specializes in business and technology. She contributes mainly to the Huffington Post and to the Helsingin Sanomat, the leading daily newspaper in Finland, as well as to the Finnish Broadcasting Company. Tanja splits her time between San Francisco and Finland, her home country.

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March 17 2010

16:19
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