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July 25 2011

16:00

For the Texas Tribune, “events are journalism” — and money makers

Texas Tribune Festival logo

When Evan Smith helped launch the nonprofit Texas Tribune in 2009, he set out to get people engaged in their government again, especially in places where newspaper coverage has dwindled. The Tribune introduced blogs, multimedia, troves of government data, and something old-fashioned for an online news startup: face-to-face conversations.

The Tribune has hosted more than 60 public events — all free — attracting top influencers, big audiences, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in corporate sponsorships. Now the Tribune is blowing up the event and throwing The Texas Tribune Festival, a weekend of ideas for policy wonks, lobbyists, and anyone else invested enough in local government to pay $125 for a ticket.

“Events are journalism — events are content. And in this new world, content comes to you and you create it in many forms,” says Smith, the Tribune’s chief editor and chief executive.

One goal: to combat low levels of public engagement on a lot of the issues the event will address. “We think much of the technology world embraces ‘push’ as opposed to ‘pull’ as a way to reach people,” Smith says. “We are taking a ‘push’ approach to content, and that means going to people with content where they live.”

The speaker list includes top names in the universe of Texas politics: energy tycoon T. Boone Pickins, former U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro. And the topics covered are also the Tribune’s core coverage areas: health and human services, energy and the environment, public and higher education, and race and immigration.

Evan Smith

If that all sounds familiar, it’s because the idea is modeled on the New Yorker Festival. In 2009, Smith hired the person who created that festival, Tanya Erlach, the former senior talent manager for The New Yorker. (“She’s not reinventing the wheel; this is her wheel,” Smith says.) Erlach handles everything from programming to logistics.

Smith is the first to admit that events don’t only produce journalism. They also produce revenue. And even the free events, including the TribLive speaker series, have been money-makers. They are cheap to produce, for one thing, and often underwritten by corporate sponsors. Smith estimates the Tribune raised about $650,000 in corporate support last year, which includes events. He expects to raise $1.3 million this year. While major gifts from philanthropists represented almost all of the Tribune’s revenue in 2009, Smith expects more financial diversity in 2011, with income from philanthropy, corporations, and events evenly split. Altogether, the Tribune has raised $9.3 million in barely two years — far more than like-minded nonprofit startups elsewhere.

“A lot of better established nonprofit news organizations — and I’m not counting the public broadcasting TV and radio stations but the sites that are similar to ours, ones that have been in existence longer — really have not approached the task of soliciting corporate support, underwriting, and sponsorships. We’ve just not seen other folks approach this, and they started to call us and ask us and our folks, you know, ‘How are you doing this?’”

If journalism is to survive, Smith says, business must be in the DNA. It’s in the Tribune’s DNA. Another Tribune co-founder was a venture capitalist, John Thornton, who initially raised $4 million in startup funding, including $1 million of his own cash and a large grant from the Knight Foundation. While Smith does not handle fundraising, he does reach out to executives personally to solicit their support.

Is Smith sheepish about that? “Hell, no.” Is there a conflict of interest? “Our only bias is in favor of Texas.” Public radio and television, he points out, rely heavily on corporate underwriting. The Tribune is neither paying people to speak at the festival nor covering their expenses. And the only reward for a corporate sponsorship is “a handshake and a tax letter,” he says.

“The work we do is important. And it needs to be paid for,” Smith explains. “There are appropriate sources of revenue out there. There is nothing to be ashamed of when putting a ‘for sale’ sign on as much stuff as possible, provided that it doesn’t have a negative impact on the work that you do or doesn’t create a negative perception of your integrity.”

Besides the financial value of the Tribune’s events, Smith says, there’s also value in the B word — you know, the word that tends to be uncomfortable in journalism circles. “Just as some other organizations may shrink from associating with corporate interests, there are some organizations, I suspect…that don’t fully appreciate the value of branding,” he says. A big festival is a platform for the Tribune to present itself as a grown-up operation, to build credibility and attract new readers.

Tickets went on sale July 11, with a discount for Texas Tribune contributors. Smith is working out a deal with sponsors to make admission free for college students.

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.

July 29 2010

16:00

The Newsonomics of membership

[Each week, our friend Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of the news business for the Lab.]

New journalism is hungry for new business models. Beyond millions in foundation start-up support, what will sustain these enterprises?

One answer: membership. The notion is borrowed from NPR (née National Public Radio), which we must remind ourselves is no “experiment.” NPR is now more than 40 years old, trying to fight off its own middle-age doldrums by reinventing itself as public media, as digitally oriented as it is radio-oriented — but that’s a topic for another day.

While the daily press is testing paywalls — some with big holes, some with small, some with rungs, some without — news startups are taking a different route, that NPR model. That divide of how best to get readers to pay may be a decisive one when we look back in five years.

For startups, membership is all the rage these days, as these new companies look to it to provide a vital leg in the new stool supporting new journalism. Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith says his plan calls for a third of the site’s funding to come from memberships, aiming toward a goal of 10,000 members. The Tribune’s been a fast climber, signing up about 1,700 members at a median price of about $100, since launching in November.

MinnPost, though, claims the lead, having built to more than 2,000 members in its two-and-a-half year history. Within the next several weeks, GlobalPost, now one-and-a-half-years-old, will relaunch its own membership program, Passport. Perhaps significantly, GlobalPost built its new offer on the Journalism Online Press+ platform, and that, too, could serve as a model for others, if successful.  Those who run sites that have tested membership have fielded lots of calls from their news media start-up compatriots inquiring how to make membership work, and we can all expect to hear a lot more about it over the next year.

So let’s look at the very early Newsonomics of membership, talking to the architects about their building in process. In the second part of Newsonomics of membership, we’ll look at some public radio data that helps fill out the emerging online model.

MinnPost borrowed the NPR approach of letting readers determine how much they want to contribute, offering everything from a $10 “student” membership to a $500 “media mogul” one. Joel Kramer, CEO and editor, says that the average gifts are either $50 or $100. In 2009, membership contributed to 30% of the site’s $1.2 million, bringing in about $360,000.

Importantly, Kramer is trying to figure out the metrics of membership, and he may be farther along there than others as well.

As the former Star Tribune publisher and editor has moved online-only, he’s studied the new business. One thing that he knows is missing is consistent, useful audience measurement, and it’s interesting that his comments there parallel those of new Newspaper Association of America incoming chairman Mark Contreras, a senior vice president of Scripps. Apples-to-apples audience measurement is key to building digital businesses, and both Kramer and Contreras will tell you it’s missing today.

So Kramer has figured out his own fledgling metrics to assess how well membership is doing. He uses Quantcast data, and here’s his logic.  It’s those readers who come to MinnPost at least twice a month — 27 percent of MinnPost’s visitors — who are most likely to sign up as members. The rest are fly-bys, referred haphazardly by Google and others. That 27 percent now accounts for about 40,000 visitors a month. So Kramer figures that at the current rate, he can expect that five percent of those more frequent visitors — 2,000 people — will become members. (Remember that five-percent number, when we move to part two on membership and look at NPR’s experience.)

For Kramer, the metric is a snapshot. Double the number of more-frequent visitors, and he would expect a doubling of membership. Maybe, though, five percent is just an early number, and that the percentage itself will increase as the site’s service to readers grows in time. If MinnPost could yield 10 percent of its more-frequent visitors, it could have 4,000 members today. That could mean that membership will pay for 60 percent of the bills, or that MinnPost could expand its staff and site.

MinnPost eschews giving members special perks, the kinds of gifts that often accompany NPR pledge drives. “The only perk a member gets is an invitation to core events,” usually staff-hosted affairs where members can mingle with the journalists. MinnRoast, an annual MinnPost event, brought in another $100,000 last year — so we see in this budding business model the link between membership and events.

Membership may all be about building relationships over time.

GlobalPost CEO Phil Balboni believes in relationship-building as well. GlobalPost’s new Journalism Online (JO) model gives it a third try to tweak the membership model. At launch, it went premium, charging $199 annually, but finding few takers. Then, it moved to a $49.95 price point, and has picked up 500 members.

When it launches with Journalism Online, it will offer two membership prices, $22 a year or $1.99 a month. Key JO-powered approach is the ability to pop up membership offers after a half dozen or so “content triggers.” When users hit certain parts of the site, or read a certain number of pages, the voluntary membership offer will pop up. That’s key to Balboni, who estimates that one percent or less of those who see membership offers will act on them. One of the current roadblocks, he believes, is that few people see the Passport membership page; increasing membership offer visibility, he hopes, will multiply membership. Key to the Passport offer: Members get to select some story assignments that GlobalPost will pursue.

A veteran of the news trade, Balboni realizes it’s a long-term build: “This is a five- to 15-year effort to get consumer behavior changed.” Balboni would like to see membership build into funding half the budget.

Texas Tribune’s Evan Smith is aiming to make membership pay a third of the freight by the end of Year 3, which would be fall 2012. He figures the site has so far converted less than one percent of its total unique visitors (compared to a little more than one percent for the older MinnPost) as it has burst out of the gate in Texas with lots of promotion. His end-of-2010 goal is 2,600 members, up from the current 1,700. Members pick their level of giving.

Good or poor current audience metrics, make no mistake that this membership business is a game of metrics. Three stand out for now:

  • What percentage of which part of the readership can news sites expect to contribute?
  • How much of their going-forward budgets — and if and when foundation money dries up — can be made up by readers?
  • What’s the median gift?

Those are three key questions, as news people try to inculcate (or as least borrow from NPR) a membership ethic. In the meantime, those who care about nurturing the new news can do something: Join the favorite new enterprise of their choice. Here are the links: MinnPost, GlobalPost, and Texas Tribune.

Photo by Leo Reynolds used under a Creative Commons license.

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