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April 03 2013

19:23

Press Publish 10: Tiffany Shackelford on the future of alt weeklies after the Boston Phoenix

tiffany-shackelfordIt’s Episode 10 of Press Publish, the Nieman Lab podcast! My guest this week is Tiffany Shackelford, executive director of Association of Alternative Newsmedia, until recently known as the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies. They’re the trade group for alt weeklies in the U.S. — your Village Voices, your Chicago Readers, your Seattle Weeklies — and until recently, the Boston Phoenix.

The legendary Boston alt weekly surprised the publishing world last month when it announced it was closing after 47 years. That led to a new round of concerns about the future of alt weeklies, which have seen a lot of the same revenue declines that dailies have over the past decade. And when daily newspapers were strong, it was easy to know who the alt weeklies were an alternative to; now there’s no shortage of alternatives to the alternative.

press-publish-logoTiffany believes that alts still have a solid future ahead of them, particularly in markets smaller than Boston. We talked about how their revenue mix is shifting, how some alts are changing their publication cycle and becoming more heavily digital, and who are the model players that other publishers should be watching. If you’re interested in the future of some of America’s most prominent newspaper brands, give our conversation a listen.

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Show notes

@tiffanyshack
Tiffany’s LinkedIn profile
Association of Alternative Newsmedia
2012: “Alt weeklies eye an AP of their own with a content exchange”
The Boston Phoenix, R.I.P.
Phoenix publisher Stephen Mindich’s goodbye
The Independent in Lafayette, Louisiana
Long Island Press
American Independent News Network
Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity
Stateline.org
Barbara Mandrell, “I Was Country (When Country Wasn’t Cool)”
Capitolbeat, the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors
Ernie Smith, “Alt-weeklies may struggle but don’t count them out”
Rachael Daigle, “Alt-Weeklies Are Dead; Long Live Alt-Weeklies”
Dan Kennedy, “The Boston Phoenix comes to the end of the road”
“The Boston Phoenix closing is another sign that glossing up print doesn’t work miracles”
Dan Kennedy, “How the Boston Phoenix Kept Its Readers But Lost Its Advertisers”
DigBoston
Allyson Bird, “Why I left news”
Job listings at AltWeeklies.com
Arkansas Times’ Arkansas Blog
Walter Hussman’s pro-paywall position
OC Weekly
Willamette Week
WW’s Candidates Gone Wild
The Media Consortium
Seven Days
Creative Loafing’s neighborhoods project with the Home Depot Foundation
The Reader of Omaha
East Bay Express
Charleston City Paper
Voice Media Group
The Stranger of Seattle
The Other Paper in Columbus closing
The Times of Acadiana (owned by Gannett)
New Haven Advocate
SouthComm
Boise Weekly
Chicago Reader
Now in Toronto
Gambit in New Orleans

July 06 2010

22:54

Time Magazine putting up a paywall to protect print?

Check out the current issue of Time Magazine at Time.com. Click around. Notice anything? On almost every story that comes from the magazine, there’s this phrase: “The following is an abridged version of an article that appears in the July 12, 2010 print and iPad editions of TIME.”

Late last month, Reuters’ Felix Salmon noticed that a Time.com story he followed a link to wasn’t all there — it was just a snippet and a note saying that “To read TIME Magazine in its entirety, subscribe or download the issue on the iPad.” But by the following morning, the full story was back as if nothing happened.

The fact that nearly every major article in the current issue online is now cut short — and that each has the new this-is-an-abridged-magazine-article note — would seem to indicate this is part of a new shift at Time. (A few pieces are posted in full, but even the letters page gets cut off. Even a slideshow, that ultimate driver of pageviews, gets chopped down to just a single slide.)

At this rate, every news outlet with some variant of “time” in their title will be charging digital readers in one way or another. A quick Googling seems to indicate this is new with the July 12 issue.

We’ve got a call into Time to get additional details, but a few quick thoughts:

— It’s interesting that Time would consider this kind of a move when (a) its major rival, Newsweek, is getting roughed up economically, and (b) managing editor Richard Stengel has been proudly proclaiming that Time was “very profitable last year, and we will be even more profitable this year.”

— Time’s website is popular, and there’s still plenty of free content on it — just not, apparently, the weekly magazine itself. News paywalls tend to be more about protecting print as a standalone product than about building a new online revenue stream. So maybe making the content differentiation between the two stronger makes sense.

— But this is a paywall without a door: There appears to be no way to buy access to the magazine from within a web browser — either an individual article or the full issue. The push is all toward print and the magazine’s iPad app. Is that a temporary shortfall, while Time figures out the best way to charge for web access? Or is it a sign publishers are concluding that the web is so problematic a platform for news-as-paid-content that they’re better off using it as a simple promotional platform for iPad apps and paper?

— Given all that, is it just ironic justice or something more that the current Time cover story was written by none other than Steven Brill?

May 07 2010

20:00

Say what you will about Newsweek…but don’t forget about their Tumblr

The Awl put it best: “For sale: Perennial runner-up weekly publication in dying media segment. $0 or best offer. Includes funny Tumblr.”

The Tumblr in question? Newsweek’s. Yes, Newsweek’s. The “foul-mouthed” and “Gawkeresque (old Gawkeresque)” cousin of newsweek.com — the site that, in response to this week’s news of the magazine’s sale, announced: “Look, We Don’t Want to Seem Ungrateful, But if We Are to Be Acquired by Any Latin Superstar, We Kinda Hope It’s Shakira”…tagging the post “Culture,” “Journalism,” “Us,” and “Our Hips Are Exceptionally Truthful.”

Like the best Tumblrs, the site is random and trenchant and funny and unapologetically idiosyncratic. But what’s most striking about it, for our purposes, is that the Tumblr is all those things…while also being very much a vehicle of “the Newsweek brand.” It’s not just that the bright-red Newsweek logo is the first thing that catches your eye when you visit the site; it’s also that, more significantly, much of the Tumblr’s content is curated from Newsweek’s primary web offerings. Yesterday, it reposted this pearl of wisdom from a comment on the parent site (with the note that “sometimes the Newsweek commenters just crack us up”): “About ten years ago I heard someone from the homosexual lobby say that the only music genre they had not infiltrated was country music! Immediately after that Leann Rhimes did a duet with Elton John and now, here we are.”

Indeed. While “the Tumblr and its sense of humor and things like that are probably slightly different from the general Newsweek audience,” acknowledges Mark Coatney, Newsweek.com’s projects editor and the Tumblr’s creator and producer…it’s not that far afield. Today, for example, the Tumblr features long(-ish) excerpts from Newsweek pieces about the Palin/Fiorina endorsement and the outcome of the British election. “I feel like I have a pretty good idea, organizationally, of what the Newsweek sensibility is,” Coatney told me. “That might be slightly different from mine, but I try to hew closely to that.”

When traditional media latch on to new forms

The Tumblr’s fate is, at the moment, as precarious as that of its parent magazine. But it’s worth noting that, even as Newsweek, as a magazine and a website, got a reputation for mediocrity and stagnancy — and even as, yesterday, all the familiar they failed to innovate truisms came out in full, schadenfreudic force — over at the outlet’s Tumblr, innovation (and experimentation, and engagement and conversation) were actually taking place. Just on a small scale.

“The nice thing about management is that they’ve been very much like, ‘Experiment. Do whatever you want. Don’t embarrass us too much. And see how it goes,’” Coatney says. The institution gave agency to one of its members to experiment with something he cared about; it gave him leave not only to leverage his expertise, but also simply to have fun as he leveraged. The groking and the rocking, rolled into one.

Which is a small thing, but a rather profound one, as well. “The problem with the magazine industry,” Evan Gotlib wrote (in a post quoted on, yes, the Newsweek Tumblr), “is that they all too often latch on to new technology (Let’s make an iPhone app! Let’s build a Facebook fan page! Let’s create print ads with RFID scan technology! Let’s start a Tumblr blog!) without understanding the REASON behind that beautiful technology. It’s not a strategy; it’s a last gasp tactic.” The secret sauce of the Newsweek Tumblr, though, is the fact that it wasn’t part of a strategy at all. It was simply an experiment, given the freedom (from commercial pressure, from corporate overlordism) to develop organically. As Coatney puts it: “It was kind of nice not to have any expectations around it.”

Another way to put it: the Tumblr, as part of an overall approach to institutional media, suggests the power of the personal — the idiosyncratic, the unique — in journalism. The site is aware of the institution whose brand it bears, but isn’t overwhelmed by it. On the contrary: The Tumblr has “made us able to put our story out there and talk to people in a way that I think is hard for big media companies to do,” Coatney says. But it’s flattened the conversation, putting Newsweek — the Media Institution — and its readers on equal footing. And it’s made the Media Institution more responsive to its users. The Tumblr — and, in particular, the ability to see what posts people comment on, reblog, etc. — ”gives me a good sense of what people respond to,” Coatney points out. So “you get that immediate feedback.”

The problem of scale

Which isn’t to say there aren’t tensions between the personal and institutional in even something as unassuming as a Tumblr. Scalability can be a challenge, for one thing. In the same way that a Twitter feed with 1,000 followers will have, almost de facto, a different voice than a Twitter feed with 100,000 followers, a Tumblr that gets too big — Newsweek’s has about 8,000 followers right now — could lose its power, and its voice, and its quirk. “It’s a real concern of mine,” Coatney says. “Because part of the value of this is that you’re able to talk and respond to and reblog people. If I see something that I like from somebody else, I try to comment on it and point it out. And if suddenly there are a million people talking all at once, I’m not sure quite how to deal with that yet.” (Then again: “If we get a million followers, I’ll happily try to figure that out.”)

Another challenge is the perennial one: commercial appeal. The Tumblr, on its own, isn’t easily monetized through online ads or other traditional methods of money-making. Right now, the site gets about 1,000 visits a day, Coatney notes — “not really a volume in which many advertisers are going to be interested.”

Still, from the branding perspective, the Tumblr represents a mindset that is scalable. Whatever Newsweek’s fate — and whatever responsibility it must take for that fate — the outlet currently has an example of innovative thinking under its institutional umbrella, one that serves as a reminder of what the best journalism has always understood: that there’s nothing wrong with a little whimsy. “In the end, we use Tumblr not because it’s a great way to connect with our readers (though it is that), or because we believe this or something like it is a part of a new way forward for interaction between publishers and audience (though we think that too),” Coatney writes. “We use Tumblr because it’s fun and while, you know, you can’t eat fun, or trade it in for fistfuls of dollars to fund serious journalism, we believe there’s a value in doing things we like simply because we like to do them, and that hopefully our fellow Tumblrs will too.”

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