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March 29 2013

14:15

Texas Tribune expands its niche email business with In the Flow

texastribuneflowThe Texas Tribune is getting into the niche newsletter business. The Tribune’s new twice-a-month newsletter, In the Flow, takes a look at water issues and related topics like droughts and fracking. But the newsletter won’t be delivered to subscribers inboxes; email alerts will direct readers to TexasTribune.org when new issues are available. It’s email as push notification rather than email as delivery platform.

Evan Smith, editor-in-chief and CEO of the Tribune, said they’re taking a lesson from that world of push notifications and alerts: Prodding people to go to the website, rather than just reading in their inbox, can expose them to more content and advertising, he said.

It’s another data point in the surprising continued life of email newsletters which — despite the rise of social media, usage shifts among young people, and the feeling of persistent dread with which many people approach their inboxes — has been an unexpected point of strength at many news organizations. (At the Lab, we didn’t even start a daily email for two years after our launch in 2008, thinking the action had moved elsewhere; today, our email has over 10,000 subscribers. It drives about 3 percent of our monthly pageviews.)

For readers, newsletters can represent a more focused, and digestible, version of the news they are interested in. For media companies, they’re another way to reach readers and develop additional lines of advertising. “At the end of the day what this is about is a sustainable business model that allows us to produce great journalism,” Smith told me.

In the Flow is also interesting because it’s a partnership for the Tribune — it’s jointly producing the newsletter with the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University. That center has already been producing a version of the newsletter since 2005, and will now offer “original reporting from the Trib, interactive maps and other data journalism, and stories and research from trusted outside sources,” Smith wrote on Wednesday.

Stories in the newsletter will be written by freelancer Carol Flake, with editing and additional content supplied by the Tribune. The plan, according to Smith, is for the Tribune to reimburse the Meadows Center for producing the newsletter through sponsorship revenue. Anything above the cost to the Meadow Center will go back into the Tribune, he said. The idea for partnering came from the Meadows Center, but Smith told me he’s been wanting to get deeper into the newsletter business since the Tribune started. “We thought this is the perfect petri dish for us to experiment with the idea of a newsletter vertical,” he said.

Through reporting, events, and database projects, the Tribune has focused on Texas government and the civil sector. Smith said niche newsletters are a way to go deeper into specific policy areas for “people who live in that policy world all day, every day, and they almost speak another language.” Water is a big issue in Texas: It intersects with the energy industry, but is also a concern on the local level as communities try to manage water reserves amid population growth. Smith said for a certain population of readers, whether they work in water-related industries or are just interested, there’s a — pun coming — thirst (sorry) for this kind of information. “There are a lot of generalists out there in the world, but at the end of the day you want special knowledge, and that adds value to what you do,” he said.

For the Tribune, it also could add up to a new line of business. Because the newsletter will live on the Tribune’s website, they can be accompanied by existing ad runs. But Smith said In the Flow, and other newsletters, create an opportunity for targeted advertising from sponsors interested in specific topic areas. “In the perfect world, your lines of business are complementary and help one another,” Smith said. “I think that’s what’s going to happen here.” So if you’re a company interested in water issues or the environment, and you’ve already sponsored events with the Tribune, there’s a chance you’d want to advertise in a niche product that aligns with your mission, Smith said. Because of the select nature of the newsletters — in this case people really interested in water — that represents a targeted audience, Smith said.

The nonprofit Tribune has taken an aggressive approach to diversifying how it makes money. In 2012 they ended the year upwards of $4.5 million in revenue, a new high for the organization, which relies on a mix of memberships, corporate underwriting, and sponsorships to operate. Smith thinks that newsletter sponsorships, or even paid-subscription newsletters, could produce new revenue in the six figure range.

In the Flow is not the first newsletter for the Tribune, which also produces Texas Weekly, a newsletter focused on state government and politics. Texas Weekly, which was founded in 1984, became part of the Tribune when the site launched in 2009. Smith said he’d like to see additional newsletters from the Tribune — specifically in policy areas like education, clean energy, transportation, and health care.

March 29 2012

14:00

Merger means the new Bay Citizen will be more investigative and experimental

Breaking: The Bay Citizen won’t be covering as much breaking news any more.

The merger of Bay Citizen with the Center for Investigative Reporting announced yesterday — with CIR forces coming out in charge — will mean structural changes for the nonprofit outlets. But it’ll also mean editorial changes, one of them being a reduction in covering the same big daily stories and subjects the competition is — at least not in the same way.

“There’s so much information, there’s so much newsgathering, there’s so much out there, and there’s so much clutter out there,” CIR executive director Robert Rosenthal told me. “Someone may have it first, but there’s almost no such thing as first anymore. News is a commodity. Information is a commodity.”

(The Bay Citizen’s own story on the merger puts it this way: “The Bay Citizen will likely no longer cover breaking news or culture, as CIR leaders have said they see those as commodities that don’t fit the expanded organization’s core mission.”)

Today, a Bay Citizen reporter “might post several times a day on a breaking story or a story on the Bay Area that they were covering maybe in a unique way,” Rosenthal said. “We’re not going to do that. If we get into a major developing story, it will be in an investigative or explanatory way…For a beat reporter, to suddenly not have the obligation of potentially filing I-don’t-know-how-many stories a day or week — it liberates you.

“You know as well as I do that one of the key elements of this kind of reporting is time: time to develop sources, time to do that extra step, having the time not to be chasing deadlines, quickly running out to events that are covered by multiple other people.”

Developing a focus

From its launch in January 2010, Bay Citizen took a broader approach to its coverage than many of its nonprofit peers, which tended to focus on narrow, specific areas like investigative reporting or a particular beat. Founded at a time when many were concerned the San Francisco Chronicle could close, Bay Citizen mixed in daily breaking news coverage, cultural coverage, and even sports with more investigative and enterprise work.

When the San Francisco Giants were in the 2010 World Series, Bay Citizen had author Dave Eggers attend games and do notebook drawings of players and fans. Indeed, Bay Citizen has done game stories, fan slideshows, and even fifth-inning updates from Giants games and other area sporting events — something not many other nonprofit outlets would do.

In particular, it’s probably not something you’d see from the CIR-founded California Watch, the statewide investigative news service. The Bay Citizen will adopt an approach that parallels the guiding principles at California Watch, only on a more local level, Rosenthal said. The combination of Bay Citizen, California Watch, and CIR can give the organization wide reach.

“Here’s an example: We’ve been looking very hard at issues on homeland security, and we have lots of data sets on a national scale,” Rosenthal says. “A reporter looking at that is thinking, ‘What’s the story for California?’ We may [also] be looking at a national story around surveillance. It’s a very flexible model.”

Bay Citizen is one of three regional nonprofit news outlets to have partnered with The New York Times to provide content for the Times’ regional editions; the others were the Chicago News Cooperative and the Texas Tribune. The Times, in addition to a small amount of money, gave status and prestige to the new local brands, plus the promise of some local print readers. But the deals also committed the outlets to producing a certain amount of newspaper-ready content — stories of a certain length and covering a newspapery mix of beats — that helped define its approach. Stories were due to the Times late Tuesday for Friday publication, so stories had to be able to hold a few days.

The Chicago News Cooperative has faced challenges even greater than Bay Citizen’s, suspending operations last month. Of the three Times partners, only the Texas Tribune — which keeps a tight focus on matters of state government and public policy — has thrived. And the Trib is known for ignoring even big breaking news that falls outside its editorial mission. (The New York Times’ Texas report does include culture coverage, but it’s provided by Texas Monthly instead of the Tribune.)

Rosenthal said CIR is currently re-evaluating The Bay Citizen’s relationship with the Times, noting that the deal carries an agreement of “exclusivity” that raises “concerns.”

Multiple platforms, multiple revenue streams

The flexibility of the model may be the key to the Center for Investigative Reporting’s success, and it’s about more than a newsroom-culture shift away from the kind of crime coverage you’re already going to get on the six o’clock news. Freeing up reporters to spend more time digging deeply into stories is the foundation. But the real opportunity for innovation comes in experimenting with a variety of distribution methods and multiple sources of revenue. That’s at least in part because the fundamental instability of the industry is directly tied to questions about how people get information today.

“It’s very difficult to be ambitious and build something in a newsroom where you’re getting smaller and the business model is broken — and it is broken,” Rosenthal said. “It has been broken. It’s not the journalism that’s broken, it’s the business model. We’re in a completely different world.”

“The process can be very iterative, it can be messy, but at the same time you get some great ideas.”

Adapting — and ultimate survival — in this new world requires deftly crossing platforms to tell stories that matter. Rosenthal bristles at the idea of having “readers” because CIR doesn’t just produce news websites, it produces news across platforms.

CIR’s revenue strategy mirrors the spirit of the diversification with which it approaches content production. Rosenthal says that the funding that flows into The Bay Citizen will, like California Watch, have multiple channels: philanthropic support from “major donor efforts,” content fees, fees from membership, fees from events, corporate underwriting. More opportunities for revenue translate into more journalism, which further fuels a newsroom’s ability to try different kinds of storytelling.

“You’re working simultaneously with the video people, you’re working with a radio reporter, you’re working with people who are doing interactive data, you’re working with people who might be doing animation,” Rosenthal says. “The process can be very iterative, it can be messy, but at the same time you get some great ideas…There’s a tremendous amount of involvement from everybody. It’s a very lively, creative, ambitious culture.”

It’s also a culture that encourages ideas that might not even be discussed in a traditional newsroom. Remember California Watch’s “Ready to Rumble”coloring book? That came out of an investigative series on earthquake safety in schools. Next up: Puppets.

“We’re going to be very experimental,” Rosenthal says. “We’re really thinking of how people of all ages get, use and want information at this revolutionary moment we’re all in. This is a good opportunity— a terrific, unique opportunity to be entrepreneurs.”

Photo of Golden Gate Bridge by Marco Klapper used under a Creative Commons license.

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