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June 20 2013

14:02

The newsonomics of Spies vs. Spies

So who do you root for in this coming battle, as Google petitions the feds? Are you on the side of Big Brother or Little Brother — and remind me, which is which? It’s a 50-year-update on Mad Magazine’s iconic Spy vs. Spy.

The Surveillance State is — at least for this month — in front of the public. The Guardian’s rolling revelations of National Security Agency phone and web spying have again raised the bogeyman of Big Data — not the Big Data that all the airport billboards offer software to tame, but the Big Data that the unseen state can use against us. We’ve always had a love/hate relationship with big technology and disaster, consuming it madly as Hollywood churns out mad entertainments. We like our dystopia delivered hot and consumable within two hours. What we don’t like is the ooky feeling we are being watched, or that we have to make some kind unknowable choice between preventing the next act of terror and preserving basic Constitutional liberties.

Americans’ reactions to the stories is predictable. Undifferentiated outrage: “I knew they were watching us.” Outrageous indifference: “What do you expect given the state of the world?” That’s not surprising. Americans and Europeans have had the same problem thinking about the enveloping spider’s web of non-governmental digital knowledge. (See The Onion headline: “Area Man Outraged His Private Information Being Collected By Someone Other Than Advertisers.”)

While top global media, including The Guardian, The Washington Post, and The New York Times, dig into the widening government spying questions, let’s look at the ferment in the issues of commercial surveillance. There’s a lot of it, and it would take several advanced degrees and decoder rings to understand all of it. No, it’s not the same thing as the issues surrounding PRISM. But it will be conflated with national security, and indeed the overlapping social and political questions are profound. Let’s look at some recent developments and some of the diverse players in this unfolding drama and see where publishers do — and could — fit in.

The commercial surveillance culture is ubiquitous, perhaps even less hemmed in by government policy than the NSA, and growing greatly day by day. While Google asks the FISA court to allow it to release more detail about the nature of federal data demands, its growing knowledge of us seems to have no bounds. From our daily searches, to the pictures (street to sky) taken of our homes, to the whereabouts relayed by Google Maps, and on and on.

It’s not just Google, of course. Facebook, whose users spend an average of seven hours per month online disclosing everything, is challenging Google for king of the data hill. A typical news site might have 30 to 40 cookies — many of them from ad-oriented “third parties” — dropped from it. That explains why those “abandoned” shopping carts, would-be shoe purchases, and fantasy vacation ads now go with us seemingly everywhere we move on the web. It’s another love/hate relationship: We’re enamored of what Google and Facebook and others can do for us, but we’re disquieted by their long reach into our lives. It’s a different flavor of ooky.

We are targeted. We are retargeted. Who we are, what we shop for, and what we read is known by untold number of companies out there. Though we are subject to so much invisible, involuntary, and uncompensated crowdsourcing, the outrage is minimal. It’s not that it hasn’t been written about. Among others, The Wall Street Journal has done great work on it, including its multi-prize-winning three-year series on “What They Know.”

Jim Spanfeller, now CEO of Spanfeller Media Group and the builder of Forbes.com, related the PRISM NSA disclosures to commercial tracking in a well-noticed column (“At What Price Safety? At What Price Targeted Advertising?”) last week. His point: We’re all essentially ignorant of what’s being collected about us, and how it is being used. As we find out more, we’re not going to be happy.

His warning to those in the digital ad ecosystem: Government will ham-handedly regulate tracking of consumer clicks if the industry doesn’t become more “honest and transparent.”

Spanfeller outlined for me the current browser “Do Not Track” wars, which saw its latest foray yesterday. Mozilla, parent of Firefox, the third most-popular browser by most measures, said it will move forward with tech that automatically blocks third-party cookies in its browser. Presumably, users will be able to turn back on such cookies, but most will go with the defaults in the browsers they use.

The Mozilla move, much contested and long in the works, follows a similar decision by Microsoft with its release of the latest Internet Explorer. Microsoft is using a “pro-privacy” stance as a competitive weapon against Google, advancing both Bing search and IE. Spanfeller notes that Microsoft’s move hasn’t had much effect, at least yet, because “sites aren’t honoring it.”

These browser wars are one front, and much decried by forces like the Interactive Ad Bureau, the Digital Ad Alliance, and its “Ad Choices” program — which prefer consumer opt-out. Another front is an attempt at industry consensus through the World Wide Web Consortium, or W3C. Observers of that process believe it is winding its way to failure. Finally, also announced yesterday was the just-baked Cookie Clearinghouse, housed at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society. The driving notion, to be fleshed out: creating whitelists and blacklists of cookies allowed and blocked. (Good summaries by both Ad Age’s Kate Kaye and ZDNet’s Ed Bott.)

Never too far from the action, serial entrepreneur John Taysom was in Palo Alto this week as well. Taysom, a current senior fellow at Harvard’s Advanced Leadership Initiative, is an early digital hothouse pioneer, having led Reuters’ Greenhouse project way back in the mid-’90s. His list of web startups imagined and sold is impressive, and now he’s trying to put all that experience to use around privacy issues. As a student of history, old and modern, his belief is this: “When they invented the Internet, they didn’t add a privacy layer.”

“We need a Underwriters Laboratory for our time,” he told me Wednesday. UL served a great purpose at a time (1894) of another tech revolution: electricity. Electricity, like computer tech these days, seemed exciting, but the public was wary. It wasn’t afraid of behind-the-scenes chicanery — it literally was concerned about playing with fire. So UL, as a “global independent safety science company” — a kind of neutral, Switzerland-like enterprise — was set up to assure the public that electrical appliances were indeed tested and safe.

Could we do the same with the Internet?

He’s now working on a model, colloquially named “Three’s A Crowd,” to reinsert a “translucent” privacy layer in the tech stack. His model is based on a lot of current thinking on how to both better protect individual privacy and actually improve the targeting of messages by business and others. It draws on k-anonymity and Privacy by Design principles, among others.

In brief, Taysom’s Harvard project is around creating a modern UL. It would be a central trusted place, or really set of places, that institutions and businesses (and presumably governments) could draw from, but which protect individual identification. He calls it an I.D. DMZ, or demilitarized zone.

He makes the point that the whole purpose of data mining is to get to large enough groups of people with similar characteristics — not to find the perfect solution or offer for each individual. “Go up one level above the person,” to a small, but meaningfully sized, crowd. The idea: increase anonymity, giving people the comfort of knowing they are not being individually targeted.

Further, the levels of anonymity could differ depending on the kind of information associated with anyone. ”I don’t really mind that much about people knowing my taste in shirts. If it’s about the location of my kids, I want six sigmas” of anonymity, he says. Taysom, who filed a 2007 U.K. patent, now approved, on the idea, is now putting together both his boards of advisors and trustees.

Then there are emerging marketplace solutions to privacy. What havoc the digital marketplace hath wrought may be solved by…the digital marketplace. D.C.-based Personal.com is one of the leading players in that emerging group. Yes, this may be the coming personal data economy. Offering personal data lockers starting at $29.99 a year, Personal.com is worth a quick tour. What if you could store all your info in a digital vault, it asks? Among the kinds of “vaults”: passwords, memberships and rewards programs, credit and debit card info, health insurance, and lots more.

It’s a consumer play that’s also a business play. The company is now targeting insurance, finance, and education companies and institutions, who would then offer consumers the opportunity to ingest their customer information and keep it in vault and auto-fill features then let consumers re-use such information once it is banked. Think Mint.com, but broader.

Importantly, while Personal.com deals potentially with lots of kinds of digital data, its business doesn’t touch on the behavioral clickstream data that is at the heart of the Do Not Track fracas.

Do consumer want such a service? Personal.com won’t release any numbers on customers or business partners. Getting early traction may be tough.

Embedded in the strategy: a pro-consumer tilt. Personal.com offers an “owner data agreement,” basically certifying that it is the consumer, not Personal.com, that owns the data. It is a tantalizing idea: What if we individually could control our own digital data, setting parameters on who could use what and how? What if we as consumers could monetize our own data?

Neither Personal.com nor John Taysom’s project nor the various Do Not Track initiatives envision that kind of individually driven marketplace, and I’ve been told there are a whole bunch of technical reasons why it would be difficult to achieve. Yet, wouldn’t that be the ultimate capitalist, Adam Smith solution to this problem of runaway digital connectedness — a huge exchange that would facilitate the buying and selling of our own data?

For publishers, all this stuff is headache-producing. News publishers from Manhattan to Munich complain about all the third-party cookies feeding low-price exchanges, part of the reason their digital ad businesses are struggling. But there is a wide range of divergent opinion about how content-creating publishers will fare in Do Not Track world. They may benefit from diminished competition, but would they be able to adequately target for advertisers? Will Google and Facebook do even better in that world?

So, for publishers, these privacy times demand three things:

  • Upscale their own data mining businesses. “There’s a big difference between collecting and using data,” says Jonathan Mendez, CEO of Yieldbot, that works with publishers to provide selling alternatives to Google search. That’s a huge point. Many publishers don’t yet do enough with their first-party data to adequately serve advertiser needs.
  • Take a privacy-by-design approach to emerging business. How you treat consumers in product design and presentation is key here, with some tips from Inc. magazine.
  • Adopt a pro-privacy position. Who better than traditionally civic-minded newspaper companies than to help lead in asserting a sense of ownership of individual data? If news companies are to re-assert themselves as central to the next generation of their communities and of businesses, what better position than pro-privacy — and then helping individuals manage that privacy better?

It’s a position that fits with publishers’ own interests, and first-party data gathering (publisher/reader) makes more intuitive sense to citzen readers. For subscribers — those now being romanced into all-access member/subscribers — the relationship may make even more sense. Such an advocacy position could also help re-establish a local publisher as a commercial hub.

News and magazine publishers won’t have to create the technology here — certainly not their strong suits — but they can be early partners as consortia and companies emerge in the marketplace.

Photo by Fire Monkey Fire used under a Creative Commons license.

May 30 2013

11:36

The newsonomics of climbing the ad food chain

The numbers are sobering.

While digital advertising has been growing at a 15 percent pace annually in the United States, the digital ad sales of news companies have largely plateaued, struggling to find any growth year over year. The New York Times Company reported digital ad sales down 4 percent for the 1st quarter, while McClatchy managed a 1.5 percent increase in the first quarter. Most news-based companies are significantly underperforming that 15 percent average — in the low single digits, either positive or negative. Meanwhile, the top five digital ad companies, led by Google, increase their share of ad revenue year after year and soon will hold two-thirds of it.

Why are publishers lagging?

Publishers describe their digital ad woe with these terms: “price compression,” “bargain-basement ad networks,” and “death of the banner ad.” Each describes a world of hyper-competition in digital advertising — a world of almost infinite ad possibility and unyielding downward pricing pressure.

Not long ago, news companies believed that their premium-pricing models would withstand the competitive onslaught. Now they’re retooling, trying to speed their adaptation to the new nature of the digital ad beast.

It’s a matter of survival. For some, all-access circulation revenues are a good positive (pushing overall circ revenue up 5 percent in the U.S. last year). All, though, find themselves running as fast as they can to make up both for the freefall of print ad loss and that overall digital ad pricing downturn. “The ground is falling away under you” is how FT.com managing director Rob Grimshaw describes it.

Let’s look at what some of the leading digital ad innovators among publishers are doing to regroup. Let’s look at the newsonomics of climbing the ad food chain, checking in with two global publishers, The New York Times and the Financial Times, and two regional ones, the Minneapolis Star Tribune and Digital First Media. They provide a snapshot of a world in ever-spinning change.

Their strategies are all fairly similar: employ a range of new techniques that will justify premium prices. Let Facebook, which controls as much as a quarter of all web ad inventory, sell at 80-cent CPM and make money on scale. Publishers know they will never win that game. They want rates *20 to 50* times that, offering increasingly better targeting of their affluent readers.

Climbing the ad food chain is mainly about three things: technology, creativity, and sales relationships. It is also, overall, about differentiation, the roar of a lion in a crowded landscape.

Grimshaw, a former ad guy, says simply: “You’ve got to be doing something unique.”

Let’s look at each of the areas:

Technology

Digital advertising is all about technology in 2013, and you’ll see lots of talk of the ad-tech stack, and who owns it. Google, of course, owns much of it, through its successive AdWords/Doubleclick/AdMob and more creations, acquisitions and integrations. Its stack is so efficient that many publishers feel compelled to use it, though they are wary of getting their businesses tied ever more directly to Google — or the Google “Death Star,” as some critics call it.

For most publishers, Google is the classic frenemy. They work with it when they think the advantages outweigh the hazards, even as top publishers build their own programs. In fact, expect to soon see U.S. news publishers transition their Newspaper Consortium partnership with Yahoo into something intended to be broader, something that allows publishers to opt into and out of the ad programs of multiple portals — not just Yahoo — harnessing the ad tech of the day.

Six-month-old Smart Match is one of the FT’s latest innovations to stay “premium.” In brief, the content of an advertisement is matched, dynamically, to that of an article. The technology: semantic targeting of both article content and the FT’s current “ad library” for the best matches on the fly, as compared to standard keyword targeting.

Advertisers commit specific budgets for specific time periods, and the FT does the matching. The FT says it gets a major lift in ad engagement with the technology, an average of 9x over its average clickthrough. Ten clients are now live in Smart Match’s soft launch period.

Ad effectiveness isn’t a one-time process; breakthroughs like Smart Match require ongoing engagement with marketers, as publishers work with them to figure out what works and what doesn’t — and to tweak constantly. “Ads can’t be a fire-and-forget enterprise” any longer, says Grimshaw.

The FT is setting floors on pricing and better controlling inventory, testing small “private exchanges” with select ad buyers and agencies, working with Google in the U.S. and Rubicon in Europe. Exchanges have caused publishers lots of headaches, as too much of their inventory — mixed and matched with lots of “lower quality” inventory — helped drive down pricing and deflated the meaning of “premium.” So many have pulled back from exchanges in general; a few are starting to harness the exchange concept, but in a members-only approach.

“We are constantly evolving our approach to the programmatic marketplace, and private exchange activity is one part,” says Todd Haskell, the New York Times Co. group vice president for advertising. “We’ve been using private exchanges for a series of single-client buys executed using private exchange technology, and are now exploring several single buyer/multiple brand programs.”

One big notion here: minimize channel conflict, so that a publisher isn’t competing with itself, making its inventory available at variable prices here and there. Private exchanges are proceeding cautiously. Buyers get more flexibility, but within the control of publishers.

Such private exchange testing follows the adoption of RTB (real-time-bidding), which publishers are honing to get better rates for the ad inventory they can’t sell locally. “We moved away from a remnant inventory model a few years ago with the adoption of RTB and actively manage all of the programmatic demand that we see through the ad exchanges,” says Jeff Griffing, the Star Tribune’s chief revenue officer. “As a single-entity, local site publisher, our strategy is to make sure as many bidders/buyers as possible can transact on their audience impressions that we fulfill on our site.”

Similarly, Digital First Media is moving to add new data — including third-party data from traditonal sources like Experian — into its own systems. “As we move more into the programatic world, with our own Trading Desk and all our own inventory in our private exchange, we keep adding data to all that traffic and match it in a way that enhances the ROI for the small and medium advertisers,” says Digital First Ventures managing director Arturo Duran.

Ad tech is also allowing publishers to do things they couldn’t previously do. The Times is using new brand new ad formats to help marketers gain interactivity. One new program will allow for coupon delivery within an app.

The idea of delivering more experiences within experiences — rather than alongside — can be seen in another recent announcement. Twitter Amplify allows advertisers to deliver videos in-stream — part of a slew of ad-friendly moves, well described by Ingrid Lunden at TechCrunch. Among the early partners to sign on: BBC America, Fox, Fuse, and The Weather Channel. The goals here: make ads both more experiential and more lead-generating.

Yield optimization is a term now part of everyone’s vocabulary. Optimization — the better use of data through adjustment of the digital pulleys and levers that adjust what’s offered, at which price points when — has always been a part of the advertising game. Cycle time, and sophistication, though, have markedly moved up. Where the Times used to adjust in 24-month cycles, says Haskell, it now makes significant moves in three-month periods.

There are lots of moving pieces to optimization. The Star Tribune’s chief revenue officer Jeff Griffing describes how his company does it: “The push to premium help us drive our effective yield on pageviews; we’ve established baselines that our different pageviews should meet or exceed and factor in our directly sold campaigns with those indirectly or programmatically filled. We have an optimal formula for how will fill inventory and have set up systems that make sure we’re delivering maximum revenue across all ad units.”

Of course, publishers have long adjusted based on supply and demand. Today, though, the complex external development — various sales partners, through networks, private exchanges and more — requires fine tuning to get the highest possible price for fleeting inventory.

If this all seems like four-dimensional chess, mobile adds a fifth dimension. Haskell recalls the boom in second-screen tablet usage found on election night last November. That development provides a new place for the text-, numbers-, and analysis-driven Times to play in what is usually an immediate TV story. Consequently, it opens up new ways for the Times to exploit the tablet as a second-screen, timely ad vehicle.

The tablet (and mobile, generally) is quickly moving from niche to main play for the Times and others. Of its 43.6 million U.S. unique users in March, 18.3 million arrived via mobile devices, the Times says.

There’s targeting — and then there’s super-targeting. So the Times is selling what Todd Haskell calls “super premium.” It is able to target, through its growing audience database, readers with certain job titles, reading certain sections of content. That kind of targeting drives higher rates, and it’s part of the Times’ plan to move up on the food chain, just as the middle and bottom of that chain widens infinitely.

Creativity

Over the past year, publishers have reawakened to the notion of commercial storytelling. They now see it — a cousin to editorial storytelling — as a core competence, and one that many marketers envy.

“Agencies and many advertisers don’t know how to do it,” says Grimshaw. “There’s a constant need for fresh [marketing] content.”

Enter content marketing, which I recent covered in depth in “The newsonomics of recylcling journalism.” The Star Tribune’s Griffing points to his company’s first big foray into the field, a Kids Health site. Sold to a single sponsor for one year, Children’s Hospital, the new content was produced by Star Tribune staff and is a prototype for products to come. Griffing says the company’s innovations, overall, have pushed year-over-year digital ad growth into the teens.

2013 is the year of content marketing, from New York to D.C. to Minneapolis to Dallas to San Francisco. The creative spark comes from a combination of old-fashioned journalism skills, both editorial and marketing. Sums up Rob Grimshaw: “Publishers have tremendous assets that have never been exploited.”

Now, often, the creation and placement of “native advertising” are inextricably tied. As with the Times’ IdeaLab, the Washington Post’s Brand Connect, and Atlantic Media Strategies, global publishers have asserted their high-end editorial skills, applied to other people’s storytelling, and are packaging that skill with an ad buy. Haskell points out that the creative costs can be built into the ad buy itself, if the buy is big enough. “We’re not looking to make money on the creative,” he says.

That combination of the creative and the buy shows the newness of it all, and the early flux in the content marketing craft. Over time, we’ll likely see a greater cross-title placement of above-average creative, saving on creation costs. How then will the various content marketing works of a Times, an FT, a BuzzFeed, or an Atlantic Media compare? Which will become go-to creative companies, and which will return to the old comfort area of selling placement?

Video creation has also unearthed new creativity among the formerly ink-based wretches. In fact, most companies tell me that video ad demand, at anywhere from $25 to $75 cost per thousand rates (many multiples beyond display ads), is still outstripping supply.

The Star Tribune’s Griffing puts it this way: “This one is simple. We are selling as much video inventory as we have; 1.2 million plays per month, which is significantly more than the next closest competitor, a local TV station. That said, until we’re doing 10M plays a month, revenue for video will be relatively small.”

In a nutshell, that describes the dilemma. The New York Times recently hired Rebecca Howard, late of AOL/HuffPo, to expand its sold-out video inventory.

For Digital First Media, a pioneer in local news video through the Journal Register Company, new video formats offer premium possibilities. It’s going short, and long. “For short format we just closed a deal with Tout.com, and we are deploying their player in all our sites.” DFM journalists will take videos, through Tout (“The newsonomics of leapfrog news video”) and place them quickly on the sites, says Digital First’s Arturo Duran. “Some of those ‘Touts’ are embedded inside the articles. This is following what the consumers are doing, and the tests by WSJ and BBC. They have created snippets of 15 seconds of information that feed their sites with real time information on events. For end users, it’s a faster, easier way to watch it. There is a big play in the mobile arena, specially smartphones, as end users are watching more video in this [short] format than any other.”

Longer-format video is still in the planning stages for DFM, says Duran, pointing to the potential of live events, interviews with personalities, direct chats with readers, and more. It’s noteworthy that despite the success of video advertising, text-based sites still haven’t mastered greater quality production of greater scale and aren’t well-using third-party, “higher quality” video to satisfy ad needs.

Sales relationships

In an age of self-service, spawned by Google’s paid search products, the sales channel is still multi-tiered. Self-service works profoundly for some products, but telesales and in-person, feet-on-the-ground sales forces are finding new life.

Blame complexity. The choices advertisers now have are endless. Top-tier advertisers are served by such specialized teams as the FT’s “strategic sales” unit. The group works matches the complexity of FT’s analytics-fueled approaches to marketing with advertiser needs.

At the other end of the spectrum, the burgeoning marketing services business (“The newsonomics of selling Main Street”) is bringing these new approaches to smaller, local businesses. The Star Tribune’s Jeff Grilling, a major proponent of the marketing services business, has already learned some lessons from his company’s Radius marketing services foray.

“I’m finding more similarities than less, to our traditional sales approach. I’m finding that we are only as good as our sales people and the relationship they create, and that many small business customers have been approached by some sort of digital solutions vendor in the last few years. Make no mistake, there is no easy money in the SMB digital solutions business — it is very competitive and customers have are typically skeptical because of weak solutions they’ve experienced by other vendors in previous years. So if it’s a quick and easy revenue stream that a media company is looking for, I would look at options other than SMB digital solutions. I do still believe, however, that if your intention is to genuinely help local businesses grow, and you have the stomach for investment, strategy, execution, and patience, SMB digital solutions can be a viable product line.”

That tells you how long a haul this digital transition remains, and how many twists and turns even the innovators must endure.

Photo by NJR ZA used under a Creative Commons license.

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 08 2013

11:00

Automated Ad Exchanges Will Dominate If They Address Fraud, Privacy Issues

Imagine if advertising functioned like a complex modern stock exchange, through which billions of dollars flowed electronically in transactions lasting fractions of a second.

Publishers would place their pages and videos in the exchange, specifying their "asks" -- what they thought the adjacent ad spots were worth, based on the presumed value of the content and the people consuming it.

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Advertisers would place "bids," saying how much they were willing to pay to get their ads in front of individuals who matched desired attributes such as age range, gender, family status, income level, geography and interest in the advertiser's type of product.

When the "bid" matched the "ask," the ad would be placed seamlessly, and the money would flow from advertiser to publisher -- with the exchange and a few other go-betweens taking their slivers.

The scenario isn't imaginary. Chances are you've experienced the result of just such a transaction on your computer, tablet or smartphone, and perhaps even an electronic billboard, TV or radio.

Programmatic advertising -- in which advertisements are bought, sold and placed through automated exchanges -- is "a multibillion-dollar marketplace growing faster than search, video, or anything else for that matter," advertising entrepreneur John Battelle wrote in a blog post in January.

For advertisers trying to sell products and services, the appeal of exchanges is easy to understand. For privacy advocates and some publishers, it's easy to see why they are often suspicious. For all sides, it all has to do with how the technology works.

While ad exchanges account for a fraction of digital advertising today, their share is growing. An investment bank estimated last year that 35 percent of digital display advertisements were "biddable" in 2011, up from nothing -- literally 0 percent -- in 2007.

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Those ads account for billions of dollars, and some experts predict that programmatic buying and selling will handle half or more of all digital advertising in years to come -- in part because it's much more efficient than the more laborious practices common today.

"A traditional advertising deal takes hundreds of emails, insertion orders, manual tagging and trafficking. Then there's reporting, change orders, bill synching. You find out why an agency has 200 people just to execute buys," said Mike Shehan, CEO of SpotXchange, a video ad exchange for which my company, Teeming Media, recently produced an 11-chapter white paper. "Programmatic advertising is the automation of all of that."

The Technology Holds the Key

Advertising exchanges sit at the center of a complex ecosystem of technologies that on one end represent the advertising, or "buy" side -- those looking to buy a spot in which to place an ad.

At the other end are the sellers like publishers who have content (such as a video or a web page) into which the ads will be inserted.

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What differentiates the exchanges from other types of advertising insertion systems is their level of sophisticated, real-time decision-making.

They place the ads by correlating them to multiple factors, and can do so for almost every individual "impression" in real time.

An ad network, by contrast, tends to buy large swathes of impressions from a range of publishers up front then guarantee advertisers placements in those spots for a set fee.

The network may, for example, buy placements from a range of large publishers and smaller blogs in content about a specific subject such as cooking, then tell the advertiser that they can through the network reach people interested in cooking.

There are, of course, also "direct" deals -- ones in which a salesperson from a publisher deals directly with an advertiser or their agency, and then receives and traffics the ads.

Publishers Get Less Skittish

Advertisers in recent months have become increasingly enamored with the exchanges because they seem to have a higher assurance of showing an ad to just the right person at just the right time with the right message that will entice him or her to buy.

Let's say, for example, that a woman in a choice age bracket and geography has visited the IMDb page to learn more about a new movie.

What if the studio could then show her an ad about that movie while she's looking for something to do on a subsequent evening?

If the ad's on her phone, and she's near a theater, even better. The advertiser can add location to the range of factors that makes the ad relevant.

It's all done through a chain of tracking, usually via cookies, that gives a level of probability that a correct match is made. The higher the probability the factors match up well, and the more high value the content, the higher the price for the ad is likely to be.

While reputable publishers have been skittish about exchanges -- suspecting they are auction systems that buyers use to try to pinch pennies -- more have started to experiment with them.

Many ads in Google's empire are sold through exchange systems, and both Facebook and Amazon last year announced they were launching exchange-based advertising systems. They all want to capture dollars the advertisers are allocating to exchanges.

In some cases, the sellers set pricing "floors" beneath which they will not accept a bid for their content when they believe they can command a higher price.

In other cases, high-profile publishers with billions of impressions to sell, including Conde Nast and Time, have also constructed "private exchanges," in which they offer ads only to a limited set of choice clients instead of on the open market.

Some are also using "yield management" platforms, which evaluate impressions individually to determine whether each one will get more money on an exchange, an ad network or via a direct deal a salesperson has closed with an advertiser.

"Yield management on an impression basis can decide of the three available revenue streams which can provide the most value," Paul Dolan, CEO of Xaxis, an advertising buying company that spends many thousands of dollars on exchanges, told me in an interview.

Future: Concerns, Sophistication

Privacy advocates, not surprisingly, are nervous about all the tracking, and bristle at the idea of advertisers and merchants collecting and using data, despite promises it's all anonymized.

If current legislation being explored in Washington is passed, the advertising exchange industry could take a huge hit.

And though the evolving ecosystem is what Battelle called "rife with opportunity," he also called it "riddled with fraud," citing automated bots that mimic humans, invisible tracking pixels, and ads shown in places no human sees them.

Major publishers, exchanges and ad networks have been working with the IAB industry trade group to solidify standards and certify the upstanding participants in the marketplace.

As IAB standards take hold, and more premium publishers release ad inventory, higher profile brand names have also increased their spending levels. Major hotel chains, brewers, soft-drink brands and telecom companies have all served both static and video ads into advertising exchanges within the past year.

Publishers, in turn, have become more assured they can command reasonable prices and have quality ads that look appropriate next to their content, and fewer of the flashing lights and blinking types of junk ads we've all seen on occasion.

It's a sure bet that the predictions of increased dollars flowing through exchanges are correct, and that more sophisticated technologies will emerge.

We will likely see a day when ad spots are bought and sold via options and derivatives, with sophisticated machine trading that mimics NASDAQ and the NYSE. Experiments along these lines have already begun.

Let's hope that when that happens, the algorithms create real value -- enhancing people's experiences as they consume their favorite news and entertainment -- while respecting privacy and stamping out fraud.

An award-winning former managing editor at ABCNews.com and an MBA (with honors), Dorian Benkoil handles marketing and sales strategies for MediaShift, and is the business columnist for the site. He is a founder at Teeming Media, a strategic media consultancy focused on attracting, engaging, and activating communities through digital media. He tweets at @dbenk and you can Circle him on Google+.

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April 01 2013

11:00

Special Series: Online Advertising, Evolved

If the banner ad isn't dead, it's certainly on life support.

Once upon a time (actually, not so long ago), there was one way to advertise online: the almighty banner ad. But, the banner ad just didn't do enough. It didn't fully take advantage of the medium, it was hard to track, and it certainly didn't keep up with the lightning speed at which the medium changed.

Even Federated Media CEO John Battelle, who was there at the birth of the banner ad, said recently to Business Insider that as an industry, "we messed up when we decided banner ads would be how we make money on the Web."

Today, as the banner ad of old gasps what could be its last breath, brands, publishers and industry leaders are breaking the ad mold wide open to find new ways to connect online readers with marketing. All this week on MediaShift, we're looking at the ways they're doing this with our "Online Advertising Evolved" special.

We'll still look at banner ads -- but we'll look at how they're innovating and changing. After all, some of the banner ad's ancestors will survive. But, how those ads are targeted, how they're purchased, how they're measured ("viewability" is hot on industry minds), and how they're used will determine their fate.

Then there's scrapping the banner concept altogether and working with something new -- so-called "native advertising." The definition of a native ad can be as narrow or as broad as the person defining it would like. (There's a whole push there -- to define native advertising better so everyone is speaking the same language.) But, in essence, native advertising is advertising that folds more seamlessly into the content around it. It could be just an old-fashioned advertorial -- a story written by a marketer next to an original magazine piece. Or, it could be in-stream ads that pop up in your Facebook newsfeed. Or, it could be a short digital film that's part ad, but also part content. But, no matter what it is, if it's called "native advertising" it has some major buzz around it these days for publishers, marketers and the industry as a whole.

Stay tuned as we tackle a few of these issues this week on MediaShift. Below is a list of what we have planned so far. Have an idea to share? Let us know.

Also, to get you up to speed, see our list below of some of the best reporting, opinion and analysis from other outlets on this topic.



Coming Soon

>Digital Magazines Dive Into Native Advertising, by Susan Currie Sivek
>Where Native Ads Have Been and Where They're Going, by Terri Thornton

>Advertising Remains Revenue King, but the Future Is in Innovation, by Marianne McArthy

>Ad Exchanges: Automated Systems Hold Great Promise, But Raise Concerns, by Dorian Benkoil

>Why Are the 'One Old Trick' Ads Surviving? by Laruen Orsini

>How Responsive Design Is Changing Advertising, by Jenny Xie

>What's Behind BuzzFeed's Native Ad Network? by Alex Kantrowitz

Recent required reading on the evolution of online advertising

Native Advertising Study Shoots Some Bullets at Pre-Roll (MediaPost)

BuzzFeed, Sharethrough Battle to Bring Native Ads to the Masses (AdAge)

Native Advertising Is Bad News (Digiday)

What's All the Hype About Native Ads, Anyway? Looking Beyond the Buzzword. (AdAge)

Native + Content: A Powerful Advertising Combination (MediaPost)

The Washington Post Dives Into Native Advertising (Forbes)

Ad War: BuzzFeed, the Dish, and the Perils of Sponsored Content (The Atlantic)

Where You Can Go Right, And Wrong, With Native Ads (TechCrunch)

We Need a Better Definition of Native Advertising (Harvard Business Review)

AOL Eschews Banners, Leans Into Native (AdWeek)

Native Advertising Works -- If You Don't Embarrass Yourself (VentureBeat)

3 Out of 10 Display Ads Are Never Seen by Consumers (ClickZ)

5 Marketing Predictions for 2013 (Mashable)

The New York Times' Plan to Save the Banner Ad (Digiday)

Industry Effort to Improve Web Ad Metrics Goes Nowhere (AdWeek)

Study Says Half of Media Buyers Will Try Native Advertising in 2013 (PaidContent)

Solve: Media Buyers Warm To Native Ads (MediaPost)

Is Your So-Called 'Native' Advertising Really Native? (AdAge)

Sponsor Content Doesn't Fool Anyone Except Advertisers (AllThingsD)

12 Tips to Avoid The Atlantic's 'Sponsored Content' Meltdown (PBS MediaShift)

Managing editor Courtney Lowery Cowgill is a writer, editor, teacher and farmer based in central Montana. In addition to her work with MediaShift, she teaches online courses at the University of Montana's School of Journalism. Before she came to MediaShift, she was the co-founder and editor in chief of the now shuttered online magazine NewWest.Net. When she's not writing, teaching or editing, she's helping her husband wrangle 150 heritage turkeys, 30 acres of food, overgrown weeds or their young daughter.

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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.

August 15 2012

20:28

The newsonomics of breakthrough digital TV, from Aereo to Dyle and MundoFox to Google Fiber

In 1998, when Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. bought the Los Angeles Dodgers, the storied franchise was worth $380 million. News Corp. sold the team in 2003 for $430 million. After winning the ability to negotiate a new multi-billion sports TV contract this fall, they sold earlier this year for $2 billion, blowing the lid off sports property values.

In 1994, the San Diego Padres were worth $80 million. After recently signing a 20-year deal with Fox Sports for $1.2 billion, they sold (pending league approval) for $800 million.

Meanwhile, in 2000, the Los Angeles Times was worth at least $1.5 billion when it was sold as part of Times Mirror to Tribune Company. Today, as it is newly readied for market out of the Tribune bankruptcy, it would go for something less than $250 million. The San Diego Union-Tribune, once valued near a billion dollars, sold for about $35 million in 2009 and about $110 million in 2011.

It’s a reversal of fortune: Newspaper franchises that once outvalued baseball teams by 3-1 or 5-1 or 10-1 now see the inverse of that ratio. Why?

Two letters: TV.

Those numbers tell us a lot about the continuing power of television, in worth, in value creation, and in the news business itself. If we look just at recent events in the ongoing transformation of broadcast and cable to digital, we now see multiple breakthroughs on their path to digital. They give us indications of what the news business, video and text, will look like in the coming years. While we can argue endlessly about the relative virtues and vices of print and TV news, we must acknowledge the relative ascendance of TV and think about what that means for the news business overall.

TV’s revenues are holding up far better than newspaper companies’, and TV is better positioned to survive the great digital disruption.

TV has continued to have great audience. Nearly three in four Americans tune in to local TV news at least weekly, surpassing newspaper penetration, even as Pew Research points out they mainly do it for three topics: breaking news, weather, and traffic. Further, it retains great ad strength — 42 percent of national ad spending, matching the actual number of minutes Americans spend with the medium and making it the only medium still ahead of digital spending as digital has surpassed print (newspapers + magazines this year, both in the U.S. and globally). Yes, TV remains a gorilla. While Netflix won headlines when it announced it had streamed one billion hours of TV and movies in a single month, that huge number compared to about 43 billion hours of U.S. TV consumption, according to Nielsen’s 4Q 2011 Cross-Platform report.

In a nutshell, that’s the difference between TV and video, circa 2012. Video is the next wave — incorporating TV perhaps, but still the very young kid on the block.

Today, TV is no longer a box. Sure, even with all the Rokus, Boxees, and Apple TVs, it seems like TV isn’t yet an out-of-the-box experience. But with Hulu, Netflix, and Comcast’s Xfinity, it’s emerging quickly, escaping our fixed idea of what it once was — the boob tube in the living room. If it’s not just a box anymore, it’s a platform. From that platform, we see both the disruptors and the incumbents doubling down their bets. As in most things digital, few of these launches will be huge winners — but some will drive big breakthroughs. Some of the iconic legacy companies we’ve long known will be absorbed in the woodwork as new brands supplant them. Consider the spate of recent innovation, as we quickly assess the newsonomics going forward:

  • NBC, bashed up and down Twitter, nonetheless proved out a new business model with its multi-platform approach to Olympics coverage. Whatever you think of the tape delays or the suspended reality of Bob Costas’ gaze, NBC made the economics work, surprising itself and others. Its live streaming has ratified the development of cable- and satellite-authenticated, all-access digital delivery. That reinforces cable/satellite value. Further, it whetted prime-time viewing appetites, boosting ratings and earning NBC more ad revenue than it had projected. That’s icing on the cake for NBC, which, under Comcast ownership, has rocketed forward in digital strategy. The network has made a number of moves to transform itself into a global, video-forward, digital news company, joining the Digital Dozen global news pack. Recently, it bought out Microsoft’s share of msnbc.com, a leading Internet news portal. It immediately rechristened it NBCNews.com. In short order, it appointed Patricia Fili-Krushel as the new head of NBCUniversal News Group, an entity made up of NBC News, CNBC, MSNBC, and the Weather Channel. A former president of ABC, with 10 years of experience at Time Warner, she heads a growing news operation. Earlier this year, NBC combined its sports properties into a unified NBC Sports Group, merging NBC’s broadcast sports unit and Comcast’s regional sports networks. NBC is growing out of its digital adolescence. (See “One year after she was hired, Vivian Schiller’s ‘wild ride’ at NBC is just beginning.”)
  • Aereo, the TV startup funded by media magnate Barry Diller, is expanding its footprint from its current New York City base, and starting to offer multiple promotional deals. Diller’s in-your-face challenge to over-the-air broadcasters (CBS, NBC, Fox, ABC, CW, PBS) takes their signals and delivers that programming via the Internet. It charges consumers $12 a month, or as little as a dollar a day. They can then watch those TV stations on up to five devices; in addition, they can deliver these signals to a TV via Apple TV or Roku. Aereo also offers DVR capability, with 40 hours of storage. It’s classic disruption, with Aereo upping the pressure on the cable bundle and messing with the “retrans” fees that broadcasters get from cable companies to run their programming. Is it really legal, as a court recently found? It may be as legal as Google presenting snippets from every publisher and directory provider.
  • Local broadcasters — representing a broad swath of ownership groups organized in a newer company called Pearl — are bringing local TV to our mobile devices themselves. Just a week ago, Metro PCS started selling a Samsung Galaxy S phone with a TV receiver chip in 12 markets. That’s just the first push of Mobile Content Ventures, a collection of Pearl, NBC, Fox, and others. Expect mobile TV, marketed as Dyle, to be available for other phones and tablets, either with built-in chips or after-market accessories — although price points are an issue, with $100-plus premiums likely over the next year. So what does this innovation mean? Simply, that broadcasters are going direct to mobile consumers — no Internet needed, no data charges applying, and maybe providing more consistent video connectivity — with live programming; whatever is on TV at that moment is also on your phone or tablet. Broadcasters just use part of their digital signal to, uh, broadcast to us on our phones. It’s that antenna, and its cost, that’s the issue. Business questions abound. Given the timing of the launch, Dyle seems like an aspiring Aereo killer, and certainly broadcasters would like to see it do that, if further court action doesn’t. More deeply, though, broadcasters want to maintain their direct-to-consumer brand identity as they do a balancing act and try to keep those retrans fees from cable and satellite companies. They don’t want to be left out of the digital party.
  • Social TV pulls up a chair. First it was startup Second Screen, matching tablet ads to real-time TV viewing. Now ConnecTV, partnered with Pearl, is trying to corner the activity as it takes off. Its promise: “synchronization of local news, weather, sports, and entertainment programming along with social polls.” Ah, synchronicity, a Holy Grail of our digital aspirations. Last week, Cory Bergman (a man of at least three full-time digital lives, with MSNBC, Next Door Media, and Lost Remote) sold his Last Remote social-TV site to Mediabistro.
  • Then there’s the disruptor of everything on planet Earth, Google. The company recently announced it is putting another $200 million into YouTube Channels, building on its initial $150 million investment. The move emphasizes how quickly YouTube is growing beyond its homegrown, user-generated roots. Now partnering with dozens of prime video producers, creating more than 100 new channels, it is trying to establish itself in viewers’ lives as a go-to video aggregation source. Major video producers are still wary of Google getting between them and their customers, both ad and viewer, but many others are signed on. Meanwhile, in Kansas City, Google Fiber TV (TV that’s healthier for you?) launches. It’s a rocket shot at the cable, telco, and satellite incumbents. It’s also a demonstration project: providing more, cheaper. The more: interactive search for TV that combs your DVR and third-party services such as Netflix. (Yes, The Singularity ["The newsonomics of Google ad singularity"] marches on.) Google Fiber TV combines DVR and third-party (Netflix-plus) search. Its DVR holds 500 hours of storage of shows in 1080p and the ability to record eight TV shows simultaneously. Bandwidthpalooza. Google’s goal: Toss a hand grenade among the TV-as-usual business models, and pick up some of the pieces, adding new significant revenue lines.
  • CNN moves to break out of its identity funk, figuring out what that powerful global brand means in this fast-changing digital news world. CNN President Jim Walton recently stepped down, clearly acknowledging that his 10-year run had reached an end. “CNN needs new thinking,” he said in a farewell note. On TV, CNN has been beaten up badly both both Fox News and MSNBC. In 2Q, CNN showed its worst numbers in 20 years, down 35 percent year-over-year. On the web, it’a a top-three news player. But overall, it’s become the Rodney Dangerfield of news entities, getting little respect. Its cable fees — the strength of its revenues — could be challenged by low ratings. Going forward and competing against other global news brands — many of which are transitioning their own businesses to gain far greater digital reader revenue — it is, at this moment, caught betwixt and between. How it brings together a single — and global — digital/TV identity is at the core of its continuing journalistic importance and financial performance.

That’s a short list. We could easily add HuffPo’s streaming initiative and The Wall Street Journal’s wider video embrace. Or Les Moonves’ digital moves at CBS. And Fox’s new MundoFox, Spanish-language TV network, taking on Telemundo and Impremedia. The new network, at birth, offers a strong digital component, working at launch with advertisers along those lines. Let’s note some quick takeaways here, all of which we’ll be talking about in 2013:

  • Note how much you see the names News Corp. and Fox here. While segregating its text assets (and liabilities), News Corp. is investing greatly in the video future.
  • Cable bundling’s longevity is uncertain. There’s a lot of residual power here, but we know how quickly that can fade in legacy media. Yes, the unbundling of cable and satellite has been overestimated by some, as Peter Kafka pointed out recently. Yet, these multiple digital strategies may still push a tipping point. Clearly, legacy TV media, despite their public protestations, sees that potential and is acting in multiple ways to prepare for it.
  • Though broadcasters are making major digital pushes, they start from a lowly digital position. Many broadcasters can count no more than 5 percent of their total revenues coming from digital. That compares to 15-20 percent or more for newspaper companies. While there are other sources of revenue have been more stable than those of newspapers, they need to grow digital revenues quickly to make up for inevitable erosion of older money streams.
  • TV ≠ newspapers. Much of broadcasters’ revenues are made on non-news programming, as much as one-half to two-thirds for most local broadcasters. While learning from TV experience here is useful, given lots of differences, the learnings must be smartly applied. As news consumers and advertisers move increasingly digital, though, that thick line that separate local TV from local newspapers thins by the day.

The all-access, news-anywhere, entertainment-everywhere era has created a new massive business competition. Which brands will be top of mind? Who will consumers pay? How valuable is news itself in this contest?

Comcast, Time Warner, Verizon, AT&T — pipes companies — are in one corner. CNN, NBC, CBS, ABC, Fox, HBO, Showtime, and other known-to-consumer brands in another. Aggregators like Netflix and Hulu over there. Media marketers like Amazon and Apple holding court. Google. The local broadcasters fighting for their place in this digital ring. This new battle of brands, in and around “TV,” is now joined.

August 02 2012

15:04

The newsonomics of syndication 3.0, from NewsCred and NewsLook to Ok.com and Upworthy

Of the many failed digital news dreams, digital syndication is one of the greatest enigmas. We’ve seen companies like Contentville, Screaming Media, and iSyndicate (Syndication 1.0) followed by companies like Mochila (Syndication 2.0), all believing the same thing: In the endless world of digital content, there must be a big business in gathering together some of the world’s best, creating a marketplace, and selling stream upon stream.

In the abstract, the idea makes lot of sense. Producers of content — AP, Reuters, Bloomberg, The Street, Al Jazeera, Getty Images, Global Post, and many more — want all the new revenue they can get. They want to see the content they produced used and reused, over and over again, helping offset the high cost of news creation. The enduring problem is the buy side. We’ve gone oh-so-quickly from Content is King to a content glut. In a world of endless ad inventory and plummeting ad rates, why take syndicated content just to create a greater glut of news, information, and ad spots? That dilemma still hangs in the wind, and has bedeviled news industry consortium startup NewsRight, as it tries to find a future. Yet I’ve been surprised by a new wave of news syndication that’s been developing, here and there. It’s worth paying attention to, because it tells us a lot about how the digital news world is developing.

In part, it’s about new niches being found and exploited. In part, it’s about responding to deep staff cuts at many newspapers. In part, it’s about a slow-dawning wave of new product creation, aided by the tablet. Each of the newer efforts sees the world a little differently, and that’s instructive, though technology and video (see The Onion’s “Onion Special Report: Blood-Drenched, Berserk CEO Demands More Web Videos”) play increasingly key roles. So let’s look at the newsonomics of Syndication 3.0, and a few of the newer entrepreneurs behind it.

NewsCred

As 31-year-old CEO Shafqat Islam notes cheerily, finding investors for his startup was complicated by the fact that “there are a lot of dead bodies in this space.” With 100 fairly top-drawer sources and a staff of 50 (35 of them in tech), NewsCred is the big new mover in text and still image syndication, launched earlier this year (“NewsCred wants to be the AP newswire for the 21st century”). Its 50-plus customers divide roughly equally into two groups: media and big brands.

Media, says Islam, are using NewsCred for two reasons. One is to build new products, as the New York Daily News has done with its March-launched India news site, recognizing a locally under-served audience. Skift, Rafat Ali’s new travel B2B start-up, is getting 30 to 40 percent of its content through NewsCred. The other is the emergence of the paywall: Charging for digital access, he says, has meant some news companies are wanting to bulk up, offering a better value pitch to would-be digital subscribers. The Chicago Tribune launched a biz/tech “members only” product, powered by NewsCred, at the end of June.

The brand use of news content has a bigger potential. Check out several case histories, showing the use Pepsi, Orange Telecom, and Lenovo has made of NewsCred-distributed entertainment and tech content. Brands are publishers and want an easy, one-source way to populate their sites. Islam says his seven sales people are working as consultants of a sort, especially with such brands. Figuring out how to create content experiences for brands-turned-publishers is one part of the syndication puzzle.

Lessons Learned:

  • In a sense, this is syndication meets marketing services: As news companies both produce content and try to act as regional ad agencies, the synergies between the two are becoming more evident.
  • Timing is everything: We’ve seen a maturation in curation technologies, as metatagging gets easier and cheaper, allowing niched feeds. Then, an increased emphasis on niche product creation is combining with brand need for news content, creating new potential markets.

NewsLook

With 70-plus top video news sources and 35 clients, the three-year-old NewsLook also hopes to build on the archeology of syndication ruin. Like NewsCred, it positions itself as a technology and curation company, adding value to a mass of content. For CEO Fred Silverman, the technology means, importantly, better integration of text and video content.

“We see an awful lot of guys with a video page, or a video way down at the bottom — it’s not integrated. Our push with the publishers we work with is to fluidly integrate it into a news page. You are eleven times more likely to watch that video if it is integrated into a story.” That seems like common sense — put the words and pictures together — but Silverman’s experience resonates way too deeply if you journey through news websites. For his part, he’s been working on improving both NewsLook’s own video metatagging and the ability to match that with text. Now he’s got to convince more customers to make the integration.

Using a license model — “we’re not really an ad company” — NewsLook has found its customers in three segments. He sells to content aggregators like LexisNexis and Cengage, and he sells to news companies. It’s the third area, though, vertical sites, that represent the biggest growth opportunity, especially in the tech area. NewsLook, with its video emphasis, is now partnering with text-centric NewsCred, looking for joint opportunities.

Lessons Learned:

  • Think niche. Think video. Both have audiences that may be paying ones; video ad rates are still holding up far better than text.

Deseret News Service and Ok.com

Clark Gilbert caused quite a stir when he took the reins at Utah’s largest newspaper company two years ago (“Out of the Western Sky, It’s a Hyperlocal, Worldwide Mormon Vertical”). Combining Harvard Business smarts, wide media knowledge, and traditional religious values, Gilbert promised to reshape the LDS-owned media Utah media properties in a way no one else could. Now, midway through that Utah transformation, he’s also moving on a wider world of syndication.

Ok.com has launched. It’s a movie guide like no other. Less Rotten Tomatoes and more wholesome salad, it is a “family media guide.” It’s social (Facebook login) with user-generated comments and ratings, and it offers many of the features (trailers, photos, theater times, online ticketing) that you’d expect. It’s also just the beginning. Ok.com will add TV listings, books, music, and other media to its site. Just syndicated, it so far has signed up a half-dozen customers.

“We want to own the family brand,” Gilbert says, citing his own commissioned research to indicate that it could be a large market. His segmentation of faith-based readers finds not only great dissatisfaction with the perceived amorality of Hollywood, but also questioning of the values of mainstream media.

To address the latter market: the new Deseret News Service, a “values-oriented syndication service.” That service, available for both print and digital, now reaches five markets, with a couple of dozen more on the horizon.

Business models, like cars.com, Gilbert notes, include both straightforward license fees and revenue share models, with Deseret selling advertising.

Gilbert, ever the modeler, believes Deseret is creating one for the industry.

“If you look at the product strategy, we started with the newspaper. We knew we couldn’t be good at everything…..For the Deseret News, that meant our six areas of emphasis [Family, Financial Responsibility, Values in Media, Education, Faith, and Care for the Poor]. For other newspapers, that can be something else. For Washington Post, it is politics. For Sarasota, it is retirement. What I’ve seen in the failure of the newspaper industry is that we’ve lost half our resources, but we’re going to cover it all rather than having the rigor to say, ‘What are we the best at?’

“The web rewards deep expertise. You have a lot of newspapers with high cost structures, producing average commodity news. [We looked] at what can can be the best in the country at. That led to a national edition in print and now syndication.”

Lessons Learned:

  • Combine your values — editorial, religious, or whatever — with the best web tools of the day to satisfy currently unsatisfied audiences. Then scale.

The AllMedia Platform

Critical Media CEO Sean Morgan may be the last man standing whose career has spanned syndication from 1.0 through 3.0. A founder of Screaming Media, circa 1995, his Critical Media company has been building syndication and other products (media monitor Critical Mention, video capture and creation platform Syndicaster, news video licensor Clip Syndicate) since 2002. Now, his company has produced AllMedia. Its primary function: a platform allowing clients “to collect and curate user-generated video content from their online communities.” It’s another component of its analytics-based enterprise business.

Morgan’s play here is wider than syndication, but syndication plays a key role. Critical Media’s technologies offer publishers (and others) value. In return, Critical gets the right to license news video assets, and it has amassed three million of them, and 100,000 are being added monthly; 350 (200 newspaper; 150 broadcast) local media companies are participating in Critical products. Clip Syndicate, its news video product, isn’t yet well promoted, but when it is, it could be powerful. It already enables “grab a channel” functionality for licensees. Clip Syndicate operates on a 50/50 revenue share model, with Morgan saying he is getting $21.40 CPM rates. The goal: monetize the “the biggest news video archive.”

Lessons Learned:

  • Syndication may be a long-term proposition, taking years of building infrastructure, or partnering with those who do.
  • It’s not the content — it’s the metadata about the content that unlocks its value, allowing niching and enabling product creators and editors to find what they need.

California Watch

Now incorporating content from its Bay Citizen merger, California Watch continues to expand out its syndication business. Executive director Robert Rosenthal estimates the news startup will take in about $750,000 this year in licensing money, funding about 10 percent of its budget (“The newsonomics of the death and life of California news”). California Watch offers yearly, monthly, and à la carte sales.

Its model really is the old-fashioned media wire, vastly updated with multimedia at the core and a strong enterprise journalism emphasis. With 16 significant media partners throughout California, just adding NBC Bay Area and including big TV stations and newspapers, it has been able to double some of the prices it charges over time. Further, it’s on the verge of syndicating to a major national/global news player. “Don’t silo potential audience by geography. A good story from a neighborhood in San Francisco may be the top story on the Internet one day,” Rosenthal says.

Like a traditional wire, its value is in more than its stories. It also acts as a news budget or tipsheet for subscribing news editors. With one of the largest news contingents in the state capital, Sacramento, for instance, it helps drive coverage overall.

Lessons Learned:

  • Collaboration with customers creates utility as well as content itself — and cements financial relationships.
  • Syndicated content, here, works on the older concept of scale: Do it once and distribute to many, without the burden of legacy costs and constraints.

Upworthy

Upworthy is like Hollywood Squares for progressives. No Whoopi Goldberg, but nine rectangles of meaningful video, well described by the Times’ David Carr.

Launched in March. It’s an on-ramp for Facebook, feeding the kinds of videos it prizes into the social sphere with headlining that would make a tabloid editor proud. Founder Eli Pariser (of Moveon.org and author of The Filter Bubble) says he borrowed headlining techniques from Slate, which he says writes “the best headlines on the web,” without slavishly pointing at Google search engine optimization. (Examples: “Donald Trump Has Pissed Off Scotland” and “How a 6-Year-Old With Ignorant Parents Just Became the Best Republican Presidential Candidate“).

Its declaration defines its would-be audience: “At best, things online are usually either awesome or meaningful, but everything on Upworthy.com has a little of both. Sensational and substantial. Entertaining and enlightening. Shocking and significant. That’s what you can expect here: No empty calories. No pageview-juking slideshows. No right-column sleaze. Just a steady stream of the most irresistibly shareable stuff you can click on without feeling bad about yourself afterwards.”

Upworthy is really syndication simplified. It uses the social sphere to see content re-used. Its currency isn’t licensing fees; no money changes hands in its viral promotion of content. Currently, its single revenue source is referral fees it gets from progressive organizations that pay it on a cost-per-acquisition basis for traffic.

Lessons Learned:

  • People — many, many people — will do the syndication for you if you learn the tricks and trades of headlining, SEO, and the social rumble. While Upworthy’s referral-fee business model may have limited extension, its use of social to extend syndication (perhaps with sponsorships) can be used by others.

Consider Syndication 3.0 a puzzle, with more of the parts found but the full picture still incomplete. Technology, as in all things digital, plays a midwife role, but understanding customer use — and helping would-be customers imagine use — is fundamental. Let’s face it: Costly content creation must be paid for somehow, as ad revenues falter and reader revenues build slowly. Making more use of the content that has been created makes basic sense, and the basics of that business are being built out anew.

July 26 2012

14:00

The newsonomics of Amazon vs. Main Street

Order it on Amazon. Then run to your front door and have it handed to you. The news of Amazon’s same-day delivery blitzkrieg — first explained in depth in an excellent Financial Times piece — elicited a near-maniacal laugh among newspaper companies: What next?

Of course, the impact of Amazon’s move extends well beyond the further toll it may take on the ever-shrinking newspaper business — but that crater-creating possibility may well be the biggest news of a big news summer. Advertising — in Amazon-contested markets — will never be the same.

We’ve known that newspaper advertising revenues are in a deep, downward spiral — higher single digits this year, with early budget guesses showing the same for 2013. In the U.S., overall ad revenues are half what they were five years ago, down $25 billion a year from 2007.

Here’s what most hurts most about the new Amazon threat: It aims directly at the one category of newspaper advertising that has fared the best, retail.

Classifieds has decimated by interactive databases. National has migrated strongly digital. Retail, which made up of just 47 percent of newspaper ad revenues 10 years ago, is now up to 57 percent of newspaper totals. Now that advertising, albeit in just a few markets initially, will have to compete with Amazon-forced marketplace change.

Amazon, of course, isn’t targeting newspaper revenues. It’s targeting customers — selling more to current ones and engaging new ones. Further hits to newspaper revenue are just another unintended consequence of accelerating disruption of all business as usual.

The same-day push is built on strategies long in the making. Amazon knew its day of reckoning on its sales tax exemption would come. Like all big, smart companies with legions of lawyers and lobbyists, it delayed the inevitable, and with each delay, built market strength and cash.

Now the jig is finally up. Combine revenue-starved states and the late-arriving sense that Internet business no longer needs a societal jumpstart, and Amazon is being forced to charge sales taxes, though it negotiated their arrival with great agility. The exemption allowed Amazon an incredible price advantage, and many of us have been glad to take advantage of it. Not having to charge customers four to nine percent in sales in taxes (which land-based merchants couldn’t avoid) allowed it to provide lower prices.

Amazon knew this day would come. What the market didn’t know was that sales tax settlements would lead to Amazon quickly flipping its model. It had paid sales taxes in a few states, forced to do that in places it had warehouses. So it placed those warehouses close enough to customers (Nevada for Californians, for instance) to make two-day shipping a snap. Now, with the tax changes underway (it’s estimated that Amazon will be on the hook for sales taxes for half the U.S. population) , it no longer needs to selectively place vast warehouses in only a few states — it can place them everywhere and much closer to customers.

Today, if you’re in Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Indianapolis, New York City, Philly, Seattle or D.C. , you can place an order and it the same day through Local Express Delivery. That becomes Amazon’s base program. It is now building out that simple concept with 7-Eleven distribution lockers and much more, city by dense city. Behind that new delivery service stands an array of back-end technologies, analytics, and logistics that far surpass what anyone else possesses. Even now, to get a sense, of what’s behind the evolving system, just check out the left-hand navigation on this page.

The program builds on the smarts of Amazon Prime, whereby 10 million Amazon customers pay $79 a year and get “free” two-day shipping. Same-day is just the next logical step, both for delivery of goods and deepening of customer relationships and selling opportunities — which, remember, increasingly include media (“The newsonomics of Amazon’s Prime/Subscription Moves”).

The unintended impacts of Amazon’s same-day push will be as intriguing as the ones we can foresee. Just for starters:

  • Will local advertising expand or retract? Retailing will be more intensely competitive, and anti-Amazon appeals need to be transmitted somehow, via smartphone, websites, print, community events, and more. Was SoLoMo just a dream, or is it now a counter-strategy? (Newspaper companies efforts to become regional ad agencies, ironically, may get a boost from the Amazon move.) Preprints, which may total as much as 40 percent of the $11 billion or so U.S. dailies take in as “retail,” will be a prime front here, one way or the other. While retail advertising impacts could be substantial, brand advertising may well become more important, as online buyers decide among brands in different ways.
  • Will newspapers be forced to accept still another death blow to their fortunes, as retail ads are further disrupted? The impact on print is up in the air. Further, Find ‘n Save, a fledgling newspaper-consortium-owned Amazon competitor finds itself even more outmatched as same-day delivery further trumps one of its key differentiations.
  • Will Google, with all its eggs in the ad basket, find unexpected competition, as Amazon further disintermediates advertising itself, becoming the first and only stop between “I want this” and delivery of the good? Will advertising itself be replaced to larger degree as manufacturers are forced to differentiate themselves within Amazon, maybe moving marketing spend there?
  • What will cityscapes and shopping centers of all kinds look like if Amazon’s plans succeed? Imagine a cityscape without big box stores, Walmart, Best Buy, and Bed Bath & Beyond? Impossible, you say? How about one without Borders, Tower Records, and Blockbuster Video, all of which have left hulking holes in the American suburban landscape. Nothing is safe from digital disruption; nothing, holy or commercial, is sacred. Optimistically, a couple of dozen communities are creating next-generation uses for these eyesores, as the big box reuse movement (good rundown and reuse wiki via Slate) has been unexpectedly spawned. Will big boxes, the spirit-sapping, wallet-supporting icons of our age of disenchantment, take the brunt of Amazon’s assault, or will it be smaller stores?
  • What might it do to employment? Will CVS checkers be replaced by more truck drivers and order fillers? Or is the future simply more robotic, as Amazon’s purchase of warehouse-product-picking Kiva Systems changes the supply chain? No, it’s not sci-fi, though it appears to be the year of the “robots,” as computers do everything from local “reporting” (Journatic) to filling our orders for toothpaste and printer ink.

Let’s take a first look at the competition, as we look at the newsonomics of Amazon vs. Main Street.

In one corner, there’s Amazon. Its strengths:

  • Quick findability, in your living room.
  • Delivery to your door, or near it, now “same day.”
  • Wide selection, often more than is available locally (but sometimes less).
  • Wide-ranging and increasingly deep user reviews.
  • Guaranteed satisfaction or easy return.

In the other corner, it’s Main Street. Its appeals:

  • Buy it now. Pick it up. See, buy, use. Ad veteran Randy Novak says that more than 80 percent of retail sales now come from areas within 15 minutes of a stores’ location.
  • The visual and tactile shopping experience; NAA’s Randy Bennett points to retailers’ role as “showcasers.” Then, there’s shopping as entertainment, plainly as much heaven for some as hell for others.
  • Habit.
  • Getting out of the house once in a while.
  • Support of the local guy.

Proximity here is fascinating. The local edge has long been proximity, that 15-minutes-away appeal. Now, Amazon counters that with 12 inches away (your nearest screen) and some number of hours, as Americans do their new arithmetic on buying.

Beyond proximity, there’s price. Yes, Amazon is acknowledging that the 20-year-long sales tax furlough it got is finally ending. It knows it will have to add that 4-9 percent of sales tax to its prices across the country within several years. So where will that tacked-on pricing put it?

Let’s remember that its world-class algorithms track competitors’ pricing in real time. After all, that’s been — often to Amazon investors’ chagrin — CEO Jeff Bezos’ strategy from the beginning: sacrifice profit margin for market share and growth. Its last quarterly report showed 1 percent net profit — on $13 billion of sales. Expect it to match or beat on many items, absorbing low margins, and maybe loss leaders to win market share from Main Street.

How much room, with tight margins, will Amazon have to maneuver? That could tell the tale here. Squeezing margins — lowering prices — will have one at least near-term consumer impact. If you’re selling the same vitamins, shoes, or dog food as Amazon, you’ll have to lower some prices to compete. The cautionary tales of bookstores and music stores, and now Best Buy, show that consumers don’t find a lot of sense in paying more locally than through the web.

As we consider price, the shipping fee comes clearly into view. With Prime, the innovation that paved this road, members don’t worry about each shipping cost. Pay once — that $79 annual fee that’s been remarkably stable — you get shipping “free.” Look for Amazon to embed free same-day shipping into another similar program, Prime Same-Day, for $99 or $139, or include it for anyone spending more than $500 a year, for example; we believe that Prime members may average $1,500 in annual purchases already. As with Prime and with Amazon overall, again, build market share for the long term, even at the risks of low profitability or even loss.

There’s a lot of nuance we’ll miss in the first passes on the topic, of which Farhad Manjoo had the best. This commercial initiative is aimed of course at goods, not services. It’s the goods-selling competitive and geographic landscape — think Amazon categories like drugs, clothes, toys, and electronics — that could be transformed. Services, like those that we use today — health care, restaurants, fitness centers, and, of course, coffee shops — would be unaffected. In an ideal world, we may have less time for mundane shopping and more for more fruitful activity. Or we may have big empty buildings, fewer community jobs, and less socializing. And, maybe people will have more time to read. We’ll probably see all these things happening at once.

Amazon, of course, just wants to make money. Yet, it has already, in part, disintermediated shopping itself. Expect it to be extend its Subscribe (interesting choice of words, right?) and Save program, wherein you get small discounts for getting regular deliveries of goods, like detergent, that you reorder over and over again. Expect it to try to change our mindsets from shopping to deciding and then letting it go, and getting it delivered without a second thought — changing the very notion of shopping.

With price differentiation now driven by algorithm, with ad offers driven by those with the biggest data, and now with delivery of our daily goods newly rationalized, it looks like those that prize news creation best continue to look elsewhere for revenue. That’s one of the reasons I’ve become increasingly enthusiastic about reader revenue. Yes, newspapers could repurpose their daily delivery systems here, to actually aid Amazon, but that seems like a real longshot. The technocrats of commerce, Amazon, Google, Facebook and Apple, are the biggest game in town — and increasingly, they want to be the only one.

Photo by Stephen Woods used under a Creative Commons license.

May 03 2012

14:55

The newsonomics of Pricing 101

When the price of your digital product is zero, that’s about how much you learn about customer pricing. Now, both the pricing and the learning is on the upswing.

The pay-for-digital content revolution is now fully upon us. Five years ago, only the music business had seen much rationalization, with Apple’s iTunes having bulled ahead with its new 99-cent order. Now, movies, TV shows, newspapers, and magazines are all embracing paid digital models, charging for single copies, pay-per-views, and subscriptions. From Hulu Plus to Netflix to Next Issue Media to Ongo to Press+ to The New York Times to Google Play to Amazon to Apple to Microsoft (buying into Nook this week), the move to paid media content is profound. The imperative to charge is clear, especially as legacy news and magazines see their share of the rapidly growing digital advertising pie (with that industry growing another 20 percent this year) actually decline.

Yes, it’s in part a 99-cent new world order as I wrote about last week (“The newsonomics of 99-cent media”), but there are wider lessons — some curiously counterintuitive — to be learned in the publishing world. Let’s call it the newsonomics of Pricing 101. The lessons here, gleaned from many conversations, are not definitive ones. In fact, they’re just pointers — with rich “how to” lessons found deeper in each.

Let’s not make any mistake this week, as the Audit Bureau of Circulation’s new numbers rolled out and confounded most everyone. Those ABC numbers wowed some with their high percentage growth rates. Let’s keep in mind that those growth numbers come on the heels of some of the worst newspaper quarterly reports issued in awhile. Not only is print advertising in a deepening tailspin, but digital advertising growth is stalled. Take all the ABC numbers you want and tell the world “We have astounding reach” — but if the audience can’t be monetized both with advertising and significant new circulation revenues, the numbers will be meaningless.

When it comes to dollars and sense, pricing matters a lot.

Let’s start with this basic principle: People won’t pay you for content if you don’t ask them to. That’s an inside-the-industry joke, but one with too much reality to sustain much laughter. It took the industry a long time to start testing offers and price points, as The Wall Street Journal and Walter Hussman’s Arkansas Democrat-Gazette provided lone wolf examples.

The corollary to that principle? If you don’t start to charge consumers — Warren Buffett on newspaper pricing: “You shouldn’t be giving away a product that you’re trying to sell.” — then you can’t learn how consumers respond to pricing. Once you start pricing, you can start learning, and adjust.

We can pick out at least nine emerging data points:

  • 33-45 percent of consumers who pay for digital subscriptions click to buy before they ever run into a paywall. That’s right — a third to a half of buyers just need to be told they will have to pay for continuing access, and they’re sold. As economists note that price is a signal of value, consumers understand the linkage. Assign what seems to be a fair price, and some readers pay up, especially if they are exposed to a “warning” screen, letting them know they’ve used up of critical number of “free” views. Maybe they want to avoid the bumping inconvenience — or maybe they just acknowledge the jig’s up.
  • If print readers are charged something extra for digital access, then non-print subscribers are more likely to buy a digital-only sub. Why pay for digital access is the other guys (the print subscribers) are getting it thrown in for “free”? Typically, Press+ sees a 20-percent-plus increase in signups on sites that charge print subscribers something extra. That extra may be just a third or so of the price digital-only subscribers pay (say, $2.95 instead of $6.95), but it makes a difference. Consequently, Press+ says 80-90 percent of its sites charge print subscribers for digital access. The company now powers 323 sites and thus has more access to collective data than any other news-selling source.
  • You can reverse the river, or at least channel it. The New York Times took a year, but figured it out righter than anyone expected. It bundled its Sunday print paper (still an ad behemoth) with digital, making that package $60 or so a year cheaper than digital alone. The result, of course, is that Sunday Times home delivery is up for first time since 2006. It’s not just NYT or the L.A. Times which have embraced Sunday/digital combos. In Minneapolis, the Star Tribune began a similar push in November. Now, of its 18,000 digital-only subscribers, 28 percent have agreed to an add on the Sunday paper, for just 30 cents a week, says CEO Mike Klingensmith (“A Twin Cities turnaround?”). So we see that consumers may well be more agnostic about platform than we thought. Given them an easy one-click way of buying even musty old print, and they will. Irony: If you hadn’t charged them for digital access, you probably wouldn’t have sold them on print.
  • New products create new markets. 70 percent of The Economist‘s digital subscribers are not former print subscribers, says Paul Rossi, managing director and executive vice president for the Americas. That’s surprising in one sense, but not in another. Newspaper company digital VPs will tell you that they’re surprised to see how little overlap there is between their print audience customer bases and their digital ones. The downside here: Many print customers seem not to value digital access that much. The Star Tribune is finding a low take rate of 3 percent of its Sunday-only print subscribers willing to take its digital-access upsell. One lesson: The building of a new digital-mainly audience won’t be easy and will require new product thinking; it’s not that easy just to port over established customers.
  • The all-access bundle must contain multiple consumer hooks. Sure, readers like to get mobile access as well as desktop and print, and maybe some video. Yet some may especially prize the special events or membership perks they are offered, as the L.A. Times is banking on (and start-ups Texas Tribune, MinnPost, and Global Post have applied outside the paywall model). Some will like the extras, like The Boston Globe telling its new 18,000 digital subscribers, as well as its print ones, that they now get “free” Sunday Supper ebooks (“The newsonomics of 100 products a year”). Sports fanatics or business data lovers will find other niches to value — and ones that make the whole bundle worthwhile. Archives — and the research riches they offer — will prove irresistible to some. In 2012, a bundle may offer a half dozen reasons to buy, casting a wide net, with the hope that at least one shiny lure will reel in the customers. By 2013, expect “dynamic, customized offers,” targeting would-be buyers by their specific interests to be more widely in use.
  • While pageviews may drop 10-15 percent with a paywall, unique visitors remain fairly constant. We see the phenomenon of those who do hit a paywall one month coming back in subsequent months, rather than fleeing forever. “It may be the second, third, or fourth month before someone says, ‘I guess I am a frequent visitor here, and I’ll play,’” says Press+’s Gordon Crovitz.
  • Archives find new life. Archives have lived in a corner of news and magazine websites for a long time. They’ve been used, but not highly used or highly monetized. Now, courtesy of the tablet, and a new way to charge, The Economist is finding that 20 percent of its single copy sales are of past issues. Readers will pay for the old in new wrappers, whether back e-issues, or niched ebooks. The all-access offer can be much wider than cross-platform, or multi-device. It can extend across time, from a century of yesterdays to alerts for tomorrow.
  • News media is probably underpriced. Take the high-end Economist. CEO Andrew Rashbass — speaking to MediaGuardian’s Changing Media Summit 2012, in a recommended video — said that a survey of its subscribers showed that a majority didn’t know how much they were paying for the Economist. When pressed to guess, most over-estimated the price. At the Columbia (Missouri) Daily Tribune, an early paywall leader in the middle of America, a recent price increase to $8.99 from $7.99 has so far resulted in no material loss of subscribers. At Europe’s Piano Media, early experience in Slovakia and Slovenia is that price isn’t a big factor, says Piano’s David Brauchli. “Payment for news on the web is really more a philosophical mindset rather than economic. People who are opposed to paying will always opposed to paying and those who see the value of paying don’t mind paying no matter what the price is.” That suggests pricing power. It makes sense that publishers, new to the pricing trade, have approached it gingerly. Yet the circulation revenue upside may well be substantial.
  • Bundle or unbundle — what’s the right way? Mainly, we don’t know yet, and the answer may be different for differing audience segments. The Economist started with print being a higher price than a separate digital sub. Then it raised the digital price to match that of print — to assert digital value. It now offers all-access: one price gets you both. Next up: You can buy either print or digital for the same price, but if you want both, you’ll pay more. It’s an evolution of testing, and so far, it’s been an upward one.

Overall, this is a revolution in more than pricing. It’s a revolution in thinking and, really, publisher identity.

The Boston Globe’s Jeff Moriarty sums it up well, as his company aims (as has the Financial Times before it: “The newsonomics of the FT as an internet retailer”) to emulate a little digital-first company called Amazon:

I think overall publishers have to start thinking more like e-commerce companies. More like Amazon. You can’t just throw up a wall or an app and expect it to just sell itself. We’re still building that muscle here at the Globe, and some of our colleagues in the industry are even farther along. We have extensive real-time and daily analytics and are employing multivariate testing to try offers and designs to refine the experience that works best for each type of user.

Photo by Jessica Wilson used under a Creative Commons license.

November 14 2011

17:19

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.

July 20 2011

15:48

June 12 2011

19:01

Initiative: TV ads increasingly performance-based, bad for Nielsen's (online) ratings system?

GigaOM :: Two executives from media agency Initiative said TV ads will increasingly become performance-based, moving the industry beyond just trying to amass huge audiences. That could throw a huge monkey wrench into the way brands and agencies think about media buying, and could be disruptive to Nielsen’s ratings system.

Continue to read Ryan Lawler, gigaom.com

March 31 2011

14:00

The newsonomics of oblivion

So, how long do newspapers have?

Two years ago, that question was on the lips of many as newspapers cut back deeply — in staff, in number of pages, in the very size of the page, and in selling their very headquarters and flagship buildings — in the depth of Deep Recession. We hear it less now. In part, that’s because many publishers and editors decided writing their own obituaries — talking about the sorry state of their enterprises and detailing the cutbacks for the public — wasn’t smart. In part, like any tired story, we’ve moved on and now occupy ourselves with digital reader payment strategems and with the discussions of how tablets and smartphones are, and aren’t, forever changing journalism.

Yet the question looms in the dark corners, in private conversations, and occasionally bursts into public view: “How long do newspapers have?”

Saturday, in Dallas, I moderated an on-stage conversation between two immoderate forces in daily journalism: The Deseret NewsClark Gilbert, aka “the baby-faced dean of disruption,” as his alternative rival, the Salt Lake City Weekly, has called him; and John Paton, the Digital First, bomb-throwing CEO of the post-bankrupt (and up from cardboard desks and leaky newsroom pipes) Journal Register Company, not long ago the bottom feeder of the industry.

Paton had tossed aside his usual JRC change presentation. Instead, he went with 10 tweets, each, in turn, well-retweeted.

The first and second: “The newspaper model is broken & can’t be fixed” and “Newspapers will disappear in less than 10 years unless their biz model is changed now.”

His point: Piecemeal change is a dead-end, given the converging downward spirals of the business. Only massive, digital-first strategies and re-organizations that scrap old structures, budgets, job descriptions — and, massively, costs — have any hope of porting today’s newspaper companies to that other side of a mainly digital news age.

He’s right, of course. No, not necessarily about the 10-year prediction. It could be five or fifteen, but that makes little difference to the notion. Today’s daily newspaper companies have little chance of surviving in anything resembling tomorrow’s form very far in the future.

In fact, as I talk, privately, to those running the companies, they, too, are largely in agreement. While they talk little publicly these days, the fact remains: You can’t find anyone who says he yet has a proven, sustainable business model for moving forward.

That’s the reason we’re seeing such significant embrace of digital reader walls and fences. The New York Times, the Dallas Morning News, and the Augusta Chronicle all share a goal: get off the road to oblivion and somehow find a new route, a life-saving detour, in uncharted territory. Fear of oblivion is becoming, finally and for more publishers, a motivator for more systematic change. If it works, a new digital reader revenue line could be one important building block of a stable new business model, though it won’t be enough by itself.

Oblivion like the once-famous “revolution” in Gil Scott-Heron’s song won’t be advertised. No one’s going to send out a press release or hold a news conference to say, “It’s over.” Newspapers have numerous fellow travelers among legacy media on the road. As we heard this week, CBS News’ ratings have been in decline since 1992. Somehow we will finally pull the plug on that format, but in the meantime, it’s a long winding-down, marked by lesser and lesser capacity to both do the work of journalism and to see its impacts.

Let’s look at several data points as we explore this notion of the newsonomics of oblivion.

How can we measure the threat of disappearance, of slipping away into history?

Let’s start with this number: 20 quarters. It has been 20 quarters since the U.S. newspaper industry experienced a quarter’s performance that was better than that same quarter a year earlier. It was way back in the second quarter of 2006 that the industry last experienced growth.

Things just keep getting worse, in deep recession, in lesser recession, in timid recovery, and now in a wider economic recovery that has lifted into positive (year-over-year, actual dollar growth) territory all other media that depend on advertising for much of their income. Broadcast and cable TV, radio and magazines have all regained a positive revenue path, as online media’s growth has shot out in the growth lead, the recession itself accelerating the movement of dollars to it.

Gannett’s recent public report, saying publishing division revenues will be down between 6 and 7 percent for the quarter now concluding, is indicative of the continuing deep malaise.

While first quarter industry numbers won’t be publicly reported ’til mid-April, look for them to be down 6 to 10 percent in ad revenue. Print advertising just isn’t recovering. Even good growth rates of 15 to 30 percent in digital — helped by more “online-only,” and fewer bundled-with-print, ad products — can’t come close to making up for print decline. “We’re now growing digital at almost 30 percent,” one CEO recently told me. “But we’d have to grow it at 80 percent or more to make up the [print] losses.”

The numbers suggest that only more cost-cutting retains profitability, which is running 5 to 10 percent currently, the black maintained only by the ongoing staff and other reductions of the past several years. (Witness the recent cuts at Gannett and McClatchy.)

The story is the same throughout the industry, with similar trends in Japan, continental Europe, and the UK; only one of London’s half-dozen quality dailies is even turning a profit these days.

We can look at the models built by Axel Springer. Not well known to Americans, the German publisher is the largest newspaper publisher in Europe, with huge reach overall in 36 countries, including 170 newspapers and magazines, over 60 online offerings for different target groups, and TV and radio properties. In print, it’s the leader in Germany, in both ad revenue and market reach, touching 53 percent of the German population annually. It says it is second only to innovator Schibsted in digital (as percentage of total) revenues.

And yet: Its own forecast future is highly problematic.

By 2020, those extended lines paint a blurry picture, says Gregor Waller, who has just left Axel Springer as vice president for strategy and innovation to start a new digital venture. Waller’s presentation at a recent World Association of Newspapers/IFRA conference is among the best I’ve seen among news publishers. It looks honestly at what’s happening now — and what’s likely to happen — and draws logical, if heart-stopping, conclusions.

Citing the familiar trends of increased advertiser choice, mobile reader migration, the social web revolution, and print decline, Waller’s “conservative” projection forecasts that, by 2020:

  • Print circulation revenue will drop by 50 percent;
  • Classifieds revenue will drop by 90 percent;
  • Display revenue will drop by 30 percent;
  • With online ad revenue, growing at a compounded maximum 11 percent rate, there will be “no way to close the revenue gap with online advertising.”

All of which results in a “huge revenue gap.”

Waller’s conclusion: “Digital advertising will play an important role, but without paid content, publishing houses with a big editorial infrastructure for daily quality news will not survive.”

Which is another way to describe oblivion for the industry as we now know it.

Axel Springer is aggressively testing paid metered models at its Berliner Morgenpost and Hamburger Abendblatt, paralleling The New York Times’ major move this week, and that of more than two dozen U.S. dailies — which have, or soon will, paid schemes.

Waller would be the first to tell you that digital reader revenue isn’t the panacea, but one important piece to creating a sustainable new business model.

John Paton will tell you that digital reader revenue is a distraction, and that the radical restructuring of newspaper companies is their own possibility of finding that future.

They’re both right.

In 2011, it’s a Rubik’s Cube that can’t be solved, with one of Hollywood’s looming, time-ticking-down deadlines. A big twist here, a little one there, and then lots more, we can only hope, will provide a solution. We can be agnostic as to whether that model comes out of the legacy companies, out of cable and broadcast, out of public media, out of for-profit start-ups, or, likely, some combination of those. But we need solutions that provide stable funding for, as Waller puts it, “big editorial infrastructure for daily quality news.”

The threat of oblivion should be a powerful motivator, and we now see — finally — after a decade of decline, its specter moving us away from incremental, “experimental” tests to a fundamental restructuring of the business of news.

Image by Thomas Hawk used under a Creative Commons license.

March 10 2011

15:00

The newsonomics of AOL/Patch buying Outside.in

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.

There are two ways to be local, we’ve learned.

You can create local news, as newspapers, TV, and some radio stations — and more recently, tens of thousands of bloggers — have done. Or you can aggregate local, sorting through what those newspapers, TV and radio stations, and bloggers have created, picking up what you want, lifting a headline and quick summary and providing a link.

Over the years, the aggregators have often laughed — not publicly, of course — at those silly people who sink millions into creating local news, or content of any kind, while creators have joked — sometimes publicly — that some day those aggregators will have to turn out the lights, when all the content creators have gone bankrupt and out of business. Creation is hugely expensive, when all you have to do is build a better algorithm, scoop up what’s already there, organize it better than someone else, and sell advertising against it. That’s why the first decade of this century has been largely the decade of the aggregators, with the Googles, Yahoos, MSNs and AOLs, among the leaders in aggregation — and revenue.

So as much as AOL CEO Tim Armstrong talks about sparking a content revolution and creating lots of original content, in the background, he also needs to up his aggregation game, using more and more of other people’s content. That’s how I read the recent announcement that AOL’s Patch is buying Outside.in, a company that uses technology to roundup local content, dividing it into the categories of local news and local blogs — and which has partnered with newspaper companies in its four-year history. (Sadly, the memorable url construction, owing to an Indian .in domain, will probably fade into history.) It’s a small play, but one that may have bigger impact on the emergence of hyperlocal news — and local advertising/marketing dollars — in the years ahead. Let’s look at the newsonomics of the Outside.in deal, and what it tells us about the future of Patch itself and AOL’s play to get bigger audiences faster.

The deal — for a purchase price of less than $10 million — is small when compared to the investment ($14.4 million) put into Outside.in by some high-profile investors (Union Square Ventures, Marc Andreessen, John Borthwick, Esther Dyson, and CNN) and when compared to AOL’s $315 Huffington Post buy. It’s tiny, also, when compared to AOL’s spending of $606 million for 14 acquisitions since the beginning of 2010 — a number, of course, that itself pales against Google’s 48 purchases for $1.8 billion over roughly the same period.

Yet it parallels the HuffPo buy in a major way: It’s an attempt by AOL to get bigger faster. Look at AOL’s financials and it’s clear Armstrong is in a race against time. As one savvy newspaper veteran pointed out to me last week, AOL looks, ironically, a lot like a newspaper company. It has a legacy circulation product, in slow, but unmistakeable decline — its AOL-brand Internet access service — and a digital ad business (in turnaround mode) that isn’t growing fast enough to turn the company sustainably profitable in the future. So The Huffington Post not only pasted the face of Arianna atop the site, in hopes her followers will follow, but acts as the wished-for rocket fuel for overall company traffic growth over the next couple of years, especially as the election season, with its political interest, dawns once again.

Patch is part of that strategy for audience growth, drawing into AOL customers through the local pipeline.

The Outside.in deal aims to do a simple thing to support that growth: create more page views around local content, at a lower cost to AOL. Or putting it even more simply: bulking up Patch, on the cheap.

And isn’t that what critics of fast-growing Patch — more than 800 served up across the country, the fastest-growing news startup and hirer of journalists in the last several years — have said since Armstrong and Patch President Warren Webster announced its hypergrowth plan last summer. For all of you who have said, “I don’t get the business model, they’re paying too much for content,” Armstrong and Webster apparently agree with you.

Patch still needs to make its one editor/reporter per Patch pencil out, but it can do something about the costs of lassoing other content. Peruse the Patches around the country — mainly on the coasts, but with a growing representation in the Upper Midwest — and you see lots of vitality and lots of variable quality. At the top sites, you’ll find the site updated with posts and tweets every few hours, and that owes itself both to the hard-working Patch editors (10-plus hour days are still not uncommon) and their ability to pull in good stringers. The budget for those stringers actually varies by the month, as Patch balances budgets and getting its allocations right. Take a bigger Patch site — serving a city of 80,000, for instance — and it may get more than $2,500 a month in freelance budget, while smaller ones serving communities of 20,000 may only get $1,200.

What Outside.in offers Patch is a new tool to manage how much local content it offers through aggregation — rounding up news from other local sources, including local dailies and weeklies and blogs, and how much it decides to pay for directly. Add Outside.in to Patch pages and you may get the sense of a fuller news report, Patch+. Sure the plus requires readers to link off the site, but that’s the nature of the aggregation game. You get more readers to come to because you’ve created one of the largest centers of local content. If you do it right, you can be ahead of the game — and trim costs.

Let’s look at it on a pure cost basis. If Patch gets 1,000 sites up and going, which should happen this year, and it can trim what it spends on stringers by an average of $500 per site per month, that’s $6000 a year in savings per site. For the Patch network in general, that’s $6 million a year. With Outside.in costing no more than one and a half times that number, you’ve paid for the acquisition in less than two years. (Of course, there are also ongoing operating costs as Outside.in CEO and able web serial entrepreneur Mark Josephson and some other team members join Patch.)

The tweaking, of course, is both about the algorithm — tour Santa Cruz Outside.in today, and the top five news stories are from the local Patch!; where’s the local daily, the Sentinel? — and in the content model. What’s the mix of paid, fresh voices and local aggregation that pulls in, and retains, audience?

That question is, of course, what leading local newspaper sites have been trying to figure out as well. A number of newspaper partners of Outside.in itself have tried, without significant commercial success, to figure out the formula. Other sites like SeattlePI.com have used aggregation (SeattleTweets) and innovators from the Miami Herald to the Journal Register papers have signed up local bloggers, in distribution and ad-revenue-sharing programs. All of these are works-in-progress at getting the local original content creation/aggregation model right.

Patch could get it right, or righter, and become a more formidable challenger to local newspaper sites — especially as they go to paywalls of various kinds. (Although that also reopens the question of how findable and linkable their own local content is for the aggregating algorithms of Outside.in and others.) If it does get it righter, it could also become a more likely potential partner for media companies looking to cut their own local costs and reach audience. It’s all in getting that cost of content unit/ad yield per unit of content right, and no one’s yet minted the winning formula.

We can see the dilemma in one current market. Journal Register CEO John Paton (who talks about competing with Patch, here) has been working with Outside.in, to supply aggregated content for the planned fyi.Philadelphia site. He put that relationship on hold this week, and delayed the product launch, as he conjures the question: Is the new Patch/Outside.in a friend, a foe, or some in-between still to be figured out?

February 07 2011

15:00

“It just feels inevitable”: Nick Denton on Gawker Media sites’ long-in-the-works new layout

This morning, “the biggest event in Gawker Media history” took place: The nine sites of the group officially launched their redesigns. Go to gawker.com — or jezebel.com or deadspin.com or lifehacker.com or the five other sites that make up Gawker Media at the moment — and you’ll see the new page layout that’s been on display in beta-dot form for the past couple of months, brought to life on the properties’ home URLs.

The new look, overall, is a move beyond the blog — a move most aptly described, in a November Lifehacker post, by Nick Denton himself. And, in true blog style, the post-blogization of Gawker is something that’s been described and discussed on blogs long before today’s official drop date. The utter unsurprisingness of Gawker’s new look is probably a good thing for a web property, given how indignantly resistant to design change we web users tend to be.

“It just feels inevitable,” Denton says. “We have a crying need to showcase both exclusives and visual posts. The visual posts are now at least half of our top-performing stories. And audience growth on sites like Deadspin and Gawker has been driven by our most sensational scoops.”

The biggest change to note is the two-panel layout, which makes for a front page that, as Gawker editor Remy Stern put it this morning, is “dominated by one big story (or a roundup of several different stories), and a list of headlines appear in a column down the right side of the page.”

For that, “the antecedents are software products, however, rather than web sites,” Denton told me over Gchat. “We’ve definitely been influenced by two-pane email and news reading apps.” One of the keys to the redesign is the new emphasis on visuals — most strikingly embodied in the huge slot As Denton noted in his Lifehacker post, “This visual slot will be 640×360 pixels in size — that’s 64 percent larger than in the current design — and be in the most prominent location on every page, above even the headline itself. Viewers will be able to toggle to a high-definition 960×540 version — a full 3.7 times larger than the current video standard.” Gizmodo, notably, has been investing in bigger and better visuals as a way to make stories stand out.

The redesign is a kind of convergence in action: blog, magazine, and television, all collapsing into each other.  Though “outside observers will note that this layout represents some convergence of blog, magazine and television,” Denton notes — yup — and though “that’s true in the abstract but it’s more of a description than an argument” — fair enough — when it comes to marketing, the redesign is a kind of argument. A big one.

Online, increasingly, the ad-sales choice boils down to two general strategies: build ad revenues directly, or build audience (which in turn accrues to revenue). The new layout is a double-down on the latter. With the design’s increased emphasis on engagement/the lean-back experience/etc., Gawker properties will ostensibly beef up their time-on-site stats while — for the short term, at least — taking a cut on pageviews as readers engage with and lean back into their content. It’s an app-like approach being realized, intriguingly, on the open web. And, in it, Gawker’s taking a TV-like approach to ad sales: one that’s more about nebulous mass consumption — zeitgeist, if you will — than about simple CPMs. Essentially, as Salmon noted: Gawker is selling time, not space. It’s not selling reader eyeballs so much as reader attention.

And that’s an idea that’s been in the works for a while. Last spring, Gawker’s head of marketing and advertising operations, Erin Pettigrew, wrote a post about Gawker’s new emphasis on branded traffic via an attempt to measure “recurring reader affection.” I chatted with her about that post; here’s what she told me at the time:

First, for so long we concerned ourselves with reach and becoming a significant enough web population such that advertisers would move us into their consideration set for marketing spend. Now that we have attained a certain level of reach and that spend consideration, we’re looking for additional ways to differentiate ourselves against other publisher populations. So branded traffic helps to illuminate our readership’s quality over its quantity, a nuanced benefit over many of the more broadly reaching sites on the web.

Secondly, there’s a myth, especially in advertising, that frequency of visitation is wasteful to ad spend. As far as premium content sites and brand marketers go, however, that myth is untrue. So, the ‘branded traffic’ measure is part of a larger case we’re making that advertising to a core audience (who visits repeatedly) is extremely effective.

That’s a magazine model; Gawker has simply been translating it to the web. (“If you’re going to working with the most storied brands,” Denton puts it, “the appeal has to go beyond the numbers. Conde Nast — at its peak — sold the magic.”) And Gawker certainly hasn’t been alone in doing that: See Slate, Salon, and their peer group, who go out of their way to emphasize the smartness (more cynically: the affluence) of their readers to advertisers. And yet Gawker seems to have reached a critical mass (or, to use the language of a writer from one of those Conde Nast titles, a tipping point): It’s moved, it seems, beyond simply selling its readers to advertisers. Now, it is simply selling itself. The readers are implied. They can be, in the best sense, taken for granted.

Check out, for example, the Advertising page on Gawker; in place of a traditional media kit (replete with demographic data about readers and the like), you’ll find a slickly produced video detailing Gawker’s (literally) storied history. The thing has the feel of an Oscar clip real, complete with a strings-heavy sidetrack; you’re compelled, almost in spite of yourself. And the video presents Gawker through the prism of a kind of epic inevitability, noting, accurately, how much the site and its sisters have done to change things. The message is, implicitly and essentially: Gawker is the future. Be part of it.

Which doesn’t mean that Gawker isn’t also selling readers to advertisers in the traditional magazine (and, for that matter, newspaper) model; it still is, definitely. It’s just doing it more indirectly. The advertising videos are “about the stories,” Denton says. “And the stories define the readers — and the readers define the stories.” The delivering-readers-you-want-to-reach aspect is only one part of Gawker’s marketing argument. “The pitch to advertisers is twofold,” Denton says. “One — and this is the constant — that our audience consists of the young and upscale people who have disappeared from newspapers and other traditional media. And, second, that we increasingly have the scale and production values of — say — cable television.”

It’s that second one that the redesign is trying to capture. And it’s the resonance, and competition, with cable that will be fascinating to see as the new Gawker layout becomes, simply, the Gawker layout. (Readers have the option of continuing with the blog format, if they prefer, which won’t serve the 640×360 ads; see the cola-nostalgic Deadspin Classic, for instance. But “I doubt it will represent any more than 10 percent of impressions, anyway,” Denton notes.) Denton sees his competition, he told me, not only as sites like TMZ and The Hollywood Reporter, but also — and more so — AOL. (A rivalry that, around midnight last night, suddenly got much more interesting.) “And — in the long term — we’ll compete for audiences with cable groups such as NBC Universal,” Denton says.

It’s a big experiment — and a big gamble. One that, like so many similarly grand experiments being made by the big media companies out there — the Times’ paywall will rise any day now — will be fascinating, and instructive, to watch. History’s on Denton’s side — he’s been right about a lot so far — but it’s far from certain that the redesign, and the marketing logic that goes with it, will pay off.

Yesterday, after former Gawker editor Gabriel Snyder observed that, since the redesign, pageviews were down at the beta sites of Jalopnik and i09, Rex Sorgatz issued a bet: “I’m on the record that I think the redesigns will fail. And I’m now officially opening the betting pool. I think Denton is going to be forced to pull back on this. If anyone wants to wager that the redesign don’t get yanked back (or greatly modified) by, let’s say, June 1… I’ll take your bet.”

Denton himself took the bet. (“Money where your mouth is,” he told me.) The measure is October pageviews on Quantcast. The market’s at 510 million pageviews at the moment — so “for every million over that, he pays me $10,” Denton says. And “for every million under, I pay him.”

“I’m going to clean him out.”

January 20 2011

18:30

The Newsonomics of Mr. Murdoch’s Daily

[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.]

Let’s pause for a moment and reflect.

It’s a daily newspaper being taken to the web. And: It’s the sensation of the moment. After 15 years of decrying the re-purposing of print newspapers for “online,” we’re making quite a fuss about a product — Rupert Murdoch’s digital outlet, The Daily — that is proudly leveraging the newspaper metaphor, creating a mostly (we think) daily edition, with some updating.

At first blush, it seems like a 2001 idea, dressed in new 2011 clothes. But maybe it’s the clothes that make all the difference, and that make Mr. Murdoch The Man. The new outfit, after all, is the iPad, the hot device of our time — the one that seems to be playing havoc with what we thought we knew about digital news reading (“The Newsonomics of tablets replacing newspapers“).

It is impossible, of course, to make much sense of The Daily until we can actually read it. With iPad products, we’re often into that crazy first blush associated with any new digital device, confusing the device itself with the product.

We think The Daily will now launch in the next couple of weeks, as Apple finalizes its work around subscription offerings. Maybe Rupert won’t get his two-shot with Steve Jobs, given Jobs’ new leave of absence, but we know The Daily will greatly benefit from the great shelf placement Apple is bound to give it as it opens its subscription store. (And News Corp., of course, has plenty of its own owned properties to help in marketing, as well.)

So what might The Daily be?

It could be the USA Today of 2011, 30 years after that newspaper started its own category of national papers identified by nuggetized journalism and color-coded, easy-to-grasp presentation. As the first digital news native in the tablet space, The Daily certainly offers that possibility. Or it could be just New York Times lite, with its timing, by coincidence or purpose, blunting the Times’ own efforts to charge for digital content more generally and for the iPad specifically. Or it could be a next generation of “The National,” a white-hot star of a national sports daily, crammed with talent, that burned out within a year and a half in 1991. And it could read like either a newspaper or a magapaper, given its hiring of some magazine hands.

If you are the Huffington Post or the Daily Beast or Slate, you’ve got to be asking the question of why The Daily could charge and why it couldn’t. Is the value in its web (desktop/laptop access) lineage — or is portability just how we, readers and publishers, think about information now? As seems increasingly true, the tablet in general is upending lots of ways we think about digital news.

So let’s take a quick look at the Newsonomics of The Daily, tempered by our partial knowledge of it.

Budget

We’ve heard the $30 million number, which covers two-plus years of operation. (That’s close to the $31.5 million that Murdoch sunk into Alesia, as Jeff Bercovici has noted.)

The $30 million would be a big investment for many newspaper companies these days, but not for News Corp. Consider, just as an example, the $33 billion (in revenues) the company takes in through its 20th Century Fox division. Marmaduke, “a dog of a movie,” came in fourteenth on the company’s 2010 grossing list, at $33 million, behind Unstoppable, Knight and Day, and Vampires Suck. And Avatar (“The Avatar Advantage: Big and Bigger Media“), the top grosser, took in $408 million.

So the $30 million for The Daily is pocket change, at worst another big R&D project.

Costs

We’re hearing that about 150 staffers are assigned to the project, about 100 — or two-thirds of them — journalists. Let’s take $90,000 as an average FTE cost, a valid estimate given the New York (with L.A. as a bureau) siting of the product. That’s $13.5 million in annual staff costs. We don’t yet know how much News Corp. is leveraging its well-developed and ample advertising sales staff, its technologists, or its marketing people — or how the costs of “borrowed” News Corp. or Dow Jones resources are being allocated internally (echoes once again of USA Today). News Corp. could be devoting significant marketing dollars here, as well, to better leverage its Apple relationship and its first-in-format launch.

Figure a first-year run rate between $15 and $20 million, and maybe a tad less for a second year, and you’ve got $30 million.

Subscription revenue

On revenues, as well, the hypotheticals are intriguing. The Daily is a U.S.-centered, iPad-based product; its only web presence will be promotional. We think that Apple sold over 10 million iPads last year, mostly in the U.S., and — though numbers vary widely — forecasters estimate another 50 million in iPad sales between 2011 and 2012, and 70 million tablets overall (again in the U.S.). So let’s say, roundly, that by the end of 2012, there are around 80 million tablets extant in the U.S. Getting just 1 percent of their users to subscribe to The Daily (and, yes, some households will have multiple tablets, but let’s let that go for the moment) would mean 800,000 subscribers. And a quarter of those would be 200,000 subscribers.

Let’s say The Daily could get to 200,000 at $52 a year. (It’s priced at 99 cents a week, out of the chute.) That’s $10.4 million in subscription revenue. Apple, which presumably will be doing all the e-commerce for this tablet-only product, would take 30 percent of that, leaving $7 million in net annual returns.

There are a couple of early caveats here. First, The Daily, an old-fashioned news idea, will likely have to use old-fashioned selling approaches: lots of free sampling and discounts. (That’s one of the many issues Apple must work out as it decides what it means to be a subscription-offering company.) So the 200,000-multiplied-by-$52 math won’t be a straight line. (And, of course, if it’s successful, News Corp. can raise rates.)

Second, let’s fast-forward six months from The Daily’s launch. It is now challenged by a number of paid digital news products: those of the Times, the Journal, magazines, and regional newspapers. Those products, all with non-tablet roots, have lots of ways to promote both themselves and their digital/iPad subscriptions. The Daily, with no web presence — and so, presumably, little search engine optimization — may be at a significant disadvantage from that perspective. On the other hand, it can use News Corp. promotional assets (but those do have real costs) or continue to invest in marketing to keep awareness high. Of course, if The Daily is a great product and its social axis (Facebook, Twitter, Linked In) works, social search could offer a great deal of help there and cheaply.

Ad revenue

Early tablet revenue was off the charts, an effective cost-per-thousand rate of 10X website sales. Much of that early shine is wearing off, say some tablet news publishers, with some placements tossed into a print/online bundle in 2011. Does that mean that tablet rates will swoon to low website ones? Not necessarily, but we don’t yet have enough data to know. Sponsorship (given high brand value and lower traffic) will inevitably be joined by a full array of video pre- and mid-rolls, behavioral targeting and re-targeting, and still-ascendant pay-for-performance — all the modern tricks of the trade.

So if the cost run-rate is about $15 to $18 million a year, and subscription revenues net at $7 million, News Corp. would need $8 to $11 million a year in ad revenues to break even. Certainly possible, if that 200,000 number is hit and sustained, but that could be a tough proposition as tablet newbies sample widely and are confronted by a world of paid choices.

Bottom line: Yes, The Daily can work. But for Murdoch, whose moxie even the biggest detractor from Fox News can admire, The Daily represents another test, another foray. His success has been mixed. Alesia, his news portal, didn’t work, so he abandoned it. MySpace is being sold off, at a low point in its trajectory, while the Dow Jones/Wall Street Journal buy may indeed find significant new business success in the tablet age. And now there’s The Daily. It’s a grand lab for Murdoch. And the rest of us.

January 13 2011

15:30

The Newsonomics of 2011 news metrics to watch

[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.]

In the digital business, the old aphorism — “If you can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist” — is rapidly moving from article of faith to fundamental operating principle. Measurement systems are just getting better and better.

Yes, there are still quite a few naysayers in the digital news business, those who believe that editorial discretion is superior to any metric the digital combines can kick out. They’ll say you can’t measure the quality of journalism created — and, of course, they are partly right. The truth of the moment is that good (to great) editors, armed with good (to great) analytics, will be in the winners in the next web wars. The same is true for digital marketers working for news companies. Unless they combine their knowledge of markets, customers, and advertisers with often real-time numbers about performance, they’ll lose business to those who do.

The counting of numbers, though, is tricky. So many numbers, so little time, as 24/7 digital keystrokes stoke endless reams of data. Which ones to count, and which to pay closest attention? Meaningful numbers, of course, are called metrics, and meaningful interpretation of those numbers we now call analytics. These analytics, discovered or undiscovered, then drive the business, and they are particularly important in great times of change, when whole industries move profoundly digital. As that old investigative reporter Sherlock Holmes said, “Data. Data. Data. I can’t make bricks without clay.”

In the spirit of the new year, let me suggest some of the more valuable emerging metrics for those in the news business in 2011. Further, in that spirit, let’s pick 11 of them. These aren’t intended to be the most important ones — the mundane price of newsprint, trending up recently, still is a hugely influential number — but ones that are moving center stage in 2011.

1. How much are news companies getting for tablet advertising? Or, in more numerical terms, what’s the effective CPM, or cost-per-thousand readers? In 2010, those with tablet news products reaped a small windfall, gaining rates as high as $150 per thousand readers, which would be 20 times what many of them get for their website ads. Much of that business was “sponsorship,” meaning that advertisers paid simply for placement, not actually based on number of readers. It was the blush of the new, and the association with it, that drove that kind of money. While early 2011 pricing is still very good, as the tablet market goes mass, what will happen to the rates news companies can charge advertisers? This is a huge question, especially if tablet news reading does hasten movement from ad-rich newsprint (see “The Newsonomics of tablets replacing newspapers“).

2. What percentage of unique visitors will actually pay for online access? It’s going to be a tiny percentage — maybe one to five percent of all those uniques, the majority tossed onto sites by search. If it’s less than one percent, paid metered models may be of little consequence. At two percent, especially for the big guys, like The New York Times with its imminent launch, the numbers gets meaningful and model-setting.

3. Where are the news reading minutes going? The Pew study showing that Americans are reading news 13 minutes a day more, probably given smartphone usage, was a thunderbolt — a potential sign of growth for a news industry that has felt itself melting away. With tablet news reading joining even more smartphone reading (only 20 percent of cellphones are “smart” right now), each news company will have to look at its logs to see which readers are reading what with what kind of device — which will tell where reading is increasing and where (let’s guess, print) it is decreasing. Then comes the job to adjust products accordingly.

4. How good are the margins in the fast-developing marketing services business? Tribune’s 435 Digital, GannettLocal, and Advance Internet are among the leaders selling everything from search engine marketing and optimization to mobile and social to local merchants. It’s a big shift for big newspaper companies used to selling larger ticket ads to relatively few customers. There is no doubt that local merchants want help in digital marketing. The number to watch for the newspaper companies is their margin on sales — after paying off technology partners from Google to Bing to WebVisible. Once we see how those margins settle in, we’ll know whether marketing services is a big, or small, play to find local news company profit growth.

5. How much of digital revenue is being driven by digital-only ad sales? McClatchy has been a leader in unbundling print/online sales, with digital-only now approaching 50 percent. That’s a big number for all media companies to watch. Not only is the market pushing them to offer unbundled products, but the sooner they sell digital separately on its own merits, the faster they grasp the growing business and slowly cut the cord to the declining one.

6. How much of news traffic is now being driven by Facebook and Twitter? A few companies, including The Washington Post, know daily how much of their traffic is driven by social media; many others have little clue. Those that do watch the number know that Facebook and Twitter are the number one growth driver for news “referral” traffic, and that social traffic (friends don’t let friends read bad news) converts better to more regular readership than does search traffic. This metric then pushes newsrooms to more greatly, and more quickly, participate in the social whirl.

7. How much will membership grow at the highest-quality, online-only local news start-ups? MinnPost just hit 2,300, an impressive number, but it’s been a three-year road to get there. It is hiring a membership director and trying to better convert regular readers to members. The Texas Tribune is pushing toward 2,000 and Bay Citizen 1,500. Can membership be a significant, and ramping, piece of the new news business model, or will it have to look elsewhere — advertising, syndication, events, more grants — to find sustainable futures?

8. How many titles — and readers — is Journalism Online able to bring into its Press+ network? Journalism Online has moved from a question mark to a well-situated player in the iPad-fueled universe of paid content. Its Press+ network offers the promise of that elusive “network effect” — but only if it gets real scale.

9. How much “extra” do news companies charge for digital access? Okay, every publisher wants to be paid for news content. But as they test out pricing, they’re all over the board in how much to charge. Some want to charge as much for digital as for print; others are willing to throw in digital access for “free” if readers maintain print. The number to watch is one probably about 10-20 percent higher than print alone — as an opt-out upsell — and see how much that sticks with print readers. If that works, new “circulation” revenue helps replaces some of that disappearing ad money — and provide a route to a time of mainly digital, partially paid access.

10. What’s your cost of content? No journalist likes to be thought of as a widget producer, but news is a manufacturing trade, as the Demand Media model has shown us. How can news companies lower the cost of content while creating more? That’s why we see new Reuters America deals, Demand partnerships, more user-gen, more staff blogging. Editors are more needed than ever to make quality judgments about new content, but they and their business leaders must understand what content — high-end and low — really costs to produce.

11. How much do you spend on analytics? Ultimately, investing in the collection and interpretation of data is a big test of news companies’ ability to play digital. I’ve noted (“The Newsonomics of the FT as an Internet retailer“) how the Financial Times has set the pace for the industry in establishing a new team of (non-newspaper) people to run its analytics arm. That operation now numbers 11, up from nine last year. A good beginning metric for any news company to ask: How much money are we investing in understanding our business with the tools of the day?

January 06 2011

19:00

Dallas Morning News publisher on paywall plans: “This is a big risk”

In talking about the Dallas Morning News’ plans to begin charging for digital content next month, Jim Moroney is surprisingly candid about the decision and the economics of the industry. When the publisher of the News told his staff about the decision, he said they must be prepared to be ridiculed and vilified for putting their content behind a paywall.

“This is a big risk — I’m not confident we’re going to succeed,” Moroney told me. “But we’ve got to try something. We’ve got to try different things.”

Beginning February 15, the News will beginning charging for a majority of its content across its soon-to-be-redesigned website, its iPhone app, and a forthcoming iPad app. Print subscribers will get full access to everything for $33.95 a month, while those who eschew the paper can buy a subscription to the website and apps for $16.95. What’s unclear at the moment is how exactly the digital subscription will work given that Apple’s app store doesn’t allow for subscriptions (at least not yet, but that could be changing soon).

The move is not entirely a surprise given that other large metro papers, The New York Times and the Boston Globe, are developing paywalls. It’s also less of a surprise since A.H. Belo, parent company of the News, said in 2009 that it was considering switching some of its papers to paid sites. (A plan for the Providence Journal to go all-pay appears to have been changed or pushed back.)

What will readers have to pay for? Dallasnews.com exclusive reporting, for one thing, including its scoops on the biggest show around, Dallas Cowboys football. Free stuff will include breaking news, wire stories, obits, and blogs (which, curiously, could include sports coverage of the Cowboys).

Moroney is pragmatic about the paper going to a paid model. “It’s not an over-the-cliff strategy,” he said. “If this works, great, it’ll be fantastic. If it doesn’t, we can go back to providing access at a lower price or free.”

It’s an experimental approach that marks a shifted attitude toward paid content. In 2009, Moroney was one of several newspaper executives to testify at a Senate hearing on the future of newspapers. As he put it at the time, “If The Dallas Morning News today put up a paywall over its content, people would go to The Fort Worth Star-Telegram.”

Now, though, as he sees it, the News and other papers have no choice but to change. “I don’t see impression-based advertising, the thing that paid bills for newspapers for so long, as supportable in the long run for a newspaper,” he said in our phone conversation. Moroney said he expects that pageviews will drop by half once the paywall is up, which is no small consideration given that the News has roughly 40 million pageviews a month. But even with growing pageviews and modest gains in online ad revenue in the industry, CPM prices are still low and ad inventory is up, Moroney said. And as he told Ken Doctor in a Newsonomics post last August, the days of newspapers living off the old “80/20″ rule are long gone.

Over the last few years, the News has reined in its circulation from far-flung areas (sorry, readers in Arkansas and Oklahoma), cut back third party copy sales, and increased its home delivery price, all with the idea of turning the Dallas Morning News (in all of its forms) into a product that makes money off specific, targeted audiences — rather than one that makes money on volume, Moroney said.

What the paper hopes will make the difference is a tiered system of access, from individual apps to the digital-only bundle and the full-blown subscription. In debuting an iPad app, it made sense to make all the paper’s digital offerings paid, Moroney said — otherwise, why would someone pay for an app when they can access DallasNews.com on a smartphone or tablet’s web browser? That becomes especially true as more publishers build HTML5 sites that can offer an engaging app-esque experience. “You have a website you can access with a browser that has the same look and feel of an app. How can you expect people to pay for one,” he noted, and not the other?

In its research to prepare for the site, the News found that there was willingness to pay for access to the site or various apps. While, because of the relative newness of the iPad, Moroney said he takes the data with a grain of salt, it was still positive enough to encourage the paper to create a paid strategy for its digital products.

“I don’t think we can wait,” Moroney said. “The business has enough uncertainty around it.”

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