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May 23 2013

16:33

The newsonomics of value exchange and Google Surveys

whittier-daily-news-google-survey-paywall

What happens when a reader hits the paywall?

Only a small percentage slap their foreheads, say “Why didn’t I subscribe earlier?” and pay up. Most go away; some will come back next month when the meter resets. A few will then subscribe; others just go elsewhere.

So what if there were a way to capture some value from those non-subscribing paywall hitters — people who plainly have some affinity for a certain news site but aren’t willing to pay?

Welcome to the emerging world of value exchange. It’s not a new idea; value exchange has been used in the gaming world for a long time. As the Zyngas have figured out, only a small percentage of people will pay to play games. So they’ve long used interactive ads, quizzes, surveys, and more as ways to wring some revenue out of those non-payers.

It’s a variation on the an old saw that says much of life boils down to two things: money and time. It also brings to mind the classic Jack Benny radio routine, “Your Money or Your Life.” If people won’t pay for media with currency, many are willing to trade their time.

Now the idea is arriving at publishers’ doorsteps. It is being tested mainly, but not exclusively, as a paywall alternative. Yet, as we’ll see it, there may be many other innovative uses of time-based payment.

In part, this is part of the digital generational shift we might call “beyond the banner.” Static, smaller-display advertising is increasingly out of favor, with both prices and clickthrough rates moving deeper into the bargain basement. But marketers want to market, readers want to read, and viewers want to watch, so new methods that combine the marketing of brands and offers and the go-button on media consumption are au courant.

That’s where value exchange fits. Publishers are seeing double-digit, $10-$19 CPM rates from value exchange, and that’s more than many average for their online advertising. Annual revenues in the significant six figures are now flowing in to the companies that have gotten in early on the business.

The big player in publisher-oriented value exchange is Google Consumer Surveys (GCS), a year-old brainchild born out of the Google’s 20-percent-free-time-for-employees program (and first written about here at Nieman Lab). GCS now claims more than 200 publisher partners, including the L.A. Times, Bloomberg, and McClatchy properties. It says it has so far exposed some 500 million survey “prompts” to readers.

GCS will soon have more company in the value exchange game. Companies like Berlin-based SponsorPay, which offers interactive ad experiences in exchange for access mainly to games, is beginning to pursue publisher possibilities, both in Europe and the U.S, where half of its current clients are based. SponsorPay emphasizes mobile and social in its business.

L.A.-based SocialVibe, newly headed by hard-charging CEO Joe Marchese, is an ad tech company. It’s mainly oriented to non-newspaper media, especially TV companies.

How does this value exchange exactly work? Typical is the implementation at one smaller paper, the Whittier Daily News in the L.A. area., one of some 35 Digital First Media papers (both MediaNews and Journal Register brands) that have deployed GCS almost since its inception. Upon reading their 10th, and last, free metered article of the month, readers get a choice: buy a sub for 99 cents for the first month — or take a survey. “Do you own a cat?” for instance.

Publishers get a nickel for each completed response. Response rates tend to fall between 10 and 20 percent. “Completion rates” improve by targeting specific questions to specific audiences. The nickels add up.

For publishers, then, we have a new acronym: PAM, Paywall Alternative Monetization.

Consider the innovation a by-product of the paywall revolution. If you haven’t created a barrier to free access, you have less leverage to force wannabe readers to choose the lesser of two choices to proceed with their reading. Now, publishers can say, pay me for access with money — or with time. The time is short — measured in seconds or maybe minutes, depending on a video’s length or a survey’s questions.

What does the consumer get for answering a question? It varies. Respondents can get as little as a single “free” article, or an hour, or a day of access.

These programs can offer side-by-side offers. For instance, someone like a Press+ (which now powers some 380 newspaper sites) may power a subscription offer in one box, and Google Surveys or a SocialVibe can offer up an alternative in a neighboring one.

Digital First Media, long a public skeptic of paywalls, is using value exchange as an adjunct to its paywalls, many of which were deployed before DFM took over management of the MediaNews papers. While it is using it successfully as a paywall alternative, says Digital First Ventures managing director Arturo Duran, it’s also finding a couple of other ways to wring money out of surveys.

At many of its digital properties, including The Denver Post, its photo- and video-heavy Media Center hub offers Google surveys as speed bumps for continued access. Readers perceive value; enough of them are willing to pay with a few seconds of time to keep getting access to visuals. Similarly, Boston.com’s The Big Picture “news stories in photographs” uses GCS.

This approach, putting up a speed bump — in the form of a survey — instead of paywall explores the nuances of differing consumer valuation of differing parts of news sites. The Texas Tribune has offered a similar approach, having used Google surveys on its extensive data section. How often a survey is deployed can be adjusted by the publisher, working with Google, to maximize both revenue and reduce traffic lost. The search here is for the magic sweet spots.

The Christian Science Monitor is also an earlier surveys adopter. “We don’t have a paywall,” says online director David Clark Scott. “So we tried an experimental speed bump.” Those bumps were installed first on a single section, and now have grown, popping up on much of the site. One CSM twist: If you come to the site directly, you won’t see the surveys. If you come via some search, social, or other referrals, you will.

Digital First is also testing survey deployment for a group notoriously hard for the news industry to monetize: international readers. “We can’t sell [ads] in Kenya, Japan, and India,” says Duran. Instead of fetching bottom-of-the-ad-network prices, as low as 25 cents, surveys can return money in the whole dollars. One lesson so far: “It’s a much better experience than an ad,” for many readers, says Duran.

Publishers are also finding other ways to get readers to “pay.” At the Newton (Iowa) Daily News, the paywall also provides these two alternatives: answer a survey question or a share an article (via Twitter, Facebook, or Google+) in exchange for continued passage.

“It wasn’t about market research at all — it was about trading time for content,” says Paul McDonald, head of Google Consumer Surveys. McDonald, who developed the product along with engineer Brett Slatkin, says they tested out what people would most likely be willing to do, in exchange for some good. They tested a million impressions at The Huffington Post and found that question-answering was the most likable activity. Hence, Google Consumer Surveys.

“Most research is stuck in old ways — paper, email, and phone. It’s a stagnant industry, ” McDonald says. The industry, of course, has responded, offering its own critique of GCS’ rapid-fire — surveys can be commissioned and deployed within a day, with complete results, broken down by customized demographics (at an extra cost to survey buyers) within 48 hours — disruption of the market survey space. Still, industry reaction is more than mixed, with the positives of Google’s new technique winning adherents among bigger brands and smaller businesses. It’s a self-service buying technique, borrowing from Google’s flagship AdWords model.

Interestingly, Google itself is using Surveys to obtain consumer insight. Yes, the company that derives more data from our clicks than anyone still finds asking a human being a question can yield unexpected learning — which, of course, can be combined with clickstream analytics. YouTube is among the many GCS deployers.

It’s a new frontier, and one that I think offers a number of curious potentials.

  • At scale, if there is scale to the business, it’s about significant new sources of revenue.
  • As a paywall alternative, it may be a detour that leads back to the road to subscription. If a reader is engaged enough with a news brand over time — kept engaged in part through value exchange — maybe he or she will eventually subscribe. Does a value exchange-using customer have a higher likelihood of subscribing in the future? It’s too early to know, but we may have soon have sufficient data to see.
  • Value exchange could expand the ability to gain customer data. Each time someone trades some time for reading, she or he could be asked for an additional piece of profiling information. Essentially “registered,” that new customer becomes more targetable for subscription offers or advertising.
  • We can start to widen the idea of trading time for access. Remember the idea of the “reverse paywall,” espoused by then-Washington Post managing editor Raju Narisetti and Jeff Jarvis? Spend enough time with a news product, and get rewarded, they proposed. Value exchange begins to structure that kind of relationship, providing value both to readers and publishers. Rough equalization of value would be a painful process, but it may be doable through much experimentation.
  • Let’s combine two things: the rise of mobile traffic and value exchange. Mobile may not be ad-friendly, but customers might be far more willing to watch a video or touch through a quick questionnaire on a cell phone — and that can ring a different key on the digital cash register. “Mobile is already more diversified,” says SponsorPay CEO Andreas Bodczek, explaining that it is moving beyond gaming companies for value exchange and will soon include publishers.
  • GCS is an easily deployable tool for small- and medium-sized businesses. As such, it could be an interesting add-on for publishers’ emerging marketing services businesses (“The newsonomics of selling Main Street”). That’s a line Google could allow newspaper companies to resell, just as many resell Google paid search.

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.

April 23 2012

14:00

A Progress Report on a College Paper's Pioneering Metered Pay Wall

It was just over a year ago that a college newspaper in Oklahoma became a digital media pioneer.

In what was believed to be a first for a college news outlet, The Daily O'Collegian at Oklahoma State University began charging for online content. Sure, the Wall Street Journal, Times of London and other professional publications had already gone for pay walls, but college newspapers are known for being a free and readily available resource on campus and online. As one commenter put it when the news broke, "They might as well charge a million dollars."

Bloggers and media watchers shared the skepticism. Why restrict access to work by student journalists who need all the exposure they can get? Who would pay for student content? Should they even have to, given that student newspapers are more about training future journalists and serving a campus community than turning a profit?

The O'Colly's decision to charge was more of a "why not?" than a grab for riches or precedent. General manager Ray Catalino figured it was worth placing a value on the outlet's content, and said he'd be happy if 100 subscribers signed up in the first year.

With that year now up, how is it going? Was it indeed a pioneering move in the march to monetize online content, or another failed experiment in the wild west of the web world?

Of course, the answer isn't simple or even fully formed yet.

The Update

paywallocollegian.png

The O'Collegian worked with a company called Press+ to launch what both call a "metered system" in March 2011. After viewing three free articles within a month, readers outside a 25-mile radius of the Stillwater campus and without an .edu email address were asked to pay $10 for a year of unlimited access. Those who said yes will be automatically renewed each year unless they cancel.

Press+ launched in 2010 and counts media entrepreneur Steven Brill among its three co-founders. The company works primarily with professional outlets to monetize online content through donation solicitation and metered systems. (Brill repudiates the term "pay wall" because readers are usually given some free content before being asked to pay. Others just call that a softer pay wall.)

A year in, Catalino's admittedly informal goal of 100 paid subscribers was met and exceeded. On the one-year anniversary, there were 156 paid subscribers, and as of last week there were 177. Not a windfall, considering the paper has a print circulation of 25,000 and a regular online audience of 2,000, but enough that Catalino recently upped the annual fee to $15 for new subscribers.

There wasn't any national news on the OSU campus that might have lured a burst of new paid subscribers. They came slow and steady, never exceeding three per day. Looking ahead, Catalino has budgeted $3,000 to $4,000 in revenue from online subscribers for the next fiscal year -- again, a mere drop in the outlet's $700,000 budget, but a drop nonetheless.

"The pay wall to me is almost a no-brainer," Catalino said. "It's very simple to implement; it's basically a technical change, and the money comes in. And as long as you're providing good content, it continues. So it has very little cost, has a nice upside and very little downside, in my opinion."

So how is it going? Well enough that the O'Colly will keep charging, and might even further up the price if readers continue to show a willingness to pay. But it's no cash cow and likely won't be anytime soon.

The Impact

Once anathema in the wide open world of the Internet, the idea of charging for online news content is becoming more comfortable for publishers squeezed by plummeting print subscriptions, declining ad sales, and few other revenue options.

Press+ began with 24 clients. Another 300 have signed up since then, and still more are devising their own pay systems and seeing some success, the most prominent example being The New York Times. Those who sign up with Press+ generally pay a set-up fee of a few thousand dollars and hand over 20 percent of revenue.

The O'Collegian was the company's first college publication, but others quickly followed suit, including Boston University's Daily Free Press, the Kansas State Collegian and Tufts University's Tufts Daily. Grant money from the Knight Foundation covered the set-up fee for those that got in early, including the O'Collegian, but Press+ now offers colleges a 10 percent discount as an enticement.

steven_brill.jpg

Brill says college newspapers are not a huge business priority for Press+ and counts about 50 on the client list, but he predicts that more and more will turn to the company for help with either seeking donations (the option most current clients choose) or charging for online content.

"We wanted to seed the landscape there and have them benefit from it," Brill said of colleges. "We'll probably have twice the number today by next winter. It's worked well, and it's easy. It doesn't take any work on their part. It's found money."

Brill says the company's geo-location technology is crucial for college outlets because they can aim pay requirements solely at readers outside the campus community, preserving limitless access for students, faculty members, and local residents. If a mega-story breaks and a college newspaper wants full exposure for its content, it can exempt that coverage from the metered system.

The Implications

So the Press+ client list proves that at least some college papers are willing to ask online readers for money, and OSU's first year suggests that at least some readers are willing to comply. Neither addresses the question of whether student publications should make this move.

Dan Reimold, a journalism professor and student media adviser at the University of Tampa in Florida, wrote in January 2010 that college media "should ignore the siren song of pay walls." Why? Because as professional outlets increasingly wall off their online content, college media might become a viable alternative for readers, and because student journalists deserve maximum exposure for their work.

Reimold's opinion today is essentially unchanged. He applauds the O'Collegian for taking the lead on new ways to make money. And he obviously recognizes the significance of their decision to charge, because he broke the news of it on his blog, College Media Matters, in January 2011. But he worries about the long-term implications of a world in which online student content is increasingly restricted.

"I still feel strongly that it is not such an effective revenue technique that it should trump the main purpose of the student press, which is enabling students to get exposure for their work and hopefully join a larger conversation that will help them learn more about the process of reporting things to the world," Reimold said. "The learning vehicle aspect should trump the notion of restricting access."

Brill counters that his company has found no evidence that charging for content restricts the number of unique visitors to a site. If people don't want to pay, they might stop reading for that month, but they return the next month.

Personally, I'm not convinced that access to a student's work, and therefore valuable exposure for that student, remains unchanged in a pay wall world. How can it, when a reader might have read 10 stories but stops at five because he or she won't pay for more?

At the same time, I'm not sure the siren song should be avoided. Professional news publications must find new revenue sources to survive, and their online content does have value. If readers don't agree, that's that. But if they are willing to pay, and remarkably it looks like many are, then why not keep this trend rolling? And why not train future publishers, editors and reporters (not to mention consumers) that it's OK to put a price on such work?

Alexa Capeloto is a journalism professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice/City University of New York. She earned her master's degree at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism, and spent 10 years as a metro reporter and editor at the Detroit Free Press and the San Diego Union-Tribune before transitioning into academia.

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March 29 2012

15:00

The newsonomics of 100 products a year

Try this: Call up your local newspaper or online news organization. Tell them you want to buy something and ask them what they can sell you? Of course, at first, they’d be non-plussed: Sell you something? Then, after giving it some thought, they’d say you can buy a newspaper or a subscription or a membership — or, maybe, an ad? Would you like one of those?

Those days — mark it — are coming to an end. We’re on the brink of news companies producing hundreds of products for sale each year. While digital technology hath taketh (the easy ability to make money on news distribution), digital technology also giveth back, with the ability to create hundreds and thousands of newsy products at small incremental costs. The bonus: News organizations will be able to satisfy groups of readers and advertisers (often disguised thinly as sponsors) better than ever before. Double bonus: The let-a-hundred-products-bloom revolution fits neatly with the all-out embrace of all-access circulation initiatives, which news companies in North America, Europe, and Asia now can’t seem to implement quickly enough.

Can we call this the ebook revolution? Maybe, but that’s probably too narrow. Delivery of new products to new audiences can take several forms. A text-only ebook, a shinier iBooks-enabled product with video, or an app with all the glorious functionality apps offer. It’s not the form; it’s the content, content that satisfies niches rather than serves masses with one-size-fits-all newspaper or magazine products.

Call it the newsonomics of 100 products a year, or just one way to envision a much bigger future.

The 100-product-a-year model is a much-needed growth model. We can see how it fits nicely with all-access subscriptions, and together we have two interconnected Lego blocks of a new sustainable news model. We have two essential parts of a crossover model (“The newsonomics of crossover”) that I detailed here a few weeks ago. The big, hairy challenges of accelerating print ad loss and onerous legacy costs remain, but at least we’ve got a couple of building blocks we didn’t have two years ago. By we, I mean those of us who care about news and great professional content.

Is it a big moneymaker? We don’t know yet, though we can extrapolate some numbers below.

It’s directionally right, though, for at least a couple of strategic reasons. The notion of 100 smaller products reminds us that so much of the new world is based on volume. Google has built a monstrous advertising business on hundreds of thousands of smaller advertisers, while daily newspapers reaped huge profits on relatively few bigger advertisers. Even as movie watching by streaming surpasses DVD watching, more money is still in the old medium. Streaming will monetize at a lower rate, but end up generating bigger dollars over time. The same thing is true in the digital music business. Selling lots of stuff to lots of people at smaller price points is something the Internet enables superbly.

Yes, there are definitely new winners and losers in movies and music, as there will be in news. Those who transition best and fastest will win.

Second, it’s in line with the strategic push to satisfy the hell out of core customers. As publishers have figured out that it’s the top 15 percent of site visitors who make the big difference in building the new digital business — perhaps paying for subscriptions, consuming many more pages than fly-by users sent by Google — core customer satisfaction is key. Ebooks deeper the relationship to that reader customer.

This 100-product-a-year model may fit as well with the new California Watch/Bay Citizen combo (“The newsonomics of the death and life of California news”), finalized Tuesday, as its does with The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, the Charlotte Observer, GQ, or Conde Nast Traveler.

Let’s take one example. On Wednesday, the Boston Globe launched “Sunday Supper & More.” It’s a cookbook. It’s New England. And it could be the beginning of a new franchise: Expect summer, fall and winter editions each year to join this spring debut. The Globe’s staff built it with Apple’s iBooks Author tool, so it offers video within it.

Want to buy it? Not so fast. Today, Sunday Supper & More is only available to Boston Globe print, all-access, and digital subscribers. So subscription — think “membership” (the recent riff of the L.A. Times new paywall intro) — is gaining new benefits. Surprise, says the Globe, you not only get our paper, our spiffy new replica-plus edition, if that’s what you want, and our mobile apps — you also get our cool cookbooks, with more to come.

The Globe will sell the book to non-subscribers — probably at $4.99 — but will decide the timing of that sale after next week’s Globe confab at which execs and editors will plot an ebook plan for the company.

“Events and ebooks will be the two biggest perks” of the new Globe subscription push, says Jeff Moriarty, the Globe’s VP of digital products. Beyond Sunday Suppers and a new spin on the Fenway 100 historical Red Sox book, we can picture the Globe soon mining its archives in both sports and features to provide new value for customers and a new leg of revenue. It experimented early with three books on its Whitey Bulger stories, and learned some lessons in pricing, distribution, and the technical creation process along the way.

The Globe has plenty of company in this push. We see Canada’s National Post committing to a couple of dozen ebooks in the coming year, again from hard news to features (“To learn what works (quickly), Canada’s National Post dives into ebooks”). Guardian Shorts is an early innovator; Politico is churning out four campaign ebooks this year.

Magazine publishers, faster than newspaper publishers to embrace the tablet as the next-gen platform, are also ahead of most newspaper publishers in ebooks. Vanity Fair’s done more than a half dozen, and its parent Conde Nast is hosting an explosion of more single-purpose apps in the iTunes Store, some unrelated to Conde’s magazines. Hearst’s Cosmopolitan is embracing ebooks, and now partnering, along with ProPublica — an early tester of ebooks — with Open Road Integrated Technology. Open Road Integrated Technology?

Well, it’s a book company, an ebook company juiced on the possibilities of our age. Headed by former HarperCollins CEO Jane Friedman, the company is prototypical of a new group of middlemen. With book marketing savvy (cover design, marketing, distribution+), these companies are now feeding the emerging ebook marketplace. They are also partnering back for that old standby, print, as Open Road has done with book services company Ingram. In Canada, it was Harper Collins Canada that became the National Post’s partner in bringing news ebooks to market.

Just as the web has knocked many middlemen for a loop, it creates openings for new ones.

If you talk to publishers about ebooks, they are farther along in experimenting than they were a year ago. Yet some basic issues — producing the books, marrying them to commerce engines, placing them prominently in e-stores and more — are giving them headaches as they push forward. “How do we make the right offer to the right person at the right time?” one experienced exec asked.

The marketplace has been exploding (recall that Amazon announced last spring that its ebooks were now outselling its paper books), but those issues are setting the stage for a new group of companies, many staffed with graduates of the book industry, offering their help. Newspaper and magazine publishers are looking to the Open Roads for guidance.

Some are turning to their digital circulation partner, Press+. That company, which is powering more than 280 titles’ subscription commerce, says its system can handle the commerce and even help with identifying likely customers, based on tracked content usage, so its customers are just beginning to ply the ebook trade.

ProPublica general manager Dick Tofel opted for Open Road for the non-profit investigative publisher’s fifth and sixth books. He says the company will start producing a half dozen or more a year now and is now fielding calls from other publishers eager to get the benefit of his early ebook experience.

So far, ProPublica has put 90,000 ebooks into the market. The first couple were free downloads, but with the addition of new original introductions to work ProPublica had already published free online, Amazon and ProPublica agreed on test pricing of 99 cents and $1.99, and new revenue is rolling in. It’s small, but “pound for pound, it generates more than advertising,” notes Tofel, who is a Wall Street Journal veteran. And, of course, the incremental cost of creating ebooks is closer to zero, with most sales cost able to be a commissioned cost of sale.

As assistant publisher, Tofel oversaw the print books business that’s been a good Dow Jones sideline for a long time.

Those books — personal investing and more — are naturals for the ebook revolution now. Look for the Journal to experiment more with those titles, perhaps niching by life stage.

As news and magazine publishers look to this new revenue stream, here are six points to ponder:

It’s about product development: Yes, it’s editing, but fundamentally, it’s a mindset change for many publishers stuck in the one-size-fits-all world. Publishers either need staffers with new product chops or partners wanting to license publisher content and create the products for the marketplace.

Free the archives!: Digital archives have never been a big business for publishers, caught somewhere between Google and musty library connotations. Packaged archives — for specific audiences — can offer new life for older content.

Don’t think content; think problem solving: Publishers too often start with content. If we start with audience — college-planning students and parents, new mothers and fathers to be, bored cooks, and, big time, sports enthusiasts of all ages — we can see the motors of ebook publishing beginning to role. Think life stage, just for starters, and add the geo angle, and regional publishers can play.

Mining the database: As onesies and twosies, it’s fairly easy to pick content from publishers’ own databases. Think of bigger production cycle, going beyond the 100 a year, to a thousand, all niched products that could be semi-automated and templated over time. Better tagging of content for ebook usage then becomes a priority.

Ebook or app?: Early experimenters say let the content be your guide. The more multimedia, the better an app may work. Ebooks, though, can be sold through more distributors, while Apple continues to dominate the app business.

Pricing: What’s an ebook worth? If it solidifies a subscriber/member paying $300 or more a year, it’s worth a lot, even if it’s free. Think of the lifetime value of that subscriber.

To the right niche, some ebooks will be worth $1.99 and others — Retina perfect — will go for $19.99. Let’s take our 100 products a year. Let’s average 5,000 sales for each. Let’s price at $2.99 on average. That would be $1.5 million. Some books, though, could be blockbusters. We can play with this math and see where it goes.

For the ProPublicas, it’s a nice non-ad revenue stream. For other publishers, it’s at least a growing third leg of revenue (beyond ads and circulation) and one that may be nurtured into something significant. (Last fall, Will Sullivan offered a gaggle of reasons ebooks make sense for publishers.) As importantly, it can reinforce those two legs, pleasing subscribers/members with free (or discounted) perks and advertisers/sponsors who have new opportunities to represent themselves to niche audiences. That’s a pretty good combination, and one that publishers will soon embrace, just as they lately have all-access digital circulation.

March 29 2011

13:00

Why the New York Times' Pay Model is Similar to NPR and Spot.Us

From the launch of Spot.Us, I've always said the following:

  • Anyone can tackle the crowdfunded journalism model. In fact, NPR could do it tomorrow and blow me out of the water. It's just about being transparent and giving up control over how donation money gets spent.
  • This model would have more success at the national or international level.
  • This model would have more success if a known brand took the lead. (Again, I always tend to cite NPR.)
There has been much opining about the New York Times pay wall that went up this week. I was quoted in a Neiman Lab post on the topic; I wrote about it for the Reynolds Journalism Institute, where I'm currently a fellow; and I was a guest on WNPR, an NPR station in Connecticut, to discuss the topic with other news professionals.

Here's one thing that I previously haven't said publicly: Whether or not they know it, and without identifying it as such, the New York Times has taken a big step towards the NPR model. And that puts them just a stone's throw away from the Spot.Us model. In some respects, I actually think they are closer and more likely to pull it off than NPR.

Subscription Plan Isn't About Access

Let's start by calling a "duck" what it is. The "pay wall" is not a "wall." It's incredibly porous. A savvy reader can find a dozen ways around it, from finding a Tweet of the story you're interested in to removing part of the Times' URL. In other words, the subscription plan is not about access. People that think the fee is about access are the same folks who think they have to pay AOL for Internet access in order to keep their AOL email address. Savvy readers will know it isn't about "access" but rather something else. For starters, it benefits the print subscribers, who pay less for digital access than all-digital subscribers. Fair enough.

But I am willing to bet a LOT of people will pay for a "subscription" not for access and not because it comes with their print subscription, but for something else.

Donation Driven Journalism

If there is one thing that Press+ has taught us (aside from the fact that really rich folks can hype up a technology product and sell it off for millions of dollars) it's that, yes, people will pay for news even if access to is never truly restricted. That's a limited audience/market, but it exists. Interestingly enough, the price point doesn't matter as much as one would think. That audience will pay $5 if you ask, and they'll pay $15 if you set that as the benchmark.

National Public Radio has known about this small market for a LONG time. I could have told you this within 10 minutes of launching Spot.Us. But at least today we can see it as more of a given for the conversation. There is an audience that will pay for content. It's small, and not a replacement for advertising, but it's there.

The NYTimes.com subscription plans are not enough to sustain the entire organization, but it is a new revenue stream that didn't exist before. You can call it a "pay wall" or a "metered wall" but, again, I think we should call a duck a duck. This is a donation system, plain and simple. News organizations don't want to refer to "metered walls" as "donations," and I understand why. I'm happy to stroke their hair as they cry into their ink-stained hands. We can call it whatever they want, but it's a donation because there is no HARD reason for anyone to pay it other than because they want to or are too uninformed about how to get around it.

A Modest Proposal

Assuming the New York Times doesn't want its future tied to the technical ignorance of the masses the way AOL currently does with its dial-up customers, the next question is: What can the Times give to its new donors? As Dave Winer and Steve Outing have both said:

"Wouldn't it have been wise to, at this juncture, offer something to sweeten the deal. Something truly exciting and new that you get when you pay the money. Something that makes your palms sweat and your heart beat faster?" (Dave Winer)
Tote bags? Bumper stickers? Membership to a wine of the month club (with wine reviews from the Times sent along with every bottle)?

These incentives are necessary because the Times needs to find other ways to keep a paying customer on board. Where one month somebody might pay, the next they'll slap their face and say, "Why am I doing this? It's certainly not for access."

These tote bag gifts mimic NPR fundraising. But let's think even further. What could be an incentive that would increase transparency and participation in journalism and not cost the NYT organization infrastructure costs (ie: purchasing and shipping thousands of tote bags)?

Imagine if along with every $15 monthly "metered access" payment a NYTimes.com reader also got five NYT Points. After three months they've accumulated 15 NYT Points. Those points can then be used to vote on topics, areas of coverage, or redeemed for the tote bag mentioned above (an excellent plan B).

Again, NPR could do this tomorrow, except -- believe it or not -- NPR is a bureaucratic nightmare when it comes to how donations are handled. Remember, each NPR station is unique and the mothership NPR, aside from being caught in a culture war, is not allowed to fundraise from individuals the way independent stations are.

But the Times doesn't have this hangup. Whether they admit it or not, they've begun fundraising efforts this week. So will the NYT find something to make it fun for donors? Or do they think that the false claim to "access" is enough?

Opportunity to Interact with the Times Community

I think there are a lot of smart folks at the Times and they'll be watching how people react and pay/don't pay for this subscription system. For those that do pay it one month the question is, will they continue to pay? For that, they need to be purchasing something. Call them "NYT Points," call it "NYT Membership" -- I don't care. But I think a part of it should include giving those members a stake in how the funds from their subscription are spent.

In other words, there could be a new sense of transparency and participatory control in how a news organization spends its funds. With their new metered pay wall, the NYT is just one incy-wincy step away from cracking the code to crowd-funded journalism. Why do I want to pay my $15 this month? Because then I can vote on next month's NYT coverage. This would be the NYT using a kind of Spot.Us model.

And if that day ever comes, you won't find anyone happier than me.

February 16 2011

16:15

Take that, Cupertino! Google undercuts Apple’s subscription plan with a cheaper one of its own

Back in 2009, we broke word that Google was working on an e-payment solution for publishers that would be based on its Google Checkout platform. Google’s proposal (pdf) to the Newspaper Association of America said that the company’s “vision of a premium content ecosystem includes”:

• Single sign-on capability for users to access content and manage subscriptions

• Ability for publishers to combine subscriptions from different titles together for one price

• Ability for publishers to create multiple payment options and easily include/exclude content behind a paywall

• Multiple tiers of access to search including 1) snippets only with “subscription” label, 2) access to preview pages and 3) “first click free” access

• Advertising systems that offer highly relevant ads for users, such as interest-based advertising

Google’s got plenty of targeted advertising options (#5), and First Click Free is old hat by now (#4). But Google took a big step toward fulfilling the rest of that vision (#1, #2, and #3) today with the announcement of Google One Pass, “a payment system that enables publishers to charge consumers for articles and other content.” And coming on the heels of Apple’s less-than-publisher-friendly subscription announcement yesterday, Google’s alternative may seem like a breath of fresh air.

First, Google is selling flexibility. No requirement to offer the same deal through a Google One Pass payment system as through other means — which means bundling with print subscriptions is a whole lot simpler than with Apple. Print customers can enter a coupon code to get free access to a website. Want to try a metered model, or experiment with putting more, less, or different content behind a paywall? No problem. It’s device-agnostic — so if you want to sell an all-access, all-platform subscription, no problem there either. (It’s also a micropayment platform, for the few still living who believe in per-article micropayments as a viable model.)

Second, as Lee Shirani writes in the announcing blog post: “With Google One Pass, publishers can maintain direct relationships with their customers and give readers access to digital content across websites and mobile apps.” That sentence isn’t detailed any further in the initial announcement or docs online, but it sure sounds like a nice way of saying, “We’ll let you keep all the customer data Apple isn’t letting you have.”

And, most key of all, Google isn’t demanding the 30 percent cut Apple does. The announcement doesn’t share cost details, but the FT is reporting Google will take 10 percent of any subscription revenue. So selling a $15/month subscription via Apple would net $10.50 versus $13.50 via Google.

The announcement’s a lot to digest, but three quick thoughts:

— With the timing, it’s easy to see One Pass primarily as a competitor to Apple’s subscription plans. But note that the focus is primarily on web access, not app access. (Note that the word “Android” — Google’s mobile platform — is mentioned nowhere.) While mobile apps get a shoutout in the announcement, Google notes that it’ll work only “in instances where the mobile OS terms permit transactions to take place outside of the app market,” which likely means it’ll only work in Android apps, which are still a secondary priority for most news orgs, for better or worse, and where getting users to pay anything for apps has been a challenge. At least for the moment, One Pass is more of a direct competitor to Journalism Online’s Press+ than it is to Apple. It’s an infrastructure play.

— Frankly, I’m a little surprised Google’s even taking 10 percent. The transaction costs themselves shouldn’t be any higher than what Google Checkout regularly charges, which is 2.9 percent plus 30 cents a transaction (plus volume discounts). Sure, building and maintaining the record-keeping system for subscribers and the tools for distinguishing free/paid content will cost something. But Google’s consistent model has been to undercut paid competitors by making good free offerings, and I’d have thought just keeping the Checkout fees would have been the play, to soak up as much of the market as possible.

— What Apple is selling publishers is not just an easy payment system — they’re selling the 160 million user accounts with active credit cards attached. That’s about 70 million more than PayPal. How many of you have a credit card on file with Google Checkout, which has struggled to gain relevance and market share?

February 10 2011

15:00

The Newsonomics of overnight customers

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.

It’s a new epidemic of digital-pricing strategery, to borrow a fading term, now breaking out within the newspaper executive suites of the western world. Rupert will soon be charging 99 cents a week for The Daily, and dozens of dailies are laying out digital payment plans to be put into effect this year. Some are hiring top-drawer consultants to parse the many possibilities and run the odds of success before they throw the dice.

The questions are many. Do I charge print subscribers anything extra for digital delivery? If so, how much? If I add a fee for print subscribers, is it opt-out or opt-in? Do I offer a day pass or week pass, or just stick with monthly and annual subscriptions? If I put up a wall, where do I place it? Do I restrict content access by type — allowing free access to classifieds, commerce, and commoditized national and global news, but keep the somewhat proprietary local stuff locked up? Do I let readers read some — maybe 10 or 20 pages a month — of their choosing before making them pay to go further? How many bundles should I offer, and what’s in them?

We’re in uncharted territory. We know very little about consumer behavior when it comes to paying for journalism because the old, steady, entrenched models worked so well for so long that they barely changed over decades. Then the Internet came along and publishers felt compelled to give away their work for free — a subject to be featured in many psychology dissertations to come — as they abandoned, for a 15-year period it appears, a two-legged (advertising + circulation) business model.

A year from now we’ll have lots of data, parsed by all of us every which way from London to New York to Memphis and Augusta to Dallas to San Jose and Modesto, and then we’ll see what works, what doesn’t, and indeed, what “works” means in dollars (and pounds) and cents.

For now, though, the paid plans consist of commonsense, conjecture, conventional wisdom, consultant graphs, and, I believe, some fascinating assumptions about human psychology. On the eve of the launches of more paid offers, let’s examine four of those assumptions underlying this new era.

Let’s call it the newsonomics of overnight customers, which is our first psychological model, and one that I think may turn out to be the most promising.

Our four psychologies:

The psychology of the overnight customer

In north Texas, if you’re a Dallas Morning News subscriber, you’ll wake up sometime after March 1 (the loose date for the debut of the company’s digital paywall), and find that you no longer have a split identity. Though for 15 years you’ve been a “subscriber” for print and a “user” for online, you’re now just a customer. You pay your $30 or $33.95 (the new price as of Jan. 1) a month, and you get seven days of the Morning News and access to the Morning News’ new digital bundle, consisting of desktop/laptop, smartphone, and tablet availability.

That’s right. You’re no longer a “user”, a hateful term if ever one were invented, or a “visitor,” or a brother from another digital planet. Overnight, you’re a customer again.

In this psychology, a news company has put a value on what it produces. You, the customer, now are being shown that value. Maybe a year, or two, or three, from now, you perceive that value — forgetting all about those days of “free” — and value your relationship to the Morning News’ news, whether you access it by paper, phone, tablet, or TV screen.

The big hope: When you are ready to forsake pulp itself, you’re accustomed to paying for digital — you’re a customer of all, clearly — and do so without thinking twice. (And if the Morning News can save big bucks on not having to print and deliver a paper to you, and tens of thousands of your neighbors, it can significantly cut costs, increase profits, and maybe grow its news-gathering capability.)

We expect that after The New York Times’ finishes its own (higher-priced) pricing strategy, it, too, will offer print subscribers digital access as part of the coming “All-Access” bundles. Journalism Online says that about half of its newspaper clients will offer print subscribers no-extra-charge access to digital, while the rest will tack a small upcharge onto print bills.

This psychology, I believe, offers elements of a winning one. Why? It begins to change the artificial split between print and digital consumption. Most likely, it slows down — only temporarily, but every year makes a huge financial difference to news companies — print loss. Bundle it all together — print + digital — and there’s less incentive to drop print, even your use is declining. Less loss in the short-term helps retain print ad revenue, which is still 80 percent or more of all newspaper company ad revenue.

Secondly, it sets up publishers for the hastening print-to-tablet transition. If the kind-of-print-like tablet convinces readers to move away from print more quickly, the more they’ve been accustomed to paying for tablet digital, the less likely they are to balk at paying just for tablet digital.

Journalism Online cofounder Steve Brill will tell you that the company still urges publishers to charge something extra for digital access, even a $1.95 or $3.95 a month, often a 60 percent or more discount compared to what digital-only bundle buyers will pay. Whether you ask print subscribers to pay a small amount for digital access or give them access “free” as part of their print subscription (they still have to register for the restricted access even if no new payment is involved), they’re as likely to sign up for digital access, he says. If that holds, a small, incremental price itself may not be that much of an issue with print subscribers. Those that want it are as likely to pay for it as take it for “free,” as a new digital customer. It’s a way too early to know if that will be the case, but it’s one metric that should be at the top of publishers’ watch lists.

One way or the other, though, print customers are becoming digital customers, quickly. One key lesson here: It is newspapers’ print subscribers and regular readers who should be the likeliest to maintain their loyalty (and show the most willingness to pay of all potential audiences). In a sense, this is a back-to-the-future scenario, redrawing that big “circulation” circle as it was, but now including digital access.

The Forrest Gump psychology

Is a news site just a bunch of chocolates? If so, how important is it to allow would-be news customers to sample the wares before making them open their wallets? If you let them sample, can they sample all the treats, or just half the box — and which half?

Morris Communications’ Augusta Chronicle, partnered with Journalism Online’s Press+, now gives readers 25 pageviews a month before the paywall comes down, giving them access to the whole site. Dallas Morning News digital readers will find that most local stories — other than widely covered local news — have a small “D” symbol, indicating restricted access content that only print or digital subscribers can get access to. In Memphis, the current plan of Scripps’ Commercial Appeal is to start charging in the second quarter, but only for mobile access, while the website itself remains free.

Sampling is a big question. Print subscribers, who tend to be older, know what they are getting, while less habituated readers, who tend to be younger, may need to develop a habit. If sampling of the key, unique, proprietary stuff is made difficult, then how likely are news sites’ to develop a next generation of paying readers?

The psychology of the maze

So what happens when digital visitors bump into paywalls? Remember TimesSelect, and how disorienting that seemed to be to many. It makes people anxious to bump into a wall. Publishers hope that those who bump into walls (after 10-20 pageviews a month), and don’t pay, will come back the next month, and be more likely to pay then. Michael Romaner, head of Morris Digital, which has rolled out an Augusta-like model in Lubbock and plans six more similar rollouts by July 1 (and the rest of the company’s titles by the end of the year), says early data shows that 25 percent of those who ran into the wall paid up. Again, that’s very early data. Let’s see if that 25 percent number holds in Augusta and elsewhere, and what the tracking of the 75 percent — how many go away and never come back? — shows. How many just keep sampling, and are ad-monetized, but never fork over circulation dollars?

The psychology of the psych-out

Maybe news companies are overthinking all of this. Maybe they’ve psyched themselves into believing the world of free news content has really and profoundly changed — with little supporting evidence, other than a number of one-time news apps sales. It’s true that the metered systems, pioneered by the Financial Times and at the core of The New York Times’ and Journalism Online’s models, aren’t bet-the-company strategies. They are designed to keep the engine of growing digital ad revenue humming, allowing 80 percent or more of digital customers go on their merry non-paid ways, while turning those heavier digital readers into digital customers. If they succeed, they’ve picked up a new digital revenue stream, maybe laid down the first pavement to tablet utopia, and maintained a commitment to a digital ad future. All that combined may be just a middling success in revenue, though, as print (see both recent McClatchy and Gannett reports) ad revenues remain stubbornly negative.

If they fail — and that means losing more traffic due to paywalls than they anticipate — then news publishers have once again too strongly believed their own conventional wisdom and will pay the additional consequences.

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?

December 13 2010

20:00

Steven Brill: 2011 will bring ebook battles, paywall successes, and a new model for long-form articles

Editor’s Note: We’re wrapping up 2010 by asking some of the smartest people in journalism what the new year will bring.

Here, Journalism Online cofounder and long-time journalism entrepreneur Steven Brill lays out three predictions for 2011.

1. E-books will continue to soar — and authors will get into major fights with publishers over who gets what percentage of the take, with more top authors withholding their e-book rights and selling them independently or through specialty distributors.

2. Someone — via Press+, I hope — will go into the business of commissioning long-form magazine articles from top writers and providing the first two or three paragraphs online for free and then selling the rest for, say, 75 cents or a dollar. That trailblazing publisher might call these “mini-e-books” and use a business model of simply splitting the revenues with the author, 50-50. My favorite candidates would be website publishers who already have great brand names, such as the Huffington Post or Daily Beast, but that want to revive long-form journalism and make money doing it (and limit risk by making some top writers their 50-50 business partners, rather than pay high flat fees for their work.)

3. As it becomes clear (as it already is to our Press+ affiliates, and as will also be made clear when The New York Times, too, launches its metered model approach) that the sky doesn’t fall in on newspaper and magazine websites who try the freemium model, more newspapers and magazines (and online only sites, too) will begin charging their most frequently-visiting customers for their content online.

Unlike old-fashioned pay walls, the metered model means publishers keep all their online ad revenue and almost all of their monthly unique visitors. (Our affiliates have not lost a nickel of ad revenue.) By next year I bet a big chunk of publishers are doing it and most of the rest are planning it.

Progress will be slow but steady; they’ll gradually climb some of the way back to their old margins. More important, they’ll be preserving their franchises as the trusted-brand provider of news and information in their community — whether that community is the world of sophisticated news consumers who read the Times or those in a small town in Pennsylvania or the UK who read the local paper for news about the school board. Only now they’ll gradually be moving out of the business of paying printers and truck drivers to facilitate that. Their customers will be customers for their content, no matter how it is delivered. That in turn will enable daily papers, for example, gradually to stop printing daily, cutting back on the week’s slowest ad days or even ultimately cutting back just to Sunday or to no print version at all.

All of the above will be facilitated by the onslaught of tablets, such as the iPad, which make reading the same kind of intoxicating sit-back experience that have made books, newspapers and magazines so irresistible. But we’ll also see that the real value of devices like the iPad for reading newspapers and magazines is not as much about the apps that get built for them as it is about how web browser versions are so well presented on them — which means that publishers will want to charge for their web versions if they are going to charge for an app version.

17:00

The great paywall debate: Will The New York Times’ new model work?

Editor’s Note: We’re wrapping up 2010 by asking some of the smartest people in journalism what the new year will bring.

Many of their predictions centered on what may be the most anticipated business-model shift of 2011: The New York Times’ shift to charging for full access to NYTimes.com next month. We found voices on both sides of the “will it work” debate. Here are Steve Brill, Markos Moulitsas, Megan McCarthy, C.W. Anderson, Paddy Hirsch, Jason Fry, Nikki Usher, and Barry Sussman on how they see the metered model shaking out.

Prediction for 2011: The building up — and subsequent tearing down — of online paywalls for general news sites. The New York Times are planning implement their paywall in January and I predict it will be modified enough — either by the Times themselves or outside developers — to be rendered irrelevant by March.

As it becomes clear (as it already is to our Press+ affiliates, and as will also be made clear when The New York Times, too, launches its metered model approach) that the sky doesn’t fall in on newspaper and magazine websites who try the freemium model, more newspapers and magazines (and online only sites, too) will begin charging their most frequently-visiting customers for their content online.

Unlike old-fashioned pay walls, the metered model means publishers keep all their online ad revenue and almost all of their monthly unique visitors. (Our affiliates have not lost a nickel of ad revenue.) By next year I bet a big chunk of publishers are doing it and most of the rest are planning it.

Progress will be slow but steady; they’ll gradually climb some of the way back to their old margins. More important, they’ll be preserving their franchises as the trusted-brand provider of news and information in their community — whether that community is the world of sophisticated news consumers who read the Times or those in a small town in Pennsylvania or the UK who read the local paper for news about the school board. Only now they’ll gradually be moving out of the business of paying printers and truck drivers to facilitate that. Their customers will be customers for their content, no matter how it is delivered. That in turn will enable daily papers, for example, gradually to stop printing daily, cutting back on the week’s slowest ad days or even ultimately cutting back just to Sunday or to no print version at all.

C.W. Anderson, assistant professor of media culture, CUNY

Faced with a massive migration of regular readers to the Guardian and the BBC, The New York Times will abandon its recently enacted paywall.

Now, since The New York Times “porous” paywall won’t even go into effect until early 2011, it’s possible the so-called “wall” will still be active as 2011 draws to a close. But the decision to ditch it will have already been made internally. The wall won’t affect many readers, but it will impact the obsessive news junkies, the people who want to trawl every WikiLeaks cable and parse every detail about the inner workings of the U.S. State Department. Where will these folks go? Will they pay up? Of course not — they’ll simply click over to the Guardian and the BBC, two websites that fit nicely into the demographic niche currently occupied by the Times. Links to the Times will dry up (despite the paywall’s porousness). The egos at 620 Eighth Avenue wont be able to handle the shift in the center of the news conversation across the ocean, and there will be more and more exemptions made to the types of online content that counts towards the meter. Columns will be first to go. The paywall won’t ever make or lose much money, but the real impact will be cultural and organizational — suddenly the Times won’t be the most important news institution in the minds of the American public. Finally, the whole thing will be quietly shelved.

Secondary prediction: The paywall won’t ever be launched, and the leaders of New York Times Co. will admit it was all hatched out in a moment of online madness that swept the industry in late 2009.

The New York Times’ switch to some sort of online pay-to-read system will be a financial success right off the bat — even a windfall for the Times.

Paddy Hirsch, senior editor, public radio’s Marketplace

While news outlets that are hewing to the pay-to-read model will persist in charging readers, the trend will continue to move against them. More and more content will be offered for “free” to consumers as distribution platforms continue to proliferate. Inevitably, this will erode the pay-model outlets’ readerships, and we’ll eventually start to see capitulation by all except the most “niche” journalism organizations, such as trade magazines.

Paywalls will succeed — to a point. The Times and other papers will have success with payment plans that hew to the metered model practiced by the Financial Times, Journalism Online [which owns Press+], and others. But this success will be limited: It will be effective in getting papers’ most loyal customers to pay, but that percentage of customers will be so small that such efforts will be largely seen as failures. We’ll still be talking about analog dollars and digital dimes and bemoaning the lack of a silver bullet. The subscription debate will have moved away from absolutist dogma to a more nuanced view, which will be good, but the level of frustration will remain high and contribute to a lot of noise in conversations.

Markos Moulitsas, founder and publisher, Daily Kos

The NY Times effort to implement a paywall won’t survive the end of the year.

The NYT paywall (with a few bumps and starts) may be the dawn of a new era for national news organizations, but it may be impossible to generalize to other, smaller, and more local news organizations. [Usher does some of her research on the Times, but notes that she has no insider knowledge on this one. —Ed.]

October 28 2010

14:00

The Newsonomics of the third leg

[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.]

Most publishing stood proudly and stably on two feet, for decades.

You got readers to help pay for the product. And you got advertisers to pay as well. While American newspapers dependably got 20 percent of their revenue from readers, European ones have gotten more than 30 percent and Japanese ones more than 50 percent. In the consumer magazine, trade, and B2B worlds, the splits vary considerably, but the same two legs makes the businesses work.

Even public radio, seemingly a different animal, has followed a similar model. Substitute “members” for subscribers and “underwriters” for advertisers, and the same two-legged model is apparent.

In our digital news world, though, the news business has been riding, clumsily, a unicycle for more than a decade. Revenue — other than the Wall Street Journal’s and the Financial Times’ — has been almost wholly based on advertising. So, that’s why we’re seeing the big paid content push. “Reader digital revenue in 2011!” is the cry and the quest, as the News Corp. pay walls have gone up, Journalism Online hatches its Press+ eggs, The New York Times prepares to turn on its meter, and Politico launches its paid e-newsletters. They all have the same goal in mind: digital reader revenue.

The simple goal: a back-to-the-future return to a two-legged business model. (See Boston.com’s New Strategies: Switch and Retention). We’ll see how strong that second leg is as 2011 unfolds.

While two legs are good, and better than one, consider that three would be better still. Three provide a stronger stool, and a more diversified business. We’re beginning to see a number of third legs emerging. So it’s look at the emerging newsonomics of the third leg.

The clearest to see is foundation funding. Foundations, led by Knight, have been pouring money into online startups. The startups, of course, are selling advertising and/or sponsorship, and some are selling memberships, as well. In addition to those same two legs, foundation funding provides a third leg — at least for awhile. Our 2010 notion is that foundation funding isn’t a lasting revenue source, but a jumpstart; that may change as we move toward 2015. We may well see foundation funding turn into endowments for local journalism, so it may become a dependable third leg.

Make no mistake: It’s not just the new guys who benefit from foundation “third leg” funding. Take California Watch, the Center for Investigative Reporting’s statewide investigative operation. Barely a year old, its dozen-plus staffers have written stories that have appeared throughout the traditional press, from major dailies to commercial broadcasters to the ethnic press. California Watch work — at this point wholly funded by foundations, though CIR, too, is looking back to the traditional legs for future funding — then is used by the old press both to improve quality and cut their own costs. So, indirectly, the old press derives benefit from this third leg of foundation funding.

Take a couple of examples from the cable industry. We’ve seen the Cablevision model, as the New York-based company bought Newsday, took the website “paid” and bundled it with its cable subscriptions. The notion, here: Cablevision is driving “exclusive” value for its cable (and Triple Play) offers by offering Newsday online content, content not otherwise available without paying separately (or subscribing to print Newsday). Newsday.com sells advertising, and online access, but the real value being tested is what its content does to spur retention and new sales in Cablevision’s big business: cable.

Similarly, Comcast — a pipes company fitfully becoming a content company as well as it tries to complete its NBCU deal — is making a big investment in digital sports. Headed by former digital newspaper exec Eric Grilly, ex of Philly.com and Media News, it’s a big play. Well-deployed in five cities — Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, the Bay Area and Washington D.C. — and headed for nine more, all in which it runs regional sports cable networks. Comcast Digital Sports now employs more than 80 people and is producing more than 50 hours of programming a week in each market.

While Comcast is ramping up advertising sales and may test paid reader products as well, it’s that same third leg — the cable revenue — that is the biggest reason behind the push. “We want to provide value to the core business,” Grilly told me last week.

In the cable cases, news production can be justified because it feeds a bigger revenue beast. Thomson Reuters and Bloomberg’s large news staffs do the same, feeding bigger financial services businesses.

Lastly, let’s consider the new Associated Press-lead push for an industry-wide “rights consortium.” While its daily newspapers try to stand taller on the two legs of digital ad and reader revenue, the business that could emerge from this new company is about syndication. In that sense, it could be a business-to-business-to-consumer (B2B2C) push, aimed at a third growing revenue source for all, as news content un-tethered from publishers’ own branded sites is used — and monetized — across mobile platforms, mixed and matched in all kinds of ways.

Maybe, overall, it’s a regeneration process for the news business, as the old legs have grown weaker, the environment is forcing evolutionary experimentation. Over the next several years, we’ll see which third legs survive and prosper, and which others become dead ends.

Photo by This Particular Greg used under a Creative Commons license.

August 19 2010

13:30

The Newsonomics of the FT as an Internet retailer

[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.]

Back in 2002, the Financial Times took a radically different path than most of its news publishing peers: It decided to charge its online readers to access its content. Flash forward eight years, and the FT model — a metered model — is the one many publishers are eying and beginning to test. The New York Times plans on debuting its metered model early next year; the Times Company-owned Worcester Telegram went metered this past week. Journalism Online is now powering MediaNews’ metering tests in York, Pennsylvania and Chico, California.

We can see the FT lineage in the Journalism Online Press+ pay solution. “The FT pioneered use of the meter as an elegant approach to freemium for news publishers — letting casual visitors continue to sample a selected number of articles per month while asking the most engaged readers to pay for unlimited access,” Journalism Online co-founder Gordon Crovitz explains. “In this way, the FT has been a pioneer.”

In the eight years since 2002, the FT has persevered through thicker and thinner markets. Now, it is one of the few companies showing advertising and circulation revenue growth and building a seemingly stable and successful model for the next decade. Its recent financial performance, most of which was released as part of its parent Pearson’s half-yearly report:

  • The FT group, responsible for about 8 percent of Pearson’s ongoing revenue and home of the Financial Times newspaper and digital products, showed an operating profit of £14 million, double last year’s profit. Revenue at the FT Group moved into positive territory, up 7 percent year over year, with advertising showing growth as well as readership revenue.
  • Overall ad revenue now makes up 45 percent or less of the FT’s revenue, down from 74 percent in 2000.
  • Digital readership increased by 27 percent, while the number of registered users — spurred by a no-unregistered views policy (with exception of home page and section pages) — saw a 77 percent increase to 2.5 million during that period.
  • Digital subscriptions grew by 27 percent to 149,000.
  • The FT raised its subscription rates by about 10 percent recently, with standard subscriptions now costing $225 or £190 and premium subscriptions going for $330 or £299.

That’s an impressive report. It contrasts with the experience of most news publishers, who are struggling to stave off continuing year-over-year losses in both ad and circulation revenue — and are finding themselves too dependent on ad revenue as the ad marketplace morphs away from traditional media.

We can parse a number of reasons for the FT’s upward trajectory. In the end, though, I think that FT.com managing director Rob Grimshaw sums it up best, and in a way that should make all news publishers pause and re-think.

“Where we’ve found inspiration is Internet retail, not publishing,” he told me last week. “We’re becoming a direct Internet retailer and we have to have expertise to do that. When you do that with publishing, it looks like a different business.”

Internet retailing — think Amazon — seems like a very different business than publishing. In the endlessly measurable digital age, though, the parallels are striking. It’s not in what you are selling — books, electronics, or news stories — it’s what you know about your customers, their habits and wants.

In February, I produced a report for Outsell, a global publishing industry research and advisory company, about the FT. I called it “Five Things to Learn from FT.com,” and my greatest learning was that analytics, the smart gaining of knowledge from data, was at the heart of the company’s successes and plans. If we look at the emerging newsonomics under the FT business, we see how analytics are driving both of the FT’s two basic business lines, reader revenue and advertising revenue.

Reader revenue now accounts for more than half of the publisher’s income. While there are many moving parts under it, the FT’s pricing of its subscriptions, its targeting of markets, its tweaking of offers, and its valuing of paying customers are all increasingly done on the basis of analytics — not on the gut calls that have long fueled news company decision-making.

Much of it is “propensity modeling,” fancy words to say: What’s the likely reaction of what percentage of people if we offer them this, that way? The modeling grows out of the analytics, now put together by a team of nine people at the FT — up two from a year ago. The group is relatively new, and it’s one that Grimshaw says has produced a night-and-day difference for an outlet that, like most of its fellow news companies, used to “hold and manage” data, rather than using it to drive the business.

The FT has been able to gauge consumer behavior well enough that its subscriber volume and pricing have risen. Even though the site allows fewer unregistered clicks than it did a year ago, Grimshaw says page views overall have gone up — the result of the paying customers using the product more.

In addition, the FT has taken a new tack in the enterprise licensing of its content. Two years ago, it began to reclaim its syndication business. It still works with third parties to deliver the contract, but directly contracts and licenses more than 1,000 companies for its usage. The direct licensing does help a bit in pricing and margin, says the FT’s Caspar de Bono, who directs the B2B business, but the direct pipeline of customer-usage data it provides is the bigger win. Analyzing that data helps the FT improve its products and its delivery — and increasingly gives the content licensees themselves a view into the content’s usage and value for their workforces.

Advertising, too, is benefiting from the research work. The more knowledge the FT can share about its audiences, their habits and preferences, the better advertisers can target their messages. In addition, analytics support the FT’s eight-member Strategic Sales team as it customizes marketing approaches for firms and their agencies. Grimshaw says that by early 2011, advertisers themselves will get some access to FT audience data.

It’s all a work in progress, but one that is coming closer to offering a virtuous circle of business results. It’s a model — an Amazon model for the news world — that bears attention from months-old online news start-ups and venerable, nineteenth century brands alike.

July 29 2010

16:00

The Newsonomics of membership

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Membership may all be about building relationships over time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Leo Reynolds used under a Creative Commons license.

April 01 2010

18:16

The Newsonomics of iPads and tablets, floor by floor

[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.]

AppleMania meets Rummy’s oft-noted trilogy of known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns this week. The iPad is finally here.

Predictably, opinion is widely split on the impact of the tablet on future of news publishing. We don’t know enough, in truth, to ground any certainties. We can, though, start pecking away at it. Here’s a start. One way to assess the new is to connect it to the old.

So let’s build on the traditional cost-and-revenue structures of newspaper operations. I recall the floor-by-floor layout of the Pioneer Press, in Saint Paul, in the ’90s, a time our staff still filled almost all the floor space.

Bottom floor: HR and Finance. 2nd floor: Circulation. 3rd: Production. 4th: Marketing. 5th floor, advertising. 6th and 7th, newsroom. 8th, Exec suite.

So in a tablet world, what’s the impact on the major cost and revenue divisions of the news enterprise, knowing that HR, finance, marketing and executive suites have already seen their own slimming-downs and won’t be much affected?

Let’s start with the newsroom and with “production.” The traditional newsroom provides the meat-and-potatoes of the tablet experience, the text-reading experience. Yes, the iPad should turn “e-readers” and “e-editions” into trivia game answers. Most publishers look at their first tablet products as lite versions of what’s to come, incorporating a few gee-whiz features to salute the innovation. In those first versions, content production doesn’t need to change much.

Soon, though, it will. News companies will need to hire up and skill up — designing, creating and presenting reader-pleasing content. That’s enough of a challenge for monthly and weekly magazines; for dailies, it’s truly a transformative process. Dozens of newsrooms have incorporated videographers, design-savvy producers, and social net masters into workflow, but even in those newsrooms, the resources aren’t sufficient to create the truly new product the tablet enables — a product worth consumers paying for. Then, there are the hundreds of newsrooms who have relatively few of the skills they need at all. Newsroom (and Production) Net: The tablet demands new investment, mainly in new hires, somewhat in new training. With papers still in cutting mode, where will the money come from?

Circulation: It’s an accident of timing that the tablet launch coincides with the Year of Experimenting (Perhaps Dangerously) with paid content. Journalism Online’s Press+ system will soon test niche play from prep sports to obits to metering schemes of several kinds. The New York Times is neck-deep in its begin-metering-in-early-2011 plan. News Corp is erecting walls, the latest around the Times of London, as it just announced a paywall there to go up in June. Yet the timing of the iPad launch means that tablet economics will inevitably color – and may drive – paid content plans.

The Apple model, in a sense, just sets a new cost-of-distribution. While web distribution has been free-plus, the cost of Apple distribution — if you charge for news products — is a predictable, and seemingly stable 30 percent. Just give me 30 percent off the top, says Steve Jobs. Ironically, that 30 percent isn’t far off from the costs of physical distribution for newspapers.

With many news publishers planning on charging for iPad apps (though free, lite apps-as-teasers will probably be near-universal), we see the model of tablet “circ” emerging. Publishers look at the Guardian example (charging about $3.75 one time for its iPhone app), and have two reactions:

— Wow! They got 100,000 people to pay in just a couple of months!

— One-time sales are peanuts. We’re going to charge ongoing subscription rates for our apps/news products. Right now, each edition of a magazine is a separate app, as the Apple store is architected.

So, almost overnight, we’ve got a new model of paid content and supplier/distributor business model. The content company gets 70 percent; the distributor (Apple, first at least and foremost at least for now), gets 30 percent. That’s the inverse of the detested, standard Amazon model, 70 cents to Amazon and 30 to the publisher.

What might be the impact of such a split? Well, let’s estimate that The New York Times serves about 75,000 customers with its Kindle product, a nice little niche. The price is $13.99 a month. That’s $168 a year. With the standard split (the Times may do better), that would be $50 a year to the Times and $118 to Amazon. That would be $3.75 million a year for the Times (and $8.85 million to Amazon).

If the split were 70/30, the numbers would be reversed, netting the publisher another $5 million a year. That’s not huge money, but we can see how it would scale over time, as is clearly the intent with Wall Street Journal’s new $17.99 iPad product.

Now, Apple-delivered apps will not be the only way to monetize content, but expect to see the approximate 70/30 split become a model, a good starting point.

Circulation Net: News and magazine publishers now see a second digital revenue line. It’s 70 percent of X (the retail price) multiplied by Y (volume of sales). As news companies reinvent not only products, but new business arrangements with the distributors of the day — from Google/Amazon/Yahoo to Comcast/AT&T/Verizon — expect to see the Apple model invoked as “fair.”

Advertising: Early returns have been blockbusters — big advertisers like Chase supporting the New York Times iPad launch and watchmaker Hublot subsidizing two months of the FT product, for instance — and that buoys hope. At launch, iPad advertising is like Triple A office space in the city; it’s the new shiny, slick must place to be.

As the shine wears off a bit, it’s likely to become a great test ground for a new merger of brand and performance advertising. Brands love the idea of owning their own tablet experience, directly embedding themselves into customer experience, given the multitouch capabilities, video, and social upfront natures of this new platform. Connect that to direct-response advertising (glossy magazine with built-in wifi), and you’ve got all kinds of opportunities for engaging customers and watching the resulting metrics, minute by minute. Branded premium pricing may mate with AdWords performance-based pricing; who knows what the offspring will look like?

The first advertisers are the big national ones, and they in turn will want to associate with products that best use the new medium — the better to attract the kind of customer they want: leading edge, willing to try something new.

Ad Net: Tablet-based advertising should add, unexpectedly, to top line revenues in the second half of 2010 and more strongly in 2011. Expect though, a big split here: those companies I call the Digital Dozen, the 12-15 companies with national and global publishing reach and resources, will be the ones to create the best out-of-the-box news and magazine products – and they’ll be rewarded with a small surge in ad revenue. Those unable to play at a significant level will in turn reap few rewards.

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