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November 23 2010


The Business of Public Radio: WNYC Bulks Up, Builds Out

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The Public Media 2.0 series on MediaShift is sponsored by American University's Center for Social Media (CSM) through a grant from the Ford Foundation. Learn more about CSM's research on emerging public media trends and standards at futureofpublicmedia.net.

On a recent chilly night in downtown Manhattan, about 130 fans of WNYC's Radio Lab chuckled at quips exchanged between show hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich in the station's new event space.

The performance wasn't part of the public radio show's on-air lineup, but was instead a live event for which the audience members had paid $25 per ticket. This is just one way the station is reaching out to the community -- and in the process making a few bucks.

WNYC, the flagship public radio station in New York and the most listened to public radio station in the country, has in recent years developed a lot of ways to, in the words of CEO Laura Walker, "diversify revenue streams." It has increased its member base, used new fundraising techniques, attracted new grants, conducted capital campaigns to buy radio licenses and build new offices and studios, made financial investments, developed new sponsorships, increased web revenues, rented out its event space and more.

"What we have done is been a leader within the public media industry in applying both traditional and non-profit fundraising techniques," Walker said in a telephone interview. "We're taking the best of the non-profit world, the best of the public media world."

While WNYC has the advantage of being situated in the largest U.S. city -- a financial and artistic hub Walker says is "at the center of the creative world" -- the station also provides lessons in how public media can try to improve, even in difficult financial times.

LauraWalker_ScottEllisonSmith_medium_image.jpgWalker took charge of the station in 1995, when it was owned by the city and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was looking to sell it. Some of Walker's first tasks were to launch a campaign to raise $20 million to buy the FCC license and to negotiate a deal to stay in the city offices for a few more years, rent-free.

She later worked to diversify the programming and sources of income and to develop a five-year plan to bring more news and information to an audience that grew swiftly after the 9/11 attacks that occurred just blocks from their Municipal Building offices.

Growth in Audience, Staff, Funds

In 1995, the station's operating budget was $8 million, and "there was no endowment to speak of," Walker said. Today, its budget is about $55 million. In fiscal 2010, which ended in July, the station raised $56.2 million in revenue and support, according to its financial statement [PDF]. It has more than $16 million cash on hand, and a staff of about 252 people, including 31 news reporters and producers, and 13 salespeople at the national and local levels.

The audience has grown more than 40 percent since it became independent to 1.2 million people weekly, a spokesperson said, for its two stations, one each on AM and FM. The station's members in fiscal 2010 gave the largest share of contributions, $15.4 million of the $33 million received. Major donors, who gave $1,000 or more each, contributed $2.4 million. About $3.25 million, 6 percent of the station's yearly operating budget, comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, according to the spokesperson.

The CPB also is expected to donate more than $1 million to help support "The Takeaway" morning news program, which WNYC produces in partnership with Public Radio International.

Fundraising Activities Raise Millions

To bolster its ability to create programming and keep expanding, the station has launched campaigns that in the last several years raised $62.9 million, Walker said. Members of the board, which include many New York media and society luminaries, have donated close to $22 million. Thirteen individuals or family foundations have given $1 million or more each to help support the station and its shows, she says.

takeaway-logo-sm.jpgWNYC partners with PRI and American Public Media to produce shows such as "Radio Lab," the "Studio 360" arts and culture show, "On the Media," "Freakonomics" segments for the Marketwatch business show, and "The Takeaway." Costs and revenues are shared with the partners.

For local audiences, WNYC launched "Financial 411" segments that explain economic issues, "Mainstreet NYC" to explore how the economy affects New Yorkers, and the Peabody award-winning "Radio Rookies" that gives teenagers, often from less privileged communities, a voice, among other shows, programs and events.

Last year, WNYC moved its operation to new headquarters that include the performance space, which was created with the help of a $6 million gift from the Jerome L. Greene Foundation. State and City agencies gave another $10 million toward the move. The space is working to become self-sustaining financially, said WNYC's Indira Etwaroo, who runs it.

The Greene space, as it's known, has hosted cooking demonstrations, concerts and readings, and is accepting applications for a second "Battle of the Boroughs" talent quest in which performers compete to host a concert and perform during the summer at Central Park's Summer Stage.

The recent 11th-annual gala, a glittering event hosted by station friend and listener Alec Baldwin and Ira Glass, host of Chicago Public Radio's "This American Life," raised close to $1 million. Baldwin, star of the hit TV show "30 Rock," not only donated his time, but also starred in a number of humorous radio spots used for the recent fundraising drive.

The station raised another $15 million to purchase and operate WQXR, the nation's most-listened to classical music station, from the New York Times this year. (Of that, $11 million was used to purchase the FCC license, and $4 million went to operations.) WNYC has since moved its classical music programming from WNYC-FM to QXR and now concentrates WNYC-AM and -FM on news and talk.

It all adds up to a station that has become a big fundraising presence in New York, bringing in dollars that support current activities and allow for new ones that, in turn, attract more interest and generate more revenue.

Walker Is Station's Highest Earner

By public media standards, Walker has been well-compensated for her efforts. According to the station's tax return for 2008 [PDF], the most recent provided, her compensation was $512,870, with $150,000 of that amount as a bonus. She was the top earner at WNCY, with former "Takeaway" co-host Adora Udoji coming in second at $332,147 (the other co-host John Hockenberry received $265,595). Dean Cappello, chief content officer and SVP was the third-highest earner, garnering $309,341.

Not everyone, of course, has been happy with everything Walker and the station have done. Last year, amid a decline in membership dollars, the station laid off four staff members, eliminated 11 unfilled positions and cut senior staff pay by five percent. Like any station, WNYC gets complaints when it changes programming or schedules, but because it's in New York, those complaints can come from highly visible individuals.

While the station has diversified its audience to better match the multi-ethnic and racial mix of New York, some believe it could do more. Maxie C. Jackson III, was the station's senior director of program development until a year ago. He is now president of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters, and thinks the station's fundraising should reflect "a greater diversity."

"There needs to be a focus on generating revenue from communities of color," he said of WNYC and other public media.

Walker said the next phase for the station is "about doing innovate, creative programming in New York" and also "building out new revenue sources."

"I think we are uniquely positioned because we have diversified revenue streams, unlike our traditional non-profit brethren that often have less" and have to rely more on government and foundation support, she said.

While WNYC does have some unique advantages by being in New York, their efforts may hold lessons for ways in which public media can grow, prosper and expand its mission in the years to come.

A former managing editor at ABCNews.com and an MBA, Dorian Benkoil has devised and executed marketing and sales strategies for MediaShift. He is SVP at Teeming Media, a strategic media consultancy focused on attracting, engaging, activating communities through digital media. He tweets at @dbenk. He and his wife, residents of New York, support WNYC as members.

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The Public Media 2.0 series on MediaShift is sponsored by American University's Center for Social Media (CSM) through a grant from the Ford Foundation. Learn more about CSM's research on emerging public media trends and standards at futureofpublicmedia.net.

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September 20 2010


Pay rates for a Freelance Hack/Hacker

Any thoughts on hourly rates for various levels of freelance hack/hackers?

I was in a discussion with a colleague today, and was surprised to hear him suggest that "web producers" get paid $15/hour, with more advanced developers getting $30/hour for full, interactive multimedia projects. My impression was that the going rate for the latter, for someone developing a project from start-to-finish with both the necessary news judgement, design skills and programming ability, would be closer to $50 for starters.

I know this varies quite widely, but would appreciate what rates you've seen or any resources on Hack/Hacker payscales on an hourly or project basis.

Tags: jobs pay career
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July 26 2010


Don't Blame the Content Farms

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From a business perspective, traditional journalism is rather inefficient.

Stories are chosen by a small group whose members often have similar experiences and outlooks. With little knowledge of true market demand, they assign the stories to a limited pool of writers and reporters who may not have the knowledge or contacts to quickly do a top-notch job. The stories are then produced and put out to consumers who may or may not like them. The process is repeated, daily or weekly or otherwise, often with little hard data on what, exactly, made a given story or feature popular.

But despite the inefficiencies, publishers have been able to survive, even thrive, because of other inefficiencies and barriers to competition, such as costly printing presses, advertisers with few other viable outlets and controlled distribution.

Enter the Internet. The "content farms" that MediaShft has focused on this week are exploiting new digital information technologies and systems to turn the model on its head, remove the friction caused by the inefficiencies, and reap the economic rewards. Rather than a small group of editors surmising what a community might want, algorithms from Demand Media, AOL and others process search queries and social media, glean what's wanted, then use other pieces of technology to calculate the likely value; they then quickly find writers or producers at a profitable price, assign and produce the content, attach money-making ads, and pay the "content creators" in a streamlined way.

Some in the industry may bemoan what's produced as "dreck," a term AllThingsD's Kara Swisher used while interviewing Demand CEO Richard Rosenblatt, but it does seem to satisfy a significant number of media consumers.

"Whenever you do stuff at scale and it's disruptive, people immediately think it's not good," Rosenblatt told Swisher, saying Demand produces some 6,000 pieces per day. "We're trying to prove that our content is good."

It's not as if the content farms invented the idea of producing work that's just good enough to sell. Just scan the racks at your local newsstand. As for complaints about the amount the content creators are paid, anyone producing the content is doing so voluntarily. By definition, they're being paid a market rate.

Not All Content Creators are Content Farms

Not every company trying new media business models can be put into one "content farm" bucket. Organizations like Politico, Patch and MainStreetConnect (a recent client of my company) are hiring reporters according to a more traditional model and focusing them by subject matter, geography, or both, while also using technology to keep costs down and drive new efficiencies that allow them to become, they hope, profitable with lower revenue than is required by traditional news organizations.

It's the classic case of a disrupted industry: The newcomers can do what's required to make a profit without having to support legacy processes responsible for a majority of current profits.

"It's hard to do something for future gain that is costly in present revenue and margin," publishing industry expert Mike Schatzkin told me in an interview. "If you don't have present revenue or margin, you have nothing to lose."

Writer James Fallows, in a recent Atlantic Monthly article, suggests that those bemoaning the fate of journalism might take a page from the engineers at Google, and instead try new processes, test and iterate, to discover how to derive enough revenue from what they make to sustain its production.

"Find out what [consumers] really want and value, and try to give them that, instead of what you've been making (which they may or may not want to buy, but which you've wanted to sell)," Alan Webber, who co-founded Fast Company magazine, told me in an email. "Find ways to cut costs. Find ways to cut waste. Find ways to test new ideas, new products and services faster, cheaper, and better."

That's more productive than fretting that the old ways of doing business are no longer working. And it sounds like what the content farms are doing.

Transformation of the Media Industry

About a century ago, as Americans were switching from horses-and-buggies and trains to cars, there were said to be more than a thousand companies producing automobiles in the United States. After a vigorous era of foment and entrepreneurialism, a handful survived, often incorporating the lessons learned from some of the other players that they bought out. Eventually, a thriving industry supplying millions and millions of consumers was born.

Entrepreneurial journalism -- an increasingly popular topic at journalism schools and institutes around the U.S. -- is just that, entrepreneurial. Amid the ordered disarray of startups and growth, different models are being tried. Some will succeed, and more will fail. New standards will be created.

Those upset that their skills can't get them more from the market might do well to bolster those skills. No longer is it enough to be able to report and write; hiring managers are looking for the ability to template, shoot, mic and perhaps even write a bit of code. If you don't know how to use Twitter these days, you're nowhere near the cutting edge.

Think of the power the new tools give journalists, including ones working for such venerated institutions as the New York Times, to reach beyond the confines of their publications and personally assemble communities of readers, viewers and participants around the journalism they create, while also developing leads and sources. That's more traffic for the publication, more influence and voice for the journalists. The tools also give people working for the content farms, also known as content mills, the ability to quickly get their work done and in some cases earn an hourly wage well beyond journalists' typical starting salaries.

"Yes, Demand Studios is a content mill. A new business model well adapted to the way consumers demand information. Get over it already," writes a commenter on a previous story in our series. "Why do I work for Demand Studios? The hourly pay is worth it and the independence fits my lifestyle."

A former managing editor at ABCNews.com and an MBA, Dorian Benkoil has devised and executed marketing and sales strategies for MediaShift. He is SVP at Teeming Media, a strategic media consultancy focused on attracting, engaging, retaining and monetizing audiences. He tweets at @dbenk.

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July 23 2010


4 Minute Roundup: The Problem with Content Farms

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4MR is sponsored by Carnegie-Knight News21, an alliance of 12 journalism schools in which top students tell complex stories in inventive ways. See tips for spurring innovation and digital learning at Learn.News21.com.

In this week's 4MR podcast I give an overview of "content farms," sites such as those from Demand Media, Yahoo's Associated Content and AOL Seed that produce massive amounts of content for low pay. While there have been issues with the quality of content from these sites, they often provide "good enough" how-to information for people searching for it online. Blogger/journalist Jason Fry has been a critic of content farms in the past, but now takes a more nuanced view of them, saying he's more worried about how they affect readers and searchers than the journalism business.

Check it out:


>>> Subscribe to 4MR <<<

>>> Subscribe to 4MR via iTunes <<<

Listen to my entire interview with Jason Fry:

fry full.mp3

Background music is "What the World Needs" by the The Ukelele Hipster Kings via PodSafe Music Network.

Here are some links to related sites and stories mentioned in the podcast:

Writers Explain What It's Like Toiling on the Content Farms at MediaShift

Your Guide to Next Generation 'Content Farms' at MediaShift

Beyond Content Farms series at MediaShift

Hey, Demand Media! Get Off My Lawn! at Reinventing the Newsroom

Comment by Demand Media writer about getting $100 per day at MediaShift

The 'Craigslist Effect' Spreads to Content as Free Work Fills Supply at AdAge

Content 'Farms' - Killing Journalism, While Making a Killing at The Wrap

Also, be sure to vote in our poll about what you think about content farms:

What do you think about "content farms"?Market Research

Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.

news21 small.jpg

4MR is sponsored by Carnegie-Knight News21, an alliance of 12 journalism schools in which top students tell complex stories in inventive ways. See tips for spurring innovation and digital learning at Learn.News21.com.

This is a summary. Visit our site for the full post ».


Writers Talk About Working the Hyper-Local Beat

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In my first article for our special Beyond Content Farms series, I examined the opportunities available to writers at some of the biggest content farms. Today, I look at jobs covering hyper-local news.

What hyper-local news organizations are aiming for is nothing short of revolutionary: AOL's two-year-old Patch network and established players like Examiner.com are attempting to recreate a profitable business model for professionally produced local journalism in the digital age. Unlike companies like Demand Media that pump out largely face-less content, the hyper-local sites allow writers to build a name for themselves on one geographic or subject area.

These companies are hiring a lot of journalists in communities all over the U.S., which means more and more people will find jobs in hyper-local news. So what's it like to work in the new hyper-local journalism space? I spoke with a few writers and editors to learn more.

Going Through a Rough Patch

Jennifer Connic works as editor of the Millburn-Short Hills, N.J. site that's part of Patch's expanding hyper-local network. But she bristled at the hyper-local tag. "I think it belittles in some ways the journalism people like me are doing," she said.

jennifer connic.jpg

No matter what you call it, the job she is doing is not an easy one, as Connic readily admits. Patch editors are all basically one-woman news organizations. "You're really the only person who's running the site," Connic said. When people have a news tip or there's breaking news, she said, "I'm the one who gets contacted, I'm the one who has to be on top of that."

Nearly two years into the job, Connic is still putting in long hours. She had a very difficult spring where, Connic said, "I had a lot of days where I'd get up in the morning and start working and I wouldn't be done until after midnight."

Most of that time was spent providing invaluable coverage of how the New Jersey state budget crisis was impacting the Millburn public school system. Well-known media industry reporter Joe Strupp highlighted some other great reporting from Cecelia Smith, the former editor for Darien, CT. She broke a story revealing the criminal history of a candidate running for the town's First Selectman (similar to the mayor). Smith discovered the candidate had an attempted murder conviction, and he eventually lost the race.

Like most Patch editors, Connic has a degree in journalism and her pay is likely relatively modest (although she declined to give any hard figures for her salary). As Andria Krewson reported on MediaShift, Patch competitor MainStreetConnect pays editors a salary of roughly $40,000 a year. "It is what it is," sighed the New Jersey transplant, doing her best to adopt the local patois.

Connic was more forthcoming about the pay rates offered her freelancers: They can make between $50 and $100 per article from Patch, depending on their experience and their pitch. Connic generally features only one freelance piece a day on her site, so it would be difficult for writers to support themselves by contributing to Patch alone. But these contributors play a vital role in easing her burden. In particular, she relies on a few trusted freelancers to cover for her when she takes time off.

Connic also uses high school interns to run her site. Although the positions are unpaid, the internship can lead to a "full paying freelance job for these kids if they prove themselves," she told me.

If they come to terms with the long hours and meager salary, successful freelancers can even aspire to a full-time position with Patch. Connic pointed out that Mary Mann and Sasha Brown-Worsham both freelanced for Patch before being hired as local site editors.

Examining the Examiners

The barriers to entry are lower at Examiner.com, an established hyper-local network with a much wider reach (and millions more page views) than Patch. Examiner has local sites in over 200 cities in the U.S. and Canada. While it's easier to become a writer (or "examiner") for the company, it has less to offer writers aspiring to a full-time reporting or steady freelance gig.

Examiner.com recruits writers to cover beats generated by search engine demand. Here are just a few of the odd openings that are in my local area: Washington D.C. Movie Locations Travel Examiner, D.C. English Springer Spaniel Examiner, and Bethesda Holistic Family Health Examiner. The company then pumps out as much cheap local content on those topics as its writers can produce.

While motivated examiners have access to a full range of videos and tutorials on blogging and search engine optimization, after their first submission, they are often offered little substantive feedback on their writing from experienced editors. If their blogging does not include enough local search terms, examiners can expect to receive an automatically generated email encouraging them to make their content more relevant to the community.

Complaints from examiners about the paltry and opaque compensation rates are also surprisingly common around the web. The Welcome Handbook given to new Examiners offers little clarification: "Examiner pay is based on a rating that considers a number of factors, including revenue and the quality of your audience, which includes things like subscriptions, page view traffic and session length. Pay may fluctuate depending on any of these and other factors."

The lack of any minimum rate left some contributors to this Writers Weekly survey of examiners recalling their content farm assignments fondly. "I have plenty of paid writing work, none of it all that well paid, true, but I'd rather get $15 per article (or even $10) than zip. Duh," said one former examiner, who only identified himself as "Mario."

Even more irritating to some examiners is the $25 minimum threshold the company requires before it will deposit money in a writer's PayPal account. Washington City Paper highlighted a cautionary tale from one disgruntled former examiner, who very nearly failed to reach that figure before parting ways with the company. After being reprimanded by an Examiner.com editor for using Sarah Palin as SEO bait to attract attention to his beat, which was ostensibly about local music, Ben Westhoff wrote:

I silently vowed to get over the threshold as quickly as possible, and to entertain myself in the process. And so I began to blog about nothing but Lil Wayne and boobs -- Katy Perry's, mostly -- in as absurd a manner as possible. Oh, and I still talked about Sarah Palin via ridiculous musical tie-ins. 'Katy Perry and Sarah Palin to wrestle in Jello?' one was titled.

Westhoff's tale may not be all that uncommon. As TV Examiner Rick Ellis noted in the comments of a MinnPost story on the company, "the last number I saw was that about 1/3 of their examiners make enough to reach the $25 payment minimum each month."

Yet, as with other content farms, the Examiner network has its supporters. Among them are Ellis and some of the commentors on my previous piece.

dianne walker.jpg

It certainly can provide a platform for writers hoping to have their voices heard, those looking to build up a portfolio, or make a little bit of pocket money. But can it be a good career move? Dianne Walker, the D.C. Job Search and Career Examiner, thinks it has been for her.

"It keeps me in tune with what's going on in my career," Walker told me. She has worked as an HR manager in the Prince William County public library system since 2005.

Walker hopes to publish a career advice book and has used her examiner positions to market herself. In the two years Walker has written for Examiner.com, she has had some limited success: Local television show "Let's Talk Live" asked her to come on and discuss her story about unemployment in D.C.

Would she recommend Examiner.com to people looking to make a career in writing? After a long pause, Walker said, "I have recommended people that I know that just need a couple extra dollars." (She also noted that Examiner.com pays its writers $50 for each new examiner they recruit.)

For now, however, Walker continues to pursue her own editorial ambitions as only a part-time examiner. Even after two years of building up her audience, she's not quite ready to quit her day job.


Have you worked for a hyper-local news organization? Would you consider doing so? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

To read more stories in the Beyond Content Farms series go here.

MediaShift hyper-local correspondent Andria Krewson contributed to this article.

Corbin Hiar is the DC-based editorial assistant at MediaShift. He is a regular contributor to More Intelligent Life, an online arts and culture publication of the Economist Group, and has also written about environmental issues on Economist.com and the website of The New Republic. Before Corbin moved to the Capital to join the Ben Bagdikian Fellowship Program at Mother Jones, he worked a web internship at The Nation in New York City. Follow him on Twitter @CorbinHiar.

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