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August 17 2010

17:30

Summer of (Groupon) love: Social discounting helps magazines sell subscriptions on the cheap

With Groupon growing by the day, the overwhelmed merchant is part of its lore. The Boston helicop-tour that sold 2,600 rides in four hours. The Seattle guitar teacher booked through New Year’s. The Chicago nail salon keeping women flipping through magazines waiting for their cheap mani-pedis. So when magazines go Groupon in an attempt to sell print subscriptions, are they overwhelmed, too?

“No. We’ve been able to accommodate those guys just fine,” says Daniel Brogan, publisher of the Denver monthly 5280.

5280 recently sold 4,715 subscriptions in one day, the biggest success in a wave of city and regional magazines offering group-discounted subscriptions this summer. Groupon’s social-coupon service provides a more direct connection between merchant and consumer than display ads ever could. And the numbers coming out of that connection are impressive. Since early June, 31 different titles have attracted some 32,851 new subscribers. (And that’s just among magazines; newspapers — the Chicago Tribune and Washington Post among them — have also been dipping their toes into Groupon.)

“The promotion was immediately profitable for the magazine,” explains Ken Sheldon, New York magazine’s head of consumer marketing — who took the first available Groupon slot in late June and promptly sold 2,536 subscriptions. Groupon-ing is relatively low-risk: Readers pay up-front (no chasing down Bill Me Laters), and publishers don’t have to put down cash to secure a sales date – all good economics, says Sheldon.

Good economics, though, aren’t perfect economics. Subscriptions come at a deep discount for consumers — “40 percent doesn’t speak to someone the way 50 does,” notes Groupon’s Julie Mossler — meaning, of course, less revenue for publishers. On top of that, the Chicago-based startup generally takes half of the revenue from each deal, meaning that New York’s $33,000 in Grouponed sales, for example, translates to $16,500 in revenue for the magazine.

Hooking them, keeping them

The main benefit of group-purchased subscriptions, for publishers, is the potential for subscriber retention: Get ‘em now with the Groupon rate, get ‘em next year at full price. Groupon boasts deep, vertical subscription lists of young, proven consumers who are buying real-world goods and services — “as much as Groupon is an online thing, I don’t see this as an online audience,” notes Lute Harmon, Jr., publisher of Cleveland magazine — and the networks are large. In Milwaukee, where the service launched in February, Groupon boasts a database of 77,000 potential subscribers; Dallas’s database has 215,000; and New York’s has 350,000 — growing, of late, by 2,000 people each week.

The networks’ demographics are appealing, too — particularly for publishers seeking to corral their next generation of readers. The majority of Groupon’s audience is in the 29-to-33 age range; 77 percent are women, and 75 percent are fully employed. “In some ways, they’re the perfect audience for a city magazine,” 5280’s Brogan says; the overlap between Groupon members and city magazine readers is generally a wide one.

Take Ro Hawthorne, a 32-year-old corporate public relations and marketing manager — and, thanks to Groupon, a new subscriber to Dallas’s monthly D Magazine. Hawthorne has lived in Dallas for seven years, but never subscribed to D Mag. She’d purchase the pub’s twice-yearly “Best of” issues to save as references for local places of interest, she told me, and otherwise would read it for free — at the hair salon. The D Magazine Groupon offer that came her way in late July, though — $9 for a 12-issue subscription — was appealing enough to make Hawthorne one of the outlet’s 3,214 new subscribers. As she explained: “It was under $10. That helps a lot.”

While snagging new subscribers with Groupon discounts is relatively easy, ensuring that subscribers come back — and that they pay full price on their return — is not. The subscription-rate slashing that takes place on Groupon’s roving newsstand, though, puts even more pressure on the need for renewals.

“If all we get is a one-time subscription, it wouldn’t be that great a deal for us. It wouldn’t be a deal at all,” notes Dan Crutcher, publisher of Louisville Magazine. During its Groupon promotion in early March, the magazine sold 258 subscriptions. (Louisville has 21,000 paying subscribers, Crutcher told me, so while the Groupon achievement is not plaque-worthy, it did mean that one day’s promotion was five times more effective than the roughly 50 subs initiated each month on loumag.com.) Crutcher says he’ll be satisfied if half his Groupies renew — and ecstatic if 70 or 80 percent (the typical renewal rate for longtime customers) make an encore purchase. Both are optimistic goals, though: In general, the newer the subscribers, the less likely they are to renew.

Bundling the discounts

Then there’s the question of balancing the Groupon audience with the rest of a magazine’s subscriber base. Lawrence W., for example, presumably a loyal subscriber to 5280, took offense at the deeply discounted rate that he wasn’t privy to. (“Guess I will let my subscription expire and try to get in on the next deal,” he wrote on the mag’s Groupon deal discussion board.) One way to combat that kind of resentment — and customers’ coming to see deep discounts as a norm rather than a rare occurrence — is, ironically, to limit the viral potential of Groupon deals. 5280, for example, kept its $7 Groupon deal away from fans on Facebook and Twitter to limit the overall exposure of its bargain-basement subscription. Cleveland Magazine, similarly, relies on its Groupon community remaining somewhat isolated from its traditional subscriber base. “If it’s really a separate group,” Harmon points out, “it’s easier to rationalize giving them a different price.”

Mags are also experimenting with packaging Groupon deals along with other valuable perks – just as they’re experimenting more broadly with package deals as a way of selling subscriptions. Cleveland, for example, packages tickets for its Best of Cleveland party at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame along with magazine sales, with $15 from each $40 ticket going to the price of a subscription. And Milwaukee magazine recently paired a year’s subscription with two tickets to the city’s Lakefront Festival of Arts, where the mag and its publishing company Quad/Graphics were presenting sponsors. For $18, almost 400 customers took advantage of the package deal.

Going long

The Daily Deals facilitated by Groupon are proving to be a good way for city and regional magazines to inject numbers into their rate base. For national titles, though, the Groupon road hasn’t been so smooth. Newsweek floundered in Seattle and Sioux Falls, South Dakota, adding only 31 more subscribers through its group-buying scheme. Vivabox, meanwhile, a Belgium-based company that sells custom gift boxes, recently pushed a $19 sampler of magazines including National Geographic, Fast Company, Real Simple, and InStyle — and was rewarded for its efforts with only four (yes, four) takers.

“That doesn’t surprise me,” says Louisville’s Crutcher. “What makes [Groupon] work,” after all, “is its localness.” New York magazine’s Sheldon, formerly the finance director at Time, agrees. Bigger brands, he notes, are stuck trying to push national titles into regional pegs. “If you pick any random Time Inc. title, it doesn’t feel like it’s a special city promotion.”

The power of the social deal has given rise to efforts like Try It Local, the Louisville chamber of commerce’s group-discount site. While the service lacks, for the moment, Groupon’s robust subscription list, it offers businesses a bigger cut of the revenue – about 70 percent.

That improved business proposition may be necessary for group-discounting to offer long-term benefits to magazines. Even the publications that have gained subscribers, in the short run, from Groupon are waiting to see whether the benefits translate to the long term. Future renewal rates will be crucial data points. “It’ll be two or three years before we really know what the effect is on magazine subscriptions,” Cutcher says. In the meantime, publishers are left with a challenging balancing act: spreading their products to new customers while retaining the value of their brands.

June 13 2010

09:29

THE NEW MEDIA SUBSCRIPTIONS LANDSCAPE

LIBE SUSCRIPCIONS

More for less.

Is this the future of multimedia subscription packages?

Yes.

April 14 2010

17:22

“Intensely engaged followers”: Joel Kramer on MinnPost’s focused audienced-building strategy

Joel Kramer came right out and said it: He discriminates when it comes to his readers. MinnPost cares more about repeat readers than stray visitors, the site’s editor said during the “Building Online Communities” session at the ASNE NewsNow Ideas Summit this week; it’s chosen depth over breadth in its strategy of audience cultivation.

“What we’re trying to do is build a community of intensely engaged followers,” Kramer said. And while, yes, “user engagement” and its iterations seem to be the unofficial theme of this year’s ASNE event, Kramer wasn’t simply referring to engagement in the most common, “traffic-plus-interaction” sense of the term. For MinnPost, engagement is repetition. It’s commitment. It’s what Gawker Media has termed, simply, “affection.”

The strategy, for MinnPost, is a financial as much as an editorial one: It’s about concentrating impact, but also about monetizing that impact. The outlet’s ultimate goal in developing a core readership, Kramer said, is to “convert that community into enough money to sustain the journalism.”

It’s a more nuanced approach to a pageview-focused perspective on audience cultivation; last year, in a piece for our sister publication Nieman Reports, Kramer noted that “traffic to our web site, MinnPost.com, is critical to our financial success.” That’s still the case, of course; but a work-your-core caveat marks a shift in that traffic-is-traffic sensibility — and, as far as the outlet’s reach-out to advertisers is concerned, a shift in the eyeballs-are-eyeballs sensibility. It’s a commercial truth as well as a journalistic one: Not all readers are created equal.

The intense-engagement strategy makes sense in the context of MinnPost’s particular fusion of funding streams: A nonprofit, the outlet also relies on ad revenue — and on member donations that it hopes, eventually, will increase in number and put MinnPost on a path to sustainability. But: eventually. At this point, “the vast majority of our unique visitors are passers-by,” Kramer noted. The goal is to increase the ratio of repeat visitors to one-time ones.

How to do that is the big question — though engaging people with MinnPost’s journalism via the get-them-where-they-are approach will likely play a big role in it. “Social media, comment, and other forms of engagement with the audience have a tremendous effect on audience-building,” Kramer noted. “Facebook is the number-one referrer to our site not counting search — and we hardly were on it at all eight months ago.”

Comments have also been a boon. The site’s ban of anonymous comments, Kramer said, was “controversial” at its inception — “and it probably depresses the traffic,” he allowed — but it maintains MinnPost’s mission, he said, and leads to a more civil environment on the site. Which is another route to constructive community engagement.

And then there’s getting-readers-where-they-are in the more literal sense. “Probably the number-one builder of intensity is face-to-face contact, not online,” Kramer said. He mentioned the annual MinnRoast — the site’s version of the Gridiron Dinner — and some other in-person events that are targeted, in particular, at reaching readers under 40. The outlet recently polled young people about effective ways to get them excited about MinnPost, its content, and its community, Kramer noted. “The first thing they said was, ‘Hold events at bars.’”

March 22 2010

17:49

Lauren Victoria Burke’s WDCPIX: A photojournalist builds business by aiming at sites that can’t afford wires

Lauren Victoria Burke’s strategy for success in the world of political photography is simple: undercut the Associated Press.

Burke runs a one-woman photography wire service in Washington, D.C. called WDCPIX that allows monthly subscribers to download as many of the hundreds of political photos available as they want. Her shots rival those of staff photographers working on the Hill; she typically covers congressional hearings and major public events in the city. She doesn’t guarantee specific event coverage, but does take requests and tries to accommodate her customers.

As a solo roving photographer in one of the world’s most photographed cities, she’s been able to build a business by targeting clients with budgets that won’t allow big costs for photography. About 25 to 30 of her clients are regulars; most pay a flat $260 monthly fee, although some have special arrangements. Subscribers include sites like Talking Points Memo and The Washington Independent; I became familiar with WDCPIX when I worked at both.

“Basically what you want to do is…create a business model that can undercut the bigger sites,” Burke told me. “There are a lot of news entities out there that can’t afford Associated Press or Getty or any of those guys. So you’re trying to create an environment where the smaller news entities out there, particularly with all these blogs around, they can subscribe to WDCPIX and make it very straightforward.”

For anyone familiar with the story of iStockphoto, the possibility of disruption in the photo business is nothing new. And while WDCPIX isn’t a breakout smash at iStockphoto’s scale, it shares a shift in the basic economics of the industry.

When Burke started out as an independent — she spent time at USA Today and the AP, among others — her focus was on bigger clients like C-SPAN and ABC News. She still does regular work for larger outlets, along with occasional clients in the nonprofit and advocacy sectors, like Defenders of Wildlife, and a few corporate clients like FedEx and Starbucks. (“A lot of times people are doing an annual report or they’re doing a brochure or they’re doing a website and they want to brighten it up with some photos,” she said.)

The business side

Burke runs every aspect of her business, including marketing. One tactic she says worked well in attracting new business is requiring online publications to credit WDCPIX.

“That particularly helped with TPMMuckraker because I got involved with them when they were pretty new. So when other people saw that, the other sites that hoped to become like TPM, would see that and call,” she explained. “It’s sort of a small ad. It works really well.”

She also works the typical marketing strategies like sending out mailers to potential clients, blasting email messages, and word-of-mouth. When she first launched the site, she says connections in her previous jobs at USA Today and The Hill were valuable in reaching clients.

When I asked Burke if she got investment money to start the site, she laughed — heartily. Burke said she kept her startup costs incredibly low and she covered them herself. The site runs on out-of-the-box software from Image Folio. She designed the site herself. She pays about $120 a month for a web server. The site’s billing, which she handles herself, is done almost completely online. She has no physical office; most days, she’ll do the journalism side of things from the press gallery in the Senate. Sometimes she does her business work from her home office or a coffee shop.

Burke decided to leave her job as a photo editor at USA Today and go solo was more the result of her independent streak than her interest in the future of media. “You end up working for a bunch of people and at some point, you want to be in more control of what you’re doing and what you’re covering,” she explained. “So owning a website like that and running your own photo service allows you to do that. It’s truly liberating.”

I asked her if she would have done as well if she’s gone a slightly more traditional route, setting up a portfolio website and working as a freelancer rather than setting up a subscription service.

“No. No way. So many people see it that would not normally have seen my stuff if I just had a typical portfolio website up, that we’ve all seen. Nothing wrong a photo website — but when you have this kind of subscription website, you have the payment tied into the site in a way you would not normally have if you just had a portfolio. The person has to go the extra step to expedite payment, expedite the business end. A lot of people are looking for, “Okay, I paid the money, now I want to download as many pictures as I want,” or whatever. I don’t think my photography would be as successful if I had a non-subscription, non-cash site.”

Advice

When I asked Burke what advice she would give to other photojournalists, she didn’t hesitate.

“I think one of the things is not to get too pigeonholed into one thing because we don’t live in the same universe we used to live in,” she said. “Not too long ago, in the ’80s and ’90s, you could sustain yourself on a staff job some place and do just fine. Now, the more things that you can do, the better. A lot of photographers, for some reason, don’t like writing. I really think the writing thing is huge. Even though people shy away from the idea of being a one-man band because it’s so much work, it does put you in the position where you could potentially be doing your own stuff, by yourself, without a lot of interference and middlemen involved, editors, et cetera. And it can be lucrative. It can be a living.”

All photos courtesy Lauren Victoria Burke.

March 09 2010

15:00

How Ars Technica’s “experiment” with ad-blocking readers built on its community’s affection for the site

Even on the web, sometimes actions really do speak louder than words.

The technology site Ars Technica has a tech-savvy group of readers, of which about 40 percent have installed ad-blocking software in their web browsers. That’s a plugin that allows you to avoid seeing most ads on a site. The financial consequence for Ars is “devastating”, editor-in-chief Ken Fisher explained in a post. Ars sells ads based on impressions, not clickthroughs — which means it takes a big financial hit because of browsing habits of its users.

On Friday evening, Ars tried an experiment: Readers running ad blockers got a blank page instead of the story they intended to read. The move was a technical success, but caused an uproar (and confusion) among users. In hindsight, Fisher told me, the site’s experiment in retribution was the “wrong approach,” causing confusion among many readers.

“What we weren’t expecting is so many people were blocking ads and didn’t even know it,” he said. “It left a lot of people very confused. They started digging around, wasting an hour trying to fix their broken computer.” There was nothing on the site to explain to readers why content had been blocked.

But the experiment still generated positive returns for the site’s bottom line. Fisher wrote a lengthy post on Ars (similar to many the site has run before) about its goals and why ad blocking was a big problem for the site:

My argument is simple: blocking ads can be devastating to the sites you love. I am not making an argument that blocking ads is a form of stealing, or is immoral, or unethical, or makes someone the son of the devil. It can result in people losing their jobs, it can result in less content on any given site, and it definitely can affect the quality of content. It can also put sites into a real advertising death spin.

And since Saturday, Fisher has received about 1,200 emails from users saying they had whitelisted the site — meaning they had told their ad-blocking software it was okay to show Ars’ ads. Based on Ars data from IP addresses, 25,000 users whitelisted the site in a 24-hour period — evidence that the goodwill the site has built up with its audience could be converted into user acts of generosity.

Another 200 users signed up for Ars’ premium accounts, which run $50 a year or $30 for six months. A subscription gets users access to an ad-free version of the site, full-text RSS feeds, printable PDFs of posts, and closed community sections of the site. (But Fisher notes that many subscribers just feel a sense of obligation, not a desire for premium features. “We get many people who subscribe just because they love us. They just want us to survive.”)

I asked if the $50-per-year subscription makes up, financially, for the loss of ad revenue on the ad-free version of the site. It depends on the user, Fisher said. For anyone who visits the site more than its user-average 89 visits per month, probably not. But he doesn’t think of the equation in those terms. Fisher views the subscription fees as covering the cost of specialized content that only the most dedicated user would want, like the online community sections. Ads alone wouldn’t generate the revenue to cover that. An advertising strategy that assumes a broad audience can cover the more general-interest content that audience wants. Having a multi-pronged revenue approach allows the site to provide different kinds of content for different audiences.

Fisher said he’s also had good experiences using a sponsorship model to support specialized content, including in-depth coverage that attracts a highly engaged, technical audience, but not huge pageviews. For instance, IBM sponsored a recent series on the future of collaboration. The writers didn’t know IBM was the backer, and IBM was told only the broad topic for the stories. Topic-specific sponsorship “delivers more value than display advertising, in my opinion,” he said. “It’s much more targeted. It takes the best of contextual advertising.”

But Ars’ bottom line still relies heavily on traditional display advertising. Its particular audience likely has a worse ad-block problem than other sites. But the benefits Fisher found from communicating directly with readers — making the ask along with a gentle but clear nudge — can apply to any site.

“It affects so many sites,” he told me. “And just getting the message out there makes a difference.”

February 24 2010

14:36

WSJ ONLINE: 50$ FOR ONE YEAR

2010-02-24_1421

That’s cheap.

I used to be subscriber of the WSJ online.

And this is the offer that I got today: a $50 one.

So, If I go to newsstand here in St. Davids I will have to pay almost $3 for a WSJ printed copy.

But if I re-subscribe to the online edition, I will spend only less than $0.16 per day.

Is this the way to save print publications?

Is this the way to make money online?

I am not sure.

February 22 2010

15:00

Footnoted.org: A solo investment news site gets acquired, but its founder says the web’s no sure bet

Michelle Leder likes to joke that she is the first journalist to have been fired by email. In 1998, her editor at the Poughkeepsie Journal shot her a note to say that her job on the business desk would not be waiting for her when she returned from abroad.

Since then, she’s been a pioneer in other trends in journalism — and her outlook on the field has stayed equally dry. In 2003 she launched what has become a popular investment site, Footnoted.org. She runs posts on nuggets of interesting information pulled from the fine print of securities filings for valuable investor news. This month Morningstar purchased the site for an undisclosed sum. Leder will continue to run the editorial side and contribute content. Morningstar will sell subscriptions to her premium content (some content will remain free). And the site’s staff is already starting to grow post-acquisition; Bloomberg’s Theo Francis just announced he’s joining the staff.

The investment research firm sees value in her investigative work, particularly Leder’s ability to find useful, “actionable” information. “I think there’s been a discussion about whether information has been commoditized or not,” Morningstar’s Kunal Kapoor told me. “Some news may have been, but that’s just half the story.”

From covering acquisitions to being one

As for Leder’s story, it’s an Internet startup fairy tale of sorts: a journalist’s hobby site grows into a relevant read and a someone swoops in with a checkbook to buy the place up. Leder can hardly believe it herself. But she hesitates calling it the type of model that can be easily recreated.  She mentioned attending a recent Jeff Jarvis lecture where she thought he overstated the sustainability of an ad-only model for new blogs, and the number of bloggers who have been successful running ad-only sites, pulling in $100,000-$200,000 a year. “I just think that’s delusional.”

Leder, who has always run her site from a spare room in her house, said a startup like hers needs a safety net, in her case, it was her husband. “It obviously helps if you have a spouse or a significant other with a steady job…There were some months I made next to nothing.” Leder says the job involves no “fancy lunches” and she says if you don’t need office space, don’t get it. “Keep your expenses low. You’re going to really need that money.” In the summer of 2008, Leder hired her first (and until now only) employee, a researcher, Sonya Hubbard.

Leder launched the site as a promotional companion to her book, Financial Fineprint. “It was a way for me to continue that discussion,” Leder said of the site. The blog’s readership grew as she continued posting new content, attracting an audience ripe for advertisers, including hedge fund managers, and other investors. It was then she saw the site as a business opportunity in itself, and she turned to advertising. Soon after, she added on a syndication model, selling reprints and original content to places like the New York Times’ DealBook and Minyanville.

Trying a freemium model

In October 2008, Leder took a gamble on a new business model. “It became clear to me that advertising was never going to sustain the site,” she explained. While keeping a portion of her content free, she launched a secondary product called FootnotedPro, which contains exclusive information for investors. The 40 issues per year’s price: $100 per month, $1,000 a year or a la carte $250.

Her goal was to sign up 100 subscribers. She said that she fell just short of that, but did pretty well. (She would not disclose her exact number of subscriptions, citing an agreement with Morningstar.) ”You can’t be afraid to take that leap,” Leder said, “You need to be thinking about the business side. You’re the publisher. You have to do it.”

Still, she says she’s looking forward to letting Morningstar handle selling the subscriptions from now on. “I’m really good at reading SEC filings and finding nuggets. I’m not really good at selling subscriptions,” Leder laughed.

She hopes over the next year she’ll hire one or two more business journalists (she’s got 20 years of business journalism experience under her belt) and perhaps an analyst. ”There’s so much content out there,” Leder said. “People recognize quality.” High quality includes authenticity, which she said matters to her readers.

Her most important words of advice: ”Have a backup plan.”

February 05 2010

15:00

This Week in Review: Google’s new features, what to do with the iPad, and Facebook’s rise as a news reader

[Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week’s top stories about the future of news and the debates that grew up around them. —Josh]

A gaggle of Google news items: Unlike the past several weeks with their paywall and iPad revelations, this week wasn’t dominated by one giant future-of-media story. But there were quite a few incremental happenings that proved to be interesting, and several of them involved Google. We’ll start with those.

— The Google story that could prove to be the biggest over the long term actually happened last week, in the midst of our iPad euphoria: Google unveiled a beta form of Social Search, which allows you to search your “social circle” in addition to the standard results served up for you by Google’s magic algorithm. (CNN has some more details.) I’m a bit surprised at how little chatter this rollout is getting (then again, given the timing, probably not), but tech pioneer Dave Winer loves the idea — not so much for its sociality but because it “puts all social services on the same open playing field”; you decide how important your contacts from Twitter or Facebook are, not Google’s algorithm.

— Also late last week, several media folks got some extended time with Google execs at Davos. Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger posted his summary, focusing largely on Google’s faceoff with China. “What Would Google Do?” author Jeff Jarvis posted his summary, with lots of Google minutiae. (Jeff Sonderman also further summarized Jarvis’ summary.) Among the notable points from Jarvis: Google is “working on making news as compelling as possible” and CEO Eric Schmidt gets in a slam on the iPad in passing.

— Another Google feature was launched this week: Starring on Google News stories. The stars let you highlight stories (that’s story clusters, not individual articles) to save and return to them later. Two major tech blogs, ReadWriteWeb and TechCrunch, gave the feature their seal of approval, with ReadWriteWeb pointing to this development as the first of many ways Google can personalize its algorithm when it comes to news. It’s an intriguing concept, though woefully lacking in functionality at this point, as TechCrunch notes: I can’t even star individual stories to highlight or organize coverage of a particular issue. I sure hope at least that feature is coming.

Also in the Google-and-news department: Google economist Hal Varian expressed skepticism about news paywalls, arguing that reading news for many is a worktime distraction. And two Google folks, including Google News creator Krishna Bharat, give bunches of interesting details about Google News in a MediaShift interview, including some conciliatory words for publishers.

— Meanwhile billionaire tech entrepreneur Mark Cuban officially jumped on the Google-News-is-evil train, calling Google a “vampire” and urging news organizations not to index their content there. Not surprisingly, this wasn’t well-received in media-futurist circles: GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram, a former newspaperman himself, said Cuban and his anti-Google comrade, Rupert Murdoch, ignore the growing search traffic at news sites. Several other bloggers noted that Cuban has expressed a desire in the past to invest in other news aggregators and currently invests in Mahalo, which does some Google News-esque “sucking” of its own.

— Finally, after not carrying AP stories since December, Google struck some sort of quasi-deal that allows it to host AP content — but it’s still choosing not to do so. Search engine guru Danny Sullivan wonders what it might mean, given the AP and Google’s icy relations. Oh yeah, and Google demoed some ideas of what a Chrome OS tablet — read: iPad competitor — might look like.

What the iPad will do (and what to do with it): Commentary continued to trickle out this week about Apple’s newly announced iPad, with much of talk shifting from the device’s particulars to its implications on technology and how news organizations should develop for it.

Three most essential pieces all make similar points: Former McClatchy exec Howard Weaver likens the iPad to the newspaper in its physical simplicity and thinks it “will enrich human beings by removing technological barriers.” In incredibly thoughtful posts, software developers Steven Frank and Fraser Speirs take a programming-oriented tack, arguing that the iPad simplifies computing, bringing it home for normal (non-geek) people.

Frank compares it to an automatic transmission vs. the traditional manual one, and Speirs says it frees people from tedious tasks like “formatting the margins, installing the printer driver, uploading the document, finishing the PowerPoint slides, running the software update or reinstalling the OS” to do the real work of living life. In another interesting debate, interaction designer Sarah G. Mitchell argues that without multitasking or a camera (maybe?), the iPad is an antisocial device, and developer Edd Dumbill counters that it’s “real-life social” — made for passing around with friends and family.

Plenty of folks have ideas about what news organizations should do with the iPad: Poynter’s Bill Mitchell and news designer Joe Zeff both propose that newspapers and magazines could partially or totally subsidize iPads with subscriptions. Fortune’s Philip Elmer-DeWitt says that wouldn’t work, and Zeff gives a rebuttal. Publish2’s Ryan Sholin has an idea for a newsstand app for the iPad, and Frederic Filloux at The Monday Note has a great picture of what the iPad experience could look like by next year if news orgs act quickly.

And of course, Robert Niles of The Online Journalism Review and BusinessWeek’s Rich Jaroslovsky remind us what several others said (rightly, I think) last week: The iPad is what content producers make of it.

Facebook as a news reader: Last Friday, Facebook encouraged its users to make their own personalized news channel by creating a list of all the news outlets of which they’ve become a fan. The tech blog ReadWriteWeb — which has been remarkably perceptive on the implications of Facebook’s statements lately — noted that while a Facebook news feed couldn’t hold up to a news junkie’s RSS feed, it has the potential to become a “world-changing subscription platform” for mainstream users because of its ubiquity, sociality and accessibility. (He makes a pretty compelling case.)

Then came the numbers from Hitwise to back ReadWriteWeb up: Facebook was the No. 4 source of visits to news sites last week, behind only Google, Yahoo and MSN. It also accounts for more than double the amount of news media traffic as Google News and more than 300 times that of the web’s largest RSS program, Google Reader. ReadWriteWeb’s Marshall Kirkpatrick responded with a note that most news-site traffic still comes through search, and offered a challenge to Facebook to “encourage its giant nation of users to add subscriptions to diverse news sources to their news feeds of updates from friends and family.”

This week in (somewhat) depressing journalism statistics: Starting with the most cringe-inducing: Rick Edmonds of Poynter calculates that newspaper classified revenue is down 70 percent in the last decade. He does see one bright spot, though: Revenue from paid obituaries remains strong. Yup, people are still dying, and their families are still using the newspaper to tell people about it. In the magazine world, Advertising Age found that publishers are still reporting further declines in newsstand sales, though not as steep as last year.

In the world of web statistics, a Pew study found that blogging is steady among adults and significantly down among teens. In other words, “Blogging is for old people.” Of course, social media use was way up for both teens and adults.

A paywall step, and some suggestions: Steven Brill’s new Journalism Online paid-content service has its first newspaper, The Intelligencer Journal-Lancaster New Era in Pennsylvania. In reporting the news, The New York Times noted that the folks behind both groups were trying to lower expectations for the service. The news business expert Alan Mutter didn’t interpret the news well, concluding that “newspapers lost their last chance to hang together when it became clear yesterday that the wheels seemingly have come off Journalism Online.”

In a comically profane post, Silicon Valley veteran Dave McClure makes the strangely persuasive argument that the fundamental business model of the web is about to switch from cost-per-click ads to subscriptions and transactions, and that because people have trouble remembering passwords, they’ll login and pay through Gmail, iTunes or Facebook. (Mathew Ingram says McClure’s got a point.) Crowdfunding advocate David Cohn proposes a crowdfunded twist on micropayments at news sites.

Reading roundup: Two interesting discussions, and then three quick thought-provoking pieces. First, here at the Lab, future Minnesota j-prof Seth Lewis asks for input about what the journalism school of the future should look like, adding that he believes its core value should be adaptability. Citizen journalism pioneer Dan Gillmor gave a remarkably thorough, well-thought-out picture of his ideal j-school. His piece and Steve Buttry’s proposal in November are must-reads if you’re thinking about media education or involved in j-school.

Second, the discussion about objectivity in journalism continues to smolder several weeks after it was triggered by journalists’ behavior in Haiti. This week, two broadsides against objectivity — one by Publish2’s Paul Korr calling it pathological, and another by former foreign correspondent Chris Hedges saying it “killed the news.” Both arguments are certainly strident ones, but thoughtful and worth considering.

Finally, two interesting concepts: At the Huffington Post, MTV’s Maya Baratz calls for newspapers to think of themselves as apps, commanding them to “Be fruitful and multiply. Elsewhere.” And at the National Sports Journalism Center, former Wall Street Journal journalist Jason Fry has a sharp piece on long-form journalism, including a dirty little secret (“most of it doesn’t work in any medium”) and giving some tips to make it work anyway.

December 11 2009

15:36

E&P and the emotional commitment of a subscription

I heard the news about Editor & Publisher closing as I hear many things these days — through Twitter. Patrick Thornton (jiconoclast) tweeted: “Does anything better symbolize the state of print media right now than the closure of E&P? Yes things are very bad.” At first, I hoped his tweet didn’t mean what I knew it meant. But a quick search of Twitter yielded proof. Yes, E&P had told its staff Thursday that it was shutting down operations.

This shook me even more than when Gourmet announced its closure a while back. (I found out about that on Twitter, too.)

I read E&P almost religiously in my early years as a journalist, devouring it the moment it arrived in my mailbox. The magazine had a bright purple cover back then. As time went on, I didn’t renew my subscription. I’m not sure why.

I enjoyed E&P’s articles. I appreciated the reporting. In fact, in the last few years, its web site became one of regular online haunts to find out what’s going on in the news business. Sometimes, I’d head to the E&P web page myself, but more often I’d be drawn there by a well-worded tweet or a blog post from someone whose opinion I valued.

Now, I have no information about why E&P shut down, but I’d assume lack of ad revenues or subscriptions had something to do with it. So perhaps I was part of the problem. Or at least me and the many others like me who appreciated E&P’s content but didn’t buy it. Or maybe how I read E&P was just a sign of the times, part of this changing way we consume the news, in small bits throughout the day triggered by smart people we follow online.

That got me thinking. Why didn’t I pay for E&P while it was still here? Why didn’t I subscribe? Would I have subscribed online if they offered it?

The truth is, for me, not subscribing — either in print or online — has little to do with money. It’s about commitment. And I think that’s the problem many news organizations are facing as they try to bring their products online.

In the old days, I paid for E&P because if I didn’t, I’d have no idea what was going on in the industry. I wasn’t paying for news; I was paying for the chance to be in the know in my field.

Things changed with the web. Now, if I choose one magazine to subscribe to out of myriad sources, it feels like I’m limiting my options in a way. I don’t want to commit to one publication, one source, one newspaper, one magazine. Why? Because the publication has become less important than the news itself. I want to be free to surf, reading dozens of different newspapers, blogs or magazines that I may visit just once or twice. I enjoy the synchronicity of happening upon a publication I have never heard of and will probably never visit again.

Yes, I realize that even if I subscribe to one publication, I can still read others. But the act of subscribing is picking one over the others. If you’re a runner, you have a choice of two major magazines: Runner’s World or Running Times. By picking one, you’re choosing not to pick the other. You might glance at the other once in a while, but you probably don’t read them both cover to cover.

I think many of us feel that if we pay for a publication, we expect it to become one of our primary news sources — not just one of dozens of places where we get news. I may feel a bit cheated if I end up getting more of my news elsewhere. I may feel cheated if I subscribe but forget to check the site every day, going instead only when a Facebook friend sends me a link.

In a sense, it’s the dilemma with the makings of a country song: If I subscribe, I feel like I have to dance with the one who brung me — when I really want to play the field.

So maybe at some level I didn’t subscribe to E&P in print because I knew if I headed online, I’d get lots of E&P-like news. Sure, some of it would start with E&P’s reporting, with commentary added by bloggers. Some of it would be from other sources. I was interested in getting as much news and information as I could about the journalism industry. I wasn’t interested in one particular brand.

So what is the answer to that? To me it always comes back to the question: What are you really paying for? I’d gladly pay for online information, a small monthly fee like I pay for my television viewing, a subscription to the whole web. What I don’t want to do is pay for one brand, one publication. I want to be free to follow the news.

A good example of what I mean is Jim Romenesko’s blog at Poynter Online. I read it almost every day. It’s in my RSS reader — but I don’t usually get to it from there. I don’t need to. I remember to check it. I remember to check it because I won’t just find E&P stories there — as great as they were — but I’ll find a whole lot more. It’s like the good ol’ days, when E&P was selling me the chance to be in the know in my field. And that, honestly, I would pay for.

November 20 2009

20:00

How Steve Brill has adjusted his pay-for-news pitch

Because it’s my job, I’ve followed pretty much everything Steve Brill has said in public about Journalism Online, the pay-for-news firm he launched in April with Gordon Crovitz and Leo Hindrey. From the start, they’ve been offering infrastructure and consulting for news organizations that want to charge for access to their websites. But as you’d expect with any new venture, the pitch has changed over time. Here are some tweaks I’ve noticed:

Ditching the term “paywall”

Brill has always been clear that he isn’t advocating a subscription-only approach for news sites. Some content will be free, some will be available only to those who pay. But whereas Brill used to use the term “wall” to describe subscription content, he’s now abandoned that language. “We’re not putting up any kind of a paywall,” he’s been saying, most recently in a heated interview on WBUR. “It’s not a paywall,” he said at a Yale conference last week.

That’s a semantic distinction but one that naturally raises the question: What type of stuff will be subscription-only? I posed that question to Brill at Yale, seeking specific examples, but he wouldn’t say much beyond “unique” and “premium” content. (Steve Outing recently prompted an interesting thread on what, exactly, premium content is.) I didn’t come away with a clearer idea of what his clients intend to charge for, just that I shouldn’t call it a paywall.

Embracing the metered model

Journalism Online will power any type of payment system that publishers choose, but Brill’s thinking has shifted on which strategy is best. Last year, he drafted a memo for The New York Times that championed micropayments and subscriptions for the newspaper’s entire website. In June, he told me, “We don’t think micropayments are going to be a huge part of this deal.” These days, he’s been talking up the metered model employed by The Financial Times, which offers 10 free articles a month before users are required to pay.

Brill’s firm claims trademarks on the names of six models — he calls them “dials” — that news publishers could employ:

— High Activity Pay Points (metered model)
— Selected Content Pay Points (partial paywall)
— Time-Based Pay Points (charge for new content)
— Enhanced Service Pay Points (charge for special features)
— Market Access Pay Points (charge based on user’s location)
— Preview Activity Pay Points (allow previewing of paid content)

Broadening the target audience

In the spring, Brill told me the goal was “to get the 5 or 10 percent of your most committed readers to pay.” This summer, he expanded that target in an interview with CNN: “The idea is that a newspaper probably has 10 or 15 percent of its audience who are the most engaged, who come to that Web site all the time. Those are the people who will be asked to pay a small portion.”

At Yale last week, he said “10 or 15 or 20 percent” of a news site’s unique monthly visitors might be willing to pay. I don’t presume to know what a realistic goal is, though that’s obviously crucial to the success or failure of paid-content plans. I do know that one study found “core loyalists,” who visit 2 to 3 times a day for 20 days a month, represent 25% of visitors to newspaper sites. So if you’re probing Brill’s estimates, there’s your starting point.

Exaggerating his firm’s success

“We now have over 1,200 affiliates,” Brill said on the radio yesterday, making it sound like 1,200 publications are ready to charge their readers for digital content. Asked to clarify, he said, “Companies representing or owning over 1,200 publications have all signed letters of intent.” We know that includes Guardian News and Media, which doesn’t appear likely to charge readers. Most of the other companies that have signed non-binding letters of intent remain a mystery, which makes the whole thing increasingly mysterious.

Brill is certainly under no obligation to disclose his clients, but the more he touts a dubious figure, the more skeptical I grow. Here’s a harder statistic, reported by Poynter: Between 5 and 15 publishers will start testing Journalism Online’s infrastructure “in the next month or so.” The firm’s own business model is dependent on at least some of its 1,200 affiliates pulling the trigger: Journalism Online is taking a 20% cut of subscription revenue.

November 06 2009

00:18

Google News embraces self-identification of content

Some online-only news organizations were upset when Google News began attaching a “(blog)” label to their content two months ago. Others, like me, complained the label was outdated and inconsistently applied.

Now Google News is asking publishers to label themselves. In an update to its sitemap standards announced today, Google News is requesting that sites explicitly tag content that’s published on a blog. Same goes for press releases, satire, opinion, user-generated content, and any articles that require registration or payment to read. The technical details are here.

Most of those labels will be visible to users of Google News, as they are now. Opinion and user-generated content won’t get a label but will presumably affect search results. And while tagging is voluntary, Google reserves the right to “add such designations to certain articles as necessary.”

I still don’t see why it matters if news is published on a blog or some other platform. (Google CEO Eric Schmidt ventured a distinction yesterday.) But allowing publishers to self-identify their content is a big improvement that should resolve most of the complaints Google News has been hearing — and which have been voiced to me in private. It’s a small issue with much bigger implications for how we consume, sort, and, yes, identify news in the future.

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