Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Newspaper epitaph: ‘Who else is doing it?’

A year ago, Alan Jacobson, a talented and indefatigably innovative newspaper designer, came up with an idea for a highly targeted, efficient-to-produce and effortlessly viral website that is exactly the sort of thing newspapers need to strengthen their online franchises.

After spending many frustrating months trying to interest publishers in his idea, he got a piece of advice from a friend. “Forget newspapers,” said the friend, who actually used a shorter and saltier F-word than “forget.”

After giving up on newspapers – you guessed it – traffic on Jacobson’s site is soaring and he is getting ready to pursue a multi-threaded revenue plan. His progress to date, as detailed below, suggests that he potentially can create a number of similar cost-effective and scalable sites to build community, traffic and revenues.

But there’s far greater significance to this story than any success Jacobson may achieve. His experience in dealing with publishers is a perfect example of what ails – perhaps fatally – the newspaper industry. And it is this:

Publishers can’t stand being the first to do anything innovative.

In the most perverse and consistent institutional character flaw I have witnessed in more than 35 years of covering and conducting all sorts of business, I have found that publishers are constitutionally unable to be the first movers on anything that might give them a competitive advantage.

This is completely opposite of the way every successful business operates. A successful business develops a unique product, service or selling proposition and then vigorously exploits it as hard and as fast as it can to get ahead, and stay ahead, of its competitors.

Imagine where Apple or Google would be today if every innovation had to sit on the shelf until a competitor first proved its value.

But innovation is a dirty word at newspapers. When confronted with a potentially game-changing idea, the first question publishers always ask is, “Who else is doing it?” That phrase could well stand as the industry’s epitaph.

The inability to think outside the box helped put the newspaper business into a crisis it may not be able to survive.

But guys like Alan Jacobson, who began his career as a newspaperman until he hung out his shingle in 1992 as Brass Tacks Design, is a member of that steadily shrinking fraternity of people who have an irrational affection for newspapers and can’t stop working on ways to save them.

Thinking a year ago about how to create an inexpensive, viral site to attract fresh ad revenues for newspapers, Jacobson hit on the idea of publishing a blogging platform for middle-school students that he named Tween Tribune.

The idea is pretty simple: Harvest a few interesting and age-appropriate stories each day from the Associated Press and encourage educators to use the stories to teach their students about reading, writing and critical thinking by posting comments on the site.

In addition to providing advertisers with what Jacobson calls a “clean, well lighted place” to reach the multibillion-dollar youth market, the site would pay an extra dividend for publishers. It would hook a certain number of young readers on the news and, in the best case, begin to build loyalty to each of the newspapers that Jacobson hoped to recruit as partners.

To make a long, painful and all-to-common story short, Jacobson turned up only one newspaper partner after more than half a year of pitching. When he stopped trying to work with publishers and began emailing teachers directly on Oct. 1 to tell them about his service, traffic at his site went from 25,000 page views a month to better than 25,000 views per day on some recent days.

Teachers report that their students get a kick out of reading and commenting on nutty stories like the woman who formerly had the longest fingernails in the world and serious ones like President Obama’s idea of shortening summer vacation.

And teachers are tickled to have found ways to fire up their students. “This is a great resource,” said educator Rita M. Driscoll in an email from the school district in Chesterfield County, VA. “I loved seeing the positive reactions, the engagement in reading and students so enthusiastic about writing.”

With students writing thousands of comments a week and teachers taking it on themselves to introduce other educators to the site, traffic appears to be climbing to the level that it will be possible to begin selling advertising, said Jacobson. Once the concept has been thoroughly proven, he also believes he may be able to charge school districts for access to premium features he plans for the service.

Jacobson has identified other verticals where he believes he can build communities to generate the same sort of response from adults – and the advertisers trying to reach them.

Even though Jacobson has decided to stop chasing newspaper publishers, he does have an answer to the question of who did it first.

It is the Valdosta (GA) Daily Times, where publisher J.H. Sanders said Tween Tribune enabled his 14,000-circulation paper to generate $18,000 a year in long-term sponsorship revenues in a matter of days from the likes of Shoney’s Restaurant, South Georgia Medical Center, Wilson Eye Center and Valdosta Technical School.

“By sponsoring this site, you are showing the community that you care about the schools and helping teachers find better ways to connect students with current events,” said Sanders in an email. “The teacher feedback has been great. The advertisers are happy with the way the site looks and how they are positioned.”

Tween Tribune is almost pure profit for the newspaper, because Jacobson built the site, edits the content he buys from the AP, handles hosting and manages customer service. The Valdosta paper, at its own option, contributes a few stories of its own.

While the revenue for this or any other niche site seldom will be enormous, every little bit adds up. If you accept the reality that narrowcasting is the future of interactive media, then Tween Tribune appears to be a good example of how this may be done.

So, publishers, it now appears to be safe to talk with Alan Jacobson — if he has time to take your call.

23 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice change of topic! You really nailed the problem this time. Publishers are moronic when it comes to product innovation and competition.

That old monopoly status is about to be shattered.

6:35 AM  
Blogger Alan said...

Thanks, Alan.

But I wouldn't be a designer if I didn't tell the story in graphic form.

Click here, or use this link:

http://tweentribune.com/downloads/tweentribune_pageviews.png

6:37 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The flip side is when you have an idea you propose, it's gunned down or simply ignored, then ... eight months later, when the NY Times is doing something similar ... you get the question "Why don't WE do something like that?"

7:37 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This phenomenon is a corruption of the "fast follower" strategy.

"Fast follower" is a business/technical strategy to let someone else innovate and make some mistakes while you swoop in and take their idea, learn from their mistakes, and produce a better product cheaper and... profit.

Newspapers like top say they're fast followers, but in reality they're not fast nor do they take the key steps of learning anything from the innovator's mistakes.

That makes them simply "slow copiers."

10:43 AM  
Anonymous Tom B. said...

One problem is that it's difficult for individual papers to innovate, or even do things their way.

The chain I recently left behind (starts with G) has templates that it requires all its papers to use for their Web sites.

One can modify it slightly -- you can pick your own colors, w00t! -- but they're all busy busy busy because they're trying to jam as much as possible into the home page, and most stories wind up with tiny headlines. Just try finding something quickly at one of these sites.

That top-down, Soviet Politburo style of management is one of the things choking innovation. If they don't change, these chains deserve to die. Unfortunately, they'll take down a lot of talented journalists with them.

11:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have to agree with Tom. Chain ownership and the increasingly choking grip they have on the web site and the production system in general makes us unable to introduce changes.

You almost have to risk being fired to innovate and ignore corporate edicts.

I understand the motivation - they want one system at all their sites and they want one technical solution to make things easy to manage.

But in this environment, it's going to kill us.

They should pick their most innovative papers in the chain and give them more rein.

We'll take it!!!

3:28 PM  
Anonymous Janet DeGeorge said...

Hi Alan, great story.

TweenTribune is the most innovative product I have seen out there (and its my job to see them all) because it would force newspapers to seek out new advertisers who target a younger but web savvy audience instead of churning through the same customers over and over with their current products. An all new target market. You don't find that every day.

However, it’s unfair to put all publishers under the "do nothing" label. I work with publishers all across the country as a classified print and online consultant, and I would say publishers come in all shapes and sizes. The innovators and risk takers are out there, jumping on new ideas in a New York minute. Why don't we hear about them? They are too busy doing the next new big thing. Examples, the publisher at the Topeka Capital Journal and at the Athens (GA) Banner Herald. They move so fast their staff has to run just to catch up. It is thrilling to work in that environment.

On the other hand, others are doing so many new things at once; the staff is frozen in anxiety and confusion. Not a good idea either.

Bottom line, any newspaper that made it through 2009 has some kind of hero running the show. I could only hope they all take a look at turn key easy products like TweenTribune and give their staff something of real substance to sell. It's going to be a tough 2010 for many as well.

Sincerely, Janet DeGeorge, classified executive training and consulting.

4:52 PM  
Anonymous Ed Baron said...

Exacto, Alan! I've been a consultant and management development specialist working with and for newspapers for 30 years. I've often said that if you want to mortally wound an idea in newspapers ask, "What other newspapers are doing it?" In a metro paper you must add, "What other newspapers OUR SIZE are doing it?"

Your insights are, as usual, right on the mark.

5:37 PM  
Blogger J. Garland Pollard IV said...

You are dead on right, but the problem is longstanding, and predates Internet. I recall working at a Thomson (later Times-Shamrock) afternoon daily, where I worked with my city editor on redesigning the real estate weekly. While the ad staff was grateful, the publisher never noticed, nor the ME. I thought there was something wrong with me; perhaps I did not do it well enough? Later, I took to writing outlandish, outrageous and wacky editorials and no one noticed that, either. But it sure was fun.

It then dawned on me that they were completely uninterested in the paper at all.

5:54 PM  
Blogger DigiDave said...

The way I put the same issue: http://www.digidave.org/2009/01/editors-and-publishers-in-a-battle-against-inertia.html

6:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Alan, it may happen this way some of the time and it may feel like it happens this way most of the time, but it too much of a generalization to say this happens all of the time. It's been my personal experience over the last 37 years that if an innovative idea is "sold" to the publisher and someone on the staff takes ownership of the idea, it can and most likely will be successful. I've found this true of chain and private ownership. --BW

6:23 PM  
Anonymous austin said...

Congrats Alan. We tried to do something similar with http://myfirstpaycheck.com - and think that there is a lot of potential in creating online content for this market.

6:23 PM  
Blogger Radio Ann said...

Public radio is doing this as well in my adopted home state of Minnesota: with a recent influx of cash coming from a constitutional amendment for arts and cultural heritage, American Public Media is hiring, and with it, a news aggregator site called NewsBobber. As far as I can make it, it's the first time a public broadcasting outlet is buying up an idea plus its originator to do the work.

6:54 PM  
Anonymous Suzanne said...

It's not just that newspapers are incapable of innovation...it's that they cannot understand that their product is not a paper. Their product is content...great journalism...communication. They think their product is a physical paper. Until they really understand that they need to communicate to an audience in any form that establishes a connection, they will continue to wither.

7:52 PM  
Anonymous John P. Hayes Ph.D. said...

Good points! I got a chuckle out of it, too, because publishers aren't the only business types to be late starters. I've worked with clients of franchised businesses for 30 years. These are entrepreneurs! And yet, you have to search high and low to find one that's willing to try something different! They always want to know, "Who else is doing it and with what results?" So even in a community where the leaders are risk takers (unlike most publishers) you find people who are reluctant to take a risk. Doesn't make sense, but that's business!

4:13 AM  
Anonymous Bob Rosenbaum said...

Well said, Alan. A further observation about publishers in general - not just of newspapers. Not only are they afraid to innovate, but they are pathologically attached to the Not Invented Here syndrome. If someone comes along with a new idea, the publishers' first instinct is to dismiss it out of hand. The second (and often the last) instinct is to say, "Why should I pay for that? We can build that ourselves."

6:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Am I the only one who thinks Tween Tribune looks like a marginal play? 25,000 page views per day may make it a nice site that fills a niche, but that hardly qualifies as "soaring." Likewise, the sponsorship money is nice, but, but at some point you have to look at the value for the advertiser, and it's still in the "not much" category.

I agree with your overall premise that newspapers are not good at innovation, but that's not entirely the result of a refusal to change. It's also the result of confusing innovation with simply chasing the latest shiny object.

9:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Amen on publishers.

I worked for an insurance law information service when it was owned by a company that owned and operated T.V. and radio stations.
The service was kept on the cutting edge of technology. Getting on electronic subscription services like Lexis-Nexis, and Westlaw; then cutting its own CD back when CD's were only for music, years ahead of everybody else. When PC's and CD's took off, we rode the wave up.

All of that changed when we were sold to a publishing company. The publishing company was in the technological stone ages and they want things to stay that way. We might as well have shut down immediately. We did eventually.

11:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hmmmm...

Pardon me if I don't immediately fall in love with an idea that hands ~ 10 million National Education Association hacks (er, "teachers") - who have sold their votes to the State - a tool that provides the patina of "editorial independence" to selected AP stories (NEA approved) that students will be forced to read...

...and comment on.

How many "teachers are overpaid on an hours-worked basis" do you think the wee ones will see?

How many "million dollar teacher pension" stories do you think will merit inclusion?

Despite the fact that squeezing the wee ones working years will be the only way to pay the hacks' politically bloated pensions?


I'm sure we'll get plenty of further propagation of "teachers are underpaid" memes and endless stories on Willy the Whale who died because the US doesn't have cap-and-trade...

Great, just when the blogosphere slit the throat of the Statist MSM that beguiled us to ruin, the NEA can try to reanimate the corpse of institutionalized deception...

11:37 AM  
Blogger Bradley J. Fikes said...

Jacobson's advice to compete against Craigslist has been an unmitigated disaster.

That little detail should have been included with the puffery.

12:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the trip down memory lane. I can almost taste the newsroom coffee again as department heads gather around the table for a mandatory meeting. The executive editor and/or publisher introduces yet another freelance fly-by-night wannabe "consultant" who had to be picked up from the airport because Hertz requires a major credit card, not a debit card.
Heads bob and nod in unison around the table in implied agreement as the consultant mumbles and stammers through his presentation. "Comments?" the editor and/or publisher finally asks the group. Let the sycophancy begin: "Great Idea Mr. Mutter." “Let's try that right away Mr. Mutter." "Nice necktie Mr. Mutter." "I think whatever you think Mr. Mutter." "Having kids squander precious classroom time posting comments to generic wire copy is an industry-saving concept Mr. Mutter." "That's what journalism and education are all about Mr. Mutter" “This isn't anything at all like a lame low-budget knockoff of NIEonline Mr. Mutter."
Of course, someone will always spoil the party. "Is this meeting over? Deadline is in five minutes."

12:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Spoken like someone who's never been a newspaper publisher and doesn't know shit from shinola about it.

2:26 PM  
Anonymous weight loss said...

The poll should read "will americans pay for content that has no direct relevance to their unique community or civic life?" And I think we already know the answer to that.

In order to justify the charge news organizations need a unique angle on their community worth paying for. Small community newspaper already have an angle, as they are the only source of information in their markets.

1:31 PM  

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