Friday, October 30, 2009

Wild guesses won’t solve journalism crisis

The Harvard conference tasked with finding new business models for journalism had the impossible mission yesterday of trying to solve a problem no one had the language to describe, the tools to measure or the skills to fix.

In other words, the conference resembled the primitive study of physics before Isaac Newton invented modern calculus at the tender age of 23. Absent anything approaching Newton-esque insight, the gathering in Boston essentially came up empty handed despite the earnest efforts of the four-dozen invited participants.

Instead of systematically exploring invigorating new ideas or ground-breaking paradigms, the group gravitated to the predictable yadda-yadda: foundation funding, federal subsidies, subscription schemes and a smattering of random ruminations about revenue. (My tweets are here; extensive notes from Bill Densmore are here.)

The effort fell comfortably into the middle ground of the many similar efforts undertaken lately as the crisis in journalism grows. That means the gathering, like so many others, made scant progress toward solving the problem of finding future ways to fund anything approaching the generous number of dedicated and reasonably well-compensated journalists formerly fielded by the tottering mainstream media.

Maybe that’s because there is no way to do so and the system we know is destined to succumb, for better or worse, to some new order. But maybe the gathering couldn’t make much progress because it consisted for the most part of the usual suspects rehashing the usual positions on the usual topics.

With all due respect to my dedicated and talented colleagues, we need to try something different. Next time, we need to hear from people we don’t know, exploring things we don’t know about and examining potentially useful solutions we have yet to consider.

I was neither the first nor the only one in the room to note that the overwhelming number of conferees were white men well past the age of 45. This description most definitely applies to yours truly.

Apart from the obvious demographic skew in the room, the worldview among the participants appeared to be strikingly homogeneous, too.

When a speaker tried to make the point that young people today don’t read newspapers but might do so as they mature, someone asked how many in the crowd read newspapers when they were in college. Almost everyone in the room raised his hand and the group chuckled at the realization that we were hardly a random sample of even our own graying generation.

Given the absence of even a shred of research into modern consumer attitudes and the almost absolute lack of young people in the room, the best conferees could do was to discuss the behavior they observed in their children (or grandchildren).

Even those anecdotal observations were unreliable. An editor said she fussed so often at her daughter about the unread stack of papers at her college dorm that the young woman started grabbing one for her room any time she expected her mother to visit.

Wistful thinking, seat-of-the-pants supposition and wild-ass guessing are hardly the ways to address the multibillion-dollar business problem underlying the journalism crisis that threatens the health of our democracy.

No competently managed business would think of taking such a haphazard approach to a challenge as potentially devastating as the press is facing today.

It’s time for editors, publishers, academics and foundations to pony up for serious, in depth and disciplined study of what consumers want, what they need and how journalists and media companies can provide it.

The good news is that this sort of thing is done every day in universities and businesses. And the better news for us journalism majors is that you don’t even have to know calculus to do it.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Harvard hoedown ponder$ making $ in new$

Some 50 of the foremost thinkers about journalism have been invited to Harvard University today to ponder no less a problem than this: “How to Make Money in News: New Business Models for the 21st Century.”

The event commences at 9 a.m. and is scheduled to adjourn at 2:30 p.m., so I guess the organizers are pretty high on the capabilities of the crowd. Or afraid prolonged frustration would provoke a food fight.

The leader is Alex S. Jones, the director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on Press, Politics and Pubic Policy, and you can buy his terrific new book here or, preferably, at some struggling, locally owned bookstore.

Somehow, I am among the invited participants and, while I am grateful to be schmoozing at the Shaker-meets-Danish modern Charles Hotel outside Harvard Yard, this feels like an inverse Groucho moment. Here’s what I mean:

As you will recall, Groucho Marx, a foremost thinker himself, said he wouldn’t want to be a member of any group that would have him. In this case, I would imagine the other 50 people feel that way about any gathering that would include me.

I don’t know what to expect. But the agenda and guest list are embedded below if you are inclined to whip up a few prognostications on your own.

As circumstances warrant, I may tweet a few thoughts here from time to time. While visiting Twitter, you also can sign up to follow my future (m)utterances.

But I am pretty sure Groucho would question your judgment if you did.

Harvard - How to Make Money in News

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Newspaper circ stats: Murkier than ever

At a time newspapers ought be striving to earn the confidence of their remaining advertisers, they are reporting not just record low circulation numbers but also the murkiest figures ever.

The historic 10.6% drop in circulation reported on Monday would have been trouble enough for the ailing newspaper industry. But publishers managed to make matters worse by taking unprecedented liberties with the way they tally the discount circulation that represents a significant percentage of the readership at many papers.

While publishers previously were required to collect at least 25% of the cover price of a paper to report it as paid circulation, the industry changed the rules as of April 1 to permit a copy of a newspaper to count as being fully paid if it sells for as little as a penny.

The consequence of the change in the discounting rule is that circulation figures are all over the map. As we will see in a moment, circulation cratered at one newspaper that reduced discounting but remained comparatively healthy for a competitor that continued to offer promotional pricing.

Both approaches are perfectly legal under the rules the publishers set for themselves at the Audit Bureau of Circulations, the official-sounding organization they fund to monitor the way they count bellybuttons. So, all’s well in Publisher Land.

But the inconsistent circulation data is bound to not merely confound advertisers but also cut into the industry’s fragile credibility with them. Here’s a case in point:

Of all the circulation declines reported this week, none was more eye-popping than the 25.8% drop in the last six months at the struggling San Francisco Chronicle. The plunge at the Chronicle seems even more dramatic when compared to the 7.2% tumble reported at the papers published by its rival in Northern California, MediaNews Group.

While there may be many explanations for the disparate results, both publishers agreed the principal reason for their divergent performance is the way they approach discount circulation.

Mark Adkins, the president of the Chronicle, says his newspaper has all but sworn off selling newspapers at discounted prices in the interests of boosting subscription revenues to offset a long-running decline in advertising sales.

Where 25% of the subscribers to the Chronicle paid a discount price a few years ago, fewer than 10% of its subscribers get a bargain today. The paper has raised prices aggressively, charging $1 for a single copy in its home city and double that – or more – in distant locales.

Adkins credited the aggressive circulation-pricing strategy with helping the paper reduce losses that previously had surpassed $1 million a week. He is hoping the paper can at least break even in 2010 after suffering annual losses in excess of $50 million.

At MediaNews, president Jody Lodovic says his company has made a strategic decision to keep subscription prices low to hang on to the largest number of subscribers for the sake of the long-term business.

While Adkins said the Chronicle today derives some 40% of its revenues from circulation (and hopes to boost it to 45% next year), Lodovic said MediaNews pursues the more classic formula of generating 20% of its sales from circulation and the balance from advertising revenue.

Lodovic said the Chronicle made a “short-term decision to boost pricing” to cut its operating loss. “We consider ourselves to be longer-term thinkers,” he added. “We’ll compare notes in two or three years from now to determine who had the best strategy.”

In the meantime, the deep drop in the Chronicle’s circulation means that MediaNews dramatically has increased its dominance in Northern California.

MediaNews has a combined daily circulation of 712,868 among such properties as the San Jose Mercury News, the Oakland Tribune and Contra Costa Times. The daily circulation of the Chronicle, which used to bill itself as the largest paper in Northern California, has shriveled to 251,782.

Thus, MediaNews outsells the Chronicle by 2.8 copies to 1. Six months ago, the edge was 2.2 to 1.

Will advertisers understand the difference in the way the newspapers count their subscribers? Will it matter when they make their buying decisions? Or will they be too confused to bother with newspapers altogether?

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Newspapers, the mass-less mass medium

The devastating double-digit drop in daily newspaper circulation in the last 12 months leaves little doubt that the classic mass media model will not work for newspapers – or perhaps any other medium, either.

Publishers who think their businesses are going to live or die according to the number of bellybuttons they can deliver probably will see their businesses die. The smart ones will get busy on Plan B, assuming there is a Plan B and it’s not already too late.

The undoing of newspapers has been under way for decades and should come as no surprise to anyone who has been paying attention.

As of now, this quintessential mass-media product reaches barely a third of the nation’s households. There’s no telling how low penetration might go. Here’s how we got there:

Daily newspaper circulation fell a record 10.6% in the 12 months ended in September to an average of 39.1 million copies, representing a 38% drop from an all-time peak of 63.3 million in 1984. Circulation now is lower than it was prior to World War II.

Because the nation’s population has more than doubled in the post-war era, the percentage of households buying newspapers has plunged. Newspapers today are purchased on average in only 33 out of every 100 American households, as compared with 98 homes in 1970 and 53 households as recently as 2000. Details are in the table below.

Notably, the drop in newspaper penetration began well before the commercial debut of the Internet in the mid-1990s. The move away from newspapers was prompted by the rising popularity of television and other pre-web electronic distractions, plus growing work, commuting and family demands that attenuated the time and attention people could spend reading newspapers.

There’s no doubt the arrival of quick, cheap and reliable Internet connectivity cut into demand for newspapers. The long-running decay in newspaper sales began to accelerate in 2005, dropping 8% in 2008 and 10.6% in the most recent period, marking the first double-digit decline in history.

The sourest economy since the original Great Depression didn’t help. But don’t blame the economy for something that has been under way for decades – or expect things to get better when the economy recovers.

Despite the obvious, long-running decline in circulation penetration, an amazing number of otherwise intelligent newspaper executives have been spending entirely too much time trying to spin audience numbers instead of acting to save what’s left of their rapidly wasting franchises.

A particularly stunning example of this self-delusion is the rule change that took effect on April 1 that allows publishers to count a paper costing as little as a penny as a fully paid copy by the Audit Bureau of Circulations, the industry-funded group that is supposed to keep publishers honest. Previously, publishers had to charge at least 25% of the cover price for a paper for it to count as paid circulation.

This change means that the dismal circulation numbers announced yesterday potentially are bleaker than they otherwise would appear to be. Not a great way to build trust among advertisers, is it?

In fairness, it should be pointed out that a portion of the decline in newspaper circulation in the last few years has been self-actuated.

Seeking to control costs at a time of disastrously plummeting revenues, publishers pulled back on vanity circulation to distant points beyond their core markets. That’s why, for example, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution no longer covers Dixie like the dew.

Other publishers curbed costly promotional programs that artificially fluffed circulation by selling papers at deep discounts for a limited time to people who then had to be replaced by offering still-cheaper promotional discounts to a new batch of expensively acquired “subscribers.” (There is no way to tell how much the decline in promotional discounting may have been offset in the latest reporting period by the change in rules that allows papers to count a copy sold for a penny as being fully paid.)

A few publishers – like those in Detroit and Mesa, AZ – deliberately reduced circulation by respectively eliminating home delivery on some days of the week or simply lopping days off their print-publication schedules.

Publishers like the New York Times and Dallas Morning News have begun requiring consumers to pay far more towards the cost of producing a newspaper than publishers ever have dared. This will tend to reduce total circulation but make the remaining sales more profitable than they have been.

The combination of contracting consumer demand and rising publisher parsimony almost certainly means circulation will continue to trend lower.

In light of this, publishers would be well advised to develop targeted print and interactive products that deliver demonstrable value to the growing cadre of advertisers focused on maximizing the efficiency of their purchases, not paying for bloated audience numbers.

Back in the day, the “mass” audience assembled by the “mass” media was of paramount importance to the successful sale of advertising. But reach is a ridiculously retro concept in this day of targeted interactive media and sophisticated marketing analytics.

Circulation statistics, like the depressing ones released yesterday, are an anachronistic artifact of the ancient era when newspapers and broadcasters aimed to deliver the largest possible audience to advertisers.

Anyone who remains focused on assembling the most eyeballs or bellybuttons in a market is pursuing exactly the wrong goal. Today, it’s all about quality, not quantity.

The problem is that some newspapers already have let so many readers and advertisers get away that they may have left too little left to sustain viable businesses.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Record plunge: Newspaper circ at pre-WWII low

Following an average drop of 10.6% in the last 12 months, daily newspaper circulation has fallen to a pre-World War II low of an estimated 39.1 million, according to an analysis of industry data released today.

The first double-digit circulation decline in history means only 12.9% of the U.S. population buys a daily newspaper. The analysis is based on data provided by the Audit Bureau of Circulations, an industry-funded group.

Newspaper circulation now is lower than the 41.1 million papers sold in 1940, the earliest date for which records are published by the Newspaper Association of America. Back in 1940, newspapers were purchased by 31.1% of the population.

Sunday circulation, which fell an average of 7.5% in the last six months to an estimated 40.9 million copies per week, is at the lowest point since 1945 when it was 39.9 million.

At that rate, Sunday papers in the last six months reached only 13.5% of Americans, as compared with 28.5% in 1945, when the population was less than half the size it is today.

My circulation estimates are calculated on the entire universe of some 1,400 dailies in the United States. In announcing the most recent circulation decline, ABC put daily readership at 30.4 million for the 379 newspapers in its sample, which reflects most of the biggest papers. But a lot of smaller properties are not counted in the ABC figure.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Newsday’s not-so-bold pay gambit

At first glance, Newsday appears to be making a bold move by becoming the biggest newspaper to date to start charging for most of its content on the web after giving it away for free for years. But the move isn’t really that brave.

The newspaper is hedging its bets by taking advantage of its unique position as a division of the predominant cable television provider on Long Island by continuing to give free access to the newspaper website to those who not only subscribe to the print edition but also use the cable service to access the Internet.

This neat trick is beyond the capabilities of most other publishers, who generally don’t own the cable systems in the markets they serve. Other newspapers should take this into account in the event they are inclined to emulate the Newsday experiment. On the other hand, this idea may provide a good reason for enterprising publishers to take the manager of the local cable system to lunch.

As reported here in one of the last free articles at Newsday, the paper plans to start charging users $5 a week for access to its website unless they subscribe to the print edition of the newspaper or access the Net through the cable service provided by its parent, Cablevision Systems.

The combined reach of its newspaper and cable TV businesses means Cablevision already penetrates 75% of the homes in the service area, according to Newsday. It will be interesting to see if this initiative helps Cablevision rope in many stragglers.

RIP, news embargoes

Add news embargoes to the growing jumble of detritus in the hellbox of journalism history.

In an age of insta-news, embargoes are so meaningless and unenforceable that they aren’t worth the pixels they are printed on. As a consequence, publicity seekers are on notice that they no longer will be observed here.

I am sorry to see embargoes go, because they were useful while they lasted. But that was then and this is now.

For those unfamiliar with the concept, newsmakers historically distributed press releases, speeches and other documents to the media prior to their official release so journalists had time to read them and prepare stories in advance. The idea was that the story would not be published or aired until the time specified in the embargo.

This was useful to journalists and their readers/viewers/listeners because it presumably gave reporters a chance to do a better job of assimilating and presenting the material. It also often helped newsmakers gain wider dissemination for their stories.

While a number of otherwise sophisticated people would like to think the embargo system remains operative to this day, recent experience proves that it is not.

Carefully orchestrated embargoes were blown out of the water on recent releases concerning the new non-profit journalism project in San Francisco and the Columbia University report on the meltdown of mainstream journalism.

If journalists can’t honor embargoes on releases about journalism issued by other journalists, then all bets are off.

Embargoes probably will survive in some rare cases where the newsmaker has the ability to deny access to the media on future occasions. A television network probably would avoid abusing advance access to the the State of the Union address for fear of being frozen out in the future by the White House.

In general, however, it will be open season on press releases 24/7 from here on out. Anyone wanting to control the timing of future missives should do what companies do with their earnings reports: Put stories on the wire/web at the moment they want them publicized and not a minute sooner.

Speeding up the treadmill probably won’t enhance the quality of news coverage. But it will make the journalistic food fight as fair as it can be.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Columbia writes off the MSM. Now what?

For all the drama conveyed yesterday by the vote of no confidence in mainstream journalism rendered by one of the nation’s top journalism schools, the 98-page study issued by Columbia University is perhaps most significant for what it doesn’t say.

While cataloguing a host of previously discussed potential fixes for the press, the report falls short of breaking new ground. That may be because there is no new ground to be broken (though that seems improbable). Or because journalism in the future will be practiced by a crazy quilt of professionals, semi-professionals and amateurs supported by any number of for-profit, non-profit and individual schemes.

So, yes, saving journalism is a tall order. But the solutions advocated in the Columbia report – grandly but somewhat misleadingly titled “The Reconstruction of American Journalism” – for the most part range from curiously impractical to startlingly unoriginal.

The bulk of the report (text here) commissioned by the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University traces the decline and fall of the mainstream media. Summing up their exhaustive but frequently derivative analysis, authors Len Downie, the editor emeritus of the Washington Post, and Professor Michael Schudson, conclude:

“The days of a kind of news media paternalism or patronage that produced journalism in the public interest, whether or not it contributed to the bottom line, are largely gone. American society must now take some collective responsibility for supporting independent news reporting in this new environment….”

But the study’s suggestions for the future, which fall into the three principal categories discussed below, leave the reader wanting more – not just a deeper analysis of the compendium of mostly familiar proposals but also, significantly, some original thinking about what innovations might go beyond them.

The report calls on the feds, foundations and journalism faculties to fill the void that has been created by the MSM meltdown. Following is a summary of the high points of the findings and my reaction to them:

Federal support for news gathering

The report recommends that the federal government give for-profit news media whatever tax breaks and antitrust waivers they need to continue to limp along.

It says the Federal Communications Commission should allocate to news organizations some of the $7 billion it collects annually to assure rural telecommunications services, adding that serious consideration should be given to assisting the media with federal economic stimulus funds.

The study says the Corporation for Public Broadcasting should require public broadcasters – who already have plenty of fiscal challenges of their own – to step up coverage in their local markets to fill the void created by the ailing newspaper business.


The antitrust waivers conferred by the Newspaper Preservation Act failed to save the Rocky Mountain News, Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Tucson Citizen. As demonstrated by the need of the Poynter Institute to sell Congressional Quarterly to help support the St. Petersburg Times, newspapers owned by non-profits face the same challenges as their profit-seeking brethren.

The annual sales and number of jobs associated with the media industry are not sufficiently large to make them a priority for a federal bailout during this period of unprecedented economic distress. The federal investment in improved rural broadband penetration contemplated in the stimulus package would give consumers a greater choice of information than a handout targeted to a limited number of defined news organizations. Assuming for the sake of discussion that a handout were in the offing, who would choose which news media to support?

Federal funding and journalism are a dangerous combination. As recently as four years ago, Bush administration appointees terrorized the CPB by attempting to politically skew its coverage. How could deeper government involvement in news coverage help save jounalism?

Foundation support for non-profit journalism

Reporting that American University in Washington found $128 million in foundation funding had been given to “news non-profits” between 2005 and 2009, the study said the sum was not enough.

The authors urged philanthropists, foundations, and community foundations to “substantially increase their support for news organizations that have demonstrated a substantial commitment to public affairs and accountability reporting.”

The report expressed confidence that citizen involvement can help make up for the loss of professionally generated journalism, stating: “For over a century, the Audubon Society has relied on thousands of local volunteers for a national bird count that provides crucial data for scientists in what might be termed pro-am scientific research.”


As discussed above with respect to the St. Pete Times and reported here in the case of the Chi-Town Daily News, non-profit organizations are subject to the same economic pressures as conventional businesses.

While we have been fortunate to date that the supporters of most journalism non-profits have promised to prevent their interests and prejudices from intruding on coverage, there is great danger when an organization like Pro Publica depends on a single source for the preponderance of its funding.

The skills involved in counting birds are not commensurate with those necessary to expose such scandals as the shameful care provided wounded warriors at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Len Downie knows this full well. He was executive editor of the Washington Post when it broke the story.

Journalism schools should pick up the slack

“Universities, both public and private, should become ongoing sources of local, state, specialized subject, and accountability news reporting as part of their educational missions,” said the report. “They should operate their own news organizations, host platforms for other nonprofit news and investigative reporting organizations [and] provide faculty positions” so “professional journalists, faculty members and students can collaborate on news reporting.”


The report does not discuss the major issue of who would fund such activities, even though most public and private universities are struggling with budget shortfalls as a result of the contraction of the economy.

As but one example of the financial pressures affecting most universities, the faculty senate at Columbia warned that most units at the university will find the 2010-11 academic year to be “significantly more austere than FY 2009-10 if current assumptions of a second year of 8% reductions in endowment support” are borne out.


The Columbia study was an ambitious undertaking attempting to explore one of the most significant problems facing our democracy.

While it would not be fair to expect it to provide all the answers, it owed readers a deeper exploration of the proposed solutions. In failing to offer many original ideas, it fell particularly short of its stated mission of offering a blueprint for reconstructing journalism.

Its single greatest achievement may be demonstrating that there is a lot more work for the rest of us to do.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Text of Columbia report on MSM breakdown

Writing off the capacity of the traditional media to continue ably covering the news, a report commissioned by the journalism school at Columbia University calls upon the feds, foundations and journalism faculties to take up the slack.

In the 98-page report commissioned by the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University, Len Downie, the editor emeritus of the Washington Post, and Professor Michael Schudson trace the decline and fall of the mainstream media, concluding:

“The days of a kind of news media paternalism or patronage that produced journalism in the public interest, whether or not it contributed to the bottom line, are largely gone. American society must now take some collective responsibility for supporting independent news reporting in this new environment….”

The report was scheduled for release at 8 a.m. Tuesday. Because the embargo was widely broken this morning by the New York Times, Washington Post and others, I am publishing the text below:

Reconstruction of Journalism

Friday, October 16, 2009

The un-sale of the Boston Globe

Given the scant hope of attracting a respectable price for the Boston Globe, it’s not surprising that the New York Times Co. pulled the paper off the market. The lingering question is why the company thought it had a shot of pulling off an acceptable deal in the first place.

In the latest sign of how far formerly coveted metropolitan newspapers have fallen, the offers for the Boston Globe apparently were less than 10% of the $1.1 billion the NYT paid for the paper in 1993.

By the Globe’s own account, the paper attracted offers of less than $100 million apiece from two separate investor groups, which each offered something like $35 million in cash consideration plus promises to assume $59 million in pension liabilities.

The modest interest attracted by the Globe is commensurate with the token consideration paid in such recent sales as those of the San Diego Union-Tribune (“less than $50 million”) and Sun-Times Media Group ($25 million). This is not to mention the unpublicized but presumably unappealing offers rejected by the owners of the Austin American-Statesman and the Miami Herald.

Net of the professional and brokerage fees normally associated with a transaction of this nature, NYT probably would have realized approximately $30 million in cash if it had sold the Globe for the prices offered by the potential buyers.

That sum scarcely would have made a dent in a balance sheet reflecting more than $2.6 billion in assorted liabilities, including $761.6 million in long-term debt at the end of June.

The fact that the sale was a non-starter should come as no surprise, as predicted here when the parent company launched a tortuous but eventually successful campaign to win $20 million in union concessions to help offset an anticipate $85 million operating loss in 2009. The effort to explore the sale of the paper commenced shortly after the unions abandoned the hope of retaining such cherished rights as lifetime job guarantees for 170 long-time employees.

NYT says it still is seeking offers for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, the Globe’s little sister in the troubled New England newspaper division. Sales in the group, which plunged 20% in the first half of this year to $214 million, are 56% lower than they were in the same period in 2005.

The value of both New England papers already has been written down severely by the NYT.

The writedowns were required by accounting rules that require companies to periodically review the value of goodwill they claim for acquisitions. When the prices of assets plunge, as they have for newspapers in both the public and M&A markets, the owner is required to reduce the value of the affected assets and charge the writeoff against earnings.

The New England papers have been clobbered by those accounting requirements. Since 2006, NYT reports that it has written off $985.8 million of the combined $1.4 billion it spent to acquire the Globe and T&G. The Globe was bought for a then-record price of $1.1 billion in 1993 and Worcester was purchased for $295 million in 2000.

If NYT now turns its full attention to making a profit at the Globe, there is a chance it can start rebuilding the value of the franchise when the economy turns around. The trick, of course, in these tricky times for metro dailies is managing expenses tightly enough to make a profit on whatever sales it can muster.

While the good news for Globe employees is that they will remain in the NYT fold, the most interesting news is that the newspaper probably will begin operating more stringently than ever.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

AJC wimps out on endorsements

The first job of a newspaper is to set the agenda for the community.

That most inspiring thought, from Howard M. Ziff, one of my most inspiring journalism professors at the University of Illinois, came to mind when I read that the Atlanta Journal-Constitution has decided to stop endorsing candidates for public office.

I can’t think of a more vital part of the agenda-setting role for a newspaper than vigorously vetting candidates and forthrightly informing readers of the findings. So, why is the AJC walking away from it?

In a sterile and bland editorial, the newspaper gave no compelling reason for electing to neuter itself when it comes to elections.

“We have heard from readers — and we agree — that you don’t need us to tell you how to vote,” the paper said in an editorial published Friday. “What readers tell us they need is information on who the candidates are, what they have done and what they want to do in the new job.”

While illuminating the records and aspirations of a candidates in a presumably fair and down-the-middle format is a valuable public service, the newspaper will deprive its readers of the unique and equally valuable insights gained by the reporters and editorial writers who cover the candidates on a day-to-day basis.

In an era when any number of user-generated media are producing any number of user-generated opinions, opinions indeed are plentiful. But those opinions frequently are of questionable quality and pedigree.

Those of us who still have confidence in and respect for newspapers want to know what professional journalists really think about the people running for public office. The editorial page should be a major venue for getting that information.

From a practical point of view, many of us depend on a newspaper’s assessment of the laundry list of judges standing for re-election and the hopefuls running for such often obscure boards as those governing community colleges, transit agencies, mosquito-abatement districts and the like.

After years of relentless staff cuts, routine and sustained coverage of those government activities is the most likely to have been truncated or eliminated at most newspapers. Absent input from the newspaper’s editorial page, most voters would have no idea whom to support.

Here in California, the land of limitless, usually ill-conceived and often misleading ballot propositions, I depend on newspapers to cut through the fiscal and rhetorical voodoo associated with most of them. While papers still provide he-said, she-said coverage of the highest-profile ballot measures, the propositions often are so intentionally befuddling that even the most diligent voter needs a straight steer from the newspaper’s editorial page.

The AJC is correct in saying that it can’t tell its readers how to vote. Even if every voter doesn’t follow a paper’s lead, however, a newspaper has the right and responsibility to share what it knows and lead its community.

Thorough and balanced reporting, combined with well-considered opinion, are two of the major things that differentiate newspapers from their incessantly proliferating online competitors.

There’s no excuse for abandoning those powerful attributes — or for wimping out. Why is the AJC doing so?

Thursday, October 08, 2009

The editors doth protest way too much

Editors across the land couldn’t let Newspaper Week pass this week without wantonly violating the primary rule in medicine and marketing: First, do no harm.

“Talk of the demise of newspapers is premature,” said the headline on an editorial in the Aiken Standard that was typical of the faux-plucky tone adopted by most of the editors laboring to make the case that somehow, some way, their publications would survive.

Who are they trying to convince? The readers or themselves?

“Over the past century and a half, Nevada has had somewhere on the order of 450 newspapers,” said the Ely News. “We're down to 43 now – a number that held steady this year even though one newspaper was folded, because another new one started.”

Now, there’s a hopeful trend.

As any sensible marketing or advertising expert will tell you, emphasizing the deficiencies or poor sales of a product is exactly the wrong thing to do.

Customers only buy products – or, in the case of newspapers, use them for free on the Internet – because they see a value in them. They don’t do it because they feel sorry for the vendor or the vendor feels sorry for himself.

Yet, newspapers can’t seem to stop their incessant self-flagellation over the challenges facing their industry.

If you want to see how silly this is, ask yourself this: What are the chances General Motors would buy the following ad?

“Sure, we know we make lousy, gas-guzzling cars that are expensive and unreliable. Sure, we know our market share is dropping because we have inferior technology and styling. Sure, we are operating in bankruptcy and needed a massive federal bailout to save a few of the jobs that we haven’t already cut. But wouldn’t you like to buy a car from us anyway?”

Enough already.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

A double dose of denial in Denver

At almost the very moment former publisher John Temple candidly told the Berkeley media-technology conference last week the reasons why the Rocky Mountain News succumbed, the Rocky Mountain Independent was drawing its final breath.

The Independent was the second in a series of online news sites established by several Rocky veterans in the hopes of being able to continue doing the work they love in a place they would hate to leave.

Ironically, the Independent failed for exactly the same reason the Rocky did: A suicidally stubborn determination on the part of the organizers to be in the business they wanted to be in, instead of attending to the business they needed to attend to.

As Temple told the UC Berkeley Media Technology Summit at Google in his talk (text here), the Rocky hit the wall because it failed to understand its customers and how to do business in the new era of interactive media.

The Rocky thought its competition was the Denver Post, instead of the whole, dang World Wide Web, said Temple. It figured its future would be secure as long as it remained the best possible newspaper it knew how to be.

In his speech, Temple quoted an executive of E.W. Scripps, the Rocky’s owner, who said: “We were not used to the market telling us how things should be. We were used to telling people what we thought they needed and how they needed it.”

“That,” said Temple, “has to change.” Amen.

The same sort of self-indulgence led to the unraveling of the Independent. A quick recap:

When the Rocky shuttered in February, approximately three dozen staffers got together to launch a website they called In Denver Times. Their plan was to emulate as much as possible the work they did so well at the Rocky, while continuing to receive the same sort of pay and benefits they had enjoyed at the newspaper.

To achieve this, they immodestly planned to get 50,000 people to subscribe to their website for $60 a year. Despite the patent implausibility of the idea (as ably dissected here at the time by Steve Outing), the journalists actually persuaded some local businessmen to provide them with office space and a sum of seed funding to get started.

The journalists got busy doing the work they loved but they didn’t attend much to the strategic, operational and financial realities associated with a start-up business. They essentially assumed, as had their former employer, that the quality of their work would attract the patronage they needed to continue doing what they loved.

As money began to run out at In Denver Times, the journalists turned to the investors for more. Despite the fact that the subscription drive fell spectacularly short of its goal (the organizers claimed 3,000 sign-ups but we will never know for sure), the investors actually considered putting in more money, according to one of them, Kevin Preblud.

But the dollars never came, because the investors wanted the payroll trimmed to reduce the cash-burn rate until such time as the business began generating more subscriptions, a decent amount of advertising sales or some other sort of reliable revenue stream.

The journalists balked at making cuts, Preblud said at the time. The investors and the journalists went their separate ways and the journalists started a successor site, the Rocky Mountain Independent.

Sadly but unsurprisingly, the journalists announced last week that they were abandoning the effort after selling only 300 subscriptions to support them in the work they loved to do.

As the folks at the Independent discovered, start-ups are hard. Having participated in several and failed at some, I can tell you failure is far more instructive than success.

The point of this discussion is not to kick the founders of the Independent while they are down but rather to extract some lessons from their experience so individuals contemplating similar ventures can avoid making the same mistakes.

The lessons at the Independent are almost identical to those of the Rocky, so they apply as much to established media as they to do the newest start-up:

:: The product has to match the market. Until further notice, the presumptive price for online news content is free. Anyone interested in Denver news had to go no further than the free sites operated by the surviving Denver Post and the several local broadcast media. The subscription model was a non-starter and everyone involved should have known it. It was wishful thinking to expect the second subscription drive would succeed after the first one failed.

:: The content has to match the medium. The journalists for the most part luxuriated in writing the kinds of articles on their websites that they luxuriated in writing for the newspaper. Neither of the sites leveraged the power of the web to weave social networks, enable users to personalize content or do any of the other things that consumers commonly expect from a modern interactive experience.

:: The first business of a business is business. Like so many entrepreneurs, the journalists started their websites so they could do the work they wanted to do. But a business, especially a start-up, requires far more than passion for the work. It requires close attention to the nuts and bolts of raising money, making sales and controlling expenses. Above all else, it requires the discipline of living within your means until the business grows healthy enough to fund your aspirations.

The start-up news sites failed for fundamentally the same reasons the Rocky did. People felt the universe would reward them for doing what they wanted to do, instead of doing what they needed to do to earn the patronage of readers and advertisers.

Sorry, folks, it doesn’t work that way.

Monday, October 05, 2009

How to sell news on the web: A checklist

Publishers groping with the question of when, whether and how to charge for interactive content often raise the issue of what they could sell, if indeed they ever decided to try. Here’s a quick checklist to see if you are ready:

1. You cannot charge for such commoditized content as world, national, business, sports and entertainment news.

2. You might be able to charge for local coverage, if it is sufficiently intensive, comprehensive and exclusive to make to make it required reading for residents of the targeted community.

3. In the business-to-business realm, you probably can charge users for exclusive information that helps them make money, avoid losing money or, ideally, both at the same time.

4. You probably can charge consumers for two things: (a) exclusive entertainment content and (b) authoritative information that helps them hang on to more of their money.

Astute readers will note that much of the information publishers would like to sell does not fall into any of the above categories. This suggests that newspapers and broadcasters who are keen on peddling content need to focus on creating saleable product before they begin trying to charge for it.

I came to the above conclusions after rating content subjectively on a scale of 1 to 5 according eight attributes I felt would affect its value. The attributes are as follows:

Uniqueness – How likely are you to find the content someplace else? The more unique the content is, the more points it gets for the purposes of this analysis.

Routineness – Is the content a special class of information or such common stuff as weather reports, stock quotes or sports scores? Special content gets high points; ordinary stuff gets no points.

Time sensitivity – Will the value of the information deteriorate over time? Examples might be the exact moment coveted concert tickets go on sale – or fresh information that might affect the opening price of a stock. The more time-sensitive the information is, the more points it gets. The more it can be delivered on the mobile platform, the more value it has.

Business urgency – Is this information that will help someone in business make (or avoid losing) money? The more mission-critical the content would be to a business person, the more points it merits.

Targetability – How tightly targeted is the information to the interests of the consumer? The more customized the information can be, the more points it deserves.

Entertainment value – Unique entertainment content – like the first opportunity to hear a popular singer’s new recording or the sneak peek of a movie trailer – gets extra credit.

Localness – The closer that unique content is to home, the more it is worth, especially if it is exclusive.

Home economics – If it helps consumers save money – like the refrigerator ratings in Consumer Reports – content will earn top points.

Put them all together and you get the graph below. As you can see, the sweet spot for business-to-business publishers is depicted in blue. The consumer-oriented content most likely to fetch premium payments is shown in orange.

The opportunity seems to be bigger for B2B than B2C content, but operators of the websites of the Wall Street Journal and Financial Times already knew that.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

A kvetch-free journalism conference

They said it couldn’t be done. But it was.

They said a conference about the future of journalism couldn’t take place without the usual kvetching about the golden, olden days, with publishers grieving shriveled margins and editors caviling about the bloggers challenging their previously unassailable wisdom.

But we did it. The two-day Media Technology Summit sponsored by the University of California at Berkeley adjourned today without sliding into the Bermuda Triangle of denial, anger and depression that ordinarily characterizes such shindigs.

Working closely with with Dean Neil Henry and Assistant Dean Gina Rieger, I helped organize the summit, which was sponsored by the Koret Foundation, Google and the McCormick Foundation.

The more than 100 participants at the meeting included a fleet of tweeters who provided a far richer record of the proceedings than could be attempted in any single post. So, I won’t try.

Thanks to Chuck Peters, play-by-play coverage of the first day of the meeting is organized here and the second day is embedded below. Thanks to Tara Hunt and the nearly two-dozen others who took turns along with her at the podium, copies of most presentations will be appearing here in the next few days.

How did we route around the journalistic Bermuda Triangle?

Maybe it was the feng shui of the Googleplex in Silicon Valley, where we met. “It’s so shiny here,” said one participant. “It makes you feel like nothing could be that bad.”

Maybe it was because an eclectic array of speakers from the worlds of media, technology and academe stressed the possibilities, instead of the challenges, of moving journalism into an era when it roams wider, digs deeper, reports better and is more intellectually, psychically and financially rewarding that it has been for several long years.

But it probably was because we learned about the power of human and computer networks to not just enlighten the public discourse but also to enliven commercial prospects for the news organizations smart, bold and nimble enough to leverage them.

Much experimentation lies ahead on the uncertain road to the future of journalism. And experimentation, by definition, is loaded with uncertainty and the prospect of failure.

But the road to wherever we are going will be a bit easier to travel, because this conference left the usual baggage behind.

Other views on the summit

Following are articles I have discovered about the conference. If you know of more, please let me know at alan [dot] mutter [at] broadbandxxi [dot] com.

With information galore, we need news judgment

Summit takes hard look at future of journalism

Le future "hybride" des medias

Reflections on Day 1 of UCB Media Tech Summit

Last Rocky Publisher Conducts News Autopsy

25 Lessons from Media Summit