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.