Monday, June 22, 2009

Can grassroots journalism do the job?

My doubts are growing about whether we can rely on volunteers to produce credible journalism for a sustainable period of time.

Although a number of do-it-yourself ventures have embraced modern technology to attempt to fill the void created by the retrenchment of the mainstream media, there is scant evidence to date that any have succeeded to the point that they will support the sustained efforts of professional journalists.

Professionalism matters among journalists, because it enables them to devote the proper levels of diligence, discipline and time to reporting on public affairs in an objective and disinterested fashion. And professionalism, by definition, means paying the practitioners a sufficiently high level of compensation to attract bright and talented people to the craft.

New projects like Global Post, True/Slant and San Diego News Network give journalists platforms to present their work in exchange for what everyone hopes will be a comfortably compensatory share of the advertising revenues attracted to each site. The projects are in their early days, but it is safe say the participants in even these comparatively well-funded and high-profile ventures are toiling at the moment for far more love than money.

While it is true that the hard work of one or a handful of highly motivated individuals can create something worth reading for as long as their enthusiasm holds out, the time and hard work involved in serious reporting seems to suggest even the most impressive grassroots projects will be condemned to relatively short life spans.

Even where the will to go forward remains powerful, there is no satisfactory answer to the practical question of how long talented, capable and motivated individuals can afford to commit themselves to self-assigned journalistic endeavors that so far are not known to have generated any appreciable income for the writers.

The Gannett Blog is a case in point. A seemingly promising experiment in hyper-local, crowd-sourced citizen journalism, it was launched about 1½ years ago by Jim Hopkins, a former Gannett journalist. Now, Hopkins says he is going to pull the plug.

Hopkins said he will stop producing his blog on Oct. 1 because he is exhausted by the hours required to tend it, because he is disgusted with invective he says was hurled at him and because he couldn’t earn even $15,000 a year for his trouble.

Though the Gannett Blog started strong in the fall of 2007, Hopkins' behavior got a bit peculiar. He said he spent $2,000 to hire a bodyguard to protect him when he attended the Gannett annual meeting on April 28. And a video of the meeting shows him exhibiting something less than professional journalistic demeanor during the Q-and-A portion of the program.

Regardless of what you think about Hopkins or his blog, his experience makes for an intersting case study.

An editor and reporter for 20 years, Hopkins had a number of unique advantages that should have favored any hyper-local, crowd-sourced venture in citizen journalism. Consider:

:: The Gannett Blog’s hyperlocal community consists not of a group of people who coincidentally happen to inhabit a particular geography but rather a homogenous community of more than 40,000 people who work for Gannett Inc., the nation’s largest newspaper publisher. Beyond sharing merely geography, Gannett employees share common professions and the common fact that they all rely on the same company for their livelihoods.

:: Crowdsourcing was a slam dunk. Hopkins fortuitously began writing his blog at almost the precise moment the traditional economics of the media business began unraveling. News, rumors and tips rapidly flowed to Hopkins from employees who hoped he could help them make sense of what proved to be a series of spending cuts, layoffs and mandatory unpaid furloughs. Traffic to his blog peaked during the most traumatic moments.

:: The citizens who provided journalism to the Gannett Blog in many cases were real journalists. Strategically positioned throughout the company, the blog’s contributors had the motivation, acumen and professional skills to ferret out the inside dope they fed to Hopkins. Those tidbits made the blog indispensable reading for a great number of their colleagues.

Hopkins started the blog after taking a fairly generous buyout from Gannett that enabled him financially to turn the blog into something approaching a full-time endeavor. As the proceeds of the buyout dwindled, he began casting about for a way to be paid for his efforts. He considered selling advertising but soon found that he had too-few page views to reap appreciable revenues.

When he tried the tip-jar approach, he was subjected to a fair amount of scoffing and came up thousands of dollars short of the modest $25,000 a year he had targeted. So, despite all the advantages the Gannett Blog had going for it, Hopkins says he will call it quits.

The Gannett Blog is only one of hundreds, maybe even thousands, of grassroots journalism ventures. While it admittedly is not fair to project this outcome on all the rest, you are left wondering:

If a blog for employees of a media company run by a journalist who is leveraging the skills of other journalists can’t make it, then what can?

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Now Twittering, if you happen to care

There is a new Twitter feed here to alert you to every future post on Newsosaur, if you happen to care.

But there is strong evidence that you may not, according to a new Harvard Business School study of 300,542 inviduals.

The research found that “most people” only tweet once in their lifetimes.

Among the precious few who stick with it, “half of all the people using Twitter updated their pages less than once every 74 days,” according to the study.

“It looks like a few people are creating content for a few people to read and share,” said Bill Heil, who carried out the work.

I have to admit that I am a Twitter slacker.

The only reason Newsosaur will be tweeting in the future is because search guru Danny Sullivan, who couldn't stand my recalcitrance any longer, set up the new, automatic feed.

Thanks, Danny.

P.S. In another technical breakthrough, this is my first airborne post. It is coming from 36,027 feet over the Utah-Colorado border, owing to a slick, $12.95 wifi connection on Virgin America. Now, if they only could master the technology of spacing the seats farther apart...

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Sarah Snyder, spunk you could love

“You got spunk,” barked Lou Grant at Mary Richards on the old Mary Tyler Moore show. “I hate spunk.”

The quote came to mind today when I read the obit of Sarah Snyder, a much beloved and talented editor at the Boston Globe who died Sunday well before her time at the age of 51.

Sarah had tons of spunk as a newly minted reporter working at the Chicago Sun-Times in the early 1980s. But we loved her for it.

A perfect example of the enterprise and gumption she applied to her work was when she accompanied a photographer to a press conference being held by Mayor Jane Byrne at the crime-ridden Cabrini-Green housing project.

When the press conference was over, Sarah quietly told the photographer that she would get back to the office by herself. He protested that it was too dangerous for her to stay in the area on her own. But Sarah had other ideas.

As Mayor Byrne was about to enter her limousine, Sarah positioned herself conspicuously where the mayor could see her.

“How are you getting back to the office?” the mayor asked Sarah.

“Oh, I don’t know,” she replied.

“Then, get in the car with me,” said the mayor. “I’ll give you a ride downtown.”

That’s what Sarah did. While they were riding back to the office, Sarah got the big scoop of the day.

Which was her plan all along.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Facing up to life after print for newspapers

There are many unsettling parallels between newspapers and General Motors, the iconic American corporation struggling to regain its financial health and vigor as a consumer brand.

But there is a major difference between the opportunity that lies ahead for publishers and the continuing challenges facing America’s No. 1 disgraced automaker. Publishers have a far better chance at re-inventing their businesses than GM – but only if they act quickly and wisely.

GM recently joined Chrysler in filing for Chapter 11 to restructure a company burdened not only with insurmountable debt, an uneconomic manufacturing infrastructure and unsustainable union obligations but also a revenue crisis caused by a long-running slump in customer confidence aggravated by a precipitous collapse in the economy.

That sounds a lot like newspapers, especially the several who in recent months sought bankruptcy protection from debts that, in retrospect, they shouldn’t have incurred and now can’t handle. But here’s the difference:

Unless GM goes into some entirely different business, it always will be a capital-intensive, 19th Century-style manufacturing company. GM never can escape the need to operate big-ticket, dedicated manufacturing facilities that cost as much to own if the company builds a thousand cars as if it builds millions.

While your heart wants to wish GM well in the effort, your head says the company seems fated to creak and groan and struggle and shrink until there’s nothing left but a black hole in the federal budget.

The story could be pretty much the same for newspapers, minus the federal bailout. But the outcome could be significantly brighter for publishers, if they are quick, creative and bold enough to reposition their businesses for the modern, interactive world.

Unlike GM, publishers are approaching the day when they will have the opportunity – and perhaps no other choice – to exit the anachronistic manufacturing business that is eating most of them alive.

Between 60% and 70% of the cost structure of newspaper companies is consumed by the production and distribution of the print product that for years has been falling out of favor among readers and advertisers alike.

To be sure, most newspaper publishers will be required to be in the printing business in the immediate future, because roughly 90% of their sales are generated from ads and circulation fees for the physical product. Stop the presses tomorrow and you will kill the businesses before they can effectively transition to the future.

But the days of print newspapers are numbered. As the last generation of newspaper readers fades away (the trend is indisputable in the chart below), the demand for the print product will continue to shrivel among consumers and marketers.

Like it or not, it’s only a matter of time before it will not be economically feasible in most markets to print newspapers seven days a week.

If manufacturing newspapers were all that newspaper companies could do, then that would be the end of them. But newspaper companies, unlike GM, have options.

While printing and delivering newspapers certainly ranks among the core competencies of the industry today, newspaper companies possess many of competencies requisite for success in the Information Age. They are:

:: Enormous brand recognition and a high degree of credibility in their markets.

:: The largest, best-equipped staffs of content creators in the communities they serve.

:: The marketing power and know-how to attract large and desirable audiences.

:: The largest and best-connected advertising sales staffs in their individual markets.

Not even the strongest online competitors have those capabilities.

To gain full advantage of the resources remaining at newspapers after the recent years of extreme cost cutting, many publishers are going to have to face the emotionally difficult decision to cut back on their daily print schedules.

By producing a limited number of premium-priced, niche publications on only the days when it is profitable to do so, publishers can begin to focus more of their attention and resources on creating the wide array of tightly targeted Internet and mobile products that represent the future for their franchises.

Freed of the requirement to produce enormous quantities of newspapers every day of the week to support an increasingly challenging business model, publishers could get out from under the high costs of their production infrastructure by shuttering their dedicated production plants, selling off their fleets and outsourcing to lower-cost vendors the strategically immaterial chores of production and distribution.

This step is difficult to contemplate for those of us who get goose bumps watching the presses roll and enjoy burrowing into the pages of a crisp, new paper.

It is particularly painful to contemplate the enormous dislocation that would befall the pressmen, mailroom staffs, circulation crews and other dedicated workers whose jobs would go away. I was in Chicago when we moved from hot metal to computer composition in the 1970s. It was awful watching the proud and skillful members of the typographers union consigned to history.

But there was no denying the wisdom of that business decision. Today, the time for more tough decisions is upon us.

Publishers must do everything they can to save what’s left of the press, even if it means eliminating the presses.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Can you still trust me?

Now that I have offered newspaper publishers a potential solution to building revenues and improving their strategic position in the interactive age, some commentators have raised the legitimate question of whether this blog can be trusted.

Sidestepping the obvious issue of whether anyone should have trusted me in the first place, my response is this: Once you know where I am coming from, you can decide how much to credit anything I say in the future.

I wholeheartedly stipulate that my interest in working with newspaper publishers on a possible commercial project exposes me to potential conflicts of interest. But I felt I had no other choice.

Just as a news photographer should drop his camera to rescue a child from a burning building if no one else is around, I felt obliged to contribute what I believe is a constructive solution to the revenue crisis that threatens the future of journalism.

If my idea works, I might make some money. I am not allergic to that. And I won’t apologize for trying.

Now that I have moved from observer to participant in some of the discussions that may shape the future of the media business, I reserve the right to offer my thinking – like other businessmen who write op-ed pieces from time to time – on how to solve the devilish problem of charging for valuable content after giving it away for free for the last 15 years.

One thing I will never do, however, is to reveal the private conversations I have with publishers or other partners. Their business activities are not mine to discuss.

When I write about something in the future, you will get the best of all possible worlds. In addition to already knowing what my biases are and where my interests lie, you will benefit from the insights (but not the proprietary information) that I gain in my work.

This standard of transparency ought to be common in the media, in the business world, in government and in other elements of our society. You may not always find it there. But that’s what you’ll get here.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

What I recommended to publishers in Chicago

Yes, it’s true. As reported today by the Nieman Journalism Lab, I was one of the three people who presented ideas to newspaper publishers at the (formerly) under-the-radar meeting to explore ways to monetize content.

In a minute, I will share what I can of what I told the publishers. And I’ll tell you why I think those ideas are on the right track. But first, here’s the story of how I wound up standing in front of a room filled with just about every mover and shaker in the industry.

Most of you know me only as someone who has been kibitzing about the newspaper business for the last 4½ years as Newsosaur. In real life, I have been a Silicon Valley guy since 1996, where I started or ran a number of companies involved in online media, software development, commerce systems and high-availability networks.

With the newspaper industry in a fight for its life, a friend and I had some specific ideas about how publishers could leverage technology to solve one of the most vexing problems any business ever faced: How to charge for something after 1½ decades of giving it away for free.

I partnered with that friend, Ridgely Evers, a technology wizard and fellow serial CEO in Silicon Valley, to urge publishers to create their own system to monetize their content – and to do so principally by boosting the value of their page views rather than merely erecting pay walls that could provoke a dangerously negative reaction among many of their readers.

We call the system ViewPass and that’s what I introduced to the publishers last week. I presented it as a conceptual framework that represents perhaps the best chance for the industry to revitalize itself as it transitions its emphasis to the interactive media. To bring the idea to life, I offered the services of a talented technical team that Ridgely and I have assembled.

The ground rules of the session at the O’Hare Hilton in Chicago called for confidentiality on the part of all of the participants. Now that the comments of all three presenters have been leaked to Nieman Labs, I feel free to discuss ViewPass so readers know where my interests lie. While I will be happy to discuss ViewPass itself, I will not discuss any past or future conversations that I may have with industry leaders.

ViewPass would be a single, ubiquitous brand to enable consumers to access valuable content on the websites and mobile platforms of all participating publishers. It would be deployed as a widely recognized and widely accepted brand in a manner similar to the way Visa cards were established by the banking industry as a ready substitute for cash.

The other parallel to Visa worth noting is that ViewPass would be not merely a consumer-facing brand, but also an industry-owned, high performance backend authorization system, one which provides all parties with a uniform mechanism and significant economies of scale.

ViewPass would consist of a simple, one-time registration system that would remember users as they moved among participating websites. It would build a profile of individual users from demographic information supplied by them, as well as by tracking the content they viewed as they moved from site to site.

Like many of the several monetization systems coming to market, ViewPass would support payments for individual articles, subscriptions and bundles of content.

But the system’s greatest value would be the data it assembled on each individual consumer, because the data would enable publishers to sell their advertising inventory at premium rates to advertisers seeking to target their messages to the most likely consumers.

ViewPass is designed to complement, rather than compete with, existing ad networks. Each page rendered to a ViewPass member would provide the networks serving ads to participating publishers with richer, more accurate data about that viewer.

The data would enable superior ad targeting, thereby improving consumer response. Improved response would generate higher CPMs, boosting revenues as advertisers competed for access to the availabilities.

It is important to note that the information offered to the ad networks would not identify individuals, thus protecting their privacy.

Based on the models Ridgely and I have constructed in consultation with a number of newspapers, we believe the enriched customer data potentially will enable publishers to more than double their ad rates.

In addition to lifting their revenues, industry leaders could improve their profitability by owning ViewPass in a co-operative type of structure that would enable them to share in the profits of the business each year after covering the cost of the operation.

This, of course, would be a major improvement over what they could hope to achieve by working with what almost certainly would be a fragmented collection of third-party vendors, each of whom would naturally expect to make a profit from providing similar services

Taking into account the improvements in revenues and profits discussed above, we believe the industry could rapidly triple its online margins by adopting ViewPass.

In addition to me, the three-member panel meeting with the publishers in Chicago included Jim Pitkow of Attributor, who has developed a system for identifying websites that are poaching copyrighted content, and Steve Brill of Journalism Online, who is advocating the industry-wide adoption of a system he hopes to build to enable the sale of content for cash.

The Attributor solution, as discussed here, could be reasonably effective in policing copyright abuse. But a more positive approach to copyright compliance would be welcoming the broadest number of websites into the ViewPass system, where each participating site would be motivated to respect copyright to protect the value of everyone’s content.

The ViewPass carrot would be greater revenue for participating publishers. The stick for copyright violators (the detection of whom could easily be provided by a partner such as Attributor) would be the sanction of being booted off the ViewPass network.

The approach advocated by Journalism Online seems to be a concerted campaign to force consumers to subscribe to online content after some 15 years of getting it for free.

But there’s a huge problem with that.

If you suddenly put a pay wall on a website that used to be free, you are bound to lose a substantial amount of traffic representing a considerable amount of potential advertising inventory. Once customers are turned off, it will be awfully hard to get most of them back, especially as plenty of free websites will be glad to welcome them.

You could argue, as Steve does, that some newspapers are doing a poor job of selling their existing online inventory. But the solution is to sell the ad inventory better, not to write it off.

The publishers successfully selling targeted advertising on Yahoo’s Apt system have proven that it pays to have superior data about their customers. If you ask them, they will tell you so. But the problem with Apt is that Yahoo gets 50% of the revenues.

An industry-owned, co-operative venture like ViewPass would put publishers in a stronger negotiating position than they are today with such partners as Yahoo and the other online mega-powers.

If ViewPass were expanded to other print, broadcast and online publishers across the globe, it could give the American newspaper industry some badly needed mega-power of its own.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Worst quarter for newspapers: Sales dive $2.6B

In the worst quarter in modern history for American newspapers, advertising sales fell by an unprecedented 28.3% in the first three months of 2009, plunging sales by more than $2.6 billion from the prior year.

Statistics posted without publicity on the website of the Newspaper Association of America show that print ad sales fell by a historic 29.7% to $5.9 billion in the first period of this year and that online sales fell a record 13.4% to $696.3 million.

The worst percentage decline was in the highly profitable classified advertising category. which dived 42.3% to produce slightly less than $1.5 billion in sales.

As illustrated in the graph below, newspaper sales have dropped at a steadily accelerating rate since April, 2006. In records published by the NAA that date to 1950, there is no precedent for the sort of decline suffered in the first three months of this year.

The $2.6 billion sales decline in the first period of this year is equal to almost a third of the $7.5 billion that newspaper ad revenues fell in all of 2008. Newspaper ad sales last year fell 16.6% to $37.8 billion, making it by far the worst 12 months in the history of the industry.

Barring a miraculous turnaround in the economy, the first quarter sales performance suggests the industry could be headed to its first year since 1987 of less than $30 billion in annual sales.

By contrast, newspapers sold an all-time high of $49.4 billion in advertising as recently as 2005. If the industry achieved only $30 billion in sales this year, its volume would be 40% lower than it was four years ago.

The rout in the first quarter of 2009 was wide and deep, owing in part to the most difficult economy since World War II but also to major secular changes in consumer and advertiser behavior. Here is a category-by-category breakdown:

:: Employment classified advertising skidded 67.4% to $205.4 million.

:: Real estate classified advertising slumped 45.6% to $336.9 million.

:: Automotive classified advertising swooned 43.4% to $332.8 million.

:: National advertising slipped 25.9% to $1.1 billion.

:: Retail advertising stumbled 23.7% to $3.3 billion.

:: Other classified advertising slid 16.5% to $587.7 million.