Thursday, July 9, 2009

Networked TV rather than network TV

This isn't a new post by the folks over at the Nieman J Lab, but I followed a tweet and just bumped into it today. Reminded me how relieved I am to see someone in the MSM noodling on the idea of distributing news through Internet-enabled TV screens. This is an important part of our future.

I've been telling people for a while that my young children would probably never remember a time when TV screens weren't connected to the Web. What would be the point of a dumb box like that? In their world, all screens everywhere -- phones, appliances, computers, vehicle dashboards, TVs, etc. -- will be networked. In fact, many of these distinct appliances will undoubtedly merge into smaller and more efficient forms as the evolution takes place.

One of the implications of that shift is that old barriers of entry separating print and broadcast outlets will essentially vanish. But it won't simply be a matter of old-line print companies -- or even hot shot, hacker-journalist bloggers -- putting their stories on the semi-big screen and stealing audience out from under the hairspray-and-smile-and-no-real-news local TV newscasts. As satisfying as that would be, it won't happen.

So what will we in the print world have to do to be a part of that largely visual future of journalism? The NYT's lab folks have a pretty good start on one possible model. It's heavy on pictures and video, and has a lot of meta-data encoded within the productions. Dig deeper -- or not -- as you watch, in other words.

Could a newsroom with the size and experience of the NYT's produce world-class video journalism every day if it wanted? Undoubtedly. Could it embed layer upon layer of information and context beneath all those images? One would think. Could that be a part of the future media landscape? Seems reasonable. Could that model be replicated by other major metro newsrooms around the country? Sure, if they don't cut themselves into oblivion in the meantime.

To use the tired, old three-legged stool metaphor, this kind of at-home video news could be an important first leg in the news-company strategy of the future. Others:
  • Vibrant mobile offerings providing real-time news and information across all the platforms people use in their lives. Make it easy and cheap for people to make your content a part of their daily routines.
  • An irregularly produced, highly priced and wonderfully deep and beautiful print product (weekly? less frequently?). The people who are willing to pay for it have an opportunity to luxuriate in a print product that makes them feel like the best-informed people around. They get stories and commentary that appear nowhere else.
The first two of those legs, if not all three, need to incorporate a heavy dose of reporter-reader interaction and community-supplied news and information. But that's a subject for a different post...

Friday, June 12, 2009

Wish list for the news bizz

Nobody in this industry wants to go down with the ship. Nobody, in fact, wants to see the ship go down at all. We all signed on because, in various ways and to varying degrees, we believe in the important role quality journalism plays in society and love the thrill of the chase.

So we have a different kind of chase now: To help find a cure for what ails the business model. With that in mind – and with a tip of the green eyeshade to all the journo-bloggers and commentators I’ve cribbed from – here’s a wish list of what I’d like to see newspaper companies embrace before any more water starts lapping over the sides of our boats.

  • Establish an R&D team. Doesn’t have to be big or expensive, although it’d be great if you want to invest a little money in it. Could be no more than a handful of people you designate with being the skunkworks team, keeping tabs on developments across the industry and experimenting with new formats and formulas. The bulk of our revenue is predicated on print for the moment, but future revenue will come largely from digital outlets. So while publishers are still understandably putting most resources into print, don’t forget to pay some time and attention to what’s looming just around the corner for us all.
  • Encourage innovation by giving bonuses to people who come up with ideas or work on projects that generate new revenue for the company. Incent folks from reporters to ad salespeople to lobby receptionists to help figure out the future business model.
  • More mapping and database projects. A lot more. Preferably, put somebody on this full time. (See blog entry below.)
  • Create, nurture and curate pro-am platforms for news. Encourage local writers and bloggers to participate in the discussion about what’s going on in the readership area. Forget about the idea that we can be everywhere and cover everything. We can’t. Never could, really. There are many ways to do this, and the key is not to be afraid of the public. Reach out and experiment in an open-source model of journalism. The professionals’ place in the information stream won’t disappear in the process.
  • Put the Associated Press on notice that your paper might want to leave when the contract period expires. That could be as much as two years from now, so you have time to sort out whether it ultimately makes sense. But it certainly does seem reasonable to give yourself the option. For large papers, AP still charges a lot of money every year for their services. Seven-figure type of money. In exchange for that, the service takes your newspaper content and makes it available to TV and radio stations and Web sites that use it to beat you over the head. (For which the wire service gets paid again.) Save those dollars and imagine what your paper might look like without a reliance on wire copy. Intensely local, and very different from the online and mobile sites that are better at delivering national and international news anyway. And you could still have big, nice-looking refer packages that tell readers at a glance what happened in the world yesterday.
  • Move aggressively into webcasting. Don’t try to duplicate the news or production values local TV news, by any means. But Webcast high-profile press conferences, or parades for the local professional sports team, or high school sports games, or whatever else you decide your readers would watch in sufficient numbers to make the effort worthwhile. Consider putting your critics, editors and reporters in front of the camera live occasionally to answer questions in real time from readers/viewers. As you get your legs underneath you, there will be opportunities to get sponsors for your Webcasting channel, too. And with sites like and Livestream making the technical part fairly easy, why not give it a try?
  • Start an E-edition of the paper. (See blog entry below.) This might be a transitional mode of distribution, but so what? Give your circulation department a new option in outlying locales where you no longer develop, and to reach out to eco-conscious readers who don’t want the guilt of dead trees and ink on their doorstep each morning. And build your Newspapers in Education program, if you still have one, around it entirely. Vendors like Olive Software and Tecnavia make the start-up relatively simple these days, so the technical hurdles are very low.
  • Explore premium or “freemium” content, with tiers of content available in different ways across different platforms. At least be in the pay-to-play discussion in the months ahead as publishers aggressively explore this option. Look at membership programs, tiers of content and incentives to get customers buy what you’re selling, without moving away entirely from free online and mobile content, either. (See blog entry.)
  • Get on the Kindle, even if Amazon’s financial arrangements are tilted heavily in their favor at the moment. Learn about e-readers and consumer habits in a low-risk environment, so you’re better prepared as other options become available. Keep in touch with the companies behind other e-reader efforts, such as the Crunchpad, the Plastic Logic E-Reader and the Hearst e-reader project.
  • Speaking of Kindle, we’re at a moment in time in which smart phones, e-readers and netbooks are all converging on roughly the same place in our consumer consciousness. They’re all simple, portable, powerful little computers that make our lives easier and more enjoyable. So learn as much as you can about all of them, with a definite emphasis on mobile. Build mobile-optimized pages and/or smart phone apps that show off your work and, ideally, generate some revenue. Let’s not screw up this seachange as badly as we did the rise of the Internet in the mid-90s.
  • Maintain a decent Facebook page that, at a minimum, updates its news feeds fairly regularly. There’s not a lot of revenue potential here at the moment, so don’t spend too much time or energy on it. But it’s worth looking like you at least get the social networking world, and gives you a chance to promote your best wares to “fans” – a self-selected group of people online who are interested in your news and your people.
  • Build a respectable retail effort. Small money in this, but positive promotions for the news brand and at least a little positive impact on the bottom line each month. This doesn’t have to be large or complicated. And these days, there’s almost no reason for you to take on any product or warehousing risk. Partner with someone who will manufacture and fulfill products for you, so there’s no downside risk of sales are slow.
  • Ramp-up the marketing effort. Given the drumbeat of negativity surrounding newspapers, it should come as no surprise that readers and advertisers are increasingly writing us off as irrelevant. At best, we’re the old gray ladies of our markets, catering to a readership with an average age well past retirement. At worst, we’re a brand that’s flaming out and shouldn’t be associated with under any circumstances. Neither one sounds particularly good. So take a page from Nike or Intel or Disney, and take charge of your own message. The combined print and online readership of many major metro dailies remains higher than it ever was at the peak of print circulation alone. Nobody else can deliver that kind of audience. Get that word out to potential advertisers. Maybe more importantly, let readers know you’re a part of their world and will continue to be in the future. Whether they want to get their news in print, online, via their phones, from their Kindles or on their iPods, you’re there for them. However they want to live their life, you can be there to provide news and information in more depth than anyone else in the market can provide. So get the word out. (As an ancillary benefit, your own employees might start feeling a little better about life, too. They don’t have much to be optimistic about at the moment.) Marketing, in short, has never been more important for newspapers. Yet, if anything, most seem to be cutting back on promotions and marketing, crawling deeper inside their shells. But based on swapping out trades with other local media outlets alone, you could make a lot of headway without spending much money. Don’t be afraid of giving them promotional space in return. Local TV and radio stations aren’t your enemy at this point, and you could all use the marketing help.
  • Nobody is succeeding with much scale yet on hyper-local initiatives, but they will. Efforts like will come take your market if you don’t do it yourself, so partner with someone else or create your own effort. It’s only part of the news system you’re creating for your customers, but it’s going to be an important piece to offer in the future.
  • Create for-profit businesses to fund the journalism. That’s essentially what advertising is, right? It doesn’t have anything intrinsically to do with journalism, but it helped pay the bills all these years. Now, as we enter an era of dwindling advertising as a predictable source of revenue, maybe we should find some other businesses that play the same role? Unfortunately, I don’t have any brilliant ideas about how to do this. What untapped skills or resources do we have in our companies? High-end research/access to databases? Commercial photography/videography? What are our options? Something worth pondering, in any case. (And let your R&D team know if you think of something brilliant. Because, of course, you took the advice of the first point above and have already started one.)
  • Focus on prep sports. This could be wrapped into your hyper-local initiatives, if you have any. Or it could be a separate place of its own. In any case, it should be largely self-serve but provide the scale that only the big institution can provide. Young athletes and their friends and relatives eat this stuff up, so provide a place for them to dine. Sponsors will follow if you do a good job.
  • Run the numbers on opt in/opt out sections for some of the specialized types of coverage we’ve always done. Stock listings, TV book, etc. If a small percentage of your customers are passionate about the coverage, see what the break-even point is to provide it only to them. If you can make the math work out, do it. Reduce the newshole for everyone else.
  • This is a painful one, but think about reducing the number of days you print each week. As the digital means of distribution increasingly dominate breaking news, the paper is left with something very different. Deeper, better, more local and interesting. Eventually, like the Christian Science Monitor, we may all end up with a weekly newsmagazine and everything else available digitally. I’m not saying we’re at that point yet, but your R&D team should be running some numbers and looking at the options.
  • Aggressively rethink how the advertising department is structured, to reflect the ad market today. For decades, the ad department had to take orders as they came rolling in. It was a good gig, but it’s long gone today. Whatever it will take to be successful today, it isn’t likely to be the same structure we had during the order-taking salad days. Should we push more aggressively into agency model for advertising, becoming a full-service vendor for clients who want to advertise in our products and/or those of other outlets? Or maybe we should go the other direction and outsource more of the ad sales and the creative work overall, relying on commissions to spark outside firms? We almost certainly should redeploy all those people who once sold and handled classified ads, if we have any left. I don’t begin to know the ad-sales business well enough to know what the prescription is, but let’s put managers in charge who are bent on finding a new and better mousetrap.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Really useful information packaged in a really helpful way

It ain't journalism in the sense we typically think about these things. But it's useful to readers, and might prove to be a critical piece of the puzzle if and when we hope to convince people to subscribe digitally.

Databases, that is. News orgs have access to -- and in many cases pay a lot of money to collect -- a whole bunch of information that hasn't historically made it into print or on the air. It informs our coverage and helps us get behind the surface issues, but typically remains in the background where the public can't manipulate or play with it on their own. Going forward, people will be less willing to walk that one-way street of information. (See blog entry below on the age of transparency.)

But really, I'm thinking about something simpler than making every database we use available to the public. That may be a long-term goal in itself, but the last couple of days had me thinking about a smaller-scale use of databases.

My employer debuted a site yesterday called "Your Government," which makes it a snap for people to follow their lawmakers (or anybody else's) and/or keep tabs on specific legislation. Nothing groundbreaking here except the local focus and the interface, which a single programmer/designer in our newsroom created. Today, we published our yearly guide to the valedictorians in all the Portland metro area high schools. I couldn't help but go straight to the online database of the 456 kids to get a sense of what they were doing at some of the schools I care about, and to get a sense of where they'd be going to college. It's easily searchable by any keyword you can dream up. (How many want to be engineers? How many are going to Princeton? How many wrestled in high school? Etc.)

Both pretty simple, right? But also interesting, useful and relatively easy for people to figure out. In addition to writing stories, we're making information available to people that will inform their lives. Nothing wrong with that. And The Oregonian is hardly the only one to have figured it out. Newspapers and other news orgs worldwide are doing similar things. Good for all of them.

Now let's do more. Your Government is a great place to start. What about Your School, Your Commute, Your Neighborhood, Your (fill in the blank)? We have access to a lot of information that our customers might enjoy perusing. In best-case scenarios, the databases add context and color to the stories we already write. And when they don't -- when they're stand-alone databases simply made available to the public -- they can still serve a legitimate purpose for our readers/viewers/customers.

It's possible that we might one day soon have a business model that makes some information free online, while reserving "premium" information for subscribers or visitors who pay one-time use fees. These big, standing databases could easily be part of that premium package. Or not. Experiment with the concept and try it different ways in different places. Wherever we all end up, I'm convinced databases will be an increasingly important part of our news and information packages in the future.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Invest in the content, not the channel

The American Press Institute, a newspaper industry group in Reston, Va., today released its big report on how it believes news companies should move away from free online content toward a pay-to-play model. There is no shortage of opinions on this issue, and many commentators/bloggers quickly jumped on the report as the last gasp of a dying business model. They may yet be right.

Download the 31-page report. (My favorite line, from page 23, is the header for this blog entry.)

But I'm not counting out the industry types just yet. The fact that a number of newspaper publishers and executives were in on the creation of this report means that when they do move, they're likely to do it in concert. No matter how loudly analysts yell or how much certainty they display, nobody knows what would happen if a large percentage of the content creators suddenly began charging for their news products and aggressively defending what they see as their intellectual property rights.

That said, I read the report this afternoon with quite a bit of trepidation and mixed feeling. Philosophically, I think publishers -- like music labels and film studios -- have a right to make money off the content they generate. The reporters and editors who do all that work deserve to get paid at the end of the day. And I do not necessarily agree with the horse-is-already-out-of-the-barn argument so often thrown around. But I do agree that the Web is fundamentally different than traditional print and should be treated in entirely different ways, including when it comes to charging for content.

The beginning of the report, when it states its assumptions and talks about adopting a paid-content model, left me feeling decidedly uneasy. It started off defensive and traditional, maybe as a sop to the industry's publishers who hold sway at API. An interesting thing happened as I continued reading, however. Some of the ideas started to sound right, even good. By the end, I had circled a number of points and could begin to see the makings of a functional news-company business plan.

It started to get really interesting when the subject of hybrid pay models came up. This is something I can get my mind around. The future doesn't have to be either entirely free or completely behind a Steel Curtain demanding your credit card number.

The hybrid model might offer a combination of online and offline products. A subscription might include access to the Web site, an e-reader edition, iPhone applications, deeper access to the news archives and a weekend print product or niche publication. News organizations might offer a bundle of products and services at different price points, much the way cable television offers premium channels, pay-per-view and digital recording devices along with telephone and Internet services. Users pick and choose, and their purchases show up on a monthly bill. In fact, the news might become a premium service that shows up as a monthly charge on the bill from your Internet service provider.

So, to extrapolate, news orgs might offer some basic news online for free in an ad-supported environment. Then it would partner with various technology companies to provide variations on micropayment or subscription models across a number of platforms. Provide e-readers or electronic-paper options to consumers who want it that way; make deep, niche-oriented premium content online and via mobile; develop iPhone and other smart phone apps; and a print product (not necessarily daily) as the top-end premium product for people who want to luxuriate with their news and information a little more.

One subscriber might want it all, and could have it at a bundled price. Another might only want the Kindle DX version with access to the expanded content online. A third might prefer only an iPhone app subscription. And a fourth might not want to subscribe, but would be willing to pay a nickel to read a story he or she is interested in. (Maybe even to pay another pass-along rate to send it to his or her friends.) All would be priced differently, and users would get a bill at the end of the month they way they do now with cable television or their phone company.

Go this route and news companies would lose a chunk -- possibly a very large chunk -- of their audience overnight. But they'd still be getting paid for their content, which is no small thing. Like cable companies and phone companies, they wouldn't have to earn the business of everyone in the market. Not even close. If you believe (as I do) that advertising will pay a smaller and smaller portion of the bills for these companies in the future, that's probably okay. Something else needs to replace much of that lost ad revenue, and this is one of the ways to start experimenting and moving toward that eventuality.

Regardless, this is all easier said than done. It would require news providers to be better than they've ever been, for one thing. Convincing people that you have a truly unique and valuable product, in a world where a lot of other information is free and easily available, is no easy thing. But that's what we're supposed to be good at, so this would be the time to prove it. If customers don't agree, of course, you're sunk.

Given the current trends, we'll be sunk anyway if we don't find a way to gin up additional revenue soon.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The age of transparency

Many otherwise smart people thought Brian Lamb was a nutcase 30 years ago when he wanted to put full Congressional hearings on the air without any analysis, commentary or editing. Sounded like the most boring TV programming in history. That programming, though, would eventually spawn the C-SPAN network of cable TV and radio channels. The concept wasn't for everybody in the American viewing public, obviously, but it found an immediate audience and carved out a unique place in the media landscape.

I couldn't help but think of C-SPAN this morning when I stumbled across an audio file at featuring an interview public radio had done recently with Elizabeth Warren. This is the woman overseeing the program distributing federal TARP money, and NPR had produced a segment including portions of the interview, as it always does.

But in this case there had been a hue and cry about the context of her comments. That by itself is not uncommon; readers and listeners complain daily about events or comments "taken out of context." What was less common was that NPR responded by putting the entire Warren interview -- small talk, goofy asides, dead-end questions and all -- online for listeners.

Good for NPR. Taking a page from Brian Lamb's playbook, we should all do the same with every major interview in the future. Every city council meeting and locker room interview. Every press conference by local cops.

Most readers won't bother to listen to a 15-minute (let alone a two-hour) interview online. If they're interested in an issue at all, they'll read or watch or listen to the story we produce and generally leave it at that. But in the age of transparency, there's no reason we shouldn't provide full interviews for the handful of people who believe we might be hiding something or who are so deeply interested they want the full meal deal.

There are logistical issues in recording all those interviews and press conferences, and in hosting large numbers of them online. There are practical issues, too. It will almost certainly take newspaper reporters longer to produce stories if they have to go back and double check every quote in their notebooks against recorded versions. (Some do this already, but not most.) Some sources might not want their full and unadulterated comments put out for the world to hear. And, finally, we might give ammunition to our critics by letting them hear the context of every comment.

Ultimately, all of that is outweighed by the goodwill -- and the journalistic benefit -- generated by this relatively simple process.

We're professionals who get paid to talk with people and distill the information we learn into a coherent package accessible to the average reader or viewer. But go ahead and listen to our interviews yourself. You might hear the same words and come to a different conclusion. Fair enough. We'll make it easy for you. Either way, we're providing news and information that informs your life.

Another possible advantage: Posting interviews puts an arrow in the quiver of higher-quality journalism outlets. The ambulance-chase TV news cycle will be hard pressed to offer any substantive conversations, but other outlets will be able to get mileage out of the research and interviewing and hard reporting work they do.

Like C-SPAN in 1979, full audio versions of interviews would find an immediate audience and quickly carve out an important niche in our coverage. There are no downsides for readers. Technology makes this feasible for the first time in history. So what are we waiting for?

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Are blogs dead?

Funny. I started this blog in the fall as a way to think out loud about the future of journalism, and to connect with other journalism futurists. But over time, I've increasingly put my energy into listening and posting on Twitter instead. The poor, unloved blog has languished.

Twitter feels real time in a way blogs don't. But much of what we want to chew over needs to be more than 140 characters, and I suppose that's where blogs are still relevant. They give us URLs to miniaturize at or other shorteners, which we can then post on our Twitter accounts.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Sweating the big stuff

Monday mornings can be tough in the best of circumstances, but I compounded things this morning by watching the farewell videos from the Rocky and the P-I. I had seen parts of both when they were originally posted, but had never taken the time to watch all the way through. (The Rocky's, in particular, requires a significant investment of time.) Viewing them back-to-back now left me feeling anxious and sad. And this, too: A feeling somewhere between panic and determination to do more to help turn this thing around.

I'm fortunate to be part of a news operation that is, relatively speaking, still healthy. And I'm even more fortunate to be in a position to launch and help steer initiatives at that news operation. On a day the Pulitzers came out recognizing the industry's best work, there should be plenty to be optimistic about.

Yet here I sit feeling nervous and jittery and wondering if the dozen small-scale initiatives I've helped get off the ground in recent months will amount to more than searching for change under the furniture cushions while the house burns down around us.

So, to make myself feel better if nothing else, I jotted down a list of the big-ticket items we could attempt to solve. What, if we could accomplish them, would go a long way toward finding a stable business model going forward? Here goes:

* Redefining classified ads, which until a decade ago made up as much as one-third of the revenue at many big newspapers. Building a better Craigslist is a good place to start, but the initiative is ultimately bigger than that.

* Using smart advertising software that knows what you're reading when you're within our architecture and tailors the advertising to meet your interests. This both serves as a better reader service and gives small advertisers a better platform. A baseball card shop in the suburbs probably can't afford an ROP ad -- not on a regular basis, anyway -- but would love to put its ad in front of people who are reading baseball stories and/or stories about the neighborhood where the shop is located.

* Selling advertising across all of the company's news platforms with a single buy. This sounds so obvious it's painful, but isn't yet the case at my news org and many others. Want to reach a targeted demographic with ads in a specific place in the newspaper, an individual blog or two online and a particular section in one of our monthly magazines? Sure, we can do that. Or should be able to, anyway.

* Offering tiered content, some for free and some paid. All the basics are free, keeping the news org to keep its position as the dominant provider of information in its market. But the deeper content and analysis on various niches, from city hall to the local pro sports teams, is available behind a pay wall on either an a la carte basis or a single all-encompassing subscription.

* Being completely platform agnostic. I suspect the dominant distribution platform of the future will be mobile and will include a lot of video, but I don't know for sure. In the end, it doesn't particularly matter. What we sell is our content. How we distribute that doesn't really matter.

There are many, many other problems across the industry, of course. But if I thought I could snap my fingers today and make these five things happen, I'd feel a lot less anxious about ending up someday on one of those newsroom farewell videos.