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.

Monday, April 6, 2009

AP's chance to reinvent itself

The Associated Press, which today sent a love letter to newspaper publishers everywhere, has a curious business model. The large newspapers that provide the bulk of AP's content pay hundreds of thousands of dollars apiece to participate each year, keeping the service's newsgathering costs low and filling its coffers at the same time. Brilliant.

But the country's major newsrooms are starting to revolt, with some already walking away and others threatening. It seems only a matter of time until many form their own cooperatives or decide they can shed wire copy altogether to focus on local content.

To its credit, AP sees the writing on the wall. Unfortunately, the changes envisioned in today's announcement are too little to stem the tide. Whether it's too late to do anything about that remains to be seen.

So, AP, here goes. I have a starting point for you when it comes to a conversation about the news cooperative of the future. It's startlingly simple, really.

A la carte.

That's it. (I told you it was simple.)

Here's how it would work: News organizations, from The New York Times to a citizen blogger in Topeka, could submit their stories, videos and multimedia to a central aggregation service for a nominal processing fee. The service would then organize it and make it all searchable in a way that allows other news orgs to sift through it.

When a news Web site or newspaper finds something it wants to use, it pays a per-story fee that goes back to the creator of the story -- with another handling fee held out for the cooperative. Organizations or individuals that contribute would be rewarded based on how popular their work turned out to be.

So, to continue with our example above, a New York Times story on financial services regulation might get picked up by 9,000 outlets on a given day. Each buyer pays 50 cents for the right to re-publish the story, 40 cents of which could go to the Times and a dime of which could go back to the cooperative. The Topeka blogger might write something on state politics that gets picked up by 12 news orgs in Kansas, and makes a little less than $5 for the day. The Times, meanwhile, makes $3,600 on that story that day.

News aggregators and search engines would have to work out separate deals. Some smart person would figure out whether and how to charge the Google News and Yahoos of the world. (WSJ editor Robert Thomson, in a story today, called aggregators "parasites or tech tapeworms in the intestines of the Internet," predicting a big fight over content ownership soon. Google counters that it helps, rather than hurts, news sites by sending traffic their way.)

Taking a page from the recording industry, the cooperative would go aggressively after any Web sites or news orgs that try to circumvent the system by stealing content for free.

The primary advantage to such a system is its inherent fairness. News orgs that pay a lot to gather and create content earn more; smart individual analysts stand to make money from their insights; outlets that pay little or nothing for newsgathering would have to pay more to buy it.

It should be noted that newspapers and their behemoth newsrooms wouldn't necessarily dominate this kind of arrangement. The market would essentially decide who survives based on how many outlets pick up work on a given subject. In fact, smaller outfits and startups focused on niches might be able to put together profitable business models right away in this system. Have five reporters focused like a laser on a specific issue, churning out stories and videos nobody else is doing? You might find a profitable niche overnight, if other outlets want to use your work on their Web sites, mobile news feeds or print offerings.

AP is probably best situated to create an egalitarian system like this. But if the service decides to continue more-or-less in its current configuration, there's probably an opportunity for someone else to step into the breach. Startup, anyone?

Friday, April 3, 2009

Lunch date with Marty

Boston Globe editor Marty Baron generated some chatter with a speech he gave last night at University of Oregon. The local paper, the student paper, the Boston press, the NYT's Nick Kristof and even journo-curmudgeon Jay Rosen commented. (Full disclosure: Marty's my former boss.)

Today, Marty stopped by Portland for a lunchtime give-and-take with a group of Portland journos on much the same subject. I'm not going to dissect the conversation, which covered a lot of familiar ground by him and the assembled others. It got a little chippy between the print and broadcast folks a couple of times in the wake of Marty's assertion that most stories that appear on the air originated from print newsrooms. But the conversation didn't really lead to any "ah ha" moments that changed everybody's thinking on the problems at hand.

Most interesting were Marty's responses to a series of questions about where the most important innovations are likely to emerge. He started with the premise that traditional news orgs will continue to innovate alongside an increasing number of startups and journalism ventures. He believes some will be nonprofits, some will be spinoffs from existing companies, some will be new for-profit organizations and many will focus on narrow niches. He also said it's an open question whether the big, traditional outlets will be the ones that remain the primary distributors of news, or whether they'll be replaced by smaller, focused competitors -- even on a local level.

All that's fine, and likely true. It got sticky when Marty said the most creative thinking is likely to emerge from startups founded by venture capital money. These are people who will vet ideas and put real money behind ones they believe can work. In other industries, he pointed out, this is typically where the biggest innovative leaps are born.

Now this is a bit of a body blow to those of us who are trying to innovate from within the belly of the beast. No matter what we do, according to this line of reasoning, we aren't likely to be the source of the Big Breakthrough that starts to define the new paradigm. And he might be right, which is the most depressing part of the whole thing.

So, if you accept that argument, where does that leave us in the MSM?

I suppose it leaves us innovating, and watching, and reading, and learning and doing what we can to remain in the conversation. We might have to let go of the idea that we know and/or will dictate the direction of things, and be willing to let the market determine how things evolve. Like Microsoft in its younger days, we'll have to try to be in position to recognize smart innovations on the part of others and then capitalize on them.

Sounds feasible, on the surface. But we won't be in position to do that if we're not tinkering constantly, failing regularly and succeeding occasionally with innovations of our own. And that, as anybody knows who's trying to do it every day, is very, very hard.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Minneapolis takes the plunge.

Minneapolis Star-Tribune editor Nancy Barnes this weekend took the wraps off a plan to reserve some -- non-breaking news -- content for paying customers only. God bless her. It's an important step toward a future business model based at least partially on the precept that not all content can be free.

The STrib is going to publish enterprise, investigative and feature work as "print exclusives" and run them on dead trees only. The paper's Web site will continue to have everything else.

Truth be told, I'm not sure online readers/viewers are losing a whole lot in the deal. Breaking local news and sports have been the biggest drivers of news Web sites like the Strib's, anyway. Videos and photo galleries are playing a bigger role all the time. That stuff will still be there. What's lost will be the kind of work that translates best into print, at least given the current design of most news sites.

And the newspaper becomes more valuable in the process, giving subscribers an incentive to keep paying us to produce this content.

Ideally, the Strib will eventually take this experiment one step further. The key is having a premium level of content for customers who pay; it's not a print vs. online distinction. So if you also offer the bonus material in a premium format online for customers who prefer to buy it that way, so much the better. Either way, they're paying customers -- exactly the kind we'll need more of in the future.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Newsrooms, niches face off for future of journalism

It's repeated so often it's almost a mantra of the news-preneurs, journo-bloggers and futurists: Journalism will survive; it's the newspapers we're not sure about.

Fair enough. I agree with that sentiment, more or less. Given the relatively high (and rising) demand for news, people and organizations will increasingly compete to provide information in a crazy array of flavors and formats. And since we should all be agnostic when it comes to forms of distribution, our big, strong newsrooms should be able to keep us in the game, right?

Maybe. It's an open question whether there will continue to be a place for a general provider of news and information like us, or whether the future will be dominated by niche specialists. That's what the Web is, at some level: Like-minded people from anywhere on the planet getting together and talking amongst themselves. So news providers of the future might be the ones who cater to those groups, going deep, deep, deep on a single issue. If you're the best source of information for one of those in-groups, users will pay for your content and advertisers will go through you to reach 'em.

So what about our a-little-bit-of-everything news shops? Hard to say. Our competitive advantage is being more local than anyone else. We can't do national politics better than Politico or sports better than ESPN, but we've got everything on the latest brouhaha at city hall or the inside-the-locker-room moments for the local major league team.

We care more about what's going on in this one place than anybody else -- or should. If anything will keep us alive, that'll be it. Even at a local level, niche providers from intrepid bloggers to citizen activists to journalism startups will give us a run for our money. But that's a fight we can win, with our history and resources and people.

What we should do, then, is cultivate our beat reporters and let their expertise show even more than we have in the past. Rather than attempting to broaden their appeal, narrow it. Let them go deeper, nichier and more wonkish.

Forget being all things to all people. But on the beats we decide to cover, our reporters should be the no. 1 source of information. They should be more plugged in than anyone else in all the local organizations and issues that matter.

Our reporters, in other words, should each become niche news providers in their own right. Our niches might all be within a narrow geographic band, but you need to pay attention to them if you want to know what's going on.

Achieve that, and users will pay for our content and advertisers will go through us to reach them. And that just might be enough to keep us in the game.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Industry news, good and bad, from Beantown

As is often the case in the current environment, today has been interesting in ways both good and bad. On the bad-news front, my former colleagues at The Boston Globe (along with other NYT Co. employees) were asked to take a pay cut and furlough days. That's a grim thing, primarily because it's another reminder about just how uncertain the future has become.

Today's better news also comes from Boston, where former Globie John Yemma is leading the Christian Science Monitor off the cliff by ending the daily print newspaper. I say "better" because, in this case, the Monitor is trying something that could eventually help the rest of us find a profitable way forward.

John points out, correctly, that the Monitor has a very different business model than regional dailies. It's international in scope, nonprofit and works within more of a defined niche. He fears many regional papers, faced with a different reality, will do what the Seattle P-I has done: cut to a skeleton staff and remain online with a product only vaguely resembling the old newspaper.

But project out a couple of years, and the basic plan the Monitor is putting forward might apply to the rest of us more than either we or John realize.

Like the Monitor, we could end daily print publication, and replace it with an in-depth weekly magazine or newspaper. We're still better positioned than anyone else in our markets to do a smart, deep and well-sourced weekly pub for readers who want to spend time with their news. As it is at the Monitor, the rest of our work, increasingly multi-media, will be delivered online, through mobile devices and via distribution partners. The basic news online will be free and ad supported; much of the rest -- context, commentary, enterprise, niche interest, etc. -- will go behind a pay wall.

Could that basic framework hold up? Yea, maybe. Will we be able to learn valuable lessons in the meantime watching the Monitor take the leap? That seems like a far easier question to answer.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Building a better Craigslist redux

Last week, I took up a light-hearted challenge from ReveneTwoPointZero to offer suggestions about ways to beat Craigslist at its own game. (This is critical because of the proportion of our revenue classified ads used to play, and how much we continue to want at least some of it back.) When the site came out with its proposal over the weekend, something very much like my suggestion was part of the package:

Make it the biggest and best marketplace. How? By aggregating CraigsList and every other local classified site, to provide one-stop shopping for every buyer.

And guess what? The Rev2.0'ers did me one better by including five other salient points: Make it easy to use, easy on the eyes, free, profitable and safe. Read their full post, and reader comments, here.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Nothing like a punch in the face to focus the mind

Denver, Seattle, Tucson, Detroit, San Diego. Yesterday, it was our turn in Portland. Pay cuts of 5-10% for everyone on staff (15% for the three most senior execs), four furlough days and the freezing of our traditional defined-benefit pension plan.

Worse than the announcement itself was the sense of fear and desperation it seemed to unleash through the ranks. What if the advertisers don't ever come back? What if we never get control of our digital destiny? What if it really is the beginning of the end, as the gloating MSM naysayers have been predicting?

And a deep and abiding sense of anger, of course, that the owners and managers of the company didn't see this coming and somehow head it off.

There is a best-case scenario: All that fear and loathing manifests itself as motivation to innovate quickly and comprehensively. At some level, that's already playing out. The number of unsolicited suggestions I've received in the past 24 hours about ways to generate new revenue exceeds what came my way in the past two or three months. That's certainly a good start. Let's turn all these smart and creative minds at least partially to the problem of reinventing the newsroom and the news business for the next generation.

But now comes the hard part, which is a lot of nibbling around the edges, trying things that don't work out and otherwise innovating in place. It would be so much easier if one great idea could fix everything. If we could wake up one morning, see the brilliance of some new business model or form of distribution, and laugh about how scary it was there for a while. Not gonna happen, folks. At least not anytime soon.

So we're left with dozens or hundreds of small changes we have to give a shot. We have a window of opportunity -- while we're still receiving quite a bit of print revenue -- to reinvest in myriad other forms of (mostly digital) distribution. To experiment. To learn. We should be thinking like pharmaceutical companies, in that we need to have a whole bunch of projects in the pipeline at any given time. The more the better. Most won't work out, but that's fine. We'll learn, adjust and try again. At least a handful do need to work out, some of them in fairly significant ways.

Twitter, Kindle, RSS feeds, e-editions, Facebook, micropayments, other forms of for-pay content, online stores, creative use of digital archives, CDs and DVDs, speakers' bureaus, TV and/or radio stations, reader participation and interaction, visual storytelling, documentary film, niche publications, wholesale blogging, entirely new lines of business, etc. There are no wrong suggestions at this point. Only a lack of vision and willpower that is as much of a threat to our future as any external force. Eventually, if we're lucky, some of it will begin to coalesce into a new business model.

So, colleagues here and elsewhere, I feel your frustration. But don't look askance at the small innovations that come down the tube. Embrace them and offer more ideas like them. Because it's the little things, not the one great idea, that may ultimately save us all.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Gone fishin'

Really. Fishing. No new posts 'til Monday. I'm optimistic the industry will still be alive and kicking at that point...

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Building a better Craigslist

A group called RevenueTwoPointZero is pulling together a bunch of new-journalism thinkers this weekend in Washington, DC, in an effort to solve some of the big problems bedeviling us all. One of their four founding charges is to "Create a better Craigslist." So I'm going to offer one completely unsolicited idea for them to chew on.

Let's start with the basic challenge. On the group's Web site, Alan Jacobson offers the following four criteria:

1. Make it easier to use (than Craigslist)
2. Make it free for the general public
3. Serve up context-sensitive, paid ads along with free classified ads
4. Provide a forum for feedback on sellers to keep ‘em honest.

Okay, fair enough. Here goes, Alan.

I'd build a classified-ad aggregator with a nice interface and a better search engine than Craigslist provides. Have your own classifieds there along with Craigslist,, and any other online auction or sales site that seems appropriate. When a user types in "Honda Accord," they'll get the top listings -- if any -- from each of those sales sites for that product. Meanwhile, you can sell display ads (from a local car dealer in this case, for example) to run elsewhere on the results page.

As an industry, we'd have to concede that we've actually lost the classified-ad war. That seems easy enough to most of us, since it's so obviously true. But we'll have to talk gently into the night to executives in our advertising departments to convince them it's finally over.

Even when that's done, we'll have to get our legal eagles involved to make sure we're on solid ground scraping those other sites. But I'm convinced we could find a way to do it. Hell, other places have been aggregating from our sites for a decade or more.

Finally, we have to figure out how to leverage this new model to maximize our gain. Again, I have faith we could handle it. There are ways to provide incentives for classified advertisers to come to us, especially if our user numbers start to put us on more equal footing with the Craigslists of the world.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Best reason yet to offer Kindle subcriptions

What you see above is the e-reader from Plastic Logic, which the Detroit papers say they plan to lease to subscribers in place of print several days a week. On those days, readers will get a combined Free Press and News that runs 32 e-pages.

Certainly, everybody in the industry will be watching to see how they do in Motown. But the point for now is not to dicker about whether they'll be successful. Undoubtedly, they'll adjust and change things as they go. God knows how it'll turn out in the end.

The point is that future business models will likely include some version of this for the rest of us. Some portion of our distribution will be on some type of tablet or e-reader or not-yet-ready-for-prime-time e-paper. In Detroit it's Plastic Logic, elsewhere it'll be Hearst's supposedly in-development e-reader, and in yet other places it'll be other things.

But why not start experimenting now, in a low-cost and low-risk environment? At last count, only 22 U.S. newspapers were available for subscription on Kindle. That leaves about 1,400 other daily papers that probably ought to think about it.

It’s relatively simple, after all, to send an .xml feed to Amazon each night. And if nobody subscribes, you lose nothing but your IT guy's programming time. If several hundred (or several thousand) people subscribe to your paper via Kindle, you gain a slight bump in revenue and begin moving along the e-reader learning curve.

Plus, any subs you get count as paid circulation. (Not sure about the new "verified circulation" model.) A circ bump, no matter where it comes from, is a good thing these days.

Finally, there’s a “soft” benefit to giving the impression, both internally and externally, that your paper is experimenting and trying new things. Fewer than two dozen U.S. newspapers are offered on Kindle now, so there's still a chance to be an early adopter. So what are we all waiting for?

Well, somebody has to go first...

NYT Chairman Arthur Sulzberger Jr. reportedly said, in a speech last week, that the Times has "renewed our analysis of how paid content can augment our core advertising business." And the paper's executive editor, Bill Keller, has said "a lively, deadly serious discussion continues within the Times about ways to get consumers to pay for what we make."

God bless them. If they can make it work, it might give courage to all the publishers out there who are afraid to experiment with paid online content. I'm not suggesting we should put everything behind a paid wall overnight, but finding ways to generate incremental revenue from readers should be on the table. As of now, however, no editor or publisher wants to stick his or her head out of the gopher hole first, for fear of being shot.

Of course, the Times has been down this road at least two other times. In each case, it eventually abandoned the effort. The question is whether the situation is dire enough now that execs there will be willing to bet their franchise on finding a way to make it work. In the end, that might be what it takes.

Monday, March 16, 2009

The 90/40 dilemma

The chart above is from the Pew Project's 2009 State of the News Media, sourced to the Newspaper Association of America and other research. The portion in red is revenue from online advertising; the gren(ish) portion is from print revenue sources. (Click on it to see a larger version, or go look at it and many others at the Pew site.)

The chart's numbers are updated only through 2007, but the underlying reality hasn't changed since. Roughly 90% of newspaper company revenue is still generated by print subscriptions and advertising, while only about 40% of its costs are attributable to printing and distributing the dead trees.

Kill off your print edition right now, in other words, and you're giving up virtually all of your revenue but keeping the lion's share of the costs.

I hear from new media types all the time that the first step to take in finding the future is to stop the presses. Go online only, or mobile only, or digital only. But as long as the calculus looks like this, you'll be hard pressed to convince many publishers.

Goodbyes and hellos

We all knew it was coming, didn't we? The Seattle Post-Intelligencer as of tomorrow will become the second major U.S. daily to stop publishing this year. It's especially painful because in many ways the P-I was the better of the two dailies serving the readers of Seattle.

But we don't really have the luxury to wallow in the pain of a journalistic voice being silenced. There's too much to do at all the other major metro newsrooms if we don't want to be writing our own obituaries. (And keep in mind that both the P-I and the recently deceased Rocky Mountain News were the weak partners in JOA agreements that made it unlikely they would have survived permanently, anyway. The changing business model and the recession merely precipitated their declines.)

Plus, there's a potential silver lining in this. The P-I is going to make a stab at inventing a new type of big city newsroom, working with an online-only platform. Quoting from the P-I's story today:

"Steven Swartz, president of Hearst Newspapers, said in the release the Web site 'isn't a newspaper online -- it's an effort to craft a new type of digital business with a robust, community news and information Web site at its core.'

He continued: 'The Web is first and foremost a community platform, so we'll be featuring new columns from prominent Seattle residents; more than 150 reader blogs, community databases and photo galleries. We'll also be linking to the great work of other Web sites and blogs in the community.'"

And from Colorado, word comes today that a bunch of the former Rocky journos are hoping to develop their own version of the same thing, called In Denver Times. In their case, they want to provide most news for free but will have a premium level of content for subscribers. If they don't get 50,000 subscribers to commit in the next five weeks, they'll pull the plug.

Good luck to both ventures. The rest of us in the industry should watch and learn and hope they succeed. The directions they're heading, regardless of the details in each case, are similar to ones we'll all be heading in some form before long. And for most of us -- unlike at the partially or fully shuttered newsrooms in Seattle and Denver -- that doesn't have to be a terrible thing.

While I wish both ventures well, I do worry about their business prospects. The journalists have their hearts in the right place, but it will be difficult to sell ads and develop a competent (and self-sustaining) business model from scratch. Which is basically what they need to do.

Both are leaving JOAs that largely gutted their own abilities to sell advertising. Even if ads don't make up as much of the going-forward revenue as in the past, they'll presumably want some level of ad money. Yet they'll be out there as newbies competing against their former reps in the sales trenches. Tough way to start a new venture in the best of times. And these times, needless to say, ain't so good to start with.

Friday, March 13, 2009

We should all be agnostic

When it comes to delivery devices, that is. We produce news and information, we tell stories that move people, we offer advice and put things in perspective, we investigate wrongdoing and keep an eye on the powerful. What we should not do is care particularly how the public receives all that good stuff.

Ink on paper has been a serviceable delivery device for a long time. Great. The Internet, accessed through computer screens, has proven itself to be useful. Wonderful. Mobile devices in one form or another seem destined to be the dominant distribution tool going forward. No problem. Some R2D2-like hologram system, or high-resolution digital paper that's flexible, portable and cheap? Outstanding. Let's use them all, and leverage them to get our work in front of as many people -- and in as many ways -- as possible.

The thing about the future is that it isn't knowable. Not really. So tethering our operations to the hardware or technology we think is going to be the next big thing is as bad as sticking doggedly to ink on paper. Eventually, technology will change, consumer tastes will evolve and we're going to be on the sharp end of the stick. Again.

So let's not obsess over finding the one big thing. Experiment and come up with strategies about how to leverage and learn from each new technological marvel. But don't fall in love with any of them. Because at the end of the day, we still want to do the same thing we've always done: Produce news and information, tell stories that move people, offer advice and put things in perspective, investigate wrongdoing and keep an eye on the powerful.

The thing we can't do is keep cutting our newsrooms to the bone while we go through this wobbly business-model phase. Cut everywhere else, if you must, but keep the reporting staff vital and strong and ready to do all those things in the future. Or else we really will be sunk, no matter which forms of delivery move into the mainstream.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Digital Newspapers: The New Reality

Newseum video worth watching. Nothing terribly revelatory, but it summarizes things and lays out the situation fairly succinctly.

And another video -- more scattered but no less interesting than the Newseum effort -- of J-school prof and new media type Jeff Jarvis.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

On anonymous commenters and Candian journo-bloggers

The McMinnville News Register this week decided to end anonymous commenting on its site. They got it right. One can only hope that my own employer figures that out one of these days, along with other media Web sites. Raise the bar for discussion by making readers put their names behind their words. My hope is that we can continue to encourage people to comment -- and in many more creative ways than media sites are doing now -- but cap the racist, sexist and downright nasty tones that so often prevail in anonymous forums.

On another note, the Nieman Journalism Lab today gave a boost to Canadian blogger Morten Rand-Hendriksen and his recent post, "10 Steps to Save the Newspaper." Some interesting stuff in there, to be sure. His fundamental premise is that North American newspapers are dying a slow and painful death while their European counterparts seem to be thriving. It follows, Rand-Hendriksen figures, that we should think about being more like those journo-blokes across the pond.

Ideas I like most:

* The Internet is a visual medium, so be largely visual on it. Scrap the text-heavy look and feel most news sites use now, and go heavy with Flash grafix, video, audio and the use of photos to tell stories. This doesn't mean we have to dumb it down. Not entirely, anyway. But it does suggest we'd have to learn to tell stories in entirely new ways.

* Start a weekly news magazine. Eventually, this may be all that's left for print anyway. Interesting idea.

* Start ventures and projects that fall well outside the traditional definition of news and newsgathering. Not sure how this would look, but it has potential.

* Let everyone be a critic. I like this a lot. We should implement this one tomorrow.

* Finally, and most importantly, become a broadcaster. We not only have more and better reporters and editors than local TV stations, we don't have the limits that are placed on them by regulations and that other old-school medium -- television. Let's turn ourselves into full-service Internet broadcasters and eat their lunch in the Web-video news future.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

There but for the grace of, well, somebody...

This "Teetering 10" list from Douglas A. McIntyre. The good news: My current employer isn't on the list. The bad news: Ten other papers are, including a sister publication (Cleveland) and a former employer (Boston).

Editor's Note: A repudiation of McIntyre's list came out a few days later on the blog Reflections of a Newsosaur.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Facebook journalism. Or not.

Joshua Benton posted this interesting, if not particularly scientific, survey on the Nieman Journalism Lab today. The most interesting part of all came in the comments. One idea the commenters seemed to like was to offer a basic level of news for free, while charging for "premium" information. That's a vague prescription for reform, but it would be significantly better than we have at the moment. Advertising would continue to be the primary revenue vehicle for the "basic" service, and user fees would become the primary revenue source for the premium services.

It's a thought.

Bottom's up

David Carr, in his Sunday column, stated the obvious: "At the best of times, newspaper publishers are not a risk-taking bunch, and these aren't the best of times." The list of the risk-averse goes far beyond publishers, actually. Many (if not most) of the people in senior leadership in any newspaper company were groomed, elevated and trained to be good stewards of mature businesses. Innovation and entrepreneurial spirit weren't part of the equation. And probably shouldn't have been at the time. But the times, as we know, have changed. The question is whether we can hold on long enough for a new generation to take over before many of our companies cease to exist at all.

So what do we do? Carr advocates collusion between papers in different markets as a path toward a sustainable future business model. It could work. But I think all those risk-averse editors and publishers and vice presidents of marketing are scared enough at the moment that they're looking wild-eyed around the country for anybody with a great new idea. Innovate, in other words, and everybody else will follow in a hot flash if it seems to be working.

We don't need to collude, or try to scrap the Newspaper Preservation Act. We just need to be bold despite our leadership, to find ways to innovate in spite of the systems we work within. When some of us come up with new ventures that start to get traction, the sheep will follow in short order. We will collude without ever having to collude. So much simpler that way.

Just for the record, Carr is right about free content, aggregators, commoditized ads and even the JOA law. It's just that we don't have time to be playing political games at the moment. Better to take control and start writing the industry's new business plan from wherever you happen to be sitting at the moment.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Electronic editions

Electronic editions are strange animals. These are the .PDF versions of newspapers that many newsrooms put online in addition to their regular Web sites. They're betwixt and between the old world and the new -- exact replicas of the print newspaper in a digital form. As a news consumer, I've never been a huge fan. If I want to read a newspaper, I'll read a newspaper. If I want news online, almost any Web site is going to be preferable to reproductions of a printed page.

But that doesn't mean there might not be legitimate reasons for a newspaper to offer an e-edition, at least during an interim stage while the industry sorts itself out. They're fairly cheap to create, for starters. We've already done 99% of the work gathering, writing, editing and designing the news in a format many customers are comfortable with. All that's required is to arrange to ship .PDFs of the final pages to an FTP site where a vendor can do its magic and put them up by morning. Oh, and to pay that vendor a fee.

The vendors that offer these things are getting better with functionality, too. So e-readers can download their daily papers as MP3s, or have them translated into multiple languages, or optimized for mobile, or clipped electronically by subject, or read alongside related multimedia content. They seem to be especially popular as tools for Newspaper in Education programs, making them available to teachers and students as curriculum aids. (And saving big papers hundreds of thousands of dollars a year on newsprint and ink and distribution from the bad, old NIE days.)

It's possible to use them in other ways, too:

* Reducing circulation stops by making them available to vacationing subscribers

* Offering them instead of or in addition to redelivered papers for subscribers who have delivery problems

* Open them up to all subscribers during adverse weather, which can delay delivery across entire areas

* Make them available to school and public libraries

* Promote them as a more environmentally conscious way to subscribe

* Promote them to non-English-speaking groups, through the translation programs

* Make them available to readers looking for a single-copy purchase

* Offer them to would-be subscribers outside your (ever-shrinking) print distribution area

It's also possible to throw them in free for subscribers who already pay for print. Give those folks a bonus for sticking with us, allowing them to take advantage of all that new functionality. (Audio downloads, mobile optimized version, translation services, clipping service, etc.) And just make it easier for them to read the paper when they're not at home. Boost retention, in short. In this day and age, that's worth quite a bit all by itself.

Here's another idea from a newspaper executive who shall go nameless at a paper I won't identify for the time being: Use the e-edition to continue publishing features and services that get dropped from the print newspaper. Not running the business section every day anymore? Include it with the e-edition, anyway. Dropping classified ads on Mondays? Fine, run them with the e-edition. Losing space for 10 comic strips in the print newspaper? Put them in the e-edition. At a time when newspaper subscribers are legitimately feeling like they're getting less from us all the time, it's one bulwark we can throw up against defections.

At the end of the day, e-editions are not an answer for any of the big issues washing over the industry. This is just not an important part of any strategy to move forward. But these strange animals might be one more small way to keep in the game while we sort out those more significant issues. At this point, we should take every victory -- of any size -- we can get.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Rant of the day

I'm getting tired of the endless blog entries and articles and water cooler discussions about how The Wall Street Journal has figured out how to make customers pay for content online. It's true, but that's not really the point. A large percentage of the Journal's subscribers -- in print and online -- get the paper at work (or through work) and expense it to their employers. It's a unique model, and for more reasons than the paper's (very good) journalism.

That said, we in the big regional newsrooms absolutely, positively must come up with ways to charge for our content in the digital realm before too long. Right now, we're the recording industry in the age of (pre-lawsuit) Napster.

We have to continue to be the highest-quality provider of news in our markets, too, of course. We can't let that slip, no matter how small the newspaper actually becomes as advertising slip-slides away. Otherwise, we won't have anything to sell digitally or otherwise, and we're sunk.

But the bottom line is that advertising will not pay the freight in the future. Or not nearly as much as it's paid in the past. We have to reinvent our distribution model to put more of that burden on customers, whether they like it -- and whether we like it -- or not.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

This gives me the chills...

A Colorado Congressman is gloating over the demise of the Rocky Mountain News, saying the death of traditional journalism (his words, not mine) is generally a good thing.

For government and corporate officials looking for more of a free pass, with no pesky reporters asking questions and demanding documentation, that's probably true. For the rest of us, who depend on a little transparency in our leaders and institutions, maybe not so much.

Monday, March 2, 2009

One future bizz model, courtesy of Michael Hirschorn

(Read the full article here, which deals with the possibility of The New York Times killing off its print edition.)

"What would a post-print Times look like? Forced to make a Web-based strategy profitable, a reconstructed Web site could start mixing original reportage with Times-endorsed reporting from other outlets with straight-up aggregation. This would allow The Times to continue to impose its live-from-the-Upper-West-Side brand on the world without having to literally cover every inch of it. In an optimistic scenario, the remaining reporters—now reporters-cum-bloggers, in many cases—could use their considerable savvy to mix their own reporting with that of others, giving us a more integrative, real-time view of the world unencumbered by the inefficiencies of the traditional journalistic form. Times readers might actually end up getting more exposure than they currently do to reporting resources scattered around the globe, and to areas and issues that are difficult to cover in a general-interest publication...

In this scenario, would begin to resemble a bigger, better, and less partisan version of the Huffington Post, which, until someone smarter or more deep-pocketed comes along, is the prototype for the future of journalism: a healthy dose of aggregation, a wide range of contributors, and a growing offering of original reporting. This combination has allowed the HuffPo to digest the news that matters most to its readers at minimal cost, while it focuses resources in the highest-impact areas. What the HuffPo does not have, at least not yet, is a roster of contributors who can set agendas, conduct in-depth investigations, or break high-level news. But the post-print Times still would."

For the sake of argument, let's say Michael's right. Could this kind of a model work at regional papers? Maybe so. It's getting easier to imagine many things that only months ago sounded like wild implausibilities. To the extent regional papes dominate their markets for news -- which, by and large, they do -- they have the same kind of leverage the Times has nationwide.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The face of things to come

This is undoubtedly true, but so is this.

Nobody has yet figured out a good way to replicate the depth and breadth of journalism committed by the country's major metro newsrooms in any other way. Virtually everything on TV, the radio or online that doesn't come off the police scanner originated in a newspaper newsroom somewhere. But guess what? The big, old, traditional structures built around those newsrooms aren't necessarily the only way to get the job done.

The next phase of online and mobile news will almost certainly include efforts to go after the serious news market while shedding (or never acquiring) the financial and cultural baggage of the newspaper companies. And in most markets, it will likely come from former newsroom folks who've been laid off, took buyouts or sought out startups. These are people who know what they're doing.

The development will come fastest in cities where the traditional newspapers die, as some will likely do this year. But even in markets with relatively stable news orgs, upstarts will be coming for them. And they'll be coming soon, for better or worse. I tend to think it'll be better -- for news consumers and ultimately for journalists and entrepreneurs -- but there'll be a long, painful period first. In fact, the more I read Romenesko and other news blogs, the more I realize that period is well underway.


I'm feeling relatively optimistic these days, about the news industry and my particular hidey-hole within it. It's a great time to be innovating and reinventing ourselves and our business, and I'm having more fun than I've had in a long time. We're building on online store, creating the organization's first iPhone apps, toying again with the concept of an e-paper and doing a long, slow dance with potential content partners.

That said, the handcuffs that continue to be placed on us -- limiting any large-scale innovation -- are real. They're the biggest threat we face. The old "we have met the enemy, and he is us" bit, right?

It's on my mind this morning because humorist and novelist Marc Acito generated by far the biggest laugh of the night at the Portland Schools Foundation Roast Festival last night with the line below. (He was referring to another speaker, Oregonian columnist Anna Griffin.)

So, I went online to read some of her columns, which, of course, meant I had to navigate the Oregonlive Web site. Has anyone here tried to find anything on this site? Seriously, they oughta call it AbandonHopeAllYeWhoEnterHere. Dot Com.

Unfortunately, it's hard to argue with the guy. I mean, if he ever read Anna's columns in the newspaper, there's a tag at the bottom guiding readers to her shelf at Oregonlive. But like an increasing number of Portlaners, he doesn't read the print paper. He wants to find his news online or through his mobile, and we don't necessarily make it easy on him.

So there is a bright future, but it's going to take a fairly large dose of innovation at the local level to find it. One of these days we need to take off the handcuffs and get started.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Radio silence

I never intended for this blog to be well read, or influential, or important in any way. I'm just not that smart and not putting that much time into it. It was just a semi-private outlet for ramblings and rumblings inside my head at a time I was feeling particularly unable to influence change in my own work life. If anyone out there in the ether noticed and felt like engaging in conversations about the future of things, that would be fine, too. But that was about the extent of it.

Yet even I have to feel guilty about going this long with the lights off. Sheesh. The truth is I've been working furiously trying to help build an online store. It's something the paper should have done years ago, admittedly. At least it's a project that's leaning forward a bit, though. And one with future revenue potential. (Though maybe not one with much current revenue potential, given the state of the economy.)

In any case, an early version of my efforts are visible at If things go according to plan, it will grow and evolve in the months ahead.

Which brings me to a point I intended to make in this space weeks ago. One of the legs of the future business model is likely to be that news companies need to be willing to sell -- everything and often. The store is a small and obvious example. The list could also include databases of information we collect and maintain, a speakers' bureau, the licensing of our news for all sorts of purposes, etc.

We should probably attempt to turn a weakness into a strength by leveraging our printing plants into a more full-service print business, too. As the newsprint portion of our business becomes less and less important, we'll have these large and expensive pieces of equipment that increasingly can't pay for their own existence. So hire a division manager to run them like a standalone print business. The newspaper is one client, and an important one, but hardly the only one. Aggressively seek out business that takes advantage of the equipment. Update it, if need be. Be innovative, and grab market share from existing competitors.

I digress. But you get the idea. The era when we were a one-product company is over. The time when we need to have our (business) noses under 50 or 100 different tents is dawning. It's scary, but it's also a helluva lot of fun. So let's stop playing defense and go on offense for a while, eh?

Friday, January 16, 2009

Cross-platform advertising model

A major metro newsroom these days produces far more than a newspaper. My employer, for example, publishes three magazines, more than 100 blogs and a Web site that offers a large number of pages devoted to relatively narrow reader interests. (From neighborhood happenings to sports teams to specific forms of entertainment.)

The trick is to leverage that diversity of outlets on the advertising side, maximizing revenue potential. Now, I don't believe that advertising will continue to carry the lion's share of the weight when it comes to media revenue in the future. (See my previous post about instituting a pay model, and subsequent ones are in the works on other revenue sources.) But advertising will be -- and needs to be -- part of the business-model solution.

What we need to do is become much more sophisticated about our outlets, and the demographic/ethnographic profile of our customers who frequent each. Offer advertisers what they want -- an opportunity to make their sales pitches to specific slices of the reading/viewing/listening audience. Rather than a one-size-fits-all approach, we increasingly have to offer a la carte solutions to advertisers.

So, for example, an advertiser might have specific income, gender, geographic or other criteria in mind for its target market. "I run a fly fishing shop and I'd like to reach men over the age of 35 who make more than $75,000 a year and like to spend time in the outdoors." We could work with that shop owner to identify the eight platforms we provide that cater to that audience, and price the shop's advertising accordingly. Those eight places might include a weekly outdoors column that runs in the sports page, of course. But it would also include the outdoors blog, hiking blog and fishing blog we write and the news Web site we maintain for that shop's neighborhood. And probably a section in one of our monthly magazines that caters to that demographic.

Slice the newspaper and magazines into narrow pieces, and do the marketing research required to know who reads each section/column/feature. Use that information, along with the dozens of blogs and news pages online, to offer advertisers exactly what they want in terms of audience. To do that of course, we first have to understand our audience very well.

This isn't rocket science, of course. It's just one more thing we need to consider as we remake this old-school industry.

Monday, January 12, 2009

The future ain't free

David is right, for better or worse. (It's better, I think.) Even at the regional news outlets like mine, we'll eventually have to move toward a partial-pay model of some sort. It wouldn't surprise me if we eventually have at least four levels of news access:

1. Some base-level content remains free and available to anyone online, at least partially as a marketing tool designed to drive readers to the pay products
2. Full or "premium" subscribers receive access to everything in print and online
3. An online-only subscription available for people who do not want the dead-tree product on their porch
4. An a la carte option for one-time users or people for whom the free news is generally enough

This kind of a structure, combined with some advertising, could start to resemble a business model. Someday.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Ads on the front page?!? The horror... The horror...

Okay, the sky has officially fallen. Or the old gray lady has hit the deck, anyway. The New York Times published its first across-the-bottom front page ad this morning.

Everything in my journalism DNA wants to scream out against this incursion of consumerism on sacred news space. For years, I quietly cheered editors at my paper and elsewhere who bragged about fending off money-grubbing advertising managers who came begging each year for the chance to sell ads on section fronts. But now, with everybody hemoraging cash, the money grubbers are increasingly winning those fights.

And you know what? It's not the end of the world.

Print is increasingly our secondary product, anyway. Another ad, no matter where it appears, is not the enemy. A general lack of advertising will be our undoing, if anything.

The thing to be careful about is that we get additional revenue by taking the plunge. It seems like a no-brainer, but the situation might be more complicated than it appears.

In a recession, there's a chance that if we open new space on the front, some existing advertisers will merely move from the inside to a better position. Incremental revenue gains might be small -- or nonexistent -- as we struggle to keep the big advertisers we have now in the fold.

In that case, we've given away a valuable piece of property and gained little in return. So it's the business-side guys, rather than the editors, who will need to know when to say "no" in the months ahead. Because we all know, in the wake of the Times' decision, pressure will be on everybody else to start offering the same perks before long.