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.