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.