By Paul Gillin | August 5, 2014 - 12:04 pm - Posted in Business News, Future of Journalism, Journalism, Layoffs, Newspapers

Robot

On one level we can understand the teeth-gnashing that follow the Associated Press’ announcement that it plans to start using robots to write the majority of U.S. corporate earnings stories. Robots seem to bring out the Luddite in all of us. What we can’t understand is why anyone outside of a few shop stewards should want to preserve the jobs that will invariably be lost to this new kind of automation.

Actually, the AP says no jobs will be eliminated. “This is about using technology to free journalists to do more journalism and less data processing, not about eliminating jobs,” wrote Lou Ferrara, vice president and managing editor, on the AP blog. You can bet that robots are going to eliminate reporting jobs in the future, though, just like linotype machines replaced human typesetters and computer pagination replaced paste-up jobs. It’s called efficiency, and job loss is one of the distasteful consequences.

We’d suggest that much of the labor impact will actually be felt overseas, which is where the menial jobs have already migrated. Robo-journalists in India and the Philippines will need to improve their skills to continue to get work from U.S. and European publishers, and journalists in home offices will need to up their games as well. That’s a good thing.

What isn’t good is preserving jobs that eat up time and editors’ attention. In one of our recent assignments we worked with a technology news site that employs a small staff of seasoned journalists but that gets most of its content from an offshore body shop that rewrites press releases and news from other websites. The reporters who write this chum make about five cents a word, and in our view they’re overpaid.

Stories come in full of grammatical and usage errors, and many are missing basic facts or explanations. Professional editors spend hours each day fixing these mistakes and trying to educate the writers, which is a fool’s errand because most of them don’t last more than a few months on the job anyway. These tasks can now be automated, and many of them will be. The result will be at a better quality of work for everyone involved.

Will the stories that robots produce be as good as those that humans could write? Probably not, but it’s the market’s job to judge that. The only thing that’s certain is that the quality of robotic journalism will only improve over time. The human journalists who embrace this trend will learn to use their silicon sidekicks as research associates and fact-checkers. Robotics should ultimately make journalism a much more rewarding profession, but it will cost jobs.

Take heart in the fact that newsrooms won’t be hit nearly as hard as many other workplaces. “The factory of the future will have only two employees: a man and a dog,” said Carl Bass, the CEO of Autodesk. “The man will be there to feed the dog. The dog will be there to keep the man from touching the equipment.”

Steve Outing

Steve Outing

The leaked “innovation” report from The New York Times that made the rounds in May recommends that the company take more risks, move more quickly and consider radical steps to reinvent itself. Steve Outing wonders what would happen if the Times abandoned daily print editions, and he’s built an elaborate “what-if?” model to test the idea.

Outing’s model doesn’t answer the question, but it does provide a new tool with which to evaluate options. “Most news companies aren’t very good at grokking what’s coming at them or what likely futures could be ahead for them,” wrote Outing in an e-mail to us. “What I did was demonstrate one tool of strategic foresight that news companies should consider using.”

Outing would like to get more consulting gigs working for news organizations that need reinvention, and we hope he gets some. A self-described media futurist, he’s been challenging assumptions about the slow-moving newspaper industry for the past two decades. Read more here. We were fans of a blog called Reinventing Classifieds that he launched back in 2008 that recommended radical new ways to revive the highly profitable newspaper classified advertising business. To our knowledge, no on took him up on his ideas.

For this exercise, Outing applies a “Futures Wheel” to envision a Times that only publishes on Sunday. The exercise is meant to envision every impact on the paper’s business, including staffing costs, production savings, new sources  of revenue and circulation revenue. Outing has modeled his scenario out to two levels of detail. To fully understand the implications you need to go to  third level, and that involves surveys and pilots. Outing will do you that for any newspaper that wants to hire him.

Asked what value news organizations can gain from this exercise, he wrote, “Technological change is accelerating at a faster rate; indeed, exponentially, when it comes to computing power. This means that anyone’s business model can be disrupted, if not obliterated, faster than ever before. So now is a critical time to start seriously using strategic-foresight tools and techniques (futures wheels being just one) to better prepare for likely and plausible challenges and opportunities.”

He’s right. How many media executives have the vision to take him on the offer? Click here to see an enlarged view of the image.


 

Observers of the cratering newspaper industries in the US and Europe may be surprised at this news: Print newspaper circulation around the world actually increased 2% in 2013 compared to 2012. The pocket of strength comes from rapidly maturing economies in Asia and Latin America, where people who a generation ago might have used newspapers mainly for kindling are now finding them to be valuable for the purposes for which they were intended.

That’s the highlights from the latest World Press Trends survey, which was released last by the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers. The survey includes data from more than 90% of the news organizations that make up the industry’s total value.

There was no good news report in North America and Europe, where with print circulation dropped 5.3% last year and 10.3% over the last five years. Print ad revenues in North America are down a sickening 29.6% over five years. In Europe, print circulation declines have been even greater – 23% over five years – although advertising dollars have not fallen as quickly.

It’s quite a different story in Asia/Pacific, where print circulation is up 6.7% over the last five years and ad revenues have nudged ahead 3.3% during that time. Latin America is booming. Print circulation is up 6.3% over five years and ad revenues are up a stunning 50%.

It all adds up to an industry that’s a lot more stable on a global basis that many people thought. While overall revenue annual is down about 13% since 2008, results in 2013 were essentially flat, indicating that the industry’s freefall has slowed.

This is no time to celebrate, however. The last two years have shown that the developing world is migrating quickly to electronic media the expense of print, which still delivers 90% of the global industry revenues. While publishers report some success with packaged print and digital subscriptions (single-copy sales are down 26% worldwide but subscription sales are only down 8%), no one has yet solved the revenue problem.

Print Newspaper Circulation and Advertising Trends

 

By Paul Gillin | May 29, 2014 - 6:33 am - Posted in Innovation, Newspapers, Solutions

The Newspaper Association of America (NAA) was in denial during the early years of the industry’s crash, but lately the organization has been doing good work to highlight the new spirit of innovation that is taking hold across its membership. As the numbers in this infographic demonstrate, U.S. newspapers have a lot to be proud of. They reached 145 million unique visitors in January alone and the Washington Post and New York Times each drove more than a quarter-million tweets each week.

One of the things we like most about this infographic is the attribution. Go to the page on the NAA site to get clickable links to the source data. We wish more infographic producers would take this small step to make their numbers more believable.

Evolution of Newspaper Innovation - Newspaper Association of America

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English: A speech in The New York Times newsro...
A speech in The New York Times newsroom after the announcement of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize winners (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We finally got a chance to read through the 96-page “Innovation” report commissioned by the management of The New York Times and leaked last week in the wake of the firing of Executive Editor Jill Abramson on Tuesday. Joshua Benton at Nieman Journalism Lab has already called the report “one of the most remarkable documents” he’s seen in his tenure, and detailed coverage has appeared on BuzzFeed, Mashable and numerous other outlets. We won’t go into detail on excerpts (Nieman’s coverage is the most exhaustive we saw) but thought it was worth sharing a few issues that stuck with us.

In a nutshell, the report makes a powerful case for a complete restructuring of the way the Times approaches its “paper of record” role. The extent of the criticisms contained therein will shock the many people who have come to believe that the Times is the standard-bearer for “digital-first” journalism among traditional media outlets, but there’s plenty of data and examples to support these conclusion.

Twenty years into the commercial Web, little has really changed about the culture at the Old Gray Lady, even as digital and print editorial operations have merged, the report says. Stories are filed late in the day in accordance with traditional print deadlines. Ambitious features are scheduled for Sundays, when print readership is largest but online readership dwindles. Mobile apps are organized by print sections. Traditional reporting skills dominate hiring and promotion decisions and a byline on Page One of the print edition is still considered the gold standard of success.

This is despite the fact that – as the report documents on page 81 – print readers are the smallest audience the Times has. Mobile and desktop readers together dwarf the print audience by a factor of 10. A dying medium still holds sway at the most prominent journalism institution in the U.S.

A few themes run throughout the document that we found noteworthy:

Audience Is Earned

One of the most compelling quotes we read was from Janine Gibson, editor-in-chief of The Guardian’s website. “For someone with a print background, you’re accustomed to the fact that if it… gets into the paper you’re going to find an audience,” she said. “It’s entirely the other way around as a digital journalist. The realization that [the audience is] not going to just come and read it has been transformative.”

This observation underlies some of the core recommendations of the report, which are that the newsroom needs to work much more collaboratively with design and promotion than it has traditionally. In most newsrooms, journalists work in a cocoon and throw finished products over the wall to designers and publicists for packaging and promotion. However, user experience has become critical to success. That’s because readers themselves are becoming the primary traffic-drivers. In other words, great journalism that isn’t easy to access and share doesn’t get very far.

The report has some internal traffic metrics that dramatize what most Web publishers have probably known for a while: Traffic to websites in general and homepages in particular is declining while content is increasingly being consumed through aggregators and mobile devices. The internal data also validates what has been speculated for a couple of years: Readers are now the dominant revenue source, making up 52% of 2013 sales compared to 43% from advertising.

With readers increasingly in control, the report recommends a step that still draws gasps from journalism veterans: Eliminate the wall between the newsroom and the business. “Increased collaboration, done right, does not present any threat to our values of journalistic independence,” the authors declare, recognizing what digital first publishers discovered a decade ago.

The Wall is still very much in place at The New York Times. Popular innovations like a searchable recipe database and the ability to follow stories of interest have come out of product and design groups rather than the editorial side. The Times does a good job of researching its audience, the authors say, but the newsroom has shown little interest in participating in surveys and focus groups. Designers complain that they are treated like second-class citizens. Editors who want to collaborate with colleagues outside the newsroom have to do so on the sly. Researchers said the vast majority of developers at the Times believe they aren’t even allowed to set foot in the newsroom.

Barriers between editorial and business functions are an expensive luxury that media organizations can no longer afford. What the Innovation report makes clear is that the business side contributes far more to the reader experience online than it ever did in print.

Platforms Matter More Than Packages

The Times enjoyed plenty of well-deserved praise for “Snow Fall,” a mesmerizing visual feature it published in late 2012. As beautiful as that package was, the fact that it hasn’t been repeated in 18 months points to the problem of putting resources behind what the report calls “labor-intensive one-offs”.

Snow Fall Intro screen

Snow Fall is cited repeatedly as an example of what the Times is capable of but fails to achieve in its daily operations because it fails to attend to the nuts and bolts of digital media. “Our competitors, particularly digital-native ones, treat platform innovation as a core function,” the authors write. They point in particular to BuzzFeed, which has equipped its editors with a wide palette of interactive storytelling tools, as a better model. While the results aren’t necessarily elegant, they are repeatable, and that’s more important.

In contrast, the Times has failed even to carry out a consistent approach to tagging, a well-established technique for categorizing content in a way that makes it easy to reuse. This has often-unforseen ripple effects. For example, the lack of tags has frustrated efforts to create a useful recipe database, hampered search engine visibility, prevented the paper from automating sale of its photos and limited its ability to target content by geography.

We Are All Publicists

Some of the report’s harshest criticism is aimed at the Times’ reluctance to promote its own work. The legacy of great journalism has become, in many ways, a handicap. Editors believe that journalism alone will carry the paper while competitors invest aggressively in promotion, data analysis and systems to move quickly and double down on success.

Publications like The Guardian, Huffington Post and The Atlantic expect staffers not only to promote their own work but to know how to write headlines that maximize sharing potential. Huffington Post won’t publish a story unless it has a photo, a search-optimized headline, a tweet and a Facebook post.

In contrast, the Times editors didn’t notify publicists of their acclaimed Invisible Child series on New York’s homeless children until it was too late to do any advance work. The reporter failed to even tweet about the feature for two days.

While the Times has millions of collective Twitter followers through its branded and individual accounts, the paper generates less than 10% of its digital traffic from social media. In contrast, BuzzFeed generates six times as much from those sources, the report notes. That’s because social promotion is considered an afterthought. For example, the Twitter feed run by the newsroom is used mainly for reporting rather than for audience development.

The report also criticizes Times management for doing too little to connect with readers. While competitors like Huffington Post and Medium have prospered by making their publishing brands a platform for anyone who wants to contribute, the Times still rejects dozens of op-ed submisions from thought leaders every day. The enormously popular TED Talks, which charge up to $7,500 per ticket, could have been a Times invention, but the paper has failed to market even its relatively modest Times Talks series. “One of our biggest concerns is that the Times will start a real conference program,” says a TED executive quoted in the report.

Gaping Hole on the Business Question

The most glaring shortcoming of the Innovation report is its lack of any creative ideas for solving the revenue problem. This may have been by design, since the team had no representatives from the business side. However, a small chart on page 81 shows the extent of this problem. Print still accounts for 75% of advertising revenues and 82% of circulation revenues. That adds up to $1.4 billion from the print side of the house compared to just $320 million online.

No one has figured out how to bring those numbers closer together, and in an environment of continually expanding inventory and declining CPMs, it’s unlikely anyone will. Marc Andreessen has proposed that publishers need to think differently about their businesses, seeking out much larger audiences with low-priced products. That sounds like a reasonable course, but the Times’ report makes it clear that BuzzFeed, Upworthy, Business Insider, and HuffPo are getting there much more quickly than the Old Gray Lady.

We’re impressed that the management of the Times was willing to commit resources to a project that was bound to return unflattering results and likely to be leaked. Now that the findings are there for all to see, it’s a question of whether management can follow through on them. Assuming that most newspapers are well behind the times in digital integration, it’s a fair bet that a lot of publishers will take cues from this research.

The Full New York Times Innovation Report by Amanda Wills, Mashable

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By Paul Gillin | May 7, 2014 - 3:25 pm - Posted in Newspapers

Are page views your primary measure of success for your website or a story thereupon? Well cut it out. Page views are about as relevant an indicator of content value as the height of the starting center is a predictor of the success of a basketball team.

What should journalists measure?The issue of what online publishers should measure was the topic of a panel at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia last week. Experts debated whether page views have any value at all. We think they don’t. In fact, we think they have negative value.

“Provocative headlines and images encourage people to click but it does not mean they enjoy the content…and the spreading of articles over multiple pages has also allowed many sites to boost their metrics,” said Tony Haile, chief executive of analytics firm Chartbeat, quoted in a piece on Journalism.co.uk.

People count page views because it’s easy, but the metric is almost meaningless. It’s easy to drive valueless page views to a website by posting celebrity photos and top 10 lists. Lots of people will visit, few will stay and almost none will return. What’s worse, panelists said, is that obsession with page views creates valueless traffic that drives down the value of inventory and, with it, advertising rates. In a world of infinite inventory, “the value of advertising space will always decline,” Haile said.

And the Alternative Is…?

So what’s better? No one agrees. Some people say social shares are a superior engagement metric, but research has shown that people share stuff without bothering to read it. Time spent on site is another popular alternative, but no analytics tool can distinguish between an engaged reader and a browser tab left open for two hours.

Steffen Konrath, chief executive of Liquid Newsroom, said the Holy Grail is relevance, which is determined by conducting research among focus groups and then giving people what they ask for. The problem with that is that what people ask for isn’t always what they should read. One of the principal values of traditional newspapers is that they give readers stuff they don’t ask for but need to know anyway. This service has been almost vaporized by the Internet echo chamber.

We once worked at an Internet publishing startup that was laser-focused on page views. From an advertising perspective this was understandable. Inventory was at a premium and the more traffic we could generate the more revenue came in. From an editorial perspective, however, the strategy was a disaster. Editors quickly learned that they could drive traffic by posting trivia contests and virtual scavenger hunts. Traffic grew quickly but repeat visits plummeted. The people who visited weren’t the technology professionals we coveted but rather gamers with time on their hands.

The Perugia panel discussion covered concluded that there is no one ideal metric, and they were right. As journalists, we think audience engagement is what matters, and that can be measured through a combination of factors like shares, repeat visits, comments, time spent on site and pages per visit. For advertisers, total eyeballs may matter more. What’s important is to measure the factors that everyone can agree indicate that the right audience is coming and that they’re staying for the right reasons.

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Circulation revenue for U.S. newspapers grew for the second consecutive year, rising 3.7% to $10.87 billion in 2013, according to preliminary data from the Newspaper Association of America.

However, that wasn’t enough to offset continuing deterioration in the advertising business. Total revenues for the industry were $37.59 billion, off 2.6% from 2012. The good news is that the rate of decline appears to be slowing. The bad news is that digital advertising is growing more slowly for newspapers than it is for the industry as a whole. The U.S. online ad market grew by 17% year-over-year in 2013, but newspapers’ digital ad revenues increased by just 1.5%. Digital advertising now accounts for 12% of total industry revenue. It’s not clear how native advertising is being factored into those numbers.

Incidentally, online ad spending  surpassed broadcast TV revenue for the first time last year, according to the Interactive Advertising Bureau.

An interesting new area of growth is digital agency marketing services, in which media companies help local businesses build a digital marketing presence through services like online advertising and direct mail. That business grew 43% last year, although from a very small base.

Declines in traditional print advertising continued their numbing downward trend, falling 8.6% from the previous year. Classified advertising was off 10.5%.

An interesting factor in circulation revenue growth is the success of digital-only circulation revenue, which was up 47%. Bundled print and digital circulation packages increased 108%. However, print-only circulation revenue dropped 20%.

Read more on MediaLife.

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With BuzzFeed and Upworthy reporting eye-popping traffic growth and planning to hire teams of reporters, many people are wondering whether sharing is the new currency of media success.

The idea is that if you give readers enough top-ten lists and animated GIFs they’ll do all your marketing for you. You don’t even have to worry about search engine optimization because nothing ever went viral on search. This philosophy has even given birth to a new style of headline writing that’s intended to stimulate sharing (“Why’s This Kid Throwing Coins? The Reason May Or May Not Blow Your Mind, But Something Does Blow Up,” reads one recent Upworthy example).

Henry Blodget

But maybe sharing isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. In a recent case study on USA Today, Michael Wolff looks at Business Insider, the hyper-caffeinated new-media brainchild of exiled Wall Street bad boy Henry Blodget. Business Insider is notorious for its fixation on being first and for driving its reporters to exhaustion. It’s a content mill – albeit with higher quality than many of its peers – that churns out large volumes of information in the quest to earn shares on Facebook and Twitter.

And it’s generating traffic: 25.4 million unique visitors in January, says Wolff. The problem is that Business Insider has low reader loyalty:

Only a small percentage of Business Insider’s traffic actually seeks it out and regards it as a worthy destination and a source with particular brand authority. Most other readers land on a Business Insider article because of search-engine results, or because of an engaging — tabloid-style — headline in a Facebook feed and other social-media promotions, which generate 30% of Business Insider’s traffic.

Wolff asserts that this drive-by traffic has little value because readers don’t identify with the brand. Worse is that the drive for big numbers becomes a race to the bottom.  As advertising rates continue to drift lower, publishers must seek ever-higher traffic volumes to stay in the same place. This means resorting to gimmicks like contests, cheesecake photos and celebrity gossip. That attracts poor-quality traffic which has low brand affinity and little value to advertisers. It’s a vicious cycle.

Digital Dimes

Blodget disagrees. In a response on Business Insider he says that the very problems Wolff cites are actually opportunities. New media companies don’t have legacy businesses to protect and so are free to disrupt mainstream competitors and steal revenue, he says. “We are better at serving digital readers than many traditional news organizations, so we can thrive on these ‘digital dimes,’” writes Blodget. His post displays a photo of what are presumably a group of happy young reporters in the company’s New York offices (Wolff says Business insider has hired 70 full-time journalists at a cost of more than $15 million a year. Do the math).

We think Wolff is on to something. Take a look at the chart below from the Pew Research Journalism Project. It depicts traffic to the 26 most popular U.S. news sites over a three-month period. It shows conclusively that visitors who reach a site directly (via a bookmark or typing the address into a browser) stay much longer, read much more and visit more often.

This isn’t surprising when you think about it. Typing “nyt.com” into a browser is an act of brand affinity, whereas headline-clickers on Facebook don’t really care where the headline comes from. The BuzzFeeds and Upworthys of the world must compete headline by headline. Is that a problem?

Attracting readers with gimmicks is nothing new. One of the myths of the news business is that people read newspapers primarily for the news. The reality is that they read for all kinds of reasons. Any veteran of the pre-digital publishing days will tell you that an embarrassingly large number of traditional newspaper readers bought copies for the coupons, Ann Landers, comics, the Jumble and the daily horoscope.

But at least in those days readers knew what brand to buy. Today’s audience has more affinity to the content than to the publisher, and aggregators like Flipboard are constantly looking for ways to supersede publishers’ brands with their own. Brand still matters. A click is not the same as a reader.

 

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Marc Andreessen, internet pioneer and founder ...

Marc Andreessen, internet pioneer and founder of Netscape at Web 2.0 Expo in San Francisco, CA (Photo credit: TechShowNetwork)

Pretty much anything Marc Andreessen writes is worth reading, and his latest treatise on the future of the news business should be required reading for any publishing executive.

The man who arguably started all the trouble with the invention of the Mosaic browser in 1993 isn’t just an optimist on the future of the news business; he’s positively bullish about it. But the future he sees is much more like the newspaper market of the turn of the 20th century than the one that dominated the last 30 years of the 21st.

His 3,000-word prescription boils down to a few basic points, not all of which are new:

Run the news business like a business. Take advantage of the many new revenue sources that are emerging, in particular native advertising and subscriptions.

Take advantage of media democratization. Sure, anybody can be a publisher today, but that’s an opportunity as well as a problem. Universal media access creates noise, which presents opportunities for aggregators to simplify the cacophony. It also creates the possibility of much larger audiences than we have known the past. “The big opportunity for the news industry in the next five to 10 years is to increase its market size 100x AND drop prices 10X,” Andreessen writes. In other words, throw out the business model that relied upon scarcity and replace it with one that values abundance.

Stop playing defense. The good old days of news monopolies and oligopolies are gone forever, so get over it and focus on the future. The few organizations that have successfully crossed the chasm – he mentions The Guardian and The New York Times – began thinking digital-first years ago. What are the rest of you waiting for?

Find new revenue models. Bitcoin is going to make micro-payments feasible, so study up and start experimenting. And tear down that Chinese wall. It defeats too many new business ideas. Outlets like the Atlantic and the Times are finding ways to make blended advertising and editorial work and actually growing their influence in the process.

Andreessen provides numerous examples of new and traditional media enterprises that are succeeding and growing. They include several that we’ve talked about here previously as well as a few that we haven’t, including Anandtech, The Verge and Vice.

On the subject of investigative reporting, Andreessen is almost sanguine. “The total global expense budget of all investigative journalism is tiny —  in the neighborhood of tens of millions of dollars annually. That’s the good news; small money problems are easier to solve than big money nightmares.” He believes a combination of crowd funding and philanthropy can more than cover the costs of the necessary Baghdad bureaus and investigative teams.”

The future of news will see fewer large media empires and many more small, focused enterprises. These organizations will take advantage of improved economies that enable them to reach vastly larger audiences at much lower cost than in the past. The mainstream media survivors will be those that move the quickest to tear down old infrastructure and seize every opportunity to reinvent themselves.

Can Technology Save the News?

Pierre Omidyar

eBay founder and news investor Pierre Omidyar

A considerably less optimistic but more diverse perspective is contained in an article from the excellent Knowledge@Wharton service. Technology Can Save the News — If Readers Change How They Consume It consolidates the opinions of several Wharton faculty members about how mainstream media can be saved. They agree that standalone, for-profit news organizations are unsustainable but that that independent journalism is too valuable to sacrifice.

The professors see promise in the interest of billionaires like eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos in owning media companies. Omidyar recently committed $250 million to a startup media venture run by journalist Glenn Greenwald and Bezos ponied up the same amount to buy the Washington Post last summer.

No one believes these investors are buying traditional media properties for their growth potential. Rather, they think media companies are undervalued and they may see synergies with their other businesses. For example, targeted advertising delivered by Amazon’s impressive recommendation engine could yield immediate sales for advertisers and drive up Amazon revenues.

Many rich people also have an interest in advancing political agendas out of either self-interest or ideology, and media companies provide an ideal bully pulpit. The risk is that these media come to reflect the politics of their owners too closely and contribute to the “echo chamber” problem in which audiences choose to listen only to the outlets that reflect their beliefs.

On this question, Wharton marketing professor Pinar Yildirim is cautiously optimistic. She believes that the proliferation of slanted outlets like Fox News will create a backlash as consumers seek independent voices. “Technology can bring us perspectives other than our own, if the ones designing it build that into the architecture, and the ones consuming the news are open to it,” she says.

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By Paul Gillin | January 6, 2014 - 1:44 pm - Posted in Newspapers

North Adams Transcript Logo

Martin Langeveld is a 30-year newspaper publishing veteran who was for 13 years the publisher of several newspapers in Northwestern Massachusetts and southern Vermont. He also was executive vice president and director of interactive media for New England Newspapers, Inc., a four-daily cluster which is part of Denver-based MediaNews Group, Inc. He tipped us off last week to the impending closure of the 170-year-old North Adams Transcript, which he piloted for six years. We asked him for his thoughts, which he shared by e-mail.

Martin Langeveld

I started my newspaper career at The Berkshire Eagle in 1978, served as publisher from 1995 to 2000, then did a stint as publisher at the Transcript 2000-2006 and at the Brattleboro Reformer 2006-2008.

For about 85 years, from 1896 to 1979, the Transcript was owned by the Hardman family, which then sold the paper to the owners of the Boston Globe. The Berkshire Eagle at the time was owned by the Miller family, who had bought the paper in 1892. The two families had a friendly rivalry, but when the Hardmans decided to sell, they let it be known that they would not sell to the Millers — because they were afraid the Millers would simply merge the two papers.

The Millers unsuccessfully attempted an end run using a straw man, and then they tried again, without success, when the Globe put the paper up for sale 10 years later and sold it to American Publishing. The Millers sold to MediaNews Group in 1995, and MediaNews bought the Transcript from American Publishing a year later. A couple of years after that, Michael Miller, a third-generation member of the former publishing family, asked me why we hadn’t merged the papers yet — thus confirming the suspicions of the Hardmans. (In the early 1980s, the Millers had merged two other papers, The Torrington Register and the Winsted Citizen in Connecticut, into the Register-Citizen.)

It’s a fact that we ran the numbers in 1996 and concluded that the bottom line was marginally better keeping the papers separate versus merging them, but the deciding factor was really Dean Singleton’s passion for newspapering and his conviction that North Adams was a separate place from Pittsfield and should continue to have its own paper. He brought in a designer, we improved the looks and content, and restored the original, handsome Gothic name plate. Over the years, of course, a long series of small consolidation steps merged the business and production functions of the two papers, and the Transcript’s building was sold, to the point where a final consolidation became the simple step it now appears to be.

Since there was not a huge bottom-line advantage to separate operations back in 1996, I doubt if there’s much financial advantage to merger today. The North Adams office is being retained, as is the journalism staff. The sales staffs were merged long ago and the business office functions were consolidated in Pittsfield. There might be a few circulation positions eliminated. But on the other hand, more copies of the larger Eagle will have to be printed; deliveries will have to be made to all the same places; and circulation revenue will be lost to the extent there was duplication. Back in the day, you could raise advertising rates based on the circulation increase, but that pricing power is gone. There was some duplicated preprint advertising which will be lost.

So my guess is that the justifications for the merger consist of (a) less management distraction managing two different brands in the same market, and (b) the perceived opportunities in focusing on a single region-wide brand. Readers really will gain something since the two papers duplicated coverage on a lot of events, so the expanded Eagle staff can now cover more. (Hopefully there will be enough newshole available to print what they write.) 

The region — the Berkshires — is a brand in itself, which has always been a strength exploited by the Eagle. So the move announced at the same time (making the Berkshires Week supplement, published since 1952, a year-round standalone publication) is a smart one, especially if it’s accompanied by a good online strategy.

It’s understandable the names of the papers will not be merged into Eagle-Transcript. But I’ve suggested that the Transcript logo be retained in a small way as part of the Eagle’s editorial page masthead. The Transcript’s 170 years of publishing history should not vanish without a trace.

Read more of Langeveld’s wisdom at the Nieman Journalism Lab.
North Adams Transcript website.

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