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.

By Paul Gillin | January 3, 2014 - 4:51 pm - Posted in Business News, Local news, Newspapers, R.I.P.

NorthAdamsTranscriptThe North Adams Transcript, a daily fixture in northwestern Massachusetts since 1843, will be merged into the larger Berkshire Eagle later this month. The Transcript name will be discontinued and its five-person full-time editorial staff will join the Eagle. A sister weekly newspaper, the Advocate, will also be folded.

While putting the usual happy face on the announcement, management did provide a rationale for the move: “Publishing two daily newspapers that cover the same market – literally, they overlap – no longer makes sound business sense when one accounts for the duplicate efforts and redundancy in the processes involved in producing, delivering and servicing two newspapers that share the same mission,” wrote Publisher Kevin Corrado and News VP Kevin Moran in a joint message to readers.

The Transcript is  one of four Massachusetts newspapers owned by MediaNews Group of Colorado, which is one of the largest newspaper publishers in the U.S. The company is known for its practice of buying multiple newspapers in the same region and centralizing production, ad sales, business operations and even editorial operations to cut costs. Some former staffers have complained that MediaNews sacrifices journalistic quality for the sake of profits.

In this case, however, the merger probably make sense. The Berkshires are the most rural area of Massachusetts, and with readership declining across the industry the wisdom of maintaining overlapping titles would be questionable. Fortunately, no reporting jobs were lost.

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Final print edition of The Onion

Final print edition of The Onion

It is neither major, metro nor daily, but we would be remiss in not marking the passage from the world of the printed page of The Onion, which has long borne the self-effacing tagline of “America’s Finest News Source.”

Founded by two juniors at the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 1988, the satirical journal has thrived online with its diet of satirical news stories written with such deadpan earnestness that The Onion’s entry on Wikipedia lists more than 15 prominent cases of third-party sources citing it as a legitimate news outlet, usually to their embarrassment

Unlike many newspapers that have left the print world, The Onion is merely following its overwhelmingly young and Web-savvy audience. The paper became international phenomenon when it hit the web in 1996 and traffic to theonion.com reportedly now averages 7.5 million unique visitors per month. Its YouTube channel has 670,000 subscribers and The Onion has been liked on Facebook 3.2 million times.

The Onion has been gradually withdrawing from the print market for years. Its last remaining print editions – which were in Chicago, Providence, and Milwaukee – published their final copies last week. Not surprisingly, they were a tribute to the durability of print. Headlines included: “‘ONION’ PRINT REVENUES UP 5,000%,” “Nation Just Prefers Feel Of Newsprint In Hands” and “Experts: Digital Media Revolution Still Another 70 Or 80 Years Away.”

We were subscribers to the print edition of The Onion for several years and keep its RSS feed in our carefully curated list of media sources. We still have trouble reading it without the milk coming out our nose.

 

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We did a double-take when we saw this headline on Bloomberg last week: “BuzzFeed Said to Expect 2014 Sales of Up to $120 Million.” If you haven’t paid much attention to BuzzFeed, now is a good time to start, because this seven-year-old dark horse may have figured out the secret to making money in an environment of brutal competition and plummeting advertising prices.

The story relates some impressive statistics:

  • BuzzFeed expects to book $60 million in revenue this year, up from an initial budget of $40 million.
  • Year-over-year traffic is up fourfold.
  • The site attracted more than 130 million unique visitors in November.
  • BuzzFeed expects to field more than 600 ad campaigns this year.
  • It has raised $46 million.
  • It’s profitable.
Image representing Jonah Peretti as depicted i...

Image via CrunchBase

Casual visitors to BuzzFeed might be tempted to dismiss the site as just another collection of top-10 lists. That’s understandable, given that top stories bear names like, “The 28 Funniest Notes Written By Kids In 2013,” but there’s more to BuzzFeed than mouse candy.

The site was founded by Jonah Peretti (right), an MIT Media Lab alumnus who also co-founded Huffington Post. Peretti has made a career of figuring out how to make stuff that people want to share, and his latest venture appears to have cracked the code (For more on the new journalism discipline of writing for maximum share appeal, read this article).

Everything on BuzzFeed is optimized for sharing because that’s the secret to building traffic. BuzzFeed eschews traditional search engine optimization. “We don’t spend that much time thinking about search,” Peretti told Fortune in this interview. It focuses instead on the psychology of sharing: What content do people instinctively want to tell others about? In the long run, Peretti thanks sharing by humans will be a more important factor in online success than search results.

Unlike some other content farms, BuzzFeed has designs on serious journalism. Peretti has said he plans to hire 200 professional journalists, and the site’s news section is beginning to look more and more like what CNN used to. In essence, the cat videos and wet T-shirt slide shows bring in visitors s

o serious reporting can happen.

BuzzFeed is perhaps best known for its novel approach to native advertising. Sponsored content appears in line with staff material (it’s lightly labeled) and uses the same format as everything else on the site: lots of lists, photos and captions. Sponsors are encouraged to come up with creative ideas that will fit the look and feel of the site. Intel has 10 Pieces Of Vintage Technology We Couldn’t Wait To Have and Ruffles came up with 12 Reasons Dogs Really Are Man’s Best Friend. Peretti told Fortune:

We told brands, “You have to tell a story.” This is actually something the magazine industry has been great at over decades — making advertising that actually adds to the product. It’s something that websites have completely failed to do…If you take all of the ads out of a fashion magazine, you lose half the photography, you know? So we really took the approach of, “Well, why can’t the web be like that? Why can’t we make great branded content, advertising, that has its own page that people want to click on and engage in and share and interact with?”

This may sound like heresy to journalism traditionalists, but BuzzFeed is breaking a lot of molds in an attempt to find a model that works.

In fact, the site’s basic content model isn’t all that different from traditional newspapers’. The reason most newspapers carry horoscopes, crossword puzzles, comics and gossip columns is because large numbers of people read newspapers solely for those features. If BuzzFeed’s 21st-century version of Dear Abby can provide some serious journalists with gainful employment, then we all owe Jonah Peretti a debt of gratitude.

Media Boomlet

BuzzFeed isn’t the only new media entity that’s benefiting from the aggregation craze, but there are questions about how far this business can scale and whether there’s much money to be made.

Henry BlodgetUSA Today‘s Michael Wolff writes that Henry Blodget (left) is shopping Business Insider, reportedly asking a cool $100 million. Not bad for a site that’s less than five years old with just 62 editorial staff members listed on its masthead. Wolff runs the numbers, makes a couple of educated guesses and figures that Business Insider is probably getting a  CPM (cost per thousand) of between $1.50 and $3. That compares to $30-$40 CPMs that were common in the business magazine world just a few years ago.

Wolff sees the mass-market digital media landscape as being a race to the bottom, with publishers frantically searching for viewer eyeballs, regardless of their appeal to advertisers. “The digital traffic world, with techniques and sources and results that are ever-more dubious, is, as I’d guess the astute Henry Blodget has ascertained, not a sound long-term play,” he writes. Hence, it’s time to get out.

But the venture capital community, which is flush with stock market cash, apparently doesn’t agree – yet. CNN Money’s Dan Primack and Jessi Hempel say Flipboard is set to raise another $50 million, bringing to $160 million its total venture funding since 2010. Flipboard doesn’t even produce any original content. It’s a mobile platform that aggregates content produced by other media companies, and its licensing policies have raised some hackles.

The new high-volume aggregation model that’s attracting so much attention was outlined in The New York Times last year. It’s a caffeinated rush to get it first, and very little content comes from traditional journalistic shoe leather. Reporters are skilled at finding, assimilating and repackaging information in eye-catching packages. The assumption is that citizens are already doing a lot of the reporting on their Facebook timelines and Twitter feeds, and the media company that can be filter the noise adds significant value.

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By Paul Gillin | November 27, 2013 - 6:47 am - Posted in Newspapers

ImageJeff Bezos (right) may be the most prominent rich person to buy into the newspaper industry recently, but he’s not the only one. Billionaires have been opening their checkbooks with astonishing frequency lately to invest in an industry that many people think is dying.

Warren Buffett owns more than 60 newspapers and says he’ll buy more. Billionaire Boston Red Sox owner John Henry just ponied up $70 million for the Boston Globe. Serial entrepreneur and multimillionaire Aaron Kushner bought the Orange County Register a year ago and has been plowing money into reporters and circulation. There’s evidence that the strategy is paying off.

What do these savvy investors see that others don’t? I think three things.

Value. At a basic level they see business opportunity. Henry purchased the Globe for just 6% of what the New York Times Co. paid for the newspaper 20 years ago. Media properties are so beaten down right now that value investors see nowhere to go but up. Newspaper subscribers still have some of the best demographics of any audience. More than half earn more than $50,000 a year and 22% earn six figures or more, according to the Newspaper Association of America (NAA).

Although the audience is dwindling, more than 60% of US adults read a newspaper in print or online each week, according to the NAA. There are more ways to monetize that audience than just advertising, and these new investors are the kind of out-of-the-box thinkers who will figure them out.

Market Stability. Mainstream media plays a critical watchdog function that greases the wheels of democracy and commerce. Reporters pounding the beat at city hall and scrutinizing the records of regulators keep public officials honest and playing fields level. They also provide valuable intelligence on competition.

The press corps at some state capitols has been drawn down so much that some legislators have actually complained they miss the repartee with journalists. That has to alarm anybody who has millions invested in the market. Most rich people don’t care who’s in office as long as they know someone’s keeping an eye on them. And by the way, Bezos, Henry and Buffett  were avid newspaper readers long before they were media tycoons.

Trust. The great paradox of the newspaper industry bust is that readership of newspaper content is at an all-time high in the U.S. The problem isn’t the product, it’s the business model. Media democratization has been a great thing, but it’s also created a crisis of trust. We are less and less confident in who to believe.

Trusted media brands have a vital role to fulfill in this regard. We trust them to sweat the details and nail down the facts. Misinformation flourishes when everyone is the media, as we saw in the Boston Marathon bombings and Hurricane  Sandy. Mainstream media is expected to be accurate, at least most of the time. That’s why we instinctively turn to them when messages conflict.

I don’t want to imply that the actions of these super-rich investors are entirely altruistic, but smart people know a developing crisis when they see it. Trusted media is too important to the functioning of our society to be allowed to just die on the vine. If Jeff Bezos can put up 1% of his net worth to rescue the Post from disaster, he hasn’t sacrificed much.

Fumbled Opportunity

The newspaper industry has fumbled for a solution to its problems for decades with little to show for it. That’s mainly because the wrong people were in charge. Newspapering has traditionally been a stable, profitable and boring business, characterized by monopoly or duopoly markets, high subscriber loyalty and advertiser lock-in. The people who flourished in that environment where bean counters who knew how to wring costs out of an operation.

When the industry entered walked off the cliff in 2006, these people did what they knew best: Hacked away at expenses. But you don’t cost cut your way out of a fundamental shift in your market. Until just a couple of years ago, newspaper still earned 80% of their revenue from advertising, a business that has been in freefall for years. They’ve done a terrible job of diversifying their revenue streams, although some are beginning to turn the corner.

The Washington Post is a microcosm of the industry’s troubles. The paper was one of the first to go online in the pre-Web days, but it chose to build a proprietary platform that was quickly rendered obsolete. The Post has failed to come up with a workable way to derive more revenue from readers, as The New York Times has done. Many staffers reportedly sneered at The Politico when it launched in 2007. Today, it’s a must-read on Capitol Hill

The Washington Post Co. has diversified its business but failed to invest aggressively in new-media opportunities. The company’s Kaplan education division actually contributes the majority of its revenue and profit, but WaPo has been unable to duplicate that success in other markets.

Its most famous misstep was when CEO Donald Graham failed to pursue a 2005 handshake agreement to invest $6 million in a fledgling social network called Facebook. Accel Partners got the deal instead. Had Graham pressed his advantage, the Post’s stake could be worth $7 billion today, wrote Jeff Bercovici in Forbes.

But why invest? Newspaper owners have never had incentive to be aggressive. The industry has rewarded caution and conservatism, and that’s a big reason why it’s in such a mess today. The good news about the arrival of wealthy entrepreneurs on the scene is that they have nothing invested in the way things used to be done. People like Jeff Bezos are set to break the rules, and that’s exactly what the industry needs.

This article originally appears on Social Media Today.

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Brian Stelter“There is no longer a defined final destination for talented journalists,” writes Emily Bell in The Guardian. “The New York Times is surprised to find itself a stepping stone.”

Bell is writing about the sudden and surprise defections of a number of top Times journalists to other media outlets, often for substantial amounts of money. The Times lost three prominent editorial staffers in one day last week: Brian Stelter (right) quit to go to CNN, Sunday editor Hugo Lindgren is off to places unknown and chief political correspondent Matt Bai will join Yahoo News. Last month, gadget specialist David Pogue left to go to an unnamed Yahoo startup. In an unrelated move, Jay Rosen has also joined an unnamed startup founded by Pierre Omidyar of eBay fame.

All of a sudden media is cool again, or at least some media. While traditional publishers continue to struggle with declining revenue, money is flowing into new media companies. Buzzfeed has raised $46 million. AOL is investing in a big overhaul and expansion of Engadget. Snapchat just turned down a $3 billion offer from Facebook, indicating how frothy the social networking market has become. B2B community Spiceworks has raised more than $50 million for its novel media model that uses software and a community as delivery vehicles. Even the Washington Post is expected to get an infusion of cash from its new owner, Jeff Bezos.

This is translating into career opportunities for some accomplished journalists whose brands now arguably transcend the publications they work for. Bell suggests that the star-making apparatus of the media world is shifting in their favor. Not long ago a job at The New York Times was considered the ultimate career plum for news journalists, but belt-tightening has hit the Old Gray Lady just as it has everywhere else (although not as hard). With all-digital operations suddenly flush with cash, the appeal of working for publishers whose survival strategy is to wall off content from non-paying visitors is diminishing.

In many ways, traditional media companies dug themselves into this hole. In their rush to produce more content and add more advertising inventory, they turned some of their best reporters into rock stars. Thanks to blogs, video podcasts and branded talk shows, journalists now get unprecedented visibility. That makes them prime targets for new media firms who want to trade on their personal brands.

Turnover may also be an unplanned consequence of paywalls, which will soon be in place at 41% of US newspapers. The problem with paywalls is that they shut readers out, and readership is what journalists live for. The Times‘ famous Times Select paywall was abandoned six years ago in large part because the paper’s signature columnists complained that their readership had evaporated. The models have improved since then, but no paid-access plan comes without some loss of audience.

So while newspapers  erect barriers to readership, new media entities like Buzzfeed figure out novel ways to get people to share their sponsored content. Is it any wonder that ambitious journalists with growing personal brands are seeking opportunities to spread their work to wider audiences instead of hiding it behind credit card forms?


Even reporters who don’t have million-eyeball reach may have new ways to monetize their audiences. A startup called Beacon has launched a service that enables journalists to derive revenue from their most loyal fans and share a little bit of the spoils with fellow contributors. Mathew Ingram sums up the model succinctly:

Each of the site’s journalists (there are currently about 50) has a page where their content lives, and a discussion forum. When someone subscribes to them for $5 a month, Beacon takes a cut — the amount is in flux, but writers keep around 60 percent on average — and then the reader gets access to all of the site’s other writers. Some of the proceeds from each subscription also go into a pool that is shared by all of the journalists on the platform.

It doesn’t sound like anyone will get rich from this business, but at least there is a direct correlation between work and reward. And we suppose Beacon could be a launchpad for a few new superstar journalists who build their audiences there. Like the crowd funding site Kickstarter, Beacon builds and manages the community. It’s then up to the participants to give the audience something of value. May the best journos win.

 

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Google has arguably been the worst enemy of working journalists for the last decade, but now the tide is turning and the search giant is trying to repair the damage it  has done. It deserves our patience and understanding as it continues on a course that hopefully will revitalize journalism as a career and rescue hundreds of thousands of freelancers who have seen their livelihoods damaged by the monster Google unwittingly created.

Early Lycos home pageA little historical background: Google changed human behavior, which is a pretty big deal when you think about it. Before it burst upon the scene in the latter days of the first dot-com bubble, people mostly browsed for information. Today we default to search because it’s a better way to find stuff. Thank Google for that.

But one of the weaknesses of all search engines going back to Lycos is their dependence upon keywords. Spammers have always used keyword tricks to game search engines, but Google’s enormous influence gave birth to large companies that do nothing but vomit forth keyword-laden text, the sole purpose of which was to drive traffic through Google search results. We’re looking at you, Demand Media.

The Ascendance of ‘Top 10′ Lists

The growing influence of keywords has diminished the importance of content quality. Why pay for professional writers when you can get the same or better results by employing interns or offshore body shops that write to formulas defined by keyword frequency? The reason you see so many “top 10″ lists and tip sheets online is because they perform well in search results, people click on the links a lot and they’re cheap to produce. We don’t think Google intended for this to happen; it just worked out that way.

Many capable writers have seen pay rates plummet by 75% or more over the last five years as publishers have pushed quantity over quality. The only way you can make a living at 25 cents a word is to churn out a lot of them. These journalism serfs are the real victims of the collapse of print media. They’re skilled professionals whose livelihoods have been stolen by publishers who make no distinction between writing and typing.

Serfs Up

google-hummingbird-algorithm-seo-tips1Now Google is throwing them a lifeline. With the release of its Panda search algorithm last year, Google made its first strong statements that it’s cracking down on keyword farms. Last month’s release of the Hummingbird algorithm continues a campaign to elevate the value of quality content in search results and penalize formulaic gamesmanship.

For example, officials sent the PR industry into tizzy by stating that press releases can no longer be used to juice search performance, calling them “link schemes” and “advertisements.” Executives have made it clear that their mission is to deliver search results that most closely match what the user is looking for, not just those that have the right  keyword combinations.

Writing on Forbes.com, Joshua Steimle summed up Hummingbird thusly:

If you’re the best at what you do, these updates Google has been rolling out are opportunities to separate yourself from your competition. [Your competitors] may have been engaging in spammy tactics to get good rankings, but if you’ve been focusing on creating content that provides real value to potential customers, their days are numbered.

People like Mike Moran, who really understand search engines, have said for years that the only true search optimization is quality content. Google is finally speaking the same language.

It’s Good

So what does this mean for journalists? We think it’s all good. Marketers, who are hiring increasing numbers of journalists to stoke their content marketing efforts, are going to have to step up their game. They’ll need better content, which means hiring better writers who charge higher rates. Publishers will also need to re-examine the merits of paying for quality content instead of publishing anything turned in by someone with a pulse.

Does Google’s strategy point to the rebirth of traditional news organizations? Sadly, that horse is already out of the barn. But it does indicate that the days of search engine gamesmanship are numbered and that quality is going to count for something again.

Google can’t change the way search has commoditized news and diminished the value of media brands, but that’s only partially its fault. In any case, it’s hard to feel sorry for the rich executives who have seen their bonuses cut amid falling profits.

The victims we feel sorry for are the career beat reporters who couldn’t anticipate the seismic shifts in their field and who were ill-equipped to adapt. Perhaps their fortunes are finally about to change.

 

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By Paul Gillin | October 1, 2013 - 7:44 am - Posted in Business News, Newspapers, OnlineMedia

Lloyds List 1741We usually focus news of comings and goings on this site solely on major metropolitan dailies, but we’ll make an exception for Lloyd’s List, which claims to be the world’s oldest daily newspaper and which is going out of print at the end of this year. The paper, which originated as a list of ship arrivals, departures and casualties that was posted on the wall of Edward Lloyd’s coffee shop in London in 1734, canvassed readers in June and discovered that fewer than 2% of them read the print edition any  more. Management sounds upbeat about the transition to all-digital, which has been in the works for several months. “The digital approach offers new avenues and opportunities to innovate an up-to-the-minute service that offers in-depth news and information on every aspect of shipping,” said editor Richard Meade in a quote in the Guardian. See the links below for additional coverage. Jolly good.

For you history buffs, Google has digitized about 85 years of Lloyd’s List, beginning in 1741.

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