By Paul Gillin | July 7, 2011 - 1:02 pm - Posted in Best/Worst, Business News, Journalism, Layoffs, Murdoch, Newspapers, R.I.P.

News of the World Front PageIn a stunning example of corporate overreaction, News Corp. today announced that it will shut down Britain’s largest Sunday newspaper amid a growing scandal over voicemail hacking.

The 168-year-old News of the World, which boasts a Sunday circulation of 2.5 million, will publish its last edition on July 10. The move comes as outrage in Britain reached a fever pitch over allegations that the tabloid had illegally accessed and even deleted voice mail messages on the phone of a 13-year-old girl who was kidnapped and later found murdered.

Allegations of phone hacking are nothing new for the tabloid. Reports of reportorial excess have swirled around News of the World for two years. However, public anger and advertiser boycotts grew this week amid allegations that as many as 4,000 people have been victimized by such tactics, including relatives of terrorist attack victims and soldiers killed in combat.

Milly DowlerThe tipping point came with reports this week that hired investigators had not only hacked into the phone of 13-year-old Milly Dowler (left) but also deleted some of the voicemails, giving her parents false hope that the girl was still alive. James Murdoch, the heir apparent to the Rupert Murdoch empire, issued a statement saying such a practice – if it occurred –  ”was inhuman and has no place in our company.”

Analysts speculated that the decision to shutter the News of the World and lay off 200 employees was made by the younger Murdoch and supported by his dad, although such drama has not been typical of the elder statesman. Skeptics saw more nefarious motives.

Specifically, they questioned why News Corp. didn’t demand the resignation of Rebekah Brooks, chief executive of News International and editor of News of the World at the time the allegations first surfaced. Brooks is a Murdoch confidante, and critics suggested that the jobs of 200 people had been sacrificed to preserve hers.

The scandal also broke as News Corp. neared the final stages of its bid for BSkyB,  the largest pay-TV broadcaster in the United Kingdom, with over 10 million subscribers, according to Wikipedia. Critics suggested that the cloud created by the News of the World allegations could have jeopardized Murdoch’s bid.

Writing in the Telegraph¸ Harry Wallop quotes politicians and media commentators speculating that an even more cynical business objective was involved. News Corp. had already announced plans to move to a seven-day-a-week publishing schedule across its four UK titles: the Sun, News of the World, the Times and the Sunday Times. The expansion could  potentially create internal competition across the News Corp. properties. Eliminating one title may have little impact on revenues as advertisers simply migrate their business to other holdings within the portfolio.

Whatever the motives, the decision strikes us as a massive overreaction. Scandals like this are usually addressed by a few high-level resignations and some corporate self-flagellation. It could be that the timing was simply bad for News Corp., but depriving 200 people of their livelihoods – and a couple of million Brits of their weekly celebrity scandals – strikes us as a bit over the top.

ESPN Magazine cover

How bad is it in the magazine world? Two years ago we bought a subscription to ESPN magazine after finding a promotional offer of 26 issues for just $2. We subscribed simply for the experience of getting a fortnightly magazine for less than the cost of postage.

But it turns out we were getting a lot more than just ESPN. Around the time our subscription expired, we started getting Golf magazine every month in the mail. Golf’s promotional price is $10 a year, but we never paid for or requested a subscription. Then, about three months ago, Sports Illustrated began showing up in our mailbox each week. We like that because we’ve actually paid for Sports Illustrated in the past. However, we aren’t paying for this one. It appears to be another side=benefit of our  $2 ESPN deal.

We’re not sure if this embarrassment of riches is at an end, but we do know that altogether we’re receiving about $70 worth of magazine subscriptions for $2. Why? Because the publishers are desperate. New Audit Bureau of Circulations rules have significantly relaxed the criteria for paid circulation. That means the publisher statements for Golf and Sports Illustrated now count us as subscribers despite the fact that we never requested or paid for either subscription. Any advertiser that thinks it’s getting an engaged audience through this accounting sleight-of-hand is fooling itself. Don’t get us wrong: We hope the SI subscription never runs out, but we are never, ever going to pay for it. Are we as valuable to an advertiser as a paying subscriber? Not so much. Is the print magazine industry in a crisis? We think so. BTW, we did not get the attractive tote bag that comes with  a paid subscription..

Gannett Pounds 700 Nails in Print’s Coffin

If you need any further evidence that print has no future, look no further than Gannett’s announcement of 700 layoffs this week, says Poynter’s Rick Edmonds. Revenues at Gannett’s 81 community newspapers were down 7% overall and nearly 10% in print, even as most mainstream media are experiencing a modest recovery right now. Not so in print. Publishing operating margins fells four times as fast as revenues, and it’s been a decade since Gannett bought any print properties at all. Meanwhile, the company has  reduced its stable of newspapers from 99 to 81. Its broadcast and online operations are actually doing just fine, but they’re not growing fast enough to make up for declines in print advertising.  That’s the problem across the industry. Online revenues are growing, but the volume and margins are a tiny fraction of print revenue.

Gannett, which traditionally dances to the tune of Wall Street, is sending a message in aggressively cutting back on its already lean print businesses. In that respect, it’s ahead of the market. Edmonds points out that, ironically, “Metro papers like the Boston Globe and Dallas Morning News that have adopted a high price/high quality circulation strategy know readers will not be satisfied with skinny papers that have little worth reading. So those newsrooms are protected and, in a few cases, growing.” For a while, that is. Those papers are milking an aging but still profitable population that will dwindle sharply over the next decade. When the tipping point is reached and paid subscribers no longer justify a printed product, the closures will happen en masse.

Nonprofits Figuring It Out

We wrote recently about California Watch, a nonprofit investigative news operation that is breaking even by syndicating its content at low cost to dozens of news outlets to customize as they wish. California Watch and others like it understand the economics of multiple revenue streams. Few newspapers can afford to support large investigative reporting staffs, but a bunch of smaller publishers can collectively contribute enough to make an independent investigative team viable.

Joe BergantinoCalifornia Watch isn’t the only outlet breaking new ground in this area. Writing on Nieman Journalism Lab, Justin Ellis tells the story of New England Center for Investigative Reporting, another nonprofit operation that is surviving on a combination of grants and revenue from paid training workshops for aspiring journalists. The group has only two full-time staff and a corps of freelancers. It delivers its investigative work via a subscription service and republishes them on its website. The Center recently reached a milestone by matching its grant funds with revenue generated from subscriptions and training, meaning it’s on the road to self-sufficiency.

Co-director and veteran New England TV reporter Joe Bergantino (left) says, “To be successful you have to walk through the door and immediately think about how to make money.” And what’s wrong with that? For the last 50 years or so, journalists have had the luxury of having the bills paid by people they don’t even know. Very few businesses operate that way, so Bergantino and his tiny team are simply functioning by the same rules that small businesses have lived with for years. Does that make the quality of their work less reputable?

Got HTML5?

Financial Times' Mobile AppThe Financial Times’ new mobile app racked up 100,000 users in its first week. The twist is that the FT decided to develop the app in the new HTML5 format instead of coding it for the iPad or Android platform. If you don’t know what HTML5 is, here’s a tutorial. It’s an important new technology that could make Flash animation and other plug-in-based multimedia obsolete.

HTML5 works entirely within the browser and gives the publisher considerably more control over display, organization and animation than earlier HTML versions did. Information can be stored and read offline, as well as updated automatically without user intervention (No more Adobe updates; how cool is that?) The trick is that most browsers don’t fully support it yet, but that’s just a matter of time. Apple’s Safari is one of the best browsers for HTML5 apps. That’s not surprising, given that Steve Jobs has engaged in a bitter public dispute with Adobe over Flash. The downside for Apple is that HTML5 enables publishers to deliver apps themselves without using the iTunes store as an intermediary. That’s why the FT is updating its content directly, without going through the iTunes store. HTML5 will also make it easier for publishers like Playboy, whose content wouldn’t make it past the Apple censors, has also gone the HTML5 route.

Miscellany

If you’ve ever wondered whether the image you’re about to publish has been Photoshopped, try out this new service from Google. Upload or type the URL of an image and Google will now scan its database for images just like it – including the exact same image. We’re not sure what it will find if given a photo of one of Lady Gaga’s dresses, but for those beautiful sunset landscapes that come in from “citizen journalists,” it might be worth a try, just to be safe.


Meredith is closing the hip, do-it-yourself magazine ReadyMade and eliminating 75 positions. Apparently an audited circulation of 335,000 wasn’t enough to attract advertisers.


John Locke has become the first self-published author to sell over 1 million books on Kindle. The 60-year-old Louisville, KY resident has written nine novels, mostly thrillers, and charges only 99 cents for the Kindle versions. He says he has no intention of raising his prices. Having brought in about a million dollars this way, Locke is making a decent income for a novelist, especially since he doesn’t have to pay publisher and distributor costs that typically leave the author with only about 10% of a book’s cover price.


In deference to Huffington Post, The New York Times plans to intermingle news and opinion in its “Week in Review” section, saying, “We thought readers would find it more useful to have the stories, photographs and charts offered in an integrated way.” Back in the day, op-ed sections themselves were controversial. Now they will be indistinguishable, although the Times says it will clearly label opinionated content.

And Finally…

Tom MacMasterThis one is almost too bizarre to be believed. A couple weeks ago, it was revealed that a popular Syrian lesbian blogger who went by the name of “A Gay Girl in Damascus” is actually a 40-year-old married dude from Scotland. Despite the fact that gay activists in Syria believe this guy put their safety at risk, he continues to blog under the pseudonym, although he did post a profuse apology for the ruse.

The very same week, a guy in Ohio named Bill Graber admitted that he is Paula Brooks, an executive editor for lesbian site LezGetReal.com. Graber used his wife’s name in the hoax and even posed as the father of the fictitious blogger for media interviews, claiming Paula is deaf. Graber got away with hoax for three years because he was so believable, according to LezGetReal’s managing editor.

It gets even weirder. Quoting the account in StinkyJournalism.org:

Months ago, Graber, posing as ”Paula Brooks,” reportedly encouraged “Amina Arraf” to start a blog, but neither Graber nor MacMaster knew the other was really a man posing as a lesbian woman online. According to the Washington Post, Arraf and Brooks “often flirted” with each other online as well.

This week, after both hoax identities unraveled, Graber described his interactions to the Washington Post with Arraf/MacMaster as a “major sock-puppet hoax crash into a major sock-puppet hoax.”

We can only hope neither sock puppet survived the collision.

 

A group of bloggers is suing Huffington Post, founder Arianna Huffington, and AOL for $105 million, saying they deserve to be paid more – or ever paid at all – for the content they’ve contributed to the site. The bloggers are miffed by the fact that Arianna Huffington sold the site for $315 million to AOL and didn’t offer to share any of the windfall with the 9,000 or so bloggers who have contributed free content for the last four years. On the other hand, Huffington never promised to pay those bloggers anything, so no contract has been violated.

Jonathan Tasini via WikipediaThe plaintiffs actually aren’t challenging HuffPo on contract terms. In a press conference, they said they’re suing under common law based on a claim of “unjust enrichment.” In other words, what Huffington did is just wrong, despite the fact that there was no legal prohibition against her doing it.

Spokesman Jonathan Tasini (above left), who is described as both a union organizer and journalist, had some eyebrow-singeing words for Ms. Huffington. “We are going to make Arianna Huffington a pariah in the progressive community,” he said. “No one will blog for her. She’ll never [be invited to] speak. We will picket her home. We’re going to make it clear that, until you do justice here, your life is going to be a living hell.” Restraining order, anyone?

Journalists Deserting Bay Area

The San Francisco Peninsula Press Club surveyed its membership and found that there wasn’t much membership left to survey. A non-scientific census found that 45% of the 700 journalists “accepted a buyout or voluntarily left their job during a period of downsizing during the past 10 years,” according to a news item posted in the San Francisco Business Times. The wording is vague about whether that means those laid-off journos are still out of work – and only 3% of respondents said they’re currently unemployed – but the research is being interpreted as a sign that nearly half the journalists in the San Francisco area have fled during the last decade.

The findings are unsurprising in light of the massive hits Bay Area newspapers have taken in the face of electronic competition. The San Jose Mercury News has cut well over half its staff in recent years, and the San Francisco Chronicle was only weeks away from being shuttered by Hearst before heavy cost cuts spared its life two years ago. Neither is at all well.

Miscellany

Fortunately, those laid-off journalists won’t have to pay as much for their Amazon Kindles as they used to. Amazon just introduced an ad-supported version of its e-reader that’s priced $25 lower than the version without the commercials. That means the Kindle, which was introduced in 2007 at a price of $399, is now only $114, and we can’t imagine why Amazon doesn’t just drop the price to $99 and make the device an impulse purchase. It continues to make strange decisions in the face of heavy new competition from tablets.

Speaking of which, a survey of 1,431 tablet owners by Google’s Admob mobile ad network found that tablet-toters spend more time with their devices than with magazines, newspapers, radio, laptops or TV (although not combined). We’re not sure if the total includes time spent cuddling the tablets while sleeping, but it was an excuse for Search Engine Watch to put together this nifty infographic (click to super-size).

Search Engine Watch on tablet usage

It’s disconcerting when the CEO of one of the emerging giants of online publishing is quoted referring to the acquisition of a news organization as “the future of the content space.” However, that’s how AOL CEO Tim Armstrong apparently sees the hundreds of millions of dollars in recent investments his company had made to acquire properties like TechCrunch, Patch.com and now Huffington Post. He’s filling a space.

He could do worse than to fill it with the staff at Huffington, however. The $315 million deal, which was announced late last night, puts HuffPo founder Arianna Huffington (right) in charge of all of AOL’s editorial properties, which include TechCrunch and the rapidly growing Patch.com network of local news sites. She also gets Mapquest and MovieFone thrown into the deal. This should be a dream come true for Huffington, who launched HuffPo as a blog six years ago and who has taken only $1 million in investment capital since then.  The New York Times has all the facts.

Huffington has a chance to shape a new kind of media company as AOL struggles to recover from its disastrous merger with Time-Warner and its reputation for editorial superficiality. AOL has made some innovative strides in investing in Patch, and its earlier acquisitions of TechCrunch and Engadget demonstrate a willingness to invest in distinctive editorial models that challenge mainstream media. However, as The New Yorker noted in a recent critical profile of AOL and Armstrong (summarized on PaidContent.org), the company’s failure to hire an editor-in-chief has made it appear strategically aimless. The installation of Huffington in that job is a chance to fix that.

HuffPo is growing like a weed. The organization now has more than 200 employees and is on track to generate $60 million in advertising revenue this year. Paywall fans might want to note that HuffPo has no paid subscription model. In fact, as The New York Times points out, readers’ ability “to leave comments on Huffington Post news articles and blog posts and to share them on Twitter and Facebook has been a major reason the site attracts so many readers.”

AOL has been such a backwater of editorial mediocrity for so long that it’s hard to shake the assumption that the company will find a way to screw this up. However, Armstrong does appear willing to place bets on some properties that are breaking the mold of how journalism has traditionally been done. With Huffington at the helm, AOL has a strong leader in this “space.” Please just don’t call it that.

Shaky Daily

The DailyHave you downloaded your copy of Rupert Murdoch’s The Daily for the iPad yet? Don’t rush. A lot of early adopters are apparently still waiting for it to load. PaidContent.org says the app routinely takes a minute or more to start and that crashes and freezes are common. In ratings on the iTunes store, “even the positive reviews mention load problems and crashes,” writes Staci Kramer. Adds John Gruber, “My opinion of it has declined each day.”

Alan Mutter is a little more definitive, pronouncing The Daily “a dud” based upon its first issue. With “the barest possible news report back-filled by a bunch of vapid features,” the journal is “more like the Etch-A-Sketch edition of Us magazine than the ground-breaking news platform it purports to be,” he writes. Ouch.

To be fair, The Daily is in start-up mode, and anyone who has ever launched a new publication will tell you that the first issue is usually not portfolio material. Few people will remember these early negatives if the venture turns out to be a hit (remember Amazon’s frequent outages in the late 90s? Neither do we). One impressive achievement for the new publication is the stable of blue-chip advertisers it’s lined up. AdAge says they include Macy’s, Verizon Wireless, Land Rover, Pepsi Max and Virgin Atlantic. It also ran a 30-second ad on the Super Bowl, but that achievement is made less notable by the fact that its parent company owns Fox Broadcasting.

The Times They Are Delaying

It’s been nearly a year since The New York Times announced plans to charge for access to its online content starting in January. Now January has passed and we’re still waiting for what publishers hope will be a model for other subscription wannabes across the Internet.

Perhaps the Times is dallying because it doesn’t want the paywall to be another Daily. Times staffers are laboring to fix more than 200 bugs in the technology for charging readers, Bloomberg says. The difficulties apparently stem from the complexity of the app, which has several payment tiers and which must balance limited access with the offsetting needs to be visible to search engines and to enable readers to easily post links  on Twitter and Facebook.

While the world waits for the time strategy to unfold, the paper has quietly launched an unrelated and useful recommendation engine. Neiman’s Megan Garber caught up with Marc Frons, the Times’ CTO for digital operations, and discovers that the engine does a lot more than simply spit back articles that share similar tags. Frons says the program also looks at “people’s patterns, and how they move around the site, and what sorts of different things they might look at.” It tries to figure out what you might like even if you haven’t read stories in that domain recently. On the back end, it gives the Times greater insight into what readers want, which probably has some value in determining what they will pay for.

And Finally…

We were so stunned by the ad for coupon broker Groupon that ran on the Super Bowl last night that we fished it out of YouTube to be sure we hadn’t heard it wrong. We hadn’t. Actor Timothy Hutton delivers a solemn soliloquy on the suffering of the people of Tibet under Chinese rule. “Their very culture is in jeopardy,” he says. But there’s a bright spot: “They still whip up an amazing fish curry,” and you can get it for half off with your GroupOn membership.

We hope this ad is a subtle joke. If so, it sets new standards for subtlety. In a posting on the Groupon blog, founder Andrew Mason explains that the ad is partly satirical. “What if we did a parody of a celebrity-narrated, PSA-style commercial that you think is about some noble cause (such as ‘Save the Whales’), but then it’s revealed to actually be a passionate call to action to help yourself (as in ‘Save the Money’)?”

Actually, we think it’s a terrible idea. Using the suffering of people and the peril of entire species to sell advertising is sort of baldly offensive on its face, don’t you think? If the ad is intended to raise money for Tibet, it would have been nice to offer diners the option of sending their savings directly to Tibetan relief. But the ad neglects that detail.

If you agree that this campaign is over the top, please tweet your thoughts to Andrew Mason. Better yet, give to The Tibet Fund, where Groupon is saving face by matching donations up to $100,000.

We won’t try to paraphrase the presentation that Journal Register Co. CEO John Paton gave to the INMA Transformation of News Summit last week because Paton stated everything so beautifully. So we’ll just give you a few quotes from the transcript that we highlighted. Paton gets it like no other news executive we’ve encountered.

“You don’t transform from broken. You don’t tinker or tweak. You start again – anew

“Doing more of the same with less results in the same done worse. It is prolonging the death of a broken business model rather than adapting to the realities of the present.

“Just about everything we are doing at JRC – and just about what every newspaper or legacy media company is doing – is focused on getting ON the Web. Very little is being done to position legacy media companies to be OF the Web.

“There is now an even bigger audience for our core product – news – than ever before.  And in the crowded marketplace that is the Web, it is the deep trust the audience has for print that is leading us and them online.

“To be in the news business now means you must run your business as digital first.  And that means print last. That is how this new world works.

“[The reason the industry isn’t changing faster is] fear, lack of knowledge and an aging managerial cadre that is cynically calculating how much they DON’T have to change before they get across the early retirement goal line. Stop listening to the newspaper people and start listening to the rest of the world.

“We are getting out of anything that does not fall into our core competencies of content creation and the selling of our audience to advertisers. Reduce it or stop it. Outsource it or sell it.

“We bought every reporter – and now some ad salespeople as well –a Flip video cam. They paid for themselves in about a month as we have gone from 100,000 video streams a month to about two million.

“One [JRC] group in Pennsylvania is trying to meet a challenge set by Jay Rosen [called] the ‘100% solution:’ Cover everything that happens on a particular subject in a particular area. Using the crowd, Twitter, smartphones plus Google Docs to manage it all, they are attempting to create real-time game coverage of high school sports. That’s every game in real time.

“Citizen Skip Harrison of Trenton New Jersey has an all-abiding interest in the New Jersey educational system. He is part of the Community Media Lab at our paper The Trentonian. We are training interested citizens to be journalists.

If print dollars are becoming digital dimes, we'd better start chasing the dimes - John Paton“We have successfully printed pages on a press using only free Web tools. The next time some rep comes to your shop brandishing a $20 million system, tell him the price just went down. Way down. Our capital expenditures have been reduced by half.

“In Torrington, CT at the Register Citizen, our young publisher Matt DeRienzo deputized his entire community to fact check all of his products online and in print…He issued an invitation to every reader, source and community member to hold them accountable and engage in correcting, improving or expanding the story. Matt’s innovative approach…has created an online audience 6.5 time greater than his print audience and he has taken what was a money-losing operation into a profitable one.

“As of Q3, year to date, the Journal Register Company['s financial performance] is handily outpacing the industry as compared to figures provided by the Newspaper Association of America. JRC’s ad performance has been three  times better than the industry. More importantly the company’s digital revenue has grown from negligible to 11% of ad revenue in November – in less than a year. With each passing day, that revenue is also less tied to the print buys. More than 60% of digital revenue this month is NOT tied to print sales. Our company which was bankrupt in 2009, is projected to have a profit margin of 15% this year.”

Poynter’s always-insightful Rick Edmonds asks if he’s missing something: In Hyperlocal News, Where’s the Urgency?, He examines an assortment of hyperlocal news startups and comes away wanting more. “Sampling a host of aspiring online hyperlocal franchises — Examiner.com, Outside.in, OurTown.com and others — I’m consistently underwhelmed. One roundup of ‘news within a mile of me’ had crime stories a month old and many reports on the business travails of Outback Steakhouse’s parent company.”

Edmonds makes an important point about the distinction between “content” and quality. Basically, having a blog does no one any good if it’s used to publish crap. However, a lot of blogs (many hyperlocal publications are essentially blogs) put publishing ahead of reporting. Throw it up there and see if anyone reads it because – you know – you can. This is a natural result of the current fascination with social media as a shiny new object. People are publishing because it’s cool to publish. Five years from now, that novelty will have worn off and we’ll be figuring out what these new tools are really good for.

We expect that hyperlocal journalism ventures will consolidate into a small number of professional publishers who have the operational and sales skills to run profitably a lean organization of semi-professional journalists who contribute news about their immediate area. There will always be neighborhood bloggers – and some of them will be good enough to build significant followings – but readers won’t adopt the current cacophony of amateur local reporters as a replacement for major metro newspapers. Professional oversight will be needed.

There’s a land grab going on in this area right now, with aggregators like Patch, Everyblock (above) and the three organizations mentioned earlier each jockeying for position. They’re mostly using whatever low-cost sources of content they can find, and people like Rick Edmonds are astutely calling them on the shortcomings of that approach. We expect that as more ad dollars funnel down from dying dailies into hyperlocal ventures – and as the owners of these ventures become savvier about finding new sources of revenue – the quality will improve and jobs for professional journalists will emerge. They won’t be the cushy union gigs that the previous generation of scribes enjoyed, but they will be enough to bring some pros back into the business.

How to Manage a Blogger Network

Eric Berger, Houston Chronicle SciGuy Megan Garber speaks with Eric Berger about what it takes to build a good blogger network. Berger is the Houston Chronicle science reporter and blogger who created a network of science blogs at the newspaper back in 2008. The experiment was somewhat groundbreaking for a newspaper at the time, although ScienceBlogs and LexBlog were doing the same thing years earlier. Garber wants to know what makes a blog network successful and Berger shares advice that anyone can use to head down the same path:

Blogging requires passion – “If you’re writing about stuff that you’re interested in and enjoying what you’re doing, it’s going to come through in your writing.” Forcing people to blog never works. If they don’t catch the bug, they’ll simply mail in their entries until they can gracefully escape.

Blogging is a conversation – That includes responding to comments. A lot of folks think once they post an entry, they can walk away, but that isn’t so. The best bloggers want a dialog with their readers. Berger notes that it’s particularly difficult to find scientists who want to follow up on their original posts.

Don’t ignore the news hook – Key advice here: “People want stuff either that’s related to the news of what’s happening or that has some kind of popular hook.” Blogs are best at communicating timely information.

Good source = good blogger – This is a great point. “Experts who make good sources might also make good bloggers,” Berger notes. That’s because they have a natural inclination to explain.

Miscellany

Lauren Kirchner does what reporters do too rarely: Updates us on last year’s hot news. In this case, the subject is Kachingle, a tip-jar-style service that lets readers contribute micropayments to the Internet publishers they like without having to make a conscious effort to do so. The service was all the rage when announced in early 2009 (we gave it several paragraphs in February), but its star seems to have faded since.

Kachingle has signed up about 300 publishers, but none whose title begins with the word “The.” Kachingle founder Cynthia Typaldos said she’s been getting a great reception from news organizations, but the sales process seems to die at the executive level. Kirchner speculates that Kachingle’s transparency – visitors can see which sites inspire the most contributions – may be one barrier. But more likely it’s just bureaucratic intransigence: “Fitting a little Kachingle widget seamlessly onto a homepage isn’t actually as easy as it sounds, if the homepage you’re talking about is nytimes.com.”


Huffington Post has scored another big hire: Howard Fineman . The 61-year-old veteran Newsweek reporter and MSNBC news analyst will become HuffPo’s senior political editor. In an interview with MediaMatters, Fineman contributes some insight on why his new employer is having so much luck attracting senior journalists. Arianna Huffington is trying to bootstrap a professional news organization that stresses quality journalism and independent politics at a time when news is splintering into partisanship and theatrics. She apparently has the money to do it. “Bringing in the best of the old involved more money than we had when we launched. But now that our Web site is growing, we’re able to bring in the best of the old,” she told The New York Times. Journalists like Fineman don’t work 16-hour days and file stories every four hours. Huffington is doing something right to attract prominent people like him and veteran technology editor Jai Singh. We’d suggest that HuffPo is emerging as one of the first big winners in the race to supplant conventional news organizations.

And Finally…

“The English language, which arose from humble Anglo-Saxon roots to become the lingua franca of 600 million people worldwide and the dominant lexicon of international discourse, is dead, ” begins a wonderful essay by the Washington Post‘s Gene Weingarten. He proceed with a litany of recent butcherings of the language by some of the US’s most notable publications, including The New York Times, which has used the term “reach out to ” as a synonym for “attempt to contact ” at least 20 times this year. Other offenders: The Winston-Salem Journal‘s use of was “Alot ” to describe the number of locals Salemites who would be vacationing that month, the Miami Herald‘s report on someone who “eeks out a living ” and his own employer’s publication of a letter referring to the first couple the “Obama’s. ” We hope you’re socialize this article to others and reach out to Weingarten to complement him.

We continue to be amazed at the willingness of news organizations to employ the same tactics of obfuscation and doublespeak that their reporters spend their days combatting. Witness this press release from last week:

The Deseret News today announced a bold new direction to provide innovation and leadership at a time when daily newspapers throughout America are struggling to define a course for the future….New initiatives, includ[e] the creation of Deseret Connect, a broad and uniquely qualified group of story contributors, a new Editorial Advisory Board and the expansion of the news reporter base…These initiatives will increase the depth and quality of the Deseret News’ daily newspaper. As part of these changes, the organization also announced a reduction in workforce.

But this is no ordinary reduction in workforce. This is a 43% reduction in workforce, or 57 full-time and 28 part-time employees, according to Editor & Publisher. Among the victims are Editor Joe Cannon and Publisher Jim Wall. In the worst spinmeister fashion, the publisher doesn’t even touch upon the layoffs until 700 words deep in the release. That news is preceded by five bullet-pointed items peppered with words like “expansion,” “more,” “launch” and “new.” In other words, this is a major cutback spun as an expansion.

We actually see nothing wrong with what Deseret is doing. It’s combining editorial staffs with affiliated broadcast subsidiaries and shifting its focus toward digital delivery. Makes sense to us. It also makes sense that a large layoff may be needed to get costs in line with the new revenue reality. But why bury the lead so deep in the story? Why not come out and admit that tough times demand tough action?

In any case, other news outlets took care of asking the hard questions, including Huffington Post, Bloomberg BusinessWeek and the Salt Lake Tribune. Charles Apple says he hears the layoffs include the entire design staff.

Salty Words for USA Today Reorg

“It is odd that the best-read print newspaper in the country would walk away from that pre-eminence and embrace technologies in which it lags the field,” writes John K. Hartman, journalism educator and author of two books about USA Today, in an opinion piece in Editor & Publisher. He’s referring to the Gannett flagship’s bold announcement two weeks ago that it would restructure itself around online delivery to mobile devices, lay off 9% of its staff and de-emphasize print.

In a commentary bluntly titled “USA Today Setting Itself Up For Failure,” Hartman argues that not only is USA Today’s strength in print, but that is the only area in which it has innovated. He points to the decline in the national daily’s once market-leading sports coverage at the hands of ESPN and chides publisher David Hunke for betting on online delivery when USA Today isn’t even in the top 10 news sites in the world (It’s actually #21, according to Alexa, placing it behind such competitors as Drudge Report and the Times of India). In the professor’s view, a media company with such little online visibility is crazy to place such a big bet on a digital strategy.

He’s right, but what else is USA Today going to do? It’s already an also-ran on the Web and its print business is declining like everybody else’s. Mobile seems to be an open field at this point, so Gannett is making a play for the only opportunity it has to establish market leadership. There’s also a possibility that a genuine reader-funded subscription model could evolve in the mobile category. That has failed to happen online. USA Today is playing the only hand it’s got.

Part of the problem of analyzing strategic moves like Gannett’s is framing them in the context of a publication’s previous success. Will USA Today dominate the mobile market? Of course not. No one will. The barriers to entry are too low. But can mobile delivery become a growing revenue source to complement a modestly successful Web presence and a profitable print product? Sure it can.

Hartman is critical of USA Today for fumbling away its leadership in sports coverage to ESPN.com, but the reality is that broad-based media will always lose out to narrow, targeted media. The best strategy for a comprehensive news site is to be everywhere but expect to lead nowhere. In this age of hyper-focused media, that’s not a very comfortable position, but it’s about the only hope a brand like USA Today has got.

Miscellany

Also in the realm of church-owned newspapers, the price for the floundering Washington Times is $1.00. At least that’s what a Unification Church-affiliated buyer could pay, according to a memo released to the media. The selling price probably reflects a bit of a family discount, since the buyer is Doug Joo, an ally of Rev. Sun Myung Moon, whose Unification Church owns the paper. It’s not like the one-buck price is a bargain; the buyer has to assume all the paper’s unspecified financial obligations. The Washington Times has cut 40% of its staff this year.


Journalism schools are teaching more bells and whistles and less journalism, or at least that’s what some journalists and educators think. About.com’s Tony Rogers cites of some trends that make traditionalists uncomfortable, including the University of Colorado at Boulder’s recent announcement that it is considering dismantling its 700-student journalism school in favor of an interdisciplinary communication program. Roger spoke to several journalism educators who said schools are increasingly stressing video cameras and Photoshop over the  essential tools of good reporting. As a result, there are jobs for journalists with good public affairs reporting skills sitting open. While not denying that multimedia skills are critical, educators say the balance is getting out of whack, and we’re producing less capable journalists as a result.


Newspaper publishers probably welcome any help they can get these days, even if it’s from the company that perpetuated the largest oil spill in history. BP bought newspaper ads in 126 markets in 17 states in the three months after the spill, according to the Congressional Committee on Energy and Commerce.  BP dropped over $93 million in advertising during the three months after the spill began. That’s about three times what it spent in a comparable period a year ago. Most of the newspaper ads were targeted at the states most affected by the spill.

Only 25% of Americans say they have a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in either newspapers or TV news, according to a Gallup survey. That puts mainstream media on par with banks and slightly better than health maintenance organizations on the trust barometer. The stats are from Gallup’s annual Confidence in Institutions survey. At the top of the trust heap? The military. And at the bottom? Congress.

Gallup confidence survey

The results varied significantly by age. Nearly half of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 said they had confidence in newspapers. However, disillusionment evidently sets in early, as the confidence level dropped to 16% among 30- to 49-year-olds, making them the most cynical group. Even liberals, who have traditionally been a stronghold of support for mainstream media, expressed support to the tune of  only 35%. It’s important to keep the results in perspective, though. Gallup has been conducting this survey annually for the last 20 years, and confidence in newspapers has never exceeded 39% during that time. However, confidence dipped from the low 30s to the low 20s about four years ago and has been stuck there ever since.

Good News for Hyperlocals

Hot new DC news startup TBD “resembles a sleek, coolly designed, high-tech house with several unfurnished rooms — and a market value yet to be determined,” writes Howard Kurtz in a generally favorable review of the most ambitious hyperlocal launch of the year. The site, which has 15 reporters buttressed by an army of 127 local bloggers, “has a voice, a sense of fun and a knack for packaging short items that creates the appearance of flow and momentum,” Kurtz writes. It also has some good political reporting, although the staff seems to be more focused on local news than national or global politics. TBD has been closely watched as a potential model for hyperlocal startups because of its inclusive approach to community journalism and its backing by a major media company, Allbritton Communications, which also owns The Politico, as well as a collection of regional television stations

Also on the hyperlocal front, BringMeTheNews, an aggregation and podcasting venture founded by former Twin Cities news anchor Rick Kupchella (right), just raised $1 million from two local investors. The site has an interesting business model and has reportedly been profitable since day one. It aggregates headlines and summaries from “hundreds of online news and non-traditional sources” around Minnesota and publishes them on its website. It also produces audio news summaries that are picked up by Minnesota radio stations and broadcast to about 1.5 million listeners each day. At the moment, the site produces no original content.

The advertising model is also novel: The site carries no more than four paid sponsors, who buy contracts of at least six months’ duration. Sponsors are also expected to “provide informational advertising of interest to our audience.” According to MinnPost, “Sponsored copy is integrated into the links BringMeTheNews curates, and carries the sponsor’s logo. Theoretically, the copy is useful information for readers (Explore Minnesota tourist guides, OptumHealth wellness tips) while still advancing the sponsor’s interest.”

Despite having only one-eighth the traffic of MinnPost, BringMeTheNews has apparently hit upon a revenue model that works, even at low volume levels. Kupchella said the business would still be viable without the radio component.

Miscellany

The Worcester (Mass.) Telegram & Gazette will begin charging up to $15/mo. for access to local news articles. Non-print subscribers will be able to read 10 stories for free before the paywall goes up. The T&G is owned by The New York Times Co., which plans to build a paywall at its flagship newspaper in January. The Worcester experiment may be a pricing trial balloon. If a lot of people will pay $15/mo. to read the T&G, it’s good news for the Times. We doubt it, though.


More good news: PaidContent.org is hiring reporters. If you are  “deep into areas like online video or digital advertising or gaming,” “can pick apart a media company’s balance sheet” and/or “are dogged and enterprising,” drop a line to jobs@paidcontent.org. You’d better have expertise in media, though. That’s a given.


Having driven Tribune Co. into the ground in record time, Sam Zell now wants his money back. The Chicago real estate mogul invested $315 million in Tribune Co. back in 2007, which was arguably the worst time in history to invest in a newspaper company. He then demonstrated near-total ignorance of the business challenges facing the $6 billion company that he designated himself to run, and succeeded at steering the company into bankruptcy in a little more than 18 months. Well, that was fun, but now it’s time to cash out and go home. Chicago Business sorts through all the legalese, if you’re interested.

And Finally…

As if to underline the shrinking attention span of the American news consumer, American Public Media’s Marketplace Radio devoted all of six sentences to summarizing the world financial situation last week. The idea came about during a daily news meeting, when staffers were boiling down the factors underlying the global financial crisis and thought it would be funny to express them as simply as possible. Megan Garber has the background on Nieman Journalism Lab. We snipped out the 90-second segment below for your listening pleasure.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Perhaps it’s because we were headed down to Long Island for a day-long visit to a journalism school today, but an opinion piece in the Loyola student newspaper got us riled up about the state of journalism education when we came across it yesterday.

Michael GiustiIn it, Loyola journalism professor Michael Giusti (right) makes a misguided assumption that the print media model is going to be just fine, basing his conclusions on the assumption that the worst is over, advertising activity is starting to pick up again and that his own reading habits can be projected out to the general population. We hope this isn’t what he’s teaching his students, but we suspect otherwise.

Giusti does have some interesting figures from Lee Enterprises to support his point. They show a 50% drop in classified advertising revenue compared between 2006 and 2009, compared to just a 20% decline in display advertising. Giusti finds reason for optimism in this fact, based on the assumption that a recovering economy will stimulate the latter category while the worst is over in the former. Even better, newspaper publishers have largely completed their cost-cutting initiatives and will learn to make due with smaller staffs.

“With their leaner personnel roles, newsrooms can continue operating within their tighter post-Craigslist budgets. Most publicly traded newspapers are now posting positive numbers, and many are even on track to post profits for the first quarter of this year.”

This conclusion appears to assume that nothing will change in the future, but evidence indicates otherwise. The Internet  recently became the world’s largest advertising market and it’s going nowhere but up in the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, newspapers who  have lost the young audience are focused mainly on milking whatever revenue they can out of an aging reader base while doing little to prepare for a digital future other than trying to charge for the content they now give away. This is not a healthy state of affairs.

It’s disturbing to see such blind optimism from someone who is supposed to shape young minds. For starters, the core problem for newspapers isn’t Craiglist but efficiency. Advertisers now have vastly more leverage in the way they invest their dollars than they did a few years ago. What’s more, the online competitors that newspapers face operate far more efficiently than print publishers do. The cost of advertising is only going to decline further in the future. Publishers are enjoying a respite right now because of the slowly recovering economy and the benefits of cost-cutting over the last two years, but to believe that the worst is over and the future is bright is to take a dangerously optimistic point of view. The business model is anything but “solid;” it is on very shaky ground.

Also, Mr. Giusti’s statement that “I plan to read my newspaper in its paper edition long into the future” demonstrates that he is out of step with his students. We addressed a class of public relations seniors at a major university last week and asked our usual question: How many of you have read a print newspaper in the last week? Out of a room of 25 students, one hand went up. This is par for the course in our experience with young communicators and it indicates that while Mr. Giusti may plan to read his newspaper far into the future, very few of his students will.

Online News Readers are Tech-Savvy

Alan Mutter quotes new research demonstrating that visitors to newspaper websites are more technologically savvy than many of us would believe. The research by Greg Harmon found that online newspaper readers are about the same age as their print-focused counterparts but are 1.5 times more likely to own a smart phone. He also quotes Harmon characterizing as “stunning” the finding that 30% of these readers are hungry to buy an Apple iPad.

It seems that the usual pattern in consumer gadget purchase is that about twice as many people plan to buy a gizmo at any give time as actually own it at that moment. But Harmon discovered that in the case of the iPad, five times as many online newspapers readers plan to buy it or some other kind of e-reader as currently own one.  This suggests that newspaper enthusiasts are keen to embrace the new technologies, a finding that should encourage news executives to get off the mushrooms on which they’ve been sitting since late January and start figuring out how to turn these loyalists into e-reader subscribers.

Sadly, the whole newspaper industry has been gloomily silent in that time. Perhaps they’re waiting for the population of iPads to reach critical mass – by which time someone else will have captured the market – or maybe they don’t know how to offer a differentiated product on a portable digital platform. Here’s an idea: regional aggregation. And there’s more where that came from if you’d care to give us a call.

Miscellany

The Financial Times must be thinking it has figured out the paywall model. The British business daily has completely eliminated free access to its content, except for readers who arrive from Google. Previously, FT.com visitors got five articles per month for free and 25 if they filled out a free registration form. Now those thresholds have been reduced to 0 and 10 stories, respectively. Annual subscriptions cost as much as $550.


Gannett's Craig Dubow, Newspaper Death WatchCurrent and former employees of Gannett Co, who aren’t known for reticence with their opinions, are likely to be royally steamed to learn that CEO Craig Dubow took home a $4.7 million paycheck last year even as revenue declined 22%, the company laid off 6,000 people and shut down the Tucson Citizen. However, those employees should keep in mind that the market capitalization of Gannett increasedby about $3 billion during the year. As far as shareholders are concerned, Dubow’s bonus is cheap.


Only 544 newspaper employees were laid off in the first two months of 2010, says the blog News Cycle. indicating that the blood flow may be slowing. That compares to more than 30,000 newspaper jobs that were lost between 2008 and 2009, according to Erica Smith. Smith’s 2010 numbers are less optimistic than News Cycle’s: she  counts more than 1,650 lost newspaper jobs this year, but that may include the 600 people at the Honolulu Advertiser who have yet to receive their formal termination notices. We’re inclined to trust Erica, who has documented this trend with unerring discipline for more than three years.


Speaking of Erica Smith, her latest blog entry is about Paper Haters, a blog that documents the more outrageous and ignorant complaints that newspaper editors get from readers. “The blog is intended to point out the irrationality and sometimes utter ignorance of newspaper readers and their often misplaced anger,” blogger Maggie Jenkins tells Smith. “It’s all at once funny and frustrating.”

A scan of the site reveals that readers do complain vociferously about seemingly ridiculous things. Jenkins, who fields reader letters as part of her job, estimates that only about 1% of communications from readers are positive. The most common complaints: alleged favoritism toward a particular restaurant/school/candidate and the classic “You’re just a bunch of bleeding-heart liberals” accusation. She invites you to submit your own favorites, whether from print, broadcast or online.

And Finally…

Reporters are editors disagree all the time, but rarely do you see their differences erupt in the way they did between these two TV newsmen in a recent exchange. We assume these guys don’t often go out for beers after the evening newscast.

TechCrunch has an interview with Marc Andreessen in which the Internet boy wonder advises media companies to “burn the boats,” an analogy to the instructions Cortés supposedly gave his army upon landing in Mexico nearly 500 years ago in order to insure that the soldiers pressed on.

Print newspapers and magazines will never get [to new online business models], he argues, until they burn the boats and shut down their print operations. Yes, there are still a lot of people and money in those boats—billions of dollars in revenue in some cases. “At risk is 80% of revenues and headcount,” Andreessen acknowledges, “but shift happens.”

Andreessen has a point that it makes senses to abandon failing models in the long term, but setting fire to profitable print operations is the wrong strategy at the moment. After years of fretting over declining circulation and trying desperately to rejuvenate a dying business, newspaper publishers are finally adopting an intelligent strategy. They’re milking all they can from their profitable business while trying to manage it down to a level that new models can take over. It won’t be easy.

The strategy that most publishers have recently adopted has three parts:

  • Raise subscription rates in order to milk as much revenue as possible out of an aging but loyal reader base;
  • Manage costs downward in a manner that preserves profitability without alienating traditional readers;
  • Invest in growth markets that can preserve the brand and generate new profits.

The New York Times reported last year that its second-quarter subscription revenues nearly matched its advertising revenue. Aggressive price increases, combined with a substantial reduction in discounted circulation, are turning paying subscribers into a profit engine. Other publishers are adopting this approach, which is why the seemingly catastrophic declines in circulation of the last couple of years aren’t as devastating as they seem. Many businesses have legacy customers that generate a small but profitable business. Successful long-term franchises, however, also have the skills to move on.

A Successful Online Model

New media news entities have demonstrated that they can earn a profit with about 20% of the revenues of print organizations. That’s because their operating expenses are about 90% lower. These organizations are profitable, but a lot smaller than print publishers.

In their most recent round of earnings reports, most publishers stated that they are now deriving between 12% and 16% of their revenue from online advertising. Most of them have also not done nearly as much as they can to monetize other sources such as events, transaction fees and value-added and classified advertising. Once publishers reach the threshold of 20% online revenue, they can conceivably shutter their print operations while sustaining the business and the brand. They’re trying to get to that threshold gracefully, though. Lots of money can still be made in print if publishers can manage that asset down steadily while reducing costs in lockstep.

That’s a tricky process. If publishers cut costs too deeply, they risk losing loyal print subscribers and circulation revenue could enter a free-fall. They also don’t have the luxury of much time to complete the transition.

Even harder is the third bullet point. The people who run newspapers are skilled at operations and asset management, not visionary investments in emerging markets. In the TechCrunch interview, Andreessen correctly points out that technology companies are adept at dealing with constant disruption to their markets, a situation that faces Microsoft right now. Successful technology companies manage this challenge through a kind of creative destruction process. Successful executives are experts at learning to identify new opportunities and quickly discarding old product lines without looking back.

However, technology companies don’t have the luxury of a loyal legacy base that newspaper publishers have. The audience of committed daily readers may still buy the newspaper industry another 10 years of life in print, although that business will eventually become unsustainable. It isn’t crazy for publishers to want to milk the cash cow for a few more years. The hard part is finding new opportunities and having the stomach to invest in them in the face of inevitable shareholder demands for greater profits.

Burning the boats isn’t a wise strategy at the moment. But it’s a good idea to start collecting firewood.


Newspaper executives and their largest advertisers will gather next month in Orlando to discuss the transition to a digital media world. Advertisers in attendance include Staples Inc., Walgreens, Best Buy,  Home Depot, RadioShack, Target and many other print media veterans.

It’s good to see the industry tackling its challenges head on, but we have to wonder if this is the right crowd to do it. Nearly every person in the room will have a career and a business built on a crumbling advertising model. It seems unlikely that much innovation will flourish in that atmosphere. And if you believe what people like Mark Potts and Steve Outing are saying, then the future of these companies is about diversifying revenue and cultivating local advertisers, not finding new ways to squeeze more blood from the display advertising stone.. Meanwhile, the agenda is packed with speakers from the newspaper industry. We trust Huffington Post wasn’t invited.


Meanwhile, Outsell has a new report predicting that US companies will spend more on digital marketing than print for the first time ever this year. Of the $368 billion that Outsell expects US advertisers to spend this year, roughly $120 billion will be spent online and $111 in print. Of the total online spending, 53% will be on company websites. Outsell expects print newspaper ad spending to drop 8.2% to $27 billion. The report costs $1,295. More here.

And Finally…

The folks who brought you the wonderful Fail Blog have aggregated some of their best media miscues into Probably Bad News, a site whose tagline is “News Fails, because journalism isn’t dying fast enough.”You can upload your own favorite typos, double entendres and acts of sheer stupidity for others to vote upon. Many of the examples are computers gone haywire, which lack the sheer hilarity of printed mistakes, in our view. But there’s some good stuff there, anyway.


Dan Bloom has been pushing the idea of renaming newspapers “snailpapers.” He’s put the cause to music. It’s six-and-a-half-minutes of countrified banjo-picking. Watch it if you can.