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.

 

California Watch map mashup of schools on fault linesNieman Journalism Lab scored a coup in landing the eloquent and insightful Ken Doctor as a weekly columnist focusing on the economics of news. His analysis of the cost of journalism at California Watch is well worth reading if you want to understand why nonprofit investigative ventures are so popular right now (ProPublica just nabbed its second Pulitzer).

California Watch’s “On Shaky Ground,” an account of the dangerous vulnerability of many California schools to collapse in the event of an earthquake, is “old-fashioned, shoe-leather, box-opening, follow-the-string journalism, and it is well done,” Doctor says. It also cost over a half million dollars to report, an amount that would have caused most newspaper publishers to gulp even before the industry entered its string of 21 consecutive quarterly revenue declines.

But a half million is a relative bargain when you consider the number of media organizations that benefited from it. Pieces of the series ran in six major dailies and were picked up statewide by ABC-affiliate broadcasters. Top public radio stations in the Bay Area and Los Angeles ran with it, and a number of ethnic and online outlets (including more than 125 Patch sites) also picked up the coverage. Many localized the content by snipping local maps or extracting information about their area from the voluminous database of school-by-school information that the project produced.

Doctor notes that California Watch is building a new kind of syndication business around investigative journalism, which is the branch of news that has been hardest hit by budget cuts over the last three years. This is not a reincarnation of the Associated Press model, which mainly delivered breaking news. Bloggers, citizen media and Twitter have diminished the value of that function considerably. What citizen journalism can’t do it spend 20 months developing a story, which is what California Watch did.

California Watch is still “feeling its way along,” in Doctor’s words. Syndication revenue won’t support its current $2.7 million annual budget, so donations are grants are still essential to its livelihood. But look at what donors get for their money: About 70% of that $2.7 million goes to support the project’s 14 journalists. By comparison, a typical daily newspaper’s editorial costs are about 20% of overall expenses. These nonprofit models are vastly more efficient than the newspaper investigative teams they’re replacing.

And when you spread those costs among a lot of subscribers who pay a few thousand bucks a year to get access to the reports, it’s really not that expensive. “An owner…can hardly reject the offer of paying one-hundredth of the cost for space-filling, audience-interesting content,” Doctor writes. Particularly when compared to the value of a single child’s life who might have been saved (hearings are already under way).

Doctor’s analysis raises an important point about the evolving economics of information. In a world in which raw data has become a nearly valueless commodity, value is derived from filtering and contextualizing information for specific audiences. The small California weekly that could never dream of spending a half million dollars on an investigative project can spend a few hundred dollars to buy the work of a dedicated investigative team and then extract the information that’s relevant to its readers.

This is a much more efficient way to deliver news, but taking advantage of it requires discarding treasured assumptions like the not-invented-here syndrome and the belief that scope and scale define importance. It’s good news for local publishers. In the traditional model, only a handful of California papers could have tackled a project the size of On Shaky Ground. Now nearly everyone can share the wealth.

The Long, Slow Bleed

Newspaper ad revenue forecastLest anyone think the lack of major metro daily closures over the last couple of years is a sign of strength in the newspaper industry, consider recent earnings reports. Ad revenues at Gannett, McClatchy, Media General and Journal Communications were all off between 6% and 11% in the first quarter, and there’s no sign of a turnaround. Alan Mutter’s analysis makes an important point about why newspaper advertising isn’t sharing in the sputtering recovery.

The more advertisers of all types experiment with Web, mobile and social advertising, the more they will come to appreciate the power of the digital media to tightly target qualified prospects while granularly measuring the costs and effectiveness of their campaigns.

In sales jargon, the buying process is a funnel, with a large number of uninformed prospects at the mouth and a few qualified buyers at the tip. As consumers increasingly research their purchase decisions online, the need for merchants to advertise their availability declines. They get more leverage from intercepting buyers during the decision-making process. The deeper into that process buyers get, the better the prospect of converting them to customers. And incidentally, vendors only have to pay for actions like clicks and leads, not vague measures  like circulation.

The reason newspaper closures have largely stopped is that the industry’s near-death experience in 2008 – 2009 focused publishers on slashing costs, raising subscription prices and squeezing as much blood as possible out of the stone of an aging and shrinking circulation base. That is not a prescription for growth. We continue to stand by our 2006 prediction that major metro daily print newspapers will all but disappear by 2025. In fact, we think it’ll happen sooner than that. It’s just that death will come from cancer, not heart attack.

Miscellany

The Las Vegas Review-Journal is expanding its business model beyond pure advertising. according to a press release,  a partnership with parent company Stephens Media LLC’s digital arm will enable the Review-Journal to launch a service to  provide local businesses:

…full website, branding and logo design; hosting and customer support for websites and related digital services; email marketing; mobile marketing; training to provide local businesses easy tools to maintain and update their own sites and analyze web traffic; search engine optimization and search engine marketing; customer reputation management with daily reporting; social media presence and tracking tools for digital and traditional marketing efforts to ensure monitoring of ROI.

Hmmm, why didn’t we think of that?

Desperation often drives innovation, and the miserable state of the Las Vegas economy no doubt played a role in this quest for new revenue sources. We think it’s a smart move; most small businesses have no idea how to market themselves online and a local newspaper is a trusted partner that’s in a great position to give them a hand.

AOL’s Patch network of hyperlocal news sites intends to recruit 8,000 bloggers over the next few days. It’s asking each of its 800 sites to sign up 10 community members to blog. No word on whether the contributors will be paid, but given that Arianna Huffington is now running the show, we think we know the answer to that one.

And Finally…

Typewriter typebarsReports emerged in the Twittersphere early this week that the world’s last manufacturer of mechanical typewriters was closing down its India production plant. A lot of people, including us, were taken in by this. But there’s good news for the old-timers who still appreciate the clatter of metal on paper. Atlantic Wire reports that several factories in China, Japan and Indonesia are still manufacturing typewriters. Even if production shuts down, there’s a pretty good used market. For old time’s sake, we bought an IBM Selectric, which used retail for $450 in the 1970s, for a buck at a yard sale a couple of years back. We’re still not sure what to do with it.

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

With its $315 million sale to America Online, Huffington Post now has to be considered one of the U.S.’s most highly valued news operations, so it’s only natural that observers should begin to wonder when it’s going to start paying its contributors a meaningful wage.

The debate is fueled by HuffPo’s unusual content model, which is based upon a large volume of articles contributed free by unpaid bloggers, as well as syndication and aggregation services that effectively used other people’s content to sell advertising.

Arianna Huffington’s “blogger network is an amazing achievement; she’s persuaded untold numbers of people to write for nothing, to have their names on the page as compensation for their labor,” writes Dan Gillmor on MediaActive. That model fits perfectly with the one that’s emerging at AOL as it places new-media bets with sites like TechCrunch and the Patch constellation of local news sites. “There’s a common thread in many of the content initiatives: paying low (or no) money to the people providing the content,” Gillmor writes.

But is that wrong? After all, no one is forcing bloggers to write for HuffPo for free, and the site’s terms & conditions state that contributors aren’t entitled to any compensation. Writing on Columbia Journalism Review, Lauren Kirchner notes that unpaid labor can actually be illegal in some circumstances. People have even been forced to accept payment when they didn’t want it because their volunteer work was deemed to be an unfair competitive advantage for the organization that benefited from their labors.

Even arrangements similar to HuffPo’s have been successfully contested in the past. Kirchner points to a suit filed against AOL years ago by a group of unpaid community managers who alleged that their efforts contributed to the company’s bottom line. The suit never reached trial and AOL finally settled for a reported $15 million, denying the world a clear precedent.

It’s unlikely that Huffington will change the practices that have contributed to its meteoric rise any time soon. But pressure from prominent voices like Gillmor could make executives uneasy. “The Huffington Post’s business model is perfectly legal. But is it right?” Kirchner asks.

Maybe not, but right in what context? We believe the debate over Huffington’s pay scale is a straw man for the bigger issue of content devaluation brought on by the Internet. Nate Silver contributes a fascinating analysis in this respect. He dissects the Huffington Post’s revenue model and determines that free content generates just a tiny percentage of the business. “The median blog post, with several hundred views, was worth only $3 or $4,” he writes. Even blockbuster articles contribute less than $200 to the site’s revenues.

Silver’s analysis makes a number of assumptions, due to the lack of publicly available information, but the number that caught our eye was his estimate that HuffPo publishes about 100 articles per day. If you figure that nets out to 30,000 articles per year and revenues of $30 million, then the average article is worth about $1,000 to the site. Assuming that HuffPo pays a 20% royalty to the author, then the average writer would expect to receive no more than $200 per piece. Silver’s methodology, which is based on traffic, estimates the actual value at much less than that. Under any scenario, unsolicited content is worth no more than a few bucks.

Huffington Post is only the most visible example of the new economics of news in which writers can expect to receive much less payment for work than they did in the heyday of mainstream media. Forcing the business to pay more to its writers doesn’t change those economics. Operations like Demand Media are standing at the ready to pay a nickel a word. The market will continue to find its low-water mark.

The good news — if there is any — is that this dynamic isn’t new. Back in the pre-Internet days, The New York Times was able to get away with paying freelancers a pittance for their work because it was The New York Times. The value of the  byline was enough to reward contributors, even if the actual paycheck was only beer money.

We believe that there is an explosion of demand about to come from corporations that are embracing the new tactics of “content marketing.” These businesses must increasingly compete on the value of their content rather than the size of their advertising budget, and they will need to hire professionals to help them. This may be small consolation to many journalists, but at least it offers the possibility of a living wage that enables them to practice independent journalism, if only in their spare time.


Second-half magazine circulation continued to tumble in 2010, with Hearst down 6% and Condé Nast off 10%. The biggest culprit is declining newsstand sales as consumers increasingly turn to their smart phones for information. Paid subscriptions were actually up 3.2%. Magazines continue to cut distribution and increase subscription prices in order to prop up profitability.

An interesting side note to this story  is that Sports Illustrated will stop selling print-only subscriptions. Instead of paying $39 to receive the magazine, people will now have to pay $48 to get a bundled print, web and Android app edition . Why no iPad version? The publisher and Apple are still trying to work that out, but nothing is expected soon.


More shenanigans in the Tribune Co.’s Chapter 11 mess. It just gets uglier and uglier.

And Finally…

Colorized photo at Fiverr.com

If you think “crowdsourcing” is destroying the economy, then don’t read this…

  • “Princecharming” will type up a poem about anything you want and send it to you, signed, in the mail.
  • “Nick0000″ will turn a black-and-white image into a color image (left).
  • “Berthold” will proofread 800 words of English or German.
  • “sugars68” will write a unique original article for any keyword, with delivery in 24 hours.

What do these stunts have in common? They’re all things people will do for $5. At Fiverr.com you can find people to provide products and services ranging from the ordinary (deliver parenting advice) to the bizarre (design your name from energy drink tabs) for a lousy sawbuck.

Fiverr is a real e-commerce site. If you want to take someone up on an offer, click a button, pay by PayPal or credit card and wait for the results. Buyers can rate the quality of the transaction and sellers can accumulate feedback scores, just like on eBay. You can even post a request for people who will fulfill your desire. All for five bucks. Amazing.

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.

Just when you thought there was already enough social media in your life, here comes Quora. The startup founded by former Facebook executives raised $14 million last year and was valued at nearly $90 million before even releasing a product. Now Quora is live, and the journalism community is buzzing.

“As more journalists have joined the network over the last week there has been a surge in journalism related questions and discussions,” notes Journalism.co.uk. Writer Kristine Lowe says reporters can use Quora to drum up story ideas the same way they have been using Twitter. The difference is that Quora doesn’t have a 140-character length limit and lets you follow topics as well as people, which is a feature journalists should love. It also connects to members’ Facebook and Twitter accounts, enabling friends and followers to monitor their questions, answers and topics as part of their news feeds. Caroline McCarthy has a good summary of the perfect storm that’s created so much Quora buzz.

Quora describes itself as “a continually improving collection of questions and answers created, edited, and organized by everyone who uses it.” Topics are raised in a question-and-answer format and answers are updated in real-time. You can follow questions, topics and people. The crowdsourced organization scheme is quick and reasonably comprehensive. The “Newspapers” topic, for example, shows the most recent additions by default, with options to view open questions or “best questions,” which are those with the most favorable votes from members. There are also subtopics for individual newspapers. Anyone can curate a topic.

Search results on Quora continue the question-and-answer metaphor. For trivia nuts, it’s a gold mine, but it’s also a good way to stimulate story ideas and find sources. Want to know how the “often prickly relationship between PR people and journalists can be improved?” There’s a topic on that, and every respondent is a potential source.

Writing in the Globe & Mail, Amber MacArthur comments that “Unlike Twitter in its early days, Quora appears to have a base of members that stretch beyond early adopters. Even business executives, such as former AOL Chairman and CEO Steve Case, are answering dozens of questions.” In fact, Case recently used Quora to answer a question about how much it cost AOL to distribute millions of CDs in the 1990s, which is a topic AOL has never chosen to discuss.

Writing on Poynter, Mallary Jean Tenor has six ways journalists can use Quora. She notes that D.C. online startup TBD has asked their readers to tag content that editors should follow and experimented with crowdsourcing a story on where to find the best pizza in Washington. Some journalists have also used Quora to solicit interview questions and to generate quick answers to difficult-to-search queries like “What percentage of 20-somethings subscribe to print newspapers?

Elias Bizannes suggests that Quora is the future of journalism. Chris Crum says it’s kind of like Twitter with quality control, and that can be both a good and a bad thing. We’re curious to hear your thoughts. Is this an evolution or journalism or just another tool journalists can use?

By Paul Gillin | December 10, 2010 - 7:45 am - Posted in BusinessModel, Citizen Journalism, Future of Journalism, Newspapers, OnlineMedia, Paywalls

Judy Sims nails it with this post about the denial that continues to plague the news industry. While paying homage to Journal Register’s John Paton, she asks why there aren’t more like him? Newspaper revenues have contracted by more than half in the last five years, yet the leadership at these companies continues to look for ways to bring back the past with $30 iPad apps and subscription models.

The end of the newspaper industry as we have know it is approaching more rapidly than anyone predicted. What better time to make meaningful changes than when facing your own mortality? This means discarding all assumptions, re-evaluating your whole value proposition, your business model, staffing, everything. Sometimes you have to kill the business in order to save it. Sims writes:

The first thing a realistic news exec needs to do is understand their disruptor…The Internet is not just another content distribution method.  It is social.  It is collaborative.  That means accepting that they are no longer publishers or broadcasters having a one-way “Gutenberg era” conversation with the masses.

Next, a realistic news executive has to admit that they don’t know where the business model is going.  That takes guts.

We are reminded again of Paton’s comment about the “aging managerial cadre that is cynically calculating how much they DON’T have to change before they get across the early retirement goal line.” Why aren’t boards of directors firing these people and bringing in management without legacy baggage? Or, as Sims puts it, “why aren’t Rafat Ali, Mike Arrington, Om Malik et al invited onto mainstream media boards?”

Good question.

Miscellany

Nieman has a great post about why the WikiLeaks disclosures are good for both the public and mainstream media. Nikki Usher writes that the 251,000 leaked cables gave media organizations a perfect opportunity to demonstrate their value by doing what citizen journalists couldn’t, namely, sorting through the mountain of material and getting perspective and commentary from top administration officials. These are two things that professional journalists do exceptionally well. But the public was also allowed to see the same stuff the media was seeing, she writes, and that’s a victory for public access. Usher contrasts the WikiLeaks case to the Pentagon Papers disclosures of the 1970s. In that case, the public was only permitted to read less than 2% of the leaked documents and was unable to discuss them with each other in any meaningful way. Today, both mainstream and citizen media have access to the same source material. “This is a moment of glory for all those who talk about crowdsourcing, user-generated content, and the like. Perhaps this is the ultimate form of users helping to create and shape the news,” she writes.


The Sonoma Index-Tribune has dropped its three-month-old paywall. Is it a coincidence that it canned the $5 monthly charge shortly after AOL’s Patch.com opened a free outlet there? We think not.


The Brenda Starr comic strip will end its 70-year-run on Jan. 2. It joins Cathy on the list of recent comic casualties. Not a good year for female cartoon figures.

Amazon.com is finally addressing complaints about licensing fees for its Kindle reader. Starting next month, the online retailing giant will give newspapers 70% of revenue from digital versions of their publications sold in Amazon’s Kindle Store. That’s what Apple and Google give developers for their iPhone, iPad and Android devices, so Amazon is merely playing catch-up.

Amazon also introduced Kindle Publishing for Periodicals, a program that’s intended “to speed up the process of producing a version of the newspaper for the many platforms where Kindle software can be downloaded,” according to CNN

Amazon has been criticized for being greedy in the royalties it extracts from news publishing clients. The change in royalty payments brings it in line with industry standards, and the new publishing platform is said to make it relatively painless for clients to get their content on Kindle-compatible devices, including the iPhone, iPad and Android. The move also appears to be aimed at the scarcity of iPhone-savvy coders, which is somewhat limiting the growth of that platform. ” Apple has sold more than 125 million gadgets — iPhones, iPods and the iPad — that run its mobile operating system. But finding developers capable of coding software for the system can be difficult and expensive,” CNN said.

Take Two Tablets and Call Me…

How big is the tablet market going to be? Really, really big, says Gartner, which sees nearly half a billion tablets selling in 2013 alone. The sudden explosion of this market seems curious in light of the fact that tablet – or “slate” – computers have been around for more than a decade. Gartner casts some interesting light on this phenomenon.

Early table computers were mainly Windows machines, meaning that they differed from PCs only in form.  Gartner points out that, in contrast, the usage model of the new breed of tablets “is closer to what consumers do with a smartphone…It is about running applications, playing games, watching video content, reading books and magazines…If you can do all of this without having to take five minutes to boot up, without having to look for a power outlet after a couple of hours… and with a user interface that allows you to easily get to what you need, why would you not buy a media tablet?” Makes sense.

We were at the Web 2.0 Summit this week, which ordinarily would have been lousy with laptop computers. However, we estimate that about one third of the attendees were toting iPads. Part of this trend is Silicon Valley chic, no doubt, but there’s no question that one appeal of the iPad is that it takes about 10 seconds to boot and the battery doesn’t die after 90 minutes. We found ourselves staring lovingly at the iPads being hoisted by others in our row as our laptop battery drained to zero.

Early tablet-makers obsessed over features like handwriting recognition and supporting an 800 X 600 screen. Apple chose instead to reinvent the experience around user need. Gartner sees the cost of tablets quickly dropping to under $300 as competition increases. Meanwhile, publishers are being careful not to screw up this market opportunity like they did the Web.

WaPo Gets Hyperlocal

The Washington Post is floating ideas about its next foray into online news and it looks like it’s going hyperlocal with a vengeance. TBD, itself a recent D.C.-area startup, reads the tea leaves from a recent Post survey and deduces that the newspaper is planning a major mobile thrust with a social networking flavor. TBD also quotes an anonymous source saying the plans include “this new crop of sites would be even more hyperlocal than AOL’s Patch.com sites that are now spreading around the region. The mission of the Patch sites is to dig deep on municipal news, including school board meetings, high school sports, trash collection and the like.

The new Post initiative, says a source, would “carve things up even more micro” than the Patch sites, as in subdivision by subdivision. It’s unclear how the Post would fund such an initiative or find the volunteer citizen sources to do the reporting, but it’s breaking with the pack in making such a strong commitment to local coverage. Few publishers have the cash – or the cajones – to disrupt their traditional model to that degree.

Speaking of the Post, it just released a new iPad app that aggregates “social media conversations, videos, photos and user engagement through Twitter and Facebook about the top three to five issues of the day,” according to a press release picked up by Editor & Publisher. It’s free here for now, $3.99/mo. beginning in February.

Miscellany

US News & World Report, the former newsweekly that has been monthly for the last couple of years, will stop publishing its monthly magazine in 2011. The magazine, which is famous for its annual rankings of the best colleges, hospitals, personal finance and other businesses, will continue to publish the rankings in print along with four special topic issues. Everything else will go online.

US News has long been the weakest competitor in a three-horse race dominated by Time with Newsweek a distant second. The whole newsweekly sector has been devastated by online competition, forcing the Washington Post Co. to sell Newsweek this summer. Its circulation has plunged more than 25% in the last year.


The San Diego Union-Tribune is turning the tables on the traditional model of selling a printed newspaper and giving away electrons for free. The struggling daily, which was bought by private investment firm Platinum Equity last year, is offering readers a free copy of the  print edition when they use their mobile phones to check in on Foursquare, Gowalla or Facebook. All a checked-in member has to do is show a mobile device to workers at kiosks around the city. We’re sure the U-T’s newsdealers are just thrilled about this idea.


The Oregonian just got a $50,000 grant from the Knight Foundation via the American University’s J-Lab, and it’s going to spend the money on hyperlocal journalism. Read Editor Peter Bhatia’s passionate and persuasive argument for the need to adopt a “big tent” strategy and partner with localized news outlets of all shapes and sizes in order to “offer a level of local and neighborhood detail our staff…cannot get to.” It’s nice to see a newspaper editor embracing amateur journalism instead of dismissing it. “In the digital media world there really aren’t any limits on who can gather news and distribute it. Anyone with a laptop can create journalism,” he writes. The usual assortment of nut-nut commentators weighs in with their spew about how Bhatia is ruining the newspaper. He responds with admirable restraint.


Gannett Blog estimates that USA Today has five reporters covering Congress and 27 covering entertainment. We have no idea if those numbers are true, but if they are, we are going back to bed and putting a pillow over our head.

A couple of weeks ago, we profiled Sacramento Press, a bootstrapped startup that appears to be doing a lot of things right, including adopting a diversified revenue model and partnering with other small publishers to share in advertising contracts. Well, they’re moving fact. Ben Ilfeld, the 29-year-old founder of Sacramento Press, sent us this announcement yesterday. He’s hoping to expand and duplicate the Sacramento business model in other towns throughout California. Tomorrow, the world! Here’s to the renamed Macer Media’s success.

The following is an edited press release:

Looking to help communities elsewhere build successful new local online media models as traditional media struggle to survive, the founders of The Sacramento Press have chosen a new corporate identity – Macer Media LLC – to underscore their philosophy to keep their operations lean, even as their business continues to develop new sources of revenue and grow at a healthy pace.

Macer Media will serve as a corporate umbrella over several operating entities, including The Sacramento Press, Sacramento Local Online Advertising Network (SLOAN), The Bay Area Publisher Partnership (BAPP) and DealTicket, an online local daily deal site.

Macer Media aims to assist 21st Century publishers in other markets in understanding and obtaining the innovative blends of news gathering, advertising, social media and technology needed to succeed at seeding their own “hyper local” new media outlets.

“We want to run a lean company in the spirit of these local and hyper-local champions and be a company that not only has a stake in the hyper-local fight in the form of The Sacramento Press, but also helps out others in our space by providing the tools to build healthy local media ecosystems,” said co-founder Geoff Samek.

The Macer Media team is focusing initially on creating trusting relationships with local publishers throughout California to test the sharing of news, as may be appropriate for their readers, and as a means for local advertisers to expand their reach.

The Macer Media team encourages publishers to develop their own distinctive blends of news gathering, advertising, social media and technology infrastructure rather than adopting a “cookie cutter” approach to serving local audiences.

“We learned fairly quickly that people respected what we’re doing with The Sacramento Press in terms of our mix of technology, advertising and news gathering,” Ilfeld said.  “We’ve demonstrated an ability to innovate with technology and then leverage our strengths in technology and marketing to start SLOAN, our local ad network.  Those are hallmarks of what we do.”

We can’t remember the last time we went two weeks without updating the Death Watch, but a crush of work (though not so much money) has overwhelmed us recently. Plus we saw the new Harris Poll that found that over half of online adults now believe traditional media as we know it will no longer exist in 10 years, causing us to wonder if there’s really any point to “chronicling the decline” any more when the majority now agree  on the end point. But we forge ahead for SEO purposes, if nothing else. Here are some stories we’ve bookmarked lately.

Nielsen: 362K Paying for London Times

Revenue 2.0 ideas for newspapersHow are the early Murdoch paywall experiments in the UK faring? That involves unraveling some complex formulae about the value of free versus paid circulation and the opportunity cost of a paid subscriber. However, for now we are calling the early figures from Nielsen encouraging. The media monitoring service recently estimated that some 362,000 people have been accessing subscription content on the Times of London’s website each month since a paywall went up in June. The trade-off: unique monthly visitor traffic is down about 44% from 3.1 million to 1.78 million.  A separate analysis by Hitwise concluded that there had been a “large reduction” in visits to the Times’ website since the paywall was erected, resulting in a drop in online market share of nearly 60%.

So does this mean the Times’ paywall is a good or a bad idea? Here’s one way to look at it: The Times charges £1 per day or £2 per week for online access, with print subscribers getting a free ride. The back of our envelope says that if the Times can get half of those 362,000 monthly visitors to pay for one week’s worth of access each month, then it will have traded 1.3 million visitors for £362,000, or about 25 pence per visitor. The question then is whether those lost visitors can be monetized to the tune of 25p.

That actually should be a fairly easy calculation. If the Times looks at its online advertising revenue for the prior year, for example, and compares it to average unique monthly visitor volume, it can calculate the value of a free visitor pretty quickly. If that value is less than £.25, then the paywall is working, at least for now.

It isn’t that simple, of course. Those 362,000 monthly visitors aren’t necessarily paying the full price for Times content. Some are using free or heavily discounted promotions account or are print subscribers when get the online product bundled. However, they may also be more valuable that afree visitors. If advertisers are willing to pay more to reach paying customers on the theory that they’re better prospects, then those 362,000 visitors could be worth more than two bits apiece.

There are also intangibles, like the lower cost of operating a computing infrastructure to serve a smaller visitor base. However, we would suggest that the quick and dirty calculations aren’t all that complex, and if other Murdoch titles forge ahead with similar strategies, then the paywall is probably working.

A Case for Editorial Accountability

“In reality, publishers and CEOs have little understanding about what their editors are doing,” writes Neil Heyside (left) of New York-based CRG Partners in a provocative piece on MediaShift about the cost of content. Heyside shares some anonymized cost figures from client newspapers in the US and UK showing that the ways in which publishers allocate budget for different kinds of content varies wildly.

He makes the argument that publishers can reduce the amount of staff-generated content by increasing contributions from free (aka citizen) sources and making more use of “reworked” or rewritten material like press releases. He also suggests that publishers can make use of pooled or wire service material for topics that have little local relevance but that are important to carry anyway, such as international news and movie reviews.

“One paper printed 8% of its material from free content,” Heyside writes. “If that number moved up to 20% …a reduction of the use of 16% of staff-produced material led to a savings of 28% in staffing costs.” Sounds easy, but as anyone who’s worked with a substantial amount of contributed free content will tell you, the time required to massage it into something worth publishing can nearly equal the cost of paying for good material in the first place. Commenter Scott Bryant makes this case with some passion. Both Heyside and Bryant are right. Publishers should scrutinize the process and costs of creating content more carefully and editors should be more accountable for what they spend. However, quality is an intangible that defies rigid classification. As Sam Zell and his team found out at Tribune Co. a couple of years ago, boiling editorial content down to column inches, source counts or other rigid metrics is a recipe for trouble.

AP: Newspapers Are Now Loss Leaders

Associated Press' Tom CurleyFor the foreseeable future, publishers don’t seem to be funneling their investment dollars into wire services. Associated Press CEO and President Tom Curley (right) tells Poynter’s Rick Edmonds that newspapers now make up only 20% of the AP’s revenue and that figure is expected to continue to decline by 4% to 5% a year for the foreseeable future. In fact, “The AP loses money on services to newspapers and effectively subsidizes those offerings with more profitable lines of business,” such as photo wires and corporate business news, Edmonds writes.

The silver lining for the AP is that the drop appears to be a consequence of the industry’s overall decline rather than the contentious battles that erupted between the AP and its member newspapers two years ago. Curley says that unpleasantness has largely been put to rest as a result of adjustments to AP’s licensing fees and a lot of face-to-face meetings.

There is one battle still ongoing, however: with CNN. The AP claims that the broadcast giant is effectively using wire service material without paying for it by picking up (and attributing) stories moments after they hit the websites of AP subscribers. Here’s another area in which copyright law has failed to keep up with the velocity of digital information. As long as CNN summarizes and attributes information, it isn’t technically doing anything illegal, but the AP also has a defensible case for arguing that those actions are unfair to it and other members.

Miscellany

Starbucks store with newspaper boxesCould Starbucks soon compete with the newspaper publishers whose products it places next to the cash registers at its ubiquitous coffee shops? Yes, but for now it’s taking pains not to call its new in-store information service a “news” network, even though it sure looks like one. Instead, the Starbucks Digital Network is being positioned as a means for the retailer to gather more intelligence about what interests its customers in order to deliver to them better…um…latte? Sounds like a bit of a stretch to us. More likely, Starbucks is testing ways it can use localized and even personalized news as a way to improve customer affinity and maybe even sell advertising.

We proposed more than two years ago that Starbucks could become a major force in the US media market (see slide 28 in embedded presentation below) if it chose to pursue the opportunity. Our scheme was to provide printed, personalized mini-newspapers optimized for reading by commuters. Since we floated that idea, though, the iPad happened, and it now makes more sense to deliver news digitally to a tablet-toting public. However the plan works out, we think publishers should look at Starbucks as a potential partner rather than a rival, because anyone who feeds the caffeine jones of millions of affluent professionals enjoys a chemical bond that no editor can hope to match.


Forbes’ Jeff Bercovici rang up a media appraiser who correctly estimated the value of Newsday two years ago in order to find out what the Boston Globe is worth. Kevin Kamen’s guess: a maximum of $120 million and a realistic value of $75 million. That sounds terrible in light of the $1.1 billion that Globe parent New York Times Co. paid for the New England Media Group in 2003, but remember that money was relatively easy to come by in those day and that the Times Co. couldn’t find someone to take its Boston Harbor boat anchor off its hands last year for a paltry $25 million. Since then, cost-cutting has made the Globe a little more valuable, Kamen estimates. Perhaps that’s why a group of investors, led by entrepreneur Aaron Kushner, wants to buy it, Bercovici reports.

And Finally…

Rupert Murdoch has been the most strident of all publishers in demanding that readers pay for content, which is why the circulation promotion now being used by his Sun in the UK is so deliciously ironic. The paper stuffed thousands of banknotes into Saturday’s issue. Presumably it used small denominations so as not to encourage assaults on its street vendors. The daily has recently suffered a 4% drop in circulation. Perhaps Murdoch is hoping that readers will put their winnings to work to pay the access fees for the Times or News of the World.

About 55,000 readers of the Los Angeles Times in the San Gabriel Valley and Riverside were surprised to open their morning papers late last month to discover that the Times had acquired a sudden fixation with topic of “briefs subhed (see below).” Actually, it was a production error.  “About 55,000 papers were printed before the error was discovered,” the Times wrote in a correction. “Readers feared that all the copy editors had been laid off, or even ‘massacred,’ as one put it.”LA Times Brief Subhed glitch

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