By paulgillin | September 16, 2011 - 10:57 am - Posted in BusinessModel, Citizen Journalism, Journalism, Local news, Newspapers

USC journalism professor Judy Muller goes back to her roots in small-town weeklies and writes an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times that concludes that “there are thousands of newspapers that are not just surviving but thriving.” Muller points out some of the unique challenges of publishing in a small community, such as having to unmask wrongdoing by the town councilor who may be your brother-in-law. She also made us laugh with this example of a typical item on the local police blotter: “Man calls to report wife went missing 3 months ago.”

It’s a fun and inspiring read, and would be even better if it were true, but Muller makes an essential journalism error in not providing any factual evidence to support her “thriving” claim. In fact, weekly local newspapers have been taking it in the neck for years. We long ago stopped tracking news of local newsweekly closures because the volume was overwhelming. Back in 2009, Journal Register Co. closed scores of weekly holdings in one fell swoop, and Gannett and others have followed. Weeklies were some of the hardest-hit properties in Media News’ recent consolidation. Reports of other weekly shutdowns hit our Google Reader every couple of weeks. We’re frequently asked how many local weeklies have closed but we know of no one – not even the amazing Erica Smith – who keeps count.

Which isn’t to take anything away from the many dedicated journalists who put up with long hours and low wages to publish the thousands of small-town weeklies that still survive. Local publishing has never been a lucrative business to begin with, and the pressure is only getting worse as low-overhead online operations like Patch – not to mention bloggers and independent Web publishers – nibble away at their local advertising base. We admire the dedication of these publishers and are inspired by stories like that of M.E. Sprengelmeyer, a daily journalist who found fulfillment running a 2,000-circulation weekly in Santa Rosa, N.M. after losing his job in the Rocky Mountain News closure in 2009 (see video). Muller celebrates Sprengelmeyer in her op-ed, but also uses a word we hear a lot when discussing this topic: “exhausted.”

Small-town weekly publishing is a lot of things: rewarding, fulfilling, responsible, important and endangered. There’s one thing that it clearly isn’t, though: thriving.

Boston Globe Splits Web Presence

The Boston Globe has come up with a novel twist on the paywall concept: It’s launching a paid portal that “offers an innovative, inviting reading experience that is the only gateway to all of the Globe’s journalism.” BostonGlobe.com is the new online companion to the 139-year-old daily that provides the full contents of the print edition as well as bonus features. It will be free through the end of this month and $3.99/mo. thereafter. Home delivery subscribers get access for free. The website will be formatted for reading on a variety of desktop and mobile devices, although few details were provided.

Boston.com, the regional site that the Globe launched in partnership with several local media outlets in 1995, will remain free. It will focus on daily sports coverage, online features and lifestyle information, and also include five stories from the daily print edition and summaries of other content that can be read in full on BostonGlobe.com.

In positioning the bifurcated strategy, Globe Editor Martin Baron described Boston.com as a site for the common man with BostonGlobe.com as its more erudite sibling. “BostonGlobe.com is essentially purely journalistic, and Boston.com is more of a town square where you get news and information, but you can also buy tickets to events and exchange information and opinions with your neighbors,’’ he said. Boston.com will continue to be advertising-supported.

The Globe was actually an early innovator in hyperlocal journalism. When Boston.com was launched as a partnership between the Globe and several local print and broadcast outlets, it broke the then-emerging newspaper mold by focusing on regional coverage rather than delivering an electronic version of the print product. However, as partners dropped out of the venture over time, Boston.com increasingly became the online face of the Globe, eventually getting to the point that articles about Israel and Japan routinely led the home page. With the new strategy, the Globe appears to be returning Boston.com to its roots.

Miscellany

If you’re still on the fence about buying a tablet computer (we took the plunge last month and are enjoying the experience), you can get one at a really good price if you also buy a subscription to two Philadelphia newspapers and a website. The Philadelphia Media Network, which publishes the Inquirer, the Daily News and Philly.com, has teamed up with three local sponsors and the French electronics company Archos to sell Archos’ Arnova 10 G2 Android tablets preloaded with gobs of Philadelphia news for $285. The advertised price of the tablets themselves is as low as $99, or about half what they cost on eBay. The catch is that you have to buy a subscription to three news apps as part of the deal. We suppose there are enough Philadelphians, who can never get enough Eagles coverage, to sell out the 5,000 units being offered on Phillytablet.com.

 

By paulgillin | September 7, 2011 - 4:10 am - Posted in BusinessModel, Citizen Journalism, Future of Journalism, Local news, Newspapers

Susan Petroni, Framingham PatchWhen Tropical Storm Irene plowed into the New England coastline a week ago, Susan Petroni (right) was ready. Armed with a computer and a cell phone, she set out to mobilize the citizens of the largest town in the U.S. to help her cover the story.

Petroni live-blogged throughout the storm, encouraging her readers at Framingham.Patch.com to be her eyes and ears. Readers snapped cell-phone phones and e-mailed them to Petroni to post on the Patch site. Locals flocked to the Framingham Patch page on Facebook to update each other on power outages and roads blocked by fallen trees. Petroni stayed on the phone with town officials to update her audience on disaster preparedness warnings and clean-up plans. For residents who had lost power, the Framingham Patch Twitter feed kept updates coming to cell phones.

In the days that followed, Susan Petroni’s online outposts became rallying points for citizens trying to find out when power would be restored or whether the opening of the school year would be delayed. Much of this information came not from her but from each other. Facebook was a quicker way to find out where the lights were coming on than the overwhelmed officials at the local utility.

The same scene played out at dozens of Patch sites up and down the east coast, demonstrating the power and agility of a new type of media we might call “curated citizen journalism.” It’s a model that relies upon the news judgment of professionals like Susan Petroni, who is an accomplished and award-winning journalst, and the contributions of concerned citizens who want to be part of the action.

Like many online journalists, Petroni left the daily newspaper grind for Patch in order to gain scheduling flexibility and spend more time with her young daughter. She posts five to seven stories on a typical weekday and a couple on Saturdays and Sundays. Like any good Metro reporter, she covers the important local government meetings and any news that would be likely to make the regional newspaper. However, most of her posts are short and few are earth-shaking.

About the Editor

One other Patch innovation that strikes us as novel and worth emulating: the “about the editor” page. Mainstream media typically sanitizes these profiles to limit them to professional accomplishments, but Susan Petroni’s page is far more personal. It includes disclosure of her religious beliefs, political affiliations and even opinions on some local hot-button issues. “We promise always…to adhere to the principles of good journalism,” the profile states. “However, we also acknowledge that true impartiality is impossible because human beings have beliefs.”

This approach is both endearing and practical. It gives the newsgathering operation a personal face while also heading off the constant bickering that takes place in newspaper comment sections over the political leanings of the editors. You may not like Susan Petroni’s politics, but at least you know what they are. And what’s wrong with that?

A typical Patch story might update residents on how long traffic will be disrupted by a sewer renovation program or tell how school bus routes are being changed. A weekly police log update tells where crime was a problem in the last week. Not Pulitzer Prize-winning stuff, but these are the stories that matter to the daily lives of the people who live nearby.

Curated Citizen Journalism

Patch encourages citizens to contribute to the effort without mixing their contributions with those of the single professional editor and assortment of freelancers who make up the core of the typical Patch site. Bloggers from the community get their own digital sandboxes, and comments are clearly distinguished from reported stories. People are free to post news reports to Facebook or the forums, but news only makes the main news feed after it’s been vetted by a pro.

Patch disclaims reports from the community, but also encourages them like crazy. There has been little problem with error or abuse, says Danielle Horn, Associate Regional Editor for Patch Metrowest Boston. The key is to know when it’s appropriate to turn over the reporting job to the citizens and when a pro needs to step in.

“If someone says the power is out on their street, then the power is probably out,” Horn says. “We haven’t run into any situations where people have posted news that is clearly incorrect. [Community newsgathering] is working out great.”

Patch has a thin staffing model, with typically one full-time editor anchoring each region. “Each editor knows his or her community like the back of their hand,” says Horn. The meat and potatoes of a Patch site is the little details that matter in residents’ everyday lives: library programs, school sports and street closings. “We want to be a resource for information that can enhance people’s daily lives,” Horn says.

Addicted

We’ve developed a mild addiction to our local Patch site, and we even contributed some photos to the recent storm coverage. Why? Because we were asked. As our photos began to show up on the gallery, we found ourselves mildly intoxicated by participating in storm coverage. We were also gratified to get a thank-you note from Petroni herself. At the nearby Boston Globe, e-mails to editors generally disappear into a black hole, and phone calls are rarely returned.

Patch, which now boasts more than 850 hyperlocal sites nationwide, has been criticized for maintaining a sweatshop atmosphere and for paying its editors meager wages. In our brief conversation with Petroni (corporate policy dictated our interview request be directed to a regional editor), she said the flexible working conditions were one of the best parts of the job. Horn noted that while Patch editors are expected to produce content seven days a week, they have considerable latitude in how they do it.

Essential Truths

The jury is still out on whether Patch will succeed, but we believe the experiment is already proving some essential new truths:

The Internet rewrites the economics of news. Our town could never support a daily newspaper, but it can pay the salary of a single editor with no overhead other than a PC and a couple of cameras. Thanks to thousands of layoffs at newspapers nationwide, quality journalists can be found who will work for modest salaries in exchange for workplace flexibility.

Hyperlocal is instinctively appealing. We long ago stopped reading our regional newspaper because so little of its coverage related to our local community. In contrast, the daily Patch e-mail is packed with news that impacts our daily lives, mundane as some of those issues may be.

Empowerment is intoxicating. Patch is drawing lines that enable the community to participate in newsgathering while keeping a firm editorial hand on the tiller. As we waited for Internet service to return following the storm, we monitored the Patch Facebook page from the local library and found it to be a more timely source of information than the statements of utility officials.

In our town, and in hundreds of towns like it, Patch is filling a gap left by the collapse of traditional media. The question is whether its business model is sustainable, and a lot of people think it isn’t. We hope AOL will stick with this venture and innovate beyond the traditional advertising-funded model. Even if the Patch business fails, it has laid a foundation upon which others can build.

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 paulgillin | 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.