Nieman 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
Lest 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.
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.
Reports 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.