Steve Outing

Steve Outing

The leaked “innovation” report from The New York Times that made the rounds in May recommends that the company take more risks, move more quickly and consider radical steps to reinvent itself. Steve Outing wonders what would happen if the Times abandoned daily print editions, and he’s built an elaborate “what-if?” model to test the idea.

Outing’s model doesn’t answer the question, but it does provide a new tool with which to evaluate options. “Most news companies aren’t very good at grokking what’s coming at them or what likely futures could be ahead for them,” wrote Outing in an e-mail to us. “What I did was demonstrate one tool of strategic foresight that news companies should consider using.”

Outing would like to get more consulting gigs working for news organizations that need reinvention, and we hope he gets some. A self-described media futurist, he’s been challenging assumptions about the slow-moving newspaper industry for the past two decades. Read more here. We were fans of a blog called Reinventing Classifieds that he launched back in 2008 that recommended radical new ways to revive the highly profitable newspaper classified advertising business. To our knowledge, no on took him up on his ideas.

For this exercise, Outing applies a “Futures Wheel” to envision a Times that only publishes on Sunday. The exercise is meant to envision every impact on the paper’s business, including staffing costs, production savings, new sources  of revenue and circulation revenue. Outing has modeled his scenario out to two levels of detail. To fully understand the implications you need to go to  third level, and that involves surveys and pilots. Outing will do you that for any newspaper that wants to hire him.

Asked what value news organizations can gain from this exercise, he wrote, “Technological change is accelerating at a faster rate; indeed, exponentially, when it comes to computing power. This means that anyone’s business model can be disrupted, if not obliterated, faster than ever before. So now is a critical time to start seriously using strategic-foresight tools and techniques (futures wheels being just one) to better prepare for likely and plausible challenges and opportunities.”

He’s right. How many media executives have the vision to take him on the offer? Click here to see an enlarged view of the image.


 

English: A speech in The New York Times newsro...
A speech in The New York Times newsroom after the announcement of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize winners (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We finally got a chance to read through the 96-page “Innovation” report commissioned by the management of The New York Times and leaked last week in the wake of the firing of Executive Editor Jill Abramson on Tuesday. Joshua Benton at Nieman Journalism Lab has already called the report “one of the most remarkable documents” he’s seen in his tenure, and detailed coverage has appeared on BuzzFeed, Mashable and numerous other outlets. We won’t go into detail on excerpts (Nieman’s coverage is the most exhaustive we saw) but thought it was worth sharing a few issues that stuck with us.

In a nutshell, the report makes a powerful case for a complete restructuring of the way the Times approaches its “paper of record” role. The extent of the criticisms contained therein will shock the many people who have come to believe that the Times is the standard-bearer for “digital-first” journalism among traditional media outlets, but there’s plenty of data and examples to support these conclusion.

Twenty years into the commercial Web, little has really changed about the culture at the Old Gray Lady, even as digital and print editorial operations have merged, the report says. Stories are filed late in the day in accordance with traditional print deadlines. Ambitious features are scheduled for Sundays, when print readership is largest but online readership dwindles. Mobile apps are organized by print sections. Traditional reporting skills dominate hiring and promotion decisions and a byline on Page One of the print edition is still considered the gold standard of success.

This is despite the fact that – as the report documents on page 81 – print readers are the smallest audience the Times has. Mobile and desktop readers together dwarf the print audience by a factor of 10. A dying medium still holds sway at the most prominent journalism institution in the U.S.

A few themes run throughout the document that we found noteworthy:

Audience Is Earned

One of the most compelling quotes we read was from Janine Gibson, editor-in-chief of The Guardian’s website. “For someone with a print background, you’re accustomed to the fact that if it… gets into the paper you’re going to find an audience,” she said. “It’s entirely the other way around as a digital journalist. The realization that [the audience is] not going to just come and read it has been transformative.”

This observation underlies some of the core recommendations of the report, which are that the newsroom needs to work much more collaboratively with design and promotion than it has traditionally. In most newsrooms, journalists work in a cocoon and throw finished products over the wall to designers and publicists for packaging and promotion. However, user experience has become critical to success. That’s because readers themselves are becoming the primary traffic-drivers. In other words, great journalism that isn’t easy to access and share doesn’t get very far.

The report has some internal traffic metrics that dramatize what most Web publishers have probably known for a while: Traffic to websites in general and homepages in particular is declining while content is increasingly being consumed through aggregators and mobile devices. The internal data also validates what has been speculated for a couple of years: Readers are now the dominant revenue source, making up 52% of 2013 sales compared to 43% from advertising.

With readers increasingly in control, the report recommends a step that still draws gasps from journalism veterans: Eliminate the wall between the newsroom and the business. “Increased collaboration, done right, does not present any threat to our values of journalistic independence,” the authors declare, recognizing what digital first publishers discovered a decade ago.

The Wall is still very much in place at The New York Times. Popular innovations like a searchable recipe database and the ability to follow stories of interest have come out of product and design groups rather than the editorial side. The Times does a good job of researching its audience, the authors say, but the newsroom has shown little interest in participating in surveys and focus groups. Designers complain that they are treated like second-class citizens. Editors who want to collaborate with colleagues outside the newsroom have to do so on the sly. Researchers said the vast majority of developers at the Times believe they aren’t even allowed to set foot in the newsroom.

Barriers between editorial and business functions are an expensive luxury that media organizations can no longer afford. What the Innovation report makes clear is that the business side contributes far more to the reader experience online than it ever did in print.

Platforms Matter More Than Packages

The Times enjoyed plenty of well-deserved praise for “Snow Fall,” a mesmerizing visual feature it published in late 2012. As beautiful as that package was, the fact that it hasn’t been repeated in 18 months points to the problem of putting resources behind what the report calls “labor-intensive one-offs”.

Snow Fall Intro screen

Snow Fall is cited repeatedly as an example of what the Times is capable of but fails to achieve in its daily operations because it fails to attend to the nuts and bolts of digital media. “Our competitors, particularly digital-native ones, treat platform innovation as a core function,” the authors write. They point in particular to BuzzFeed, which has equipped its editors with a wide palette of interactive storytelling tools, as a better model. While the results aren’t necessarily elegant, they are repeatable, and that’s more important.

In contrast, the Times has failed even to carry out a consistent approach to tagging, a well-established technique for categorizing content in a way that makes it easy to reuse. This has often-unforseen ripple effects. For example, the lack of tags has frustrated efforts to create a useful recipe database, hampered search engine visibility, prevented the paper from automating sale of its photos and limited its ability to target content by geography.

We Are All Publicists

Some of the report’s harshest criticism is aimed at the Times’ reluctance to promote its own work. The legacy of great journalism has become, in many ways, a handicap. Editors believe that journalism alone will carry the paper while competitors invest aggressively in promotion, data analysis and systems to move quickly and double down on success.

Publications like The Guardian, Huffington Post and The Atlantic expect staffers not only to promote their own work but to know how to write headlines that maximize sharing potential. Huffington Post won’t publish a story unless it has a photo, a search-optimized headline, a tweet and a Facebook post.

In contrast, the Times editors didn’t notify publicists of their acclaimed Invisible Child series on New York’s homeless children until it was too late to do any advance work. The reporter failed to even tweet about the feature for two days.

While the Times has millions of collective Twitter followers through its branded and individual accounts, the paper generates less than 10% of its digital traffic from social media. In contrast, BuzzFeed generates six times as much from those sources, the report notes. That’s because social promotion is considered an afterthought. For example, the Twitter feed run by the newsroom is used mainly for reporting rather than for audience development.

The report also criticizes Times management for doing too little to connect with readers. While competitors like Huffington Post and Medium have prospered by making their publishing brands a platform for anyone who wants to contribute, the Times still rejects dozens of op-ed submisions from thought leaders every day. The enormously popular TED Talks, which charge up to $7,500 per ticket, could have been a Times invention, but the paper has failed to market even its relatively modest Times Talks series. “One of our biggest concerns is that the Times will start a real conference program,” says a TED executive quoted in the report.

Gaping Hole on the Business Question

The most glaring shortcoming of the Innovation report is its lack of any creative ideas for solving the revenue problem. This may have been by design, since the team had no representatives from the business side. However, a small chart on page 81 shows the extent of this problem. Print still accounts for 75% of advertising revenues and 82% of circulation revenues. That adds up to $1.4 billion from the print side of the house compared to just $320 million online.

No one has figured out how to bring those numbers closer together, and in an environment of continually expanding inventory and declining CPMs, it’s unlikely anyone will. Marc Andreessen has proposed that publishers need to think differently about their businesses, seeking out much larger audiences with low-priced products. That sounds like a reasonable course, but the Times’ report makes it clear that BuzzFeed, Upworthy, Business Insider, and HuffPo are getting there much more quickly than the Old Gray Lady.

We’re impressed that the management of the Times was willing to commit resources to a project that was bound to return unflattering results and likely to be leaked. Now that the findings are there for all to see, it’s a question of whether management can follow through on them. Assuming that most newspapers are well behind the times in digital integration, it’s a fair bet that a lot of publishers will take cues from this research.

The Full New York Times Innovation Report by Amanda Wills, Mashable

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With BuzzFeed and Upworthy reporting eye-popping traffic growth and planning to hire teams of reporters, many people are wondering whether sharing is the new currency of media success.

The idea is that if you give readers enough top-ten lists and animated GIFs they’ll do all your marketing for you. You don’t even have to worry about search engine optimization because nothing ever went viral on search. This philosophy has even given birth to a new style of headline writing that’s intended to stimulate sharing (“Why’s This Kid Throwing Coins? The Reason May Or May Not Blow Your Mind, But Something Does Blow Up,” reads one recent Upworthy example).

Henry Blodget

But maybe sharing isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. In a recent case study on USA Today, Michael Wolff looks at Business Insider, the hyper-caffeinated new-media brainchild of exiled Wall Street bad boy Henry Blodget. Business Insider is notorious for its fixation on being first and for driving its reporters to exhaustion. It’s a content mill – albeit with higher quality than many of its peers – that churns out large volumes of information in the quest to earn shares on Facebook and Twitter.

And it’s generating traffic: 25.4 million unique visitors in January, says Wolff. The problem is that Business Insider has low reader loyalty:

Only a small percentage of Business Insider’s traffic actually seeks it out and regards it as a worthy destination and a source with particular brand authority. Most other readers land on a Business Insider article because of search-engine results, or because of an engaging — tabloid-style — headline in a Facebook feed and other social-media promotions, which generate 30% of Business Insider’s traffic.

Wolff asserts that this drive-by traffic has little value because readers don’t identify with the brand. Worse is that the drive for big numbers becomes a race to the bottom.  As advertising rates continue to drift lower, publishers must seek ever-higher traffic volumes to stay in the same place. This means resorting to gimmicks like contests, cheesecake photos and celebrity gossip. That attracts poor-quality traffic which has low brand affinity and little value to advertisers. It’s a vicious cycle.

Digital Dimes

Blodget disagrees. In a response on Business Insider he says that the very problems Wolff cites are actually opportunities. New media companies don’t have legacy businesses to protect and so are free to disrupt mainstream competitors and steal revenue, he says. “We are better at serving digital readers than many traditional news organizations, so we can thrive on these ‘digital dimes,’” writes Blodget. His post displays a photo of what are presumably a group of happy young reporters in the company’s New York offices (Wolff says Business insider has hired 70 full-time journalists at a cost of more than $15 million a year. Do the math).

We think Wolff is on to something. Take a look at the chart below from the Pew Research Journalism Project. It depicts traffic to the 26 most popular U.S. news sites over a three-month period. It shows conclusively that visitors who reach a site directly (via a bookmark or typing the address into a browser) stay much longer, read much more and visit more often.

This isn’t surprising when you think about it. Typing “nyt.com” into a browser is an act of brand affinity, whereas headline-clickers on Facebook don’t really care where the headline comes from. The BuzzFeeds and Upworthys of the world must compete headline by headline. Is that a problem?

Attracting readers with gimmicks is nothing new. One of the myths of the news business is that people read newspapers primarily for the news. The reality is that they read for all kinds of reasons. Any veteran of the pre-digital publishing days will tell you that an embarrassingly large number of traditional newspaper readers bought copies for the coupons, Ann Landers, comics, the Jumble and the daily horoscope.

But at least in those days readers knew what brand to buy. Today’s audience has more affinity to the content than to the publisher, and aggregators like Flipboard are constantly looking for ways to supersede publishers’ brands with their own. Brand still matters. A click is not the same as a reader.

 

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Marc Andreessen, internet pioneer and founder ...

Marc Andreessen, internet pioneer and founder of Netscape at Web 2.0 Expo in San Francisco, CA (Photo credit: TechShowNetwork)

Pretty much anything Marc Andreessen writes is worth reading, and his latest treatise on the future of the news business should be required reading for any publishing executive.

The man who arguably started all the trouble with the invention of the Mosaic browser in 1993 isn’t just an optimist on the future of the news business; he’s positively bullish about it. But the future he sees is much more like the newspaper market of the turn of the 20th century than the one that dominated the last 30 years of the 21st.

His 3,000-word prescription boils down to a few basic points, not all of which are new:

Run the news business like a business. Take advantage of the many new revenue sources that are emerging, in particular native advertising and subscriptions.

Take advantage of media democratization. Sure, anybody can be a publisher today, but that’s an opportunity as well as a problem. Universal media access creates noise, which presents opportunities for aggregators to simplify the cacophony. It also creates the possibility of much larger audiences than we have known the past. “The big opportunity for the news industry in the next five to 10 years is to increase its market size 100x AND drop prices 10X,” Andreessen writes. In other words, throw out the business model that relied upon scarcity and replace it with one that values abundance.

Stop playing defense. The good old days of news monopolies and oligopolies are gone forever, so get over it and focus on the future. The few organizations that have successfully crossed the chasm – he mentions The Guardian and The New York Times – began thinking digital-first years ago. What are the rest of you waiting for?

Find new revenue models. Bitcoin is going to make micro-payments feasible, so study up and start experimenting. And tear down that Chinese wall. It defeats too many new business ideas. Outlets like the Atlantic and the Times are finding ways to make blended advertising and editorial work and actually growing their influence in the process.

Andreessen provides numerous examples of new and traditional media enterprises that are succeeding and growing. They include several that we’ve talked about here previously as well as a few that we haven’t, including Anandtech, The Verge and Vice.

On the subject of investigative reporting, Andreessen is almost sanguine. “The total global expense budget of all investigative journalism is tiny —  in the neighborhood of tens of millions of dollars annually. That’s the good news; small money problems are easier to solve than big money nightmares.” He believes a combination of crowd funding and philanthropy can more than cover the costs of the necessary Baghdad bureaus and investigative teams.”

The future of news will see fewer large media empires and many more small, focused enterprises. These organizations will take advantage of improved economies that enable them to reach vastly larger audiences at much lower cost than in the past. The mainstream media survivors will be those that move the quickest to tear down old infrastructure and seize every opportunity to reinvent themselves.

Can Technology Save the News?

Pierre Omidyar

eBay founder and news investor Pierre Omidyar

A considerably less optimistic but more diverse perspective is contained in an article from the excellent Knowledge@Wharton service. Technology Can Save the News — If Readers Change How They Consume It consolidates the opinions of several Wharton faculty members about how mainstream media can be saved. They agree that standalone, for-profit news organizations are unsustainable but that that independent journalism is too valuable to sacrifice.

The professors see promise in the interest of billionaires like eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos in owning media companies. Omidyar recently committed $250 million to a startup media venture run by journalist Glenn Greenwald and Bezos ponied up the same amount to buy the Washington Post last summer.

No one believes these investors are buying traditional media properties for their growth potential. Rather, they think media companies are undervalued and they may see synergies with their other businesses. For example, targeted advertising delivered by Amazon’s impressive recommendation engine could yield immediate sales for advertisers and drive up Amazon revenues.

Many rich people also have an interest in advancing political agendas out of either self-interest or ideology, and media companies provide an ideal bully pulpit. The risk is that these media come to reflect the politics of their owners too closely and contribute to the “echo chamber” problem in which audiences choose to listen only to the outlets that reflect their beliefs.

On this question, Wharton marketing professor Pinar Yildirim is cautiously optimistic. She believes that the proliferation of slanted outlets like Fox News will create a backlash as consumers seek independent voices. “Technology can bring us perspectives other than our own, if the ones designing it build that into the architecture, and the ones consuming the news are open to it,” she says.

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

The story relates some impressive statistics:

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

Image via CrunchBase

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

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

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

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

o serious reporting can happen.

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

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

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

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

Media Boomlet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

 

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

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

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

The Ascendance of ‘Top 10′ Lists

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

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

Serfs Up

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

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

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

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

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

It’s Good

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

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

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

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

 

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By Paul Gillin | August 2, 2013 - 8:10 am - Posted in Best/Worst, Education, Future of Journalism, Journalism

Journalism Degree.org  just posted a list of 100 Exemplary College Newspapers for Journalism Students. The ranking isn’t in any particular order and there’s no explanation of what methodology (if any) was used to assemble the list, but we clicked around to some of the candidates are were impressed to see that good journalism is being nurtured on college campuses around the country. If you or someone you know is considering journalism school, consider this list because campus newspapers are where you’ll be practicing a lot of your craft.

 

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How are the experiments in reduced frequency that began in Detroit more than four years ago and have since spread to Cleveland, Syracuse, New Orleans and now Portland working out? Not so well, says author and J-school professor John K. Hartman.

Writing on Editor & Publisher‘s website, Hartman says the most from seven-day to three-day home delivery has caused massive subscriber flight and forced publishers to quietly backtrack. Newhouse, which is cutting frequencies across its line of dailies, has already had to introduce a new tabloid to produce on the days the Times-Picayune doesn’t publish.

Hartman blames greed. He accuses Newhouse of sabotaging journalism at the papers it own in the name of maximizing profits for the Newhouse family.

Newhouse is saving big money by eliminating news staff, eliminating office staff, eliminating delivery staff, and eliminating delivery expenses. In other words, Newhouse is getting out of the daily newspaper business and into the tri-weekly advertising shopper business.

We didn’t know this, but Hartman says the Detroit Free Press and News have re-introduced daily delivery to about 15,000 homes. The experiment, which was positioned as a “bold transformation” in December, 2008,

lost so many readers they had to beef up their non-delivery-day newspapers and restore limited seven-day home delivery. The Free Press now offers home delivery to 15,000 households through independent contractors the other four days a week. Nonetheless, hundreds of thousands of readers of the print products were lost in Detroit, and the projected switch of readers and advertisers to digital sites has not taken place.

Paywalls continue to spring up across the news landscape while new-media enthusiasts warn that gated news is a throwback to a bygone age.

Britain’s Telegraph and Sun announced plans to erect paywalls almost simultaneously after successful tests. The Telegraph, which claims to have the largest circulation of any U.K. daily, will give away 20 articles free every month and charge £1.99/mo. thereafter for unlimited access to the website and smartphone apps. The Sun‘s move is timed to make the most of parent company News International’s £20M deal to show near-live clips of Premiership football highlights on its websites beginning in August.

In Canada, Postmedia Network will roll out paywalls across all 10 of its properties, including the National Post. The move completes an experiment that began two years ago and has been deployed in stages. Digital-only subscribers will have to ante up $9.99/mo. for reading more than 10 articles in any title within a month.

Perhaps most indicative of the surging popularity of paywalls, though, is Politico’s decision to experiment with the idea. The Washington, D.C.-focused news service, which was once personified the new breed of digital-only publishers, has given in to the reality that advertising rates continue to fall and subscriber revenues must become part of the business. “We believe that every successful media company will ultimately charge for its content” said a memo signed by several of the Politico’s top executives.

Circling the Wagons

We continue to be more interested in experiments that break new ground in publishing economics than efforts to resurrect old models. There’s plenty to report there, as well.

Ken Doctor kicks us  off with a fine analysis of where NewsRight went wrong. NewsRight was a consortium of 20 publishers that sprung out of the Associated Press in early 2012 with the mission of tracking down copyright violators while also creating a subscription model that would permit digital publishers to license quality content for redistribution.

“Publishers have seethed with rage as they’ve seen their substantial investment in newsrooms harvested — for nothing — by many aggregators…” writes Doctor on the Nieman Journalism Lab, “…but rage — whether seething or public — isn’t a business model.”

Bingo. Consortia are good for only two things: setting standards and raising awareness. They’re a terrible way to create new products. The idea of pursuing copyright violators individually is ludicrous, anyway. It’s like trying to stamp out ants. There are always more where the first batch came from.

The only anti-piracy tactic that works is a public awareness campaign, and the newspaper industry has shown little interest in that. NewsRight died because the members inevitably had conflicting priorities, and it was impossible for everyone to find common ground when everyone had something to lose.

Does BuzzFeed Have it Right?

Sponsored Post on BuzzFeedDoctor points to the work being done at NewsCred, BuzzFeed and Forbes, among others, as examples of new ideas worth developing. “In 2013, we’re seeing more innovative use of news content than we have in a long time,” he writes. We’re particularly interested in BuzzFeed, the viral content engine started by Jonah Peretti and others in 2006. At first glance it looks like any other new-age news site, with a bottomless home page stuffed with a jumble of seemingly unrelated content ranging from the profound to the ridiculous.

As New York magazine points out in a lengthy profile, though, there’s a lot more going on there than cat photos. BuzzFeed is tuned to create content that people want to share, and it could care less who the authors are. The home page blithely mixes contributions from staffers and advertisers with minimal labeling. Every element within every story can be shared on every social network you can imagine. Every page is designed to maximize audience interaction with the content.

BuzzFeed makes little effort to segregate advertiser contributions from the work of its own staff. A photo essay on “12 Tips to Have An Amazing Barbecue” from Grill Mates sits next to “Just The London Skyline, Made Out Of Sugar Cubes” by staffer Luke Lewis. Some of the branded stuff is actually pretty good, like, JetBlue’s “The 50 Most Beautiful Shots Taken Out Of Airplane Windows.”

Is this serious journalism? Well, no. We don’t think corporate brands will ever produce that. But if they want to run their grilling tips next to similarly lightweight content from professional editors, why not let them? The genie that goes by such names as “brand journalism” and “content marketing” isn’t going back in the bottle. A recent survey concluded that corporate marketers and agencies consider branded content to be among their most effective branding tactics, and that 69% plan to spend more money on it in the coming year.

The bigger issue is whether sustainable publishing business models can be found that don’t rely entirely upon display advertising or subscription revenue. BuzzFeed and NewsCred are making some progress there. We don’t believe they produce serious journalism, if sex, gossip and voyeurism can attract a large enough audience to support real journalism, then we’re in favor of it. The idea isn’t new. It’s worked in the U.K. for decades.

Content Marketing Effectiveness

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