By Paul Gillin | December 18, 2009 - 10:38 am - Posted in Advertising, Business News, Layoffs, Murdoch, NewMedia, Newspapers, Paywalls

It would be nice to believe, as many newspaper executives apparently do, that brighter days are ahead. Kubas Consultants polled 500 newspapers executives in November and found that, on the whole, they believe the worst is almost over and the 2011 could actually see a return to growth. Most expect next year to be flat, and few foresee the need to outsource printing or reduce frequency, as many newspapers did this year. In fact, one in four said they plan to start specialty, niche or lifestyle products.

Alan Mutter isn’t buying it, and apparently neither is the man who produced the survey. Mutter e-mailed Ed Strapagiel, the Kubas executive who led the research. His opinion is that publishers’ forecasts of a .2% decline in ad sales next year aren’t realistic and he offers a list of reasons for their optimism. Our favorite: “Optimism is better than slitting your wrists.”

In the category of blind optimism, you can also include the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It forecasts that the newspaper industry will lose 25% of its jobs over the next eight years, making it the seventh fastest shrinking job market in the US during that time. The bureau doesn’t explain its methodology, but we suspect that a dart board is involved. The newspaper industry has shed 45% of its jobs since the 2001 peak and nearly 31,000 and just the last two years, according to the amazing Erica Smith. There is nothing on the horizon from a demographic, economic or competitive standpoint that suggests a turnaround in the business so the BLS forecast of a roughly 3% annual decline over the next eight years strikes us as a bit optimistic. Perhaps the prospect of an end to the suffering of the last 18 months is sparking some irrational exuberance.

Incidentally, these last two stories were reported by the industry trade journal Editor & Publisher, whose closure was announced last week in a sale of magazines by its former owner, Nielsen Co. A short story on the E&P website says that staff members plan to go ahead with a January issue and that E&P‘s 125-year run may not yet be at an end. “A number of outside companies and individuals have expressed interest in possibly keeping E&P going, so stay tuned for updates,” the story notes, cryptically.


For a more realistic look at the industry’s short-and long-term prospects, read Martin Langeveld’s thoughtful list of predictions for 2010. Among them are continuing slides in revenue of about 10%, disappointing performance for paywalls, a couple of publisher bankruptcies and likely consolidation by some of the survivors. There’s other good stuff there, too.

Miscellany

The BBC’s worldwide chief executive, John Smith, has come out in support of Rupert Murdoch’s plans to charge for news. The endorsement is notable because the BBC has been something of a foil for news organization’s paywall ambitions, since it provides high quality information – including international coverage – under a government subsidy. While Smith praised Murdoch’s lone-wolf advocacy for the “importance of having quality content,” he notes that paywalls will be extremely difficult to maintain. Separately, the BBC’s director general last month said the broadcaster had no plans to erect paywalls around its public service broadcasting websites.


Whether you like Jeff Jarvis or you hate him — and few people in the publishing industry feel ambivalent about the outspoken blogger — you have to admit that he walks the walk. In the spirit of total transparency and living in public, Jarvis has posted an update on his battle with prostate cancer. The good news is that he appears to be winning. Treatment, however, has come with its fair share of pain, and Jarvis outlines in great detail his problems with incontinence and impotence.

“I plan to say that publicness has benefitted me and that I wish the doctors would, in turn, be more public,” he writes. “The response I got from my posts here was helpful not only in the support I received but especially in the information I got from fellow patients who proceeded me and told me in frank and brave detail what I would experience.” We wish him a speedy recovery, whether in public or private, as we would all be worse off for the loss of his often blunt but always intelligent criticisms.

Revenue20_logoIn one of the final feature stories in Editor & Publisher, which is closing after 125 years, Jennifer Sabba has an interesting dissection of the circulation experiment at the Dallas Morning News. That paper was one of the first to dig into the economics of circulation pricing in order to better understand elasticity. Newspapers have traditionally derived only about 20% of their revenue from circulation, but the wholesale collapse of categories like classified advertising has forced them to get creative. The Morning News is one of several newspapers have experimented with turning the screws on loyal customers to see how much more they would pay for a print product.

It turns out that pricing elasticity isn’t absolute. Research conducted by the Morning News found that readers were willing to pay more if they thought they were getting more in the bargain. Specifically, the most important topics they identified were national news, local news, business, state, sports and investigative journalism, in that order. “If the paper raised the subscription price but readers felt they were getting more content, the fall-off in volume would be around 10%. At the same price, if readers felt like they were getting less content, volume would fall by 40%.”

The Morning News responded by jacking up its home delivery prices an audacious 66% in one year. However, it also expanded its news hole and launched a free edition that’s distributed to about 200,000 homes four days a week. As a result, in the most recent six-month period, the paper reported one of the largest circulation declines of any major newspaper: 22.1%. But that may not be a bad thing for the bottom line. The paper is sticking with its pricing strategy in the belief that the overall business impact will be positive. That’s the philosophy executives at Hearst Corporation adopted with the San Francisco Chronicle last year. The Chron has hiked its subscription rate 63% in the last 18 months and seen circulation plummet. However, it has reportedly also stabilized a business that was losing $1 million a week in 2008.

Sabba’s story provides a new context for understanding the dizzying drop in newspaper circulation over the last few years. While the declines are troubling, they are at least in part voluntary as publishers shed unprofitable circulation and focus on loyal readers. This isn’t a long-term growth strategy, but print isn’t going to be a long-term growth proposition anyway. The thinking behind the strategy actually makes sense in light of the inevitable shift that news organizations must make from print to digital distribution. If there is a cash cow, then milk as much profitability out of it as possible while transitioning the rest of the business to a new economic model.

Debating Paid Models

rupert murdochRupert Murdoch is apparently getting sick of being portrayed as an old fuddy-duddy who wants people to pay for information that should be free. So he’s taken his case to the Wall Street Journal. In a December 8 opinion, the News Corp. CEO says journalism is the foundation of a free society and blogger “theft” of the hard work of reporters and editors is undermining the value of quality information. Murdoch rejects suggestions that news organizations should become nonprofits as well as the possibility of a government bailout. “The future of journalism belongs to the bold, and the companies that prosper will be those that find new and better ways to meet the needs of their viewers, listeners, and readers,” he writes. But he also states that the economic future of the industry can’t be sustained by online advertising. Instead, readers must be convinced to pay a “modest amount” for good information. “The critics say people won’t pay. I believe they will, but only if we give them something of good and useful value. Our customers are smart enough to know that you don’t get something for nothing,” Murdoch says. Unfortunately, he provides no research or factual evidence for his belief.


Karthika Muthukumaraswamy has a thoughtful post on Online Journalism Blog about how to make paywalls work. She summarizes conventional wisdom that paywalls only succeed when the publication has content that has a high perceived value, usually for a focused audience. The problem with most news organizations is that they’ve been trained to make their information appeal to the broadest possible readership. So how do you change the mindset? Muthukumaraswamy suggests that the best course may be a dual track: continue to deliver broadly appealing information for free while analyzing traffic to determine where the high-value readers are. Then ask them to pay for access to that information. In that vein, “Steven Brill’s Journalism Online plans to charge only the most frequent users who seek very specific content while allowing cursory surfers to avail of most topical news for free.” Don’t demonize Google – she quotes research estimating that search engines can deliver about 50 cents a day of revenue per unique visitor – but don’t make it an either/or proposition, either. The key is to get focused on the numbers and seek your area of highest value.


Speaking of pay walls, The New York Times is mulling the online subscription option but isn’t tipping its hand about its plans yet. Senior Vice President for Digital Operations Martin Nisenholtz told the UBS Global Media and Communications Conference in New York City last week that there’s too much at stake to make this an all-or-nothing proposition. The company values its relationship with Google but is looking at the paid options employed by the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal, as well as the possibility of just staying free. There is some evidence that the financial free-fall is turning around at the Times, and staff cuts that have trimmed 25% of the workforce could reestablish some stability.


Traffic figures are in for the first month of Newsday‘s bold experiment to charge a $5 monthly fee for access to most of the content on its website. Declines of 21% in page views and a little under 20% in unique visitors were within expectations, according to management. Year-over-year page views were down 35% and unique visitors off 43%, but that compares to unusually busy election year numbers from a year ago. Management isn’t saying how much of the advertising revenue decline was made up by subscription fees. Newsday‘s numbers also can’t be taken as a benchmark for the industry, since a provision of the plan enables the many Long Island subscribers to Cablevision’s Optimum Internet service to get access for free.

Miscellany

The Journalism Shop surveyed 75 former Los Angeles Times journalists and found that more than half believe the paper will not survive in the long term. Only one in six thought the Times would weather the storm that is buffeting the industry. The poll is hardly scientific, but it has some interesting findings about how the former staffers see their future jobs (more than a third expect to exit the profession entirely) as well as whether and how they believe journalism can survive. The generally dour findings show that the journalists believe the media is descending into a mud pit of top 10 lists and celebrity gossip.


Google continues to try to make nice with newspaper publishers while at the same time introducing new products that threaten their business. Editors Weblog points us to Living Stories, a Google Labs feature that aggregates news from around the Web and organizes it by content. The prototype uses content derived from a partnership with The News York Times and the Washington Post. The feature appears to be a modest evolution of Google News at this point, although there is certainly potential for more innovation. One neat feature is a timeline atop some of the news packages that tracks important milestones in the evolution of a story. According to a post on the Google blog, the content is being maintained by staffers at the two newspapers. Google continues to insist that it has no plans to get into the original content business. The blog entry also says the company will provide open source tools that news organizations can use to adapt the service to their own needs.


It appears the Associated Press has begun to turn the tide of customer defections that began last year when the service raised its rates. Some 180 newspapers canceled their AP contracts after the revised rate structure was announced, but now 50 have come back, although not necessarily under the full licensing plan. The Minneapolis Star Tribune is the latest to rescind its cancellation.

Perhaps all those fresh-faced young journalism wannabes who are flooding J-schools across the country right now know something we graybeards don’t. While there’s still plenty of legitimate hand-wringing going on over the collapse of publishing institutions, some media seers are beginning to see promise where others see peril.

David Carr’s essay in The New York Times last weekend is drawing considerable attention and well-deserved praise for its glass-is-half-full perspective. Carr, who put in his time at the traditional media watering trough, observes that the technology-enabled young journalists he meets these days increasingly see the collapse of hidebound media institutions as an opportunity to make a name for themselves based upon merit rather than survival. “The next wave is not just knocking on doors, but seeking to knock them down,” he writes. “Young men and women are still coming [to New York] to remake the world, they just won’t be stopping by the human resources department of Condé Nast to begin their ascent.”

We found ourselves nodding vigorously as we read this piece. Carr expresses no nostalgia for an industry that was built on the inefficiencies of traditional advertising that are now being Googled out of existence. Career paths that relied upon young journalists doing “marginal jobs for indifferent bosses doing mundane tasks” are being vaporized and replaced by a meritocracy in which the best may not only survive but thrive. We’re still a long way from the Promised Land, and it’s a scary world if your job security is based upon having outlasted everyone else, but it’s invigorating if you’re young, energetic and enabled with all the trappings of today’s technology.

New York City venture capitalist Fred Wilson agrees. “I believe the move from a velvet rope model to a meritocracy is a good thing and that the new media business we are building in the wake of the old one will be a better media business; leaner, faster, and controlled more by users than media moguls,” he writes. Amen. As sympathetic as we are to the many people whose careers and lives have been thrown into chaos by the collapse of traditional media, we continue to see a much brighter future once the wreckage is cleared away.

AOL to Automate the News

America Online, which recently announced plans to lay off a third of its employees, is breaking some new ground in the newsgathering field. The company plans to use automation to crawl the Web looking for stories that its visitors have indicated they prefer through their clicks and page views. The robot will then advise a team of increasingly dehumanized editors when and where to publish what it finds. AOL will also use its new venture, Seed.com, to outsource assignments to an army of (presumably low-paid) reporters and photographers.

It sounds impersonal and even a little creepy. The idea of building a new site based entirely upon the preferences of viewers strikes us as a little like the model at Digg.com, which generates boatloads of traffic, but tends toward stories about video games and loopy kids. Digg isn’t threatening to upend CNN.

Writing on FastCompany.com, Kit Eaton makes an interesting case for AOL’s actions creating a revenge effect. If social media is actually adding more of a human element to interactions between groups, does a service that removes much of the human decision-making make any sense? Eaton proposes that readers today actually expect more of the human element in their news coverage rather than less. Of course, we haven’t seen the AOL technology in action and human editors could tweak the parameters over time to make its selections look more like The New York Times. But we doubt it.

Miscellany

Last week we told you about a new daily newspaper that is being launched into the Detroit market, hoping to fill a void left by the reduced publication schedules of the two major dailies there. Well, the experiment didn’t last long. The Detroit Daily Press published just five issues before hitting “a bump in the road” and suspending further operations until the new year. The suspension was blamed on “lack of advertising, lateness of our press runs and lack of distribution and sales,” according to an announcement on the publication’s Facebook page. This sounds to us like more than just a pothole, but we hope the owners, who have courted this market before, can overcome their troubles and come back in 2010. Photographer Rodney Curtis offers an insider’s perspective. Having lost his job at the Detroit Free Press earlier this year, he’s now a double-dip victim of the industry’s troubles.


Some local television stations are now crowdsourcing the news assignment process. Broadcasting & Cable reports on stations in Milwaukee, Lancaster, Pa. and Little Rock that are opening their daily news budget meetings to outsiders through video, live blogs and Twitter. News directors say the experiment has been a mixed bag, since audiences that sometimes number over 100 can get stuck on gossip and minutia instead of general interest stories. However, they say the open-air meetings have also resulted in solid news tips, such as the WITI (Milwaukee) story on a father surprising his son at school upon returning from Iraq. The boy’s teacher had clued the station about the visit.


Add MediaNews and A.H. Belo to the short list of newspaper publishers who are considering joining Rupert Murdoch in his crusade against Google’s evil empire. Executives at both companies were quoted recently saying that they may withhold some paid content from Google’s search spiders. However, they indicated that they would not block access to free content. These statements are a minor blow to Google, which says it can work perfectly well with paid content and that publishers using paywalls need Google even more to make their content discoverable.


The Hopi Tribal Council has decided to close down the Hopi Tutuveni, which is the primary newspaper covering Hopi lands. The 6,000-circulation paper, which has been publishing since the 1970s, was called “ineffective” by one tribal Council maker and didn’t merit continued funding by the budget-pressed group.


It’s the end of an era, of sorts, at the Washington Post. The paper plans to close down its last three domestic bureaus – in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago – at the end of this month in a significant retrenchment that focuses on the Washington area. The move continues a recent trend toward embattled big-city dailies shutting down the remote offices as they attempt to go hyperlocal. David Carr quotes Post Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli as saying “We are not a national news organization of record serving a general audience.” The Wall Street Journal announced plans to close its Boston bureau last month.

By Paul Gillin | November 23, 2009 - 10:34 am - Posted in Advertising, Business News, BusinessModel, Circulation, Demographics, Murdoch, NewMedia, Newspapers

The dismal circulation figures reported by the US newspaper industry a couple of weeks ago may actually have been optimistic. There’s new evidence that many publishers took advantage of recent changes to Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) rules to actually overstate their real readership numbers. The blogosphere is having a field day with this one.

The catalyst was this AP piece that points out that changes adopted by the ABC seven months ago now enable publishers to count “bundled” subscriptions of paid and online editions as two subscribers, even if only one person is doing the reading. This continues recent trends by the bureau to loosen rules and give its publisher customers more flexibility to pump up their numbers. In the spring of 2008, for example, the ABC made it possible for publishers to declare as paid circulation copies that sell for as little as a penny.

The AP story doesn’t pinpoint how many news organizations benefited from the rules change in the most recent reporting period, but notes that 59 newspapers counted at least 5,000 electronic editions in their weekday circulations. If those numbers were backed out, the record 10.6% drop in the most recent six-month period would probably have been even worse. The story cites several examples of papers that showed declines in print subscribers but were still able to post circulation increases by counting delivery of electronic editions.

However, numbers games don’t fool anybody in the world in which smart people with spreadsheets can quickly analyze them. As Mark Potts points out, “Fudging the numbers may make internal constituencies happy, but they’ll bite you in the long run. Advertisers can count, too.” In other words, you can slice the numbers any way you want, but it doesn’t count for a hill of beans if customers don’t come in the door.

Electronic editions are basically digital versions of the print product that readers can download for the sake of convenience, ecology or availability. Jim Brady tweets wryly, “Nothing shows that you ‘get’ digital more than trying to deliver it to people in exactly the same form it appears in print.”

The circulation gains are part of a broader campaign by publishers to distract people from the reality of plunging circulation and ad revenue. Scarborough Research released a much-cited report recently that documented that 74% of American adults read a paper in print or online during the past week. These statistics look impressive, but qualifiers like “adult” and “in print or online” color the numbers. The newspaper industry has largely lost the youth market and online distribution is a mixed blessing at best.

Publishers are playing numbers games of their own. Mark Hamilton notes that the industry has largely abandoned circulation figures in favor of research-driven readership numbers that report the number of people who have read or looked into a newspaper in the past seven days. These figures serve to buttress the argument that newspapers are still a core element of American life while obfuscating the fact that subscribership is down.

And even large circulation numbers don’t equal business success. Alan Mutter contrasts the circulation strategies of two Bay Area publishers: Hearst’s San Francisco Chronicle and MediaNews Group. The Chron has all but abandoned discount circulation in a quest to cut its operating losses and drive circ revenue to 45% of total sales next year. MediaNews is taking the opposite course. It has used aggressive discounting to become the most widely circulated publisher in the area. The combined circulation of MediaNews papers in the region is now nearly triple the Chron’s. MediaNews president Jody Lodovic calls his strategy a long-term view, but is junk circulation good for anybody? The Chronicle‘s strategy is to stabilize its business, which may be a more rational plan in an unpredictable economy.

Whatever the numbers, advertisers are speaking more loudly with their dollars. US newspaper advertising revenue fell by nearly 28 percent in the third quarter from $8.9 billion to $6.4 billion. If you extrapolate that out to a full year, the US newspaper industry has shrunk by nearly half since 2006, when it reported $49.2 billion in revenue. The AP quotes Newspaper Association of America (NAA) president John Sturm positioning the figures in the context of a dismal economy, but it’s hard to find any bright spots when even online advertising was off 17%.

Miscellany

All may not be lost for the East Valley Tribune, which earlier this month announced plans to shut down at the end of the year. The paper reported on Friday that an unnamed buyer has emerged who plans to keep the paper operating both in print and online. The buyer also plans to keep a “substantial” number of Tribune employees on the payroll. There were no other details. Freedom Communications, which owns the Tribune, has been seeking a buyer since early this year, but no serious offers emerge prior to a Sept. 1 bankruptcy filing. In fact, Freedom’s chief financial officer said one bidder offered to take over the business only if Freedom paid him to do so


Count Twitter cofounder Biz Stone among the army of skeptics about Rupert Murdoch’s plans to remove News Corp. properties from Google’s search index. Saying Murdoch’s scheme is likely to “fail fast,” Stone told a London audience that the Australian media magnate should instead focus on “how to make a ton of money out of being radically open rather than some money by being ridiculously closed”. He suggested that Twitter’s crowdsourced model offer some opportunities and that the company would be willing to work with newspaper publishers. Twitter executives also said last week that the service will soon announce a plan to start making money off of the estimated 60 million members it has acquired.

And Finally…

Ed Padgett pointed us to this clever music video by Christopher Ave, the political editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch who isn’t a copy editor but who is sympathetic to the plight of wordsmiths around the country who are falling victim to layoffs. The slick production, which looks like it was recorded in a newsroom, includes the following refrain:

I was there to fix your grammar
When you thought it wouldn’t matter
Cut all your extraneous blather down

AP Stylebook is my bible
Helped me stop a suit for libel
But nothing ensures my survival now

And I don’t know what I’ll do
After I am through
Killing my last adjective

Mallary Jean Tenore tells the story behind the video on Poynter Online. It has less than 800 views, so go visit it and add to its five-star rating.

The debate over whether search engines are friend or foe to the newspaper industry continues to grow and become more complex.

Rupert Murdoch says he will really go ahead with his stated plans to remove his portfolio of publications from Google’s search index. Jonathan Miller, News Corp’s chief digital officer, told the Monaco Media Forum on Friday that the company would begin blocking Google’s search spiders within a few months. Miller said Google brings in an army of one-click visitors who are “the least valuable traffic to us…You can survive without it.” He also said Murdoch intends to lead the industry in the just-say-no campaign. A Google spokesman responded that the search engine sends about 100,000 clicks to news organizations every minute. TechCrunch estimates that Google drives about one quarter of the total traffic to The Wall Street Journal.

While there’s no doubt that Murdoch is serious about drawing a line in the sand on this issue, the decision to talk about it this far in advance indicates that this is a negotiating tactic. Much as Hearst and the New York Times Co. wrung concessions from unions by threatening to close the papers they own, Murdoch may be looking to extract some kind of licensing deal from Google in return for backing down.

The Journal and the Financial Times are the only two daily newspapers that are having any success with a paid subscription model because both provide information that subscribers see as essential to their business. Few other newspapers can make that claim, which is why paywalls have been so difficult to implement.

Miller’s comment about drive-by visitors is worth noting. Publishers and auditors tend to look at traffic as the ultimate metric of success, but there are different kinds of traffic. Sex and celebrities drive page views just as they sell newsstand copies, but that kind of traffic is undesirable to most advertisers and extremely hard to monetize. If Murdoch has decided that his core base of paying and print subscribers are sufficient to run the company, he may be choosing to press his advantage while he still has leverage. The Wall Street Journal was the only large US newspaper to show any growth in the recent Audit Bureau Of Circulation report and Murdoch may have decided that he doesn’t need the casual visitor in order to be successful.

The Bing Factor

Media entrepreneur Jason Calacanis thinks Murdoch wants to do a deal. He suggests that the publishing tycoon could strike an exclusivity agreement with Microsoft Bing. This would have the win-win effect of driving revenue from Microsoft’s deep pockets while also upping the ante in the search wars. It’s an intriguing idea, and few other companies have the throw weight to pull it off.

Bing appeals to news executives as a foil for Google. TechCrunch reported last week that Microsoft held a secret meeting with representatives of some of Europe’s largest newspapers to discuss throwing its weight behind ACAP, a protocol that provides a variety of access controls over content. TechCrunch says Microsoft told the European publishers that it’s ready to commit £100,000 to fund development of ACAP, which permits search engines, for example, to index the full content of an article while displaying only part of it to a casual visitor. The report speculates that Microsoft may be hoping to use publishers as allies in a flank attack on Google by striking deals that give Bing exclusive or semi-exclusive access to their content.

Bloom Fading from User-Generated Content Rose?

Is user generated content beginning to lose some of its shine? Current TV, the cable channel founded by former Vice President Al Gore is in the process of retooling its content model to emphasize acquired and compiled programming while cutting back on standalone viewer submissions. The company will lay off 80 people in the process. Current TV says that while it’s as gung ho as ever on user-generated content, it will shift to a style of programming that sounds more reminiscent of America’s Funniest Home Videos than full length amateur documentaries. Chief Operating Officer Joanna Drake Earl also said “viewer-created ad messages” have been a huge success, with viewers preferring them by a 9-1 margin and advertisers reporting higher recall rates.

The Current TV downsizing bookends a year that began with the shutdown of another prominent user generated media company, 8020 Media. That publisher had a brief moment in the spotlight when it produced two print magazines consisting entirely of submissions from readers. The experiment proved that user-generated content is no panacea, however. The task of sorting through thousands of articles and photographs and turning them into professional-looking copy was little more efficient than working with professional journalists. The advertising downturn didn’t help.

The troubles of these prominent experiments shouldn’t be seen as a referendum on citizen media. Scores of other ventures are ongoing and an increasing number of events are being reported first through channels like Twitter. The most viable models appear to be those that combine citizen reports with moderation by professional editors. Perhaps America’s Funniest Home Videos had this all figured out years ago.

Miscellany

Maxim GrinevIf you’re following this Twitter thing that everyone is so excited about, you should check out a couple of new resources. Twitter Times is “a real-time personalized newspaper generated from your Twitter account” and it’s a pretty good metaphor for the way trust is awarded in the new world of democratized information. The service chooses news and blog posts mentioned in the Twitter streams of people you follow. The result is a digest that looks like a newspaper, only the stories are selected by your friends.

The algorithm behind Twitter Times is obscure and the site appears to be the work of a single Russian programmer named Maxim Grinev (right). While it doesn’t try to capture every recommendation from trusted sources, its constantly changing selection of content pretty much reflects the topics we are interested in. Users can share personalized home pages with each other and, of course, follow tweeters mentioned therein.

Also check out MuckRack.com. It’s a collection of jounalist Twitter feeds set up by a small group of people who call themselves Sawhorse Media. Journalists have to apply for inclusion and list a publication they are affiliated with before being added to the list. The qualification criteria seems a bit outdated to us in this age of citizen media, but the resulting list is a pretty good lineup of media pros. MuckRack is one of 16 identical sites that run the topical gamut from beauty to beer. It seems that lists are all the new rage on Twitter.


The wrangling over Philadelphia’s two bankrupt newspapers continues to grow more bizarre. A Federal district court judge last week ruled that the creditors trying to take control of The Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News must make a cash offer for the papers rather than simply taking control of them from the bankrupt Philadelphia Newspapers, LLC. The two parties have engaged in months of legal wrangling, even trading accusations of document theft. The new ruling opens the bidding to third parties as well as current ownership, with the courts apparently trying to steer the matter toward a resolution that keeps both newspapers operating.


Publishers can take heart in recent numbers from Scarborough Research that indicate that newspapers continue to be at the center of American reading habits. Writing on Media Post, Scarborough’s Bob Cohen cites the following 2009 stats:

  • 74% of adults read a paper in print or online during the past week. Newspaper readership in some markets reach upwards of 90%;
  • 19% visited a newspaper website during the past week;
  • 70% of American adults read a printed newspaper during an average week.

Scarborough’s numbers jive with other data that indicates that newspaper readership — online and in print — continues at all-time highs. The problem is monetizing the low-value web traffic. Cohen suggests that publishers need to do a better job of selling the centrality of their products to the audience’s daily habits. “Aggressive self-promotion, while not a natural inclination of this culture, could go a long way in these unusual times,” he writes.

By Paul Gillin | August 31, 2009 - 6:42 pm - Posted in BusinessModel, Circulation, Journalism, Local news, Murdoch, NewMedia, Newspapers

The Providence Journal is taking hyper local to heart. The paper has moved all its local coverage to the front and banished national and international news to a separate section. The move may be either brilliant or brain-dead, but at least the ProJo is doing something, writes David Scharfenberg in the Boston Phoenix. The ProJo has long been considered one of the best small-city newspapers, with a history of strength in local communities and a commitment to good reporting. However, recent layoffs and cutbacks have forced it to learn to do more with less. Suburban bureaus have been closed and the newsroom has been reorganized around five thematic desks, including public policy and justice. It’s unclear whether the strategy will work, but Scharfenberg quotes pundits saying that if any paper can figure out how to reinvent itself as a journal of local events, it’s this one.


Last April Fool’s Day, the Manchester Guardian published a very funny spoof story about its plans to reinvent the whole paper as a collection of Twitter posts. It turns out the idea may not have been so far off the mark. Check out Tewspaper, a localized news service composed entirely of Twitter feeds. Tewspaper currently serves five cities and hopes to expand, according to its “about” page. The service monitors the Twittersphere for relevant local information and posts the entire tweet, along with a link. Graphics are mainly stock photos and clip art and the whole site has a bit of a cheesy look and feel, but we have to give its creator points for innovation.


US newspaper advertising revenues shrank by 29% in the second quarter as the industry’s slide worsened. Total ad sales were $6.8 billion, down from $9.6 billion in last year’s second quarter. The declines were most pronounced in bread-and-butter ad categories that have been hit hard by the recession: recruitment ad sales were off 66%, real estate was down 46% and automotive advertising fell 43%. Print revenue fell 30% and online advertising dropped 16%


Chris Lake has a list of 25 things journalists can do to future-proof their careers. While many of his recommendations are obvious (“Start a blog” and “Embrace Twitter”), the piece is kind of a laundry list of Web 2.0 phenomena that are driving the evolution of journalism and a worthwhile read for journalists who are wondering what to do next. It’s also delightfully British. One recommendation: “Big up yourself.”


Among the biggest circulation gainers in the UK over the last 12 months are thelondonpaper, a Murdoch holding that the publisher plans to close, and the Observer, a Sunday companion to the Guardian that has been singled out as a potential candidate for closure by its owner. Several other papers saw healthy readership gains as British papers continue to defy the declining circulation trends taking place across the pond.

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By Paul Gillin | August 26, 2009 - 1:31 pm - Posted in Business News, Future of Journalism, Local news, Murdoch, NewMedia, Newspapers, Solutions

Jeff Jarvis is revealing some of the work he and his students have been doing at the City University of New York on New Business Models for News. He posts about some of the new expectations publishers should have if they expect to compete in the flattened information landscape of the future.

Among them are to partner with sites that can deliver traffic in sufficient volume to support advertising. “In the link economy, value is created by he who creates content and she who delivers audience,” Jarvis writes. Another new rule is to look at the website as a platform, not a newspaper. He notes that some of the world’s largest news organizations have application programming interfaces that developers can use to plug into their sites and to repurpose content elsewhere.

Publishers should also specialize coverage to draw small but highly engaged audiences. Finally, adopt the tactics of social networking sites, which facilitate communication between their members. Jarvis points to some recent number-crunching by Martin Langeveld that demonstrates that the Newspaper Association of America’s much ballyhooed newspaper Web traffic statistics are but a rounding error compared to traffic to really big websites. When you look at the amount of time people spend on newspaper sites, the news is even worse.


Applications to the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism are up 38%, and the flood of interest in journalism education isn’t confined to New York City, reports the CJR blog. “At the University of Maryland’s journalism school, applications increased 25 percent; at Stanford, they jumped 20 percent; at NYU they were up 6 percent.” The editors ask why the sudden surge of interest in these programs at a time of cutbacks and crisis for mainstream media? Only two comments so far. Please add your own.


Britain is looking for the first time at the possible loss of a major newspaper, and last-ditch efforts are under way to save it. The 218-year-old Observer is reportedly being evaluated for closure by its owner, the Guardian Media Group. Editors Weblog tells of a campaign called “Observer SOS” that’s being mounted by the Press Gazette, a small monthly magazine for journalists. Former European Minister Denis MacShane has also written letters to 100 Members of Parliament urging them to sign a letter to the paper’s owner imploring it to continue publishing the Observer. Press Gazette also says that the the Birmingham Post may be the first major UK daily to reduce frequency. Its editor says that going weekly is probably the best option for survival.

Observer SOS


Is the free daily newspaper model really invalid, as the Financial Times said last week? Piet Bakker begs to differ. The author of one of the best blogs about free newspapers says the reason Rupert Murdoch is closing thelondonpaper is because London already has three other free dailies, in addition to a dozen paid newspapers. There are only so many commuters to read them, Bakker notes, and recessions tend to hit free-subscription titles the hardest. “There certainly is room for a free paper as the young urban non-paid audience is growing and still valuable for advertisers,” he writes. “Room for one at least and two perhaps, but not for three or four.”


You probably know of Roger Ebert as a legendary film critic, but did you know he is also an alcoholic? Ebert reveals this little-known fact (Wikipedia’s Ebert entry has no mention of it) in a long blog post marking his 30th year of sobriety. It’s a remarkable piece of writing by a man who has had more than his share of struggles the last few years. Ebert writes glowingly of the value of Alcoholics Anonymous in his victory over alcohol and shares a few memories of notable meetings in the people in them. Our favorite:

I was on a 10 p.m. newscast on one of the local stations. The anchor was an A.A. member. So was one of the reporters. After we got off work, we went to the 11 p.m. meeting at the Mustard Seed. There were maybe a dozen others. The chairperson asked if anyone was attending their first meeting. A guy said, “I am. But I should be in a psych ward. I was just watching the news, and right now I’m hallucinating that three of those people are in this room.

Abandoned newspaper racksIt hurts to read Bill Wyman’s blunt, sometimes savage piece on Five Key Reasons Why Newspapers Are Failing, but the veteran journalist says some things that need to be said. Unlike recent analyses that have mainly focused on the industry’s business challenges, Wyman aims his guns squarely at the editors and reporters whom he believes fostered a culture of risk-aversion and self-absorption even as the need for change grew urgent. Although the piece is heavy on anecdotes and light on statistical evidence, we found ourselves nodding in agreement frequently as Wyman ticked off a list of editorial missteps.

Perhaps the most damning point in the 9,000-word opus is when the author lists headlines from a “recent” (actually, it was well over a year ago) features section of an unnamed local newspaper (actually, it was the Arizona Republic). They include: “Post office food drive,” “Fight Crohn’s and colitis,” “Mom and Estában,” “Healthful salsa non-guilty pleasure,” and

“Great gifts for teachers.” The point: “There was nothing there of remote interest [to] just about any sentient being. But that’s not what the paper’s editors were aiming for. The point is that there was nothing there that could possibly offend anyone.”

Wyman hammers home this point repeatedly. In his view, advertisers and editors joined in an unholy alliance decades ago in which watchdog journalism was sacrificed to reliable and profitable ad contracts, stable circulation and don’t-rock-the-boat blandness. As a consequence, the guiding principle in editorial departments changed from informing the public to offending as few people as possible. Causing a reader to cancel a subscription was the ultimate sin. Better to under-inform than to antagonize.

As a longtime arts critic, Wyman has some stories to back up the premise. He tells of one arts editor who instructed him to avoid negativity in reviews because readers didn’t want to “hear bad things about their favorite artists over breakfast.” Reviews sections in local papers are almost unfailing positive, or at worst blasé, he notes. Arts sections are filled out with snippets from those stanchions of informational blandness: Press releases.

“Let’s be honest. Most newspapers in the U.S. aren’t watchdogs…Most papers are instead lapdogs, and the metaphorical lap they sit in isn’t even that of powerful interests like their advertisers…The real tyrant the papers served was the tender sensibilities of their readers,” he writes.

Tangled Web

The piece is equally damning in its criticism of newspaper websites, which Wyman believes are too often ponderous, difficult to use and inwardly focused. Search results return rivers of irrelevant promotions that the user doesn’t care about and that exist only to serve the interests of internal constituents, he says. External links are far too rare and readability is managed by people whose expertise is mostly in print. As a result, newspaper websites are some of the least useful properties on the Web, which is a shame because their content should be some of the most useful.

Wyman’s piece makes valuable reading, if only to hammer home the problems of a change-averse culture that still exists in many metro dailies. In part, that attitude is a hangover of management greed that has steadily pared back resources in the interest of maintaining 20% profit tax margins. However, the evils of management are a horse has been beaten to death pretty thoroughly by now. What’s different about Wyman’s perspective is that he takes editors and reporters to step to task for not doing more with the resources they have. Pack journalism and the not-invented-here mentality frustrate efforts at meaningful change. Last week’s acquisition of EveryBlock by Microsoft and MSNBC – rather than by a newspaper company — is just another indication that these businesses don’t move quickly enough.

Bloggers’ Harsh Glare

One insight that we found particularly illuminating is Wyman’s observation that the freewheeling — some would say reckless — culture of the blogosphere has cast a harsh light on the mediocrity that many newspapers have dished out for years. “The Web mercilessly exposes the flaccidness of the content of most papers. It creates a straightjacket for them: As they desperately bland themselves out on land, the material they have on hand to impress in cyberspace is correspondingly pallid,” he writes.

This point deserves special attention. Journalists like to trash talk bloggers for lacking basic journalism skills, but for all its weaknesses, the blogosphere is nothing if not interesting. Put another way, the sudden availability of massive choice exposes boring information for what it is. Big media could get away with mediocrity for many years because readers had no choice. Now that they do, the weakness of the products is magnified.

Wyman’s piece is far from perfect, being at times more tirade than exposé. But it is thought-provoking and — dare we say it — interesting. To hear him tell it, that’s a characteristic that’s all too often missing from the publications he criticizes.

Miscellany

After six quarters of stomachturning losses, newspaper companies finally reported some stability in the most recent quarter, and even a couple of upside surprises. The Wall Street Journal asks if the recovery is sustainable and largely concludes that it isn’t. One unexpected factor in the industry’s recent good fortune has been the plummeting price of paper, which is down nearly 40% in the last nine months. But the Journal expects those prices to come back as the market winnows out some weaker players. It also points to recent research indicating that marketers are more likely to cut newspaper and direct-mail spending than any other line item in the name of increasing their interactive budgets.


Rupert Murdoch’s British newspaper company plans to close the free daily thelondonpaper after reporting a ₤13 million pretax loss. Thelondonpaper is one of two afternoon free dailies, which are targeted mainly at young commuters. It lost ₤12.9 million in the fiscal year ended June 2008 on revenue of just ₤14.1 million. About 60 jobs are affected, though it’s not clear how many people will lose their jobs.


Marty Petty, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist-turned-successful-publisher, will leave the St. Petersburg Times after nine years. Calling the apparently voluntary move a “business decision” that reflects the shrinking size of the newspaper, Petty said management must adjust along with employees. Petty was a member of two Pulitzer Prize-winning teams at the Kansas City Star and Times in 1982. She later joined the Hartford Courant, where she rose to the position of associate publisher. She was named the Tampa Bay Business Journal’s BusinessWoman of the Year for media in 2005.


pornWhat do journalists and porn stars have in common? Plenty, according to a short piece in New York magazine. Jessica Pressler writes that pornographers who were making good money online just a couple of years ago are suddenly confronting a new threat from amateur videographers who are giving away all the sex you can watch for free. Once highly paid porn stars are complaining that they can’t find work and there’s little new blood coming into the system. Pressler suggests that maybe The New York Times ought to steal a page from the porn industry by focusing more on stars than on programs. That means orchestrating the careers and various activities of its best reporters instead of simply publishing their stuff.

Did you know they still do paste-up at the San Diego Union-Tribune? That’s just one of the revelations in a story about the new openness of the U-T’s management, an openness that is apparently playing very well with employees. Having laid off more than 300 people since taking control of the daily in May, Platinum Equity is now forecasting a profit of $5 million this year, which would be a major turnaround from the $8 million the paper was on track to lose when new management arrived.

The extent of the new ownership’s transparency about the paper’s finances and operations apparently surprised and pleased staffers, who had been privy to almost no financial information under former owners the Copley family. They learned that the U-T’s revenues have dropped 53% since 2006 while profitability has plummeted from $67 million that year to the expected $8 million loss this year. They also learned that the paper has shed nearly half its staff in the last 21 months. However, cuts like that are what set the stage for a return to profitability. Staffers apparently liked what they heard. They told Voice of San Diego that Platinum’s decisiveness was a welcome change from the plodding pace of change under the Copleys. Now they need to work on getting rid of those paste-up boards.


Platinum’s early success at the U-T is apparently not typical of private equity firms. Yesterday’s blockbuster announcement that Reader’s Digest is bankrupt cast a harsh spotlight on Ripplewood Holdings, which bought the publisher for $1.6 billion in 2007 and which has now seen that entire investment wiped out by bankruptcy. Reader’s Digest magazine, which was once a coffee-table staple, has suffered circulation declines of more than half over the last 30 years and 40% in the last decade. The company is staggering under $2.2 billion in debt. Under the proposed reorganization, creditors will now own 92.5% of the company, which publishes more than 100 titles. Even after the debt is restructured, though, Readers Digest will owe four times its annual earnings to lenders.


Meanwhile, the owner of Philadelphia’s two largest newspapers has proposed an audacious plan to get creditors off his back. Brian Tierney wants to swap $300 million in debt for $90 million in cash, real estate and bankruptcy costs. Under the proposed deal, creditors would get little ownership stake in Philadelphia Newspaper Holdings, while the company would walk away from most of its debt. Tierney appears to be betting that the alternative of total insolvency will scare lenders into accepting the deal, but an attorney for the creditors calls the plan a “horrible proposal.”

Miscellany

The Financial Times began charging for access to its website in 2002, and history is vindicating the London-based publisher. With media leaders like Rupert Murdoch now openly advocating for pay walls, the FT is stepping up its experimentation with new paid-content models. It plans to add a micropayment system for access to individual articles and it recently launched an online newsletter for investors in China that costs $4,138 a year for a subscription. The FT newspaper has only 117,000 paid online subscribers, compared to more than one million for The Wall Street Journal, but it charges $300 a year for Web access. CEO John Ridding says he’s pleased that the industry is finally coming around to seeing things the way the FT has seen them for many years. “Quality journalism has to be paid for,” he tells The New York Times.


EveryBlock ScreenA partnership of Microsoft and MSNBC made off with EveryBlock and Alan Mutter can’t quite believe it. “If ever there were an application designed to fast-forward newspapers into at least the late 20th Century, then this was it,” he writes. Funded by a Knight Foundation grant, EveryBlock (screen grab at right) is perhaps the nation’s most visible experiment in hyperlocal news. It covers 15 cities with news focused on tight geographic segments. Under Microsoft/MSNBC ownership, expect that coverage to expand dramatically. Microsoft was actually an early innovator in hyperlocal publishing with its Sidewalk city guides more than a decade ago. Sidewalk bombed, but the concept may simply have been ahead of its time.


Things continue to rock and roll under new ownership at the Waco Tribune. A few weeks ago, the paper made headlines when the new owner added the words “In God We Trust” under the front-page logo. Now it has jettisoned rock musician and gun activist Ted Nugent as a columnist after Nugent refused to tone down invective and personal attacks in a weekly guest column he writes. Editor Carlos Sanchez makes it clear that he was somewhat reluctant to carry out the new owner’s orders to reprimand Nugent, but he was stunned and outraged by the tactics Nugent used to lodge his protests.


The AP has one of those charming throwback pieces about The Budget, a 119-year-old newspaper that serves Amish and Mennonite communities and which seems to have none of the problems or pressures of its Internet-addled counterparts. In fact, the 20,000 readers seem to be quite militant about keeping The Budget in print and delivered by mail to their homes each week. The Budget’s owners and editors aren’t Amish, but they’re careful not to offend their pious readership. Ads for alcohol and tobacco aren’t accepted and much of the content consists of homespun diary entries submitted by a network of unpaid correspondents. To the geographically dispersed Amish, The Budget is kind of a hard-copy Facebook. It’s the way they keep up to date on births, deaths and the price of wheat. Circulation has stayed strong even during the economic downturn.

globe_deadlineThe battle over concessions by Boston Globe union is over and management won. Was there ever any doubt? By a decisive 366-to-179 vote, the Boston Newspaper Guild voted to accept a package of pay cuts, benefit reductions and other concessions that is harsher than the one the union rejected last month. Owner New York Times Co. responded to the earlier contract rejection by unilaterally slashing wages 23%. That forced the union to dance a jig and recommend a revised package that had even deeper benefits reductions. Despite considerable grousing in the ranks, Guild members ultimately decided they’d better accept the current deal before things get any worse. Still, widespread layoffs are expected.

Meanwhile, Boston Business Journal editor George Donnelly reports that the Globe’s cross-town rival Herald just closed its fiscal year with a $2 million profit. It seems the publisher started cutting costs and working with the union long ago, while the Globe shoveled money into a pit. So who’s more likely to survive if the recession continues? Ask staffers at the Seattle Times, who believed that the Post-Intelligencer was the weaker of the two local dailies before Hearst abruptly pulled the plug.

Miscellany

Congressional Quarterly, which has been on the market for much of this year, has been acquired by rival Roll Call, which is part of the Economist Group. This can’t come as happy news to CQ employees, who now face the awkward task of merging with an organization that would have been happy to put them out of business. Still, they could do worse than work for The Economist. “The new CQ-Roll Call Group will have the largest and most experienced newsroom covering Washington,” said Laurie Battaglia, managing director and executive vice president of Roll Call Group. Mike Mills, editorial director at Roll Call, will call the shots at the combined entity.


Steve Yelvington has a well-balanced reality check on the future of journalism. The decline of print isn’t the end of journalism, he argues, but it will require a shape-shift. While Yelvington does succumb to some finger-pointing (“Newspapers could have invented search, directories and social networking. Few even tried.”), he ultimately puts the challenge of reinventing journalism at the door of journalists: “How long and how well newspapers and professional journalists persist in our future will be determined in part by how well they identify new ways to play socially valuable roles.”


Cox Enterprises continues to divest its newspaper holdings. It just sold three North Carolina dailies and 10 weeklies to John Kent Cooke, a media, sports and real estate magnate. Cooke’s son will run the North Carolina operation.


Mark Potts analyzes Rupert Murdoch’s plans to knock off The New York Times with The Wall Street Journal, dubbing it a “scorched earth strategy.” Murdoch appears content to let the Times Co. implode under the weight of its own debt while gradually moving the WSJ into its mainstream news stronghold. “There’s been some speculation that Murdoch’s real endgame is to buy the Times on the cheap, but why bother? If he makes the Journal the dominant national paper as the Times withers, he’ll emerge the winner,” writes Potts. It’s a good point. Murdoch biographer Michael Wolff has said that the Australian media magnate “sits around all day and thinks about buying The New York Times,” but why bother when market forces may make that expense unnecessary?


The Writers Bridge logoDarrell Laurant writes: “I run something called The Writers’ Bridge that is unique in the freelance universe. Not only do we match ideas with markets, but we generate lots of ideas for writers. We handle each member individually, and we’re good at hand-holding. My biggest frustration is the inability to recruit journalists, a group I see as the guts of this endeavour. I am currently a columnist/feature writer for a mid-size daily in Lynchburg, and I think I have something to offer. It costs $10 a month, but I’m willing to offer two months free to anyone who’s been laid off, just to check us out. After that, it’s $10 a month.” Let us know if it helps, OK?


Ahwatukee Foothills News staff writer Krystin Wiggs writes about being victimized by an elaborate hoax concocted by a young man who claimed to be a gifted and successful chef. The man, Vinayak Gorur, convinced Wiggs that he had won scholarships to culinary school and landed a sous chef job at a top restaurant at the tender age of 21. Gorur even enlisted an accomplice to masquerade as head chef at the restaurant for a phone interview. The guy even duped his parents. Wiggs is sick, angry and apologetic about the whole thing, but her story will resonate with any reporter who had gone through the usual motions of reporting a seemingly benign human interest story. How often do we go the extra mile to verify a story when everyone appears to be so genuine?

And Finally…

Slate has a clever video mashup of what media coverage of the moon landing might look like today. Many of the quotes are clipped from the last presidential election, but work just fine. Best scene: Wolf Blitzer interviewing a Neil Armstrong avatar.

For sheer satirical hilarity, though, we can’t beat this clip from The Onion.