By paulgillin | February 9, 2010 - 8:46 am - Posted in BusinessModel, Future of Journalism, Journalism, Newspapers, Revenue20

Yesterday I visited with a journalism class at a major university. This institution’s journalism program is considered one of the finest in the country and its faculty boasts notable veterans of the newspaper and broadcast field. I spoke to a small class for about 90 minutes, devoting the first hour of that time to a discourse on the state of the US media: Why it’s in a predicament, how the story is likely to play out and what it all means for aspiring journalists. The rest of the time was discussion.

My material wasn’t the type of stuff these students are used to hearing, judging by their reactions. About 2/3 of my talk was about economics and business. Among the topics I addressed were:

  • How advertising efficiency is devastating the media economic models that are based on the inherent inefficiency of mass-market advertising;
  • The irony that newspaper readership is at an all-time high even as the industry craters;
  • How the efficiency of online publishing permits new media organizations to operate much more cheaply than their predecessors;
  • Why the 57-year-old average daily newspaper reader is an undesirable target for advertisers;
  • Why advertising costs will continue to go down and why this is a problem for traditional media;
  • Why Craigslist has devastated newspapers’ most profitable revenue source;
  • How the need to sustain high circulation levels has made newspaper editorial content bland, inoffensive and, ultimately, vulnerable to competition.

The students were aware that they’re stepping into an uncertain world but they didn’t seem to grasp the finer points of the media business. Looking at the journalism department’s website later, I could see why. The curriculum lists 29 courses in the journalism program, and not a single one is about the economics of publishing or how to sustain a career as a journalist.

This university is failing its students. I suspect that so are a lot of others.

Learning a Trade

Journalism schools are essentially trade schools. When I was going through a J-school program in the late 1970s, everything was focused on getting the students out into the working world with the skills and savvy needed to get to the top. Judging by my recent experiences with journalism schools, the same career path that was advised 30 years ago is still being recommended today. This begins with a low-paying job at a small daily and proceeds through a series of staff positions at increasingly larger publications. The Holy Grail is to land a job on the staff of The New York Times, which itself has laid off 200 journalists in the last year.

This career path isn’t going to work in the future. Newsroom staffing levels today are 55% of what they were eight years ago. While elimination of high-paying jobs has created some entry-level opportunities, the path for career journalists will increasingly be up and out into the freelance world where they will have to compete on speed, agility and business skills.

The business side of the equation is where the greatest disconnect occurs. Journalism schools mostly disdain the moneymaking side of the house. Students are taught that revenue is somebody else’s job; they are in the position of delivering information. In fact, the ad sales department is often portrayed as a den of evil, full of conniving capitalists who only want to bastardize the product journalists so lovingly nurture.

The failure of the economic model is the reason most news organizations are in such trouble today. Journalists are mostly unprepared to help. The church-state separation that is intrinsic to the culture of newsrooms prevents them from understanding why the business is in trouble. Most journalists I have met still show alarming ignorance of the business that pays their salaries.

I’ve written before about the need for young journalists to develop entrepreneurial skills. This doesn’t necessarily mean going door-to-door selling ads, but it does mean understanding how advertising works, how audiences can be monetized and how diversified revenue streams can build a sustainable income. These topics are distasteful to veteran journalists, who have never had to worry about such things. Unfortunately, they’re very relevant to the students they teach.

Journalism schools need to become small business foundries if they are to continue in their mission of preparing students for the real world. Unfortunately, most of them change slowly, and the rapid decline of media institutions has caught them flat-footed. They need to move quickly to adjust their curricula in order to avoid sending their students unprepared into the tumultuous job market that awaits them.

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.


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.

By paulgillin | September 11, 2009 - 7:48 am - Posted in Advertising, BusinessModel, NewMedia, Revenue20, Solutions

Revenue20_logoThe newspaper industry is all abuzz about Google’s submission of a micropayment proposal to the Newspaper Association of America (NAA, see latest ad at right). Nieman Journalism Lab first reported Google’s involvement and has been birddogging it the last couple of days. Google basically proposed to make its Google Checkout service available to publishers who want to charge for content. You can read the eight-page Google proposal here. Nieman’s Zachary Seward followed up to try to get Google to elaborate, but was simply told that “we don’t have any specific new services to announce but we’re always looking for ways to make payments online more efficient and user-friendly.”

NAA AdIn fact, the document is pretty standard boilerplate material about Google Checkout, but with one interesting twist. It notes that “micropayments will be a payment vehicle available to both Google and non-Google properties within the next year. The idea is to allow viable payments of a penny to several dollars by aggregating purchases across merchants and over time.” This approach would enable subscribers to set up accounts spanning multiple media properties and would aggregate their charges into a single bill. So, for example, a reader could subscribe to The New York Times, The Economist and Advertising Age and automatically receive access to pay-walled material from those publications without having to jump through registration and sign-on hoops.

Visitors who were not subscribers to those services could choose to pay by the drink for content. The whole process of enabling access and billing a few pennies for it would be handled by Google’s back-end servers. There are even options to enable free-trial access with a paid conversion option. All charges would be aggregated into a single bill. Google also proposes ideas to index content and display search results differently depending on a subscriber’s status. In other words, a subscriber to the Washington Post would see different search results than a non-subscriber and would also be able to click through to a full article without registering.

Journalism Online’s Grand Assumptions

Google is only one of several vendors that submitted bids to the NAA. Journalism Online, the much talked-about Steven Brill venture that has reportedly signed up 500 newspapers as clients for its micropayment service, also submitted a proposal that details its commission structure for the first time. Seward analyzes it here and the entire submission is here. Journalism Online basically proposes to take a 20% commission on subscriber revenues.

Maybe we’re missing something, but the Journalism Online math looks pretty twisted to us. Its proposal includes the business model for a mythical one-million-print-circulation newspaper (now that is a myth) with 800,000 home delivery subscribers and 20 million unique online visitors. Annual print circulation revenue is estimated at $600 million a year, which translates into $750 per subscriber. Our own local paper charges about $400. The model also estimates that the website will have 2.2 million subscribers in year two, which means that 11% of the unique website visitors are paying something for content. Again, this sounds optimistic. Renewal rates are given an equally buoyant estimate of 90%.

The NAA has said it won’t pick any winners but rather is performing a service for its members by inviting submissions. Members are free to do business with anyone they want. Keep an eye on Nieman for continuing coverage of this latest development in the evolution of pay walls.

Revenue20_logoAs publishers debate whether hyperlocal websites will be the news organizations of the future, GrowthSpur is preparing for that eventuality.

The startup, which was co-conceived by Backfence founder Mark Potts and a cast of industry all-stars that includes super-blogger Jeff Jarvis, is preparing for the new media world. It’s one in which armies of neighborhood bloggers, local events sites, community discussion forums and small-town print and online newspaper publishers will fill the gap created by the passing of media giants. It’s building a back-end business system that it hopes will enable these small publishers to quickly monetize their businesses while building a network that multiplies opportunity for every member.

The company, which was announced less than two weeks ago, is targeting a US local advertising market estimated at $25 billion that has been devilishly difficult for publishers to monetize.

Second Try

Mark Potts

GrowthSpur CEO Mark Potts

CEO Potts has been here before. Backfence was one of the earliest and most notable experiments in citizen journalism. The venture raised $3 million and expanded to 13 local communities before collapsing in 2007. One problem was that Backfence was ahead of its time. With GrowthSpur, Potts thinks his team has got the timing right. The influx of thousands of journalists who have been laid off over the past two years has created a petri dish for online innovation. But it’s also created a gap: few of those journalists know the first thing about selling advertising.

“People are starting to build replacements for newspapers and we plan to support them,” he says. “We think a local site in a decent-sized town should bring in $100,000 to $200,000 a year.”

How does Potts arrive at that figure when most small-town newspapers struggle just to make a small profit? The GrowthSpur founders think that best-of-breed sales tactics, combined with a robust network of regional advertising outlets, can make the difference.

QuickBooks For Community Media

Media blogger Jeff Jarvis will advise GrowthSpur

Media blogger Jeff Jarvis will advise GrowthSpur

The startup is building a technology platform and local network that fledgling publishers can easily tap to generate and manage revenue. It’s kind of a QuickBooks for community publishers, Potts says. The platform, which is still in development, will give publishers the wherewithal to manage everything from ad serving to invoicing while connected them to a network of nearby sites where customers can also place advertising.

That feature is one of GrowthSpur’s more intriguing ideas. Potts’ Backfence experience taught him that many local businesses want to advertise in a wider geographic radius than that provided by their local newspaper. Most community publishers lack the connections or infrastructure to place their client’s ads outside of the outlets they control. The result is a frustrating experience for advertisers and lost revenue for the publishers.

In the GrowthSpur model, the more publishers who adopt the platform, the more powerful the ad network. “The idea is that we can get you on the local mommy blog, the food blog and the site in the next town,” he says.

Sticking to Its Knitting

GrowthSpur is being driven by a small but elite group of publishing veterans. The venture is currently self-funded but is entertaining outside financing. GrowthSpur doesn’t have pretensions of being all things to all publishers. It’s strictly a sales and business management engine with no content management or editorial production features. In addition to technology, the company will bundle advisory services and deliver enhancements like do-it-yourself ad creation and search engine optimization through partnerships. The venture will make money through revenues shares. There will be no upfront costs to the community publishers and no payments to GrowthSpur unless revenue is coming in.

The size of the market opportunity naturally begs the question of why existing newspaper companies haven’t done more to take advantage of it.  Potts response is simple: “A lot of the big metro dailies haven’t even tried,” he says. “It’s too inefficient for them to sell below about a $10,000 campaign level. The money’s out there but many of big guys haven’t tried to get it.”

GrowthSpur is going to try. The service formally launches early next year, but the company is already fielding an “enormous” number of inquiries and has put some basic tools and services in place, Potts says. Although principals like Potts and Jarvis have been vocal critics of the newspaper establishment, GrowthSpur is born of a sense of optimism.

“This is an incredible time for journalism,” Potts says. “We’re going to see a fascinating multiplication of voices.”

A lot of good ideas are being incubated to reinvent the publishing revenue model. We’re going to begin profiling some of these ventures under the label “Revenue 2.0.” If you’d like to be considered, send us a description of your product or service along with contact information. Please don’t send ideas; there are plenty of those. We’re looking for going concerns.

Revenue20_logoPete Groverman can’t believe it’s so difficult to buy a newspaper ad.

“If you want to place an ad in every newspaper in Philadelphia, you have to either contact each paper directly or hire an agency or a broker to do it for you,” he says. “It takes about two weeks and it’s a pain in the neck.”

The 26-year-old Philadelphia entrepreneur thinks he has a better way.  Groverman and a small crew of bootstrap-funded dreamers have developed Tapinko, a sort of eBay for advertising. “It’s the online marketplace for offline ad space,” he says.

Like eBay, Tapinko helps buyers and sellers find each other but doesn’t disrupt the normal sales process.  Prospective advertisers can log into the service and find a list of outlets for their ad.  They select the opportunities that interest them and submit their request to the system.  On the other end, advertisers field and respond to individual inquiries, either selling at posted rates or negotiating side deals. Tapinko takes a small commission from the publisher for each successful sale.  The service also includes a variety of tools for tracking and managing ad campaigns.

tapinkologoTapinko launched into the college market and has signed up more than 125 college newspapers.  Emboldened by early success, the seven-person startup are now seeking alliances with mainstream publications.  In May, they signed their biggest deal to date, a partnership with Greater Media Newspapers of Freehold, New Jersey. Advertisers will be able to buy space in Greater Media’s 12 newspapers via the Tapinko service.

Where Google Went Wrong

Tapinko’s approach is reminiscent of Google Print Ads, a service that the search giant shuttered early this year.  Groverman believes Google’s mistake was in messing with the existing process. “Google Print Ads was a Priceline approach where buyers named their own price and Google owned the brand,” he says. “Newspaper sales reps had no incentive to recommend the service.”

In contrast, Tapinko merely serves as a connector. Buyers still do business with individual publications at individual rates.  Ad reps still collect their commissions. “We’re piggybacking on the way advertising has been sold for hundreds of years,” he says.

And it turns out clients don’t have to be traditional publishers.  Among Tapinko’s list of media outlets is a young woman who offers to display a client’s bumper sticker on her car for a monthly fee of $75.  Another man will display a company’s logo as a tattoo for free as long as the advertiser pays for the tattoo.

The fledgling venture was recently accepted into the Philadelphia-based Dreamit Ventures startup foundry and is now seeking venture capital.


As expected, Sun Newspapers is pulling the plug on half its Ohio weeklies this week, consolidating 22 titles into 11 and laying off one third of its staff. The move is part of a sweeping plan to reduce the company’s workforce by 115 people that was announced last month. It’s unclear whether other shoes have yet to drop, since the 17 jobs eliminated in the consolidation are a tiny fraction of the planned total. The company announced plans to eliminate 45 editorial positions last month.

About 30 staffers at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel just took a very generous buyout offer. The offer was so attractive, in fact, that many of the departing journalists are Sentinel lifers. Get this: the buyout offers two weeks’ pay for each year of service with an additional 10 weeks added on for people with more than 15 years. So It’s probably not surprising that people like broadcast media columnist Tim Cuprisin (23 years), theater critic Damien Jaques (37 years), books editor Geeta Sharma-Jensen (20 years), education reporter Alan Borsuk (37 years), pop music writer Dave Tianen (21 years) and music/dance writer Tom Strini (27 years) are exiting the scene. Jaques and Borsuk will each draw checks through early 2011, which isn’t a bad deal at all.