By Paul Gillin | March 1, 2013 - 8:13 am - Posted in Future of Journalism, Journalism, Newspapers, Solutions

Occasionally a tool comes along that is so drop-dead useful that it causes you to change the way you work. We encountered such a tool a couple of weeks ago via an interview with Craig Silverman, founder of the Regret the Error blog (now hosted by Poynter) and the new Director of Content and Product Strategy at Spundge.

Spundge is a tool for content curation, a discipline we’ve written about in the past that helps readers cope with information saturation by aggregating and summarizing relevant material by topic. We think there’s a lot of value in curation, and if publishers can get over their not-invented-here mentalities, they can take advantage of it.

It’s hard to describe Spundge; it’s best to try it. If you consume content by reading RSS feeds – as we do – then its value is immediately obvious. The basic Spundge service includes RSS feeds from more than 45,000 sources that it calls the “fire hose.” It also has publicly available feeds from Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google Plus and several other social networks. You can add your own RSS feeds by pasting in individual URLs and uploading OPML files.

Users create a “notebook” for each topic and specify keyword combinations that are either required, optional or excluded. We created a simple one for this site that you can see here. You can create as many workbooks as you want and optionally share them. Other people can contribute to your notebook or just watch.

Spundge from Spundge on Vimeo.

Once you specify your keywords, Spundge goes to work filtering the fire hose to deliver items that match your query. Results consist of headlines and the first 500 characters or so of each article. This is usually enough to get a sense of what the piece is about. You can accept or decline each result. Accepted results go into a workspace for later use, while declined results disappear. Spundge is supposed to learn from your decisions and deliver more targeted results over time. That particular feature is a work in progress that will get better with time.

The items you save can be published as embeds on any site that accepts Javascript. Embeds don’t actually live on the target site, but are hosted on Spundge and displayed there. YouTube videos are commonly shared via embeds, and Storify is an example of a popular curation service that uses embedding. We’ve included an embed below that shows you how it works. One cool feature is that embeds are updated every few minutes, so the content actually updates even after you’ve published it.

Everything we’ve described so far is part of the free Spundge service. If you pay $9 a month, you get a WYSIWYG editor that enables you to customize content, write your own headlines, add comments and generally munge content however you want. The resulting HTML can be posted on any website or blog. At that price, it’s a no-brainer.

Love at First Byte

We love Spundge, and we’re recommending it to everyone who’s tired of picking through RSS feeds or filtering tweets looking for nuggets of information. We’ve long used an RSS reader to monitor the sites listed in the lower left sidebar of this site. That’s more efficient than visiting each site individually, but the lack of filtering is still a problem. We have to scan each headline and summary manually.

With Spundge, we imported our favorite feeds from an OPML file, specified some keywords and were off to the races. Plus we got to take advantage of those 45,000 feeds that the Spundge developers had already found for us, not to mention Twitter and LinkedIn. Our reading time has been reduced dramatically and we’re discovering stuff we didn’t know existed before.

Spundge is still in development, and it’s not perfect. The workspace can’t easily be customized, so you can’t selectively display items without jumping through hoops. Spundge lets you specify how many items to embed, but not which ones. The service makes it easy to share items from your workspace on social networks, but links go to a copy of the content on Spundge rather than to the source. We think content providers will have a problem with that.

The biggest shortcoming we’ve seen so far is the recommendation engine, which is supposed to “learn” from your choices and deliver more targeted content over time. We haven’t noticed that the quality of our feed is improving, but let’s be fair: Machine learning is devilishly difficult to implement. If Spundge is successful, the investments will come and the quality will improve.

For now, we give the basic Spundge service an unqualified endorsement as a leap forward in technology to filter and organize information. We’re going to experiment with the paid service, and you’ll see the results here. In the meantime, our recommendation is to get thee to a Spundgery.

If you need that link again, Spundge is here.

 

Enhanced by Zemanta
Comments Off

Near the end of the overview section of the Pew Research Center’s exhaustive study of the business issues facing American newspapers, one unnamed executive sums up the industry’s dilemma:  “There might be a 90% chance you’ll accelerate the decline if you gamble and a 10% chance you might find the new model. No one is willing to take that chance.”

That’s it in a nutshell. The newspaper industry is standing on a railroad ­trestle 100 feet above a rushing river while a locomotive bears down on it. The only thing worse than getting hit by the train is jumping out of the way. The study outlines in depressing detail how paralyzed the industry is in its search for new business models, although there are glimmers of hope in the successes of a few innovators.

Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism surveyed 38 US newspapers and conducted extensive on-site follow-up interviews to examine the industry’s search for new business models. The sample was representative of the composition of US newspapers as a whole, with a mix of geographies and a preponderance of smaller titles.

In general, small papers are faring better than the large ones, but all are facing the same specter off print advertising declines that far exceed growth of digital alternatives. In fact, researchers concluded that for every $1 gained in new digital revenue, newspapers are losing $7 of print revenue.

“There’s no doubt we’re going out of business right now,” said one executive.

No Names, Please

How Quickly Newspapers are Growing Digital RevenueOne of the project’s most frustrating characteristics is its anonymity. Researchers had to promise not to name names in order to get executives to let down their guard. The result is some memorable quotes but few actionable examples. We learn of one small paper that posted 63% growth in digital revenue in the last full year while also growing print sales 8%. Another major metro daily was said to have grown its digital business 50% in the last year. It would great if these outliers would come forth and tell everyone else how they did it, but we may never know their identities.

The Pew study is emphatic in identifying the industry’s core problems as more cultural than operational. “There’s a big difference between understanding the new media environment and comprehending what it takes to adapt,” says one executive.

Fifteen years after the arrival of the commercial Internet, the industry continues to rely on print advertising to an alarming degree and has made only halting progress in developing new revenue streams. That isn’t for lack of trying. Everyone is trying to find digitally savvy salespeople, most are paying premiums for online ad sales and all publishers are aware of the need to experiment with alternative revenue sources like daily deals and business services.

However, they’re mostly having meager results. Few papers studied in the report are taking advantage of the growth in targeted digital advertising. Most are still reliant upon low-margin display ads. Nearly half of the publications have experimented with alternative revenue streams like consulting services and digital shopping malls, but only one reported any significant revenue.

Culture Clash

Unfortunately, rapid sales declines in the profitable print business are creating a hair’s-on-fire hysteria that sabotages change. The kind of salespeople publishers need to hire don’t want to work in an industry that’s in crisis. The number of print-focused sales representatives outnumber digitally focused reps by about 3-1 at the newspapers surveyed and there continues to be debate at some companies about whether digital is event the future. That sounds incredible, but the study identifies entrenched resistance among many publishers to diverging from the business model that served them so well in the days of monopoly market share and 20% profit margins.

Officials at 10 of the 13 companies said their biggest challenge was the continuing tension between people in their organizations who are advocating a more aggressive digital approach and those more aligned with the legacy tradition. In essence, they described a conflict between going faster and going slower…”We haven’t needed innovative people,” explained one executive. “So you get what you need. The kind of people that came into this industry were more operationally focused, executors instead of innovator risk takers.”

The good news is that there is broad awareness at the highest levels of the companies surveyed that the industry’s problems aren’t going to heal themselves. In fact, no one quoted in the report suggests that the current downturn is temporary or cyclical. Where they differ is on what to do about it. “The data and interviews suggest companies are almost evenly divided between optimists and pessimists-evidence of a lack of consensus on how to proceed in developing the new business model,” the report says. Unfortunately, at a time like this the only certainty is that inaction is death.

By Paul Gillin | November 23, 2011 - 11:55 am - Posted in BusinessModel, Newspapers, Paywalls, Solutions

In places where paywalls are working – and yes, they are working in some places – publishers have abandoned the metaphor of a wall and focused instead on bundled subscriptions that looked a lot like cable television. So writes Poynter’s Rick Edmonds in a summary of a report by the International Newsmedia Marketing Association (INMA) that looks at 15 successful paid subscription models.

No two are exactly alike, and some even challenge credulity, such as the Oklahoman, which charges 20% less for a combined print/digital package than for an online-only plan. That’s right, they pay you to take the newspaper. All the models have one thing in common, though: they’re working. Instead of being positioned as obstacles, they’re marketed as ways to serve  readers’ need flexible consumption via computer, smart phone, tablet or some combination of all three.

The INMA report cautions that hybrid subscriptions aren’t any easy sale. Readers need to have options and explanations laid out clearly, and digital can’t be positioned as an afterthought. However, readers have adopted so-called “digital replica” editions with surprising enthusiasm, indicating a fondness for the look and feel of print even when reading on a screen. The report also indicates optimism that paid subscription models can work when tuned to the needs of the specific audience.

Start by discarding the concept of a wall. Digital subscriptions need to be seen a convenience rather than a barrier. The emergence of multiple digital platforms may be the best thing that has happened to publishers over the last decade. It has given them a way to make simplicity a feature worth paying for, and audiences are proving to like that story.


Andrew Birmingham isn’t quite so optimistic. The CEO of Silicon Gully Investments and a former associate publisher of the Australian Financial Review pens a lengthy piece in the Australian edition of CIO magazine arguing that pay walls are a fundamentally defensive strategy undertaken by panicked publishers whose entire business models are collapsing around them. “The time to implement paywalls was 15 years ago when [editorial content] was worth paying for,” he writes. “The time to invest in editorial was also 15 years ago when [publishers] should have been erecting paywalls.”

Birmingham’s conclusions aren’t particularly novel, but his explanation of the spiraling downward cost of online advertising is worth reading. Advertising networks in general, and Google in particular, come in for particular criticism. Both promised publishers easy money in the late 1990s, when times were good. The consequence, though, has been cannibalization leading to a plunge in advertising prices “from hundreds of dollars per thousand to $1 to $2 dollars per thousand in Australia across general news websites,” Birmingham writes. “In the US, they are now measured in cents per thousand.

Publishers did this to themselves, of course. Few understood the implications of the Internet on their businesses in the early days and most saw online advertising as simply frosting on the cake. Most are making the same mistake with social networks today, choosing to believe that Facebook is simply another publishing medium rather than a reinvention of the way people consume information. It’s good to see some paywall experiments paying dividends, but it’s also hard to believe that publishers will get themselves out of this mess. New entrants will have to figure that one out. In the meantime, playing defense probably makes sense.

Miscellany

Pitch In logo from Port Talbot MagnetOver in the UK, a hyper local startup called the Port Talbot Magnet is trying the direct approach: It’s asking readers to contribute donations to fund its news coverage. Visitors can pledge amounts starting at just £2 to sponsor a court reporter for a day, and PayPal is accepted.

 

The news just keeps getting better at The New York Times and the Financial Times, as new numbers indicate that paywalls really work if you’re among the most respected news organizations in the world.

The FT reported that it has breached the 250,000 subscriber mark, having grown digital subscriptions 30% during the last year. The FT charges about $390 for an annual subscription to its website, which would indicate total digital subscription revenues of nearly $100 million if everyone was paying the full annual price. However, the actual total is almost certainly lower than that, since print subscribers pay discounted fee and not all subscriptions are annual. However, the performance is still impressive. The FT said 100,000 of those subscriptions are from corporations.

NetProspex Social Business ChartThe Times is confident enough in its paywall experiment to declare victory and begin branding itself as a social media poster child. Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger took the stage at the London School of Economics last week to crow about a report by lead mining firm NetProspex that declares that the Times is the number one most social company in the U.S., based upon the total number of employees using social media and their fan/follower reach. Sulzberger said the designation recognizes the success of individual employees, such as Nicholas Kristof and C.J. Chivers, at building their own social followings.

“In 2000, we were #3 in terms of uniques behind the Washington Post and USA Today,” Sulzberger said.  “Today we’re proudly the #1 newspaper website, with a worldwide audience of over 45 million uniques…and that’s after we started asking readers to pay for unlimited access to our content.” The Times’ aggressive adoption of Twitter, in particular, has paid off in word-of-mouth awareness. Sulzberger said a Times story is now tweeted every four seconds.

Read a transcript of his comments for more examples. Note, in particular, the emphasis on “digital first,” and the speed with which the Times is creating hash tags and real-time Twitter feeds to lead the conversation on breaking news. Sulzberger also has some interesting points about the reading habits of mobile users and how they differ from those of traditional print subscribers. The ability to “literally get into bed” with readers is an opportunity to expand the Times’ franchise, not simply an adjunct to the print product.

The good news continues overseas, where News International reported a 10% increase in digital subscriptions to the Times and Sunday Times over the past three months to a total of more than 111,000. The company said it would start reporting monthly digital subscription updates, indicating confidence that the number will grow.

Does this mean paywalls are the answer to the industry’s woes? We’ll believe that when we start hearing similar success reports coming from major metro dailies that aren’t The New York Times or that don’t deliver high-value financial news. For now, publishers can take some comfort in the fact that the hemorrhaging appears to be under control. Print circulation is actually growing in emerging markets like Latin America and Southeast Asia, and North American advertising revenues actually were up slightly last year.

Nonprofits Gain Traction

Into the Wild - Knight FoundationNonprofit news organizations are some of the most promising candidates to replace the investigative journalism that’s been lost to cost-cutting in mainstream media, but one of the keys to success is to go beyond simply filling that gap. That’s according to an impressive new report from Knight Foundation, co-authored by our good friend Michelle McLellan, that looks at critical success factors for nonprofit success.

Poynter’s Rick Edmonds has an excellent summary of the study, which looked at the business models of seven promising local ventures, ranging from the ambitious Texas Tribune to the much smaller, hyperlocal St. Louis Beacon. While none has reached self-sustainability just yet, these startups are learning tactics that can serve as a model to others.

The report cites three “next-stage” opportunities, but they can really be boiled down to one truth: Go beyond replacing the newspaper model. Successful ventures are leveraging the unique advantages of online media to deliver information that can’t be expressed in print, such as databases and first-person video. That means hiring technology and data analysis specialists, not just reporters. The featured nonprofits are also diversifying their income streams beyond a few big foundations to include paid memberships, syndication fees, events and sponsorships.

Knight’s study is an encouraging sign that investigative journalism will not perish from the earth, and may even be reborn in a smaller, focused and more-efficient form.

Go Google+

Has your news organization registered its Google+ page yet? Better hurry. Google opened up its rapidly growing social network to company pages on Monday, and news operations like The New York Times have already staked a claim (tagline: “All the News That’s Fit to +”). Even if you have no immediate plans to build a Google+ outpost yet, you want to be sure to grab your brand before somebody else does. As many businesses learned with Twitter, failing to register accounts on new social networks can create an embarrassing situation when others begin speaking on your behalf.

The New York Times released quarterly earnings that indicated that is paywall is working. The report is the first to give some indication of incremental subscriber growth beyond the initial surge of sign-ups that came when the paywall went up in March. It shows that more than a quarter million people are now paying at least the $15 minimum fee. Even better is that traffic to the NYT.com website is actually up 2% from a year ago.

“The Times has created the perfect paywall,” writes Ryan Chitturn on Columbia Journalism Review. “It’s getting tens of millions of dollars from hardcore readers while letting in enough Google traffic and casual readers to continue boosting its online readership and collecting ad revenue off of those eyeballs.”

Chitturn estimates that the Times will take in about $63 million in digital subscriber revenue this year and more than $210 million in total digital revenue. That’s more than it costs to operate the newsroom. Which means that The New York Times could theoretically get out of the print business entirely and still make money.

New York Times Paywall

Does that mean it’s time for everyone to jump into the pool? Bill Mitchell thinks so. Writing on Poynter.org, he tells of moderating a panel at the World Editors Forum in which publishers who had taken the paywall plunge spoke of their initial trepidation and then relief when the steep declines in traffic that they had feared failed to materialize. Traffic to the Berliner Morgenpost has actually doubled since it put up a paywall in late 2009.

Mitchell quotes The New York Times’ Jim Roberts saying the wall has had a morale dividend. “There is more of an investment I feel in the newsroom among our journalists since the introduction of the paywall. They feel a greater stake in the product,” he said.

Perhaps the time is right. The Newspaper Association of America reports that traffic to newspaper websites jumped 20% in September compared to a year ago among the coveted adult demographic. “Average daily visits were up 21%; total pages viewed were up 10%; total minutes spent were up 11 %; and unique visitors were up 9 %,” the NAA reported.

Thus the great paradox continues. Newspapers are more popular than they’ve ever been, but the business model is broken beyond repair. The NAA numbers are encouraging, and perhaps indicates a flight to quality among readers who are fed up with social media noise. For the past five years people have been  publishing all kinds of nonsense online because they could. Now the novelty is wearing off and quality is becoming a differentiation point.

Google’s new Panda search algorithm is supposed to be a game changer in its ability to distinguish quality content from crap. We noted recently that Demand Media, which specializes in crap, has had to remove 300,000 articles from its website because Google won’t pay attention to them anymore. And the world hardly noticed.

The fact that newsrooms turn out a good product has never been debatable, but the idea that people who had been accustomed to getting it for free for 15 years would decide to pay for it is still an open question.

Give credit to the early adopters for fine-tuning the balance of free vs. paid content to achieve some success. The idea is to grant just enough access to entice readers to pay but not enough to give away the farm. The Wall Street Journal lets you read a couple of hundred words gratis but then wants a credit card. Perhaps it and the Times have figured out the formula.

We’ve been skeptical about paywalls for two years, but we’d be the first to cheer their success.  If they enable good journalism to flourish once again, we’re all for it.

Washington Post Co. Holds Out

Katharine WeymouthApparently the Washington Post Co. isn’t convinced. Publisher Katharine Weymouth was quoted in Politico last week saying that paid subscriptions don’t make sense for the Post at the moment. The newspaper’s philosophy is that its website should be “open to everybody and attract as many people as we can to spend as much time as they can with our journalism, and assume that that will bring them back for more.”

Politico points out that the Post has hardly been a beacon of publishing success lately. It has shed more than 45% of its newsroom staff and it just last month announced plans to close nine of its 11 suburban regional bureaus. The Post Co. does have a couple of things going for it, however, including its profitable Kaplan education division and its phenomenal 30% market penetration. You’d think a market share like that would be an incentive to charge more for the product, but Weymouth seems in no hurry. She isn’t ruling out a paywall but says she’s content to wait and see what works.

“They Won’t Invest in You”

Invantory is developing software tools to help people sell things. It wants to be kind of an alternative to Craigslist, with a mobile twist. The founders thought newspaper publishers would be potential customers, because they already know the classified advertising business and they have a desirable channel. But Invantory gave up on doing business with newspaper publishers. The principal reason: their computer are a mess.

“Newspapers’ online technology platforms [are] not standard,” wrote co-founder Ian Lamont on the Invantory blog. “This means that non-trivial integration work is required for practically any new feature or service, whether created in-house or purchased from a vendor. There are dozens of online content management systems (CMS) in use, most heavily customized.”

In other words, any chance newspaper publishers might have to federate their once-highly profitable classified advertising businesses into a network that could compete with Craigslist is undercut by technology decisions made years ago and incompatibilities perpetuated by customization.

The Invantory co-founders met with Newsosaur Alan Mutter at the New England Newspaper Publishers Association. Mutter, who himself tried to start a business to service newspaper publishers a couple of years ago, told them to forget about pursuing a model based up on serving the dying newspaper industry. “VCs with any experience won’t invest in you,” he said.

Miscellany

The i newspaper celebrated its first anniversary this week, challenging the conventional wisdom that print dailies are dead. The commuter-friendly daily, which delivers news in bite sized nuggets, has succeeded in building a paid circulation of 184,000 during its first year. And it’s reportedly profitable, too.


“Data journalism,” in which reporters mine public information to discover nuggets of news, is an increasingly popular discipline. Editors Weblog has a list of free tools anybody can use to become a data journalist.

Newsonomics by Ken Doctor

Publishers send us a lot of books to review, and we wish we could get to them all more quickly. It took us 18 months to finally read Ken Doctor’s Newsonomics, but we’re glad we did. Doctor’s perspectives on the future of news are as fresh today as they were in early 2010. We were surprised and encouraged by his optimism.

Many journalists view the economics of their profession as bitter medicine. Doctor makes it clear that survival in the new world will mean understanding the business, but those journalists who know how to package and market their work will thrive. And they won’t have to sell their souls or lower their standards to do it. Here’s our review on Amazon:

Journalists hate to talk about the economics of their profession, which is why this is such a valuable book. Doctor proceeds from the assumption that the newspaper industry as we have known it is an irreversible decline and that only a handful of national dailies will exist in a few years. There’s no reason to belabor that point, and he doesn’t.

Instead, he devotes the rest of the book to the much more important discussion of how journalism can be reinvented and deliver value in an economically sustainable model. His perspective is both optimistic and uplifting. Doctor sees the end of the vertically integrated news organization as creating opportunities for focused and nimble ventures to emerge that can indeed deliver quality journalism and pay their reporters a living wage. Competition will raise quality standards and ultimately deliver a better product. We have to go through an ugly deconstruction process in order to get there, but Doctor sees bright light at the end of the tunnel.

A lot of journalists are uncomfortable with Doctor’s views because they fear the loss of the comfortable salaries and modest output demands they have long enjoyed. Well, welcome to the new world. Jobs are going away and journalism is becoming a business of self-employed contractors. Journalists with initiative, innovation and skill will be able to make a better living working for multiple masters than they could have made working for media companies. News organizations will be under pressure to be more responsive to their readers’ demands, but Doctor does not believe this will result in the “dumbing down” of news. Tiered models will emerge that deliver high-quality journalism to those who are willing to pay a modest amount for it.

Newsonomics was published 18 months ago, but its lessons and predictions are just as valid today as they were then. This is a clear, concise and ultimately hopeful look at the economics of $45 billion industry in the middle of wholesale reinvention.

How much do you really know about your reader? Chances are it isn’t very much. News organizations traditionally haven’t had to know their customers very well because the booming advertising market ensured they didn’t have to. Now that advertising’s value is in free-fall, however, this kind of knowledge may become the most valuable asset you’ve got.

New Revenue for News Organizations Presentation on SlideShare

New Revenue for News Organizations Presentation on SlideShare

We had the chance to speak to a group of newspaper executives about new revenue models a couple of weeks ago and were a bit surprised at how foreign the concepts of lead generation and qualification were to them. In the business-to-business (B2B) publishing industry, lead management has been the lifeline that has kept publishers afloat. It has corollaries that would be useful to news executives in consumer publishing, too.

Lead generation (called “lead gen” in the trade) is the process of matching sellers with qualified prospective buyers who are ready to make a purchasing decision. Advertising is a basic shotgun approach to lead gen in which the publisher plays a passive role by merely providing a platform for delivery. The onus is on the advertiser to convert those leads to customers. That’s an expensive process. B2B companies focus most of their attention on so-called “warm” leads, or those who are ready to sign a check. The problem with advertising is that it also delivers “cold” leads, or tire-kickers, and it’s expensive for the vendor to weed those people out.

Know Thy Reader

Publishers can be a whole lot more active about matching buyers and sellers, though. As they gather information about the characteristics of their audience, they can structure programs that generate better-quality leads and charge more for them.

B2B publishers went through the valley of death a decade ago in a market contraction that was a lot quicker and more dramatic than the one that’s hit newspapers over the last five years. Publications like PC Magazine, which raked in more than $100 million a year in ad revenue at one point, were completely out of the print business by 2009. A lot of publishers perished, but those that survived have converted to a lead gen model.

These publishers now focus on developing customized online destinations and real and virtual events that deliver warm leads. The more they know about the customer, the more they can charge for the lead. Web analytics make it possible to know a lot more about our online visitors in particular than we used to know. When combined with customer relationship management (CRM) systems, publishers can now build extremely detailed profiles of individual audience members.

Newspaper publishers know about the value of segmentation. That’s why they created automotive, real estate, arts & entertainment and home sections decades ago. Advertisers wanted to reach more qualified buyers. Online, you can take that to a new level.

Once an online visitor registers with you and accepts a cookie, you can track that person’s every online interaction with you and build profiles that enable your advertisers to make customized offers. A visitor who reads a lot of article about boating and clicks on your offer of a discounted ticket to the boat show is a lot more interesting to local suppliers of nautical equipment than the average reader.  Similarly, a member who registers for your discounted passes to the bridal expo is going to suddenly interest a lot of specialty retailers.

All About Targeting

Is what we’re telling you a revelation? We hope not. Google and Facebook have built their businesses on delivering warm leads as indicated by search activity and member profiles. They’ve sucked a lot of money out of the print advertising market in the process. On LinkedIn, you can now buy ads aimed at engineers with VP titles who belong to construction groups and live in the greater Cleveland area. Can the Plain Dealer deliver that level of granularity? Probably not. But if it had that same quality of information in its database, it could create some pretty compelling packages for local businesses that wanted to reach those people.

We don’t mean to imply that B2B and consumer newspaper publishing are the same thing, but there are lessons news organizations can learn from their B2B counterparts, who have a half-decade’s more experience with adversity. Qualified prospective customers who are ready to make a buying decision have a lot more value to advertisers than drive-by readers. What can you do to capture more information about the people who visit your online properties? How can you use that information to develop high-value – and high-priced – marketing programs for your customers? Finally, how can you use your unique advantage of local presence to distinguish your products from Google’s and Facebook’s?

Tell us what your news organization is doing to tap into this opportunity.

Note: Our book on B2B social media marketing has a lot more detail about this topic.

Bill DensmoreBill Densmore has drafted a 55-page white paper outlining some ideas for sustaining journalism in the free-mass-media age that should be of interest to anyone who worries about the future of trusted media.

We say “trust” because that is at the essence of Densmore’s argument in “From Paper to Persona:” the vast profusion of online information has created a trust crisis that represents a business opportunity. People have no incentive to pay for information any more, but they may be willing to pay for information they can believe. The risk is that the collaborative effort needed to solve this problem may be so massive that no one will attempt to undertake it.

Densmore’s “nut graph” is the following:

Free information is so devalued and so frequently untrustworthy that the public is now looking for alternatives that save time, promise reliability and are always available from multiple platforms.

From Paper to PersonaSound familiar? Have you recently sought medical advice online? The most common complaint we hear about the Web in general these days is that you can’t trust anything you read. While Wikipedia, Snopes and IMDB are pretty accurate, they aren’t going to tell you much about the possible negative effects of drug interactions or the real risks of radon in the average home.

Not to mention whether Osama bin Laden is alive or dead, a conspiracy theory topic that already shows signs of reaching Elvis Presleyan proportions. Not only has news become a commodity, it has also become so politically polarized that partisan echo chambers continually corrupt whatever the reliable channels of news may tell us.

Densmore proposes that this chaos may be quelled by consortia created – with or without public funding – that “uniformly exchange payments for the sharing of text, video, music, game plays, entertainment, advertising views, etc., across the Internet… Consumer users should have a choice of providers – agents – for accessing services, with one account and one ID providing simple access to multiple resources.” Sort of like iTunes, except a lot broader in scope.

This is going to be a tough pill for many conventional media veterans to swallow, however. It requires that they migrate from “the most-trusted information source” to and “information valet,” which Densmore describes as “a combination of curator, adviser, authenticator and retailer of personalized news, entertainment and service information from anywhere.”

The proposal makes sense, but the problem is that news people aren’t trained to be valets; they’re educated in the school of hard knocks and worn shoe leather, where scoops were trophies and one would no more cooperate with a competitor than evict one’s mother from her apartment. But as this blog has been arguing for three years – and Densmore argues much more eloquently – all that stuff has got to change.

Sustaining journalism requires rethinking the very notion of advertising, and of news as a service…Aggregate for advertisers and sponsors audience measurement and selected demographic data…track, aggregate, sort and share revenues, including payments to users for the use of their “persona.” The user should be in control of the data use and flow concerning them.

In other words, trade the two assets consumers have to offer – money and personal information – for a service they increasingly crave: truth. The answer isn’t all-or-nothing notions like paywalls; it’s creating something with perceived value and flexible options for paying for it.

Can Densmore’s vision work? It has to. The two billion people in the world who are now connected to the Internet have already moved beyond the notion that information is a scarce commodity, even if a lot of news publishers still haven’t. The information-consuming public understands that today’s problem is not lack of knowledge but lack of trust. News organizations are actually in a pretty good position to deliver on the trust equation, but they have to discard the notion of propriety and exclusivity.

In Densmore’s words:

The Next Newsroom could be a service organization — like a law or accounting firm — and it will be paid accordingly. For now, it will be extremely difficult to convince people to pay for such a service. But as the years go by, it will be seen as an absolutely indispensible way to get through the day. People will become as reliant on their “newshare” as on their doctor, lawyer, accountant, teacher or business colleague, or for 1their water, gas heating or phone service, all of which are services for which we pay on a project or metered basis.

Good point.

California Watch map mashup of schools on fault linesNieman Journalism Lab scored a coup in landing the eloquent and insightful Ken Doctor as a weekly columnist focusing on the economics of news. His analysis of the cost of journalism at California Watch is well worth reading if you want to understand why nonprofit investigative ventures are so popular right now (ProPublica just nabbed its second Pulitzer).

California Watch’s “On Shaky Ground,” an account of the dangerous vulnerability of many California schools to collapse in the event of an earthquake, is “old-fashioned, shoe-leather, box-opening, follow-the-string journalism, and it is well done,” Doctor says. It also cost over a half million dollars to report, an amount that would have caused most newspaper publishers to gulp even before the industry entered its string of 21 consecutive quarterly revenue declines.

But a half million is a relative bargain when you consider the number of media organizations that benefited from it. Pieces of the series ran in six major dailies and were picked up statewide by ABC-affiliate broadcasters. Top public radio stations in the Bay Area and Los Angeles ran with it, and a number of ethnic and online outlets (including more than 125 Patch sites) also picked up the coverage. Many localized the content by snipping local maps or extracting information about their area from the voluminous database of school-by-school information that the project produced.

Doctor notes that California Watch is building a new kind of syndication business around investigative journalism, which is the branch of news that has been hardest hit by budget cuts over the last three years. This is not a reincarnation of the Associated Press model, which mainly delivered breaking news. Bloggers, citizen media and Twitter have diminished the value of that function considerably. What citizen journalism can’t do it spend 20 months developing a story, which is what California Watch did.

California Watch is still “feeling its way along,” in Doctor’s words. Syndication revenue won’t support its current $2.7 million annual budget, so donations are grants are still essential to its livelihood. But look at what donors get for their money: About 70% of that $2.7 million goes to support the project’s 14 journalists. By comparison, a typical daily newspaper’s editorial costs are about 20% of overall expenses. These nonprofit models are vastly more efficient than the newspaper investigative teams they’re replacing.

And when you spread those costs among a lot of subscribers who pay a few thousand bucks a year to get access to the reports, it’s really not that expensive. “An owner…can hardly reject the offer of paying one-hundredth of the cost for space-filling, audience-interesting content,” Doctor writes. Particularly when compared to the value of a single child’s life who might have been saved (hearings are already under way).

Doctor’s analysis raises an important point about the evolving economics of information. In a world in which raw data has become a nearly valueless commodity, value is derived from filtering and contextualizing information for specific audiences. The small California weekly that could never dream of spending a half million dollars on an investigative project can spend a few hundred dollars to buy the work of a dedicated investigative team and then extract the information that’s relevant to its readers.

This is a much more efficient way to deliver news, but taking advantage of it requires discarding treasured assumptions like the not-invented-here syndrome and the belief that scope and scale define importance. It’s good news for local publishers. In the traditional model, only a handful of California papers could have tackled a project the size of On Shaky Ground. Now nearly everyone can share the wealth.

The Long, Slow Bleed

Newspaper ad revenue forecastLest anyone think the lack of major metro daily closures over the last couple of years is a sign of strength in the newspaper industry, consider recent earnings reports. Ad revenues at Gannett, McClatchy, Media General and Journal Communications were all off between 6% and 11% in the first quarter, and there’s no sign of a turnaround. Alan Mutter’s analysis makes an important point about why newspaper advertising isn’t sharing in the sputtering recovery.

The more advertisers of all types experiment with Web, mobile and social advertising, the more they will come to appreciate the power of the digital media to tightly target qualified prospects while granularly measuring the costs and effectiveness of their campaigns.

In sales jargon, the buying process is a funnel, with a large number of uninformed prospects at the mouth and a few qualified buyers at the tip. As consumers increasingly research their purchase decisions online, the need for merchants to advertise their availability declines. They get more leverage from intercepting buyers during the decision-making process. The deeper into that process buyers get, the better the prospect of converting them to customers. And incidentally, vendors only have to pay for actions like clicks and leads, not vague measures  like circulation.

The reason newspaper closures have largely stopped is that the industry’s near-death experience in 2008 – 2009 focused publishers on slashing costs, raising subscription prices and squeezing as much blood as possible out of the stone of an aging and shrinking circulation base. That is not a prescription for growth. We continue to stand by our 2006 prediction that major metro daily print newspapers will all but disappear by 2025. In fact, we think it’ll happen sooner than that. It’s just that death will come from cancer, not heart attack.

Miscellany

The Las Vegas Review-Journal is expanding its business model beyond pure advertising. according to a press release,  a partnership with parent company Stephens Media LLC’s digital arm will enable the Review-Journal to launch a service to  provide local businesses:

…full website, branding and logo design; hosting and customer support for websites and related digital services; email marketing; mobile marketing; training to provide local businesses easy tools to maintain and update their own sites and analyze web traffic; search engine optimization and search engine marketing; customer reputation management with daily reporting; social media presence and tracking tools for digital and traditional marketing efforts to ensure monitoring of ROI.

Hmmm, why didn’t we think of that?

Desperation often drives innovation, and the miserable state of the Las Vegas economy no doubt played a role in this quest for new revenue sources. We think it’s a smart move; most small businesses have no idea how to market themselves online and a local newspaper is a trusted partner that’s in a great position to give them a hand.

AOL’s Patch network of hyperlocal news sites intends to recruit 8,000 bloggers over the next few days. It’s asking each of its 800 sites to sign up 10 community members to blog. No word on whether the contributors will be paid, but given that Arianna Huffington is now running the show, we think we know the answer to that one.

And Finally…

Typewriter typebarsReports emerged in the Twittersphere early this week that the world’s last manufacturer of mechanical typewriters was closing down its India production plant. A lot of people, including us, were taken in by this. But there’s good news for the old-timers who still appreciate the clatter of metal on paper. Atlantic Wire reports that several factories in China, Japan and Indonesia are still manufacturing typewriters. Even if production shuts down, there’s a pretty good used market. For old time’s sake, we bought an IBM Selectric, which used retail for $450 in the 1970s, for a buck at a yard sale a couple of years back. We’re still not sure what to do with it.

By Paul Gillin | March 29, 2011 - 6:41 am - Posted in Business News, BusinessModel, Circulation, Demographics, Newspapers, Paywalls, Solutions

The pundits (ourselves included) just can’t get enough of analyzing, trashing and otherwise second-guessing The New York Times‘ new online subscription plan. Here are some recent posts we noticed.

Steve Outing Pretty Much Trashes the NYT Paywall

For starters, it’s too expensive. The $15/mo minimum makes the Times all but inaccessible to cash-strapped young readers, which happen to be the people the paper most needs to engage. He also hates the defensive posturing publishers are using to justify subscription fees: “We need to do this to survive.”

Now THERE’s an incentive to customers to support you: Tell them if they don’t, you’re going to go out of business. How’s that working out for you, General Motors?

Outing points to the Times‘ own David Carr as the source of the right price: $4.99/mo. Respondents to Carr’s defense of the paywall plan posted on nytimes.com repeatedly refer to that fee as one they can swallow. Is anyone upstairs listening?

How To Hack the New York Times Paywall … With Your Delete Key

Mashable reports a new way to easily breach the paywall: “Readers need only remove “?gwh=numbers” from the URL. They can also clear their browser caches, or switch browsers as soon as they see the subscription prompt. All three of these simple fixes will let them continue reading.”

The NYT’s Melting Iceberg Syndrome

Frédéric Filloux suggests that The New York Times could improve its profitability by going to Sunday-only publication and forgetting about the other six days of the week, at least in print. “Sunday circulation is 54% higher than on weekdays…Sunday copy sales bring five times more money than any weekday…Some analysts say the Sunday NYT accounts for about 50% of the paper’s entire advertising revenue.”

If the Times could cut more than half its expenses by eliminating six days’ worth of print, it could theoretically make more money by publishing less frequently.

We also liked Filloux’ use of an iceberg as the analogy for a business that’s collapsing from within: “As an iceberg melts, the resulting change of shape can cause it to list gradually or to become unstable and topple over suddenly.” See any similarities to what’s happening to print?

A Big Op to Upgrade Op-Ed at New York Times

Alan Mutter believe the departure of Times columnists Frank Rich and Bob Herbert presents an historic opportunity for the Old Gray Lady to become the amazing technicolor dreamcoat of diversity of opinion. If Times‘ columnists are so smart, how come they missed the historic events going on the Middle East? Mutter asks. That’s what happens when your world is limited to Manhattan and the Beltway.

“Instead of dedicating the bulk of its limited and precious op-ed space to another generation of slightly more diverse Pooh-Bahs, the Times should publish the best of the online conversations in its print editions,” the Newsosaur recommends. That would be both good journalism and good promotion for the Time’s pricey paywall.

New York Times Digital Subscriptions: The Unofficial FAQ Updated

PaidContent.org has a useful rundown of the ins and outs of the Times‘ paywall, including pricing tiers, thresholds and platforms. Can you get a family account to nytimes.com? You’ll just have to read this FAQ to find out.

From the Onion: NYTimes.com’s Plan To Charge People Money For Consuming Goods, Services Called Bold Business Move

“In a move that media executives, economic forecasters, and business analysts alike are calling ‘extremely bold,’ NYTimes.com put into place a groundbreaking new business model today in which the news website will charge people money to consume the goods and services it provides.”