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Solutions - Newspaper Death Watch - Page 2 » Newspaper Death Watch
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By paulgillin | September 28, 2009 - 12:23 pm - Posted in Facebook, Fake News, Hyper-local, Solutions

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Carolyn MaloneyLawmakers are holding hearings on Capitol Hill to try to figure out solutions to the newspaper industry’s troubles. U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y., at right), who chairs Congress’s Joint Economic Committee, has proposed a bill that would allow community and metropolitan papers to become nonprofit organizations. Similar legislation has also been introduced in the Senate.

John SturmAt hearing last week, Newspaper Association of America President John Sturm said handouts aren’t the solution but that the government should allow publishers to charge current losses against past profits in order to claim retroactive tax refunds. “Newspapers need cash now to preserve jobs next year,” he said. “It’s really that simple.” Sturm also dismissed an outright government bailout as inappropriate, given newspapers’ governmental watchdog role.

In a statement to the committee (PDF), Princeton University professor Paul Starr noted that government support of the media is nothing new. Starr pointed to pre-First Amendment legislation adopted in 1792 that gave newspaper publishers “cheap, below-cost rates for sending copies to subscribers and a franking privilege that allowed newspaper editors to exchange copies with one another through the mails at no postal charge.” To this day, federal and state governments mostly exempt newspapers from sales taxes, he added.

While scrupulously avoiding the term “newspaper” in his recommendations (subsidies “should be platform-neutral—they should not favor print media over online media, for example”) Starr argued for government subsidies and regulatory relief that would make it easy for media organizations to become nonprofits if they so chose. He also made the case for extending tax benefits uniformly to media companies without regard to their business model or political bias. This model is apparently working well in Scandinavia, the population of which is about 8% that of the US.

Seed Money

Or we could just leave the job to private philanthropists. Alan Mutter tells of a new Bay Area nonprofit that was just funded to the tune of $5 million by a local investor. The startup capital from Warren Hellman is considered “seed money” for a venture that’s being launched in collaboration with public broadcaster KQED and the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley. Mutter suggests that if the venture could raise money at the same rate as an earlier experiment in Texas, the Bay Area initiative could surpass the size of Pro Publica, which has an annual budget of $9 million and which employs 32 full-time journalists.

Hellman’s decision was motivated in part by McKinsey research that found that newspaper employment and coverage of local news have both fallen by half in the Bay Area over the last five years. The as-yet-unnamed new venture will be different from others in its focus on local news. A base staff of professional journalists will provide the meat and potatoes coverage. Berkeley students will contribute information from a series of hyperlocal blogs they have set up and broadcast partner KQED will contribute its own content as well as rebroadcast the work done by the nonprofit. Hellman said he originally considered buying the distressed San Francisco Chronicle but passed because “the business model may not be there to put a sustainable, for-profit economic foundation under quality, professional journalism.” Comments on Mutter’s blog indicate some skepticism about the venture’s chances of success

Sunset for Sun-Times?

Two weeks ago, Sun-Times Media Group CEO Jeremy Halbriech sent a memo to members of the paper’s unions warning them that if they failed to ratify a proposal for a 15% cut in compensation, the company’s prospective buyer would pull out of the deal and the Sun-Times and its affiliates would close immediately. “No other bidder has emerged who will purchase our assets.  If the current Buyer withdraws its bid, we will shortly run out of cash and we will be forced to shut down all of our publications and Web sites and liquidate the business.  This will result in the loss of all 1,800-plus jobs across the Company,” he wrote.

Well, the union said no. Unlike unions at the Boston Globe and San Francisco Chronicle, which caved in to threats from the parent company, the city of big shoulders likes a good fight. Tomorrow is the deadline imposed by suitor James Tyree for the union to agree to terms. However, Tyree has made it clear that this is a take-it-or-leave-it offer. “I do not want to get into a negotiation,” he said. The unions want to negotiate. The staring match has gone on for two weeks. Presumably, no one is watching more closely than staffers at the rival Chicago Tribune, which would enjoy a business boost from the failure of its competitor.

Miscellany

Judy Sims has a few hundred words of practical advice for creating a profitable hyper-local publishing model. It starts with putting four people – an online product person, an online advertising sales person, an editor and a web developer – in an office that’s completely separate from the print operation. Then get them focused on giving readers stuff that’s hard to find out – such as which emergency room has the shortest waiting time – and crafting packages for advertisers that include a lot more than just display advertising. If you’re thinking of starting a localized news operation, use Sims’ outline as a basis for your business plan.


The executive board of The Boston Globe‘s largest union has canceled president Daniel Totten’s union credit card, suspended his check-signing privileges and ordered a ”comprehensive external audit” of union finances after learning of apparent violations of its financial rules. Totten presided over disastrous negotiations between his union and management at Globe owner New York Times Co. in which the union first rejected a series of concessions in a proposed contract and then settled for an even worse deal after the Times Co. threatened to shutter the paper.


From a graphic on Mint.com. You can find the whole image here.

Newspaper_circ

Two Century-Old Weeklies to Close

The Calhoun City (Miss.) Monitor-Herald will shut down Dec. 31 after 110 years of publication. Its circulation of 811 was no longer enough to sustain it in a battle against the much larger Calhoun County Journal (circ. 4,700).


The Lemoore (Calif.) Advocate published its final issue last week afer 121 years. The staff tapped community contributions to tell the story of Lemoore and of its own rich history as the longest continuously operating business in town. The brief history of the Advocate online has these words about the role of local newspapers:

Small town newspapers seldom cover such mega events as tidal waves, auto industry bailouts or global warming. Small town newspaper staffers are too busy telling readers about lawn watering schedules, a sale at Mom’s Pie Shop and weather hot enough to melt the ice in your lemonade…Small town newspapers write stories that mean everything to their readers. And readers clip those stories to paste into scrapbooks filled with touchdowns and weddings, obituaries and births, yesterdays and tomorrows. There are no scrapbook stories about teamster strikes, golden parachutes or the polar bears’ plight.

Obits

Longtime New York Times columnist William Safire died at 79 of pancreatic cancer. The Pulitzer Prize-winning expert on speech and language was a bulwark of elite conservatism, a speechwriter for Richard Nixon and the author of Vice President Spiro Agnew’s famous phrase, ”nattering nabobs of negativism.” He won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1978 for a series of columns about Carter White House budget director Bert Lance’s financial affairs.


The daughter of slain newspaper heiress Anne Scripps Douglas apparently leapt to her death from the Tappan Zee bridge. Anne Morell Petrillo jumped from the same bridge  her stepfather chose to commit suicide after killing her mother with a claw hammer 15 years ago. Police have yet to make a positive identification. The Douglases founded the Detroit News.

By paulgillin | September 21, 2009 - 9:20 am - Posted in Facebook, Fake News, Hyper-local, Solutions

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Masnick

Masnick

Mark Glaser invites two big thinkers on opposite sides of the micropayment debateTechdirt’s Mike Masnick and The New York Times‘ David Carr – to spar with each other and try to reach some common ground. The result is what you’d expect when you put two talented writers into competition with each other: Great wordplay and eventual meeting in the middle.

Both combatants agree that putting paywalls in front of existing content is suicidal, although Carr believes that citizens will shell out once they realize that the alternative is cacophony. Masnick wins the award for best imagery: Paywalls are “putting up a tollbooth on a 50-lane highway where the other 49 lanes have no tollbooth,” he writes. He sees no merit in paywalls whatsoever, while Carr believes they can work in some scenarios.

carr

Carr

Carr suggests that micropayments should be looked upon “as payments for news applications instead.” In fact, the Times’ media columnist never suggests that charging readers for what they now get for free is a viable strategy. But since the status quo is no longer viable, shouldn’t publishers experiment aggressively with hybrid models?

In the end, that’s where the debaters end up. Both agree that blended paid and ad-supported models have the greatest chance of success. And if you re-read the first part of the two part series, you see that both basically suggested that approach at the outset. So maybe the “debate” was a bit of a fabrication to begin with, but at least it got our attention. And isn’t that the goal after all?

Media Employment Trend Not All Bleak

journalism_jobs

Over at BusinessWeek, Michael Mandel is looking at employment in US information industries. Using Bureau of Labor Statistics figures, he finds evidence that “someone is hiring out there,” but it isn’t newspapers, which have seen employment fall by about 40% since 1990. Mandel’s analysis goes beyond newspaper employment to look at job trends in broadcast, Internet and “other information services.” What’s interesting is the growth in the “other” category. It’s the only segment of the market that’s above Internet bubble employment levels (although the actual numbers are quite small). Mandel promises more analysis in future posts.

Jeff Jarvis takes issue with Mandel’s whole premise, calling it “measuring the wrong economy: the old, centralized, big economy. In both cases, he misses new value elsewhere in the small economy of entrepreneurs and the noneconomy of volunteers.” In Jarvis’s view, media isn’t dying so much as restructuring itself in a “post-industry” model characterized by vastly more efficient means of production, a distributed workforce and a decentralized approach to nearly everything. Innovation hasn’t left the building, he says, it has merely left the buildings where priesthoods dwell. To see the new media economy taking shape, you have to look at Wikipedia and eBay for guidance, not The New York Times and Macy’s.

Miscellany

It’s a two-horse race to own the Boston Globe, and one horse just got stronger. Former Globe executive Stephen Taylor has been joined by his cousin Benjamin in a bid for the Globe and its sister Worcester Telegram that’s estimated at $35 million plus the assumption of $59 million in pension obligations. Benjamin Taylor was the last member of the Taylor family to serve as publisher; he was ousted by owner New York Times Co. in 1999. The Taylors are squared off against Platinum Equity Partners, a Beverly Hills-based investment firm that successfully purchased the San Diego Union-Tribune earlier this year and that is bidding on several other newspapers around the country. A third potential bidder headed by private-equity executive Stephen Pagliuca has dropped out of the race, with Pagliuca instead electing to run for Sen. Edward Kennedy’s vacant Senate seat.


Members of the Boston Globe chapter of the Newspaper Guild have launched a petition drive to oust the chapter’s seven-member executive committee. Disgruntled union members seem to think they got a raw deal because negotiators at first rejected management’s call for pay cuts, only to later accept an even worse deal after the New York Times Co. drew a line in the sand.


We’ve been hearing anecdotally for some time that community newspapers are faring better than their big-city brethren. Now the organization called Suburban Newspapers of America has the numbers to back it up. Ad revenue at community papers was off 12.4% in the second quarter compared to a year ago. In contrast, major metros saw declines of 29%. Community papers are also seeing earlier slowing of the rate of decline, which indicates that the worst may be over, at least for now.


A federal judge has cleared the way for the Minneapolis Star Tribune to emerge from bankruptcy next week. The newspaper that McClatchy Corp. paid $1.2 billion for in 1998 is now essentially worthless, its fate being in the hands of a committee of secured creditors who will choose a new publisher to replace Chis Harte, who’s stepping down. New board members include former Wall Street Journal publisher L. Gordon Crovitz and GateHouse Media head Michael E. Reed.


Red-faced board members at The New York Times Co. have had to withdrawn compensation awarded to Chairman Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and CEO Janet Robinson because stock option grants and bonus compensation exceeded company policy. Sulzberger and Robinson will have to give back some stock options and agree to a $3 million cap on bonus compensation if they exceed all their goals, compared to the $3.5 million originally promised.


Robert Niles has an inspiring essay on Online Journalism Review about Eight things that journalism students should demand from their journalism schools. We particularly like #8: “Passion, not excuses.” If you’re associated with a J-school, ask if this description applies to your faculty: “Instructors [who] complain about the state of the news business, griping how much better it used to be and how awful bloggers/forums/websites are.” Pining for the old days isn’t going to help anyone build a career in the new journalism economy. Niles asks for teachers who are fired up about the new model of journalism and who can inspire passion in their students. He also suggests that students use the new tools of publishing to build a base of followers before the job-seek. “Who ya gonna hire?” he asks. “The student with potential… or the student who’s already got 50,000 unique readers a month?”

By paulgillin | September 15, 2009 - 8:37 am - Posted in Facebook, Fake News, Hyper-local, Solutions

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Judy Sims’ “Top 10 Lies Newspaper Execs are Telling Themselves” may be painful for newspaper execs to read, but they should read it anyway. In blunt language, she shoots down some of the most common rationalizations newspaper executives use for continuing to do business as usual. Not all of her points are thoroughly supported, but it’s hard to argue with the common-sense thinking behind most of them.

Among our favorite quotes:

The only way newspapers can ensure the survival of their brands and the journalistic principles they hold so dearly is to separate the Web organization completely from the newspaper.

This frames the list’s biggest “myth,” which is that news organizations can prosper online while doing what they’ve always done in print. The nature of online publishing is conversation and community, not top-down communication. Organizations that derive 90% of their revenue from print are never, ever going to give an online division the attention or resources it needs.

Figure out what is truly scarce information to your readers.  Then, maybe you can charge for it.

Yes, yes, yes. Putting pay walls in front of information that doesn’t meaningfully affect people’s lives is a DOA idea, yet it seems to be conventional wisdom right now that readers will pay for stuff like popular columnists and exclusive sports coverage. No they won’t. They will pay for information that saves them money, enhances their appearance or finds them love, and precious little else. Maslow’s Hierarchy wasn’t invalidated by Internet.

We used the paper to help us shop every week…and decide what movie to see at what time and where. How much of the value of the newspaper was derived from news and how much was derived from all these other things?  After all, news has always been free on TV and radio.

See the previous point. Publishers who think readers are going to pay for news are delusional. Not to mention pompous. Half the reason people subscribe to newspapers is for the coupons. News is a commodity. You have to deliver value that affects people’s lives in a meaningful way.

Figure out what is truly scarce information to your readers.  Then, maybe you can charge for it…Do what you do best and link to the rest.

The second part of the quote is from Jeff Jarvis, but the sentiment is appropriate to the “myth” theme. Newspapers have traditionally had to do everything for their readers because readers had no way to find information for themselves. Now that restriction has been lifted, which means publishers should stop spending money on stuff they suck at.

The more cuts are made, the more newspapers are guaranteeing their own demise.

That’s because the people they’re cutting are setting up shop as hyperlocal bloggers and competing against their former employers. Newspaper layoffs are thus giving rise to the next breed of competitors.

If there’s any unifying thesis to Sims’ 10 lies, it is that trying to manage a revolution is futile. Publishers will not iterate themselves to a secure future, nor will they ever bring back the profit margins of the past. The rules have changed forever and that means blowing up a lot of stuff. The process is incredibly painful but it’s necessary for any organization that hopes to make it to the other side of this vortex.

A couple of weeks ago, SeattlePI.com reported that its Web traffic has remained unexpectedly strong after pulling the plug on its print edition and firing 80% of its staff. The Post Intelligencer may have given the rest of the industry a model for completing the transition to the digital world.

Get Comfortable with “Good Enough”

After you’re done reading about 10 lies, head over to Journalism Iconoclast Pat Thornton, who speaks much truth about what he calls the “Down and Dirty Revolution.” Thornton’s main point: Stop thinking like an entity that was the be-all and end-all of information to its community and start thinking like a participant in the digital community. What does that mean? Paraphrasing:

  • Make the most of what you’ve got and stop whining about the resources you lack.
  • Be satisfied with good enough. You can improve it later. Perfection is the enemy of getting stuff done.
  • Stop duplicating effort. “If parents are taking pictures at a high school football game…it makes much more sense to work out a deal with them than to spend staff resources on taking pictures at said game.” So true. Likewise, use Creative Commons photos and stuff people post on Flickr instead of sending your own photographer to shoot the same stuff.

There’s more, but those are the basic themes.

Miscellany

If all goes well, we may soon remove the Claremont (N.H.)  Eagle Times from the R.I.P. list.  A federal judge has given a Sample, Pa. newspaper chain conditional approval to buy the newspaper with the intent to relaunch it. The 7,800-circulation Eagle Times closed abruptly in July when its owner ran out of money. It took with it three small weeklies, which also will be relaunched if new owner Sample News Group has its way. Owner George Sample said his goal is to relaunch the daily before the end of the month with a staff of 25, which would be significantly smaller than the 66 full-timers and 29 part-timers the paper previously employed. Sample also said he plans to relaunch the weeklies at some point. Sample offered just $261,000 for the franchise, which was nearly $4 million in debt when it declared Chapter 7 this summer.


Ryan Chittum runs the numbers and finds that newspaper ad revenues are on track to hit their lowest level since 1965. In real dollars, revenues peaked in 2000. The comeback from the 2001-2002 recession was never very strong and sales have plummeted for the last three years. Real dollar revenue for 2009 will be about half of what it was just nine years ago, a stunning development in an industry that’s been historically known for its stability. Chittum also notes that circulation is the only slice of the revenue pie that’s growing right now while online advertising is declining. In fact, it appears that the online advertising business will only support one spectacularly successful business and that’s Google. A busy comment stream on this month-old piece debates whether online advertising is actually stealing share from print. Right, and global warming is a myth. (If you have trouble reading the chart below, click on it to go to Chittum’s analysis at the Columbia Journalism Review, where you can see an enlarged version.)

newspaper_revenue_1950-2009


PaidContent.org has an interview with Josh Cohen, senior business product manager of Google News. Cohen has been schooled well to say little in a lot of words, so don’t expect any great insights. The main takeaway for us was that Google has no intention of sharing with publishers any revenue generated on Google’s site but that the company really wants to work with news organizations to make sure content behind pay walls is visible to Google’s search engine. In conversations like these, we hear Google executives sounding more and more like Microsoft officials did in the early 90s.


Speaking of Google, have you seen Google Fast Flip? It’s a new Google Labs project that “lets you browse sequentially through bundles of recent news, headlines and popular topics, as well as feeds from individual top publishers,” according to an entry on the Official Google Blog. “As the name suggests, flipping through content is very fast, so you can quickly look through a lot of pages until you find something interesting.” The service is the product of a partnership between Google and “three dozen top publishers, including the New York Times, the Atlantic, the Washington Post, Salon, Fast Company, ProPublica and Newsweek.” The idea is that if people can access news more quickly, they’ll read more news and that will result in more advertising revenue. Google continues to try to extend the olive branch to publishers who see nothing to like in other Google services that they claim steal their intellectual property.

Google_flip


Final bids for BusinessWeek are due today and Bloomberg LP is reported to be the leading contender. Other possible buyers include Bruce Wasserstein, Lazard, OpenGate Capital and ZelnickMedia, but Bloomberg is said to have the top bid. BusinessWeek revenues are on track to be down 43% from last year’s levels.

By paulgillin | September 3, 2009 - 7:18 am - Posted in Facebook, Fake News, Hyper-local, Paywalls, Solutions

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Jeff vonKaenel has spent more than 30 years in alternative weekly publishing and he has some interesting observations about the paradox of publishing success. The CEO of the News & Review newspapers in central California is a student of media history, and he notes that the trend toward consolidation and monopolization that began in the 1970s dumbed down newspapers’ editorial product and set them up for failure when the rules changed.

The real demon was blandness. Alternative weekly publishers know that advertisers don’t like to run next to controversial editorial content. This is one market dynamic that keeps the alternative press small. Monopoly newspaper publishers aren’t small, however. They thrive on big-ticket schedules built on co-op ad dollars from giant national brands. They can’t afford to piss off million-dollar clients, so they intentionally keep the product inoffensive.

“It’s safer to make an outrageous statement about Saddam Hussein than to make a mild criticism of a local car dealer,” vonKaenel writes. “It’s something newspapers don’t like to admit. It has always mattered who pays the bills.” This is true. How many times can you remember the automotive section of your daily newspaper offering advice on how to get a better deal on a used car?

This dilemma creates a scenario that we’ve seen play out again and again: big industries and big companies collapse hard on the heels of their most successful years. That’s because success creates risk-aversion which leads to mediocre products (see General Motors). That strategy works fine until the rules change, and it served newspaper publishers very well for more than 30 years. But, as Bill Wyman pointed out in a recent essay, it also led them to create mediocre, inoffensive and bland products. When a low-cost alternative medium emerged, newspapers were poorly equipped to retain readers because, well, they sucked.

VanKaenel’s essay has one interesting twist: It implies that the current fascination with hyperlocal media could be in for a hard reality check. Noting that alternative weeklies’ coverage of music and nightlife topics has been heavily influenced by the willingness of those kinds of advertisers to run in those papers, he suggests that hyperlocal publishing will by driven by market forces. In other words, don’t expect a lot of critical stories about local merchants if those merchants are paying the bills. This reality actually could drive new-media publishers to broaden their scope. After all, they can’t afford to piss off thousand-dollar clients.

Orange County Register Owner in Bankruptcy

The small print of the bankruptcy filing by Freedom Communications Holdings Inc. contains a startling figure: circulation at the Orange Country Register is off 23% in the past four years. How can any business survive when it’s on a run rate to lose more than half its customers in a decade? The problem is made worse by the fact that the newspaper business model scales down so badly. The Register can’t cut back by 23% on printing or delivery expenses because of the high fixed costs involved. That means that operational expenses must be chopped to a disproportionate degree in order to make up for the shortfall. That comes directly out of the quality of the product, which leads to reader dissatisfaction, which creates bigger circulation declines.

This is why the newspaper industry is in a death spiral. The only way to turn the situation around is to dramatically improve the quality of the product, but economics demand that quality must take the biggest hit in order to keep the operation afloat. And so another noble publishing franchise falls into the hands of its bankers. They are always the owners of last resort for businesses whom, in their misguided greed, they chose to support.

Divide by 2

Did we say spiral? Alan Mutter has some sobering statistics. He projects that US newspaper revenues will fall $10 billion this year, making the industry about half the size it was in 1986. The most devastating collapse has been in classified advertising. For example, recruitment advertising was a billion-dollar quarterly business as recently as 2006. In the most recent quarter, it generated $202 million in revenue. The story is similar in automotive and real-estate advertising. While the recession has hit these categories hard, it’s hard to believe that they will ever again resemble their former size now that the Web provides nearly limitless advertising inventory.

By paulgillin | August 31, 2009 - 6:42 pm - Posted in Fake News, Paywalls, Solutions

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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.

Comments Off on Monday Miscellany
By paulgillin | August 26, 2009 - 1:31 pm - Posted in Facebook, Hyper-local, Solutions

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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.

By paulgillin | August 24, 2009 - 11:23 am - Posted in Facebook, Fake News, Google, Hyper-local, Solutions

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Hyperlocal LogoBob Garfield of NPR’s “On The Media” interviews media superblogger Jeff Jarvis and asks “Can journalism be sustained in the top 25 markets if all the dailies fold?

The question was prompted by a recent project by the City University of New York Graduate School Of Journalism that created economic models for next-generation news organizations. Jarvis says a decentralized, hyperlocal newsgathering infrastructure is not only plausible but quite profitable. Some hyperlocal bloggers are already pulling in up to $200,000 annually in revenue, he says, and that’s without the sophisticated funding and advertising mechanisms that are now being developed. We’d like to talk to one of these people.

The metropolitan news organization of the future will be smaller but no less profitable than that of today, Jarvis predicts. His study foresees a full-time staff of about 45 people with substantial contributions from locals. “It needs to work more collaboratively with bloggers and other locals,” he says. All together, a next-generation metro newsroom could have about 275 regular contributors.

“At the end of three years, our research shows that these businesses bring in margins that are reminiscent of the glory days of newspapers,” Jarvis states. “However, they’re much smaller businesses. A 20% margin on a $30 million business is not the same as on a $400 million business. But it is profitable, and that means it’s sustainable.”

Ever the optimist, Jarvis further states that journalism can become “better and richer” in the new model, Although there’s going to be some chaos in the process, “I believe we can actually improve journalism, not just save it,” he says.


They won’t be doing either in Loudoun, Va. The Washington Post Co. is closing its experimental hyperlocal site, the LoudounExtra, after two years, saying that the business “was not a sustainable model.” There were extenuating factors, however. The executives who launched the site left soon after startup and LoudounExtra never received the appropriate attention from the struggling parent company. One of those execs Rob Curley, moved on to bigger and better things in Las Vegas.

Miscellany

The Chicago Sun-Times Media Group (STMG) may be a few weeks from insolvency. The owner of the Sun-Times newspaper has just $19.3 million in cash left and is burning nearly $1 million per week, according to court documents. Chairman Jeremy Halbreich said he has been talking with several potential buyers who are more focused on cost structure than cash on hand.  STMG has been in Chapter 11 bankruptcy since March 31. If it runs out of money, it would probably have to abruptly shut down without offering severance or other transitional amenities.


The Red Wing (Minn.) Republican Eagle will cut back from five days to two days a week. “Goodhue County’s No. 1 news Web site” will continue to be updated daily. The paper said the cutbacks were being made in order to save money and to focus  reporting on its local market.


In the economically devastated region of South Florida, the 55-year-old Boca Raton News published its last print edition yesterday. The paper had previously cut back from five days per week to three. No employees will be laid off, but the paper’s offices will be closed and everyone will work from home. Perhaps this is precisely what Jeff Jarvis has in mind.


The New York Times is quietly seeking a buyer for its Santa Rosa (Calif.) Press Democrat,” said the anonymous message that landed in our inbox. Now you know as much as we do.

And finally…

As we enter the last two weeks of summer and news all but grinds to a halt, bloggers are turning to the offbeat and bizarre. Former Baltimore Sun copy chief John McIntyre reviews a third and expanded edition of “The F Word (Oxford University Press, 270 pages, $11.53 on Amazon), a book that is all about, well, the “F word.” Author Jesse Sheidlower apparently scoured 500 years of English literature to trace the evolution of everyone’s favorite expletive from its mid-15th century origins on the European continent to Jon Stewart on The Daily Show. In the course of his research, Mr. Sheidlower “read an astonishing amount of Victorian pornography,” McIntyre concludes. We can’t wait till Google gets around to putting it all on line.


We’ve been reading with some dismay recently that the US no longer ranks in the top 25 countries on high school achievement test scores. We don’t want to believe that, but then we see videos like this monologue by a resident of Santa Cruz, Calif. testifying before the city Council last year about, we think, vegetables. It speaks for itself.  (Via Free From Editors.)

By paulgillin | August 18, 2009 - 1:15 pm - Posted in Facebook, Fake News, Google, Paywalls, Solutions

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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.

By paulgillin | August 14, 2009 - 11:29 am - Posted in Fake News, Google, Hyper-local, Paywalls, Solutions

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PenguinsMark Potts elucidates a criticism of pack journalism that we’ve been expressing for some time: Why do news organizations send so many people to cover the same event?  Potts observes that the Tribune Company “had 14 reporters, columnists and photogs at this year’s Super Bowl, even though neither Super Bowl team came from a city where Tribune actually has a newspaper.” Tribune Co. has apparently wised up and is consolidating some sports beats. Potts also points to the Dayton Daily News, which recently forced its Cincinnati Reds beat reporter into retirement. Potts estimates the paper was spending about $250,000 a year for the 37-year veteran to cover a baseball team 55 miles away that was already being covered by the AP. Perhaps that money would be better used to double up on coverage of local sports, although Potts doubts that’s what’ll happen.

We feel the same way whenever we watch a political convention or a Presidential press conference. Hundreds of journalists travel from far away, stay at expensive hotels and drink top-shelf booze to report the same things everyone can already see on TV. Is it possible that Super Bowl trips are used as rewards for treasured staffers? Could a couple of nice dinners out or a $1,000 bonus accomplish the same objective at less cost? We’re just asking.


Although we outsource most of our layoff coverage to the vastly superior work of Erica Smith, we occasionally see news that merits a comment. Such is the case in San Diego, where anyone who thought Platinum Equity would be the white knight to preserve jobs at the Union-Tribune should have those dreams dashed by the latest round of layoffs. The new owner cut 112 jobs this week on top of 192 announced shortly after Platinum assumed control in May. That means Platinum has laid off nearly 30% of the U-T’s workforce in less than four months. The story on the U-T website reads like a press release, mixing news of the job cuts with upbeat talk about investments in new pagination systems and improvements in local reporting. There is no effort to analyze the impact of Platinum Equity’s ownership on the staff or the product they produce, and no comments about the human impact. Perhaps that’s being held for a day two story.

We also have to give the Journal News of Westchester County a nod for their innovative idea of firing all 288 employees and inviting them to re-apply for 218 jobs. It’s not layoff, it’s a job fair! Seriously, the company plans to make all rehiring decisions final by the week of August 24, which means that managers must conduct 218 interviews within the next two weeks. Just shoot us. Fortunately, August is a slow week in the publishing business.


Journalism Online, LLC, the company formed by Steven Brill to help newspapers charge for content, said 506 publications have now signed up for its affiliate network. In a press release carefully crafted to avoid the gaze of antitrust regulators, the company said its customers are eyeing annual charges of $50 to $100 per subscriber “with little diminution of overall page views or online ad revenue.” Neat trick.

Sites with one million monthly page views can expect to earn an additional $5 million to $10 million annually through reader revenue, which figures out to about 40 to 80 cents per page view. Wow, if any plan can generate 40 cents per page view, sign us up! Journalism Online was cautious to stress that each individual publisher will make its own decisions about what, and whether, to charge. “We’re giving them all the dials to turn…but they will be the ones turning the dials,” Brill said.


Perhaps the best argument we’ve seen against citizen journalism is the parade of crazies showing up to criticize the Obama health care plan. The thought that some of these people could acquire a following is truly unsettling. Sacramento Bee cartoonist Rex Babin illustrates this brilliantly, provoking the usual rash of political diatribes.

Clown hall

By paulgillin | August 12, 2009 - 6:08 am - Posted in Facebook, Fake News, Google, Hyper-local, Solutions

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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.”


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