Archive for August, 2012

It’s not at all surprising that Phoenix TV station KPHO is running an ad poking plans by Gannett properties The Arizona Republic and KPNX-TV to charge for online news (I would embed it here, but embedding has been blocked on that one). What’s surprising is no other TV station in a competitive market has run such an ad (as far as I know). The ad claims that KPHO’s website has “even more” information than the Gannett site, azcentral.com, which sounds patently ridiculous on its face — but how many people who aren’t devoted daily newspaper readers know that? I know some devoted newspaper folks whose first instinct when local news breaks is to go to the leading TV station’s website, not the newspaper’s site. This ad just takes aim at that type of impulse and seeks to build on it. It is the leading argument in my mind for why no news site should be 100 percent behind any sort of paywall. If you have competition that’s free, you need to offer at least breaking news, something to keep them coming to you for free so that you can then attempt to lure them to pay for your fuller coverage and extras.

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Mathew Ingram at GigaOm reminds everyone that even with a paywall in place online, a newspaper has quite a gap to fill if advertising continues to decline (as it likely will), and that relying on payments from readers does not equal freedom from pressure to generate traffic. Sample:

“But the biggest flaw in … (that) reasoning, I think, is the idea that having subscribers means newspapers won’t have to be driven by pageview-based tactics any more, and can just focus on high-quality journalism. This assumes that the readers who subscribe will be radically different creatures than the ones who read the content for free: in other words, they will only be interested in serious journalism and not celebrity news briefs or slideshows, whereas the free reader is driven only by their interest in those sleazy eyeball-grabbing tactics.

“I don’t think that’s the case at all. I think most readers who pay will still want just as many of those things, and will only continue subscribing as long as they get them — and without them, the paper’s subscription base may be loyal, but it will also be relatively tiny. This is the flip-side of the transformation that some newspapers like the NYT have already undergone, where the revenue provided by readers now exceeds the revenue provided by advertising. While that may seem like it would provide great freedom to pursue quality, it also means the the paper is even more beholden to a small group of readers …”

That being said, I think the industry still needs to move aggressively to build non-advertising revenue. Journalists just shouldn’t look forward to the day when finally they are free of business-driven demands on their time and websites.

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Mark Potts’ description on his Recovering Journalist blog of the first glimpses he and Washington Post executives had 20 years ago of the coming media technology revolution reminds me of my own moment of realization on that topic.

It’s worth the time to read Mark’s post, but his tale revolves around this:

“Twenty years ago, Robert G. Kaiser, newly appointed managing editor of The Washington Post, took a trip to California to learn more about the then-developing world of Silicon Valley. While there, he was invited by John Sculley, then Apple’s CEO, to a conference in Japan about the future of digital media. Several dozen movers and shakers from the worlds of publishing and technology gathered in the resort town of Hakone, outside Tokyo, to discuss what it might mean to use computers to collect and distribute news and information, something described by the newfangled word ‘multimedia.’”

It was just 1992, but what was described in that meeting in Japan is pretty much the online media environment we have now. As Mark describes it, Kaiser and others recognized the need to prepare for the technological tidal wave, but for all the effort put into it, things just petered out:

“The history of the past 20 years of newspapers and digital media is, unfortunately, a legacy of timidity, missed opportunities and a general lack of imagination and guts to leap into the future.”

My moment of realization comes on a much smaller, more limited scale. In 1997, I told my reporters that we all needed to think of the newspaper’s website as a place to report breaking news because it put us on an even playing field with TV, but I remained skeptical of how much new effort needed to be directed online. But in June 2005, I attended a session at API in Reston, Va., with the unwieldy name “Cross-Platform Media Teams: Strategic Thinking for a Multi-Platform World,” and that changed everything for me. In particular, a presentation by Jeff Coles of USC’s Center for the Digital Future drove home the idea that the Internet was driving far-reaching changes in people’s behavior in the same way that the advent of television did. The trends indicated that even then, before the first iPhone launched the explosive growth in smartphones.

Which leads us in more recent years to the kind of scenes such as former Wall Street Journal reporter Paul Glader recently described from a trip on Amtrak:

“All of my neighbors were pecking away at Amazon Kindles or Apple iPads. In this container on rails, the microcosm of well-connected travelers showed what kind of ‘Star Trek’ world in which we are, or soon will be, living. … They flitted back and forth, like distracted youngsters, between email, news sites, books and video games like Angry Birds.”

Newsrooms already have been decimated by massive declines in advertising revenue. Often, the cuts in staffing make editors even more resistant to changing beats or organizational structures – we’ve lost so much, how can we do anything new when we can’t even do what we once thought was the bare minimum? But retrenchment is no way to keep up with a world that’s racing ahead of you.

(Thanks to Poynter’s Jeff Sonderman for pointing to both of these articles.)

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I remember clearly the moment when I realized that, for all the hype about how he really “got” young people and new media, Barack Obama’s campaign really was, at heart, very old-school. It was about 4 a.m., when his campaign sent out the long-promised text message “announcement” of his vice presidential pick, which had leaked to traditional media sources hours earlier. I had signed up to get the text, and every now and again, as unpredictably as solar flares, I still get Obama texts (years passed without me getting any at all). And last night, the current Republican nominee running against Obama, Mitt Romney, proved that his campaign also still does not quite get the new media environment because, as the Washington Post reported, a generic RomneyRyan.com site began redirecting to the Romney campaign site before anyone had made the announcement, and the pick was confirmed before anyone got word through what the campaign had hyped as the “first” place people would find out. The Web is still “the other,” like posters on a wall, not a constantly-on information source.

UPDATE: The first official leak apparently was the old-fashioned kind, human, reported at 12:01 a.m.

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A friend who lives in the Washington, D.C., area of Maryland says the Washington Post just got her to revive her canceled print subscription. The offer? A year’s subscription for 14 cents a day. FOURTEEN CENTS! That comes to around $715 (Update: in the middle of the night I realized I had the decimal one place too far to the right) $71.50 $51.10 a year. (Man, I can’t do math.) You couldn’t buy one reporter’s groceries for a year month for that, let alone his actual pay or any of the other costs that go into producing that paper. Paying 14 cents a day might cover the gasoline to get the paper to your doorstep. Want to know why people feel they shouldn’t have to pay to get news online? This is it: News companies continue to practically give it away in print. Why buy the cow when the farmer will deliver the milk to your door for 14 cents a day?

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RJI Online
I hesitate to draw too many conclusion from the Reynolds Journalism Institute’s latest survey of mobile device use. What I think it shows is that newspaper’s audience in print is also newspaper’s audience online – they tend to be older and have more money. That’s a nice niche, to the extent you’re able to sell that audience to advertisers, but I always look at surveys like this with an eye toward the future. If the bulk of younger people use Androids and don’t subscribe or use news apps, is that the baseline they will maintain as they get older, or will they become more like the older people who more often have iPhones and subscriptions? I think you can assume that what has been true in print will remain true in mobile, which means they are forming habits that will persist.

The stat I think is most instructive is the answer to which content format smartphone owners preferred for consuming news content: Far and away, for all devices (but especially for the Android devices favored by younger groups), the answer is the website, not an app. Put your efforts on your website and you address the largest segment of all demographic groups – but you especially address those younger news consumers whose reading habits you are trying to build.

8/4/12 UPDATE: In early May, Matthew Ingram posted about problems faced by dedicated news apps, a further argument for focusing your efforts on your website.

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