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Posts Tagged ‘Digital First Media’

For every situation we face, there are choices with bad outcomes and other corresponding choices with good outcomes. We tell ourselves this all the time.

If a choice turned out to be a bad one, we feel sure that if we had made a different choice, what happened would have been a better result.

But life is more complicated. You can make a choice that turns out to be a mistake, but if you had it to do over there might be more than one choice, and it’s not a given that there is always a choice that brings the result you desire, or that the correct choice is easy to recognize. All of the choices might have outcomes you don’t like – a giant series of chutes that all ultimately feed into a single, spiral slide downward to the same destination, or to a variety of slides and destinations, all of them bad.

That’s where I’m left when thinking about Jack Shafer’s much-shared column in Politico about a paper by H. Iris Chyi and Ori Tenenboim of the University of Texas and published in the journal Journalism Practice.

“The paper cracks open the watchworks of the newspaper industry to make a convincing case that the tech-heavy Web strategy pursued by most papers has been a bust,” Shafer writes. “The key to the newspaper future might reside in its past and not in smartphones, iPads and VR. ‘Digital first,’ the authors claim, has been a losing proposition for most newspapers.”

Shafer contends that the newspaper industry “should have stuck with its strengths—the print editions where the vast majority of their readers still reside and where the overwhelming majority of advertising and subscription revenue come from—instead of chasing the online chimera.”

I’m generally sympathetic to the argument, but I have trouble seeing how simply not putting content on the web would have done much more than slow the bleed of readers because it assumes news from traditional sources is competing with other news for readers’ attention, not with the larger ecosystem of things that are available to occupy readers’ time, which skyrocketed in number and especially convenience due to the mobile web.

The larger problem for the argument posed by Shafer, who is only the latest to make it, is that the ultimate problem for news is not the bleed of readers leaving print but the bleed of advertisers. As Jim Brady noted in a tweet, “There’s a reason you can put 50 cents in a newspaper machine and take ALL OF THEM. That wasn’t where real revenue was.”

To this day, the Charlotte Observer loses money, when comparing what the subscriber pays to the cost of paper, ink and gasoline, on every paper it delivers to my town. The Observer does it to preserve the size of its print audience, which helps it prop up advertising rates.

Advertising has left print faster than print’s audience has, not because print didn’t serve advertisers’ needs but because online offers shinier, cheaper, easier-to-measure and easier-to-target options in a vastly larger array of attention-getting offerings, even if the measures are bots and smoke and the audiences are diffuse. Put news behind a digital Great Wall of China and it wouldn’t change that.

Defending the idea that print would have been better off keeping the web at arm’s length depends on believing that the departure of advertisers especially not only would have been a great deal less than it has been but also that advertising revenues would – and perhaps still could, if only there were more paywalls – level out at a higher level than they are at now.

You have to consider the possibility that if the newspaper industry had done as Shafer wishes it had, today its overall circulation might be – might be – somewhat higher than it is now, but free online options other than news still would have peeled away many casual subscribers; advertising still would be a fraction of what it once was, which would have driven both staff and content cuts, which would further have driven away readers; and there still would be no end in sight to revenue declines; that the chute might be less steep, but it still would lead the same direction.

Furthermore, there’s also the issue addressed by Steve Buttry that Shafer, Chyi and Tenenboim look at what the news industry has done online and conclude the industry actually strongly pursued a digital strategy, while those like Buttry and Brady who have advocated for a digital-first approach feel the industry pursued less-than-half-hearted measures that were doomed from the start.

“The colossal mistake that the newspaper industry made,” Buttry writes, “was responding to digital challenges and opportunities with defensive measures intended to protect newspapers, and timid experiments with posting print-first content online, rather than truly exploring and pursuing digital possibilities.”

A few, in that view, have actually approached the digital-first chute, including the former Digital First Media that Buttry and Brady worked for.

Buttry again: “When I worked at Digital First, I described our company’s name as an aspiration, rather than an achievement. I applaud our former CEO John Paton and our former Editor-in-Chief Jim Brady for leading us further and faster down the digital path than any other newspaper company. But that barely took us to the outskirts of digital experimentation.”

In other words, most who have even approached the true digital-first chute jumped off, and even those still on it have not yet ridden it all the way. We don’t know where it would end up.

Buttry, Brady and others who see things as they do might still be proven wrong about where that chute goes, but there is less evidence that they are wrong than that Shafer is.

UPDATE: Another view, by Matthew Ingram writing in Fortune:

“As tempting as it is to re-imagine history, however, it’s a virtual certainty that even if most newspapers had focused more of their resources on print and less on digital, the outcome would have been more or less identical.”

AND THIS: A good summary of the debate online from Poynter.

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What’s wrong with news companies? Do they have a strategy for surviving past the age of print? Why aren’t they executing it? Why do they only cut expenses? Why don’t the billionaires build the digital news business model?

The questions have been asked for so long that they grow tiresome.

After Ken Doctor’s recent piece on whether newspaper companies are even trying to build a sustainable digital business model, I had a Facebook discussion with a friend who has a digitally based job with a television station. He said, in part:

“Big Media print organization wont last much longer. If warren buffet cant figure out a business model for you – who will? My guess is they will milk as much as they can until it isnt profitable any more and then the papers will have to buy the rights back to their names. My advice would be just to start a blog, hire some stringers per piece and get a good, small digital sales team together.”

And that’s what so many people say, in a nutshell. Chuck the paper now, the legacy costs as well as the legacy revenue, and just go whole hog into digital.

That might seem like a slam dunk to those in the digital business, but it makes a giant assumption: that the people running news companies are primarily interested in journalism.

I have argued increasingly what is implied in Doctor’s new article for Nieman Lab, that those running the news business by and large are not in it to serve the community, which is why there is not great concern with making sure there is a future news model that works.

The idea of retooling and refocusing, of giving up some — or, to be more accurate, most of — your current revenue to build a currently less profitable kind of business that has more legs, so that local journalism survives matters only if what is of top importance to you is local journalism. If you don’t care about journalism, if you are first and foremost a business person, your decisions are based on current revenue. Why would you cut your profit on purpose to pursue a theory that may, possibly, bring you more money in 20 years than your current path is likely to bring? That’s 20 years away — and it’s a theory.

Take my friend’s example, Warren Buffett. People keep pointing to him and saying he hasn’t “figured out” a business model. But look back at his statements. He never said he would reinvent the industry. What he has said is that if someone else finds something that actually works, he would evaluate it, but in the meantime he thinks small, locally focused papers can be profitable for some time.

And that’s what made Buffett a billionaire — looking for places where there is money to be made with minimal investment. He isn’t a venture capitalist.

We keep waiting for someone with deep pockets to rescue journalism. Charles Foster Kane existed only in the movies, but even there he was losing $1 million a year.

News people will not stop feeling screwed around by the people on the business side until there are no more business people left, and they will have left because there was no more money to be made.

When journalists move on from newspapers, it feels different. It’s personal. It’s more than a career shift and a mindset change.

When business people leave newspapers, they don’t change careers, they just move on to the next job. It isn’t personal. It’s ledgers, assets, liabilities and margins — money in, money out.

That’s why it feels like such a betrayal to journalists, and why journalists never seem to understand why everyone seems only to want to break their hearts.

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From the day that Robyn Tomlin described to me what Digital First Media’s Thunderdome was going to be, I thought it sounded like a much bigger, broader, better-planned and better-financed version of what Media General (the pre-2012 version of the company, which still owned newspapers) had tried to do through Newsbank (the company’s intranet for sharing all of the company’s newspaper stories and photos) and its Interactive Media Division. We didn’t try to be a national news desk for the company’s newspapers, but we produced specialty pages, had a Washington bureau that tried to tailor stories to our markets, encouraged sharing of stories and reporting resources, and offered video, interactives and help with live chats and other online projects.

In Jim Brady’s Lessons learned from Project Thunderdome, the successes and problems he cites were, naturally, of a much larger scale, but they were parallel to Media General’s experiences. One paragraph in particular resonates with me:

One inadvertent lesson learned from Thunderdome was its service as a bellwether in surfacing who inside DFM was truly interested in culture change. Many DFM journalists worked collaboratively with Thunderdome to support DFM’s strategy and secure its future; others focused only on preserving their own futures. Centralization, in that regard, is an effective mousetrap in identifying who doesn’t want his cheese moved.

Every newsroom I worked with varied this way. At some, the top editor bought into what we were trying to do and encouraged the staff to work with us. At others, the top editor was at best indifferent, and there might be individuals in the newsroom who were enthusiastic while others would rather MG just go away and leave them alone. (The top editor at one newspaper literally never returned a single phone call from me. Not one.)

One of the lessons I learned early on in my time at Media General is no one seeks to become an editor at any level because they think someone else is better at what they do than they are. Making an argument about the time they will save that could be better devoted to better local coverage won’t fly with everyone because in the eyes of some editors, whatever is being done centrally is making the paper worse and they just can’t stand it — there were times that I sent out to MG’s papers a specialty features page using a design lifted straight from an award-winning designer in Tampa, and the features editors at some papers that used the package changed the design, often radically. Some editors even will argue in favor of duplicating reporting effort in order for their readers to see that the local paper “owns” the topic.

Brady also writes, “Never underestimate the technical challenges of centralization.” He means it in Thunderdome’s case in terms of producing online packages that will need to run across multiple content management systems, but in a broader sense it applies to anything you try to do across multiple newsrooms. The most-cited reason editors gave me for why they used an AP version of a story instead of the much better version produced by another MG paper was that AP stories flowed into their computer system at the press of a button, but the stories on MG’s own network had to be copied and pasted in (a system that itself was the lowest-common-denominator solution to creating the network in the late ’90s after MG had bought dozens of papers that all had different computer systems — some PCs, some Macs, some new, some old). And I see something similar in my current company, where the editors in North Carolina have talked about ways to work together more or at least share more, but there is no easy way to share plans or see what everyone else is doing. If your technology and workflow are developed for a silo, everyone then is stuck working in a silo.

You don’t have to be working at a national organization to gain useful insights from Brady’s piece. Anywhere you are trying to change the work culture, you’ll find parallels.

7/29/14 UPDATE: Steve Buttry offers tips for changing company culture in a post for INMA, and I think they relate directly to the kinds of situations described above. As the subhead for the post sums up, “To make true changes in the workplace culture, actual adjustments in work activities are required.” Brady didn’t elaborate on the newsrooms where he found resistance to what DFM was trying to do, but I’d be willing to bet the difference between those newsrooms and the ones where he found collaboration was the latter changed what they were doing to mesh with what DFM was doing from Thunderdome. I saw something like it in MG where, if a newsroom’s responsibilities for sharing news and photos were assigned to a single assistant editor, whose other duties didn’t change, there wasn’t a lot of sharing done, because it was an add-on to the editor’s “real” work, not a change in what that person was doing.

I have seen the principal at work in even a much more small-scale way when a newsroom gained a graphic artist (this was all the way back in the day when adding staff was possible). The newsroom hadn’t had one before, and the managers didn’t rework what editors and reporters were doing, so the result was the graphic artist was getting thrown assignments as an afterthought late in the workflow.

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If innovation is all about learning how to fail, the news business is innovating its butt off.

This morning brought the news that Digital First Media, which has been making the industry’s biggest, hardest, loudest pitches for transformation away from print-centered operations, is going to close its biggest innovation, Project Thunderdome, and may begin selling newspapers.

A number of the names attached to DFM’s digital push I first became aware of because of their work elsewhere, especially Jim Brady, Steve Buttry and Mandy Jenkins. Many of the things they have advocated have felt, on a gut level, like the right things to do to get to the future of the news business. They have demonstrated ways to build engagement online and build news audience online even as the decades-long decline in newspaper circulation, which long predated the Internet, continues and TV audiences erode.

The problem, as ever, is that while most people seem to agree that the future of news is digital and mobile, the “business” part of it doesn’t seem able to innovate or migrate its way as quickly as the news part can.

Now if DFM has faltered, as the innovative hyperlocal site TBD did before it, will others pull back?

Publishers have always been wary of venturing quickly into the digital realm without proof they can generate revenue there equal to what they lose by dropping print, so doesn’t this provide just one more excuse to slow down?

And because the Orange County Register’s efforts to boost business by reinvesting in the print product also appear to be going nowhere, the new mantra in news might just become, “Don’t just do something, stand there.”

But when you know the beach is eroding under your feet, just standing there isn’t much of an option. I think we all have to keep looking at the kinds of things TBD, DFM and others have been trying, and pick the ones that make sense in our own newsrooms with the staff we have. Pick up the flag and keep marching forward.

UPDATE: Steve Buttry makes the argument that you can’t call Thunderdome a failure (or TBD either) because it was never given enough time to succeed. I think he’s correct, but I don’t think the folks who can put money into these kinds of things will examine the merits of his argument closely. I’m afraid the narrative that will be constructed from the outside will say that what was tried at Thunderdome, and TBD, clearly failed or the plug wouldn’t have been pulled.

On another topic, I also just read the post from Digital First CEO John Paton explaining today’s moves. It says, in part:

“In the past two years we have learned a tremendous amount from Project Thunderdome much like others that have come before it like our Ben Franklin Project.

“We have explored, experimented but more importantly we have learned and have a much higher level of digital skills than we did before. And, best of all, a higher level of confidence in our digital abilities across our entire Company.

“Our skills in data journalism, video production, website and mobile developments are all the better for Project Thunderdome.

“But what once were fairly isolated skills located in one place are now skills shared by many in our Company. Where once initiatives, like Project Unbolt were led centrally, we now have divisions taking their own Digital First initiatives.”

In other words, Thunderdome was so successful that the company no longer needs it.

Project Unbolt, by the way, was announced Jan. 29. I guess that would make it the most successful digital initiative ever because it made itself obsolete in barely more than two months.

Maybe it’s not Orwellian of Paton to put it that way, but on a much smaller scale I have seen what happens when “successful” initiatives driven by corporate HQ suddenly end. Often, so does the success; what you thought was “buy in” was editors telling staff, “Just do it and get corporate off my butt, OK?” If that was the case at any DFM properties, it should be clear before long — probably in much less time than Thunderdome had to build these new skills and habits across DFM.

4/3/14 UPDATE: Good business perspective from Alan Mutter:

“In other words, the objectives of the Digital First investors were the antithesis of the patience – and multimillion-dollar commitment – required in the slog to identify successful interactive publishing models, whatever they eventually may turn out to be.

It would be a mistake to view the failure at Digital First as a failure of digital publishing or a reason to stop trying to get it right.”

4/4/14 UPDATE: Great contribution of context by Mandy Jenkins, which among other things further points out the corporate babble of Paton’s statement about Thunderdome having been so successful. Among other things:

“Thunderdome never even got the chance to carry out even the beginnings of our goals. Many of our long-planned channels just started launching. We had a number of new revenue-generating products on the horizon. We had just started building our in-house product team.”

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I was exasperated the other day at the latest entry in the “No, come on, what is Warren Buffet really up to?” genre of columns. There are two things these things seem to have in common: One, the writers all believe Buffett is a genius who can’t make a bad call; two, they think that he can’t possibly be telling the whole truth about why he is buying newspapers. I am not remotely qualified to judge the first, but I’m willing to bet he’s telling the truth about his newspaper plans, which is merely that he wants them run prudently and well, and he thinks that under the right conditions, considering the markets they are in, they will be profitable quite a while. That seems to meet with a lot of skepticism. I certainly was among the skeptics, but since going to work in January in the kind of market Buffett seems to favor, my perspective is changing, at least some.

There’s a saying in medicine, “When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras.” It’s the Occam’s Razor principle: When multiple explanations are available, the simplest version is preferred. In other words, I think too many people are overthinking this situation and skipping the simple answer. When people look at the papers Buffett has bought and notice that most of them are in North Carolina and Virginia, and deduce from that some kind of grand plan, I have to shake my head. When he bought Virginia-based Media General’s newspapers in 2012, that accounted for all but two of his current NC/Va papers, and those other two (Greensboro and Roanoke) came from one Virginia-based company, Landmark, this year. Essentially that’s two points (MG and Landmark) on a graph. But before buying MG he bought Omaha in 2011, and after buying the MG papers he bought two in Texas (Waco and College Station). And before he bought Omaha, he owned only Buffalo. Plot all those points on a graph and it’s not as tidy.

One argument that has been made is that with all of those papers in a relatively tight geographic area, there’s potential for pooling resources and eliminating duplicate costs. Indeed. Or, indeed there used to be. MG and Landmark each did quite a bit of that; putting the two groups together will allow a bit more, but I would bet not a huge amount. And on the news side, I can say as one of the two people who had been at MG in charge of encouraging the sharing of news resources and responsibilities, those who bet for moves on that front again are ignoring what Buffett has said. Editors are reluctant to give up control of their own resources, or to turn over traditional areas of coverage to other publications, even within the same company, or even just to stop doing things that duplicate what sister newspapers are doing if they view the topic being duplicated as important to them. It can be done — see what Digital First Media is doing — but to make that part of the company strategy would go against Buffett’s stated intention of letting editors run their newsrooms independently, without central direction of what their coverage should be.

With all of the above rolling around in my head, this morning Steve Buttry pointed to a column about a parallel situation of basic psychology. In the column Are you mad at me? Adam Bryant talks about how people are constantly reading their bosses, often reading too much into little things and misinterpreting the situation. I think that’s exactly the kind of thing going on in the news business with Buffett. He’s not the boss of most of us, but in a way — he has the money and he’s calling the shots, at a time when no one else seems willing to — he really is.

But I’m going to treat Buffett the way I wish my employees would treat me: I’m taking him at his word.

So, are you willing to say Warren Buffett is a big, fat liar?

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A minor misfortune of my job since 2001 has been the title because no one outside the company would have any idea what it means: Newsbank editor. Or, worse, if someone has heard of NewsBank Inc., he or she might think my job was related. It wasn’t. There has never been any part of it related to NewsBank Inc. When Media General created a news-sharing intranet website in 1998, for whatever reason company officials chose to name it Newsbank (or, in public news releases, News Bank, though on the business cards presented to me when I first reported for work, it was Newsbank). So whenever I met someone and they asked what I did, I often thought of a line from an episode of the 1978-79 “Battlestar Galactica” (“The Long Patrol”) in which Starbuck lands on a prison planet where inmates’ names are derived from their crimes: “What exactly is Starbuckin’?” Before 2001, I could answer the “What do you do?” question with my actual title: “I’m a reporter.” “I’m the city editor.” “I’m the state editor.” Some further explanation might be tacked on, but the title conveyed basics. Starting in 2001, I skipped the title and launched into the explanation, and I quietly wished that back in 1998 someone had a different idea for the job title.

Today I realized what that title could have been. Within Steve Buttry’s post about the new curation team at Digital First Media is a fairly good description, from Karen Workman (the third person in the post, if you go looking for it), of much of what I do (go down to the bold subhead “So how can we do this?”). Of course, Newsbank is old technology (the original 1998 coding was rewritten, but that still was almost 10 years ago) and not up to everything she describes as desireable, and I do other things during the day — increasingly and sometimes depressingly so. But basically, yeah, the essentials are parallel. Maybe I should unilaterally adopt the title and update my resume accordingly.

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