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Posts Tagged ‘innovation’

Ken Doctor lists 10 ways the news industry will judge 2014. I agree with the list, but I’m focused on just one:

New strategies will be tested. We’re bound to get some sense of how the major strategies put into local markets this year are working. Think Advance’s Slim-Fast three-day-a-week home delivery plan is a good or bad idea? Let’s see — or least divine, since Advance is privately held — the results. How about Aaron Kushner’s major reinvestment in southern California? What’s the payoff in circulation, reader revenue, and advertising? As DFM’s Thunderdome rolls out for a full year, will it be a hit or a miss?”

I have about had my fill of debates about what is or isn’t going to work. I want some numbers. The three experiments Doctor cites above are among those too young at this point to judge. Paywalls, at many publications, are another. (At my own, a paywall is tentatively scheduled to go up next month. I’m not holding my breath.) Even after one year, you can’t declare success or failure — I recently heard a publisher tout the gains made by a new (less than a year old) advertising pricing strategy, but to this journalist’s eyes the numbers were front-loaded, with all the gain coming from new advertisers giving the new prices a spin and then not renewing, and I had to wonder what the second year is going to look like — but they are gaining age. Full-year results will be intriguing, second-year results will be when you start thinking about a trend.

It’s a painful thing, this waiting.

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When we were children and encountered a problem, we went to our parents, and they fixed it.

Parents can fix anything.

As we get older we take on more of our own problems, maybe asking advice. Well into adulthood, it’s hard to shake the urge to at least ask for advice when we come up against a really big problem.

Which leads me to the reaction to Amazon founder Jeffrey Bezos buying the Washington Post.

I’ve seen this movie before, and I’m getting the serious feeling that everyone in the news industry is waiting for Dad to show up and Fix It.

As the old business model – using low prices for the product to build audience, then making all your money from advertising – began to unravel, no one in the business had a way to fix it.

I remember when Sam Zell first bought the Tribune papers in 2007, some people (not all, by a long shot) thought he might Fix It. He had made a ton of money, so he must know something about business, and maybe a fresh set of eyes and a less hidebound approach would work. Then he started breaking all the good china, stamping out his cigars in the carpeting and insulting his employees, and it was clear that making a ton of money in one business doesn’t necessarily translate into universal business genius. Then the economy imploded, and that was the end of that.

In 2012, Warren Buffett made a splash with a series of newspaper purchases, which has continued into this year, and there seemed to be a giant sigh of relief throughout the industry. The Oracle of Omaha is widely described as a genius, having made shrewd investments across various industries for decades, so surely he must see the way out of the mess we’re in, or once hip deep in the mess he WILL see it. He must have a plan, right? … Well, he has said repeatedly he does not, and so far Mr. Buffett has cut well over 100 jobs (including mine). If his team has created any new jobs or found a new way to increase revenue, I missed it.

Also in 2012, another very rich man, Aaron Kushner, set journalistic hearts aflutter by doubling down on the old print model, beefing up the Orange County Register’s news staff and cutting off free Internet access. The company claims it is having success, though circulation is flat. As I wrote recently, until someone produces numbers, the jury has to be considered out on that experiment.

Now comes Bezos. He made a bazillion dollars on the Internet! The Internet is at the heart of the industry’s problems, so he MUST be the man to turn this whole thing around. Alan Mutter, generally a sound, pragmatic voice on news-business topics, makes a case for it.

I sure hope so, because I’m getting tired of watching this movie, and I can no longer tell whether its title is “Waiting for Superman,” “Waiting for Godot” or “Waiting for Guffman.”

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Lord knows I want the Orange County Register’s print-centric business model to be successful. It is the model of simplicity: Beef up the content + charge for content = Profit!

But an article at The Guardian that asserts that model’s success doesn’t actually show any success, except in the area of spending more money.

The article sums up the paper’s approach since CEO Aaron Kushner took over Freedom Communications a year ago: Add more staff and pages, prioritize print over digital, erect a hard paywall. A quote from editor Ken Brusic perfectly captures the reasoning:

“Imagine it’s your daily coffee. Each time you put down your money the cup gets smaller and the brew gets weaker. That’s essentially what’s happened to American newspapers. We took things away from people and at the same time gave content away free on the web.”

I happen to agree with that. The first instinct of publishers over at least the past 10 years (if not since the dawn of publishers) has been to cut payroll and expenses first, seek new revenue channels later — which is lunacy. I was in Media General’s corporate offices in the late 2000s when the economy began collapsing, and the company’s three metros went, among other cuts, from four racing writers to zero, two science writers to zero, full-time state capital staff eliminated except at the one paper actually located in a state capital, each newsroom collapsing to focus on “the franchise,” local news. You had the sense of medium-sized, hefty dailies with big ambitions shrinking their staff and ambitions to become oversized small dailies. But the prices stayed the same. I always wondered what would have happened had they offered readers a choice and laid out the economic realities, explained that advertising had collapsed and what that meant for staffing. What would the readers have chosen as their preferred way of handling the budgets? Maybe the same thing. We’ll never know for sure.

In Orange County, Kushner’s approach essentially is turning back the clock to experiment with the approach no one tried: Provide the content and see if you can make that work. The Guardian asserts that “as the paper prepares to celebrate the experiment’s first anniversary, it appears to be thriving.”

But the definition of “thriving” I’m familiar with wouldn’t seem to apply here:

“Home deliveries are flat, compared to a year ago, but circulation overall is sharply up if you include an expanded stable of 28 weekly newspapers.” I would not count them, because the rest of the article didn’t talk so much about beefing up the staff and content of the weeklies. “… Revenue is ahead of target, said Kushner, without elaborating. Annual figures are due to be published in September.”

Where is the skepticism we would bring to any other businessman? Kushner SAYS revenue is ahead of target. But what was his target? You double your staff in one year and make your paper so heavy that, as deputy editor of local news Rob Curley says, it could kill a cat, you incur gigantic expenditures. It’s really easy to ramp up spending. Ramping up revenue is a good deal harder. So what does the Register and its there’s-no-more-free-content approach charge readers for this giant, cat-killing package? Print or online, it costs just $1 a day. I would be shocked if that covers even the cost of the newsprint and ink the Register is using. The Register has been working to increase advertising, but with readers contributing just $1 a day, the idea that advertising has increased enough in just one year, especially coming out of a recession and in a national slump in advertising, for the venture to break even seems ludicrous.

If you were to tell me that Kushner expects to lose money for a while, build the product and its reputation, use that to bring in more advertisers and revenue streams, gradually increase the cost to readers, and eventually get it to where both the print and online products are sustained as primarily pay-for-content products supported by readers rather than advertisers, I could believe that.

Just don’t tell me it’s “thriving” right now and expect me to believe it without any numbers to prove it.

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In a world of dwindling newsroom resources, one of the harder questions is how much of your time and attention to place online. The view I tend to align with is that the future audience is going to be all-digital, and likely mostly mobile, so we need to make sure we are moving ourselves.

Then comes this new study that shows that when it comes to news consumption, a lot of what you put online may as well be wasted effort in comparison to how much use the print product gets: 92 percent of the consumption of news is on legacy platforms, only 8 percent on digital.

The temptation is to say that everyone should then devote 92 percent of their time and energy to the legacy platform. I know that’s too simplistic.

What if digital news consumption is relatively low because we just aren’t that good yet at grabbing digital users?

Or maybe the real message is to spend your online energies tailoring what you do present online to the on-the-run way that people use that medium, which in turn may mean there are things you are doing online now that you don’t really need to do, given how little use it is getting.

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Nieman Media Lab’s article about media theorist Douglas Rushkoff’s book “Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now” struck me because ever since my move less than three months ago to become editor of a small newspaper in northwest North Carolina, I almost never see anything on Tweetdeck. As a result, I feel extremely cut off from the up-to-date flow of new information on news industry developments from sources I have followed, in some cases, almost as long as Twitter has existed.

At the same time, my current job feels almost entirely linear, and I can’t say my previous job with Media General in Richmond, Va., did. Day to day, hour to hour, I am too busy to monitor the river of tweets. I literally cannot carve out the time. So Rushkoff’s description of what he means by “present shock” resonates — I have spent hours doing nothing but watching what comes in, following it, evaluating it and deciding what was worth following further and spreading, devoting some small amount of time to thinking farther ahead about the longer-term implications — it was, after all, part of my job to think ahead, but connecting “right now” to the next few hours was not so much part of it.

Of course I think my situation illustrates part of the stratification of the industry: Editors at papers with small staffs are too occupied with the immediate needs of today’s paper and the next few days’ papers to follow the commentary on what is likely coming down the line.

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Continuing on the topic of changing what local news reporters do (I provided some links in this post a couple weeks ago), John Robinson proposes a kind of New Year’s resolution for editors:

If editors do one thing for their newspaper readers in 2013 — yes, there are a slew of things needing to be done for their digital audience in 2013 — it should be to examine how they are covering the local news. Is it what people need to understand their community? Are we covering this because it’s vital information or because we need to fill a hole in the paper? Will this story make reading the paper an indispensable act? Because if it doesn’t — and with the circulation losses papers have suffered over the past 10 years, there is evidence it doesn’t — it’s time for a change.

Meanwhile, Steve Buttry adds to his previous posts on this topic with more specific thoughts on how a newsroom might change some or all of its beats.

I fear that some people will stop reading at the point where Steve suggests a pets beat and will miss his larger point: Something has to change, and you have to start thinking about it, and what you change may be less important than having a thorough discussion about the possibilities and doing something about it.

John notes as evidence of the need for change some results of a September 2011 Pew survey: “For instance, when asked, ‘If your local newspaper no longer existed, would that have a major impact, a minor impact, or no impact on your ability to keep up with information and news about your local community?’ a large majority of Americans, 69%, believe the death of their local newspaper would have no impact (39%) or only a minor impact (30%) on their ability to get local information.”

John also cites his experience in the past year reading the front pages of a dozen Sunday papers around North Carolina and seeing too much rote, uninteresting coverage. I can go further: For the past six weeks, I haven’t read any newspapers at all, nor have I watched local TV news, and I firmly fall into the camp saying that as far as I can tell the death of my local newspaper would have only a minor impact on my ability to get local information. (I do miss certain columnists and the routine of the morning paper, but if the paper has produced anything important in the past six weeks, it was like a tree falling in the woods with no one nearby to hear it — which is a subject for another post.)

But this is where the hope for fixing local news hits a Catch-22. John quotes Philip Meyer from a 2008 online discussion about local news:

“Local is cheap to produce if you limit yourself to stenographic coverage of public meetings. But to really cover local news, you need talented, specialized reporters who are free to dig for weeks on a single topic.”

I won’t rehash all the arguments I made on this point three months ago, but I will summarize:

The success of any attempt to change or “fix” local news is ultimately dependent on publishers and the executives who supervise them agreeing with the need to restructure the newsroom pay scale and to end, where they exist, any mandates that the front page absolutely has to be all-local. Yes, I mean better pay, but I also mean fewer people in the newsroom because the revenue isn’t there to raise pay and keep the staff the same size, which is the reason publishers who want all-local front pages have to give that up in the name of getting better reporting. That also means more pressure on editors to ensure their staff follows through – more-engaged editors, more-engaged reporters.

Lord knows newsrooms have many creative, imaginative people who consider the job a calling and work cheap. But it has fewer every day – beyond layoffs, many are no longer willing to work low-paying jobs that have become content farms of rote coverage. Counting on an endless supply of new ones who are willing is likely to be as healthy for your business model as counting on an endless supply of gasoline under $4 a gallon.

1/2/13 UPDATE: A good follow-up today by John Robinson on the need for editors to confront the reality of permanently smaller staffs and how to figure out what people really want the newsroom to do.

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Sometimes it’s easy to feel down about journalism. It’s a little too easy. Yes, the collapse of advertising and the rapid pace of technological change are problems, but there is a lot in journalism still worth celebrating. Among them:

Technology. Yes, the industry is having trouble keeping up with what new technology is doing to the business model for news, but look at all that technology is making possible. At one extreme is the kind of rich storytelling experience exemplified recently by the New York Times’ “Snow Fall” (FYI, good info on that package from The Atlantic Wire). Even in small newsrooms with nowhere near that level of technological ability, new tools are enabling new forms of storytelling.

At the very basic level, technology allows reporters to be untethered from their desks yet still be able to reach sources at any time and also file stories and photos from almost anywhere, and it opens the possibility for new, deeper, stronger ties between news organizations and their communities. Technology is making access to records faster and easier, and giving us databases where once there only were farflung file cabinets of paper, if the information existed at all. It is easing and speeding communication of all kinds. All of this is good news if you believe an informed public is inherently a good thing.

Bosses worth working for. I have been lucky because I can count on one hand, and still hold a cup of coffee, the bosses I’ve had for whom I would not happily work again. One of my editors I actually did work for twice. There are editors out there who make their staffs feel good about their work, and some even make the workplace fun. Not only that, there are good publishers. True, I’ve met my share of underhanded, unimaginative or timid publishers, but I’ve met many more who believe that good journalism is good business in the long term. Just in the past month I met two who specifically said they want their news staffs to feel free to butt heads and do stories that might upset local officials. A good boss makes a world of difference, and there are a good number of them out there.

Staffers worth supervising. Journalists fancy themselves as crusty and cynical, but it’s hard to find a more optimistic group. Look at how they have watched their newsrooms dwindle, but see how many of them remain hopeful about the future of the business. In all my travels visiting newsrooms, spending time with a news staff has always left me feeling energized. Journalists just want to do a good job, and their job, when done well, helps the public.

Strivers and innovators. Although the traditional business model faces many problems, there are many people and organizations constantly trying new things. Just visiting the Nieman Journalism Lab site every now and then will give you some hope. If you’re like me, you can feel frustrated at either the pace of these efforts or the slow adoption of some innovations, but at least there are people trying new things. With enough people trying in enough places, good things have to result.

Thinking about things such as these make me feel better — as light as a feather, as merry as a school-boy, maybe even as giddy as a drunken man, Dickens might say. I should try to dwell on them more often.

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