Is it just me or whenever the subject of money and online news and information comes up, the phrase “print is king” inevitably bubbles to the surface?
This just recently happened, in fact, in an office e-mail message with a link to Poynter’s E-Media Tidbits, offering “5 Tips for Building a Successful Hyperlocal Site,” an idea we’ve discussed off and on for months and may finally attempt to execute later this year. The five tips, or “lessons learned,” are from Michelle Ferrier of the Daytona Beach News Journal‘s now defunct MyTopiaCafe.com, and each is worth its proverbial weight in gold. But the fourth one especially caught my eye.
“If you don’t have a sales force that knows how to sell your product, find them or train them — quickly,” Ferrier wrote, and then added:
“Print was still king. The newspaper advertising management didn’t know how to sell this ‘online community thing’ as a part of the media mix without cannibalizing its cash cow. Instead, the site was sold as an add-on to the print buy instead of as a hyperlocal buy to a new market of smaller advertisers. It cost too much money to deploy a sales team for the little bit of money garnered, they reasoned. The development team was never allowed to develop the classified ads and the smaller display advertising market using automated tools instead of human door knocking.”
I can’t help but wonder how many newspapers are struggling with those same issues because we still genuflect at the print altar? Print is still king, even though the number of print subscribers keeps declining while online audience figures are climbing to the point where they’re much greater or even dwarf the print numbers.
And print gets to keep wearing the crown as long as it pulls in 95% of the industry’s revenues, or if you’re really cooking with gas on the digital side, it might be 90%.
Ferrier suggests that it’s a nut we can crack if we can find a way to sell to smaller advertisers with human sales reps knocking on doors rather than relying on customers to find and figure out online systems designed to “help” them design and place ads on our sites.
I think she’s onto something. If online ad rates remain a fraction of print rates for years to come, the industry has no choice but to try to figure out how to sell a large volume of banner ads and the like. Automating that process is an admirable goal and may be necessary at some point to get that volume, but I can’t help but shake my head in disbelief that we think we can use Web widgets to sell ads right out of the gate. That might work for classified ads or business directories, but I personally believe there’s nothing like the power of shoe leather and face-to-face meetings whether it’s in ad sales or news reporting.
Sadly, on both of those fronts we have fewer and fewer resources to hit the pavement these days, so I think we’re increasingly relying on the phone and e-mail to connect with the people in our communities. Ironically, we’re then launching hyperlocal Web sites that cater to smaller communities that we don’t know as well as we think we do. On top of that, we then hope that the social media tools on those sites will allow people in those communities to connect with each other and us, but even that takes time and effort to develop. Time isn’t something we have a lot of these days, especially when companies want to see a quick return on the money they just spent to build those hyperlocal sites and roll out those social media tools.
But shoe leather is something we can put into these ventures. That’s how we built the print model, the king. He didn’t inherit that exalted status from the heavens. We put him on the throne.
What kind of temple are we building to what god?
That’s the line that keeps haunting me from a book I recently read, The Culting of Brands by Douglas Atkin. I’d picked it up, hoping to glean some nuggets of wisdom we could use in the newspaper business and came away wondering what is it we ultimately hope to build? Do we really care enough about the communities we cover to truly listen to them, have conversations with them and embrace them?
I think a lot of newspapers may be in denial on this front. They think their temple is the only game in town if you want quality local news and information. Meanwhile, the ranks of bloggers and Twitterati keep growing in their parish, and some of them are building a growing audience.
Sadly, I think some papers look at those self-made publishers as a threat and admittedly, in some ways, they are, but they’re also a vital part of the community that newspapers need to engage if they’re going to survive. Allowing reader comments at the end of articles isn’t enough, nor is adding tools for readers to upload their own photos and video or even their own blogs, though all of that certainly helps.
I think our biggest challenge is changing our mindset, especially in the newsrooms. It’s either that or we split our digital efforts off into another separate company that can be freed up to have another mindset, and I’m still torn on whether that’s the best way to go. For now, though, I’m sticking to the notion that newsrooms can change and still retain their journalistic integrity.
Change into what is the question, and I think the answer can be found if we try to cultivate our communities and borrow from Atkin’s assertions in his book.
So how do we build our own cult of news readers? Atkin would say we start by:
- Flattering your customers
- Being a beacon of difference
- Declaring your difference
- Having dialogue with customer (which leads to getting the customers to do some of the talking for you, ie, evangelizing)
- Being authentic (live what you preach)
- Build our own iconography – logos, gear, the uniform
- Learning and practicing the language or terminology
- Demonizing the Other (continually point out how the competition is clueless, which in our case is not Google or the bloggers in our communities but rather those who don’t believe in a free press that wants to share ideas and find truths).
Atkin stresses something that I’m not sure all newspapers get: It’s the people. We need to listen to them, talk with them and let them help us do a better of job of bringing them the stories they really want to read in our papers and on our Web sites. We also need to get the right members in the community to worship in our temple, which may mean we need to abandon the idea of anonymity on our sites. I know that won’t go over well with some folks who argue that anonymity is crucial to allow honest conversation and whistleblowing but I’m increasingly feeling that argument has simply become tired and has given people the freedom to behave badly online because there are no consequences for being jerks if we don’t know who you are.
Once we get the right people and have true conversations with them, we also need to find ways for them to meet and interact online or in person, but remember to focus on the people and not on making a sale. Atkin would say we then need to “love bomb” them and make them feel appreciated as members of our cult.
We also need to get busy building myths. This doesn’t mean we tell fibs about who we are and what we do but rather we tell authentic stories about how we gather news and tell good stories, expose wrongdoing and help the community grow stronger. We need to keep in touch regularly with people and remind them that we share the same values. We need to reach out online and in person and evangelize, but we have to remember to keep it real but also keep stressing that we’re all in this together. We all belong to this temple because we want meaning in our lives and stand up for things.
I’m sure some journalists might read this and think, what does this have to do with me? It sounds like you want me to get cozy with my sources. If I do that, how can I be objective and unbiased? Those are good points and I think reporters and editors need to be mindful of that. It doesn’t mean, however, that you have to be a jerk. There are times that call for that while digging in the muck. Much of the time, though, I think we in the media could do a better of job if we remembered that our sources, hopefully, want a better community to live in, which is perhaps the real temple we’re all building and we’ve just been afraid to put it in those terms?
Atkin argues that all cults must have a cause and that you have to get members rooting for your idea. Maybe we need to do a better job of selling journalism as a vital part of our communities. We need to get people rooting for us and for our cause but our cause can’t be to sell them more ads and more papers.
Like many in the newspaper industry, I’ve been reading off and on the past week about the recent “secret” meeting of newspaper executives in Chicago. There’s certainly no shortage of commentary about it in the blogosphere, including Cedar Rapids’ Steve Buttry’s take on the situation and Salon cofounder Scott Rosenberg’s insights as well. You can even read the white paper the execs read and discussed at the API meeting.
As Rosenberg points out in his blog, the thrust of this latest executive summit is to advocate for a pay wall as a means to put an end to the financial bloodbath plaguing the industry. That pay wall argument takes a new tack in Alan Mutter’s Newsosaur blog, where he reveals he is involved with a micropayment model called ViewPass, which then also gets thoroughly dissected in the ensuing commentary (including a reminder to read Clay Shirky’s post on why micropayments won’t work).
I’m not sure yet what to make of ViewPass, though it seems like a for-profit version of the donation-driven model put forth by kachingle. I’m not sure either will fly but, as one commenter on Mutter’s blog says, if you care about this industry, you eventually need to do or stand for something to keep it alive.
As tempting as it is to want to believe a pass of some sort could work, I am now in the camp that a pay wall of any sort is not a good idea simply because, as heretical as it might sound to some, I don’t know that newspapers are providing the value we think we are. Do we really think people will pay two nickels for that city council story or the latest installment on the salmon vs seals saga when so many won’t even pay two bits for a whole newspaper on the stands? Maybe, but I’m skeptical.
I think Publish2 intern Daniel Bachhuber is onto something with his “open memo on how to right a sinking ship” where he asserts that newspapers need to provide more value to readers with better journalism and more of it. He also argues for newspapers to retool their newsrooms for the digital age, transform audiences into communities and trade in proprietary software for open source solutions that are more nimble and Web-centric. He’s right on all counts.
That said, I have to admit I wonder if even all that would be enough to save a newspaper. Some papers have retooled their newsrooms, though maybe not far enough. Some papers have embraced and began work to build online communities with blogs, Twitter feeds, live chats and online conversations with the public. And some papers have certainly gone with open source Web content management systems, though few of those probably integrate all that well with the proprietary system used to put out their print products.
I think the key lies in the value of the news and information we provide. We need to offer more interesting stories and related visual content, become more available and transparent as journalists (via those aforementioned online conversations), continue the muckraking we’re known for and keep improving the design and reach of our products. Sadly, we’ve cut back severely in the past year (I believe I heard 14,000 and some journalists lost their jobs last year), so the challenge is now to work harder and smarter with less and that’s a bitter pill for any employee to swallow.
Therein lies the rub, though. What choice do we have? Walling the content off and charging admission isn’t going to create value. We need to build the value with innovative thinking and hard work, as others point out.
I have to admit that when I first heard about Spot.us, I was a tad skeptical and I guess, I still am, though I’m a lot more hopeful after reading a recent blog post by its founder, David Cohn, who gave an insightful report on the progress of his exploration of community funded journalism.
In his report, Cohn says the Bay area community and/or others with an interest have donated enough money to fund 23 journalists’ online pitches to do some investigative reporting. This may not sound like many stories to some but it is, considering the concept is a few months old and that some of the pitches I’ve seen are $500 or more. And this isn’t NPR, where the newscasters can get on their soapbox and drone on about how you can support your good reporting for the price of a frappucino a week. This is Cohn, giving his own pitch to whomever he will listen.
What’s equally impressive to me is the quality of reporting that’s so far been funded, digging into poverty, environmental problems, politics and even, ironically, the sorry state of the newspaper industry.
I’m also especially intrigued with the pitch by Pubic Press on Spot.us for a $5,000 pitch to fund not just one story, but a beat, albeit temporarily. Public Press is seeking funds to hire reporters to cover the shrinking San Francisco budget. It seems to me that such a model might be more successful over the long haul because it’s sustained coverage of a topic vs the one-hit wonder approach. Of course, it’s also more expensive, which could lead to a big lag in time between a pitch being made and then getting funded, something Cohn admits he’d wants to find a way to shorten.
That lag, I’m guessing, could be helped with a fat marketing campaign but would it be enough to give Spot.us the brand presence it needs to succeed long-term? I suppose that’s the $64,000 question: how much money and/or bootstrap effort and viral marketing would it take to give the crowdfunding model a fighting chance? Also, can it survive outside of the progressive-minded Bay area? I think so, but could it survive in, say, my hometown of Spokane, which is “a hotbed of social rest” (a phrase I recently heard on “A Prairie Home Companion”). I’d like to believe the concept could thrive anywhere but I guess that’s where my original skepticism comes in — how many people will regurlarly pitch in money to fund pitches? Only time will tell.
Cohn says two others have downloaded the open-source code they need to create their own version of Spot.us. I’m very curious to see where those end up and how they do, and I can’t wait to hear more on that a few months down the road. I’d love it if we found out that someone in Portland gave it a shot. Maybe this is something worth talking about at this summer’s Digital Journalism Bar Camp in Portland? (If only we could afford to fly Cohn up to talk.) Regardless, my hat’s off to Cohn and the Knight Foundation that gave him a News Challenge grant to explore the merits of community-funded journalism.
That’s how long 65% of American adults believe newspapers will be in business, according to a recent Rasmussen poll. Another 17% are giving us three years or less. Those numbers are skewed too by the older readers such as myself and my parents because if you only look at adults 18-29 a staggering 83% give newspapers 10 years or less. But hey, wait, 18% also say they think newspapers will be around forever.
I’m thinking 5 to 10 years for some but we’ll see smaller papers and very few delivered 7 days a week. What do you think?
Many pundits say that will depend on three things for newspapers: 1) how much debt they have on the books, 2) how many households they reach or how much market penetration they have, and 3) how well you manage your business, ie, how efficient you distribute print products and/or how well you balance your staff resources between print and digital products.
It’s no mystery that many newspapers and media chains are highly leveraged right now (I know, I work for one that’s filed for Chapter 11) and some may not survive that type of financial stress (at the risk of sounding too optimistic, I think The Columbian will but I can’t deny that I get nervous about the falling circulation and loss of half or more of our classified revenue).
Sadly, those newspapers that don’t survive from their big debtloads may just fold and leave gaping holes in news coverage in some communities, though I firmly believe something will fill in those voids whether it’s TV or online media. The bigger question is how good a job those entities will do at providing the quality journalism we typically get from newspapers, though certainly everyone has their opinion of their hometown rag and might beg to quarrel with me on that point.
In fact, Rasmussen reports that people are increasingly cynical about the reporting done by newspapers, especially The New York Times which has a 24% favorable opinion. The statistic that jumps out of me, though, is that 46% of adults under 40 rarely buy a paper these days. I’m not surprised by this because I know a lot of people who don’t get their daily paper and rarely buy one off the stands. “I read it online,” they say, “or I get my news from TV or NPR.”
They also often say that they can’t see ever taking a paper down the road. They don’t see the value in it. And I think therein lies the biggest challenge of all for newspapers: how do we change the increasing perception that newspapers just aren’t worth $100-$200 or more a year for home delivery or even 4 bits at the newsstand?
Perhaps it’s not so much how we run our businesses, though that certainly helps, as it is how we respond to that challenge.
More and more I’m thinking to myself: It’s the content, stupid.
Today I participated in a live chat hosted by Oregonian business writer Mike Rogoway, who wrote an interesting piece recently on the startup culture in Portland, Ore. You can read the details of that chat in Mike’s blog (disclosure: Mike and I once worked together in The Columbian newsroom and enjoy an occasional beer together).
While I thoroughly enjoyed the chat and story and learned much from it, I have to say what impressed me most is that Mike hosted the chat in the first place. See, not every newspaper is good at having conversations with their readers, print or online, and some journalists shun the idea completely. Why?
Some might say it’s because they already have enough on their plates, especially now that many reporters must crank out more copy as staffs have dwindled nationwide. Others might say they don’t want to chat for fear they may something that could be construed as bias and taint the public’s view of them as fair and objective. And then still others will say they don’t have time to learn the technology required to conduct online chats, or that their news organization doesn’t have the online tools to pull it off (not likely, but they may lack the IT resources to help a non-techie writer get one set up).
I’m not sold that any of those is a worthy excuse. Not any more. Mike managed to pull it off with technical glitches and without appearing to take sides, though he did express some opinions. I think readers find that refreshing now. No one is buying — and likely never has bought — that journalists are completely objective, try as they may. So why pretend?
I think it’s time that more journalists jumped into the conversations that are happening in the communities they cover, and I applaud Mike for doing that today. I’m looking forward to the next chat already. It’s also fueling my desire to bootstrap my own startup.
How hyper is your local? Love that. I can’t recall who said it, but some witty soul at PDX BarCamp III shared that in a lively discussion I cohosted with two coworkers (Web editor Jeff Bunch and Web developer Patti Hill, no relation) today at Cubespace. Our session: “You are publisher of a daily newspaper. How do you escape the carnage?”
Unfortunately, we didn’t walk away with any clear answers on how to avert disaster, something our newspaper is facing head on these days. We did, however, seem to agree that so-called hyperlocal journalism and advertising is likely to be the last idea standing after the shakeout that’s begun in the newspaper industry.
Still, big questions remain, including:
1) Can enough online revenue be generated from hyperlocal efforts to stem the outgoing tide of dollars from the print model? Doubtful, but I think there’s hope as I noted today with a conversation Jeff and I had with Michael Wood-Lewis, the founder of the Front Porch Forum (he told us advertisers approached him and were sold that his ad model worked far better than the print model).
2) If there isn’t enough online revenue to be had just yet and newsroom staffs continue to dwindle, can community bloggers provide enough content to supplement what’s created by so-called credentialed reporters?
3) How big of a revenue boost can a newspaper expect from engaging with its customers via social media efforts?
Many people in the audience seemed to agree that small newspapers and large national newspapers were performing the best in print, online or both and could weather the financial storms best. It’s the papers in between that seem to be losing money and there doesn’t appear to be an end in sight just yet. Given that, there seemed to be consensus that, unless a new online revenue model suddenly appears, these papers are destined to dwindle in frequency and size until they become Sunday tabloids filled with the meatier investigative stories while they leave the breaking news to their Web sites.
Pretty sobering commentary for journalists and/or fans of good journalism.
I think one attendee, Jerry (@b3gl) perhaps summed it up best when he summised in a Tweet:”I’m far less interested in “how to save newspapers” than I am in “how to save good, regional journalism”. #bcp3″
NOTE: Thanks to everyone who indulged us with our attempt to have a conversation on this subject. We’re hopeful some answers can be found in the near future with other bar camps or events.