Sunday, November 30, 2008

The ever-dwinding newspaper share of ad dollars

Tim Windsor's post the other day, in which he updated his chart of constant-dollar U.S. newspaper advertising revenue, got me thinking. I commented in his post that perhaps a better way to look at the numbers would be to view them as a fraction of the Gross Domestic Product. But then I realized that total advertising expenditures across all media, as a fraction of GDP, might vary a bit over time, which would skew that approach (although it turns out that total advertising spending is pretty constant at about 2 percent of GDP, ranging mostly between 1.8 percent and 2.3 percent, with few outliers).

So I downloaded 49 years worth of cross-media advertising revenue from the data available at the Television Bureau of Advertising. All of their numbers come from Universal McCann, so they have the advantage (hopefully) of being consistent over time. The newspaper revenue data is identical to that published by the Newspaper Association of America. I loaded it all into a spreadsheet and calculated the "share of total" for each of the media over time. Here's what it looks like:

(Sorry about the fuzziness of that graph; any tips for publishing a sharper image from an Excel file would be much appreciated. The graph labels, reading across, are Newspapers, Magazines & Farm Publications, TV & Cable, Radio, Yellow Pages, Direct Mail, Business Papers, Billboards & Out of Home, Internet, and Miscellaneous.)

For the sake of simplicity I combined Magazines with Farm Publications, as well as TV with Cable. Around 1989 Universal McCann started including "out of home" (ads on buses, etc.), which causes the blip and jump in the Billboards line. And Yellow Pages is included in Miscellaneous prior to 1980, which accounts for the sudden sag in the Miscellaneous line.

[paragraph added 12/01:] In a nutshell: newspapers had unchallenged dominance with about 37% of all advertising (national and local) in 1949. Television grew rapidly during the 1950s, to about 14% in 1960, and continuing to grow thereafter. Starting in the late 1970s, direct mail started a long uptrend from about 20% to more than 25% in 2007. Newspapers were overtaken by TV & Cable in 1992, and by direct mail in 2001. In 2008, they could slide below radio.

My chart stops at year-end 2007, because 2008 projections for all media are hard to come by at the moment. But as discussed already by Tim and by Alan Mutter, the full-year newspaper results for 2008 look rather dismal. Assuming it finishes in the $35 billion ballpark and total ad spending for the year is down just slightly (it was buoyed nicely by the elections and the Olympics), the newspaper share will probably be 13%, or less. So that dark blue newspaper share line will resemble, even more than it already does, the "Phases of a Crisis" graph presented at the recent API Summit for newspaper execs.

Notice that in contrast to Tim's graph, there are no camel's hump peaks in 1988 and 2000, as there are in his constant-dollars view. Newspapers have been on an unrelenting down-trend for a half-century, with very few upticks, and they're now sliding off the cliff. They maintained market share for more than a year or two only from about 1964 to 1974 (at the expense of magazines and direct mail).

For fans of stacked graphs, here's another way to look at the trends:

Once again, I'll ask: Where is the Manhattan Project to reinvent the newspaper business, before it's too late?

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Thanksgiving week Odds and Ends

Since it's Thanksgiving week in the U. S., a slow week for news about newspapers, I've got some odds and ends, most of them from across the pond:

Who's on Twitter?
Following up on my prior musings about Twitter, here's a list of U.K. journalists using the service, courtesy of Stephen Davies of A compilation of U.S. journo-Twitterers might be a useful tool, as well. Or at least a list of links to lists. I've only come across the Twitter directory of the enlightened newsroom of the Cedar Rapids Gazette. (Which covers local Twitter developments, as well.)

Who's next to make the leap? The estimable U.K. columnist and blogger Roy Greenslade suggests in his Guardian column today that The Independent should exit the world of print and go 100 percent digital. The paper losing its owners about £12 million a year, sells only about 200,000 papers a day, but has more than 8 million website unique visitors a month. Their predicament sounds similar to that of the Christian Science Monitor, which last month announced its plans to go all-digital. From the column:
I imagine the O'Reillys both wondering - and not for the first time - if this media commentator has lost his marbles. But I sincerely believe their ailing newsprint paper is in danger of attracting so few readers in the coming year that the balance of those sums is likely to change for the worse. So they need to plan now for an online future and to reap the rewards of being the first major paper in the world to boldly go where no man has gone before.

That Star Trek reference could not be more apt because they are in a position to explore the final newspaper frontier, the one highlighted to an extent by none other than Rupert Murdoch in his speeches in Australia last week. [Subject of a prior post of mine.] Though he was stressing that newspapers do have a future (though I tend to think he means his own newspapers rather than other people's) he also made it clear that news brands are the future.


A new addition to my blogroll: Utrecht (Netherlands) journalism prof Piet Bakker blogs daily at Newspaper Innovation on the subject of free newspapers around the world. The news about free print is mixed: some are shutting down (The Virginian-Pilot's Link, Czechia's 24 Hodin, the Mitteland edition of News in Switzerland), but elsewhere there are new launches (ADN in Columbia). Readership of free papers is up in the U.K, but down in Spain. In the Netherlands, some free papers are crossing the line by selling their editorial space. A free paper might be an option for some U.S. papers looking restructure themselves into online-print hybrids, so keep an eye on Bakker's blog.


North of the border: Insights from Jonathan Kay at the National Post, urging like most of us journo-pundits that radical change is needed, on "islands of profitability" that might survive the current challenges to print journalism. His life raft is aiming for:

(1) Business-oriented media that cater to older, more affluent readers of the type who can justify the expense of long-form news consumption (in both time and money) as a work activity. Successful media in this mould will look more like the Wall Street Journal than the New York Times, more like The Financial Times than the Daily Telegraph....

(2) Premium publications that cater to the ideologically involved and intellectually upscale — i.e. the sort of well-educated, well-heeled reader who prefers to spend his scarce free time in the world of ideas. These people do have a sense of community — but it is a sense of community rooted in their political attitudes, foreign-policy interests, cultural beliefs, charitable causes and consumer interests, not their geography....-

(3) The hyperlocal. People love local news — which is why even really bad local newspapers manage to remain profitable. Simply put, people want to find out where the big potholes are, who got drunk and wrapped their car around a phone pole last night, what happened at yesterday's school-board meeting and — most of all — how the local hockey team is doing.


I agree: Amy Gahran urges reporters to link to sources. This seems obvious if you're writing a blog, but not to newspaper reporters and publishers, which is just another indication that they are still overwhelmingly print-centered.


Make a different wish: If you're looking for a Kindle under your holiday tree, forget it. Dan Frommer reports Amazon is sold out. Order now and you'll have one in late February, maybe. That means it might be a Kindle 2. (Previously on News After Newspapers) Amazon still won't say how many units they've sold (nor will book publishers, but one mentions a "triple digit" jump in e-book sales , but my educated guess is, More Than You Think. Among the best-sellers on Kindle, as ranked among e-books: The New York Times (number 28), The Wall Street Journal (number 36), and the Washington Post (number 158). [ADDENDUM: Just after posting this, I found via Paul Biba's TeleRead the Nieman Journalism Lab post with good evidence (a Times internal memo) that the New York Times now has 10,000 Kindle subscribers. That's about 1 percent of their entire circulation. Good news, along with the Times's rapid acquisition of a slew of Facebook friends, also mentioned in the memo.]


Happy Thanksgiving to all!

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Can reduced publishing frequency bypass the cross-ownership rule?

Here and elsewhere, the suggestion has been floated that struggling daily newspapers should be considering drastic restructuring in the form of a truly web-first publishing plan, paired with a twice-weekly printed paper, or a similar frequency adjustment, depending on the market.

So, if a daily paper does that, could it then make an end-run around the Federal Communications Commission's cross-ownership rule?

It looks to me like it could, and for some of the major dailies across the U. S. where the red ink is flowing, that might be an excellent option to pursue.

Here's a reminder of what the cross-ownership rule has dictated for most of its 33-year existence: Basically, a newspaper and a television station in the same market can't be under the same ownership, with some tricky exceptions and a few dozen grandfathered exceptions, most of them dating from before the rule's origin in 1975, along with a few waivers granted since then.

(Under revisions proposed by the FCC in 2007, in the top 20 television markets (DMAs), a newspaper could be combined with a TV station that's not among the top four stations in the market, so long as at least eight independent "major media voices" remain in the market. Beyond the top 20 markets, the FCC has said consistently that "it is inconsistent with the public interest for an entity to own newspaper/broadcast combinations and emphasized that it therefore is unlikely to approve such transactions." In any case, these changes were voted down by the Senate last spring, and are being challenged in court. The whole issue will now tide over to the Obama administration, which is not likely to do anything that would be perceived as permitting "media concentration," and has also strongly signalled its interest in renewed enforcement of anti-trust legislation as well as the encouragement of "media diversity.")

The rule itself, as it currently on the books and will likely remain, is damned hard to find but makes for interesting reading because of several apparent loopholes. Here's the operative part of the rule (Found at Title 47 of the Code of Federal Regulations, Section 73.3555(c):
Cross-media limits. Cross-ownership of a daily newspaper and commercial broadcast stations, or of commercial broadcast radio and television stations, is permitted without limitation except as follows:
(1) In Nielsen Designated Market Areas (DMAs) to which three or fewer full-power commercial and non-commercial educational television stations are assigned, no newspaper/broadcast or radio/television cross-ownership is permitted.
(2) In DMAs to which at least four but not more than eight full-power commercial and noncommercial educational television stations are assigned, an entity that directly owns, operates or controls a daily newspaper may have a cognizable interest in either:
(i) One, but not more than one, commercial television station in combination with radio stations up to 50% of the applicable local radio limit for the market; or,
(ii)Radio stations up to 100% of the applicable local radio limit if it does not have a cognizable interest in a television station in the market.
(3) The foregoing limits on newspaper/broadcast cross-ownership do not apply to any new daily newspaper inaugurated by a broadcaster.
That last bit says that a TV station could launch a new daily newspaper in its market, but if it did, an established newspaper in that market still could not buy a different TV station in the market, or launch a new one. (Because it would then be in violation of the basic rule.) Whether you generally feel that cross-ownership restrictions are a good thing, or not, that particular one-sided restriction makes no sense at all. Perhaps it was inserted at the behest of some broadcast industry lobbyist. In any case, I don't think any TV station owner has ever tried to launch a new daily paper, nor would they think about it, at least not in today's financial climate.

The loophole that should be of much more interest to newspaper publishers is contained in the definition of a daily newspaper as it pertains to the rule. Together with much other qualifying fine print, that definition is spelled out a bit farther down in the bureaucratese:
Note 6 to Sec. 73.3555: For the purposes of paragraph (c) of this section a daily newspaper is one that is published four or more days per week, is in the dominant language of the market in which it is published, and is circulated generally in the community of publication. A college newspaper is not considered as being circulated generally.
Four days per week! This means that if, let's say, the Boston Globe decided to cut its frequency to three times a week, it would immediately be exempt from the cross-ownership rule and could buy the biggest TV station in town. (Or, the biggest broadcaster in town could buy the Globe.) Boston is one of the top-20 DMAs where the FCC's proposed loosening of the rule might permit the Globe, under daily publication, to combine only with a station ranking fifth or worse in the market, but all restrictions go away entirely if the Globe simply got out from under the FCC's definition of a daily newspaper.

In a market like Pittsburgh, not a top-20 town, even under the proposed loosening, the FCC would not contemplate any combination at all, but if published once, twice or three times weekly, the Post-Gazette could go right ahead and buy whichever of Pittsburgh's nine full-power TV stations it fancied.

Should newspapers consider such a strategy? Well, why not? The industry, in a self-acknowledged crisis, has yet to come up with anything better than continual cost-slashing by shrinking page sizes, reducing news holes, cutting staff through layoffs, buyouts and attrition, consolidating sections, dropping niche supplements, and, in a few cases so far, considering or actually making frequency reductions of a few days per week—all of which, as many have argued, are tactics simply accelerating the industry's death spiral by incrementally (and irreversibly) reducing newspapers' ability to carry out their core mission, retain audience, and sell advertising.

Here at News After Newspapers, I've suggested newspapers should blow up their business model and emerge as web-centric news enterprises publishing maybe twice a week, Wednesdays and Saturdays. I wrote that among other things, this would strengthen the brand because "two fat newspapers each week and a robust web platform will have more impact than five or six skinny papers and a site that’s not foremost in the newsroom’s mind." (Again, different non-daily solutions would work in different markets, so let a hundred flowers bloom.)

Suppose, then, that a reinvented twice-weekly took it a step further and got formally hitched to one of the major TV stations in town, without FCC interference. While TV news web sites are usually nothing to write home about, the combined entity could collaborate internally on a truly comprehensive multi-media web site, while maintaining strong print and broadcast divisions. The number of news "voices" would be actually increase, especially if the site applied social networking and participatory journalism techniques and pulled in a multitude of bloggers and niche-topic experts.

Given that broadcast TV networks and local stations are going through structural upheavals of their own, a hybrid web-print-broadcast enterprise might have the best shot at long-term survival.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The end of the monolithic news organization

I've been wondering, in the context of the great search for new business models for news, whether the following could work as model for the creation, distribution and consumption of news content, as a complete replacement for today's vertically integrated news organizations:
  • A network of completely independent journalists who gather news and post their news content on blogs
  • A variety of aggregators who collect, organize and promote this output—locally, regionally, nationally, and around various niche interests
  • A universe of news consumers access news, directly from the blogs of the independents as well as from the aggregators; and share, digest and repurpose news in social networks.
  • Other enterprises provide related services such as the aggregation and organization of raw data (this might be Google) and the management of a set of localpedias and nichepedias (this could be Wikipedia operating at a more granular level than it does today)
Essentially, this model would expand to a societal level the Intellipedia model I described recently—not within a single organization but as a set of networked individuals and entities. The reporter becomes an entrepreneur, the editor becomes an aggregator and wiki moderator, the news librarian becomes a database vendor, the readership becomes a networked community, the publisher manages the flow of advertising revenue among all of them.

So where's the "monetization" part of this business model? Here are some possible components:
  • Blogs for independent journalists: Anil Dash of Six Apart just created the TypePad Journalist Bailout Program, intending to help out a few friends but ending up with a wave of interest. Participants get, Anil writes: "a TypePad blog, a place in our Six Apart Media advertising program, promotion on, and a healthy dose of our expertise and insights into helping publishers and bloggers succeed online."
  • Resources like David Cohn's brilliant startup, Spot.Us, allowing crowdfunding as one of the ways journalists get paid.
  • Tools such as Attributor to help track use of content by aggregators and flow audience and advertising share back to the originators.
  • A system like the one envisioned by the Information Valet Project to regulate the allocation of advertising and transactional revenue across all components of the network, including, potentially, news consumers themselves.
And, how do we get from here to there? Well, if the components of our existing news network, like newspapers, continue to self-destruct, we may well get there by default, with the survivors self-organizing themselves in this fashion. And newspaper organizations that get serious about reinventing themselves for the digital future might well want to look at models that involve networking of independent entrepreneurial components rather than monolithic enterprises.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Chuck Peters summarizes API Summit liveblog

Chuck Peters, CEO of the Cedar Rapids Gazette, was the fellow liveblogging the API Summit last week (his first attempt at that, no less). He has now rededicated his own blog, C3—Complete Community Connection, to this mission:
Newspaper executives from around the world are trying to implement new business models. However, it is hard to implement a new model with an old mindset. Many are trying to arrange the concepts for a new ecosystem of local information. What I hope to do here is share my thoughts, and connections, as we explore these new frontiers.
He has now distilled the liveblog into "Learnings from the API Summit." You can also click the link at the end of his summary and download (MS Word) the full 41-page transcript of the liveblog.

I have to say also that Chuck's paper has a hell of a good website. He's got my nomination play the part of J. Robert Oppenheimer, should the Manhattan Project to blow up and reinvent the newspaper industry get off the ground.

(See also "Don't Bail Out the Watchdog" by Steve Buttry of the Gazette, who works for Peters. This references the tongue-firmly-in-cheek suggestion by Jon Fine of Business Week of a bailout plan for the newspaper industry. Buttry mentions it in passing, but the Newsosaur, Alan Mutter, seems to have taken it seriously, with a detailed explanation of "Why the feds won't bail out newspapers.")

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The bottom line: how it fares when you nuke your newspaper

To undertake the Manhattan Project for newpapers, there’s no need to sequester anyone in Alamogordo (or to wait six months to meet again). We are already reinventing the industry by way of ongoing dispersed collaboration, and there has been no lack of conferences on the subject (if you're hankering for another one, you might check out Bill Densmore’s Information Valet Project gathering, happening in a couple of weeks in Columbia, Missouri—I'll be there). A Manhattan Project wiki would be nice, too (are you listening, Matt Thompson?)

Anyway, one of the questions that arises from time to time in this process is: If a newspaper were to just drop its print edition today, what percentage of its expenses is eliminated, and how close would it be to breaking even on just online revenue?

Let me try to address that. First of all, no newspaper could or would make that transition all at once, so the question should be rephrased. As noted in one of my Six Theses, print is not actually dead, so let’s not be too quick to kill it. There’s still a lot of revenue in print, even though it seems to be dropping like a stone.

Let’s agree that the Christian Science Monitor's planned departure from daily print is really a one-of-a-kind outlier. Apart from that, there are a few papers tinkering with dropping Monday editions and rearranging sections, but those are cost-cutting moves, not bold attempts to blow things up and start over. So if we owned a newspaper and wanted to consider a nice nuclear blast to position themselves for the future, today or soon, what would the aftermath look like?

Here's my suggestion: drop Monday and Tuesday, consolidate Wednesday and Thursday (for delivery Wednesday), drop Friday, and consolidate Saturday and Sunday (for delivery Saturday). So, a twice-weekly Wednesday and Saturday paper.

(This presupposes, of course, a completely kickass 24/7 online news operation, and a staff that totally gets that online comes first. The web operation should have plenty of blogs, plenty of databased local information, a wiki, social networking features, Twitter feeds, you name it. And it should be ready to evolve and adapt as even more tools and features come along.)

(And, the right solution for the print side will be different for every market. Tim Windsor proposed a different one last week, but we agree about the online presence.)

What’s lost, what’s gained, and how’s the bottom line in our web plus twice-weekly model ? Here you go:

  1. Print readership five days a week. But readership of those big Wednesday and Saturday packages would probably spill into Thursday, Friday, Sunday and other days, and might exceed the current daily average.
  2. Some portion of the print revenue. But we're eliminating the weakest days for advertising sales. With some shifting and smart selling, the paper could keep as much as 80 percent of print revenue. There’s plenty of advertising that still wants to be in print, and it will take the days you've got.
  3. Printing and distribution expenses five days a week. To become a truly digital enterprise, we could cut a lot of brick, mortar and steel overhead by outsourcing all production and most distribution, saving about half the production expense. And we'd lose maybe a quarter of the newsprint cost because of the frequency change. (Or if we keep our press, we've freed up a lot of time for commercial printing.)
  4. Some circulation revenue, since people won’t pay as much for a two-day paper as they do for seven days. But each edition would have a sales shelf life of several days. I’m guessing only one-third of circ revenue would disappear.
  1. A lot of traffic from younger demographics, if the online content is right. Many folks who are print-only readers would be nudged online because of the change, as well.
  2. More online revenue, which would follow the eyeballs, although perhaps not immediately. But it would not be unreasonable to target a doubling, or more, of online revenue over the next five years.
  3. More print readers, including younger ones, if the Wednesday and Sunday packages are carried out with a lot of pizzazz. Check Alan Jacobson’s blog for ideas.
  4. A stronger brand, because in reality, two fat newspapers each week and a robust web platform will have more impact than five or six skinny papers and a site that’s not foremost in the newsroom’s mind.
  5. Strategic positioning to take advantage of any new online or digital opportunity.
And the bottom line? I’ll spare you the spreadsheets, but I constructed a model of a hypothetical medium sized newspaper using industry averages for various revenue and expense categories. Before nuking itself, it has a bottom line operating profit of 17 percent. Projecting out five years, it’s in the red, with no prospect of revival, because print advertising and readership continue to shrivel, it has downsized below critical mass, and has no financial resources left to maneuver with.

After reinventing itself as described, an optimistic five-year projection shows operating profit about 20 percent below pre-blast levels, actually at a slightly higher margin on sales. Pessimistically, the drop is 50 percent, but either way, that’s better than complete oblivion under the status-quo projection.

This means that post-Manhattan Project, the Business Formerly Known as Newspapers will be smaller, in terms of revenue, both in the aggregate and in any particular market. But for the companies that figure out how to make the leap into the digital/print hybrid future, there will be plenty of opportunities to grow by moving into the markets of newspapers that failed to adapt.
Update: Marsha Ducey, a journalism prof at Canisius College, asked her students today to contribute ideas for a Manhattan Project to reinvent the newspaper business. Here's what they came up with. I like “A web site for the ‘Manhattan Project’ where innovative and ‘young’ journalists can collaborate and voice their opinions.”

Monday, November 17, 2008

A Fireside Chat with Uncle Rupert

This has been making the rounds, but I just got around to it: Rupert Murdoch's Australian radio lecture on the future of newspapers. He has a vested interested, of course, in rooting for the status quo. But interestingly, he hedges his bets strongly with a vision of a digital future, just as Arthur Sulzberger did a few weeks ago, and just as his own son James, the heir apparent, did at Monaco last week.

Here's Rupert initially appearing to prop up the printed product:

Unlike the doom and gloomers, I believe that newspapers will reach new heights. In the 21st century, people are hungrier for information than ever before. And they have more sources of information than ever before.

Amid these many diverse and competing voices, readers want what they've always wanted: a source they can trust. That has always been the role of great newspapers in the past. And that role will make newspapers great in the future.

But then, he immediately (and correctly and astutely) qualifies what he means by "newspapers":

If you discuss the future with newspapermen, you will find that too many think that our business is only physical newspapers. I like the look and feel of newsprint as much as anyone. But our real business isn't printing on dead trees. It's giving our readers great journalism and great judgment.

It's true that in the coming decades, the printed versions of some newspapers will lose circulation. But if papers provide readers with news they can trust, we'll see gains in circulation—on our web pages, through our RSS feeds, in emails delivering customised news and advertising, to mobile phones.

In short, we are moving from news papers to news brands. For all of my working life, I have believed that there is a social and commercial value in delivering accurate news and information in a cheap and timely way. In this coming century, the form of delivery may change, but the potential audience for our content will multiply many times over.

After digressing into yarns about busting British unions with a new printing plant in Wapping, and a dissertation on how "a blogger in pajamas" upstaged Dan Rather, Murdoch offers keen insights into the digital future of news that should have been circulated at API's recent first semiannual conference to save the U.S. newspaper industry. Among these:

The defining digital trend in content is the increasing sophistication of search. You can already customise your news flow, whether by country, company or subject. A decade from now, the offerings will be even more sophisticated. You will be able to satisfy your unique interests and search for unique content.

After all, a female university student in Malaysia is not going to have the same interests as a 60-year-old Manhattan executive. Closer to home, your teenage son is not going to have the same interests as your mother. The challenge is to use a newspaper's brand while allowing readers to personalise the news for themselves—and then deliver it in the ways that they want....

In all we do, we're going to deliver it in ways that best fit our readers' preferences: on web pages they can access from home or work on still evolving inventions like Amazon's kindle as well as on cell phones or blackberries....

I do not claim to have all the answers. Given the realities of modern technology, this very radio address can be sliced and digitally diced. It can be accessed in a day or a month or a decade. And I can rightly be held to account in perpetuity for the points on which I am proven wrong—as well as mocked for my inability to see just how much more different the world had become.

But I don't think I will be proven wrong on one point. The newspaper, or a very close electronic cousin, will always be around. It may not be thrown on your front doorstep the way it is today. But the thud it makes as it lands will continue to echo around society and the world.

Regardless of how you may feel about the concentration of media power in his hands, this is a guy who gets it, and is ready to move boldly when the right moment comes.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Mingling in Monaco

While U.S. newspaper CEOs pondered their future in Reston last week, luminaries from actually profitable media (and some who apparently still have a nice pile of venture capital to burn) gathered at the Monaco Media Forum, an annual event moderated by Spencer Reiss of Wired, and chaired by His Serene Highness Prince Albert II. (Wouldn't it be great if America's new Serene Highness, Mr. Obama, could just deal with things like the state of the media business?)

There's a raft of videos of the Forum's sessions on YouTube; here are some you may want to sample:

In a discussion covering many aspects of his wide-ranging empire, James (the heir apparent) Murdoch, News Corp.'s CEO for Europe and Asia, in speaking with Rich Greenfield of Pali Capital, had a few comments about newspapers , including his conviction that rather than being in "terminal decline," "the newspaper business is one of the great opportunities for innovation in modern media."

Jeffrey Cole of the Annenberg Center the Digital Future gave the keynote address, in which he singled out television as one medium that will grow, as it "escapes from the home" on mobile devices—as distinguished from the likes of the theatrical movie business, recorded music, and newspapers, which hit their peaks long ago but will survive in (smaller) altered forms. He views advertising as the only realistic way online content can get paid for, but explains how the rules for advertisers operating in a digital, socially-networked environment are radically different from what they've been in the past.

A panel of new innovators included (at 36:00) Jason Goldberg of SocialMedian, which is a news-sharing site where one's network of friends, or "newsmakers," collaboratively parallel (or replace) the story-selection functions of the newspaper editor.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Busted flat in Reston

The American Press Institute has published a staff summary of Thursday's CEO conference, "CEO Summit on Saving an Industry in Crisis." The last two paragraphs, under the subhead "Next steps," kind of sums up the industry's whole problem:
Participants agreed to reconvene in six months, and to explore additional collaboration. Some spoke of joint investment in research and development of both technologies and products, others of more formal means of sharing information.

"Why can't we be the disruptors?" asked one. "We have nothing to lose."
Six months? What are they thinking? They've laid off more than 10,000 people in the last six months—what will be left six months from now? They need to launch a Manhattan project to blow up their industry and start over. Now, not six months from now.

"We have nothing to lose" is about right, but they may have nothing left to invest in change, either.

Who Will NOT Pay for The News

Now that the press barons have returned home after circling the deck chairs in Reston, excuse me, "developing a shared vision for going forward," we'll be anxiously awaiting the results. Meanwhile, I recommend a look at the available video output from another comfortable confab, the Monaco Media Forum, held last week. There's half a weekend's worth of viewing there, so I haven't yet digested it, but expect to comment on it Monday.

Alan Mutter has a roundup today of third-quarter financial results from the publicly-traded newspaper firms. Most of those that have not plunged in the red on an operating-profit basis are seeing 40 to 90 percent declines. Elsewhere, an analysis of the New York Times Company's QIII results looks pretty scary, if you know what a quick ratio is. (Their currently liabilities are more than double their current assets, which is something that would put any normal company into bank covenant default and make it very difficult to refinance debt.)

So, the question of the moment is certainly: Who Will Pay For The News. Those with a vested interest in the topic may want to maker their calendars for O'Reilly Tools of Change for Publishing Conference, February 9-11, 2009 in New York. Although it's a book industry gathering, it looks like newsies might learn something as well. Jeff Jarvis will be there, as a keynote speaker, no less. (What would a conference be without him?)

Meanwhile, a substantial piece of thinking to chew on (yes, I know it's ancient, but I'm just catching up with it): "Free! Why $0.00 Is the Future of Business,"a piece in Wired by Chris Anderson (see also his related Long Tail blog post). If you haven't previously encountered it, it's long but worth adding to your weekend reading, and it has new relevance during the current crises in newspapers and elsewhere. Samples:
The rise of "freeconomics" is being driven by the underlying technologies that power the Web. Just as Moore's law dictates that a unit of processing power halves in price every 18 months, the price of bandwidth and storage is dropping even faster. Which is to say, the trend lines that determine the cost of doing business online all point the same way: to zero....

This difference between cheap and free is what venture capitalist Josh Kopelman calls the "penny gap." People think demand is elastic and that volume falls in a straight line as price rises, but the truth is that zero is one market and any other price is another. In many cases, that's the difference between a great market and none at all....

The huge psychological gap between "almost zero" and "zero" is why micropayments failed. It's why Google doesn't show up on your credit card. It's why modern Web companies don't charge their users anything. And it's why Yahoo gives away disk drive space. The question of infinite storage was not if but when. The winners made their stuff free first.

Traditionalists wring their hands about the "vaporization of value" and "demonetization" of entire industries. The success of craigslist's free listings, for instance, has hurt the newspaper classified ad business. But that lost newspaper revenue is certainly not ending up in the craigslist coffers. In 2006, the site earned an estimated $40 million from the few things it charges for. That's about 12 percent of the $326 million by which classified ad revenue declined that year....

Thanks to Google, we now have a handy way to convert from reputation (PageRank) to attention (traffic) to money (ads). Anything you can consistently convert to cash is a form of currency itself, and Google plays the role of central banker for these new economies.

There is, presumably, a limited supply of reputation and attention in the world at any point in time. These are the new scarcities — and the world of free exists mostly to acquire these valuable assets for the sake of a business model to be identified later. Free shifts the economy from a focus on only that which can be quantified in dollars and cents to a more realistic accounting of all the things we truly value today.
Barons of the press, repeat that: Reputation and attention are the new scarcities. Again: reputation and attention are the new scarcities. (Keep repeating. Monetization will follow.)

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Rearranging the deck chairs at API

The 50-odd newspaper moguls (or their stand-ins) who are packing their bags for tomorrow's "API Summit on Saving an Industry in Crisis" are, of course, checking their RSS feeds to see what the blogosphere buzz is about the event, and about the industry's tribulations.

Or perhaps not. So, in case they missed anything, here are various takes on the closed-door Reston confab:
  • Jeff Jarvis's screed at Buzzmachine: "The last thing newspapers need." ("Closed-door is exactly wrong. What they should be doing is asking for help, ideas, perspectives, models, worldviews, and suggestions from outside their industry.")
  • Steve Outing: "Why newspapers are likely to die as we know them." ("Is there still time for newspaper industry leaders to make necessary course corrections? Is the industry just waiting for the “catastrophic event” that will force an abrupt transformation to stave off extinction?")
  • Robert MacMillan at Reuters Blogs: "When the going gets tough, newspapers clam up." ("Many sources whom we deal with in the media world — particularly reporters, editors and other members of the editorial staff — find it funny that the industry they’re in (finding and reporting information, truthsquadding the government, holding the powerful accountable, etc. etc.) relies on publishers and other executives who are among the most press-averse people in the business world.")
  • Tim Windsor at Zero Percent Idle: "Saving newspapers from the scrap heap: a plan." (Tim suggests something I've been talking about here: a hybrid "print-online model"—I'd make that "online-print," just to put the emphasis where it belongs—and he provides some detail.)
And, of course, before gathering, they will have thoroughly digested the available output of several recent conferences on the future of journalism and new business models for news. These include:
As well, they could find out (hopefully, we will, too) what was figured out at another closed-door conference held Monday and Tuesday of this week at Poynter, called "Who will pay for the news." (There are some thoughts on this subject on the blog of Poyter's Ellyn Angelotti, but nothing on Poynter's site about the conference, which was sponsored by the Ford Foundation.)

Were we to be flies on the wall tomorrow at API, I bet we'd hear at least one exec making the case that print is not yet dead by pointing at the one-day spike in newspaper sales on November 5, as Obamamaniacs snapped up the historic editions as keepsakes. Newsosaur Alan Mutter writes about this phenomenon: "The mad rush among consumers to buy the historic editions proclaiming the Obama presidency is at once a validation of the power of newspapers and a reminder of what ails them." He goes on to suggest: "Newspapers need to get off their haunches, boldly pick their shots, and then rip the lids off their respective towns, turning themselves once again into confident and thundering voices delivering coverage that compels attention and delivers results."

Now, with all due respect to Alan, who I believe is even more of a geezer than I am, newspapers can do that, but it will not create a boom in sales, because it will not change the demographic fact that the average newspaper reader is closing in on 60 years of age, which as I've laid out in some detail, is not a model for a sustainable business. People were buying those November 5 papers as souvenirs, not to read any "thundering" prose. They already knew who won the election. News enterprises need to do their thundering online, first and foremost, if they want to survive.

The moguls need to realize this. They need to digest the lessons of disruptive technology outlined in their own NewspaperNext project. If they watch Michael Rosenblum's video, linked above, they will hear him tell of the whaling captains of New Bedford, America's most prosperous town in 1795. When petroleum was discovered in Titusville, Penn. in 1859, these gents failed to understand the disruptive nature of the new technology, nor the great opportunity it presented. For the less historically inclined, within our own lifetimes there are plenty of examples, from the passenger railroad to the typewriter, of once-thriving businesses that failed to re-invent themselves (and very few that succeeded).

They also need to realize the clock has run out and we're in triple overtime. Newspapers are shutting their doors. Yet, the summit's agenda includes this item: "Strategies for reversing the decline." Forget the declines. We'll be seeing more shutdowns; it's a necessary and irreversible process. We've talked about strategies for reversing the decline for 30 years, and they have brought us where we are. What needs to be applied, instead, are the strategies, already developed, already clear, for creating new news enterprises.

Thankfully though, the execs won't have to pay much to show up, since API has a grant from the McCormick Foundation covering "virtually all expenses to attend the summit conference," including hotel, meals and "up to $500 reimbursement for travel costs." (Too bad private jets cost about that much every 15 minutes while flying.) Hopefully there will be a few bucks left over to publish a report summarizing the conference, or better yet, video.

Monday, November 10, 2008

The CIA spies the future of journalism

Who would have thought that the Central Intelligence Agency has something to teach the news business?

A bit of serendipitous surfing landed me at Library Clips, the Australian knowledge-management blog of John Tropea, and in particular at his recent post "How do wikis and blogs fit together"—a topic which is not much different from the question of how wikis can be integrated into a news operation, a subject I've touched upon before, and which Matt Thompson is exploring at Mizzou.

John quotes a 2005 paper by D. Calvin Andrus of the CIA, "The Wiki and the Blog: Toward a Complex Adaptive Intelligence Community" (free downloadable PDF via link). The paper proposed replacing the agency's cumbersome, hierarchical, inflexible and ineffective processing of raw data into accepted conclusions of fact with a self-organizing "complex adaptive system" consisting of:
  • A repository of raw data ("like unrefined ore") gathered from the agency's network of sources.
  • Blogs in which individuals can express and share opinions within the agency (which would be a big "paradigm shift," according to Andrus.
  • A wikipedia in which material archived in the repository and discussed and interpreted in the blogs is organized into an authoritative agency knowledge base of agreed-upon facts, tools, techniques and policies.
  • Search tools: "Part of the agility required in today's high speed security environment is to be able to quickly find information."
  • Feedback tools, with which agency users can discover quick answers to questions such as what parts of the wiki are changing rapidly (an indication of new information being developed), where there are knowledge gaps, what areas of the system are getting the most attention, and so on. "As important as information sharing is to the success of the solution, it is even more important to know who is sharing what information."
It turns out the agency took Andrus's advice and has implemented much of this system in the form of its Intellipedia. (See also the Wikipedia entry on this.)

Does this suggest a way for news enterprises to organize and publish their information? Indeed. Here's the model (assuming a local or regional news organization):
  • A repository of raw data stored electronically—census data, election results, municipal reports, agendas, minutes, financial data, press releases, court records, real estate sales information, traffic studies, environmental impact statements, and data from reporters, stringers, and other contributors: notes, audio, video, stills. In other words, all the detritus that usually stagnates in, under and atop desks and file cabinets in newsrooms.
  • "News" (the equivalent of the CIA's internal blogs): published "stories" as well as blog posts, columns, editorials, letters to the editor, reader comments, etc., which are generated based on information in the repository, or on stories and blog posts by others.
  • A local wikipedia constantly being built and refined from the blog-equivalents, in which local issues as well as people-in-the-news, businesses, government entities, non-profits, geographic features, buildings, streets, etc. all have pages that are collectively built and curated using the knowledge gathered into the repository and refined in the blog-equivalents.
  • Search: a self-explanatory feature facilitating access to all of this material
  • Feedback tools: these will help editors and journalists see how material is accessed, shared and disseminated by its users.
But importantly, I would add one more key feature that's perhaps not as important in a closed system such as the CIA, but will be critical for news enterprises interested in garnering a loyal readership without gray hair:
  • Social networking: As famously uttered by a college student in a focus group and repeated throughout the journalism blogosphere, "if the news is that important, it will find me." From the linked N. Y. Times story: "In the days after Mr. Obama’s speech on race last week, for example, links to the transcript and the video were the most popular items posted on Facebook. On The New York Times’s Web site, the transcript of the speech ranked consistently higher on the most e-mailed list than the articles written about the speech." As Steve Outing has suggested in a column worth a detailed read, this suggests not only that we must redefine the news organization and the news itself, but that news organizations must connect with readers and sources through networks like Facebook and Twitter, incorporating unaffiliated news feeds like Google News and Topix, pushing content out via Flickr, YouTube and Twitter, and facilitating user-generated news feeds that may incorporate everything from wire-service feeds to micro-personal news from the reader's social network connections.
Social networking also suggests avenues for those (like me) who are still interested in how all this gets paid for. Publishing stuff online in order to generate "eyeballs" and then selling ads to folks interested in reaching those eyeballs is pretty much yesterday's model. (Actually, it's a previous-centuries model that may have lost its final bit of momentum on 9/11—an event "important enough to find" just about everyone long before showing up anywhere in print, and one that created new imperatives for people to reach out and connect with each other.) A community-centered news enterprise that exploits the power of social networking will tend to generate "friends" rather than "eyeballs," and friends—customers with loyalty—are what advertisers are looking for.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Nudging readers over the digital hump

On the heels of the Christian Science Monitor's announcement that it will eliminate its daily print edition come interesting announcements from two magazine publishers.

U.S. News & World Report will make its second change of frequency in less than a year: having switched from weekly to biweekly just five months ago, it will now become a monthly early next year. For the "news" part, readers will have to visit their web site (organized around "five key vertical content channels"). This is seen, correctly, as a move of desperation on the part of a magazine that once ran a strong third in the newsweeklies field. If it works, its success will stem from having moved a lot of readers from print to online.

The New Yorker, meanwhile, has a loyal, secure, probably somewhat stodgy circulation base of about 1,000,000, and although advertising is down, it can probably hang on for a good long while in print. But, rather than waiting for dire straits, the New Yorker is quietly allowing print subscribers to sign up for access to a full-facsimile digital edition, including all the ads, at no extra cost. (So quietly, there's no promotion, just a well-hidden FAQ, about this on their own site, along with a promo ad in the magazine.) And get this: this digital-edition privilege comes with unfettered access to the entire New Yorker archive going back to 1925, again in full facsimile view. I'm on board, no hesitation. This is a smart, pro-active, though no doubt experimental move in the right direction. Rather than waiting for readers to flip to the digital side, the New Yorker is giving them a nudge to see what will happen.

As Lauren Rich Fine writes this week:
If the goal is to preserve quality journalism, diversity of views, investigative reporting and the like, something radical has to happen. Eliminating distribution, production and paper costs virtually reduces the costs to what is essential, the voice. However, while traffic is up at most news sites and newspapers can claim their fair share, something is still getting lost in the translation. The amount of time spent on these sites is well below the time believed to have been spent in the print counterpart. If major brands push consumers online more heavily—i.e. it’s this or nothing—there might really be a business there. Increased time spent on a site should result in more ad impressions. If enough publications really push, maybe others will be brave enough to follow. Maybe more advertisers will take notice and join them. This could be good. It could add years to papers’ respective lives.
And, it could be that with a nudge here and a nudge there ("this or nothing" might be a tad strong for now), news organizations will find that readers are actually ready to make the move. Especially if the news organizations start thinking and acting like web-first publishers, as U.S. News and the Monitor are doing.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Luther had 96 theses; me, just six...

Correction 11/19/2008: I just figured out Luther nailed only 95 theses to the church door. (No copy editor called me on that, though.) I'm leaving the title alone, or Blogger will bork the links.

I've been digesting bits and pieces I can find from the recent New Business Models for News conference at CUNY. (More linked at this Twitter feed.) It seems as if a new-news-business-models junkie could be permanently on the road attending this kind of affair. Tomorrow night, there's a confab at the Christian Science Monitor called "The Future of Journalism"—you can tune into the webcast; it should be interesting given their recent decision to drop the daily print edition. And next week, the Poynter Institute hosts yet another pow-wow on "Who Will Pay for the News." (Bill Densmore, who is a panelist, sent me the agenda; I can't offhand find a link to the event at the Poynter site.) So once I get through surfing all of this from my armchair, I'll have plenty of blog fodder.

Meanwhile, for those who want to quit talking to each other at conferences and just get going with a "new business model for news," here are five simple premises, or factors creating a business opportunity, that I think form the foundation for any such venture (in this case, one that's focused on local news).

Premise #1: The average age of daily newspaper readers is approaching 60 years of age; daily newspaper readership drops to near zero as one travels down the age demographics to the 20-somethings; and readership continues to decline, year after year, across all demographic groups. Before long, at this rate, the average daily newspaper reader will be a retired person, and only a minority of retired people will read a daily paper. This is not a model for a sustainable business, no matter how many readers the paper can point to as coincidentally consuming some of their news online. In other words, daily printed newspapers are dinosaurs and will very soon no longer be viable to advertisers as a mass-marketing vehicle. Those advertisers will need and want new ways to broadly reach consumers in local markets, and the right new local news ventures can do that.

Premise #2: Virtually all daily newspaper publishers continue to be print-centric. They organize their daily operations around their nightly deadlines; their reporters and salespeople carry business cards with the name of the printed newspaper, not the website's name, as the prominent logo; they pay lip service to being "online businesses" but their web sites are largely archival reflections of the print product rather than online destinations that fulfill the need for excellent local online journalism. The recent rounds of layoffs and buyouts at nearly every newspaper only compound this problem and prevent newspapers from effecting the needed transformation. This creates an opening for new local news ventures.

Premise #3: In any local news market, there is a strong appetite for local news and information that is largely unfulfilled. The huge, unflagging interest in our excrutiatingly long election process and the November 4 turnout demonstrate this at the national level; but at the local level there's an equal, though underserved, need to know what's going on. Newspapers have been cutting resources and newsholes for years, with the result that there's a shortage of good local investigative and explanatory journalism, as well as gaps at the "chicken supper" end of the spectrum. Meetings, crimes and disasters, the simplest things to cover, get most of the reporting and editing resources. The opportunity for new local news ventures is to fill those gaps.

Premise #4: Innovation can create whole new ways to present and create news content, and by being nimble, new local news ventures can do this faster, cheaper and better than their local daily newspaper competitors (as long as those are still around to compete). For example, they can and should create local wikis— see several previous posts for elaboration. They can do more with Twitter as a news tool. They can do more with blogs and with open-source journalism. They can create databases filled with useful local information, and tools with which readers can analyze them. If they do this kind of thing right, they can become indispensable to local web users in a way that even Google can not replicate, because Google does not and can not know all the ins and outs of living in any particular local community. (And I should add, all of this goes for non-geographic communities, too.)

Premise #5: Broadband penetration is curving toward 100 percent; computers still keep getting cheaper in real dollars; mobile access by cellphone, PDA and e-paper device keeps expanding. In other words, the infrastructure exists and is growing. And yet, the number of new, web-centric local news ventures is still pretty small. Perhaps this is because financing has been on the sidelines waiting for the right model to emerge, but in reality, there must and will be many models in many communities. Because the newspaper tailspin is now clear and irreversible, the opportunity to launch new local news ventures is now. Investors should get on board, or entrepreneurs should just find ways to bootstrap their ideas.

Premise #6: Print is not dead. Yes, I'm writing off daily newspapers, but weeklies and niche products are viable. As demonstrated by Richard Anderson of Village Soup and others, there's a business model that combines a robust web site with one or more weekly newspapers in a local market, as long as the business is built around the web site, not around the newspaper. A new local news venture should take a good long at Village Soup and similar operations.