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.

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