Posts about newsinnovation

Times deselected

TimesSelect is dead. It was a cynical act doomed from the start. With it goes any hope of charging for content online. Content is now and forever free.

No one with sufficient experience ever thought that TimesSelect made good business sense. Oh, they talked a good game: It was another revenue stream to balance dependence on advertising, said the spin, . . . It was a tribute to the great value of the Times brand and its unique content ,. . . It was an opportunity to create added value worth added revenue. . . . It was a way to give print subscribers new benefits. Yada-yada-ka-ching.

Bull. TimesSelect represented the last gasp of the circulation mentality of news media, the belief that surely consumers would continue to pay for content even as the internet commodified news and — more important — even as the internet revealed that the real value in media is not owning and controlling content or distribution but enabling conversation.

I remember Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian, giving a speech in which he ridiculed the revenue TimesSelect brought in. In his beloved PowerPoint, Rusbridger showed a picture of the new Times headquarters and said that the revenue from TimesSelect wouldn’t even pay the gas bill for the place.

The financial analyses of TimesSelect were always too simplistic — as if revenue were profit. The Times obituary for its service said that the service collected $49.95 per year or $7.95 per month from 227,000 paying customers at the end — 787,000 total customers, including print subscribers and, recently, academic readers given a free ride. The Times said it brought in $10 million revenue after two years, which sounds damned respectable. But no one ever mentioned the marketing cost to get that revenue. A magazine that costs $50 a year will spend almost that much acquiring subscribers. No one mentioned the extra editorial costs of creating more content to try to make the damned thing special enough to pay for. I never heard any calculation of the customer-service cost of maintaining that many customers, most of whom brought in no revenue. And then there was the question of how much revenue was lost in the Times archives, included in the deal. So though TimesSelect may have brought in revenue at a rate of $10 million at the end, it didn’t earn that much profit. I wonder whether it was profitable at all.

And TimesSelect cost the paper much more in the internet age: It took the Times columnists out of the conversation and reduced their influence in America and worldwide. Worse, it diluted the paper’s Googlejuice. Even as the Times acquired About.com, a grand demonstration of the economic power of search-engine optimization (where, full disclosure, I consulted for a year and a half), the company shut off some of its content from Google’s search and bloggers’ links. That was its greatest harm.

TimesSelect’s brilliant cynicism was that, when forced to find something to put behind a pay wall, they came up with content that was, indeed, uniquely valuable — the columnists and archives. But this was also content for which there was no significant ad revenue at the time (advertisers buy ads in food and travel but not opinion sections; there is essentially no endemic advertising for blather). Thus they made the good college try to prove whether or not a pay news service could work without harming the ad revenue of the business. Even so, TimesSelect hurt the larger brand and its position in the marketplace, in the conversation, and in Google. It was a short-sighted strategy.

I should add that this is apparently why the company just decided to make some of its archives free — great news for readers and for the paper, for it will bring in more traffic, more Googlejuice, and more revenue (and, besides, it’d be hard to charge for archives once they were perceived as free for most TimesSelect users). Oddly, the Times story says that archives from 1987 to present and from 1851 to 1922 will be free but there will be charges for reading articles from 1923 to 1986 (I smell a committee decision).

The bottom line is that the staff of the Times online did the best it could with TimesSelect, creating the richest service they could and probably garnering the largest paying clientèle possible — but still, it was a bad idea from the start. It turned out to be one expensive experiment, one bad investment.

But now everyone else in the content business can learn from the Times’ mistake. Rupert Murdoch has publicly toyed with the idea of taking down the pay wall around the Wall Street Journal online; I’d bet the odds of that just increased. If the Times and the Journal stop charging — and the Economist just took down its wall — then I’d have to imagine that the Financial Times will have to follow suit.

So much for the idea of charging for content — news content especially — online. Too much of it is commodified. There’s no end of free competition. The value is fleeting in time. The cost of charging is too high.

Whether or not content wants to be free, it is free.

Don’t let anyone tell you that this is bad for the content business. It’s only good sense. Having worked in the magazine business, I saw this even at the dawn of the internet: As I said above, a magazine has to pay up to $30-40 in marketing costs to acquire subscribers; it can pay up to $5-7 to print and distribute a copy of a glossy magazine; it has high editorial costs. Add that up, and a magazine can find itself in the hole $60 or more per subscriber in the first year of a subscription. And they get as little as $1 per issue in subscription revenue. Yet clearly, a magazine can make money because that subscriber’s value to advertisers is much greater.

It’s the relationship that is valuable. It’s the relationship that is profitable, not the control of the content or the distribution. That is the essential media moral of the internet story. It has taken 13 years of internet history for media companies to learn that, to give up the idea that they control something scarce they can charge consumers for, but they’ve finally learned it. That is the lesson of the death of TimesSelect.

: Here’s the Times’ announcement. Note that they sold American Express as a sponsor of the now-public opinion section. They are good at sales.

Here’s Staci Kramer’s report in PaidContent (hmmm, a name that has never been great but is now less-great than ever). She interviewed NYTimes.com GM Vivian Schiller:

The change is because of what’s happened in the internet in the past two years–particularly the power of search.” She added later: “Think about this recipe–millions and millions of new documents, all seo’d, double-digit advertising growth.” The Times expects “the scale and the power of the revenue that would come from that over time” to replace the subscriptions revenue and then some.

The Networked Journalism Summit

Here, at last, is a full description of the Networked Journalism Summit we’ve been organizing at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. I’m really excited about the event: a great list of people participating, many best practices and lessons to share, lots of possibility for new efforts to come out of the meeting:

* * *

The Networked Journalism Summit — bringing together the best practices and practitioners in collaborative, pro-am journalism — will be held on Oct. 10 at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism, thanks to a grant from the MacArthur Foundation.

This is a day about action: next steps, new projects, new partnerships, new experiments. The first two-thirds of the day will be devoted to sharing lessons, ideas, and plans with a representative sample of different kinds of efforts, hyperlocal to national to international, with participants from big and small media, from editorial and business, from the U.S., Canada, the U.K, Germany, and France. The last third of the day will be devoted to what’s next, with participants meeting to come up with new collaborations.

What makes this meeting different? We hope this does:
* It’s about action and next steps, not talk.
* The panel discussions will be discussions, not presentations. Every session will start with very brief introductions and then go immediately to discussion from the entire room.
* This is made possible by write-ups of the work being done by everyone in the room that will be distributed before the meeting. David Cohn is reporting some of these (and they are beginning to appear on this blog); the participants will submit more. This give everyone a headstart and lets them get right to their questions. You can read these starting now at the summit blog.
* We will followup on the actions pledged by the participants with reports on progress that will be shared on this blog.
* No MSM-bashing or blog-bashing allowed. We’ll gong it off. This is about working together. The snarking is over.
We hope people leave with a lot of new information and inspiration, with new partners, and with new steps to take to spread journalism in their communities.

The premise of all this is that even as journalistic organizations may shrink, along with their revenue bases, journalism itself can and must expand and it will do that through collaborative work. The internet makes that collaboration possible and we’ve barely begun to explore the opportunities it affords. A year or two ago, the point of such a meeting might have been evangelizing this idea. But in that time, a number of great projects in collaborative, networked journalism have taken off. So now is the time to share the lessons — success and failures — from these efforts and to determine what’s needed to move on to the next goals. By bringing together about 150 practitioners from all sides, we hope that the meeting itself can spark new partnerships and projects.

Among the sessions planned:
* Sharing experience from hyperlocal projects.
* Early efforts to make money at this: ad networks, print publications (ironically), independent businesses.
* International efforts from the UK and Germany.
* Reports from visible projects, including Gannett’s reorganization of its newsrooms around citizen participation, Jay Rosen’s experience with NewAssignment.net, and Now Public.
* Video and broadcast projects.
* Projects built around data as news.
* New tools.
* Political efforts.

In the afternoon, the participants will split into groups — local east or west, national, business, multimedia, revenue, tools, and other groups that form at the meeting — to pledge next steps. After reporting back to the meeting as a whole on these promised efforts, all will be rewarded with wine.

We have a great cross-section of different kinds of efforts, different models, and different locales. There is room for a few more. If you are interested in attending, please email David Cohn, who has been doing a great job organizing the conference and the information around it: dcohn1@gmail.com.

The meeting will begin at the auditorium in the new New York Times headquarters on 40th Street and 8th Avenue in New York. It will then move next door to the new CUNY Graduate School of Journalism at 219 W. 40th Street, New York.

This meeting is made possible entirely through a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The summit is organized by Jeff Jarvis, who heads the interactive journalism program at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism and blogs on journalism and media at Buzzmachine.com. The school has just begun its second year as the only publicly supported school of journalism in the Northeast.

The next meeting at CUNY, early next year, will focus on new business models for news.

Newspapers with 2020 vision

I just finished writing an essay for the World Association of Newspapers answering their question: What will newspapers be in 2020? And I see that my friend Dave Morgan is writing an essay answering the same question for the Newspaper Association of America. I’m glad the industry is so optimistic to believe there is a 2020 for them.

Here’s my essay (warning: 2,400 words of Jarvispeak). Please do give me feedback (it’s due tomorrow!). The lede (will we still be using such quaint newspaperisms in 2020?):

“By 2020, we had better hope that newspapers aren’t just papers anymore but are valued members of larger networks that enable their communities to gather, share, and make sense of the news they need.”

Here are the issues Dave is exploring; he, too, is asking for feedback here.

* Dave, like me, chose not to see newspapers as newspapers: “However, I do believe that there will be many large and very robust local news, information and advertising media products; probably, in fact, many, many more of them than we have today, particularly in large metro markets.”

* A bold, tree-saving prediction: “All media will be digital. There may still be some analog components in the supply chains of media companies, but analog will be a very small part of the business. . . . I do believe that we will have virtually no paper-based media products in 2020. . . . We won’t have paper because it is a very expensive and wasteful way to deliver news and information.”

* He says that these news products will not be one-size-fits all; couldn’t agree more. “Consumers will get best-of-breed information services from many different providers.”

* “There will be many, many different digital media devices. Many of these devices will be portable; all will be networked. . . . And most devices will permit users to communicate and create, not just consume.” We can only hope so.

* “Media brands will matter — but old brands will matter less.” I’m not sure how much I agree with this. In an atomized media architecture, facts and updates will be mushed together in many forms. Brand — read: trust — will matter but I’m not sure we yet know how brand will travel with content.

* He says that applications will be as important as products. “Discovering, editing, synthesizing, analyzing news and information and advertising is what will attract and retain consumers.” Again, I hope so. I don’t think we’ve seen much innovation in this arena . . . yet.

* A prediction I like: “Sending someone to a city council meeting for three hours to file a four-paragraph recitation of events will be worthless in 2020. Consumers and competition will demand much, much more, and in fact will be able to virtually attend such a meeting themselves.” That can be as simple as putting up a podcast. I’ve been arguing, to no end, that local news organizations should be getting neighbors to go record and podcast every town meeting.

Dave says that competition will be fierce and there will be winners — among them consumers who get more and better information — but “newspaper companies are very likely not to be winners.” I hit that same idea in my essay, saying that there’s no reason whatsoever to believe that the incumbents will be the survivors.

The content map and corrections

I think there is an elegantly simple solution to the problem of attaching corrections to earlier errors in news: It’s the link, the tag, and the content map.

There has been a great deal of discussion, following NY Times ombudsman Clark Hoyt’s column on errors, regarding what to do about old, incorrect articles on a subject that come up higher in search results than newer, corrected articles. Suggested solutions range from killing the old articles, which Hoyt considers, to correcting them to relying on the web and search. I agree most with that last solution, which comes from taguru David Weinberger. Nicholas Carr gets it exactly backwards when he says that search-engine optimization of article archives manipulates history and so old articles should be killed to make the web forget; that would be the criminal manipulation of history. [See correction below – ed] Weinberger says, for example, that if the Times killed all of Judy Miller’s incorrect stories we would be left without an understanding of the paper’s role in the Iraq invasion. I would follow the ethic of the correction I have learned in the blog world, a standard that requires openness and transparency (that is, admitting our errors as we correct them — quickly).

I say we can use the architecture of the web to fix errors and follow the ethic of the open correction, using those existing tools I listed above. Consider the case of a Times reporter writing an article that follows up on and corrects an earlier article. You can bet that the reporter writing the later story looked up the prior art; we are all trained to check the clip file. So there is likely to be knowledge of the conflict. In this case, here’s how the two can be connected:

* The reporter or editor can link to the old, incorrect article. The web site can then sense any internal links to the original article and display those links on it. If you find the wrong article in a search, you can see that there is a follow-up. Indeed, that follow-up could be labeled “correction” to make it apparent. And the Times site could display anything with the “correction” tag separately and prominently.

* Even if the two are not explicitly linked, they can be connected with tags. If reporters and editors both tag their stories about the subjects, they can be connected.

* Say they aren’t tagged. Their shared topicality can still be sensed. I don’t mean this to be a plug for Daylife, but finding such connections is turning out to be one of the great values of analyzing the body of news, inside one site or across all.

* Now let’s say the correction does not come from the paper that reported the error but from without. Let’s say that here, on Buzzmachine, I write a correction about a Times article. I could link to it and use the tag “correction” and that would then be discoverable (“‘show me all links to this article tagged ‘correction'”). I’d argue that the Times should display such links. But if they don’t, I’ll suggest that Craig Silverman could make a service of this at Regret the Error.

* And let’s say this isn’t about an explicit correction but instead about followups and more information. This is why I want to see the map of content and all its interrelations.

* Now if you want to get really ambitious, it’d be great if I could subscribe to old articles I’d read or written about so I could be alerted if there are any corrections, an idea I talked about last year. I could easily see becoming inundated with corrections but I think there’s a way to prioritize them.

But now pull back to the simplest level: If the Times linked to and tagged articles and exposed the links among them, many of the problems Hoyt et al wrote about would be fixed.

: LATER: I spoke with Times reporter Abby Goodnough at length about this and more for her Week in Review piece today about rumors that do and don’t get traction in media and blogs. It’s also possible that this content map could affect stories as they develop, linking half-baked reports with later reporting and then complete stories and then followups.

: CORRECTION: Nicholas Carr in the comments corrects me: He did not call for killing articles. I got that wrong and apologize. We still disagree about who’s manipulating history. But we don’t disagree about maintaining history. Sorry. This is what Carr said:

So if we are programming the Web to remember, should we also be programming it to forget – not by expunging information, but by encouraging certain information to drift, so to speak, to the back of the Web’s mind?

Though he explicitly said that information should not be expunged, I misinterpreted — and actually still don’t understand — what he means about letting information drift. Expunge or hide, I’d still argue that linking is best.

My heroines

Yesterday morning, I had breakfast with Katharina “Lyssa” Borchert, blogger and internet editor for the WAZ Mediengruppe, a large chain of regional papers in Germany and, boy, was I impressed. I vowed to stop talking about people who “get it” and don’t but she is the queen of getting it. She’s about to come out with a major rebuilding of her company’s online services and strategies and I can’t wait to see it. I’ll write more about it at that time. But we hit kismet on so many fronts: the value of collaborative community journalism, the distributed architecture of news, the value of reporting vs. commodity news, the future of newsrooms and how to get them there, the growth of video from papers — and unlike me, she’s not just talking about it, she’s doing it. I love seeing people who are making progress bringing newspapers into the future.

Then today Howard Weaver emailed me proudly a link to a blog post by one of his company’s editors, Kathleen McCoy, assistant managing editor for interactivity at the paper in Anchorage. Get a load of this post on her blog about building a high-school sports site:

Why am I doing it? Because I believe that community news organizations like the one I work for will soon (now, even) include a blend of us and them. Them is the people who live and work in the communities we report on. Us is, well, the fewer and fewer of us left in American print newsrooms. We need them to build connection in our pages, the glue of community. They need us to hold powerful people’s feet to the fire: government officials, school administrators, business people. We work for the readers. So if they can contribute some of the content that binds a community – names, faces, achievements, good work – then the newspaper’s reporters can focus on their role, getting at the hard and complicated truth, facts people need to know.

OK, I’m getting of my soapbox now.

I read an interesting post today at Mediashift about all the jobs shifting from print to online. I felt like I was the poster child for the structural adjustment newspapers are making. I went away for a year, read tons on the shifting world of journalism, took a multimedia fellowship at Berkeley to dip my toes in the water, and now I am back in the work world — making the adjustment. I haven’t written or edited a single story since I came back. Instead, I’ve been building Web pages, learning why they scream ERROR instead of nicely displaying what I built, and editing little videos for our Web site. Now, I want to consume Final Cut Pro and Soundslides and html and Dreamweaver tutorials in one fell swoop. I want all those skills, yesterday. Then line me up with some database management software. It’s a different world, not necessarily a bad one.

Group hug: The big cooperation

Very good posting for a position at the City University of London: for a doctoral student to work with Sky News and an army of citizen journalists. Now that’s bringing worlds together.

This project affords excellent opportunities to explore concepts around citizen journalism in the mainstream news media, using a case study approach and participant observation.

For the first year of their PhD the appointee will work closely with Sky News on an innovative project to recruit several hundred “citizen journalists” to report on the next UK general election campaign. The project aims to allow contributors to do more than simply give their opinion; instead they will be expected to write stories, take pictures and possibly record video.

The appointee’s role would be to work closely with Sky News to recruit suitable contributors, mentor them and guide them in creating the right sort of content, and manage their contributions. The appointee will be responsible for ensuring that there is a broad mix of contributors in terms of party affiliation, background and expertise. The successful candidate will also be involved in the development of the website to best support the project and ensure that the material is used to its best advantage. The role requires editorial initiative, a nose for news, an understanding of what makes compelling online content and familiarity with the social networking community.

(Full disclosure: I’ve been consulting with SkyNews.)

Retrain or retire

I’ve been thinking about Mark Glaser’s lengthy column on job opportunities in journalism. On behalf of my journalism students, I’m delighted.

But what’s appalling is that newspapers are not retraining their staffs in the new skills of new media.

There are lots of cynical excuses for that: The papers want to lay off expensive people and hire cheap kids. Or the old dogs won’t — or some would say can’t — learn new skills.

Well, why not try? I have been arguing — to little result … so far — that news organizations of all sorts should train every person in the newsroom in the skills of new media: how to make video, audio, and blogs. That wouldn’t take long, just a day or two. It’s that easy. That’s why everybody out here is doing it.

There are many benefits. Staffers might get an interest in new and social media and transfer over to the internet side, saving their careers in many cases. They might simply get an understanding of the new structure of media and get an appreciation for all the new opportunities the internet provides for gathering and sharing news and that can improve their journalism. They could start producing their journalism across all media, however it’s best to tell the story and however it’s best for the public to get it. And this influx of new thinking might help the organization advance and improve.

Instead, I see newspapers waiting until the budget ax falls and then they just lay off people or pay a fortune in buyouts. That’s too late to retrain. And it is a waste of resources, intelligence, experience, and precious time.

Let’s say that a year before they got rid of a quarter of their editorial staff, the managers at the San Francisco Chronicle saw it coming but took that the time to train the entire staff in new media. They could have identified those staffers who embraced new and social media and technology (allowing them to at least keep the forward-thinking ones and scare off the old dogs). They could have started to rethink their product and service — as a staff. They could have improved their reporting and distribution of the stories they printed. They could have gotten the public excited, too, about their new ways and maybe gotten some more audience and more advertising online and avoided at least a few of those still-inevitable layoffs.

Instead, newspapers are too often playing victim, waiting for the worst to happen or taking too-small steps away from the cliff. It’s a disservice to their staffs, their readers, their shareholders.

And I won’t put that onus entirely on management. Staffs should be demanding to be trained. Photographers should be ganging up on their bosses to learn video; ditto reporters. Hell, even ad sales people should be dying to learn video so they have something new to sell.

This is on my mind also — full disclosure — because I have been trying to put together the continuing education (professional development, call it what you will) program at CUNY. If you have any ideas how we should go about this — how to convince journalists that they should learn new ways now, before it’s too late — let me know.

Rethink a newspaper? Heaven forbid

Peter Preston in the Observer (in London) tears into American papers for being boring and for not redesigning — and, more important, rethinking — themselves, as British papers did, successfully, when they change paper size.

The Guardian, Times and Indy have all engaged brain in the process.

That hasn’t been the obvious American way, though. Shave away and coin a quick buck. It may make sense to company accountants, but it is also, I think, one big reason why internet gloom can’t be wholly blamed for continued decline. Some smaller papers are making too little effort on net coverage (as that Harvard report reveals). Most of the bigger papers, though, have gone digital with a bang. But is anybody thinking about the newsprint version that remains – and still brings in the vast bulk of the profit today?

Apparently not. The dispiriting thing to a travelling, sampling reader in the US (like me) this summer is how stultified the American press has become. Of course there are fine traditions and many fine journalists on display, but the Daily Average Advertiser is a bit pompous and elderly, because its readers are ageing: ready only for the kind of reform nobody is supposed to notice; still turning to page 97; still huddled in monopoly anxiety and corporate inertia.

Why are potentially splendid papers – such as the San Francisco Chronicle – in wonderful towns like San Francisco, so awful? Because nobody seems to try to think or innovate any longer? Because ideas come as thin as the new page size.