Halfway ’round the track

The Orlando Sentinel and Tribune Company went halfway around the track in the right direction — but not far enough — when they decided to stop devoting staff to national coverage of Nascar races, putting their priority and dwindling resources instead on local, which I believe is where they should be. As a result, they lost their Nascar writer, Ed Hinton, who they boast is the best in the nation. And they wish him well.

What I think they should have done instead is set up Hinton in business. If Hinton’s the best — and I take them at their word on that, not being a Nascar kinda guy — then I’d have proposed creating a blog and site for him and selling ads into it and syndicating content onto my newspaper sites where I’d also sell ads and share revenue there, too (the Glam model). Then I’d still have the benefit of his best-of-breed coverage — doing what I did best while linking to the rest — with less expense — none, really, because I’m just sharing revenue for sold advertising. It’s only upside for the paper. And in the long run, it’s upside for Ed because, as the best in the nation, he should be able to market himself freely with many such deals and build up the best damned Nascar blog anywhere, something he now owns and controls. There’s more risk for Ed but, hell, he’s now unemployed anyway. But he also takes with him a brand the papers helped him build.

That’s the relationship I think that UK football writer Rick Waghorn should have with the paper that made him redundant. That’s the relationship the New York Daily News could have with David Bianculli, the TV critic they laid off who now has his own site (they may not want to pay for him as full-time headcount anymore but they could sell ads for him and he needs that help since I see none on his site).

The funny thing is that some papers are reaching this relationship, not with their own former staffers, but with outsiders instead. The Washington Post and CBSNews.com are syndicating my Prezvid. The New York Times reached a similar arrangement with Freakonomics. But I don’t see this happening with the people these papers know best: their own staffers.

So why doesn’t a paper get ahead of the curve and offer such a deal to its stars, the ones worth the investment? In the old days, the paper thought of itself as a product whose value was its brand and distribution. And there’s still value there. But now that papers are hiving off valued contributors and features like Ed Hinton, they don’t need to just do without. They can think like networks and imagine a new relationship with those stars that’s beneficial for both.

The next time a paper plans buyouts and layoffs — and they will keep coming without end — I suggest they offer another kind of deal: helping these former employees set up their own new businesses with a content and advertising network relationship.

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  • Here’s another example. The Cedar Rapids Gazette is the 2nd largest newspaper in Iowa (where there is some event or other getting a lot of attention) and they have a three-times a week columnist who has a blog.

    But the blog isn’t on the Gazette web site, instead its here: http://24hourdorman.wordpress.com/

    The Gazette doesn’t seem to promote his blog which is devoid of ads. So the Gazette is building a brand, promoting a column and just leaving the Internet side of the deal just laying on the table.

  • Yes!! You are so right about this — “What I think they should have done instead is set up Hinton in business. If Hinton’s the best — and I take them at their word on that, not being a Nascar kinda guy — then I’d have proposed creating a blog and site for him and selling ads into it and syndicating content onto my newspaper sites where I’d also sell ads and share revenue there …”

    Of course now Hinton ought to go and do that on his own, become an independent brand, and laugh all the way to the bank.

    I usually agree that local makes more sense for newspapers when it comes to investing in the brand and the content you choose to focus on. But NASCAR is so huge in so many areas of the U.S. — what a missed opportunity to generate some profit for the whole Tribune family, and at a low relative cost too.

  • Guy Love

    Expert content providers like Hinton will eventually be able to provide their services to information aggregaters and distributers. This process is in its infancy but should become the norm in the future. This current crop of expert content providers who have now found themselves unemployed, will need to establish a working business model during this transitional period. Whoever figures that out will definitely kick this process in gear for everyone else.

    Once more, the newspaper industry is failing to leverage their real assets (their people) and will most likely be left on the sidelines by more aggressive competition (google, yahoo, etc.). Why is this so hard for them to figure out?

  • The interesting stage comes when you build a network of sites that extends beyond the traditional geographical reach of your former provincial newspaper employers – yes, they can buy copy back in off you, but the bigger and better deals are to be had with institutions that are local in focus BUT national in scope, just as our own MFW is now. Watch very carefully what both the BBC and ITV are up to web-wise – moving into the local news market via their MyLocal and ITVLocal web brands and there you have two big institutions that may yet be tempted to look to external suppliers of written content to bolster their traditional TV and radio offerings both of which are now rapidly moving online. That’s where the opportunity is… servicing a national network, not stepping back to a provincial newspaper group locked into its historic circulation patch – someone that is local in focus, but – barring some widespread and as yet unforeseen consolidation – will forever remain local in scope….

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  • Right on, Jeff. And then just reverse-publish his best stories into the print version.
    Here’s another related case in point: Jill Leovy’s doing the very popular Homicide Report for the LATimes Web site — it’s the most popular blog on the site (except during big entertainment events). She’s been writing it for a year, and wants to move onto other things. The print culture is still so overbearing that the Times is having difficulty finding someone to replace her. In addition, this very popular blog isn’t reverse-published in print.

  • Jeff,

    You are right about the commercial potential of these writers and their expertise.

    But although it is a new year now, sadly your old blinders are still on as you continue to advocate for the sole reliance of newspapers (and their laid-off writers) on advertising sales efforts controlled by others. So if Hinton were to take your advice, he would replace his former dependence on his ex-employer with a new dependence on some third-party advertising network.

    Having so prematurely and absolutely declared paid content dead, your options for proposing alternatives to advertising are by consequence limited. But luckily for the laid-off writers, the door to multiple revenue streams is not slammed shut so definitively.

    Hinton and others like him possess a vast amount of highly specialized expertise. Having now been freed from the constraints of the limited print newshole, they can deliver that expertise in fine-grained detail. Far beyond merely writing columns or blog posts, Hinton could be producing detailed team reports; analysis of racing technology; interviews and profiles — who knows (I’m no NASCAR expert either). He could amalgamate his ongoing reports into ebooks and other products that can be marketed as paid downloads.

    Some of this content will be best monetized via advertising but some of the more specialized content can be sold to the aficionados who just devour anything about NASCAR or whatever the subject may be. Or to the industry participants looking for an inside edge. The possibilities are limitless.

    For the benefit of an industry that takes your opinions very seriously, Jeff, I hope that in 2008 you will reconsider your position that the only way to monetize content is via advertising, and instead encourage content producers to take advantage of the vast depth of digital media to package and market their content in multiple ways. The content producers who recognize this are the ones who will enjoy true independence rather than continued dependence on a revenue model controlled by others.

    Happy New Year.

    Kind regards,
    Evan Rudowski

  • Evan,

    See above.

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