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The X Prizes for news (and media)

A conversation with our Knight Foundation friends at Aspen inspired me to think through what an X Prize for news could accomplish. Then this week’s report in the New York Times about the awarding of the NetFlix X Prize – and the far greater value it created, not just for NetFlix, but for its participants and others – inspired me to buckle down and open that conversation here (and at the NewsInnovation site).

I’m not asking idly. With the right structure, I’d seek funding to administer such a prize at CUNY and we can hope that smart companies, organizations, and patrons will see that an X Prize could be a way to innovate aggressively and openly. Or is it?

We must start with a question: What is the core problem the prize is trying to solve? It can’t be just about getting more revenue for existing companies or thinking of another way to tell a story or, Lord knows, making something cool. The best expression of the problem will yield solutions that must be groundbreaking and new, quantum leaps undertaken on daring, hope, and hubris. Innovation won’t come from incremental changes to an existing structure. We know that too well.

Another key question is how success is measured – tangibly, metrically, from a distance, not emotionally. In something as amorphous as news, that’s going to be hard.

Next, we have to define news carefully – that is, broadly. News shouldn’t be defined as we do today, for the winners of the prize may create something we haven’t seen yet. Our definition of news is probably just about a community informing itself – better informed individuals and society (“better” as defined by them).

Finally, we have to recognize that the problems to solve are centered more on business issues than product issues – on sustainability – but that is not to say that the product should not be radically rethought as part of this process.

I see three key problems to solve for news (which I’ll make conveniently alliterative):

1. Engagement. In our most recent phase of the New Business Models for News at CUNY (funded by Knight), we used the sinfully low industry standard for engagement with newspaper sites: 12 pageviews per user per month. Facebook users have that much interaction with the service every day. Time spent online in social sites and blogs accounted for 17% of time overall – vs. 0.5% for newspaper sites, according to separate estimates (and advertising on social sites doubled while it plummeted for newspapers). For God’s sake, if news services were truly of their communities, they would have many times more interaction with many times more people in those communities and interaction would go far beyond reading.

Engagement is a core business problem. If you plug in higher numbers into our NewBizNews models – and we will, in our blow-out cases – you’d see much better businesses able to support much more news. You’d see news as a very profitable industry again.

So let’s say the first challenge is to multiply a community’s engagement with news. How is that to be done? Surprise me. Shock me. Invent entirely new ways, new platforms, means, and media to gather and share news.

How do we measure engagement? I would not measure by pageviews – in great part because I do not want contestants to just assume that it’s a site they’re inventing. See one more time Marissa Mayer on hyperpersonal news streams and me on hyperdistribution. News has to go where the community is and we no longer expect the community to come to it. It has to be of and among the community. Time is a slightly better measure of engagement but it, too, is shallow and can be manipulated with tricks.

No, engagement is more about ownership: people believing that and acting as if they owned this thing. It’s theirs – as Wikipedia’s and craigslist’s communities believe they own those properties and as each of us believes we own our Facebook pages or Twitter feeds or blogs. But an opposite danger lies there as well. One shouldn’t measure engagement by contribution (as many of us did in the early days of the web). Go to Wikipedia’s 1 percent rule.

So I’d say the measurement has to be made by a combination of metrics – say, time combined and attitudes: Take a baseline a survey of users of news sites today against certain beliefs – “My newspaper.com makes me part of the community of news”; “Newspaper.com is a member of my community of news just as I am”; “I feel a stake of ownership in newspaper.com”; “I feel a measure of control over newspaper.com”; “I feel a responsibility for newspaper.com”; “I am better informed with newspaper.com”. Then require that the new thing multiple some index of these factors by an impressive amount. If Facebook is 30 times more engaging than a newspaper site, then how about 10 times, even five times – that would make a huge difference in the business of news.

2. Effectiveness. This is effectiveness for media’s other customers, its paying customers: advertisers, or perhaps we should say marketers (to include ecommerce and not limit the business relationship).

News sites – like most media sites – are still selling what they used to sell in their old media: space, time, eyeballs, scarcity. Google won business away from them by selling something else: performance. Google thus takes on risk on behalf of advertisers – if Google doesn’t deliver relevance and you don’t click, it doesn’t get paid – and so its interests are now aligned with its advertisers’. And because Google created an auction marketplace that takes advantage of abundance – there is no scarcity on the internet – then prices are lower. For an advertiser, what’s not to love? That’s why I roll my eyes when old media people complain that Google stole their money. No, Google competed and saved advertisers their money.

At the same time, I believe that news and media will be supported primarily by advertising and so they had best figure out new ways to serve advertisers – even as advertising shrinks. For purposes of sustaining news, I think it’s best to concentrate on local advertising, because – in the U.S., at least – most journalistic resource is expended locally, much of government is local, there is opportunity to grow there, and the crisis in the news industry is primarily local.

The solution cannot be about increasing clickthroughs to banners. That merely extends the bullshit online media are selling. No, it has to be about much richer ways to measurably improve merchants’ businesses: to add value.

Ah, but measuring it is the tough part for that itself sets the shape of the invention: Is it more people to a web site, more people to a door, more sales of particular merchandise, better brand awareness, better relationships? Help! What do you think?

At CUNY, with additonal funding, we soon hope to do more research with local merchants for NewBizNews to get a better sense of their needs. But then again, they may not know it until they see it. I’ve spoken with advertisers who still don’t understand why a customer’s Google search matters to them.

So for the sake of discussion, let’s say that one could take a test group of merchants and used the methods and means created by a contestant to utilize a relationship with online media of some form (that is, advertising) to improve their sales by N percent over N period with at least an N return on investment. In the end, it’s simply about improving their businesses, isn’t it?

Any multiple of this effectiveness would also have a profound impact on the sustainability and profitability of news (so long as it’s a news entity that makes it possible). In our New Business Models for News, we used what we believed – though some disagree – was a conservative $12 CPM ad rate. It was also conservative to presume old ad models: i.e., banners. But then Google’s Marissa Mayer turned around and talked about hyperpersonal news streams, emphasizing the business potential: If you know that much about people to be hyperpersonal and if you are incredible good at targeting – at discerning intent and delivering relevance – then the efficiency, effectiveness, and value of marketing there would skyrocket. An X Prize winner would think this way.

3. Efficiency. This is to say cost. What does it cost to produce news, to gather and share what a community knows? The closer that marginal cost can be brought to zero, the more news we can afford. That’s good for society.

That may not sound good for professional journalists, I know. And employment of journalists has been the default measurement of the health of news. (This is why I have quibbled with BusinessWeek’s Michael Mandel’s analysis, here and here.) But I’m not suggesting that there are necessarily fewer reporters (there will be fewer production people). Indeed, in our New Business Models for News, we ended up with a equivalent number of people doing journalism in our hypothetical market, only they weren’t all in a single newsroom. Most worked in entrepreneurial ventures that many of them owned, and they as a group devoted far more of their time to reporting. The net result, we believe is more journalism because it is more efficient journalism.

So I’m suggesting that journalists be made as efficient as possible and the way to do that is to make them highly collaborative and to take advantage of the work people are willing to do just because they care – the hundreds of millions of dollars people contribute to Wikipedia, adding value to it and making it both supremely efficient and incredibly valuable.

So I suggest this prize start with the goal of maximizing the journalism, finding the best ways to get the most relevant news to the most people at the lowest cost: the best way to make the most people feel well-informed from a sustainable venture. Once again, we must be cautious about the definition of news, not limiting it to the broccoli served cold currently. What do people want to know and need to know and how can we get that? What is the news that isn’t shared that has to be reported and investigated and why and how do we get that? So I might start by finding communities and having them define news and what it means to be informed, what they need to run themselves. Of course, we also need to define quality. This needs to be reliable and useful information.

How do you make a measurable contest out of that? I’m not sure. Perhaps we find a community and find out how many people want to know about, say, their school board and town board and tow events and then measure what they want to know now. Then the winners made their community better informed by the greatest margin at the lowest cost while still not losing money.

In the end, if we can find new and daring solutions to these problems of engagement (formerly known as audience), effectiveness (advertising), and efficiency (operations), we can improve news as a product (and process), its relationship with its public, its value to its customers, and its sustainability. That’s the goal. It’s going to take new thinking and experimentation to get there. An X Prize is one way to get that.

What do you think?

NewBizNews on On the Media

On the Media’s Bob Garfield interviewed me about the CUNY New Business Models for News Project.

I made one error: the new news organization’s editorial staff after three years is 46; total is 90.

Bob was nice enough to plug my book. Now I’ll plug his, The Chaos Scenario. I just bought a copy. He’s doing lots of neat things publishing it, offering it first on Kindle, offering earlier adopter pricing on the paperback (it increass $1 every Monday), and then coming out with independent distribution in stores. Because he has an nice widget enabling purchase, I’ll embed it here:

The death of snail mail & Sunday papers

The Washington Post reports that “in the past year alone, the Postal Service has seen the single largest drop-off in mail volume in its 234-year history…. That downward trend is only accelerating. The Postal Service projects a decline of about 10 billion pieces of mail in each of the next two years, going from a high of 213 billion pieces of mail in 2006 to 170 billion projected for 2010.”

No, physical delivery won’t ever die. (Like a good newspaperman, I lie in headlines to get attention.) Indeed, we’ll get more ever deliveries of more stuff that used to be on store shelves but are now ordered online. That’s what UPS’ and FedEx’ businesses are built for. But, as the Post says, we’re sending fewer messages to each other; we have much better means to do that now. And companies are trying hard to reduce their cost of dealing with us – billing, bank statements – by taking that online.

There is still a business to be had in distributing coupons and circulars (aka junk mail); this is why newspapers are holding onto delivery a day or two a week. But that’s transitional; it won’t last forever.

As volume decreases, costs to users will increase as deliverers try to cover fixed costs that just can’t be cut anymore. Newspapers like to think they, too, have fixed costs and that’s why they keep whining that readers “should” pay their bills. But they don’t; for their core business – content and advertising – papers have new efficiencies online that the Postal Service doesn’t have. Except for those trucks and presses. They are fixed costs and that puts them in the same sinking ship as the mail.

At some point soon, the couponers will desert both the Postal Service and newspapers because they’ll be just too expensive. But consumers still want coupons; they have real value. (I often tell the story of coming back from a strike when I was Sunday editor of the New York Daily News. We didn’t have coupons because our new owner, Robert Maxwell, was feuding with Rupert Murdoch, who controls coupons – aka FSIs or free-standing inserts – in the U.S. When we got them back, circulation went up more than 100,000. Those readers weren’t buying news. They were buying ads.) Coupons are creeping online but it’s still a pain to deal with them digitally. Mobile devices may be the solution, but they’re not there yet.

So physical coupons and circulars are still great business – if you can get them into consumers’ hands. And it occurs to me that someone will craigslist – that is, undercut – both newspapers and the Postal Service in the delivery business. It’s in the interests of Murdoch’s coupon empire to do so and work with large retailers that produce circulars to come up with an alternative. Or an entrepreneur could establish a network to make it happen. I see the return of the paperboy (oops, the world has changed since then; pardon me: the paperyoungperson): networks of small agents who can deliver this material, which isn’t wildly timely (get it there this week) without the cost structure needed for individualized delivery – the Postal Service – or with a time wrapper of expensive content – the newspaper. Again, it’s transitional, but it’s a nice business for some years.

Here’s what happens then: The cost of mailing an old-fashioned letter will become prohibitive as the Postal Service covers its fixed costs for a system we won’t kill.

And the economic benefit of distributing a Sunday newspaper will all but disappear and news organizations – the ones still standing – will have no reason to hold onto the presses and trucks.

It ain’t over

It wasn’t Craig’s fault. It was the internet’s. Almost $10 billion in annual newspaper classified revenue has disappeared (since its 2000 high, versus 2008) and it was essentially replaced by an estimated, unverified $100 million for craigslist with fewer than 30 employees.

But the bleeding ain’t over yet. The stone still has a few more corpuscles to squeeze out.

Look at the newly enhanced Google real-estate search. It’s awesome: useful, fast, informative, entertaining. Put in an address, browse all the homes for sale around. Who needs a newspaper? Who needs a real-estate agent? Speaking of whose death, see Michael Arrington reporting that disruptive, inexpensive real-estate service Redfin is turning profitable. Now see how classified aggregator Oodle is distributing classified ads on Twitter, which has also become the new distribution channel for news (challenging not just newspapers but also craigslist if you’re in the news biz and in the mood for a little schadenfreude).

Of course, this adds onto the the closing of thousands of advertising car dealers; the death of swaths of retail (e.g., Circuit City; and that is far from over, I think); the consolidation of more retail (and then the consolidator, Macy’s, cutting ad spending by half).

But that’s just advertising. I think that other arenas of newspapers’ competence could be targets for similarly disruptive attacks.

In content, I’m seeing that it’s possible for someone to come along with relatively little investment and a much smaller staff that operates more collaboratively to compete with the big, expensive traditional newsroom at low cost.

In distribution, it’s not hard to imagine someone – oh, say, News Corp., which already controls coupons in the U.S. – to take over distribution of other FSIs (free-standing inserts – that is, circulars) and undercut the hell out of newspapers and the postal service. Distributing those ads is the main reason papers want to keep printing at least a day a week, for now.

It’s bad in the industry now but it’s going to get worse as audience shrinks and advertising consolidates or migrates. There’s no quick fix: putting up pay or copyright laws or begging for favors from pols. The only solution is to rethink and rebuild the industry – and to do a better job of it than GM has.

Spoiling the paid party (again)

Paid Content reports today that The New York Times Companies’ Martin Nisenholtz is talking about charging for the paper’s mobile app.

On the face of it, this seems to make sense: People are paying for mobile content and functionality (ring tones vs. earth-shattering news, ferchrissakes!) and for mobile apps. The New York Times iPhone app is downright wonderful. It’s far better than The Times’ Kindle app (no fault of The Times; all the Kindle news sites are sucky). I’d pay for the app – once.

But would I pay for an ongoing subscription to it? Well, here’s the problem: my iPhone brings me the web and I can read The Times there without paying. Damn, that genie; doesn’t know his place (in the bottle).

Nisenholtz says, quite rightly, that one problem with the iPhone app is that there are fewer opportunities for advertising. And even so, the few ad avails I see are all filled with free house ads for The Times itself; obviously, the sales staff hasn’t taken seriously the opportunity to sell this prime audience (why is it always thus?). So The Times’ app makes bupkis. Even the house ads are irritating, so I might pay for an app without ads. But then I’d be paying for less irritation rather than for the content.

What’s the solution? I haven’t the faintest idea.