Posts about newsbook

The real sin: not running businesses

Like priests looking for someone to sacrifice, Alan Mutter, Steve Buttry, Howard Owens, and Steve Yelvington have been on the lookout for the sin that led newspapers astray. For Mutter, it’s not charging; for Buttry, it’s not innovating; for Owens, it’s tying online dingies to print Titanics (my poetic license); for Yelvington, it’s inaction.

But I think Owens hit on it when he wrote this: “I realized I needed to flip the expense/revenue picture upside down. Instead of thinking about how to generate more cash, I needed to figure out how to create a news operation that could exist profitably based on a reasonable expectation for local online revenue.”

Right. In other words, the sin was not running a business. It was not creating a sustainable P&L.

Newspapers have been too busy trying to protect specific budget lines that protected specific interests – the size of the newsroom, the ego expressed in gross revenue that yields stock performance and salary bonuses, the size of unionized staffs (up or down), the rules that governed advertising relationships even as they disappeared. They made preservation their mission.

What they should have done instead is rethink the bottom line: How is journalism going to be sustainable in new business realities?

Said Owens: “In a market where the newspaper newsroom might cost $10 million, I knew how to make $1 million online, or even $2 million, but I didn’t know — and still don’t — how to make $10 million. So if I can make a million online, why do I need operate a $10 million newsroom, especially given the greater efficiencies of online publishing?”

He built a realistic budget based on new business realities. Now picture news executives across the country hitting themselves on the head saying, “Damn, why didn’t we think of that?” They should have. But to do so would have required them to completely tear apart their businesses. Witness Detroit, banking, retail, advertising, insurance, and every other industry undergoing upheaval – nobody wants to do that.

Just as the bloggers linked above took their share of blame, so will I. Owens suggests that the problem with tying old and new operations together. At Advance, where I worked for a dozen years, we created separate online companies, which had some benefits: enabling the sites to build what was right for online (that is, interactivity), creating real value for advertising (rather than throwing in online as value-added), creating smaller and differently skilled staffs. But it also created problems: sites that were dependent on newspaper content, rivalries that killed collaboration and limited the responsibility anyone would take for the future. In the end, everyone needed to rethink what they were creating and what value it had, how they were creating it, how they related to their communities, and how the business could be run. But I didn’t see that happening anywhere in the industry. Everywhere, I saw people looking for someone to blame and somewhere to hide. I don’t put all the blame on the individuals because that’s how companies and industries operate.

Individuals who want to succeed in this upheaval become entrepreneurs. That’s what Owens – and many others – are doing. That, I’ve come to see, is the basis of the future of news.

In our New Business Models for News Project at CUNY, we threw out the old business assumptions with the old business. That’s why we tried to answer the tough question people were asking: What happens to journalism if the paper disappears? (their implied answer was that journalism does, too). What we came up with was one entity being replaced by well more than 100 entities – 1,000 entities, perhaps – each run according to new opportunities and needs, each smaller, each contributing real value, each sustainable (some very profitable; some choosing no profit). Everyone in this ecosystem has to think about running a business rather than preserving one.

Someone else looking for sinners is James Murdoch, whose MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh Television Festival excoriated the BBC for bigfooting the news market in the UK and the government for enabling it and for regulating everybody else. I agree with him to an extent, this extent: that profit, in his words, will make journalism sustainable, independent, and innovative.

Except I doubt that this sustainable, independent, and innovative journalism will necessarily come from Mr. Murdoch’s father’s business and its cohorts because they are the ones that even today are trying to maintain the scale and models for their old businesses rather than inventing new ones. Look, instead, to the entrepreneurs who are starting over and rethinking the business from the bottom up, as Owens is.

Hyperdistribution

The newspaper industry should be sobered by Martin Langeveld’s calculations, based on the Newspaper Association of America’s misplaced bragging about Nielsen internet data, that only about a half one one percent of time spent online is spent on newspaper sites.

It is clear that if journalists want to be supported – let alone have impact and influence and find their days worthwhile – they need more people to spend more time with news. I believe they should be doing the opposite of what is being suggested in many quarters: clamping down controls to try to fight aggregators and search engines, threatening to build pay walls, consolidating content into destinations they’d have to work harder to get people to visit.

Right now, news organizations should be trying to reach more people and engage with them more deeply. They should seek hyperdistribution.

Since when did it become OK for media people to shrink their audiences? Since they gave up on the ad model, that’s when. But I am not ready to surrender to the idea that advertising, which has supported mass media since its creation, is over. Yes, ad rates are lower; welcome to competition. That’s all the more reason why publishers must attract larger audiences publics – make it up on volume – as well as more targeted and valuable communities.

In my presentation at the Aspen Institute on CUNY’s New Business Models for News Project, I listed some of these opportunities, even though we didn’t build them into our first models because we wanted a conservative base case. Next we are building blow-out models incorporating these means, many built on the principles of the link economy:

* Reverse-syndication. We suggest that the new news organization (NNO) we envision in our ecosystem can create highly targeted content that can be distributed on the sites of other members of the network. So, for example, a new news org could create voting guides for every state assembly member and all the hyperlocal bloggers in the state could offer them to their readers. This content could carry both metro and hyperlocal advertising sold by and benefiting both sites. It is in the NNO’s interest to help these bloggers succeed. Thus they should collaborate on creating and distributing everything from news to calendars to functionality.

In the link economy, value is created by he who creates content and she who delivers audience. So in this networked ecosystem, large players and small will find ways to mutually create and share in more value.

* The embeddable paper. Once you embrace hyperdistribution, then you’ll find new and simple ways to get readers to become distributors. In this post I suggested that we should enable any content to be placed in YouTube-like players that carry brand, advertising, states, and links.

Lo and behold, Silicon Alley Insider just made it possible to embed its stories on this blog or anywhere. In fact, you don’t need to follow that link above; you can read the story below (and I imagine it won’t be long before there’s an ad there, along with the Insider’s branding, links, and data collection).

* API The New York Times has an API (application programming interface) enabling developers to incorporate its headlines, driving traffic to NYTimes.com. NPR and the BBC have APIs that enable others to use more content; as public broadcasters, their goal is simply broader distribution. The Guardian’s API offers full content but requires developers to join its ad network. Thus the Guardian wants to get its journalism into the fabric of the web, as they put it, and support it at the same time. Fingers crossed that it works.

* Specialization. One-size-fits-all news was a product of our means of production and distribution and a very small number of topics aside, that just won’t cut it anymore. Whether by geography, interest, or community, news must become far more specialized. In the link economy, this is how content rises in search to be discovered and it is how value is added with advertising.

Specialization sounds like a way to decrease, not increase audience but with the efficiencies specialization enables, many more publics can be served more deeply and each is bound to be more engaged. In our New Business Models for News projections, we ended up – to our surprise – with an equivalent number of journalists working in our hypothetical ecosystem when compared with the legacy newsroom, but these journalists were all covering much more specialized topics in much greater depth, creating more journalism for more communities than before. Specialization becomes a way to grow.

* Social engagement. In our NewBizNews models, we projected 12 page views per user per month because this is in line with existing news sites and thus, a conservative assumption. But it’s also a shameful assumption.

Local news networks that are truly a part of communities – owned and operated by their communities – will surely have much higher engagement. The fact that Facebook – which brings communities elegant organization, just as newspapers endeavor to do – gets hundreds of pageviews per month per user should be a lesson and model for news networks.

If news organizations – pardon me – asked what Google, Facebook, Twitter, and craigslist would do, they would define themselves as platforms more than content creators and controllers. They would act as networks rather than destinations. Once again, this gives them not only distribution and engagement but efficiency.

I have stood in and before no end of conferences when I or someone else recalls what that student said in The New York Times said a year ago: “If the news is that important, it will find me.” Waiting for her to come to our site won’t work – and it especially won’t work if, once a peer links her to our site, she finds a wall. No, we have to take news to her.

At Aspen, Google’s Marissa Mayer told the assembled news machers that they have to find ways to insinuate their content and value into our own hyperpersonal news streams. In other words: This ain’t about getting people to come to your home pages anymore.

You can bet if Mayer is thinking this way, so is Google and so it will find ways to consolidate information about sources across these new means of distribution. It’s still in Google’s interest to tap the tree for Googlejuice. So I say we cannot waste a moment finding more ways to get more people to distribute and engage with news.

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 Nielsen revolt

I was asked by a reporter today what I thought of TV companies revolting against Nielsen and threatening to start their own measurement company. My response:

I’ve been waiting for something like this to happen as I’ve argued for sometime that the old sample-based (that is, Nielsen-family) structure of ratings simply cannot work in a niche media world. That is, there’s no way to get a large enough sample to even pretend to accurately measure audience in the unlimited number of special interests that can now be served online. Complicating this further is the on-demand nature of media now, making it hard to measure audience for things we consume via Tivo, the internet, our phones, and so on.

It’s also true that audience size matters less. The presumption of old media was that everyone in the audience saw every advertisement and that’s why ads were bought on the basis of the size of the audience. Size mattered. But today, what advertisers really want is verification that their ads reached the audience they were sold – not just in size but in relevance. (This is why Google’s model of selling clicks is so powerful; it takes the risk of matching relevant ads to audience is paid on the resultant clicks.)

Finally, the web is so much more measurable; servers know what they serve. This, too, changes the structure of measurement online.

We are seeing may industry-wide organizations falter in this new world — Nielsen, the Associated Press — because they were built to support industries that are now turned upside-down in a new media age.