Posts about newspapers

Why The Daily is counting its days

The Guardian asked for my take on the death of The Daily. Here it is (with links that fell out on the way to London):

On Twitter, I’ve already been accused of schadenfreude over the death of News Corp.’s soon-to-die, pay-walled, tablet-only, once-a-day news venture called The Daily.

Not so. I’d have loved to have seen an online-only news service make it. But The Daily was, in my view, doomed from the start because of all the adjectival modifiers listed above.

First, the pay wall: News Corp. proprietor Rupert Murdoch has elevated charging for content to a religion. He says people should pay for his products (though I’ve never seen a successful business plan in a competitive market built on the verb “should”). He turned his Times from an internet presence of note into a footnote because he insisted upon putting it behind a wall.

With The Daily, Murdoch wanted to prove that he could start and we would buy a news product online. But he forgot a key lesson of selling subscriptions, one he surely learned when he owned magazines: that it takes a lot of marketing expense to acquire customers. It costs money to charge money.

When it started, I calculated that The Daily would need to net at least 750,000 subscriptions — 1 million when accounting for cancellations (aka “churn”) — to break even on an operating basis, what with a share of sales going to Apple on the iPad. Murdoch promised he would sell “millions.” In the end, it reached 100,000 subscribers, not nearly enough to compensate for a reported $30 million in development cost and $500,000 per week burn rate.

Mind you, I am not against charging for content. I will happily sell you my books. But The Daily wasn’t much worth paying for. Though it looked quite nice and its content was competent, that content was all-in-all just news and news is a commodity available for free in many other places. Larry Kramer, publisher of the much-larger USA Today, just said with admirable candor that he can’t put up a pay wall online because his product “isn’t unique enough.” Ditto The Daily.

Next, The Daily started as an iPad-only offering. Eventually, it branched out to the iPhone and to Android tablets (but only for Verizon telephone customers) and the Kindle. I hope that other publishers learn from this misguided “mobile” strategy. Too many have dreamed that the tablet would return to them the control over brand, experience, and business model that the web and its links took from them. Too many think they need to create new products just for so-called mobile devices (though we actually often use them when stationary, at desk or on couch).

No, a news organization should have a strategy built around relationships with individuals, serving them wherever, whenever, and on whatever platform they like. My needs don’t change just because the device in my hands does.

Finally, there was the absolutely befuddling decision to make The Daily daily. News was only ever daily because it was forced into that limitation by the means of production and distribution of print. The internet freed us from those shackles of time. Why put them on again? Nostalgia?

In the breakup of News Corp. that is the real outcome of the London news scandals and the Leveson inquiry, the new company had to start cleaning up its books, getting rid of money-losing ventures. The Daily was the first to go. But there are more in that stable, starting with the New York Post, which loses, by one account, $110 million a year just to give Murdoch what he has long called his “bully pulpit.” Now he has a bully pulpit with almost four times more subscribers for free on Twitter. Can The Post’s obit be far behind?

The news we can afford

I want to see news organizations grow again. But first, they must finish shrinking. They must decide what they can afford to be.

That is what is happening with Advance reducing publication schedules and resources in New Orleans and other of its markets. That is what happening with Journal Register as it declares bankruptcy to restructure its liabilities given present reality. I recommend you read Josh Benton’s and Rick Edmonds’ analyses of this latest business move.

Now please take what I say here not just with a grain of salt but with a salt lick as I advise both Journal Register and Advance, where I also worked for a dozen years. I was not part of these decisions. But I support them because I want to see newspaper companies find their water level of sustainability so they can again invest in the future.

Of course, there is not one answer to the question of what they can afford. In his statement on Journal Register’s move, CEO John Paton said that legacy costs undertaken under different circumstances are now unsustainable. Bankruptcy presents an opportunity to renegotiate many of those costs, including leases, contracts, and pensions.

These are hard decisions with difficult consequences for many people. But not addressing the issue will only turn out worse, squandering dollars every day the tough decisions are put off.

After too many years in denial, we all know now that newspapers, no longer monopolies and having lost their pricing power in the face of abundant competition, must be smaller if they have any hope to survive; there is no magic bullet that will set things “right” and return the business to what it was. They must find new efficiencies through consolidation (see Digital First’s Project Thunderdome and other companies bringing together shared work), collaboration (with the community and a larger news ecosystem), and specialization (do what you do best — in the case of local newspapers, that is being local — and link to the rest). They must reconsider their business models, looking for new opportunities, and also their relationships with the public.

I do believe that newspapers, rethought, can be sustainable — that is, profitable. The first step is to make hard financial decisions such as the ones discussed here. The next is to make the transition to digital, to put digital first, to become sustainable digital enterprises.

But all that gets us is survival. Then comes the real work: rethinking what a newspaper is, what its relationship with its community can be, where it adds value and how it may then — and only then — extract value. That is why I also spend my time trying to challenge assumptions about the forms, relationships, and models of news, asking unpopular questions such as whether we should even consider ourselves a content business. That is why I teach entrepreneurial journalism: to empower students to start new businesses based on new visions without the drag of legacy assumptions and obligations. But I do believe that newspaper companies can also find their sustainable future. That’s why I work with them as well. I want to see them survive and once again prosper, innovate, and grow.

None of this is easy. Much of it is unpleasant. But it is necessary.

The responsibilities and opportunities of the platform

Technology companies and news organizations have a lot to learn from each other about the responsibilities of running platforms.

I have been arguing that news organizations should reimagine and rebuild themselves as platforms for their communities, enabling people to share what they know and adding journalistic value to that. As such, they should study technology companies.

But technology companies also need to learn lessons from news organizations about the perils of violating trust and the need to establish principles to work by. That, of course, is a topic of conversation these days thanks to Twitter’s favoring a sponsor when it killed journalist Guy Adams’ account (later reinstated under pressure) and its abandonment of the developers who made Twitter what it is today.

One question that hangs over this discussion is advertising and whether it is possible to maintain trust when taking sponsors’ dollars — see efforts to start app.net as a user-supported Twitter; see Seth Godin suggesting just that; see, also, discussion about ad-supported NBC ill-serving Olympics fans vs. the viewer-support BBC super-serving them. I have not given up on advertising support because we can’t afford do; without it, my business, news, would implode and we’d all end up with less and more expensive media and services. So we’d better hope companies getting advertiser support learn how to maintain their integrity.

In the discussion on Twitter about Twitter’s failings in the Adams affair, Anil Dash suggested drafting the policy Twitter should adapt. Even I wouldn’t be so presumptuous. But I would like to see a discussion — not just for technology companies but also for media companies and governments and universities of institutions in many shapes — of the responsibilities that come with providing a platform.

For the opportunities and benefits of building that platform are many: Your users will distribute you. Developers will build and improve you. You can reach critical mass quickly and inexpensively. As vertically integrated firms are replaced by ecosystems — platforms, entrepreneurial endeavors, and networks — huge value falls to the platforms. It’s worthwhile being a platform.

But if you lose trust, you lose users, and you lose everything. So that leads to a first principle:

Users come first. A platform without users is nothing. That is why was wrong for Twitter to put a sponsor ahead of users. That is why Twitter is right to fight efforts to hand over data about users to government. That is why newspapers built church/state walls to try to protect their integrity against accusations of sponsor influence. That is why Yahoo was wrong to hand over an email user to Chinese authorities; who in China would ever use it again? Screw your users, screw yourself.

I believe the true mark of a platform is that users take it over and use it in ways the creators never imagined. Twitter didn’t know it would become a platform for communication and news. Craigslist wasn’t designed for disaster relief. That leads to another principle:

A platform is defined by its users. In other words: Hand over control to your users. Give them power. Design in flexibility. That’s not easy for companies to do.

But, of course, it’s not just users who make a platform what it is. It’s developers and other collaborators. In the case of Twitter, developers created the applications that let us use it on our phones and desktops — until Twitter decided it would rather control that. If I were a developer [oh, if only] I’d be gun-shy about building atop such a platform now. Similarly, if a news organization becomes a platform for its community to share information and for others to build atop it, then it has to keep in sight their interests and protect them. So:

Platforms collaborate. Platforms have APIs. They reveal the keys to the kingdom so others can work with them and atop them. Are they open-source? Not necessarily. Though making its underlying platform open is what made WordPress such a success.

In the discussion about Adams and Twitter, some said that Twitter is a business and thus cannot be a platform for free speech. I disagree. It is a platform for speech. And if that speech is not free, then it’s no platform at all. Speech is its business.

When a platform is a business, it becomes all the more important for it to subscribe to principles so it can be relied upon. Of course, the platform needs to make money. It needs to control certain aspects of its product and business. I don’t think anyone would argue with that. But if it keeps shifting that business so users and collaborators feel at risk, then in the long-run, it won’t work as a business.

Platforms need principles.

All this can, of course, be summed up in a single, simple principle: Don’t be evil. That’s why Google has that principle: because it’s good business; because if it is evil, it’s users — we — can call it out quickly and loudly and desert it. As Umair Haque says, when your users can talk about you, the cost of doing evil rises.

There are other behaviors of platforms that aren’t so much principles as virtues.

A good platform is transparent. Black boxes breed distrust.

A good platform enables portability. Knowing I can take my stuff and leave reduces the risk of staying.

A good platform is reliable. Oh, that.

What else?

The (not so) daily news

I have more conflicts than a Louisiana politician when it comes to the news of the New Orleans Times-Picayune reducing its frequency from seven to three days a week: I was in charge of digital content in the parent-company division that started its sister site, NOLA.com; I worked on Advance’s Ann Arbor project; I was involved in the early stage of its Michigan project; and I’m working with Advance on another effort — though I am privy to nothing about New Orleans today. So take anything I say with a grain of salt the size of the Gulf of Mexico…. Still, I can’t not comment on the news.

Mathew Ingram and Ken Doctor will take you through the economic reality at work in New Orleans and Advance’s Alabama and Michigan markets: The cost of printing seven days a week is becoming unsustainable. It’s still profitable to print two or three days a week, not because those are the only days when news happens but because newspapers are still in the distribution business and those are the most lucrative — still-lucrative — days to distribute inserted and printed ads.

That could change again when and if (a) newspaper circulation falls below the critical mass needed to distribute coupons and circulars and (b) local advertisers become more savvy and finally move online themselves. Then printing and distributing paper will become even less profitable, even less sustainable. That’s when print could — mind you, I didn’t say “will” as I’m not predicting the form’s demise; I repeat, “could” — disappear.

By then, newspapers had better be ready. That is, they had better have become digital companies. That is the essence of the digital first strategy: become sustainable, successful online companies that can survive without (or with) print. And grow again from there.

That’s the process we’re witnessing here — that and a continuing cutback brought on by falling circulation and advertising revenue; not a new story, of course. This is a most difficult transition.

Guardian editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger has been talking about this transition for years. Back in 2005, he talked about buying the last presses. Later, he talked about trying to move his newspaper over what he called the green blob — the great unknown that stands between declining print and ascending digital. That is the job of the editor and publisher today: to make that transition. Shifting content, staff, readers, and advertisers from print to digital is necessary. Improving digital is necessary. And rethinking print is necessary.

If profitable, I think there could continue to be a role for print. In the Guardian’s case, I’d propose that it follow the very successful model of Die Zeit in Germany and publish once a week as the Weekend Observer, turning the Guardian into an online-only, worldwide brand, which it pretty much already is. See, I’m not against print.

But we have to make print beside the point. Of course, it’s not the manufacturing and distribution we should care about preserving and advancing. It’s the journalism and service. It’s not the past we want to protect. It’s the future.

You can argue with the strategy undertaken by any newspaper company undergoing this difficult transition. But better a transition than the alternative.

LATER: Postmedia in Canada just announced that it, too, is cutting frequency, ending Sunday papers (which are thin like Saturday papers in the U.S.) in Calgary, Edmonton, and Ottawa. The National Post is suspending Mondays in the summer and looking at its schedule. The company is moving page production to a shared facility in Hamilton, Ont. Disclosure: I’m on the digital advisory board for Postmedia.

Profitable news

One of the most controversial things I have said (you’re welcome for that straight line) is that I insist my entrepreneurial journalism students at CUNY build only for-profit businesses. When I said that at a recent symposium for teachers of entrepreneurial journalism, I thought some of the gasping participants would tar-and-feather me.

I’m not against not-for-profit, charitably supported journalism any more than I’m against pay walls. I, too, crunch granola (and sell books). But I do not believe that begging for money from foundations, the public, or especially government is the solution to journalism’s problems. And I am certain that there is not enough charity in the nation to support the journalism it needs. Lately we are seeing too much evidence that the siren call of not-for-profit journalism seduces news organizations away from sustainability, survival, and success (more on the Chicago News Cooperative and Bay Citizen in a moment).

I insist on teaching our students the higher discipline and the greater rigor of seeking to create profitable enterprises. I also believe they are more likely to build better journalistic products, services, and platforms if they are accountable to the marketplace. When class starts, many students invariably talk about what they want to do. In my best imitation of a gruff old-timer, I tell them nobody gives a shit what they want to do, save perhaps their mothers. They should care about what the public — their customers — want and need them to do. They need to care about the market if they have any hope of the market sustaining them. That is why they start every term talking with the public they hope to serve. They always come back with surprises.

Of course, the market, too, can be corrupting. I’m tempted to use Rupert Murdoch as the best exhibit of the argument, though in that case, it’s hard to tell which came first, the rabid chicken or the rotten egg. In the long run, cynically giving the public only what it thinks it wants will not deliver value and will fade like the fad it must be. I have that much faith in the market.

And, of course, we can point to many valuable and well-sustained not-for-profit news enterprises: NPR is the best we have, but as its former CEO Vivian Schiller has said, it is very much run like a business, complete with advertisers (pardon me, [cough] underwriters). Texas Tribune is doing a brilliant job of bringing in the support needed to continue its brilliant work (though I argued with its founder and funder, John Thornton, a venture capitalist, that he’d serve the news industry better by demonstrating profitable models). Pro Publica is already a national treasure (though let’s note that it had to get a grant from the Knight Foundation just to figure out how to diversify its funding beyond its original patron, mortgage man Herb Sandler).

But there are other less shining examples. Now we turn to the Chicago News Cooperative, which just announced its closing. It found itself too dependent on a foundation (MacArthur), a customer/benefactor (The New York Times), not to mention the IRS (which needs to clarify the rules for not-for-profit news). Dan Sinker argues that it never met is promise of building news with the community.

Then there’s the Bay Citizen, which ran through $11.4 million in 2010 [see this comment for a correction] before collapsing last year; it will merge in still-uncertain terms with the better-run, more penurious Center for Investigative Reporting. When the Bay Citizen started with a pot of cash from investor Warren Hellman, I remember the San Francisco Chronicle complaining that this non-market player could unfairly compete with the paper and hasten its demise, an unintended consequence that didn’t come to pass mainly because the Bay Citizen was to terribly run. Non-market entities often are.

I recently judged a contest for an international journalism organization that received a large grant from a very large corporation to fund journalism startups and — here’s why I’m naming neither — I was appalled at the complete lack of thought that went into sustainability and responsible fiscal management in every one of the proposals. I urged the organization to not give away one penny and to start over. It didn’t quite do that.

The problem is that journalists don’t know shit about business. Culturally, they don’t want to. I often hear from journalists who are downright hostile to corporations and even capitalism not because they’re commies but because they believe they’re above it all (there is the root, I believe, of much of their cynicism about Google and other large technology companies). As I’ve said here before, when I came up through journalism’s academy, I was taught that mere contact with business was corrupting. I’ve had bosses scold me for considering the business of journalism. When I started Entertainment Weekly, I could not protect my baby from the expensive idiocy of my business-side colleagues because I didn’t have the biz cred. I vowed that would not happen again. That’s why I insisted on learning the business of journalism.

That is why I insisted on teaching the business of journalism. For we journalists have proven to be terrible, irresponsible stewards of the craft and its value to the nation. Feeding at the teat of monopolies, we grew fat and complacent and snotty about the markets we were to serve. We wasted so much money on duplicative, commodity coverage for the sake of our egos. We were willfully ignorant of how our industry operated and thus how it is dying, making us complicit in its death. We have only ourselves to hold responsible.

And that is why I so respect my friend John Paton, a newsman’s newsman who learned the business of journalism and is taking responsibility for its fate, as head of Digital First Media (where I am an advisor), which now runs the second-largest newspaper group in the U.S. John does not have the answers but he does have the questions and he’s not afraid to challenge executives in our industry with them. He’s willing to disrupt and experiment and learn. And he’s willing to teach what he learns. “Crappy newspaper executives,” he just said, “are a bigger threat to journalism’s future than any changes wrought by the Internet.”

Yes, it’s not just not-for-profit thinking that’s dangerous to journalism. It’s the unprofitable thinking of for-profit news companies. That is why, again, I insist on holding students and the industry they’ll lead to the more diligent standard of true sustainability. That means profitability. There’s nothing wrong with that.