Posts about newspapers

Bankruptcy squandered

Tweet: Here’s what I think bankrupt newspaper companies should be doing.

The AP lists the status of six newspaper companies that have declared bankruptcy: Tribune, Freedom, Philadelphia, Sun-Times, Journal Register, Star-Tribune, representing 66 daily newspapers among them.

Mostly they are using bankruptcy merely to restructure the debt they shouldn’t have gotten themselves into in the first place — the debt that nearly killed them. Often they are leaving in place vestiges of the legacy management that made those bad decisions and did not make the brave strategic moves the digital age demanded. Tragically, none of them has used the great if difficult opportunity bankruptcy gives them to reinvent their businesses and themselves, as I suggest here:

Bankruptcy enables a newspaper company to shed its past. It can get out of contracts and leases for paper, printing plants, delivery, trucks. It can also get out of labor contracts, reducing severance costs. That is terribly painful but I fear it is as inevitable as the end of the ITU (the typesetters’ union). It offers a one-time chance to rethink, reinvent, and rebuild the company for the future. Is it better to stretch out the pain and never get anywhere? And if tough decisions and actions are not made, the likelihood that the company will die and all will be lost only increases.

This is another reason I say that the future of news is entrepreneurial. Given the opportunity of market leadership and 15 years since the introduction of the commercial web and then, failing that given the opportunity of bankruptcy to change, the legacy institutions can’t bring themselves to do it for any of many reasons: It’s too expensive to change and cut back; it’s too painful to corporate valuation and ego built on size over profitability to reduce the scale of the company; it’s too difficult to shift the culture (especially after much of the best talent left with buyouts); the strategic vision just isn’t there. Whatever, the tale is too often told.

Even so, it’s not too late for the legacy institutions. Perhaps foolishly, I refuse to give up on them. If these companies took just one or two papers each among their 66 to experiment with new models, to radically rethink and resize them and to learn instead of demolishing their old institutions brick by brick, they and their still-dying industry would be much better off; they might find a new way.

I consulted on my former employer, Advance’s, project to do that in Ann Arbor, killing the Ann Arbor News and starting a new, blog-based, community-based company and service, AnnArbor.com; the industry should be watching and learning from it. That’s one model, but my no means the only one. Our work at CUNY in new business models for news (funded by the Knight Foundation) presents another vision, also not the only one.

Before it is too late, I’d like to see these companies — especially companies still in or going into bankruptcy — try more models:
* staying in print but splitting up the functions of the company and outsourcing everything possible;
* investing in a widely distributed network of independent local and interest sites with the company adding value with curation and sales;
* creating a pure ad network;
* creating a very high quality product and — yes — charging a lot for it;
* creating a series of special-interest niche services and, in some cases, publications;
* creating the still mostly free but higher value craigslist with more curation for quality and more services;
* experimenting with new services for local merchants — especially those too small to ever have afforded big, inefficient newspapers — including helping them succeed through Google, Yelp, et al;
* creating citizen sales forces to scale while serving those small merchants;
* what else?

A few days ago, I had a related email discussion with John Paton, head of Impremedia, which rolled up a number of publications to become the largest Spanish-language publisher in the U.S. In the process, the company has made the difficult decisions to shrink by outsourcing and finding efficiencies and focusing and has changed its culture to put digital first. The industry should be watching these efforts as well. John asked why legacy companies are these days so often counted out in the discussion of the future of news. I recounted my views, above, and added that entrepreneurs have an easier time building from the ground up than big institutions do trying to rebuild from the top down. But I ended saying this: How can the legacy companies stay in the game? By acting like entrepreneurs, by bravely facing the new realities and by making bold moves to utterly transform themselves. It’s by all means possible. But it’s hard. And it’s rare.

There’s still a minute before midnight to try.

The near future

Xark raised fair and unfair criticism of our work at the New Business Models for News Project. I’ll respond:

Xarc’s Dan Conover says that the models we presented look a lot like present models, only different. Fair and true. Our goal was to look at what news in a metro market would look like if the large daily paper died today. — not in the la-la land of the future of news and media I often write about here (more on that in a minute) — but today.

So we based our assumptions on known realities: on local bloggers who are making a living and how they are doing it today, on new news organizations that are springing up today, on the proportion of digital revenue being earned today.

If you’ve heard any of my presentations of the models, you have heard me lament that we chose to work in the lingua franca of the present: CPM-based display advertising and criminally low engagement numbers that are sinfully standard in the newspaper business. Neither is good enough. But we wanted to use a language and precedents that people in this space would understand. We then pushed development of new models for revenue and of networks that must be used to increase value.

Conover says that without an “exit strategy” a hyperlocal blog is not a business but merely a job. With respect, he is judging the entrepreneurial future of news through old, institutional glasses. Much of the work of very local journalism will be done by these new, single-proprietor businesses (and volunteers). If we took his perspective, then there would be little potential in the restaurant, drycleaning, plumbing, or dental industries because many of their practitioners have no exit strategy, only sustainable jobs. Welcome to the new, small-is-the-new-big world. This is precisely why we propose that critical mass will be reached not with old companies owning the market but with new companies operating together in networks. See: Glam, the largest women’s brand online. New model.

Conover is fair to say that the future – not today but tomorrow – won’t look much like the present, including the present we postulate in our models. I do indeed agree that the future could look wildly different. I have speculated about systems for sharing information that will reduce the marginal cost of news to zero with journalists adding value only where appropriate and where that value can be recouped. I have blathered on and on about hyperpersonal news streams replacing the article as the atomic unit of news. I have predicted a world with networked journalism, news made by Wave, and similar outlandishness. If I had tried to present all that as a vision for the news of today – the day a paper dies – I would have blown brains and been laughed out of Aspen and with good reason. But that was not the goal of the New Business Models for News Project. It was to get people to see a new today.

Believe me, Dan, if you want to have a future-shock derby with far out ideas for what news will look in the future but sooner than we think, then I’m happy to compete. But that wasn’t our job here.

And don’t blame the funder of our work for that. Connover is unfair to slap the Knight Foundation, which paid for the first phase of this work, saying: “In the short term, foundation money is likely to continue producing studies based on business models that reflect conventional wisdom about media.” The Knight Foundation did not tell us how to envision our models; that is an allegation without evidence.

It’s particularly unfair since the Knight Foundation – more than any other foundation – has been aggressively pushing inventors to imagine and create new visions and realities for news. The Knight Foundation generally does not favor institutions over entrepreneurs; quite the contrary. You’re free to judge my defense of Knight in light of the fact that they did fund this phase of my work. But I think Knight’s work defends itself.

So, yes, Dan, I do agree that the models were based on present realities. That was precisely what we set out to do: to envision an immediate future that will be credible in present terms. But I also take the challenge to envision more futures for news and – if you watched my presentations – you’d see some I hope to work on. I want to examine the workings of the link economy I talk about so much and prescribe how to exploit it. I want to examine new content exchange models. I want to examine entirely new forms of news and the exchange of information.

This Wednesday in my entrepreneurial journalism class at CUNY, my students will present to a jury 15 businesses, some of which begin to imagine fairly radical new visions of news. They hope to win some of the $50,000 in seed money we have from another foundation, McCormick. And then they hope to go build those businesses and make them sustainable the day after tomorrow. Thursday, that is.

: Later: In the comments, I added this:

I’m trying to be realistic in the near term. I say that the old institutions are not realistic in thinking they can maintain their old business models. I also say that the futureshockers – myself included – are not realistic when we talk about wild new models for news. I’ll repeat: think about TODAY. I mean that. The paper dies tomorrow. You have people eager to do journalism. You have some – but very little – investment. You have a proven amount of revenue and nothing more. What do you do? That’s the question we answered. But there is, of course, no one answer. What we want is discussion and ideas, not just bullets. What would be helpful is to see you and others, Dan included, flesh out your own visions for a sustainable future of journalism starting TODAY.

Get off the lawn

There’s one thing that Rupert Murdoch, Arianna Huffington, Steve Brill, and I agreed on yesterday – and and there’s probably nothing else one can imagine this group would ever find consensus around. At the two-day Federal Trade Commission “workshop” (read: hearing) that asked how journalism will “survive” (their word) in the internet age, we all told the commissioner to kindly butt out.

Murdoch talked about a drumbeat building to bail out newspapers and how that would be a mistake, just as bailing out GM was. The government shouldn’t save companies that make things customers don’t want, he argued. Huffington said there’s no need for government intervention and after her speech (read: testimony), I interviewed her for my upcoming Guardian MediaTalkUSA podcast and when I pointed out that she agreed with Rupert, she pointed out that he was asking for government favors in his threats to try to rewrite fair use. Brill started his talk begging government to stay out.

And I told Liebowitz that the future of news will be entrepreneurial not institutional; the institutions had and blew their chance. What we need is a level lawn where the tender shoots of these new businesses can grow without government trampling them on its way to try to protect the legacy players.

But the commissioner’s title for this “workshop” alone – “How will journalism survive the internet age?” – is prejudicial, a foreshadowing of the results they have already prescribed: it implies saving the legacy players when, as the Knight Foundation’s Eric Newton said at the hearings today, journalism doesn’t need to be saved, it needs to be created. (The reason I’m not there today is that I am teaching my entrepreneurial journalism course. That’s one way to save journalism: build it.) The choice of speakers was itself prejudicial: mostly the old players who played their tiny violins. The questioning was prejudicial: an FTC bureaucrat threw a newspaper exec a soft ball to decry aggregators and suggest how he wanted to get money out of them (not hearing the idea that aggregators who are adding value to the content). Liebowitz’s presumptions about the event were prejudicial; in his opening talk, he said he has already scheduled more hearings to talk about copyright (read: changing copyright to favor the dying institutions).

My requestion to Liebowitz and company: Get off our lawn!

Maybe, just maybe, he heard a bit of this. He told the Wall Street Journal last night, “I think the message from today is be very, very cautious before you do anything.” How about nothing.

But from the looks of Twitter, it’s worse today. Rep. Henry Waxman told the group today that “Congress responds to market failures.” But this is not a market failure. It’s a market, doing what markets do. Let the market do that.

Rep. Waxman: Get off our lawn!

Compare/contrast

Tweet: Compare/contrast Rupert Murdoch on the internet (and me) then and now.

In 2005, Rupert Murdoch gave a rousing speech to the American Society of Newspapers Editors calling on them to listen to digital natives. Yesterday, his deputy, Les Hinton, gave a speech to the World Association of Newspapers in India warning them to beware geeks bearing gifts.

Murdoch in 2005:

Like many of you in this room, I’m a digital immigrant. I wasn’t weaned on the web, nor coddled on a computer. Instead, I grew up in a highly centralized world where news and information were tightly controlled by a few editors, who deemed to tell us what we could and should know. My two young daughters, on the other hand, will be digital natives. They’ll never know a world without ubiquitous broadband internet access.

The peculiar challenge then, is for us digital immigrants – many of whom are in positions to determine how news is assembled and disseminated — to apply a digital mindset to a new set of challenges.

We need to realize that the next generation of people accessing news and information, whether from newspapers or any other source, have a different set of expectations about the kind of news they will get, including when and how they will get it, where they will get it from, and who they will get it from….

The challenge, however, is to deliver that news in ways consumers want to receive it. Before we can apply our competitive advantages, we have to free our minds of our prejudices and predispositions, and start thinking like our newest consumers. In short, we have to answer this fundamental question: what do we – a bunch of digital immigrants — need to do to be relevant to the digital natives?

Murdoch deputy Hinton yesterday:

We are all allowing our journalism – billions of dollars worth of it every year – to leak onto the internet. We are surrendering our hard-earned rights to the search engines, and aggregators, and the out-and-out thieves of the digital age.

It is time to pause and recognize this – Free Costs Too Much. News is a business, and we should not be ashamed to say so. It’s also a tougher business today than ever before. We have survived other perceived threats – radio, television, cable TV. But this time it is different.

How can it be that the Internet offered so much promise and so little profit? I guess a lot of newspaper people were taken in by the game-changing gospel of the internet age. It was a new dawn, we were told. A new epoch, a new paradigm. And we just didn’t get it.

Like an over-eager middle-aged dad, desperate to look cool, we ended up dancing obediently to other people’s tunes. For a while. You can almost hear the music – an algorithm and blues soundtrack – accompanying the harbingers of the new economy with the new rules of the new age. Their rules.

These digital visionaries tell people like me that we just don’t understand them. They talk about the wonders of the interconnected world, about the democratization of journalism. The news, they say, is viral now – that we should be grateful.

Well, I think all of us need to beware of geeks bearing gifts.

Listen to digital natives or beware them? Which is it?

On a personal note, see Murdoch on me in 2005 (a plug I was given because I helped Murdoch’s then speechwriter, Gary Ginsberg, with the substance of the talk):

Instead, they want their news on demand, when it works for them. They want control over their media, instead of being controlled by it. They want to question, to probe, to offer a different angle. Think about how blogs and message boards revealed that Kryptonite bicycle locks were vulnerable to a Bic pen. Or the Swiftboat incident. Or the swift departure of Dan Rather from CBS. One commentator, Jeff Jarvis, puts it this way: give the people control of media, they will use it. Don’t give people control of media, and you will lose them.

Now see Hinton referring to me yesterday:

Or as Jeff Jarvis, one of the leading proponents of the information-must-be-free imperative puts it: The content economy is over. Is it really?

(By the way, I’m not part of that crowd. Jay Rosen would challenge Hinton for a link.)

Media after the site

Tweet: What does the post-page, post-site, post-media media world look like? @stephenfry, that’s what.

The next phase of media, I’ve been thinking, will be after the page and after the site. Media can’t expect us to go to it all the time. Media has to come to us. Media must insinuate itself into our streams.

I’ve been trying to imagine what that would be and then I was Skype-chatting with Nick Denton (an inspirational pastime I’ve had too little of lately) and he knew exactly what it looks like:

@stephenfry.

Spot on. Fry insinuated himself into my stream. He comes to us. We distribute him. He has been introduced to and acquired new fans. He now has a million followers, surely more than for any old web site of his. He did it by his wit(s) alone. His product is his ad, his readers his agency. How will he benefit? I have full faith that he of all people will find the way to turn this into a show and a book. He is media with no need for media. I was trying to avoid using Aston Kutcher as my example, but he’s on the cover of Fast Company making the same point: “He intends to become the first next-generation media mogul, using his own brand as a springboard…. ‘The algorithm is awesome,’ Kutcher says…”

That’s media post-media.

This view of the future makes it all the more silly and retrograde for publishers like Murdoch to complain about the value of the readers Google sends to them. Who says readers will or should come to us at all? We were warned of this future by that now-legendary college student who said in Brian Stelter’s New York Times story (which foretold the end of the medium in which it appeared): “If the news is that important, it will find me.”

If a page (and a site) become anything, it will be a repository, an archive, a collecting pool in which to gather permalinks and Googlejuice: an article plus links plus streams of comments and updates and tweets and collaboration via tools like Wave. Content will insinuate itself into streams and streams will insinuate themselves back into content. The great Mandala.

The notion of the stream takes on more importance when you think about your always-connected and always-on device, whatever the hell you call it (phone, tablet, netbook, eyeglasses, connector….). I recently saw a telecommunications technology exec show off a prototype of a screen he says will be here in a year or so that not only has color and full-motion video and can be seen in ambient light but that takes so little power that it can and will be on all the time. So rather than hitting that button on the iPhone to see what’s new, your post-phone post-PC device is always on and always connected. You don’t sneak it under the table to turn it on now and again. You leave it on the table and it constantly streams.

Is that stream news? Only a small portion of your stream – whatever you want, whatever you allow in – will be. Just as publishers’ news is only a small portion of the value of what Google returns in search, we mustn’t be so hubristic to think that the streams flowing by readers’ eyes will be owned, controlled, and filled by media with what they declare to be news. They will be filled with life.

The real value waiting to be created in the stream-based web is prioritization. That’s part of what Clay Shirky is driving at when he talks about algorithmic authority and what Marissa Mayer talks about when she says news streams will be hyperpersonal. The opportunity in news is not to try to mass-prioritize it for everyone at once – impossible! – but to help each of us do it. To make that work, it will have to be personal and personal will scale only if it’s algorithmic and the algorithm will work only if we trust and value what it delivers. So how do you learn enough about me, who I am, what I do, and what I need so you can solve my personal filter failure and show me the emails and tweet and updates and, yes, news I’ll most want to read? What tricks can you bring to bear, as Google did and Facebook did: the wisdom of a crowd – perhaps my crowd? the value of editors still?

So imagine this future without pages and sites, this future that’s all built on process over product. If you’re what used to be a content-creation – if you’re Stephen Fry, post-media – you’re all about insinuating yourself into that stream. If you’re about content curation – formerly known as editing – then you’re all about prioritizing streams for people; that’s how you add value now.

Getting people to come to you so you can tell them what you say they should know while showing them ads they didn’t want from advertisers who bear the cost and risk of the entire experience? That’s just so 2008. Now it’s time to go with the stream.