A small case study

From the “This is really unscientific” department, I got some good analytics from our Web content editor about our online version of the alumni magazine:

The Summer 2010 has vastly outpaced previous issues in visits during the initial launch. Totals for the three most recent issues are:

  • Summer ’09: 2700 visits in first four weeks
  • Fall ’09: 1200 visits in first four weeks
  • Summer ’10: 3000 visits in first two weeks

The increase seems to be due primarily to Facebook, which accounted for 1200 visits

These are still modest numbers, as you’d expect from a small college. But look at the dramatic improvement. Part of this is likely because we have more facebook fans than for the last issue (we’ve added nearly 1,000 since I started in February.), but that just emphasizes my larger point that engaging people in the community where they want to be engaged means gains for whatever you’re trying to promote.

A newspaper catechism

or

Screw the core

Q: How can we save newspapers?

A: We cannot. Nor should we want to. Newspapers are a form, as impermanent as any form. The important part of what they delivered is the information, and there are many ways to deliver that information.

Q: But what about the watchdog function newspapers serve?

A: Again, you’re confusing form, both in terms of a printed product and the organization of a business, with the outcome. There is more than one way to serve as a watchdog, and people in the public are both willing and able to. And because I say we can’t save newspapers does not mean we can’t save news organizations.

Q: OK, why didn’t you say that before?

A: That wasn’t the question you asked.

Q: Fine. How can we save news organizations?

A: Three words. Screw the core. Newspapers and local television stations have been trying to work out plans that achieve two mutually exclusive ends: increasing revenue for their core products while expanding the reach and profitability for their online and other ventures. As is the case with any plan aimed at achieving two mutually exclusive goals, these ventures have failed. The answer would then seem to be choosing one of these goals and pursuing it.

Q: Then why not say “screw online” and focus on the core?

A: Some organizations have done exactly that. In the short-term, it will likely hold profits at a reasonable level, but as a long-term strategy, it’s doomed to failure. In March, CNN reported that more adults get their news online than from any other source. That number has increased, and there’s no reason to expect that trend to reverse. So by giving up online ventures–which almost no news organization is really suggesting–would be a possible short-term success and almost certain long-term death sentence.

Q: So why can’t news organizations do both?

A: They can, but they can’t do both well, nor can they do it profitably.

Q: So you’re suggesting shuttering print and broadcast operations?

A: No.

Q: But you said “screw the core.”

A: That’s not a question. And yes, I did. But I didn’t say “Burn down the core.” What I meant was that news organizations can no longer afford to keep re-investing in an outdated medium. Stop re-investing in the core and start investing in other ventures. Consider the newspaper. There are dozens of pages, filled with ads, stories and briefs. Each of those has to be produced, placed on a page by a person, printed and then delivered to a final destination. It’s an inefficient process, but one with an end result some people (though fewer and fewer) like very much. When it was inefficient but still the best way to disseminate information, it made sense to invest as much as possible in it. Now that it is no longer the best way, it no longer makes sense to invest in it. Some people still use it. While it can still be profitable, it should still exist. But the act of printing the paper is not the important part, nor should it be overly romanticized. The gathering and dissemination of information is the vital function, something that can (and should) be done in multiple ways.

Q: But what about profits? The core is what’s sustaining many news organizations.

A: If you can call it that. By choosing a “both/and” strategy instead of an “either/or” strategy, news organizations are far behind the curve when it comes to creating effective structures to report and digitally distribute the news. Yes, the core business is still making money, but by creating radically smaller organizations designed to aggressively report and distribute content based around one topic, news organizations could both keep costs low and pursue new ventures with lower start up costs. This isn’t a new idea. In fact, sometimes it seems that the only people who haven’t figured out how to adapt news gathering and distribution to the digital age are the people working at news organizations.

Chicken Little syndrome and snobbery

I spent more time thinking about capital J Journalism last week than I figured I would. When I went to the College Media Conference, I figured we’d mostly hear journalists talking about what kind of stories they’re interested in and how to craft a successful pitch. And there was plenty of this. But there was also plenty of talk about the changing nature of journalism, much of it focused around citizen journalism.

Dan Gillmor spoke about citizen journalism and the fact that some people commit random acts of journalism without ever really meaning to. Two great examples are the London Underground bombing and the Hudson plane crash. Both of these had iconic images taken by cell-phone cameras, and those were pictures a journalist wouldn’t have been able to get. The Hudson photo, in particular, isn’t just good because of what it’s of, it’s a GOOD picture.

But talk to a journalist and you have a better than 50 percent chance of hearing what a crock most citizen journalism is, and how news gathering and writing should be left to the professionals. Sure, some of it is useful, but for the most part, it’s just crap, people pretending to be reporters and not doing a very good job at it. How many of them would do a good job covering a city council?

And that perception is proving hard to change. Sure, some papers use community correspondents and columnists, but they have low expectations for them.

There are plenty of great community-focused blogs out there. Baltimore Crime, a sometimes controversial one, comes to mind. It links to other sites, aggregates content and gives a list of murder victims in Baltimore–always a hot topic in that city. It’s not perfect, and I won’t pretend it is, but it is a private person running a blog about part of life in a community. There are other examples, too, you just need to look.

My somewhat audacious proposal: rather than ghettoizing their contributions as citizen journalism, news organizations need to reach out to them and put their work in the same place as the other journalism. The only people who care about who produced it are the journalists and former journalists who want to protect their craft from what they see as competition.

If we’re killing newspapers, do we have the responsibility to save them?

Over breakfast at the College Media Conference, the PR person for a liberal arts college I very much admire had a question for a few of the former journalists like myself who were talking about newspapers. (Whenever two or more former journalists are in the same room, the talk inevitably turns there. Yes, it’s insufferable as it sounds. Yes, I join in anyway.)

What, she wanted to know, could she do to save the small, local paper that covers the town her college is in? Buying advertising, of course, would help, but most of the students come from elsewhere, and there’s only so much money for advertisements, anyway. She buys what she can. And she subscribes, of course, for what that’s worth.

There are some variables I don’t know: who owns the paper (chain or individual), how big the circulation is, etc. This isn’t a solve for X kinda thing. Every successful paper is successful in its own way.

And anyway, that isn’t the interesting question to me. I want to know: What responsibility, if any, do outside institutions, both public and private, and citizens have to newspapers? Papers are, of course, private businesses: they exist to make a profit for their owners. But they also serve (or SHOULD serve) the public good by keeping people informed and contributing to a lively discourse about current events.

Having worked at papers that made money (sadly not many of them nor much money) and lost money, I can’t think of a single publisher who would accept help from someone outside. Of course, I also don’t know any publishers who were lining up for a newspaper bailout, but plenty of them were.

As much as we should all be concerned with keeping local businesses afloat, I don’t think anyone has a moral obligation to buy something bad or even support a poorly-run business. And face it, so many newspapers have been badly run for so long that it’s hard to have sympathy for their owners. The people who work for them and lose their jobs, sure, but not the owners. They, for the most part, did this to themselves.

The PR person’s point about good journalism being essential to a democracy is well-taken, but the news media no longer has (if it ever really did have) a monopoly on good journalism. So what can a private citizen do to help save a newspaper? Probably nothing. But he or she CAN do some things to help save journalism. Start a blog about your town. Take it seriously, attend council meetings and write about what’s happening. Don’t be a town booster or a knee-jerk contrarian. Be fair. If you see something egregious happening, write about it. Same goes for something great. Share it with your friends. Encourage them to write something or to at least share it with their friends.

So how is going to competing with a newspaper going to save it? It won’t, probably, but it might keep them honest. And it will do a few things for you: First, it will give you a new appreciation of what it takes to put out a newspaper. And second, it might help keep the idea of journalism and the spirit of public-mindedness alive. Which is why you wanted to save the newspaper in the first place, right?

It’s been too long

I won’t apologize too much, as I’ve had plenty of news-related posts over at my Tumblr, which you really should be reading anyway. But over the next week or so, I’m going to put out a few longer-form posts here about journalism, transition and new media.

NB, if you don’t already know, I no longer work at a newspaper. In February, I moved to Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa (no relation to  Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.) as Director of Media Relations. The posts that are coming are mostly inspired by conversations I had before, during and after the annual College Media Conference in Baltimore.

So what sets you apart?

Dave Fleet has an interesting piece on social media as a commodity on Social Media Today.

He’s mostly concerned with marketing, but the points he makes hold true for media-types, as well.

What do clients care about?

  • Ideas - creative, strategic ideas that solve a problem and accomplish objectives
  • Integrated solutions – approaches that bring together disciplines into a strategic approach
  • Understanding – a clear knowledge and grasp of the issues that matter to them
  • Rounded team – a well-formed team that covers all the bases
  • Chemistry – a team that gels with the client-side team personally as well as professionally
  • Thought leadership – demonstrated leadership in the areas that matter
  • Success – documented case studies – the one area in which, for now, being a first mover gives the advantage.

So which of these do you offer to your media company? Or to your readers and viewers? If you don’t offer any of these, why not? We thought social media was going to catch on, but how many of us thought about what would be next?

We need plans, not prayers

I like (mis)quoting Edward Miller, who once said that saying “I want better writing in this section” isn’t a plan, it’s a prayer, and one that’s unlikely to be answered.

Well, the media is full of those these days, from Dean Singleton to Rupert Murdoch.

Murdoch just told Rueters that people will be paying for newspaper content on the Web, saying premium content will be available and widely-accepted.  That’s easy for him to say: people already pay for the premium news that the Wall Street Journal offers.

But would you be willing to pay for the gossip columns in the New York Post? I’ll admit to reading them occasionally, but I wouldn’t pay for them.

In fact, what kind of premium content does Murdoch think newspapers will be able to offer? Media companies are shedding editorial jobs at an alarming rate. That means fewer people to report and write those premium stories.

I’m the first to admit there’s no good business model about making money online, though some people have interesting ideas.

But those are least something approaching a plan. They have actionable steps, goals and metrics.

Both Murdoch and Singleton have promised new and exciting content without ever saying what it would be. They’ve both also cut jobs. Those two things aren’t compatible.

Very few media companies have figured out how to charge for their content, and it hasn’t been for lack of trying. How about trying something different?

Novel ideas are what we need for the future of newspapers

Steve Outing has an interesting column on Editor and Publisher’s site about different ways to make newspapers money.

He really likes a plan from the New York Times to allow people to buy sponsorships. I wrote about the other plan from the Times last week.

Sponsorship is a fascinating idea, and Outing suggests some cool things that people could be willing to pay for.

And that’s exactly what we need. Too many publishers and CEOs are looking backward to models that were tried and failed in the mid-90s. Instead of trying to do the same thing in a different way, why not try to do something different?

So I’ll ask: what novel ideas do you have to make newspapers profitable, and how would those ideas work?

In which I’m hard on Dean Singleton, again

I wrote last week about Dean Singleton’s plan to make people pay for local content. I don’t think it’s a good idea, because instead of increasing revenue, it’s going to shut off access to content, not just for local readers, but for search engines, as well, making the sites less connected with larger conversations.

Jeff Jarvis makes that point (and more) more eloquently that I could.

I’m much more concerned about what Singleton wants to give away. He’s expecting to create a rich site filled with user-generated content and other information, but no local news stories.

Putting aside that the company should being doing their best to create context, including using that user-generated content; or arguments about the actual worth of most local news these days; or even questions about how much user-generated content there will actually be, this sends the wrong message. It tells readers that their content is less valuable than content produced by trained reporters.

In some cases, it might be, but not all the time. In fact, to some people, the user-generated content is more important than the latest on sewer rates or the zoning board. It shows life in the community, and it also can help to break news. It isn’t secondary anymore. Having a user base that’s dedicated to documenting their community and talking about issues that matter to them isn’t optional, and it isn’t secondary to the local news that’s being written by staffers. It’s a vital part of any news organization’s future, and giving it (or appearing to give it) second-class status is a mistake.

Monday morning roundup: Two looks at ways to make journalism pay

A short Monday post for right now.
TechCrunch has an interesting, detailed take down of the idea that micropayments are the future of journalism.

Some salient points (I’ll let you read the whole thing if you want to):

  • Everyone NEEDS to make profit, but only strong businesses will. In other words, just because you run a media company, it doesn’t mean you automatically deserve to make money.
  • The micro-payment ideas might be great for publishers or companies like Google, but not necessarily for journalists.
  • And this quote, from Freakonomics: “Putting micropayments on news is like putting tollbooths on an open ocean. Internet users, awash in a sea of information, will avoid new barriers by navigating around them. And frankly, the interests of a free society are rarely served by building barriers between the people and their news.”

The founder of Spot.us has a lengthy post on PBS‘s MediaShift Idea Lab blog with some insights on the start-up’s first six months.

The big takeaway? Readers are less willing to pay for the quick-hit, short journalism that dominates so many newspapers these days. They want something in-depth, well-reported and that presents original ideas. Big-think analysis pieces (like the one I’m writing now?) aren’t as popular.

So what say you? Find any interesting media analysis today?