Big news stories: A threat or opportunity for paid content strategies?

January was a very stormy month here in the UK. We live just outside of London, and it has been quite soggy with our local park being flooded to some extent for much of the past month. People were swept out to sea as they tried to snap photos of the fierce waves. Photos and videos flooded news websites and the social web. People love weather stories, but as we saw during the storms, they rely less on traditional media to tell and share those stories.

David Higgerson, the digital publishing director for the regional websites within Trinity Mirror, is right when he catalogues the hyper-competitive environment that local journalism, especially, but journalism in general faces in a world where cameras are everywhere and distribution via social media is lightning fast and engaging.

But imagine, just for a moment, if we’d had paywalls around our sites – be they full, pay-or-sod-off paywalls or pay-as-you-go model. What do you think would have happened? Would people, up to their ankles in water and without power be digging out their debit cards to log on via their mobiles? Would worried relatives elsewhere in the country link your website to their Paypal account to keep up to speed with your live blog?

No, of course they wouldn’t. They’d have gone to Twitter, where police forces share information by the minutes. Followed new pages on Facebook, where the Environment Agency was actively driving users when appearing on broadcast media. They could have searched Google and found any one of the traditional national newspaper brands now hoovering up any agency copy they can find. Or checked out the BBC, which is superb at cross promotion. Or discovered hyperlocal sites run for passion or for money … and never again thought twice about us.

David is right, and paywalls are not the easy solutions that most journalists dream of as much as we might wish it were so. David closes by saying, “We have the potential to create great content, we just need to find the revenue model.” That is it in a nutshell. To quote advice given to a friend about his journalism start-up: “You know you can create value. But can you capture it?”

While local newspapers have much greater competition for attention and audiences, their real challenge has been competition for revenue. At the moment, we have two business models that have had some success: High volume predominantly ad supported, and a mix of ad and reader revenue. National or formerly national newspapers with international strategies, (think The Daily Mail and The Guardian), are pursuing an advertising-based business model based on scaling their audiences aggressively. But the pure scale model really isn’t an option for local journalism. Digital advertising operates and delivers meaningful returns with millions, probably tens or hundreds of millions of uniques. Most local sites on their own don’t operate at that scale. Some groups are looking at network plays amongst their sites, like Advance’s MLive network in Michigan in the US (disclaimer, I worked for MLive in another lifetime between 1997 and 1998). However, that isn’t an option for all local groups.

That means either reader revenue or alternate revenue streams, and the latter are showing some promised. Some local news groups are trialling digital services businesses, and it was one bright area for local media in the US last year. The Dallas Morning News has bought a number of digital ad and marketing companies to help it build meaningful digital revenue. (Notable as well is that they dropped their paywall recently.) A Newspaper Association of America report showed last year showed a 91 percent increase in marketing service revenue. It’s good to see that kind of growth somewhere in the business.

Paid content models used to be a binary choice, hence the name paywall. However, paid content strategies have evolved, and I don’t simply mean moving to the metered model as opposed to the hard paywall strategies. Modern paid content strategies have grown more nimble, more flexible. During big stories like storms, news groups like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal have opened up their sites. This can be a great marketing opportunity to highlight the richness of your content, even in this new media environment. Paid content strategies also should provide publishers with a richer stream of data so that they can deliver better experiences and better products both for audiences and for advertisers.

David is spot on about being clear-headed about the competitive challenges, and he is also right that the real test now is finding the revenue model for local journalism. For the revenue to come, the products will have to change as well. If we’re not competitive with social media or more to the point working with social media to provide audiences with the best verified content, then we need to step up our game. Ever the optimist, I’d like to think that there is an opportunity for local news organisations to curate and verify this local information. To me, this is about smartly staying at the centre of a new local information and conversation eco-system. The bottom line is that whether it is storms or other breaking news, we have to compete for audiences. If we can do that, I think we’ll remain relevant to audiences and advertisers.

News organisations must engage with RTB advertising

Journalists tend to focus on the shifts in media consumption as they try to make sense of the disruption in their industry, but they have often overlook the shifts in adverting beyond the precipitous drop in newspaper advertising since 2005. That collapse, more than 60 percent since 2005 in the US, has been driven not just by the decades-long decline in circulation but also that there are simply cheaper and more efficient ways for advertisers to reach audiences than passive banner or print advertising. The collapse in newspaper ads has driven some news groups into bankruptcy, driven many small dailies to become weekly publications and has driven news groups to shift the balance in revenue from advertising to reader revenue.

Frédéric Filloux has a great look forward to 2014 with his normally insightful advice on how digital media will survive to see 2015. I completely agree with him that the glut of online advertising is driving prices downward. I part company with him about RTB – real-time bidding. RTB, aka programmatic or algorithmic buying, can seem dauntingly complicated on its face, but after you cut through the acronym-intense eco-system, it is really quite straightforward. RTB is simply an automated way that advertisers can place ads on sites based on the audience they want to reach and the price they are willing to pay. RTB platforms mine the rich data-stream being collected about you.

It is a natural evolution of the data-driven targeted advertising system that we’ve seen develop since the late 1990s. To quote Alan Mutter, this is why media economics have shifted from reach to each. It’s not about advertisers casting their message as far and wide as possible but by precisely targeting their message to audiences they think are most open to their message. RTB can target age, income, geography and other demographic factors.

Again, for journalists who aren’t on the business side, it’s important to understand that RTB is mostly used for selling remnant advertising. What’s remnant? Your sales team sells as much of their ad space as possible – direct sales – but they may not be able to sell all of your pages. Unsold pages are remnant, and these unsold pages have traditionally been sold on ad networks. RTB is really just an evolution of the ad network model. News groups have become wary of ad networks because the returns are so abysmally low compared to advertising they sell on their own, and news groups and Filloux are worried that RTB, with its auction model, will simply put even more downward pressure on ad prices. Filloux says:

Thanks to Real-Time Bidding (RTB), publishers actually fuel the price deflation by auctioning their leftover inventory on various marketplaces. In doing so, they generate some revenue – at the expense of the format’s per unit value (in such auctions, expect no more than 5-10% of nominal prices). In addition this process mechanically applies negative pressure to premium placements because the advertisers will opportunistically purchase a guaranteed and targeted audience wherever available.

He is right to a point, but we’re already seeing smart engagement around RTB. RTB, and indeed all digital advertising, is about data, and just as news groups like the Financial Times realised that owning their customer data is key to their business, news groups are realising that if they power their own RTB exchanges with their own data, it can be a competitive advantage. Condé Nast launched a premium RTB exchange two years ago, and last year, they appointed an RTB senior director, Alanna Gombert. She said that that their RTB rates are similar to their direct sales rate card. She talks about premium RTB, and that is consistent with the magazine group’s premium content.

While news groups operate in a different space than a magazine publisher like Condé Nast, they still have the opportunity to create private RTB exchanges to leverage their data. This is especially true for large newspaper groups with rich user data that they have gained with their paid content strategies. Paid content is as much about user data as it is about shifting the revenue mix. Filloux doesn’t say that news groups shouldn’t engage with RTB, but I think they must engage with it. Data driven advertising is not only a reality that cannot be ignored, it can also be an opportunity. Fortunately, news groups got the memo. As Digiday wrote yesterday, the New York Times and the Washington Post have already appointed RTB chiefs. Own your future; don’t fear it.

New Bloomberg Media CEO, Justin Smith, rouses the troops

Justin Smith has a great track record of repositioning great media brands for the digital era. His most recent media makeover, The Atlantic is only his latest success story. Jeff John Roberts at paidContent had a great interview and profile of Smith looking at some the secrets behind his success. Smith is a digital evangelist and more. Two-thirds of Atlantic Media’s advertising revenue is digital, and while other media companies have suffered over the last three years, Smith’s Atlantic has been in the black since 2010. 

if there is one thing I’ve learned over the last few years, building a solid media company isn’t just about growing digital as quickly as possible but building successful products regardless of the platform. Roberts puts it this way:

And this is what Smith understands so well about building a media company today: the challenge is not print vs digital or about paywalls, but about using brand power to grab revenue wherever you can. 

As Smith moves on to his next challenge, Bloomberg Media, Digiday has excerpts from an email to his new troops. Smith has always invested in talent, and that was key to his strategy at The Atlantic. As a matter of fact, if there was one thing that ties together a lot of disparate strategies, whether it is Smith’s Atlantic or the revitalised Orange Country Register, it is about about making smart investments to deliver a great product

I’ll highlight just a couple of other comments that Smith makes. He has called on the staff at Bloomberg to embrace change and entrepreneurship. In terms of change:

The media industry is bifurcated into two distinct worlds: the struggling traditional segment that longs for a simpler, more profitable past that will never return; and the vibrant, entrepreneurial segment that is reinventing the industry before our eyes. The simple act of choosing to live on the new, wide-open frontier is a powerful step toward success.

And his definition of entrepreneurship is about adaptation and speed:

One definition of entrepreneurship is the ability to evolve your product, business model, technology, or talent base to capture a changing market opportunity. Moving quickly is paramount: the faster you move, the more you learn, and the sooner you can optimize for success. 

Bloomberg was already a strong brand and a source of revenue that most media companies would kill for, the $24,000 annual subscription for its financial terminals. It will be fascinating to see how Smith supercharges Bloomberg. 

Integrated newsrooms must remember print and digital are different products

I’ve seen integration happen as several newsrooms, and I was at The Guardian as it began integration.* Much of the integration since 2007 has been driven by economic concerns with little focus on products or even efficient newsroom workflow to serve those products. Alan Mutter, who writes the excellent blog Reflections of a Newsosaur, says that as Jill Abramson takes the reins at the New York Times she will have to choose between two irreconcilable paths.

She either will have to cannibalize the flagship print product to build the strongest possible digital franchise for the Times – OR – she will have to concentrate on sustaining the commercial strength of the print edition at the risk of channeling insufficient resources into assuring the strongest possible digital future for America’s newspaper of record. …

The problem for Abramson is that the print and digital media demand significantly differentiated products, which the Times has not been able to produce to date with even its enviable strength.

I think the New York Times has stepped up its game in this respect over the last two years. Andrew de Vigal has done an excellent job honing the multimedia work at the Times, bringing a coherence that has escaped many other newspapers. Aron Pilhofer, interactive news editor at the Times, has done some excellent work in terms of building great projects and doing great journalism with data.

However, I think that Alan hits the nail on the head. Integration makes sense, but it has to be seen in the context of serving different and differentiated journalism products across print and digital media. Torry Pedersen of Norway’s VG has one of the best ways of understanding this. At a conference in 2009, he put it this way:

He then compared newspapers and the web to a bottle of water and a waterfall.  The waterfall represented the web–continues flowing, raw, unlimited and in real time.  The bottled water represented newspapers–limited space, distilled, refined and bottled.

I think this is why The Atlantic and The Christian Science Monitor are navigating the changes in media successfully. They aren’t pitting print versus digital, but strengthening both print and digital products. In 2010, that allowed The Atlantic to turn a profit for the first time in a decade, and it built on that in 2011 even as many other publishers struggled. Yes, The Atlantic beefed up its web presence, but it also put a focus on writing talent. In 2011, it’s profits doubled in print, digital and events. It improved all of its businesses and even built new revenue streams.

More broadly though, one of the things that I see in terms of news organisations is that those who develop not only great journalism projects but also marketable journalism and information products are the ones best navigating the wrenching changes in the journalism business. This is a mix of transaction businesses, such as those at Fairfax in Australia or Schibsted’s digital classified business, Finn. Some of those transaction businesses might be built around data, especially business data. The products also usually include events such as conferences or dinners, cruises or talks with key journalists. As Suw and I build our little consultancy, the real gap in journalism businesses we see is not necessarily of editorial innovation but of product and revenue innovation.

* I get a sense that The Guardian is only now moving through the first process of integration as it unifies its ‘digital first’ strategy largely under the management of print editors.

iPad magazine sales continue dropping

After some initial very positive sales figures for magazines on the iPad, sales continued to drop for US titles as the end of 2010 approaches, according to a post by John Koblin in WWDMedia.

Vanity Fair sold 8,700 digital editions of its November issue, down from its average of about 10,500 for the August, September and October issues. Glamour sold 4,301 digital editions in September, but sales dropped 20 percent in October and then another 20 percent, to 2,775

iPad sales for Wired, which outsold print copies with the iPad edition in its first month, have seriously tailed off. We now have several months of declining sales for the iPad edition. The iPad as ‘print’ saviour now looks less and less likely. Would a better subscription model help? Would less print-centric thinking help? At this point, the sales figures don’t look to justify the premium ad rates some magazines are charging for the iPad.

Dorian Benkoil writing on PBS MediaShift quoted John Loughlin, executive vice president and general manager of Hearst Magazines:

As Loughlin noted, this is an experimental period, when magazines are learning what they can offer and how much they can charge. Some apps will be breakout hits. A combination of web, apps, mobile and print sales may bolster magazines and give them new life and sustained profitability.

But the excitement over apps has some difficult realities to confront until that day is reached.

I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again. There are no silver bullets, no single solution that will save publishing. It’s going to take strategic thinking that focuses on building compelling print and digital products and building a multi-revenue stream business or businesses to support them.

The future of journalism is not in the mythologising its past

When I discovered blogging six years ago, one thing that instantly got me hooked was the conversation and the community. Soon after meeting Suw, I started writing with her here on Strange Attractor about my passion for the future of journalism. After a bit of a downturn in the journalism blogging community a few years ago, I’ve felt a new energy this year. One of the fellow travellers I’ve recently ‘met’ through blogging is Reg Chua, Editor-in-Chief of the South China Morning Post. He blogs at (Re)Structuring Journalism, and he’s been commenting here for several months.

On my last post profiling regional news site TBD, I wrote this footnote:

It’s difficult to make a business built on investigations. Accountability journalism is important, but let’s be honest, investigations have always been an expensive and relatively small part of what we do.

Reg had this to say in a great comment:

And it’s also true that investigations have traditionally been a small part of what news organizations do; there’s a lot of harking back to an imagined past that didn’t exist, where every paper was a paragon of public service and broke important stories of official corruption every day. That’s not to say it’s not an issue that old media is in trouble; only that we should recognize what we did and what we are – because only then can we really move forward.

Spot on. There is a lot of mythologising about journalism right now. Psychologically, I can understand this. Journalists feel threatened, and we’re trying to make the case of how essential we are to democracy. We’re trying to make the case that what we do is indispensable. I understand this, but I think that sometimes this imagined past is getting in the way of creating a new sustainable future for journalism.

I’ve spent most of my career working for news organisations that had a strong public service ethos, the BBC and The Guardian. The BBC is publicly funded, and The Guardian is supported by the Scott Trust. They are unique organisations, and they provided me with unique opportunities to develop the type of journalism I practice. Even with their unique funding, these organisations are under pressure.

The business of newspaper journalism has been severely disrupted, and it will take creativity, honesty and hard work to create new sustainable businesses to support sufficient journalistic capacity to support democratic societies.

News of the World: 1995 is calling, it wants its digital strategy back

Not to beat a dying horse, but the News of the World doesn’t have a digital strategy for 2010. As I said yesterday, sometimes I’m willing to be generous about News International’s paid content strategy. The Times had to do something. They were losing £240,000 a day last year, and by their own admission, those losses were unsustainable. However, when you hear things like this from News of the World’s Digital analogue editor Rachel Richardson:

The majority of our content will be published on a Sunday. We will update our exclusive stories as they develop through the week. We also offer a comprehensive sport service and update match reports etc frequently. A lot of our content is timeless. Fabulous [celebrity magazine] is a great example of this, so we’re confident our site will be appealing mid-week without constant updates.

You have to wonder what planet she is on. Seriously. Now, it would be interesting to unpack what she means by ‘constant updates’, but this seems like a strategy from another age. The type of gossip that News of the World peddles is a constant stream of whispers coursing through the internet. It’s not something that pauses politely for a print driven publishing cycle. Yes, the News of the World thinks it has exclusives, and too many people living in the silos of newspapers believe it’s not old until it’s told by them. In terms of exclusives, with a few notable exceptions (the Telegraph’s MP expenses reporting being one of them), an exclusive in the online era has a shelf-life shorter than a Z-list reality TV star, possibly shorter. I don’t read celebrity gossip, but I actually don’t feel the need to. It’s so utterly ubiquitous that I absorb it through osmosis. There are so many choices. It’s everywhere. Are they really going to be able to charge to catch up on Sunday’s shock headlines by Wednesday? They already will seem tired by 5pm Sunday night.

Reading excerpts from the transcript of an interview with Richardson what comes through is that this isn’t a business strategy, it’s a sense of entitlement. Yes, it costs you something to make the News of the World, and you think that it has a value that should cost a set price. If everyone was able to price their products at what they thought they should be paid for instead of what people are willing to pay for them, we’d have a much different world.

Bravo for having a launch partner, but their other ads are supplied by ad networks?!? If your content is as exclusive as you say it is, surely there has to be value in building up your own premium ad services. Of course, no one will know whether it is successful because we won’t know the traffic. Murdoch has pulled out of the ABCes, leaving others to speculate. News International isn’t even being forthcoming with their advertisers about their numbers, and their advertisers are punishing them. That’s not strategic. It’s arrogant, or fearful.

There are times when I wonder if News International’s digital strategy is actually designed to fail. I often wonder if Murdoch in a fit of pique will actually just shut down the digital offerings once they have failed to meet his targets. It seems outlandish, but no less so than some of the non-strategic nonsense coming out of News International wrapped in PR assertions as being bold visionary thinking.

Asbury Park Press blog launches coffeehouse newsroom

Kevin: In a move that echoes the FutuRoom in Prague and its network of news cafés across the Czech Republic, "Freehold InJersey, a community news blog run by the Asbury Park Press and Gannett, has launched a coffeeshop newsroom in conjunction with Zebu Forno Cafe in Freehold, New Jersey". "We hope that having a 'newsroom' in the center of town will encourage folks to drop by, talk to me and the other writers, and participate in a community conversation," said Colleen Curry, the editor of the website and creator of the partnership. It's smart, but the thing that sets the FutuRoom's cafés apart is that they also derive revenue from the cafés so that what was previously a cost centre, a newsroom, becomes a revenue stream.