US newspapers lost advertising revenue found

And why the answer to the problem is not about scale. 

Thomas Baekdal compares the decline of advertising revenue for US newspapers with the rising ad revenue of Google and Facebook.
Thomas Baekdal compares the decline of advertising revenue for US newspapers with the rising ad revenue of Google and Facebook. Full post at

Everyone in media in the US saw the graph a couple of years ago showing the cliff that the newspaper industry has fallen off with respect to advertising revenue since the beginning of the first decade of the 21st Century thanks to a simple bit of graphing by Mark J. Perry.

Now, media watchers have added the numbers and shown where that money went. Ben Thompson of the Stratechery blog added in Facebook’s revenue rise to show one reason why newspapers in the US are facing even greater headwinds, even as the US economy starts to show a little more life. Thomas Baekdal took it one step further, adding in Google’s revenue. It almost mirrors the decline of newspaper advertising, although Google’s rise seems a bit steeper.

I want to make an important point, though: Google didn’t actually kill the newspaper advertising market. Google replaced it with an entirely different market. It’s the same money, but Google isn’t in the same market as the newspapers. It instead created its own market and brands decided that was a better place to be.

I would also say that Google, via its Android mobile OS, also shifted its advertising model deftly to mobile. When you combine this graph with Mary Meeker’s graph about the attention minutes that people spend, you see why Google’s growth continues.

Mary Meeker's 2016 comparison between the percentage of time that people in the US spend with their mobile devices and the difference in mobile ad spending. Full presentation available here
Mary Meeker’s 2016 comparison between the percentage of time that people in the US spend with their mobile devices and the difference in mobile ad spending. Full presentation available here

In the US alone, Meeker estimates that there is a $22 b opportunity in the difference between the amount of attention that people are spending with their mobile devices and mobile advertising spend.

But it is not all doom-and-gloom. Baekdal also points out:

This is an incredibly important distinction to understand. Google isn’t winning because it’s big or that it has so much more scale. It’s winning because it created a way for people to have high-intent moments, which brands can reach with their ads.

We have shifted from having a single advertising market (all based on low-intent exposure), to having two different advertising markets… and the media only fits into one of them.

I would counter that the old print mass media fit into the scale model. However, there are many other media businesses that were never about scale, and if you look at some of the models that are showing success, they are about finding a committed niche, whether geographical or topical and serving it well. That might be B2B media, such as Rafat Ali’s travel business focused Skift, which just announced a new vertical to tackle, Chefs & Tech. In Tulsa Oklahoma, The Frontier has 500 subscribers, as of April, willing to pay $30 a month for local investigative journalism. De Correspondent in the Netherlands broke 40,000 subscribers last December.

Of course, this is all about reader revenue, not necessarily how to replace the fat revenue that advertising used to deliver to local newspapers. I don’t think that ad revenue will ever come back so we need to find a new model for local news and information, and I don’t think the answer is scale. Media cannot scale cost effectively to compete with Google and Facebook.

As for new models, maybe we already have one in the US, TV, but that isn’t going to go as deeply local as newspapers once did. But I think we’ll see more experimentation in local news media over the coming years supported by truly local entrepreneurs. But sometimes it’s good to know what isn’t working so you can move on to try other things.

The Olympic medal for media innovation goes to…

New York Times Fine Line Simone Biles

A version of this post first appeared on The Media Briefing, where I write about the media developments in North America, especially as they pertain to the search for new media business models. 

The Olympics are over, and the medals have all been handed out. But for me, the Games are not just an opportunity to see the best athletes in the world but also to see some of the most cutting edge digital media innovation. The 2016 Rio games also showed some of the tectonic shifts in media with viewership dipping on traditional TV platforms and up on on-demand and mobile platforms.

These are not simply vanity projects. As we saw recently with Politico’s Apple Wallet-powered EU Tracker project in the lead-up to the Brexit vote, a smart strategy executed well during major events can help you reach new audiences and power your growth to the next level.

Not to mention, that just like gold medal athletes hoping for lucrative endorsement deals after the games, media organisations are hoping to cash in, and this Olympics also showed how organisations are seeking new sources of revenue through digital commercial innovation.

New York Times’ The Fine Line

The Olympics are one of those big set piece events when top news groups, start-ups and the digital platform giants have time to plan and create trail-breaking digital media experiences.

Amongst the legacy media groups, the New York Times has once again made as much of a splash with digital media watchers as Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky have made in the pool.

One of the most talked about and ground-breaking Olympics features by the Times were a series of visually-led features called, The Fine Line. In addition to the Fine Line features, the Times also created incredibly simple but effective animations to show how the swimming races played out, for instance how teen phenom Katie Ledecky dominated in the pool.

New York Times Olympics Bodies Rio Olympics 2016 featureBut that wasn’t all the Times did. Another feature effectively gave a game-like feel to the content with a visual quiz in which the audience was asked to guess what sport the athlete or para-athlete was involved in by their body characteristics. Did they have muscular legs and or arms? Were they tall or short and powerful? It was really nicely done, and the Times made a point to say that the athletes and para-athletes wore as many or as few clothes as they felt comfortable with.

Commercial innovation to drive digital revenue growth

But, as we’ve seen so often in 2016, the best editorial innovation isn’t enough to guarantee a sustainable business. Fortunately, the New York Times also displayed some incredible commercial innovation as well.

In the middle of the Fine Line features is a native advertising feature for Infiniti’s Q60 that seems right at home in the format. In addition to flowing the Infiniti ad into the middle of the stories, it is peppered throughout them, appearing both in the navigation and on the front of every Fine Line segment. The ad even fits thematically with the content: The “Making an Ironman” native advertising video shows a man training for the triathlon world championships with product placement of the Infiniti Q60.

Infiniti’s content also appears in various New York Times’ social channels, including Youtube and the NYTVR app.

VR, mobile, programmatic and native advertising are all part of the New York Times’ strategy to dramatically increase non-display digital ad revenue because display has shown lingering softness for many legacy print publishers in the face of the dominance of Google and Facebook.

The New York Times has not been immune, and it reported in its most recent quarterly results that digital ad revenue dropped 6.8 percent, which looks bad but not when compared with the 14.1 percent swoon in print adrevenue.

The Infiniti native advertising package across multiple digital channels looks like the kind of bigger deal that New York Times CEO Mark Thompson talked about recently when he predicted dramatic digital ad growth in the third quarter.

Thompson and Chief Revenue Officer Meredith Kopit Levien told Ad Age that these bigger, multifaceted packages were taking longer to close, slowing the pace of ad deals in the short term, but dramatically increasing revenue in the longer term.

Thompson said that these bigger deals were in the “million-plus range”, and they both said that the revenue would start to be reflected in the NYT’s second half results. It gave Thompson the confidence to predict that the NYT would deliver double-digit growth in digital ad revenue in the third quarter.

Power to the platforms

Rio Olympics media innovation

In its recent results, The New York Times pointed out that mobile was powering a lot of their growth, and Thompson said mobile is “growing at rates that even Mr. Zuckerberg’s little firm would recognise”.

Mobile content took centre stage at Rio 2016, and Facebook and other major  digital platforms were seen as key to helping Olympic broadcaster NBC to make sure that its content reaches younger, more mobile audiences.

Before the games, NBC’s deal with Buzzfeed and mobile messaging darling Snapchat grabbed a lot of coverage. Buzzfeed is curating content from Snapchat, and Snaps from Rio appear prominently in its Discover section. Buzzfeed’s involvement makes sense in light of NBCUniversal’s $200 m investment in the company.

This kind of distribution is officially a very big deal as it was was the first time that Olympics content would appear on a non-NBC platform, according to Gerry Smith of Bloomberg News. More than that, NBC isn’t requiring Snapchat to pay anything for the privilege, but the broadcaster, which paid $1.23 B for the broadcast rights, negotiated an ad revenue share with the mobile messaging and content platform.

Facebook’s ambitions in Rio were much more global, and it struck a deal with the IOC and 20 official Olympics broadcasters to offer content on Facebook Live and recap content on both Facebook and Instagram, according to L&F Capital Management on the investment blog Seeking Alpha. Facebook also reportedly paid some athletes, including Michael Phelps, to provide exclusive live interviews.

Looking to make live events and sports a bigger part of its offering, Twitter announced content across Moments, Vine and Periscope in its coverage before the games. Twitter also announced a pivot in the Moments product as well, as it said that Olympic Moments would stick around in users’ timelines for weeks rather than days.

When I wrote the piece for the Media Briefing, we really didn’t have a full picture of viewership on traditional linear TV and also how audiences were turning to consuming video on mobile platforms. But we quickly got a sense, and for NBC, it wasn’t entirely good.

Bloomberg noted that ratings were down 17 percent overall in primetime and down by 25 percent in the 18-49 demographic. Gerry Smith of Bloomberg questioned whether NBC Universal had got its money’s worth in terms of their $12 bn investment in the Olympics. Smith went on to say:

The Summer Olympics ratings slip, the first since 2000, raises fresh doubts about what used to be a sure thing: live sports would be a huge and growing draw no matter what.

But while traditional TV viewership was down, online viewership was up by 25 percent. Regardless of the obvious switch from linear TV to on-demand formats, NBC still ended up having to give away some air time to advertisers to make up for the viewership shortfall on traditional TV.

Of course, if you want a stinging rebuttal of Bloomberg’s thesis, read this Medium post on how terrible the NBC streaming experience was by Brenton Henry. The real issue for Henry seemed was that the streaming options were really only available for cable subscribers.

I was tempted to shorten this article, but then the lengths of measure I had to take to view something that is available for free over the airwaves show there is clearly a problem. I’m sure NBC were patting themselves on the backs for how easy it would be to watch online this year, but that’s only true for cable subscribers, a slowly shrinking percentage of the US population, especially for Millennials.

As we’ve seen with ESPN’s woes, pay TV use is starting to decline as more people rebel against the ever rising costs of a bundle of channels and services they simply don’t want. The business model for paid TV is going to come under increasing pressure. The Olympics and NBC’s model only highlights that.

My interview on TRT about Arianna Huffington stepping down from the Huffington Post

TRT World in Turkey interviewed me about the legacy of Arrianna Huffington as she stepped down as editor-in-chief from the ground-breaking site that bears her name. I will count myself as one of the sceptics when the site was launched, but I was happy to have been proven wrong.

The Huffington Post did create a new model for content in the digital era. On the plus side, it is good to see something that has worked, but on the downside, I see that model as creating as much content as possible for as cheaply as possible, which negatively impacts those who try to make a living from their creative efforts. It’s alumni also have made their mark, especially Jonah Peretti of Buzzfeed.

When I was asked why she stepped down, I alluded to talk about her influence being diluted after Verizon bought Yahoo, which had bought the Huffington Post. But I also see another reason. In 2016, general news and comment sites like the Huffington Post are a lot more difficult to build into a successful media company, but the focused sites like the health site that she will now focus on are seeing much greater success.

Peak Content: When the Attention Economy bubble bursts

This is a follow-on to an analysis that I wrote for The Media Briefing, published on 4 January. Simply put, I think a shake-out in the media business is coming due to a glut of content and advertising. I am not alone, and it would seem that 2016 begins with a lot of concerns about the sustainability of the current path in terms of media businesses. I’ve seen a raft of reports over the last week that sound like the beginning of this shake-out, both between legacy players but also amongst digital media pure plays. 

Never have we had so much choice in terms of news, information, music and entertainment. The democratisation of production brought by digital technology has made it easier than ever for people to create content, but it has also made it more difficult than ever to get paid to create it, both for individual creators and many companies. This cannot last.

The bottom line is this: Pressure on legacy media businesses and the current state of digital advertising means that you either go premium and paid – think The Economist, The New York Times, pay television, business intelligence – or you go mass and scale, trying to reach as many people as possible as cheaply as possible. There is a limit to scale, and a limit to the model of producing as much as possible as cheaply as possible, especially as the digital ad space is as super-saturated as the world of digital content.

As I said over on The Media Briefing:

For a long time, we’ve been creating too much content, so much so that I think that we’ve already reached Peak Content, the point at which this glut of things to read, watch and listen to becomes completely unsustainable. There hasn’t been enough ad revenue to sustain it for years and, with 2015 ending with a rush of acquisitions, consolidations and funding rounds with eye-watering valuations, 2016 will mark the beginning of a shake out.

Market crashes are the tsunamis that sink, if not all, then a lot of boats, and it’s time to take strategic action.

And although I’ve spent most of my career working in journalism, I’m not just talking about journalists and the commentariat, I’m talking about every kind of content. We’re producing too many podcasts, too many TV shows, video games, status updates and images than we could consume in a million lifetimes. Social updates are as much about communication as they are publishing or broadcasting, but they still eat up that scarce resource of attention. As a data journalist, I like hard numbers, and streaming music service Pandora gave us one on just how scarce attention is.

Attention is such an important topic for marketers this year because living in a connected world means our attention spans are at an all-time low (8 seconds1, to be exact), turning people into master jugglers of devices and content.

As my piece went live on the Media Briefing, it coincided with a number of articles indicating that a shake-out is already in progress. Ricardo Bilton at Digiday predicted a “winter of discontent” for digital publishers as many high-profile sites saw their traffic plateau, including Buzzfeed. Some of this is to be expected. It’s nearly impossible to maintain triple digit growth. He writes:

The challenges on the business side are fueled by the overabundance of publishers on the Web. Ad buyers are looking for deeper deals with a handful of partnerships, which is bad news for the sites that don’t make the cut.

This year will begin as 2015 ended, with a rush for digital publishers pivoting or looking for buyers. Bilton wrote that Mashable is shopping itself around, and it wasn’t too long ago that we heard that The Atlantic was exploring a sale of Quartz. For those not seeing the growth that they need to sell at a valuation that will sate their funders, we are seeing retrenching and pivots, or both in the case of Upworthy. Even seemingly safe and stable digital media players such as the Huffington Post are announcing layoffs in one area that had seen a lot of growth over the past 18 months, video.

This is all to say that those people commenting on my original piece who focused on the disruption in the legacy media business are missing the main point: This glut of content is hitting everyone who operates in the digital media space, apart from the only true unicorns of Google and Facebook.

We are fast approaching the end of this cycle though that has prioritised cheap scale above all else. As I wrote for The Media Briefing:

…flooding a glutted market only leads to a deflationary spiral until it becomes completely uneconomic to produce that commodity. It is a simple matter of economics, and it doesn’t matter whether that commodity is maize or media.

Tom Mullaly said in a comment on the post: “The market does not ‘abhor super-abundance’. Businesses trading in a super-abundant commodity abhor its abundance, and that’s an entirely different thing. Consumers of it revel in it, and that means you can monetize it, even if it’s not quite the news you knew.” Sure, for lovers of high quality content, it’s a golden age of choice in terms of incredible TV, international journalism and audio content, but it cannot last if it cannot be paid for. As Clay Shirky said years ago, “Abundance breaks more things than scarcity does.”

What happens now? 

For years now, one of my conference presentations begins by laying out this issue of overabundance and different ways to try to deal with it. As Peak Content becomes more well-known as an issue, we’re seeing a number of different prescriptions.

Tom Goodwin of Havas has written that in this flood of content, attention shouldn’t be our focus but rather clarity.

And I’m far from the first person to use the term Peak Content. It’s been circulating in marketing circles for a while now, and Erica Berger used the term in a Medium post in early December. She wrote:

To sum this up, the ecosystem we’re in right now is at highest editorial capacity for content, coupled with a shifting revenue stream away from publishers and to networks and large tech companies. There’s no hack that I or many smart people can see. That’s why we’ve reached “Peak Content.”

That said, she is optimistic about the passing of Peak Content seeing it as “an opportunity of a generation” to remake media.

But having survived both the crash, when an early generation of digital content companies were wiped out, and the Great Recession, which I survived by building my own global media consultancy, I know that when a bubble bursts it wipes as many good companies as bad. Yes, there is an opportunity here, as there always is, but it will also get messy. I absolutely agree with Tom and Erica that it’s a time for clarity and an opportunity to make something better than what came before.

But how?

I’m not going to rewrite my Media Briefing piece, but I think media companies, and this goes for you whether you’re a seed-funded start-up or a legacy media business trying to ride out what seems like the perfect storm, need to as a minimum:

  • Sharpen your strategic focus – If you’re not going to play the volume game, ask yourself what audience you serve and how will you monetise that attention. Get creative and think of things beyond the ad/subscriber dichotomy.
  • Iterative agility – Screw fail fast; instead learn quickly. Yes, failing fast is about the willingness to experiment and take risks, but the major challenge that I have seen in a lot of companies is that they fail to funnel the lessons, good and bad, back into the business.
  • Decide what you stop doing – When I worked for the Media Development Investment Fund, one of the key lessons we realised that digital start-ups had to learn was when to let go, when to stop doing something because it wasn’t supporting their success. The same goes for legacy media companies. As I wrote at Media Briefing, “one of the biggest challenges I had as an executive editor, (was) figuring out what we could stop doing that would free up enough staff time to innovate in a way that could really move the dial.”
  • Invest in revenue innovation – Never launch anything without revenue streams in mind. For every editorial innovation, I’d invest in two on the commercial side.

I want to amplify that last point because the biggest issue we have right now is that, in terms of unique users, we can reach a larger audience than ever, but no one can monetise millions of single unique users who spend 30 seconds or less with you each month.

Of all of the predictions and forecasts that I saw at the end of 2015, Amanda Hale’s, of Talking Points Memo, struck me as the clearest. She wrote for Nieman Lab:

We’ve reinvented journalism school time and time again and have nobly funded countless entrepreneurial journalism fellowships aimed at equipping journalists with basic tech and business skills (“entrepreneurial journalism,” while adjacent, is a different discipline — email me and I’ll explain), but as an industry, we have done very little to identify, pipeline, and train the publishing talent that will be responsible for securing the financial future of news.

Amen. She notes that her Twitter bio says, “Without a business plan, there is no freedom of the press.” Yup. That. As this shake-out gathers pace, scale at all costs will fade as the goal. To quote my Media Briefing piece a final time, “huge audiences don’t matter in the absence of a business model”.

If you want to hire me to work with your media, advertising or marketing company or start-up, I have just launched a consultancy, Ship’s Wheel Media, to provide digital product development, content strategy (especially social, mobile, data and visual) and content services. I am also open to discussing full-time roles. If interested, send me an email – kevin AT – or connect with me on LinkedIn

For Hire: Heading back to the future

Nearly two years after I joined Gannett, and as a result of the ongoing restructuring and latest wave of cuts, I now find myself back on the job market. My job as Executive Editor of the Sheboygan Press, Manitowoc Herald Times Reporter, Oshkosh Northwestern and Fond du Lac Reporter has been eliminated, and my responsibilities shared out amongst other staff.

I feel lucky to have worked with some amazing people, and I want to pay tribute to my former colleagues at all of the sites that I oversaw at some point during the 20 months. You delivered the best journalism that you possibly could; you pushed the envelope and tried new things; you were visible on social media and in the communities; and you rolled with the punches. I’d thank every one of you personally, but they’d start playing the Oscars end-the-speech music. I must thank one person in particular, though: Lowell Johnson, the general manager of Sheboygan and Manitowoc. He taught me a lot about management and the business of local media. More than that, he is a champion for his communities and a great guy. I really will miss working with him.

I saw the handwriting on the wall several months ago, so was already in the process of developing a Plan B. It is essential these days, no matter if you work in legacy media or a VC-funded start-up, to have an eye on other opportunities. Luckily, the market is much better now than in 2013, when I was last looking and the world had barely begun its slow climb out recession. In the past 36 hours, I’ve already discussed some options that have me more excited than I’ve been in years.

That being said, I really want to think broadly about my next steps and I am very much open to exploring other ideas and opportunities. In 1996, I went boldly towards digital because I had seen the future, and knew it was digital. A decade ago, I was sitting in the BBC News Online newsroom chatting with Paul Brannan, then the deputy editor of the site, and he expressed succinctly why we were passionate about what we were doing. “Everyday, we get up and get to create the future of media,” he said. Damn straight. It was thrilling then, and it’s just as thrilling now. My future still is digital.

That’s about the only filter I’ll put on this job search. Here’s my goal:

To find a position that fully utilises my two decades of global experience as a media innovator, leader and executive. That position could be with a disruptive project at a major news organisation, a communications position with a progressive company, a leadership position with a media start-up or a teaching and research position at a forward-thinking higher education institution.

For those of you who don’t know my background, here’s my potted bio and achievements:

  • In 1998, I became the BBC’s first online journalist outside of the UK. We pioneered multi-platform storytelling and audience engagement techniques years before they became mainstream.
  • In 2005, I was part of the launch team of the BBC World Service interactive radio programme, World Have Your Say.
  • In 2006, I became The Guardian’s first blogs editor, and I was part of a team that oversaw a dramatic explosion in the blog network at The Guardian.
  • In 2010, I took a buyout from the Guardian to join Suw and take our media consultancy global. I trained hundreds of Al Jazeera journalists in engagement and social media verification techniques before and during the Arab Spring. Suw and I were part of the launch team for for India’s Network 18.
  • Since 2011, I have been and continue to be an in-demand data journalism trainer and consultant, working with CNN International, Reed Business International, Czech TV, Singapore Press Holdings and WAN-IFRA.
  • Since 2012, I have been a faculty member for the Eurovision Academy, the training centre for the European Broadcasting Union. I have done data journalism and multi-platform newsroom management courses and am co-presenting a seminar on innovative converged newsrooms.
  • In 2012, I was a member of the management team of the Media Development Investment Fund, which invests in independent media in countries without a history of free media. I was the editorial lead and a on staff consultant for the Fund’s Knowledge Bridge, which was created to help clients in the portfolio transition successfully to digital.
  • From 2014 until recently, I was a regional local media executive with Gannett, overseeing a handful of news sites in Wisconsin. In the first year, we grew reach at the two sites I initially oversaw off the back of strong digital growth. At HTR News Media, we grew reach from 84 percent to an astounding 87 percent.

In an ideal world, Suw and I would love to stay put in Sheboygan. We love where we’ve landed, our lovely little corner of Wisconsin, but we are both realistic and are willing, albeit reluctantly, to relocate.

Good talent is hard to find, and the depth of global, digital experience I have is very rare.  If you’re interested, get in touch.

Podcast revolution driven by mobile devices with four wheels

Podcasting has been buzzing over the last year in the US. One reason is smart content, with NPR’s Serial, which was download at least 80 million times.

However, there is a tech aspect at play as well. According to podcast hosting service Libsyn, two-thirds of podcasts were downloaded by mobile devices in 2014, up from 43 percent just two years before. But this is not just about the rise of the smartphone but also of connected cars. 

My car can connect to three apps on my iPad or smartphone – podcast and local service discovery app aha, music streaming app Pandora and podcast app Stitcher. Of course, I can stream anything from my device to my car via bluetooth, but these apps have controls integrated with my car’s infotainment system. I can move easily through the menus using a joystick dial in the centre console of my car. If I find a coffee shop, restaurant or retailer via aha, the address finder is integrated with my cars satnav. 

And all of this means that podcasting is starting to make appealing revenue. For the full piece, head on over to the Media Briefing

Saving local journalism with vision

Local journalism is struggling. It’s struggling to develop revenue streams that will replace the classified and print display ads that it has lost over the past two decade, and I know that we also have a challenge to engage our audiences in this media saturated environment. 

Tom Grubisich of Street Fight Mag gives a great overview of some of the deep thinking going on about local media in the US on his way to laying out his prescription. 

I think the entire local news industry – both “legacy” newspapers and broadcasters and entrepreneurial and corporate “pure plays” – need to get out of their journalistic, Fourth Estate mindset and show their communities that they are all-in. They have to do this not only with residents they want as readers but also local merchants as advertisers. And with everybody else in the civic space. Otherwise, they’ll continue to be minor players in the otherwise thriving local digital space.

Amen, brother. As journalists, we have an almost religious belief in The Mission, but in local media, we must connect with our communities. This week, I’m having the third community forum for my four newsrooms. We’re going out to meet our communities, and this isn’t just a one-off. We’re going to be at farmers’ markets and other community events. We want to show our commitment to our communities and be visible, not just as individuals but as a team. 

Grubisich highlights how Steven Waldman has recommended in his “Report for America” that national and local philanthropic groups should support investigative reporters on two-year placements on short-staffed local news teams to do deep accountability journalism.

But Grubisich believes that “communities deserve more”, and he believes that they news organisations need vision. They need “an auspicious mission”, and he believes that to capture the imagination of Millennials and donors, this mission needs to be something like tracking the huge demographic shifts in the US. 

I think that this is one vision, and I believe that these large thematic stories are important. They help drive conversations in communities and build context for audiences that drive engagement. 

In our regional news group, Gannett Wisconsin Media, we did this with our State of Opportunity project. This project looked at the recruiting challenge companies have in our communities. We’ve getting hit with a double whammy. Our employers can’t fill the openings they have due to a number of factors – drugs, skills gap and the ’Silver Tsunami’. What’s the Silver Tsunami? I’ve spoken to major employers in our communities, and they say that up to 30 percent of their workers may retire in the next five years. That’s not only a huge hit in terms of numbers, but these are their most experienced workers. A lot of talent and skill will walk out the door. If we don’t find a way to meet this challenge in the coming years, our communities will get hit by a huge economic drag when some haven’t recovered from the Great Recession. The next five years are pivotal and will set the future course of these communities. Will they grow and thrive or enter decline? 

And that brings up one caveat that I have about vision. I like Tom Grubisich’s idea, but the vision you choose has to be rooted in your community. We can talk about grand visions and national trends, but these visions have to have local relevance. Otherwise, what’s the point of a local news outlet? That may sound obvious, but with consolidation and centralisation, a lot of these grand visions are driven from the centre to the periphery. What sounds good at larger cities or at HQ may not mean a jot to local audiences. That is a huge, but obvious danger with these macro-trends being the focus of the centralised editorial strategies. 

Local journalism: Business models that don’t rely on scale

Emily Bell hired me at The Guardian, and she has just delivered a speech in which she says what I already know.

The demands of web scale economics have torpedoed the local news model; they have also driven great invention and a new set of entrepreneurial skills into journalism.

Later she elaborates what web scale means.

A viral story is the holy grail. And viral does not mean a couple of hundred thousand any more, it means millions. Sometimes tens of millions.

I know Emily is right that one successful digital business model is scale, but I don’t believe that is the only business model. It’s just one that works right now, in some contexts. Scale isn’t new – it has always been successful, long before the internet and mobile media came along.

But I’ll sketch out the challenge for local media. I am the editor of a number of local newspapers in the US, and I’ll take one, the Sheboygan Press as an example. The total population of Sheboygan County is 114,922. That’s not even a million, much less tens of millions. And, to make things worse, the internet has undermined many of the geographical advantages that local newspapers used to enjoy.

On this basis, I might as well throw in the towel, but I’m nowhere near ready to do that. The challenge for local news is to create a new range of products for audiences born digital and mobile. For too long we’ve been trying to find a market for the same products that we used to deliver in print, and that just won’t work. We can’t simply write that local council story the same way that we used to and hope that social media will be enough to market it. I’m really not sure that those incremental, process-based stories actually engage audiences. Instead, we need thematic stories and engagement opportunities that tackle big issues in sticky ways.

There will not be a single source of revenue that will replace the fat revenues that we used to earn from print. But I have the insane, audacious belief that I can come up with another business model with multiple lines of new revenue: Digital marketing services, events and social strategies that deeply engage local audiences and make money. As Jim Brady once said to me, there is no silver bullet to save local media, just a lot of shiny shrapnel.

As I did when I was at The Guardian, I’m using third party services, the duck tape and spit of the internet, to bring the cost of experimentation down as close to zero as possible. I’m relentlessly measuring what I do, and I’m ruthless and unsentimental about failure. Learn from things that work and things that don’t work. Learn fast rather than fail fast. And, when we hit on something that works, we’re going to scale as much as we possibly can.

And we in journalism need to get over our aversion to selling. We’re being outsold at every turn, and in order to survive, we need to sell the value of the public service we provide, sell so hard that it will make P.T. Barnum blush. This is an existential battle for attention, and we need to sell a vision of local journalism rooted in service to our communities. And I’m not going to pussyfoot around this, we need to get over our aversion to making some coin.

No, I don’t think that every journalist needs to be out there selling subscriptions and ads, but every journalist needs to realise that the battle for attention that we’re fighting. Every journalist needs to understand the business we’re in and how it is changing.

I know that this is a daunting challenge, but I’ve never shirked from a challenge. Bring it on.

Journalism job seekers: What to bring to the interview

I know from my own recent job search how difficult it is to get that interview. Once you get an interview, you want to give it your best. From my own recent experience interviewing journalism candidates, I found that candidates, both starting out and experienced, were failing to put their best foot forward once they landed an interview.

Since starting as executive editor for two newspapers in February, I’ve been through two interview cycles, one to fill the position of regional features editor and another for summer intern positions in both of my newsrooms. Now that I’ve conducted a couple of dozen interviews with candidates, I’m going to offer up some advice to job seekers. Most of this I would have thought obvious, but I have been shocked at how few candidates I interviewed came properly prepared.

  • Come with story ideas. Whether it is for a reporter’s or an editor’s position, prepare detailed and relevant story ideas to discuss in the interview. For both the editor’s role and the summer intern position, I had people completely fail to bring story ideas. That doesn’t fill me with confidence in your interest in this position.
  • Research my publications. Throughout my job search, when I got an interview I did as much research about the publications of my potential new employers as I could. Not only does this generate the story ideas mentioned above, it also allowed me to demonstrate some understanding, admittedly superficial, of the local news climate and the challenges facing the business. I was shocked when applicants hadn’t even bothered to look at my sites.
  • Do a little research about the community. The more that you can demonstrate an understanding of the communities and audiences you will be serving, the better. An international business newspaper has a very different community to a local weekly, for example, and story ides for one may not work for the other. Researching the community will, again, help you come up with relevant story ideas.
  • Bring ideas on how to build audience and yes, revenue. This isn’t a mistake, but in this competitive job market, this gets my attention. A couple of candidates for the regional editor’s position highlighted this in their resumes and cover letter, and it immediately got my attention. Although both were ultimately unsuccessful, this got my attention. In 2014, a journalist needs to know and care about the business.

I would have thought that most of this was Job Search 101, but I was surprised at how poorly prepared some of the people who applied for jobs at my papers were. One applicant for the regional features editor’s job didn’t even seem to be aware of the job she had applied for, saying that she wanted to be a features or opinions editor. Within a few minutes it became obvious that she was neither interested in nor prepared for the interview. It was a first round interview to winnow the field, and she definitely made my job easier.

In both interview cycles, we ended up with great candidates who made the final choice very difficult. The successful candidates came to the interview with energy, knowledge of the papers and community, and great story ideas.

The journalism job market is very tough. I know: I spent six months last year looking to move from media consultancy back into a full-time newsroom leadership position. It was a lot harder to get interviews this time round than was back in 2006, the last time I was looking for a job. So when you do land that interview, you really want to nail it.

I don’t think that any of the advice above is earth shattering, but based on interviews I’ve conducted recently, it either isn’t universally known, or candidates think they don’t have to bother. But if you really want that job, then a little legwork up front will pay big dividends when it comes to the interview.

I’m doing a new round of interviews for a reporting position in one of my newsrooms. We’ve already had a number of strong applicants, but if you have a passion to create the future of local journalism, then I want you to apply. I’ll be starting the first round interviews soon so don’t delay.

Newspapers: Community, priorities and platforms

I’ve been having a cracking conversation via blogs, Facebook and Twitter about how newspapers can rethink what they cover and, in doing so, cover more of the lived experience in their communities. When I said ‘cover more’, some journalists felt as if I was adding another bale of straw to their already breaking backs.

Andrea Gillhoolley, the community engagement team leader and reporter for the Lebanon (Pennsylvania) Daily News said this to me on Twitter:

After years of declining readership and revenues that have led to savage cuts, to say that local journalists are stretched thin is an understatement. They are stretched to breaking point. I understand that. I was with the BBC for eight years, and half of the time I was there, there were cuts. I was with The Guardian three and a half years, and half of the time I was there, there were cuts, and deep ones.

When the cuts started, the talk was about ‘doing more with less’. It was about finding efficiencies and cutting out the duplication of effort, but after years of cuts, newsrooms now find themselves able to do less with much less. Editors have had to become a lot more creative on how they work with the staff they have left, with other resources if they are in a group, and with their communities.

John Robinson started this conversation when he challenged newspapers to break out of their traditional paradigm. In that post, he asked:

Is the disconnect between how I live and what the news covers unusual?

And he added:

What would happen if the newspaper or TV station compared their typical content with the day-to-day interests and activities of their readers/viewers? And what if they took those results and changed the way they report the news? Would that make their products more relevant to the people they aim to serve?

John was talking changing the mix of coverage to increase relevance, not simply doing more, an idea which really resonated with me.

For years, I have been talking about how journalism competes in the attention economy. In an age when content, information and entertainment are not scarce, people’s time and attention is the scarce resource. Newspapers aren’t just competing against other newspapers, magazines or TV and radio outlets that produce news. Newspapers in particular, and journalism in general, are competing against every other thing that can capture people’s disposable time and attention. That’s the competitive challenge, and it is daunting when one considers that we join this fight with smaller staffs and fewer resources.

Creating a community platform

Journalism can win in this hyper-competitive fight for people’s attention, and we’re starting to see digitally-savvy media organisations succeed such as PolicyMic and Buzzfeed (my jetlagged brain originally wrote Buzzworthy – the merger of Buzzfeed and Upworthy). It’s a new mix of internet memes, content and commentary. Newspapers have always been a package of hard news, lifestyle and comment, something that is much clearer outside of the US (where I’m from) than inside, where a particular model of non-partisan media, an anodyne AP-style with little voice, has come to rule.

For local media, I don’t really see the option to become partisan like the British press or US cable news. Local media became non-partisan in the US because it was the only way economically to appeal to a wide enough cross-section of the community with a single publication. I also don’t see local newsmedia becoming regional versions of Buzzfeed. However, I do see the opportunity to become the voice for the community.

Steve Yelvington, a friend and someone I look up as a true journalism pioneer, has been speaking about a “new kind of people’s journalism” for more a decade. In a post last year, he expanded on what he meant, specifically saying that “people’s journalism isn’t ‘citizen journalism'”. He said:

We can apply traditional definitions of “newsworthy” and “journalism” if we like, but there’s really not much point. This new news will flow of its own accord, propelled by people’s interests. There are no gatekeepers in this environment. … Professional journalism has had years to think about how to adapt to this new reality, and on the whole, it’s failed. [This people’s journalism is] not a replacement. It’s a new, complex model that obsoletes some of what pro journalism did in the era of mass media but creates new opportunities for adding value.

The key is focusing on the “new opportunities for adding value”. I still believe that there is an opportunity for local newsmedia to become community platforms. This goes far beyond simply monitoring social media and using it as voxpops (man-on-the-street quotes) for stories.

Steve’s thinking led to Bluffton Today, “a blog-centered community website”, which is still going seven years after launch. In 2007, Steve was interviewed by IFRA about the project, and it is worth reading in full, and this is the thinking behind the project:

The important thing to recognize about Bluffton Today is that it’s a multimedia operation that endeavors to exploit the unique strengths of each medium.

The newspaper is free and home-delivered, taking advantage of print’s advantages in browsability and discovery. The website engages people in a conversation through blogs and photo-sharing, taking advantage of the Internet’s advantages in human interaction and immediacy. These two sides come together through a professional news staff that uses the Web as a listening post. We pick up some blogs and photos for the print product, but the real “secret sauce” is that the community conversation helps the professional journalist connect with the real interests and passions of regular people, and not just the agendas of the institutions and newsmakers that pro journalists usually cover. Our own research shows that the professional news staff of Bluffton Today is closely aligned with members of the community when asked about community issues and problems, while there is a big gap at most other newspapers. We think that tight alignment is one of the big factors contributing to the extraordinary readership success of the newspaper.

It is a community platform in which professional news staff play a slightly different role by amplifying the real interests and passions of the community, things that people “groove on”, as Dan Conover said in a comment on John’s original post.

How does a community platform scale?

The challenges for many larger media companies is how to use their scale effectively against an army of digital insurgents that don’t share incumbents’ cost base. I think that local media face a slightly different challenge, even if they are part of a larger group. Yes, they can draw on the group’s resources for regional coverage, but that regional coverage will most likely be done reasonably well by other media than a local newspaper. The real place to add value is local content and conversations that no one else is providing.

This gets us back to the original issue I touched on: How do you scale local content with greatly reduced staff?

This is where the community platform is key, and the concept of a local platform is different in 2013 than when Bluffton Today launched in 2007 in part because most local audiences are probably already interacting online on a social network. Here are just some ideas on how to create an economically viable, scalable community platform. 

• Sharing photos

Steve and his group, Morris, were smart. They created a local photo sharing service, Spotted, which you can see on Bluffton Today. In 2007, Steve told me that at some of the newspaper sites for Morris, up to 40 percent of traffic was to local photo galleries.

The best photos can be highlighted not only online but also in the newspaper. People still like to see their words and their pictures in print. 

What shocks me is that many newspapers developed the ability for their audiences to share photos only to abandon these efforts. My guess is that they feel the efforts cannot compete with Instagram, Facebook or Flickr, but I’ll wager that there was a ‘build it and they will come’ attitude. Communities take effort, and this is especially true these days with so many social media services competing for people’s online attention. 

• A true community forum

“A good newspaper, I suppose, is a nation talking to itself,” playwright Arthur Miller said in 1961. Journalism has always been about more than simply providing information, and for me, the greatest opportunities remain for newspapers both national and local in becoming a platform for real conversations. I mean much, much more than comments on the bottom of articles or staff produced columns. ‘Community’ on most news sites is an entirely passive, technology-focused effort that manages to suck the social out of social media. 

USAToday has long had head-to-head pieces on major issues. There should be much more of this on local issues. 

Josh Stearns, with the Freepress project, has also  contributed to this blog conversation. His concern is that as news media struggle for survival that they will only focus on affluent audiences that premium advertisers want to reach. He referred to a 2006 talk that “editor Tom Stites gave at UMass Amherst in 2006. ‘Why is it that less-than-affluent Americans are being zoned out of serious reporting?’” This is even more important today as inequality is on the rise in many countries across Europe and North America. 

However, it comes back to the same question as above about resourcing. How do weakened news organisations cover a wider range of society? Again, a community platform strategy can help with this, providing a place for groups and people to provide perspectives that might not be covered. This is not an effortless or resource-free strategy – a mistaken assumption made by many media organisations – but a platform strategy is about multiplying your resources through outreach. 

• Engage super-users

When I was on the launch team of the BBC’s World Have Your Say, one of my strategies was to engage our most passionate users. At conferences, I often give the example of a listener that I simply referred to as “Steve from Utah”. I asked him to test an audio commenting technology that we wanted to use. He not only tested it, but without me even asking, he recorded a promo for the new service. If you engage your most passionate members of your audience, you’ll be amazed at what they’ll do. recently reported on how Swedish Radio has been engaging its super-users:

In addition to four people within a dedicated social media team, local super-users generate ideas and inspire teams at the various radio stations. The super-users are themselves organised by a Facebook group, and have annual masterclasses.

These active social media strategies go far beyond passive comments on articles, which don’t attract much engagement on many local newspapers anyway. These are active strategies that require active outreach, and if I were an editor of a newspaper, I would lead these efforts. 

To me, redirecting some of the scarce resources remaining to these strategies would be a much more strategic use of staff time and effort. I believe that it would deliver a newspaper and digital services more in touch and more engaged with the communities it serves, and that for me is a good place to start rebuilding local journalism.