Which newspapers will survive?

For much of the nearly two years that I served as an executive editor for a shifting group of small Gannett newspapers in Wisconsin, I often asked myself: Which newspapers will survive? Trust me, it wasn’t an idle thought experiment. That’s the question I decided to try to answer in a recent piece for The Media Briefing in the UK.

The newspapers I oversaw were actually doing pretty well with growing reach and revenue. However, I know that the picture wasn’t so sunny across much of the industry.

Since my job as executive editor of a group of small newspapers in Wisconsin was eliminated in early October, it seems like a week hasn’t gone by when there hasn’t been announcements of cuts in newspapers – Tribune Publishing (almost 10 percent of its workforce is gone in 2015, the Boston Globe, swingeing cuts in Pittsburgh and Philly. It is pretty bloody out there, and we’re entering a final convulsion of consolidation in the industry as big groups like Gannett try to scale their way to compete with the big digital platform players.

Personally, I believe the next three to five years will see a major shakeout in English language media. Simply put, there is too much content chasing a finite amount of attention and advertising. Market corrections almost always overshoot, and this correction has been a while in coming so I expect that this will be bloody and brutal. And newspapers aren’t the only media that will suffer. As we’ve seen in the last month, premium cable sports giant ESPN and even early digital publishers like Gawker are having to retrench and retool. But print was in the vanguard of media to suffer, only really trailing music in terms of digital disruption. This leads me to the question: Which newspapers will survive?

Size matters

Simply put, quite a few won’t. However, I think that some newspapers will survive, and print will still be a pretty significant part of their business, although digital will drive a lot of their growth. I agree with John Stackhouse, the former editor-in-chief of the Globe and Mail in Canada, newspapers (and newspaper groups) will survive if they are either huge or small. The middle is getting clobbered, and that includes a lot of major metro and mid-size papers in the US.

The challenge for any newspaper group is that while on aggregate they fare pretty well in terms of scale, even when traffic from all of their properties are put together, they simply don’t reach the scale that the major digital platform players do. According to ComScore’s list of Top 50 Digital Media Properties for October 2015, Gannett, with the highest traffic of any US newspaper publisher, came in at number 17, just ahead of eBay. That’s not too shabby. But Gannett’s more than 101 m unique visitors were only 41 percent of Google’s uniques for the same month. That shows the challenge that most media companies are facing. ComScore Top 20 Digital Media Properties in the US October 2015

The major digital platforms are playing an entirely different game. When you look at Google and Facebook, they have all the advantages of massive scale and laser-guided ad targeting without the cost of running a large network of newspapers. Sure, they have their overheads, but they do not compare with the cost of running the 20th Century industrial legacy that is involved with a national newspaper group. And if you’re the Guardian or the New York Times, and, let’s throw a newly resurgent Washington Post, in the mix, you can have national reach without the expense of a local footprint.

For newspaper survival, I really think that small is beautiful. They are still rooted in their communities, but beyond good will, in Sheboygan and Manitowoc, two of the newspapers I oversaw as an executive editor, we didn’t have any local TV competition. They only came when we had a Rob Ford-esque mayor, had an odd crime or needed some snowstorm pictures.

So, size does matter but so does the economic health of the community. If your community is on the economic rocks, it makes it very difficult for a newspaper to survive. Sheboygan County is rocking it economically. It had the third lowest unemployment of any county in Wisconsin in September, reaching a 15-year low, and it has major national and multinational companies headquartered here.

There is a lot of opportunity in community publishing that serves communities like Sheboygan. Not only do I think that newspapers and their digital services will survive in the Sheboygans across the country, if I were an investor, that is where I’d be putting my money.


What do we do less of, what do we more of?

My good friend Steve Yelvington highlighted this great post by John E. McIntyre at the Baltimore Sun: More more with less. He was commenting on the move by the Boston Globe to create a new class of multi-platform editors and the response that it had in the industry.

The idea of doing more with less or less with less is common as many legacy news organisations contract. Both phrases have become a bit toxic. Overworked journalists don’t feel they can do much more, and they also fear giving up more. I’ve seen journalists obsessively hold onto tasks because they think their jobs will be protected if they have enough tasks they do. If only that were true.

The real question is not simply about doing more or less with less, it’s really about what we must do and what we must stop doing. One of the biggest obstacles to innovation in legacy media organisations is how tightly we hold onto things we’ve always done. Without giving up some things, we simply will not have the capacity to innovate.

As a local news executive, I also know how important it is to bring staff and your communities with you. If there was one bit of self-criticism that I would have of myself is that I haven’t been as engaged with my communities as I would like, wasn’t explaining as transparently as I would like what we’re doing. I can give the excuse that I’ve been sucked into the operational side of things far more than I had expected as we reorganise four newspapers, but that has to change.

Where you’re working, what is the thing you think you have to give up? What thing will do instead? I’m serious. I’d like to hear what you’re thinking. We have to brainstorm to deal with this. One of the most important things that nimble organisations do is that they decide what they stop doing so they can focus on what they must do.

Newsroom tools and culture change

Melody Kramer, one of the two-person social media team at NPR has a great post discussing how she and her colleagues built a tool to measure key metrics around the public broadcaster’s content. The post is a great overview of newsroom tool development, but more than that, it displays a great understanding of how to use tools to support and drive culture change.

You can build the most useful tool in the world, but if you can’t change people’s behaviors so that they use the tool and understand the value of the tool, then what’s the point? Culture—and changing existing habits—is key to introducing a new product in a newsroom.

How did they change culture?

To support the necessary cultural change we also launched the dashboard simultaneously with an auto-generated daily analytics email—one that summarizes the dashboard’s stats from the previous day, and linked to the dashboard for the 50 top stories from the day before—instead of the stories themselves. This means that everyone at NPR is exposed to the dashboard on a daily basis. In addition, we send out a daily email with social tips and tricks.

Brilliant post well worth reading.

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. 

Journalism.co.uk 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. 



Clark Gilbert’s five business model ideas that are changing the news industry

After writing about how print-digital integration was absolutely the wrong response to digital disruption, I’ve been going back to more of the ideas of Clay Christensen and Clark Gilbert on how the news industry should respond to disruption. I would strongly encourage you to take an hour and a half of your time and watch Clark Gilbert speak at Harvard University’s Nieman Foundation. I had read his ideas, but he’s even more forceful and compelling in person (or via video).

Clark Gilbert, Deseret News – April 25, 2013 from Nieman Foundation on Vimeo.

He quotes the president of an online newspaper division:

Overall, the newspaper industry’s involvement in the internet has been one where it had a lot to lose and it’s been trying not to lose it, as opposed to starting from scratch and having a lot to win.

Gilbert has created a disruptive division that is all about winning digital opportunities. About 47 minutes in, he lays out five business model ideas that are changing the news industry and are helping his digital division grow at 40 percent year-over-year.

  1. Digital revenue should a third of your business in 2012 and half of your business by 2015
  2. A digital buyer needs a digital seller
  3. New channels are the difference between Transformation A and Transformation B
  4. Digital marketplaces (Not Digital Publishing) will win
  5. Dual transformation requires new organisation

And he says that number 2 is non-negotiable, and watch the video at 51 minutes to see why Gilbert is even more adamant about that now. Your jaw will drop. Seriously, this is worth your time.

They have four digital advertising channels:

  1. Companies that want a legacy-digital bundle
  2. Large local digital only
  3. Small local digital only
  4. National advertisers that do a significant amount of targeting and re-targeting.

He said that he recently noticed that the legacy-digital bundle sales had plateaued, but one of his other channels (he didn’t say which one) is growing by 70 percent year-over-year, which is just one reason why they have 40 percent year-over-year digital revenue growth.

Number four will interest everyone who is in local media. He says that digital marketplaces are winning local.

Gilbert makes an even more forceful case than he did in Austin where I saw him in April that integration, especially on the business side, was absolutely the wrong idea. When the Washington Post integrated its print and digital, digital revenue growth stopped. When the Dallas Morning news integrated print and digital, digital revenue growth stopped, Gilbert said.

Contrast that with Gilbert’s company. In 2009, legacy revenue accounted for 90 percent of the business and digital came only from 10 percent. In 2012, he said that legacy revenue channels would account for only 33 percent of overall revenue. Digital revenue is now bigger than revenue at their TV station and their radio station, and it will soon pass print.

I’ll just finish with this comment from Gilbert:

News is not a business model. It’s a public good.

However, you can build a business around the brand that you create with this public good.

Fellow journalists, you should be fighting for this kind of thinking because Gilbert plows back a third of all the profit from the digital division to fund the newsroom.

Visualize Your Data: 25 Javascript Visualization Libraries Web Design and Web Development Agency based in Palma de Mallorca, Baleares, Spain – MA-NO Web Design and Development

See on Scoop.itData journalism

Do you need to reformat data for use in another application? Use it for an interactive Web graphic?

Kevin Anderson‘s insight:

A good list of the JavaScript libraries available for data visiualisation including well known ones like Raphael and DS3.

See on www.ma-no.org

Data-driven presentations using Slidify – Data Community DC

Note: I’m trying something new. I share a lot of links on Twitter, but I want to capture those links as well, which Twitter isn’t ideal for. I am still relying on Delicious and Evernote for the bulk of saving, but I thought I’d try something new to share with readers of Strange Attractor. Let me know what you think. 
See on Scoop.itData journalism

Create great data-driven HTML5 presentations using Slidify, an R package for transforming RMarkdown to HTML using a variety of templates.

Kevin Anderson‘s insight:

Merges presentation and data analysis using the open-source stats package, R to output HTML5 slide decks.

See on datacommunitydc.org

News organisations’ activity on Google+ courtesy of MuckRack and Poynter

Suw wrote about the rollout of business pages for Google+, and I quickly saw a flurry of activity from news organisations. Al Jazeera quickly set up business pages for its channels and also some of its programmes, such as the social media program, the Stream.*

Muckrack has an excellent roundup on posts about Google+ and journalism. The links include articles by Caleb Garling on Wired about how Google+ posed a greater threat to Facebook pages than to Twitter and also from GigaOm’s Mathew Ingram who voiced concerns about linking journalists’ profile and their stories. The Muckrack post also a good list of news organisations that have set up their stalls on Google+. The number grew quite quickly after Google opened up Plus to businesses.

Jeff Sonderman at Poynter also has a good brief piece looking at how Fox News using Google+ Hangouts to interview Republican candidates. Broadcasters in the US and elsewhere are definitely using Hangouts, and I saw the English language channel of France 24 invite viewers to take part in a hangout in late September or early October.

Google+ vs Twitter vs Facebook (and vs LinkedIn)

I’m very curious about how to use Hangouts to engage audiences, and it’s good to see news organisations try to stay with audiences as they try out new social tools. As for Google+, I think it has potential, but as a user, it still hasn’t become an essential part of my day. As I said on Google+, this is why:

  1. Google+ is still a destination, and although I use a lot of Google products, it still doesn’t draw me back here.
  2. I travel a lot, and it’s not integrated into any of the tools that I use when I’m on the move, including apps like Gravity (or Tweetdeck or Seesmic).
  3. Even more importantly, Facebook and Twitter have great tools to use them with nothing more than SMS. No matter where I am, I can use it at very low cost. People can get messages to me. I can respond to comments or Twitter replies.

For that reason, Google+ still comes in fourth in terms of social media and networks behind Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.

* Disclosure: I do digital and mobile journalism and social media training with Al Jazeera staff.

Facebook and media: Show me the revenue!

After the Facebook announcements yesterday at its 2011 f8 developers conference, I’ve been trying to find the revenue model for the media apps. Will Facebook share revenue? Is this just a traffic driver? This is especially a concern if the audience never has to leave Facebook to read stories. How will these news organisations capture the value from the Facebook audience? I’m not finding many answers.

AdAge has a great story answering some, but not all, of these questions, but the answers should raise alarm bells for news organisations struggling to monetise their digital content. “Stories don’t link out to the publisher and can be read within Facebook.” So, will Facebook be paying for this content? Will news organisations now be counting Facebook impressions in their traffic stats? Will news organisations be able to sell ads against their content in Facebook? If that is the case, then Facebook will obviously want a cut of this.

Revenue models seem either non-existent or not well thought out.

When asked about the revenue model for Social Reader, a Washington Post spokeswoman said, via email, “The focus right now is on getting people to use it.”

What? You’re joking right?! At least the News Corp spokesperson said that there might be some ad support and it would tie into other apps. Clear Channel wouldn’t comment on the revenue model for its iHeartRadio app.

Simply getting eyeballs isn’t enough in 2011, and the lack of detail about how these news organisations plan to capture revenue from these apps to support journalism is very, very worrying.

News organisation web stats: Break out bounce

Frédéric Filloux looks at the metered paid content systems that the FT an the New York Times have in place in his most recent post. I have yet to be sold on how the New York Times is trying to segment their readership based on platform, but I think they are doing the right thing in terms of trying to get their most loyal readers to help support their journalism. I also like how they are trying to reward their most loyal readers with extras, such as their behind the scenes report on how they covered the mission that killed Osama bin Laden.

Frédéric touches on the issue of loyalty in his post.

One the dirtiest little secrets of the online media business is the actual number of truly loyal readers — as opposed to fly-bys. No one really wants to know (let alone let anyone else know). Using a broad brush, about half of the audience is composed of casual users dropping by less than 3 times a month, or sent by search engines; 25% come more than 10 times a month.

Spot on, and I think there is a lot of evidence to support his assertion that this has contributed to an erosion in advertising prices. Advertisers know that not all unique users are created equal. If a user views a single page during a visit, or even worse, is on a site less than 5 seconds, they might be counted as a unique user or visitor, but they are next to meaningless in terms of engagement with content and completely meaningless to an advertiser.

It’s quite clear that raw audience numbers do not a sustainable digital content business make. If that were the case, digital would be contributing significantly more to the bottom line than the 15% average that US newspapers are seeing. If this was the case, The Daily Mail would be making a mint off of its newly found digital success. The Mail has not only rushed ahead of its online competitors in the UK, but in April, it became the second most popular English-language ‘newspaper’ site in the world. (Quotes around newspaper because I’m not sure how the Huffington Post is considered a newspaper site, and if you were to include other news sites such as the BBC not to mention Yahoo News, that league table would look a lot different.) However, the Mail is squeezing paltry sums out of that audience, about 2p per visitor across Mail Online and metro.co.uk. (Rob Andrews at paidContent also points out in the same piece that DMGT makes most of its digital income, some £44m, from a separate digital division that operates travel, jobs and motoring ad services.)

The move from monthly uniques to average daily uniques has eliminated some double-counting from the stats, but it still doesn’t break out these fly-by visitors. The industry has to move to more honest and realistic metrics. In the UK, newspapers no longer report bulk print sales. I’d argue that it’s time to at the very least break out ‘bounce’, single-page, less than 5 second visitors (or however the industry wants to transparently measure it). If the industry really wanted to come clean, they’d just leave bounce out of the stats entirely. It’s meaningless traffic, the internet version of channel surfers. Loyalty is the new coin of the digital realm, and I’d wager that if we focus on that, it might even bring in a bit more coin.