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.


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 Firstpost.com 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

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.

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. 

Content metrics aren’t bad, measuring the wrong things is bad

My friend George Brock has taken aim at Trinity Mirror‘s Newsroom 3.1 plan on The Conversation:

Quite apart from the limp, tired name of “Newsroom 3.1”, the idea of trying to improve performance with detailed numbers of “hit rates” or “impact ratings” has been tried and doesn’t work.

Later he adds:

One way of helping – rather than scaring – Trinity Mirror journalists might be to concentrate on demonstrating that what they produce is valued by people in Birmingham and Coventry. Simple clicks are evidence of passing interest or curiosity, not of a piece of journalism being valued.

Ouch. I agree with George that volume numbers of alone – clicks and even unique users – aren’t going to help us grow our audiences.

Like Trinity Mirror, Gannett, where I work as an executive editor, has also been training our journalists on how to use metrics. It is part of a larger strategy to be more audience focused. But fortunately, the training goes beyond volume metrics to include engagement and loyalty metrics. The main question that we are trying to answer is how do we produce something that is so valuable to our communities that they will pay for it? Just this week, I pointed out to one of my staff that her story wasn’t just getting a lot of views or clicks, but that it also was having higher than average engagement. People were spending time with her story.

Suw and I often say in our training and consulting that metrics aren’t bad but be very careful about what you are measuring because you might end up optimising for the wrong thing. Suw says that we often fail to measure what is important because we focus on measuring what is easy.

Measuring impact and what what our audiences value is challenging, but we have to do it. And we have to get smarter in how we do it.

How Tor failed Social Media 101

There are some companies that appear to be native to the web, not just on the web but of the web. Often these companies were early adopters, building websites whilst others called the web a ‘fad’, starting blogs before most people knew what they were, and using social media in a way that makes them appear to have a sound and thorough understanding of the medium. Tor is one such company, but sadly, it has recently become clear that Tor does not actually understand social media and, in particular, has not developed or adhered to a crisis communications policy. 

The short story is that some month ago, two overlapping groups of people calling themselves the Sad Puppies and the Rabid Puppies campaigned to game the Hugo Awards, in which both nominations and awards are via a popular vote. Whatever one thinks of the people in and supporters of these groups, it is fair to say that they are engaging in what one might call grievance politics. Certainly there’s also an awful lot of identity politics involved, so temperatures on all sides are running high. If your’e not familiar with the backstory, a quick google will provide you with a wide variety of opinions on the Puppies, their politics and their activities.

What I am specifically concerned about, and why I’m disappointed in Tor, is their reaction to a complaint from one of the Puppies about a comment made by a Tor employee, Irene Gallo, on her personal Facebook page. Rather than taking a considered approach, Tor threw their employee under a bus, and appear to have broken every rule in the crisis comms rulebook. It’s sad to see that a company that in many other respects really gets the web, fails to understand how to manage the fallout from an online furore. 

Note: I have no insider knowledge of what went down at Tor, I only have their public statement to go on, but that in itself tells me a lot about what probably did and didn’t happen. 

1. Consider the situation 

The first mistake Tor appear to have made is that they did not fully understand and consider the situation. There are several aspects to this situation that raise red flags and call for especially careful handling of the response: 

Any one of those issues would flag a complaint as requiring careful thought, but all of them together add up to a warning to tread incredibly carefully indeed. I don’t think Tor did that. The wording of Tom Doherty’s blog post in response to the complaint is clumsy and ill-considered, and shows no signs of having been properly thought through. 

2. Take enough time, but not too much or too little

When the shit hits the social media fan, it is important to respond in a timely manner, but it’s even more important to avoid a kneejerk reaction. If an issue needs further inquiry before a full response is issued, then it’s acceptable to publicly acknowledge the complaint and say that it’s being looked into.

It may even be that no response is required – not every complaint is deserving of employer intervention. If an employee has a disagreement with a member of the public on her own Facebook page, it is possible that her apology on said Facebook page is sufficient, and that her employer need not step in at all. One can debate whether that was the case here or not, but it is an option that should have been considered, along with all others.  

Doherty’s response reads very much like a kneejerk reaction. it is, to all intents and purposes, a public disciplining of Gallo, which is entirely inappropriate no matter what Gallo did. If you address a complaint, you do not use it as an opportunity to shame your staff. Doherty should have taken more time to think about exactly what was going on and how his post would be read by the broader Tor community. 

3. Remember there are three sides to every argument

Any public response to a public complaint is made more complex by the fact that there are three parties involved: You, them, and the audience. In his rush to appease Gallo’s critics, Doherty appears to have forgotten that he might also anger people who agree or sympathise with Gallo, or who do not believe that the complaint against her has merit, or who, after reading his post, believe that the complaint has merit but that his response was inappropriate, etc. 

In chastising Gallo online, Doherty has alienated a lot of people, and that in and of itself is a massive failure for Tor that Doherty himself should be disciplined for. You simply do not rush in with a response that inflames the situation, especially when it’s obvious from the beginning that tempers are running high and offence is being easily taken. Indeed, the taking of offence is a key weapon in grievance politics, and Doherty should have both realised there was a major risk that his response as written might make the situation worse rather than better. 

4. Talk to your employee, work with them on both your response and theirs

Whether or not you agree with Gallo’s initial comment, it is clear that there was insufficient conversation between Gallo, Doherty and others at Tor about how best to deal with the situation. Gallo’s apology has been deemed a ‘fauxpology’ by some, and I can see how they would reach that conclusion. The key line is “I apologize to anyone hurt by my comments”, which might have been more appropriate worded as “I apologise for saying something offensive”. If you’re going to apologise, swallow your pride and do it properly and graciously, even if you feel you shouldn’t have to, and be very careful to avoid any wording which can be interpreted as shifting the blame on to those offended.

But equally, Doherty, does not appear to have discussed his response with either Gallo or anyone else who might have pointed out that it reads very poorly. When you respond to a complaint, you do not need to defend the complainant, you simply need to address the substance of the complaint, where it is valid, and explain if necessary any parts of the complaint you have concluded are not valid. Doherty did not do that. 

So what should Tor have done? 

There are two things that Tor should have done, and that all companies should do right now, if they haven’t already: 

1. Draft an employee social media policy

Work with their staff to draw up a social media policy, governing appropriate behaviour online. This policy should not have the effect of chilling speech, so it absolutely has to respect the fact that employees need to have their private spaces online. But it should discuss how to protect those spaces, and how to think about what can be said publicly and how to think through the potential fall-out of controversial statements.

A social media policy should also tie in to standard disciplinary procedures, so that staff are clear on what would constitute a serious transgression that would invoke that procedure, and how it will play out. Social media is not special or different, so should always follow standard HR procedures. Staff should never, ever, be chastised in public, and that this happened is a failure of senior Tor management that needs to be addressed.

2. Draft a crisis communications policy and procedure

When something goes awry, it’s essential that people across the company know what to do, who to talk to, and how to minimise the impact. Doherty has not done a single thing that I would recommend a company do, and instead of soothing ruffled feathers, he has inflamed the situation and alienated core customers. 

A crisis comms policy should again be drafted with staff, discuss the kinds of issues that can crop up, particularly the different between external crises, where an event outside of the company’s control causes a problem, and internal crises such as this one, where staff members says something without giving it enough thought.

There should be a chain of command, so that everyone knows how to escalate a problem, and there should always be two pairs of eyes on the response, particularly in small businesses where it’s easy to feel personally attacked and thus to overreact when things go wrong. There should be guidelines on how to properly respond, what to say, what not to say, how to formulate a reply that addresses the facts and not the emotion of a complaint, and when not to respond at all. 

I find it unlikely that Tor has such a procedure, given what’s just happened, and that again is a failure of senior management that they need to address, urgently. 

Note about comments: I am travelling at the moment, and because all comments are moderated there may be a delay in approval of your comment, should you choose to leave one. Abuse, rudeness or any incivility will simply result in the comment being deleted. Repeat offenders will be banned. I am not interested in a discussion of the Puppies or their politics, so those comments will not be published, along with any other off-topic comments. For the sake of clarity, on-topic comments are those about crisis comms and social media. 

I’m hiring: Come work with me to create the future of local news

Update: I wrote this post in 2015. Seven months after I wrote this post, my position was eliminated. Don’t worry. I had a Plan B, C and D, and it all worked out better than I could ever imagined. I am building information companies for the 21st Century. 

Just a little over a year ago, I started as executive editor over two Gannett newspapers, the Sheboygan Press and the Herald-Times-Reporter in Manitowoc Wisconsin. As of Monday, I’ve added two more titles to my stable, The Northwestern in Oshkosh and The Reporter in Fond du Lac. We are the newly formed Lakes group of newspapers.

I’ve put a lot of time and thought into how these newspapers will work together going forward, and if there is one thing that I have learned in my first year, our success is based on building strong relationships with our communities. We will have a laser light focus on high impact journalism and high engagement with our communities.

This focus is why we grew our audience last year in Sheboygan off the back of incredibly strong digital growth. That’s right, our audience grew, based on Scarborough data. That growth is supporting commercial success too. I’ve got just about the best commercial teams that anyone could ask for, and the Herald-Times had some of the best financial performance of any newspaper in all of Gannett’s Central Group last year. More than that, the HTR also just took top honours for the second year in a row in the Wisconsin Newspaper Association awards, sharing the award with our sister paper in Marshfield. That’s success no matter how you measure it.

No, my papers aren’t the New York Times or the BBC, but if you come and work with me, you’ll be working with someone who has been at the forefront of journalism innovation for decades. I was the BBC’s first online journalist outside of the UK. I was The Guardian’s first blogs editor, and after striking out on my own, I built a global media consultancy with my wife, the British social media pioneer, Suw Charman-Anderson. I worked with Al Jazeera on their social media efforts during the Arab Spring, and Suw and I helped launch a ground-breaking digital news service, Firstpost.com, in India in 2011. Last year, I came home to the Midwest to help create the future of local journalism, one of the most interesting challenges there is in media.

Our newspapers may not be big, but I run them like start-ups. There is zero distance between idea and execution in my newsrooms. Sell me on the idea and why we need to prioritise it, and we’ll find a way to do it. We have constraints, but if you learn to innovate here, you can do it anywhere. Constraints just make success all that much sweeter. Give me a couple years of your career, and there will be no limit to where you’ll go.

That’s my elevator pitch for why you should come work for me, and now I’ll briefly detail the roles. I’m looking for three newsroom leaders who are autonomous, creative, energetic and have a passion for community engagement. In addition to duties across the group, you will be the top editor in each newsroom. You will have to travel around to the other sites to keep in touch with your staff, but you won’t have to be in constant motion – that’s my job.

I’m also looking for several experienced reporters. (Experience in this context could be a year or two if the experience is right, but it can be more.)

I also have one entry level reporting position.

If you have any questions, drop me an email kanderson2 at gannett dot com. These are great opportunities. If this challenge sounds right for you, apply at the links above. I’ve have a great first year, and I’m just getting started. Once we get the team in place, we’re going to make some noise. You will want to be a part of this.

Can comments withstand Google-scale communities?

Not long after I joined the Guardian as blogs editor in 2006, I was at an online publishers event in London. Forefront in my mind was how to build engagement at the scale that we would quickly find with Guardian blogs, a particularly important question given that this was several months after the launch of Comment is Free, which was already suffering from serious teething pains socially. I asked Tim O’Reilly how to scale community, and he said:

You have to stay small as you grow big.

Being at a conference, Tim didn’t elaborate on his Zen k?an, but I still ponder it today, especially as I read this: How Ta-Nehisi Coates built the best comment section on the internet—and why it can’t last.

Flipping back to 2006, I had recently done a lot of work in my previous job at the BBC regarding social media – blogging as social media was then – I wondered how well the social aspects of blogs would hold up when we threw the scale of audience at it that the BBC could generate. I foresaw some of the issues that BBC bloggers would have in terms of trying to deal with volume of comments that they would instantly face.

In traditional blogs, the core audience is a community of choice, a group of people that shared an interest in a particular topic. That community of commenters grew to have social connections, bonds that helped foster civility. At the BBC, our bloggers could quickly generate an audience, but that didn’t mean we could create anything like the thoughtful communities of choice that we saw with smaller blogs. Our commenters didn’t know each other and would often be drawn to hotly contested topics because of strong, often diametrically opposed opinions.

To make that kind of conversation work, you need people with a very different skill set than your traditional columnist, who often come at issues with a ‘what do I want to be outraged about today’ type of mindset. What you need in order to make comments sections really work is exactly the kind of mindset that Coates’ brings to his work, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t still face the challenge of staying small as you grow big.

The issue is that the internet rewards scale and some social strategies simply fall apart at Google-scale. Once The Golden Horde – the name given to Coates community of commenters – grows beyond a community of choice and starts to attract people wanting to vent about some of the most sensitive issues that we face today, the comments often become unmanageable.

Back when I was blogs editor at The Guardian, I was often asked how I measured success, and I said it was not by the number of comments. Any fool can generate comments. You simply pick the hot topic of the day, push people’s buttons until they bleed and then survey the wonderful wreckage of human outrage. That is why in 2015 the internet sometimes feel like one gigantic generator of human fury.

Outrage was the standard editorial strategy in the 20th Century, when the only return channel was analogue and scarcity of letters to the editor set a high enough bar to keep the Angry from Milton Keynes interplay to a manageable and highly controlled level. That editorial strategy does not work in the 21st Century with a completely open return channel for which the technical and social tools have not kept pace.

In this century, the big challenge is generating thoughtful conversation. I have tried it a number of times, to the point where commenters knew that I was building a digital media Skinner box: Rewarding productive contributions more than punishing transgressions and guiding the comments towards conversation rather than confrontation. It is hard work and it does not scale particularly well. I was blessed with the autonomy and time to do it, but it takes time and a lot of effort.

At the end of the of the day, maybe staying small as you grow big is like Google where you break up a team when it gets too large. Maybe the only way to make this work is to keep the communities and conversations small enough so that people actually develop the kind of social bonds that allow them to disagree with civility. But that runs counter to the gigantic scales that make a business sustainable on the internet.

So, what happens when the business imperative to scale comments runs counter to social strategies to manage them? Things fall apart. It’s that simple. They become unmanageable and eventually people burn out and the communities of choice leave, in search of some other space where things work on a more human scale. I’ve seen it happen time and again. Some people seem like serial early adopters, but what they are really doing is seeking a space in which they can find community.

As an editor, this raises all kinds of questions. But the one thing I would say is that while we all want the biggest audience possible, we have to accept that strong, highly-engaged community strategies operate on a different scale. Push them beyond their social bounds and they will simply fall apart.

Update: After thinking about, small communities of choice also tend to be rather homogenous. This begs the question on how we develop technologies and social techniques that allow for diversity of thought and civil dissent.

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.