News business models: ‘No silver bullets, just shrapnel’

I’m at the Online News Association conference in Washington. The first panel was of editors from a new regional news website in Washington, Jim Brady, general manager for, had an excellent response to the question of how the site would make money. He said:

There are no silver bullets, just shrapnel.

What he meant by that was that they were pursuing multiple revenue models to build a sustainable business. They have launched with a traditional ad-supported model with a few twists including selling advertising through a network of local blogs. In the future, they are considering a range of products and services including mobile ads and a mobile apps development service.

#ONA10: Real-time, mobile coverage

My road trip kit

Tomorrow I fly to Washington ahead of the Online News Association conference. I’ll be doing a pre-conference session next Thursday on real-time coverage with Kathryn Corrick, digital media consultant and ONA UK Chair, Gary Symons of VeriCorder Technology. Kathryn is going to focus on desktop-based real-time coverage. There is a lot that is possible from the newsroom, and often when you’ve got a lot of journalists in the field, you need someone back at base to help collate and curate all the content. Gary is going to focus on multimedia, especially some of the tools that Vericoder offers. I’m going to focus on a wide range of mobile tools and techniques highlighting some of the examples of what news organisations and innovative journalists are doing.

Two years ago, I was traveling across the US on my way to Washington covering the 2008 elections. It was my third presidential election. I covered the 2000 and 2004 elections for the BBC. Every election, the mobile technology got a little more sophisticated and a lot more portable.

In the 2000 election, Tom Carver and I traveled across the US in six days answering questions from the BBC’s international audience. We used portable satellite technology, a mini-DV camera and webcasting kit to do live and as-live webcasts. The satellite gear was similar to what would become standard for live video feeds from Afghanistan. We used it in much less threatening locales such as a bar in Miami to talk to college students about apathy amongst youth. The gear weighed about 70 pounds, and it was a bit temperamental. I had to buy a toolkit in Texas and perform emergency surgery in a Home Depot parking lot. That definitely wasn’t in the job description when I was hired, but we got the job done.

In 2004, everything had changed. I used an early data modem to file from the field. The BBC content management didn’t quite work in the field, but we could at least send text and images. Richard Greene and I worked to engage our audiences, again fielding their questions and bringing them along on our journey. I blogged through election day, and that blogging experiment would send my career in a radically new direction.

It would be 2008 when I finally realised my dream of being able to work almost constantly on the move publishing via Twitter, Flickr, Facebook and the Guardian blogs via a laptop and mobile modem and a state-of-the-art multimedia mobile phone, the Nokia N82 . The picture above shows my road trip kit. It did more with much with so much less weight than the gear I lugged around in 2000. I could fit it all easily in a backpack. I had my laptop, a data modem, a power inverter, a Nikon D70, a geo-tagger and my Nokia. I geo-tagged all of my pictures, posts and most of my tweets. Before anyone knew what Foursquare or location-based networks were, I saw an opportunity to geo-tag content to map it and eventually deliver relevant content to where people are. I have a detailed explanation of how I did it.

The trip was the realisation of a journalistic dream; I could report live while staying in the middle of the story. I could use my phone to tweet and upload pictures from the celebrations on the streets of Washington. This was two years ago. The technology has moved on, and now it’s easier and the the video, images and audio are better. It’s now easy to broadcast live video with nothing more than a mobile phone.

We’ll cover the latest developments and then go out on the streets of Washington just days before Americans go back to the polls in this critical midterm election. There are a still a few slots left so if you’re coming, come join us from 2-5 Thursday 28 October.

Obama celebrations Washington DC

Making it easier to climb the ladder of participation

There is no such thing as a perfect participation platform when it comes to building engagement around news and other content. Too often we try to outsource to technology what are really social functions that have to be done by human beings. In terms of social media journalism, the best examples come from journalists actively engaging with people to involve and engage them with news, information and their communities.

Reynolds Journalism Institute fellow Joy Mayer has a great interview with Denise Cheng who works on a local community news site in the US state of Michigan. The interview is chock full of gems of what it takes in terms of mindset to be a social media journalist and community wrangler. I also really like the last paragraph talking about how Denise works to build participation.

Denise said she works to build investment and ownership in The Rapidian. She wants folks to plug in at any level they feel comfortable with

But engagement isn’t just encouraging interaction. Denise wants to make the ladder of participation easier for people to climb up, with lots of manageable steps, from the bottom (wearing a Rapidian pin around town) up to things like contributing content and helping distribute it.

It’s a really great post with a community journalist working to build a deep sense of engagement and participation not only with her site but also with the civic and social life of her community.

Journalists: Create your own future

There is good advice from Andy Serwer, Fortune magazine’s managing editor, in the summary of a talk that he gave business journalists in Canada. Dana Lacey writes for the Canadian Journalism Project:

Serwer’s advice for journalists in the digital age? Build a brand, work for a start-up, be the “baddest-ass investigative journalist” you can be, work for the New York Times and help that paper figure out what the next business model will be (think beyond the paywall). In other words: don’t be victims of the change washing over print journalism.

The Lord of the Rings OS: One OS to rule them all?

Convergence – the combination of multiple entertainment and communication devices and platforms – has been one of those terms tossed around for decades. I first wrote about it in the mid-1990s when I was at university. It has been a rather quixotic quest until now. The handheld devices weren’t powerful or flexible enough. They didn’t have enough storage. Set-top boxes and televisions were pretty dumb in terms of what they could do. They did one thing really well and weren’t extensible. However, we’re starting to see the first glimmer of the pieces falling into place. As Rob Andrews of wrote ahead of the recent launch of Google TV, “Innovation in the connected-TV space is about to explode, in to several, rival parts.” Moreover, it’s not just connected TVs but connected everything – TVs, tablets, phones and computers.

Apple, of course, has been knitting together its vision around OS X and its little brother, iOS. Microsoft has been trying to push this as well for years. While years in the making, their efforts are only now maturing to the point where they are actually compelling. Microsoft tying their new mobile OS to XBox 360 might be a very smart play. Apple’s iOS universe of iPhone, iPad and Apple TV shows their vision.

The two big consumer computer OS makers aren’t the only ones in this game. Motorola is showing off advanced demos of its phones and set-top boxes seamlessly share content, and KDDI in Japan has been using an earlier version of the system for its au Box service. Motorola is now adding its social-network mad Motoblur interface to its set-top boxes. Yes, indeed, it is all blurring together.

Google now has its TV offering with Sony, Logitech and other partners, and this brings together connected televisions, Blu-Ray players and the Android platform on the TV and mobile phones. You can now search broadcast and internet video content just as you search for things on the web. Google TV also runs Android apps and connects nicely to Android phones.

The dark horse in this race is MeeGo, the marriage of Intel’s Mobile and Nokia’s Maemo Linux-based efforts. The goal is the same, to knit together a seamless experience across mobile, home entertainment and other devices such as tablets and netbooks. MeeGo phones are expected to appear in early 2011. Intel believes that building an OS from the ground up for multiple platforms is superior to Google’s approach to drive Android to a range of platforms.

Intel and Nokia definitely have the hardware background, but the interface and content partnerships will be key to this. As recent reviews of its recently released flagship N8 smartphone show, Nokia has the hardware knowledge to make great phones, but it needs to radically rethink its user experience. With consumer electronics, you have to make powerful hardware that is so simple to use that it borders on seeming magical. Will MeeGo be a clean break from its past? We’ll have to see.

Whether you call it convergence or the post-PC era, to resurrect another decade-old phrase, the game is really on now with players from the computer, internet, consumer entertainment and content industries all approaching this from slightly different angles. This will remake technology, entertainment and information, and the battle is now on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Murdoch shifts from sites to ‘digitally delivered editions’

Following The Times and The Sunday Times going behind their Fortress of Solitude paywalls, Rupert Murdoch continues his new digital strategy by moving the tabloid News of the World to an online subscription model. Dominic Ponsford of the Press Gazette sums up the move nicely:

Both are examples of the fact that, for Rupert Murdoch the internet is so over. Without any inbound or outbound links, and invisible to Google and other search engines, the NotW, Times and Sunday Times don’t really have internet sites – but digitally delivered editions.

I suppose that if you’re a true, blue believer in the apps versus open web idea, I guess this makes some amount of sense.

I have a feeling that as we move forward, digital editions will actually be a bundle of apps that work on the desktop, a tablet and even on flat screens via Google TV, Apple TV and alternative set-top box software like Boxee. Two years ago, Nick Bilton at The New York Times showed Suw and I a concept of the Times’ content following you through the day. As you moved from desktop to mobile to couch, New York Times followed you seamlessly, completely enveloped you. Sure, it was content from a single site, but the ease of use meant that it was effortless, frictionless. Of course, it helps to have the depth and quality of content of the New York Times. That was compelling. That is something I would pay for, but we’re still in the early days of constructing such a vision.

When I’m feeling really generous, I might think that News International’s strategy might be a step in that direction, but mostly, I still think that Murdoch’s paywall experiments are more for News International’s benefit than a bold step to create a compelling new digital offering.

Are journalisms start-ups being appropriately funded?

If you’ve been paying close attention, you might be aware that myself, Kevin and our friend Stephanie Troeth are working on a journalism start-up called NoThirty. Kevin and I have been thinking of ideas for a journalism project for about two years now, talking over different concepts and throwing out the ones that didn’t seem feasible. In January we started work in earnest, bringing Steph on board as our co-founder. We are now at the stage where we need to find funding so that we can get our prototype built.

I have always been keen on the idea of using grant funding wherever possible, certainly in the very early days. Grants are hard to get, slow to arrive and come with strings attached. Almost all money has strings and the key thing is to understand which strings are acceptable and which are deal-breakers.

Last week, we were alerted to two possible grants that we could apply for, one independently and one via a university partner. As I read through the grant details, I was struck by how some of their requirements would immediately undermine our start-up’s business models.

I’ll talk first about JISC, the Joint Information Systems Committee, which supports the use of technology in research and higher education (as we are not in HE/FE, we’d be applying as a partner of a university). They are currently running a programme aimed at improving and expanding the use of digital archives through collaboration between educational bodies such as universities, private business partners and the general public. NoThirty would fit into the remit of this programme, but JISC require “software outputs” to be open source and for there to be enough supporting information for that software to be reused. They also require content to be open access.

Because JISC are focused on an entirely different sector to the one we live in, I don’t say the above as a criticism. Indeed, I fully support their drive to ensure that publicly funded work done by educational bodies should be made available to everyone. But it became clear that their grants are not aimed at people like us, in the position we’re in, and their requirements would scupper us.

Our main aim is to create a sustainable business, so any requirement to open source our code has to be considered very carefully. Whilst we could release libraries rather than the full code base, until we are further down the road we won’t know if that is an appropriate route for us to take. Committing right now to open source/open access could turn out to be commercial suicide and it’s not a decision we can make yet.

Note that I am fully in favour of opening up as much as possible, as I believe that it helps create a healthy ecosystem around one’s service, but until you know the exact shape of what you’re building it is hard to predict what can be made open source/open access. There isn’t an open-closed dichotomy -both can live quite happily side by side in the same business – but one has to be able to make choices based on what is best for the health of that business.

The second funding source we considered was the Knight News Challenge which opens for applications on October 25th. But looking through the FAQ, which is the closest thing I can find to terms and conditions, I came across the same requirement for us to go open source at the end of the grant:

By “open-source” we mean a digital open-source platform that uses a code base that can be used by anyone after the grant period to either replicate your project in their community or to build upon it. You will own your platform, but you will have to share under GPL or Creative Commons licensing.

Again, I understand why they are doing this, but in this case, I feel that Knight is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Where JISC exists to encourage the use of technology in education, Knight exists to help create new journalism organisations and a healthy journalism ecosystem. But by insisting on full open source, not just libraries or other separable parts, they immediately limit the type of projects they attract.

Most of the people I’ve spoken to about it attribute this insistence on open source to be a result of EveryBlock’s acquisition by EveryBlock got $1.1m from the Knight News Challenge over two years to fund development and were bought for, rumour has it, $5m to $6m. Whether Everyblokc is the cause or not, Knight’s open source clause causes problems.

If your project is a public service journalism tool or project, opening up your code makes sense. But if you’re looking at creating a financially sustainable business, then making your site/service/platform/product easily replicable by anyone could be a daft thing to do. If you have created something genuinely new and compelling, the result of making it easily replicable could be that someone with more money and bigger guns comes along and wipes the floor with you.

How does this motivate journalism entrepreneurs? Entrepreneurs work very hard to make their dreams a reality, they take risks not just with their money, but with their time, reputation and their career. What’s the pay-off for all that risk? In the rest of the start-up world, it’s the dream of a big exit, a windfall that make the hard work worth it. Most start-ups never get there, but you still want to have that hope.

Taking that option away from the very beginning will put off journalism entrepreneurs who have an eye on commercial viability. It stunts the growth of the start-up community. It damages the news ecosystem over all and will have knock-on effects for years to come as projects that could have made good businesses remain scribbles of the back of a napkin because of a lack of suitable, early-stage support.

I think Knight are being short-sighted by insisting that grantees go open source. If the only projects they fund are public service projects, what happens when the grant runs out? How will those projects become financially sustainable? How will they provide employment for journalists? We desperately need to find new business models for news and there are untold thousands of journalists searching for work. This means we need to foster start-ups that could become commercially viable, that could develop new business models, and that means they could wind up in a big exit.

I know what some of you are probably thinking now: If a project is so commercially viable, let the angels and VCs fund it. That’s what they do, after all. But I don’t think that’s an answer. We’re going to need a lot of experimentation, a lot of learning, a lot of slow growth before we get to the point of understanding what the new commercially viable business models are for news. Clearly it’s not a problem that is easy to solve, because if it was, we would have solved it by now. I love the quote from Barack Obama in his recent Rolling Stone interview:

[T]ypically, the issues that come to my desk — there are no simple answers to them. Usually what I’m doing is operating on the basis of a bunch of probabilities: I’m looking at the best options available based on the fact that there are no easy choices. If there were easy choices, somebody else would have solved it, and it wouldn’t have come to my desk.

There are no easy choices in journalism innovation. If there were, we wouldn’t be in this mess.

I certainly don’t want to generalise about the motivations of angels and VCs, but generally speaking I don’t think that they have the stomach for the kind of long-term investment and support that news ventures are going to need. Private equity investors seem to prefer start-ups with simple concepts, potential for mass market adoption and a quick route to profitability.

Journalism innovation certainly isn’t simple – all the simple stuff has been done already. It’s not mass market either – the fragmentation of the market is one of the key problems that any start-up would have to overcome. The fact that audiences are time- and attention-poor and have a myriad options to choose from when it comes to how they spend that time and attention has pretty much destroyed the ‘monetise eyeballs’ business model, so any new model has to depend on niche markets. And as for profitability, given the potential need for extensive research, experimentation and change, I don’t think that many journalism start-ups will find profitability within three years, and it’ll probably be more like five. How many VCs would be happy to fund a start-up that is complex, niche, and slow to profitability?

It turns out that, indeed, VCs aren’t flocking to fund media start-ups. Matthew Craig-Greene recently wrote on The Media Briefing that (original emphasis):

Private-equity firms are not really investing in young, entrepreneurial media start-ups.

Whilst cash invested in media buyouts has grown nearly six-fold since the late nineties, investment in fast growing, maturing media businesses has less than doubled and, worst of all, venture-style investments in new, disruptive media technologies and service models has remained absolutely flat.

So far in 2010, the only significant venture capital deals in the European media sector to grab my attention have been, a Spanish online music and radio business, and pr2go, an innovative, online PR agency with a distinctive “pay as you go” pricing model. The two investments together total less than 2 million.

If grants like those from Knight are inappropriate and private equity investors don’t have the guts for it, who exactly is going to fund and support innovative journalism start-ups? Matthew suggests that perhaps large media organisations should create investment funds, but many of them are preoccupied with their own survival and lack the skill to both spot promising start-up and let them develop in their own direction.

Where does this leave NoThirty? Well, we’ll keep looking for grants that have more acceptable strings and we’ll almost certainly be trying alternative funding models early next year. Keep your eye on the blog for news.

Apologies for the multiple posts

I just wanted to apologise to those of you who saw your RSS feeds or Google Reader overwhelmed with multiple posts of the same Delicious links over the last few days. We’ve long auto-posted our bookmarks from Delicious, and something happened over the weekend in which it posted the same link about every hour for several hours. We’ve disabled the feature or have tried to disable it.

Hopefully that will sort things out. We’re going to investigate another way to share our bookmarks. We’ve long used Delicious as much for the great community there as anything, but sadly, Yahoo hasn’t really done much to move the service forward. In the meantime, we’ll probably just do a lot of short posts here in Strange Attractor.

Apologies again, and we’re monitoring the situation to make sure that it is resolved. Thanks for your patience, and thanks to the readers who politely emailed or sent us a direct message on Twitter to flag up the issue.

Evolution of comments needed

Amidst all of the brouhaha of the latest instalment of bloggers versus journalists, George Brock, the head of journalism at City University, hits on something that is important: Comments on news sites need to evolve.

They’re rarely rewarding, many comments overlap, the sequence is incoherent and quantity of rewarding reads very low.

This isn’t to say that comments and user contribution are problematic, but in many ways users comments have become a victim of their own success. When I was doing research about blogging in 2005 for the BBC, I quickly realised that something happened when you brought blogging technology to large media organisations. The scale of audiences and the potential level of participation, even considering participation inequalities, would quickly overwhelm these systems. I could see if first hand in the BBC News online newsroom that summer.

I often wonder if we need to go back to first principles with comments. Why are we doing them? I’m serious. We need to ask ourselves what we’re trying to achieve with comments. In some ways, I often feel as if comments are just vox pops, or man on the street at an industrial scale. Are user comments just another way to canvas public opinion? Mostly, comments are seen as a way to increase user time on site, which isn’t in itself a bad thing.

I’d argue that user interaction can be so much more. I think we should be using interactivity to capture the expertise in our audiences asking them what they know not just what they reckon. I think more active interaction on the part of news organisations begets better contributions, and I’ve got five years of examples and personal experience to prove that. It’s not a quick hit for traffic like writing a shouty comment piece is, but it helps build a loyal audience over time, one that comes and stays because they see value in the interaction, not just because they like to let off some steam or enjoy verbal jousting.

There is also increasing evidence that asking people to display a certain level of commitment might not only improve the quality of comments but also the quantity. Josh Benton at the Nieman Lab has written about Gawker’s ‘tough love’, what they refer to as a tiered commenting system, introdcued in mid-2009. It initially led to a drop-off in comments, but now growth has increased and at a faster rate than before the system was in place. As a Gizmodo reader, Josh believes that the comments have improved as commenters are in essence made to audition. For news sites, Josh sees a lot of lessons from the project and writes:

In any event, complaining about awful commenters seems to be the first thing any gaggle of journalists does when lamenting the new news reality. The default solution has been to say every commenter should have to use his or her real name — a solution with practical as well as ethical problems. (Although Facebook Connect may be taking away some of the practical concerns.) Still, there’s a whole world of ways a news site can improve the tenor of its comments while keeping itself reasonably open. Gawker Media’s success is one example of how.

And last month, Josh says that growth trends are continuing. He says that the systems strike the best balance between complexity and simplicity of any comment system. It’s definitely worth a look.

I couldn’t agree with Josh more. There are so many ways that we could improve the tenor of comments. The first step might be rethinking the content. The constant shouting of columnists begets shouting from commenters. Shrill comment pieces beget shrill comments. It doesn’t require a PhD in psychology to see that content meant for another age might not work as well in this age of rapid response from thousands of online commenters. Honestly, the lack of evolution of content is one of the first stumbling blocks in terms of community strategies. As Clay Shirky says, technology won’t solve what are fundamentally social problems.

The most sophisticated commenting system in the world won’t prevent a blow up when your writing style is akin to wielding a flame thrower in a forest of tinder dry wood. Venomous columnists defend their right of free of expression but condemn the blow back. You can’t square that circle.

Now, you might argue that this is my personal choice if I don’t like shrill columnists. I never read them, and as busy as I am, I doubt I ever will. However, my response is that a content strategy akin to filling a swimming pool full of acid and adding demon piranhas is, for most sites, bad business. That kind of poisonous environment is very expensive to manage and moderate, and advertisers will avoid it like the plague. Also, and I know this from seeing the stats, often this content might have a quick hit in traffic while people rubber neck online to watch a good fight, but they are mostly drive-by visitors. They are here and gone in less than five seconds, no good for you unless you believe the juiced metrics that include these fleeting clicks.

We have a lot of options. The content needs to get smarter just as the commenting systems need to evolve. I know a lot of people working in community on news sites know this. What’s holding us back?