Digital journalists: We need to build a digital ‘lifeboat’ for the burning platform

As Twitter users, we all find ourselves occasionally saying: This is a > 140 character discussion and, over Friday night, I found myself in one with Dan Pacheco, a fellow digital journalist in the US whom I know by reputation but have never met. I know of Dan through some of the great work that he did at Bakersfield California developing a very excellent social media platform, Bakomatic, and the online-to-print service, Printcasting now Bookbrewer.

We got into a discussion on Twitter about the recently announced cuts at the Times-Picayune  newspaper in New Orleans. Its parent company, Newhouse Newspapers, is cutting the print run from daily to three times a week and reportedly slashing up to one third of staff. Newhouse is reportedly rolling out a model that it tested in Ann Arbor, Michigan, (in part using a regional news site that I worked on for a year from 1997-98,

Dan asked on Twitter:

To which I responded:

First off, I want to clearly lay out where I’m coming from because I got the impression that Dan assumed I was coming from a print-focused position. I wasn’t. My working assumptions:

  • The present of content is digital, but most newspapers in the West squandered early opportunities to make a painless transition to digital.
  • Many, if not a majority, of newspapers won’t make it. Digital distribution erodes the advantage of geography, and digital economics simply won’t support the volume of newspapers we have now.
  • That said, we still know very little about what a purely digital local news business looks like. We only have a few examples and many are very small and focus on specific niche coverage.
  • There is a lot of work to be done to develop digital products and related revenue streams to support a local digital news offering at scale. It’s a worthy challenge, but we digital journalists, editors and sales teams have a lot of work to do.

I wasn’t trying to say that newspapers should cling to print, rather that while print is a burning platform, there isn’t yet a digital lifeboat to take news organisations to safety. While digital advertising has boomed over the past decade, taking only a brief pause during the financial crisis to decline slightly, US newspapers have only  managed to grow their digital ad revenues slightly. Digital ad sales grew from $7.3bn to a staggering $31.7bn in the US between 2003 to 2011. But newspapers there have only grown their digital ad revenues from $1.2bn to $3.2bn, according to Alan Mutter. Newspapers actually capture a lower percentage of digital ads now than they did in 2003. Many US newspapers in the unenviable position of having a radically deteriorating print business and a still nascent digital business.

As I said on Twitter, I had just read news business analyst Ken Doctor’s assessment of the News Orleans strategy. He described it as “shock therapy” and a “forced march to digital”. As Ken points out, the hope is that the paper in New Orleans can retain the vast majority of their print revenue while also cutting some of their print related costs, although he is sceptical. They might retain 80 to 90% of their print advertisers but not 80 to 90% of their print advertising revenue by going to three days a week.

The newspaper will also most likely be consolidating some administrative costs so hopefully the operation will be more efficient in other ways as well. Printing three days instead of one makes some amount of business sense, but if you cut the print run to one day, would the loss of revenue wipe out some, or all, of the advantage of the print cost savings? Are any US newspapers actually in the position digitally to shift to one-day-a-week print without cutting staff not by a third but something even more drastic, maybe 70 to 80%?

Just like Ken, I wasn’t making a pro-print argument, I was making the observation that the paper and its parent company’s digital business isn’t well positioned for this transition. Ideally, they would have laid this groundwork years ago, but they, along with most newspapers, haven’t. Ken writes:

I’d call it a forced march because it doesn’t look like the Times-Picayune, or its new successor, the NOLA Media Group, is yet ready for the digital transformation. It has been making a digital transition, and there’s a big difference between the two. It doesn’t have a digital circulation strategy yet in place; though about a fifth of U.S. dailies do. Digital circulation is key to making this work, so that core print readers become more likely to transition with the enterprise — and keep paying their monthly subscription bills.

Like many newspaper groups, there are few good, easy answers for Newhouse Newspapers. Dan believes that the time for half moves is over, and I can understand that line of thinking. He said:

Yes, the culture of newspapers needs to be shaken up. It needed to be shaken up a decade ago but the industry thought it dodged a bullet with the crash, which it viewed as a fad that it was lucky not to have invested too much money in, and sat on its laurels. I agree that newspapers need to stop talking and move purposefully in the direction of digital, but I also agree with Ken Doctor that Advance’s approach looks like shock therapy than a strategic embrace of the future.

My big fear is that by cutting print runs from seven days a week to one would necessitate traumatic cuts to editorial staffing, leaving such a small editorial staff that it would have difficulty attracting sufficient digital revenue to sustain it, even in its leaner, digitally focused form. Everyone points to the pure digital Seattle Post-Intelligencer which went from a newsroom of 150 to 20. When you make cuts that deep, you lose good people and you lose capacity. Twenty people just can’t do the work of 150, no matter the efficiencies possible with digital tools.

Digital may be the future, but the vast majority of revenue still comes from print, and we need to see more innovation in both print and digital products that will reinvigorate income streams. It can’t be all about the shiny; it also has to be about financial sustainability. For example, mobile is a huge opportunity to reach audiences, but if Facebook’s revenue is threatened by the shift to mobile because it haemorrhages ad dollars, how will news organisations make  money from it?

All journalists, whether print or digital, should understand the news business and be constantly thinking of ways that they can add value, not just for their audiences but for the business. We need more innovation, more experimentation, and smarter thinking about how we fund news. This isn’t about the culture wars anymore, it’s about making the difficult transition to a digitally-focused, multi-platform future.

Here is the entire conversation that Dan and I had on Twitter for context:

Waiting for VOD: Is time running out on 24-hour news channels?

For years, I’ve thought that 24-hour news channels were actually just a technical kludge. Most of the time, there just isn’t enough news to fill 24-hours so many of the channels are little more than a very expensive tape loop, with the stories running on repeat every 15-minutes on some channels. Sure, 24-hour news channels really shine during big events, during wars, elections, disasters or historic events like the Arab Spring. CNN really broke through during the first Gulf War. That being said, I remember watching the same cruise missile fired from the same frigate over and over and over. Well, to be fair, the cruise missile launches were punctuated by the similarly repetitive footage of a carrier-based aircraft taking off (I believe it was an F-14, but it’s really beside the point).

After the Gulf War, CNN’s ratings dropped, and now CNN is suffering a precipitous drop-off on ratings. Brian Stetler of the New York Times has this observation from an CNN insider. “Maybe CNN is just like an emergency room,” and Stelter adds:

When elections and explosions happen, people tune in to CNN, the same way they hurry to a hospital when they think they are having a heart attack. But people tend not to linger in either place — a reality that was reaffirmed for CNN this week when Nielsen ratings showed that April was the channel’s lowest-rated month in 10 years.

Domestically in the US, CNN is being outflanked by the partisan noise machines of Fox and MSNBC, which like the tabloids in the UK know their constituency and serve it well. I wonder how long it will take for a cable TV version of the Daily Mail, Mail 24, heavy on celebrity, skin and manufactured outrage. I’m sure someone is already cooking it up somewhere. It would certainly be a money spinner. I digress, and poynter has a good round-up of CNN’s ratings woes and various suggestions on how to solve them

Personally, I don’t really care about the political angle. Globally, CNN seems to be performing much better. It’s brand of more level-headed news playing well to international audiences who don’t know and don’t care about the partisan battles of the US. While CNN’s prime time US ratings might be suffering, financially it’s doing well. It’s set to make $600m in operating profit, a record, Brian Stelter reports. Will CNN reach a tipping point where the ratings start to undermine its ability to generate this kind of income? Is CNN where US newspapers were in say 2004, right before they started to fall off a cliff financially? Possibly.

In the longer term, I simply wonder about the cost of running a 24-hour news channel versus running a news website with video-on-demand and the ability to go live digitally on multiple platforms when big events happen. This especially gets interesting when you think of smart TVs and the blurring of the internet and TV that’s now possible (although not being used by consumers as much as they can yet). 

CNN’s financial success might come from its success on multiple platforms rather than its failing on TV. Greg D’Alba, CNN’s president of news and Turner digital ad sales told BusinessWeek:

CNN’s primary differentiation is the ability to connect multiple screens. More than 80 percent of our advertisers buy both TV and digital. That’s unlike virtually any other service out there.

For now, having a 24-hour news channel works, and it works in part because CNN is paid by cable and satellite companies to carry the channel. However, as TVs get smarter and consumers move to video-on-demand with greater tools for video discovery, I wonder if having a rolling channel will make economic in the future. I don’t think so. We’re not there yet, but the future looks less like a tape loop and more like an app. 

Euan Semple at the British Library

Last night I went to Euan Semple‘s event to launch his book, Organizations Don’t Tweet, People Do, at the British Library. It was the first time I’ve live-blogged an event in ages, a skill I’m going to have to polish up a bit before Le Web London in June, hence the lag in getting this up on the blog. 

The event took for form of a conversation between Richard Sambrook (RS) and Euan (ES), which I have attempted to capture as faithfully as I can, but of course much of this is paraphrasing especially the questions. 

RS: Why do people Tweet, not organisations?  

ES: Got fed up of marketing folk doing 140 character press releases, felt intrusive, into what is a personal space. Surprised at industrialisation, it’s turned into a thing that can be bought and sold. But even if someone else does it for you, it’s still a person tweeting. Some corps are good, e.g Virgin Airways, they give a name, they’re open about the fact that there’s a person there. 

RS: Why is that important? 

ES: It’s important because we’ve lost our voices, having been part of the BBC for as long as I was, we’ve outsourced our storytelling to other people, our sense-making. We wait for others to tell us what to think, what’s right. Social media is giving us back the ability to tell our stories, and that’s very disruptive, and a lot of people are interested in assimilating it. A lot are making it just same-old same-old, and we’d lose a precious opportunity if we allowed that to happen. 

There’s a risk that some of us that ‘get it’ foist it on others, and that’s something we need to be wary of, so need to look at the opportunity. Once people grasp that opportunity a lot of the organisational norms we think are inevitable will turn out not to be. 

RS: You’re clear this isn’t about tech, but about what it enables. What is that? 

ES: We don’t have to all be the same, being different is what this relies on. If you end up with monoculture, you haven’t shifted things very far. Er, what was the question again?

RS: What is the cultural change? What makes it different? 

ES: This is more of the social changes that are happening anyway that the tech is enhancing, or speeding up. Tech appears when you’re ready, and I feel that the corporate period, the industrial then the corporate world that so many of us get sucked into and think that’s just what you do, have assumed that that’s what the world has to be. It’s infantilised us. At the BBC there was a divide between the infants and the grown-ups. So many big things, like democracy, are struggling, the financial world is struggling. And we have an unique opportunity – these phase shifts don’t happen often – to be part of something. That’s why I got into blogging, my kids will be into this more than I am, and if it’s going to be habitable we have to make it habitable. 

RS: You started from a position in Knowledge Management. 

ES: Twitch twitch

RS: But that’s a lot of what social media is used or these days. 

ES: And I’m going to have to get used to it, going to have to get over my discomfort with it. 

RS: What was the problem with KM? What was your epiphany? 

ES: It came out of my time at the World Service, as a studio manager I moved between the 30/40 different studios, and met a lot of people from different languages and cultures. The rest of the BBC was more tribal, silo’d, hierarchical and inefficient. Also the arrival of John Birt, but he took a sophisticated organisation and tried to plonk corporate ideas of efficiency on top of that and it didn’t always work. What I saw with the web was the opportunity of getting back some of those people-based ways of working that I’d seen before. Saw a virtual space, an organic online space that could flourish. 

RS: What were the benefits?

ES: We got into it long before anyone was calling it social media, and ended up, 25k staff had access to the forum. People had very practical problems about how to do things. A lot of small, low-level incremental stuff. Corporations go on about having strong corp culture, but then do anything to crush whatever emerges. Even just forums created more cultural change than official efforts. 

RS: What are the cultural benefits?

ES: Shared understanding of what we were doing and why. What did things mean? When the Freedom of Information Act became legislation, we had a good conversation about what that meant, and how to stick to that rule. 

Especially when you compare how that was ‘supposed’ to happen, via memos and official comms. If you tolerate the messiness of social spaces, people are at work and they want to talk about work. Treat them like grown ups then they’ll act like grown ups. 

RS: Lots of skepticism about self-organised spaces in business. There’s a limit?  

ES: yeah, it’s not  management by committee. It’s not bottom up, there’s as much value and interest in the senior and middle of an organisation using this. Shift from command and control, where people have authority due to job title, to having the ability to influence people through using these tools. The middle reasserts itself. There’s a role for middle management, and a chance to be more effective through using these tools. More senior folk are asking for help because they realise it’s not going away and there’s an advantage for them. 

RS: “Return on Investment”. That’s the wrong way to think about it, isn’t it?

ES: Yes, this is something that’s happening anyway. Don’t overplay Gen X/Y, but they’re growing up with this. So rather than ask to justify RoI for implementing it, justify RoI for preventing it. 

RS: What answers do you get when you ask them to justify preventing it?

ES: They don’t have any. There are people with non-trivial reasons why this stuff is hard, but ultimately they are going to have to face these issues and work with it. 

RS: How do you implement change in this way or, as you say in the book, “be strategically tactical”? 

ES: There’s a pressure on people to lay out a predictable, strategised future, and that’s not easy. Can make a case to be strategically tactical, ie you have guiding principles, but are willing to respond as this thing grows. “Keep moving, stay in touch, head for the high ground.”

RS. “A new literacy.” What does that mean? 

ES: Remember having pressure to have to write a formal document, knowing no one would read it. Also that temptation you learn at school to write formally, to write management bollocks. Lots of people write this stuff, send it to each other, don’t read it, and are filling their days up with it. Whereas a well-aimed blog post and Tweet can change the world. People who read the book have said that it “felt like me talking to them”, skill you learn blogging.

RS: It’s finding an authentic voice. 

ES: I don’t’ care about orgs, I care about people, and that therapeutic element is interesting. Just that self-awareness you get from sticking things out there and seeing people’s reaction and learning to deal with that, and deal with people disagreeing with you. We’ve all got things we’re not comfortable with, but that thing about sitting in your room, about to publish blog post, wondering what people will think about it… That’s why the blogs called ‘The Obvious’, but that leads to this, writing a book, because you started off sticking things out there. 

RS: What’s the power of that? 

ES: Goes back to KM. Value of a company is the people, and the knowledge of those people, and we’re not good at giving them ability to make the most of people. Freeing people to be themselves and connect with each other. Ideal org, everyone blogs, not overdoing it, and thoughtful engagement, got to be productive. 

RS: Talk about ‘networks’, what do you mean by it? 

ES: It’s ‘community’ that I think gets misused a lot. Shift from institutional structured power, which has always been accompanied by networks, & relationships but  legitimising that, making it visible and accountable. I’m not overly idealistic, because we have hierarchies, they are inevitably human, but move towards ephemeral meritocracies. 

RS: David Weinberger, if we don’t have networks, we can’t cope. The world is too big to know.               

ES: The idea you’re in charge and should know everything is unsustainable. Change in what is leadership. Those who are good at working with others, building networks will be more effective than someone throwing weight around. 

RS: Radical transparency, can be scary for orgs to embrace. Asks a lot of the observers, need a new literacy. 

ES: Interesting in the journalism, the responsibility of that double sided relationship. Sometimes people push back and say not everyone wants to think, that I’m being unreasonable. We just got them that way because we trained them that way. In the right circumstances, everyone wants to take responsibility for their lives. 

RS: How do you sell radical transparency?

ES: By quoting Dave Winer: “Don’t have a shit product”. That’s what was interesting about Wikileaks – there’s a degree to which tech makes it hard to put a lid on things. Equally, that doesn’t mean we end up with a good outcome, because it can be used by the bad guys as much as the good guys. Can’t be naive about the competitive world they live in. 

RS: The whole privacy debate.

ES: There’s that. Issue with indiscretion, that’s a cultural shift, that’ll change. The whole thing about the people who won’t employ people who were drunk as a student. Well, I wouldn’t employ someone who hadn’t been! There’s something cleansing. It’s evolution on steroids. It’s not about age or web natives, it’s about open or closed. This is open, generative, so appeals to people who see the world that way. People who want to contain things, it’s their worst nightmare. 

RS: End book on blog post about love. Are you basically in favour of love, through the work place? You’re an ageing hippy? 

ES: Yes, except I wasn’t there the first time round! These techs have come out of ageing hippies in California and they manifest some of those ideas in their software. There’s an ebb and flow between control and release. We need a big story. Until WWI it was the church, then that fell apart and so the next one became communism, and then that becomes capitalism and the market, and we need… 

RS: This is the emergence of the next story? 

ES: I think so. 



Talk about signal to noise, we’re a long way from semantic web, but getting there with hashtags. Did you leave it out on purpose? 

ES: Wary of the semantic web. What happens when you die? Should read Lessig’s Code, there are ways in which Facebook, Google etc impact how we can live our lives, has huge impact on those who don’t understand. Wary of automating, prefer the ability to point and say ‘that’s interesting because’. Goes back into knowledge management, the idea of harvesting information, haghstags are great because they are ephemeral and they come and go. Rather that than getting into semantic web. 

How does this affect social businesses, does that lead to them being more socially responsible? 

ES: Yes. Worked with some orgs I’ve been uncomfortable with, but have done so on the basis that if can help them get their arms round it, e.g. if banks had this before the dodgy mortgages, they might not have done it. Or selling food full of sugar. A lot of these things start because we have too small of a group taking responsibility for their business actions. What if people inside an org take responsibility for their actions?

If you’re right about social media democratising, why is Apple so successful? 

ES: If I had a penny for every time someone asked that. Some of the stories about how they work inside, they do give staff high degree of autonomy, happy to reshape and reinvent, so yes they’re not all over these tools, but they had 20-30 years of being the underdog who couldn’t afford to let ideas slip. In many ways, Apple aren’t typical. 

Dilbert Principle is best management book ever written. Youngsters empowered, they will bring their networks into the workplace. 

ES: Kids don’t alway know what a powerful took they have at their fingertips, and some kids are very conservative.  

A lot of the point of tools is to be more interesting face-to-face, not less. Interesting using location stuff, whether choose to turn it on, or not to. Almost like turning up/down a serendipity knob. 

In big orgs, have some areas that are bureaucratic than others, and need to consider legal implications. Doesn’t that lead to lumpy engagement, and tension between expectation of engagement, when not everyone is comfortable or able?

ES:  Not everyone will like it or take to it and shouldn’t dismiss those who don’t. Bus also how those groups manifest their responsibilities. e.g. using tools to talk about security is more likely to make your org secure. HR, IT and comms should be excited, but they aren’t. When you consider what they are meant to be doing, but they are stuck in places where they are more worried about status and formal stuff which is becoming less and less effective. 

For example, Head of HR for BBC came into office to do a live chat on the forum, 5k staff taking part. He and his team huddled to discuss what they’d answer, and then someone typed it in by dictation, but then he disagreed in what they’d typed. Conversational platform, tension was palpable, between live conversation and controlled process. Trick is to learn to migrate from one to the other. 

Want people to find a voice, but have they lost ability to listen and find a dialogue with colleagues? 

ES: Blogging, how you can write a blog post in such a way that it encourages people to react or respond, and turn it into a dialogue? If your’e just sitting there spouting stuff, unconcerned as to reaction of feedback, people will stop reading you. Conversations can only take place between equals. If this is a conversational platform, have to be willing to act like equals. 

Blogging, 3/4 paras to get people thinking, is different to ephemera of Twitter or Facebook, and it’s my blog! I can move it anywhere!

Interesting in future, and patterns that will emerge. Algorithms mining algorithms. Count on researchers to understand and analyse, compounded by fact that the dataset not published. Even thinking about Twitter, results are only available for a few days. 

ES: Thinkup, Gina Trapani, tools, if there’s enough of a demand people will come up with a tool and start paying for it. Wanted to save and search Twitter. Ephemeral nature is interesting. Genuinely worry that might be the first generation to leave not trace, no big manuscripts, just incompatible file formats. Which is why I use plain text, because I can move it effortlessly from one platform to the next.  

Worked with people good with numbers, but can’t do much with words. What hope to they have, where the winners are the wordiest? What about the value they create? Everything is about prose.

ES: We have an unbalanced world atm, people who are good face to face, so this isn’t perfect but it’s differently imperfect so slightly more equitable. 

You once said it is a slow process to introduce social media, change people one at at time. Has that changed?  

ES: No. How long to take full impact? 50 years. It’s impact will be that big and a lot of people as still early days. Been going for 11 years, but it’s still new to a lot of people. They don’t know. It’s shoe leather, have to give people – one at a time – enough reason to have a go, and that’s through conversation and advocacy. Build a network of advocacy, that’s what’s fascinating – world changing but only happens when someone sits down, writes something and presses save. Book written for people to give to those in orgs to help them get it. 

News start-ups can’t survive on ads alone

Reuters Institute fellow Rasmus Kleis Nielsen has a great post on the blogs at Reuters warning European journalism start-ups to avoid surviving on advertising alone. He backs up his warning with some stark examples of start-ups who have failed due to meagre revenue they were able to earn on ads:

Advertising-supported online news production did not work for Netzeitung in Germany (which in 2009 shut down its newsroom after nine years of consecutive losses), did not work for Rue89 in France (impressive and innovative as it was, the site never broke even and was bought by the weekly newsmagazine Le Nouvel Observateur in 2011), and is not working for Il Post (widely considered one of the most promising startups in Italy, the site generated revenues of just 35,000 euros in its first year of operation, resulting in an operating loss of more than 150,000 euros out of a total budget of little more than 200,000 euros). Why should we expect it to work for other startups when all these widely praised ventures, and many more besides, failed to pull it off?

Ouch. Nielsen makes the broader point that the journalism start-ups are simply mimicking US models, when the US market is massive both in terms of population and ad spend compared to European markets, but he also makes some excellent points about how a glut of digital content has pushed down ad rates and kept them low. Those low rates aren’t just hitting start-ups but even established players. 

A lot of journalists are trying their hand at start-ups as they leave or are pushed out of the stable of big media. When I left The Guardian two years ago, Suw and I thought about pursuing a journalism start-up. We decided not to do it for several reasons, with the major one being, our start-up dreams were over-taken by media consultancy work. However, we thought long and hard about the revenue streams that would fund our start-up. We knew that ads alone wouldn’t cut it. 

Nielsen suggest that journalism start-ups look to how other non-content start-ups are diversifying their money mix by adding “digital subscriptions, donations, consultancy services, live events, event planning and e-commerce”. Honestly, I think for certain types of content, you could even mix consulting and content, although I know from personal experience that gets sticky. Journalism quickly meets the requirements of client confidentiality.

Regardless, if you’re launching a journalism start-up, make sure your content dreams are leavened with some thoughts of business reality. If you don’t have business planning experience, get some. Freelancers have always had to learn about marketing and the business side of journalism. It might feel a little weird at first. Just remember, you’re not working for the Man. You’re fighting for your own survival.