Is sunlight the best disinfectant and still the best guiding principle for journalism?

This is response to a friend of mine on Facebook who asked if the famous quote from Louis Brandeis: “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman”, should still be the guiding principle for journalism. 

I’ll wade in, although I’m not an educator. Have you ever seen Good Night and Good Luck? Fabulous film about Murrow’s challenge to McCarthy. What’s incredible about it is that it shows the power of Murrow’s challenge, but it also highlights the cost. Murrow was able to do this in part because he had a trust that I think is hard to replicate these days, and I think establishing, much less maintaining, trust is just as much of a challenge as garnering enough attention.

Murrow won but at a high cost. His show was cut in air time due to high production costs. One of his team, Don Hollenbeck, committed suicide. The whole thing is bookended by a speech that Murrow gives about not letting televisin become just “wires and lights in a box”.
No one apart from Murrow seemed able to resist McCarthy and shatter the grip of fear the Wisconsin Senator had on the US. (I say this, writing from Wisconsin.)
It’s why Murrow is both a hero of mine and a teacher. He is responsible for creating much of the storytelling grammar of TV journalism just as I hoped to help create some of the storytelling grammer of digital media.
But he also a hero because he earned trust and then used that trust to do something that helped end one of the darker periods of US history.
Now in the present, if you look at the Gallup trust survey, every major institution in the US has seen a collapse in trust since 2005 (a small uptick recently), and the collapse in trust in journalism is almost totally driven from the right wing of the partisan divide. At the moment, there is a big chunk of the American population who strongly believe that when we shine a light it is to put something in shadow, cast it into darkness. And there is definitely the implication from conservatives that I know that we do this for purely malicious reasons. (Of course, I don’t believe that, but it is a strongly held belief.)
Look, this is way too long as a Facebook comment, but it is to say, that while I don’t believe trust has much to do with the decline of journalism as a business. I do believe that the decline in trust of journalism is emblematic of a collapse in trust in, well, just about everything.
And to that point, I have been asking people: What would it take you to trust in journalism, government, schools, churches, business, each other again? No one gives me much of a satisfying answer, but as I look for something productive with the rest of my career, I think this might be a worthy new mission.

Career Pivot: The first step

It’s coming up on two years since my job as a regional executive editor and news director disappeared, one of the tens of thousands of US newspaper jobs that simply doesn’t exist anymore, and I’ve been waiting to write a post about my job search because, I’ll be honest, I wanted to write the post announcing that I had landed a really cool job. I have got close a couple of times, but I can, in all honesty say, the jobs just weren’t right. And this time, I want the job to be right. I want the best culture I can find and also something that feels a bit sturdier than the full-time roles I’ve had since I took the buyout from The Guardian in 2010.

And so I waited to write about the job search, which is really more than a job search. It’s a career pivot. That’s the other reason I haven’t written about this process. It’s not that I’m committed to leaving journalism, but it is the realisation that journalism most likely won’t be able to provide me with enough stability to enjoy the most important things in life: My wife Suw, family and friends.

That’s not to say that I don’t have ambitions. In the last two years, I’ve built and expanded on the international media consultancy work that I started after I took a buyout from The Guardian in 2010. I’ve worked in a dozen countries in 2017, providing digital transformation, data and long-form journalism workshops to journalists across south and southeast Asia. I’ve been doing some really incredible and satisfying work with the newsrooms of Trinity-Mirror in the UK, helping staff and editorial leadership turn their analytics into editorial action and launch new audience engagement initiatives. And I produced a report on newsroom innovation management for the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford.

My consultancy has given Suw and me the space to explore this career pivot. I had already started to think of a pivot the summer before the job disappeared. I knew that it was coming. I was heavily involved in the restructuring that led to it being eliminated. But when the role did go up in smoke, people who I spoke to asked me what I wanted to do next. There was a part of me that wanted to answer that I wanted to do what I had always done: Create the future of media. But I knew my digital skills, my data-driven creative passions could be used in a number of other ways, and realistically, it was time to update my personal mission statement.

The summer before the job went away, a good friend told me that I most likely wouldn’t find the kind of job I wanted in a major media organisation and suggested that I look to media start-ups. And that is one avenue I’m exploring, and if you’re a media start-up looking for a crack audience development or head of product, get in touch.

Another friend identified said that I had a passion for communications and community, and I’ve definitely been rolling that idea around in my head. I like this idea. Journalists are driven by a mission, and I would love to talk to people about other public service missions that I could support.

But this is a good first step. When I started blogging with Suw back in 2006, the blog was part of a brilliant community of writers, journalists and “social technologists” as Suw often describers herself. I loved that time because blogging really was social media, and it wasn’t just about the writing but also about the community of support that I felt. By not writing about this important transition, I’ve really deprived myself of that support.

So I’m doing something I rarely do, I’m writing something that feels half-finished, something that doesn’t feel definitive or even all that confident. But I know that I’m still writing this chapter in my life. It is unfinished, but to start the next chapter, I need to do this, write and re-connect.

The dis-economies of scale for small town newspapers (and the rise of local indie players)

This post originally appeared on The Media Briefing. It was announced on 16 June, 2017, that The Media Briefing would be shutting down after the purchase of its parent’s company media events business, which did not include the content side of the business.  I wish the excellent staff there the best. If you’re in the UK looking for some great journalists, editors and analysts, let me know. 

In the last 15 years, more than half of the jobs at newspapers have disappeared, down from 412,000 to 174,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. While I don’t want to reflexively equate newspapers with local journalism, there is no way to ignore such a tremendous loss in local media capacity, especially in small towns and cities.

Three years ago, the Sheboygan Press, where I was Executive Editor,had three full-time reporters, two sports reporters, a photographer, a local news editor, a night editor and a digital editor to cover a city of 50,000. We shared an opinion editor, a features editor and a sports editor with one other site, and they were player-managers who helped provide local reporting and content. Now locally, there is only a news editor, two reporters and a photographer. That’s it. That’s the decline in only three years. Yes, there are shared resources across an 11-newspaper group, but it is rare for those staff to provide truly local coverage.

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Major metros, second- and even some third-tier cities often have three or four TV stations to provide local coverage, but thousands of smaller communities and millions of Americans have lost local news coverage, sometimes entirely. The Columbia Journalism Review focused on these local journalism losses this month and said cuts and newspaper closures are creating “news deserts”.

This crisis is just starting to get the attention that it deserves, but a lot of the conversation is still focused on major metros or cities with more than 100,000 people. Yet in thousands of smaller communities, the crisis looks very different, and the strategies and the business models needed to save these local news sources are very different. The industry is consolidating, but large newspaper groups are treating all markets as if they are the same. Instead of saving papers like the ones I used to manage, the chains’ strategies are creating dis-economies of scale that threaten to wipe out small community newspapers.

Strategies that don’t scale down

In its coverage of the local journalism crisis, CJR called Gannett the “last great local hope”. I disagree. Large groups like Gannett are now running regional strategies that don’t deliver dramatic cost savings at smaller sites and damage their ability to deliver truly local content. Indeed, strategies designed for the metros caught us coming and going: the cost efficiencies didn’t really amount to much for us, while the ad strategies often priced us out of the local market. So any savings were quickly offset by declines in revenue because we had fewer sales staff selling less ad space, and new digital strategies didn’t scale down to our communities.

For example, Gannett, like many other publishers, has centralised newspaper design in a handful of centres. Gatehouse has taken the model to the an extreme with a single centralised design centre for all of its 125 daily newspapers and hundreds of “community newspapers”.Gatehouse newspapers big front page illustration

 

While I appreciate the need to make the print production process as efficient as possible, this kind of streamlining has to be done only when it makes sense, especially economic sense.

 

Our contribution to the design studio budget would have hired two designers locally so not only were our cost savings minimal to non-existent, a lack of local market knowledge sometimes led to poor design decisions. For example, the designer usually used huge front page illustrations, like this one from a Gatehouse newspaper but our readers interpreted to mean that we didn’t have content to fill the page. It sent entirely the wrong message.

Ad strategies that didn’t work for smaller sites

Gannett’s centralised digital marketing services didn’t work for smaller sites either. The floor to engage the service was a $5000 monthly spend and, in smaller markets like mine, that was the annual spend for a lot of our advertisers. Fortunately, I worked with amazing local commercial staff and managers, and we came up with our own digital ad solutions.

Research by the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University in New Jersey found a decline in ad blocks of 34 to 40 percent across the four newspapers they reviewed in that state after they were acquired by Gannett. The researchers said:

“This could indicate a variety of things; there could be fewer resources committed to garnering ads from local businesses, local businesses may have decided to pull their advertising for some reason, or it could be some kind of strategic decision on the company’s part.”

Needless to say, fewer ads means less revenue. Less revenue has meant a download spiral that Gannett is struggling to check.

‘Wistful self-delusion’

Gannett says that it is a “local-to-national network”. While that acknowledges the nationalisation of vast parts of the US ad network, it actually doesn’t make either economic sense or often journalistic sense for small-town news services unless they are little more than one reporter bureaux that feed a regional product. With two reporters left in the sites that I used to manage, in reality they aren’t far from this. Once they are reduced to bureaux, Gannett’s 50 or so small sites will have ceased to be local in a way that my communities define it.

The upside is that Gannett now has retreated from these small towns to such an extent that local competitors are rising to take their place. Sadly for the staff still at those sites, this is putting additional pressure on small Gannett properties.

There is no silver bullet solution to the crisis in local journalism, but as for hope, I don’t look to the large chains in the US. Their consolidation and cost-cutting strategies have run their course.

Rather, I look to local journalism entrepreneurs to create a range of truly local experiments that explore new ways to serve their communities and new ways to generate revenue. I think for local journalism, the days of mass print are over. We are returning to a much more distributed model as we enter the local digital era.

WAN-IFRA Webinar: Here come the chatbots and more strategic insights

Last Thursday, I hosted a webinar focusing on the chatbots and conversational interfaces section of the report that I did for the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford, Beyond the Article: Frontiers of Editorial and Commercial Innovation.

In the webinar, I gave an overview of the strategic motivations that publishers – including Rappler of the Philippines, Nyt, the youth section of Helsingin Sanomat of Finland, and Quartz of the US – had for launching chatbots and developing conversational apps. I also looked at how they developed these projects and what business models they were using to support their journalism.

I’ll just review their strategic motivations briefly here:

    • Rappler launched a Facebook chatbot for three reasons: One, audiences had shifted rapidly from Twitter to Facebook over the last year in the Philippines. Two, they wanted to use the chatbot to both increase discovery of their content for Facebook audiences, and three, they also wanted to better communicate their editorial features – straight news, analysis and comment – to readers.
    • Helsingin Sanomat’s youth-focused Nyt noticed in 2014 that Facebook was no longer helping them reach teens and, based on research that showed that 80 percent of their target audience used WhatsApp, they launched an experiment on the messaging platform. The experiment was successful but unsustainable, so they developed their own conversational app.
    • When Quartz launched four years ago, the mobile-focused news service did not launch with an app because they found that app usage fell off quickly. However, with the rising importance of notifications, they wanted to get onto the lockscreen of their users. Inspired by Lark, a conversational fitness coaching app, they launched a conversational news app.

Is WhatsApp going to develop tools for news companies?

One of the questions that came up during the webinar is whether WhatsApp was developing editorial tools to make its service manageable for news groups using the service to broadcast updates to users. I had heard rumours, but nothing firm. After the webinar, I did a quick search, and I found a Reuters report in early March that said that WhatsApp was trialling tools for businesses, and had launched a pilot with Y Combinator. Neither WhatsApp nor Y Combinator confirmed the trial, but one of Y Combinator’s companies provided details.

However, this trial was couched in terms of WhatsApp going in search of a business model, rather than helping news organisations. (I was in Asia in March, and Chinese messaging platform WeChat does have editorial tools. It’s really worth looking at what the Chinese messaging and weibo, Twitter-esque platforms, are doing. They have developed a far richer experience than Twitter or WhatsApp.) In the end, WhatsApp’s trial seems much more focused on helping businesses connect with their customers, rather than serving the needs of editorial organisations. Moreover, as a paid service, it doesn’t really address one of Nyt’s primary issues with WhatsApp: they couldn’t drive users from WhatsApp to their site, felt unsure about advertising on the platform, and so couldn’t really monetise that attention.

Moreover, Facebook, WhatsApp’s owner, seems much more focused on Messenger as a platform for editorial organisations. I do wonder how long Facebook will see value in having two messaging platforms.

Strategic insights beyond the report

Apart from the webinar, my good friend Damian Radcliffe summarised not only some questions he asked me about the report but also comments that I made to The Media Briefing in a podcast last month.

I’ll highlight some of the top level observations from Damian. What really struck me in the research for the report is that media companies are starting to embrace product thinking. Bar one of the examples, every case study in the report highlighted a strategic challenge or opportunity as the basis for these projects.

I want to emphasise a point that Damian highlighted from my conversation with Chris Sutcliffe and Esther Kezia of The Media Briefing for the podcast: Innovation requires rationalisation. The most successful media groups I work with are working hard to figure out what they do and, just as importantly, what they stop doing. Focus is critical to successful execution. I told Chris and Esther:

Often the resources of an organisation are fully committed, and this is especially true for news organisations going through cuts. To free up resources for innovation, those groups must figure out what they stop doing.

Quartz exemplifies this. Last year, they decided to quit producing a high-end tech conference, not because it wasn’t successful but because it wasn’t successful enough. They are a start-up operating as part of a legacy media company, Atlantic Media, and as a start-up, they are focused on their highest growth areas. This is a critical lesson for media companies. They have to focus on areas where they can find growth, and they need to be fully focused on those areas.

If you haven’t read it already, you can download the report from the Reuters Institute. And if you have any questions including enquiries about speaking opportunities or consulting engagements, feel free to get in touch in the comments below, or via Twitter, LinkedIn or email.

Join me for a webinar about my recent Reuters Institute report on news innovation

Since I first said it at Hacks/Hackers London last summer, I’ve become fond of saying, “If you don’t have revenue, then you don’t have a product.”

When Dr. Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, the research director at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford, started to talking to me about writing a report about journalism innovation, I mentioned my comment about revenue and products, and he asked, “Can we put that on the front page?”

Rasmus wanted to look at digitally native innovation at news organisations, and we used projects that went “Beyond the Article” as a lens to focus the project. Rasmus and I also wanted to focus not just on the coolness of innovation but also the business: How were companies managing it, and more importantly how were they monetising it.

We eventually settled on three areas to focus on:

  • Radically distributed publishing.
  • Chatbots and conversational interfaces.
  • Visual journalism and VR.

The report was supposed to be 5,000 words, and it topped out at about 11,400. To be honest, I could have written a book. There is a lot of innovation going on right now in journalism. But I think we’ve given a good sample of projects and innovation.

If you want to read a brief introduction focusing on the chabots and conversational interfaces and apps section, here is post I wrote for WAN-IFRA. For a broader overview, here is a summary that I wrote for the Nieman Lab at Harvard. If listening is more your style, I also did a podcast on the report with Chris and Esther at the Media Briefing.

Next week, 30 March at 3-4 p.m. CEST, 2-3 p.m. BST or 9-10 a.m. EDT, I’ll be doing a webinar for WAN-IFRA focusing on the chatbots and conversational interfaces section. Register here to join. I’ll do a presentation, but we’ll have plenty of time for you to ask questions. See you there!

Outlining the formula for Josh Topolsky’s Outline at #SXSW

There are a lot of lessons here for media companies, whether legacy businesses or start-ups, from The Outline. You might not have heard of The Outline, but it has pedigree. It’s founder Josh Topolsky has form with The Verge and Bloomberg. Now, he wants to launch the next-gen New Yorker or the New Yorker for millennials, as Shan Wang reported in Nieman Lab.

Simplifying their formula even further from their slide at SXSW, I would say that the key lessons are:

  • Collaborative working relationship with edit/dev/rev team.
  • Focused on a “specific, finite, meaningful audience”. And a laser focus on that audience.
  • Ad experiences as distinctive as its content.

I don’t think that everyone needs to build their own editorial tech or ad tech. That’s something that a figure like Topolsky can do at launch, but it isn’t something that every media start-up or even legacy group can or should do. Obviously, the technology focus can deliver a distinctive editorial and commercial product, but I think knowing that you’re trying to do is a necessary prerequisite to build or choose the tech.

But that’s a niggle. Overall, this tight set of bullet points is a good starting place for media companies in the 21st Century. It’s not a rigid recipe, but it’s a great starting point for companies looking for a strong digital launch.

Direct to consumer reason for collapse in national print ads in US and UK

Newspapers came under renewed pressure in 2016 as print advertising dropped by double digits, often in a quarter. Gannett saw a drop in national print advertising by 35.1 percent in the third quarter of 2016, but still managed overall to eke out only a 14.8 percent drop in overall print advertising. Ouch. I worked at Gannett, and I was lucky to have great commercial managers. Why did this happen? The trends in the US and the UK are the same, and Roy Greenslade of The Guardian has just published an excerpt from a former MD of the Mail newspapers about why this collapse is happening.

Turning to display, the category which traditionally held up well was retail, which is still the largest category. The reason was simple. It worked to the extent it was measureable.

But this model is under pressure because of the growth of databases which enable advertisers to target audiences and email their offers directly to them.

Zitter looks at the market from the national level in the UK and says that to win back advertisers, they need to maintain a direct relationship with them to the largest extent possible and not simply rely on programmatic exchanges. That makes sense, but with the sharp decline in revenue, newspaper groups are not just losing editorial headcount but sales staff as well. Rough seas ahead.