Every journalist needs a Plan B

"The key to life is how well you deal with plan B."

Photo: “The key to life is how well you deal with plan B.” by Betsy Weber, Some Rights Reserved from Flickr

Last summer, I noticed that a college classmate had joined a Facebook group called Plan B, a group for “former and current newspaper and video journalism people” looking for a second act, a job match for their transferable skills, a support group or simply a hedge against the instability in the industry. I joined because I sensed that my job as a regional executive editor wasn’t going to be around much longer, and I knew that I needed to start coming up with my Plan B. I would need my Plan B much sooner than expected.

It was clear that more cuts were to come last summer. In the almost two years that I held the job, there had been a straight-forward budget cut and a major reorganisation that was supposed to see us lose 15 percent of our payroll and 20 percent of our headcount. For a time due to existing staff getting promoted or deciding to part ways with the company, at one point last spring, we were almost 50 percent below our pre-reorganisation staffing. The budget was cut again before we filled any of the open positions due a miscalculation during the reorganisation planning. After months of recruiting and before we filled all of the open roles, a hiring freeze was implemented and an early retirement programme rolled out soon after. And then, last October, my role and another were eliminated.

Fortunately, the very next week I had two gigs, which had been in the works for months, and shortly after that, I set up my own consultancy, which is a continuation of work that I did before the job. I’m thrilled to have some very exciting projects in the coming months (although I still have time for more so feel free to get in touch). Ultimately, I want a full-time role, but this work means that I have the breathing room and space to find the best job and the best fit.

That space has been an incredible gift. It has allowed me to talk to a number of mentors and friends and think about all of my options. Compared to 2013, the last time I was looking for a full-time role, I’m actually more optimistic that I’ll be able to find the right role in journalism, but this is as good as time as any to think broadly. And this time like last, I’m thinking not just about the job but also about quality of life, closeness to friends and family and work-life balance.

Apart from the value of having a Plan B, here’s a few things I’ve learned already during this search:

  • Reach out to your network –  Last summer, I began reaching out to mentors and friends in the industry. It helped me get a head start on my job search, and if my friends aren’t in a position to hire me full-time, they still might be looking for a consultant with my skills and experience. But even if work isn’t in the offing, your friends will be a great source of support. I’ve been humbled at how much help friends have been in terms of brokering connections and helping me find new opportunities.
  • Take a passion inventory – One person on the Plan B group worried that she would never find a job as noble as journalism. Many of us got into this business because of the mission, the public service mission. But there are a lot of ways to serve the public. What other passions do you have? Journalism may be a noble mission, but it’s an industry in crisis. At times, I have asked myself if it has become the professional equivalent of an abusive relationship. If your current job in journalism robs you of your life through endless hours of toil while still not providing you a livelihood, there is nothing noble in it. I have seen too many journalists grow bitter after years of sacrifice. This is a chance to write your own story.
  • Think about skills, rather than a specific job – I just came across this today on Editor & Publisher by Tim Gallagher who left newspapers and now has his own small business. He spoke with a careers coach who told him, “We are going to talk about who you are. What your skills are. Not the jobs you’ve had.” He added, “And for the first time in nearly 30 years I began to think that there were jobs out there that did not start with journalism.”
  • Have a FoF – Call it a rainy day fund, an emergency fund or something more colourful, but if at all possible, bank some money so when the axeman cometh, it isn’t an immediate sentence for financial ruin. Before you rush to the keyboard to protest, trust me, I know how hard this on a journalist’s salary, especially when you’re just starting out. When I landed my first journalism job at the Hay’s Daily News in Hays Kansas in the mid-90s, I was making $2000 less than a first year teacher – $16,900 if you must ask. That said, I’ll own my own advantage or privilege, I got my bachelor’s degree debt-free, but only because my parents started saving for college almost the day I was born. They had to start saving early because they were both teachers, so not the demographic definition of high net worth individuals. I learned to save from my parents.

In an ideal world, I would have loved to have made the move on my own terms, but with the cushion my consulting has given me, I’m actually viewing this transition as a gift. I have recharged my batteries and am looking on my future as one of exciting opportunity.

Without my Plan B, I would be consumed with stress and overcome with fear, and I would leap at the first opportunity whether it was the right one or not. Certainly, I’ll be happy when I’ve filled in some more blanks, but I’m doing the heavy lifting now to answer those questions.

Ultimately, having a Plan B is about being prepared. With the industry in such turmoil, that doesn’t mean you’ll be able to control the outcome, but the outcome isn’t the loss of a job, it’s what happens next.

Featured photo by Betsy Weber from Flickr.

 

Peak Content: When the Attention Economy bubble bursts

This is a follow-on to an analysis that I wrote for The Media Briefing, published on 4 January. Simply put, I think a shake-out in the media business is coming due to a glut of content and advertising. I am not alone, and it would seem that 2016 begins with a lot of concerns about the sustainability of the current path in terms of media businesses. I’ve seen a raft of reports over the last week that sound like the beginning of this shake-out, both between legacy players but also amongst digital media pure plays. 

Never have we had so much choice in terms of news, information, music and entertainment. The democratisation of production brought by digital technology has made it easier than ever for people to create content, but it has also made it more difficult than ever to get paid to create it, both for individual creators and many companies. This cannot last.

The bottom line is this: Pressure on legacy media businesses and the current state of digital advertising means that you either go premium and paid – think The Economist, The New York Times, pay television, business intelligence – or you go mass and scale, trying to reach as many people as possible as cheaply as possible. There is a limit to scale, and a limit to the model of producing as much as possible as cheaply as possible, especially as the digital ad space is as super-saturated as the world of digital content.

As I said over on The Media Briefing:

For a long time, we’ve been creating too much content, so much so that I think that we’ve already reached Peak Content, the point at which this glut of things to read, watch and listen to becomes completely unsustainable. There hasn’t been enough ad revenue to sustain it for years and, with 2015 ending with a rush of acquisitions, consolidations and funding rounds with eye-watering valuations, 2016 will mark the beginning of a shake out.

Market crashes are the tsunamis that sink, if not all, then a lot of boats, and it’s time to take strategic action.

And although I’ve spent most of my career working in journalism, I’m not just talking about journalists and the commentariat, I’m talking about every kind of content. We’re producing too many podcasts, too many TV shows, video games, status updates and images than we could consume in a million lifetimes. Social updates are as much about communication as they are publishing or broadcasting, but they still eat up that scarce resource of attention. As a data journalist, I like hard numbers, and streaming music service Pandora gave us one on just how scarce attention is.

Attention is such an important topic for marketers this year because living in a connected world means our attention spans are at an all-time low (8 seconds1, to be exact), turning people into master jugglers of devices and content.

As my piece went live on the Media Briefing, it coincided with a number of articles indicating that a shake-out is already in progress. Ricardo Bilton at Digiday predicted a “winter of discontent” for digital publishers as many high-profile sites saw their traffic plateau, including Buzzfeed. Some of this is to be expected. It’s nearly impossible to maintain triple digit growth. He writes:

The challenges on the business side are fueled by the overabundance of publishers on the Web. Ad buyers are looking for deeper deals with a handful of partnerships, which is bad news for the sites that don’t make the cut.

This year will begin as 2015 ended, with a rush for digital publishers pivoting or looking for buyers. Bilton wrote that Mashable is shopping itself around, and it wasn’t too long ago that we heard that The Atlantic was exploring a sale of Quartz. For those not seeing the growth that they need to sell at a valuation that will sate their funders, we are seeing retrenching and pivots, or both in the case of Upworthy. Even seemingly safe and stable digital media players such as the Huffington Post are announcing layoffs in one area that had seen a lot of growth over the past 18 months, video.

This is all to say that those people commenting on my original piece who focused on the disruption in the legacy media business are missing the main point: This glut of content is hitting everyone who operates in the digital media space, apart from the only true unicorns of Google and Facebook.

We are fast approaching the end of this cycle though that has prioritised cheap scale above all else. As I wrote for The Media Briefing:

…flooding a glutted market only leads to a deflationary spiral until it becomes completely uneconomic to produce that commodity. It is a simple matter of economics, and it doesn’t matter whether that commodity is maize or media.

Tom Mullaly said in a comment on the post: “The market does not ‘abhor super-abundance’. Businesses trading in a super-abundant commodity abhor its abundance, and that’s an entirely different thing. Consumers of it revel in it, and that means you can monetize it, even if it’s not quite the news you knew.” Sure, for lovers of high quality content, it’s a golden age of choice in terms of incredible TV, international journalism and audio content, but it cannot last if it cannot be paid for. As Clay Shirky said years ago, “Abundance breaks more things than scarcity does.”

What happens now? 

For years now, one of my conference presentations begins by laying out this issue of overabundance and different ways to try to deal with it. As Peak Content becomes more well-known as an issue, we’re seeing a number of different prescriptions.

Tom Goodwin of Havas has written that in this flood of content, attention shouldn’t be our focus but rather clarity.

And I’m far from the first person to use the term Peak Content. It’s been circulating in marketing circles for a while now, and Erica Berger used the term in a Medium post in early December. She wrote:

To sum this up, the ecosystem we’re in right now is at highest editorial capacity for content, coupled with a shifting revenue stream away from publishers and to networks and large tech companies. There’s no hack that I or many smart people can see. That’s why we’ve reached “Peak Content.”

That said, she is optimistic about the passing of Peak Content seeing it as “an opportunity of a generation” to remake media.

But having survived both the dot.com crash, when an early generation of digital content companies were wiped out, and the Great Recession, which I survived by building my own global media consultancy, I know that when a bubble bursts it wipes as many good companies as bad. Yes, there is an opportunity here, as there always is, but it will also get messy. I absolutely agree with Tom and Erica that it’s a time for clarity and an opportunity to make something better than what came before.

But how?

I’m not going to rewrite my Media Briefing piece, but I think media companies, and this goes for you whether you’re a seed-funded start-up or a legacy media business trying to ride out what seems like the perfect storm, need to as a minimum:

  • Sharpen your strategic focus – If you’re not going to play the volume game, ask yourself what audience you serve and how will you monetise that attention. Get creative and think of things beyond the ad/subscriber dichotomy.
  • Iterative agility – Screw fail fast; instead learn quickly. Yes, failing fast is about the willingness to experiment and take risks, but the major challenge that I have seen in a lot of companies is that they fail to funnel the lessons, good and bad, back into the business.
  • Decide what you stop doing – When I worked for the Media Development Investment Fund, one of the key lessons we realised that digital start-ups had to learn was when to let go, when to stop doing something because it wasn’t supporting their success. The same goes for legacy media companies. As I wrote at Media Briefing, “one of the biggest challenges I had as an executive editor, (was) figuring out what we could stop doing that would free up enough staff time to innovate in a way that could really move the dial.”
  • Invest in revenue innovation – Never launch anything without revenue streams in mind. For every editorial innovation, I’d invest in two on the commercial side.

I want to amplify that last point because the biggest issue we have right now is that, in terms of unique users, we can reach a larger audience than ever, but no one can monetise millions of single unique users who spend 30 seconds or less with you each month.

Of all of the predictions and forecasts that I saw at the end of 2015, Amanda Hale’s, of Talking Points Memo, struck me as the clearest. She wrote for Nieman Lab:

We’ve reinvented journalism school time and time again and have nobly funded countless entrepreneurial journalism fellowships aimed at equipping journalists with basic tech and business skills (“entrepreneurial journalism,” while adjacent, is a different discipline — email me and I’ll explain), but as an industry, we have done very little to identify, pipeline, and train the publishing talent that will be responsible for securing the financial future of news.

Amen. She notes that her Twitter bio says, “Without a business plan, there is no freedom of the press.” Yup. That. As this shake-out gathers pace, scale at all costs will fade as the goal. To quote my Media Briefing piece a final time, “huge audiences don’t matter in the absence of a business model”.

If you want to hire me to work with your media, advertising or marketing company or start-up, I have just launched a consultancy, Ship’s Wheel Media, to provide digital product development, content strategy (especially social, mobile, data and visual) and content services. I am also open to discussing full-time roles. If interested, send me an email – kevin AT charman-anderson.com – or connect with me on LinkedIn

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.

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.

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.

A fun way to earn revenue with newspaper archives

Sheboygan Press 107th Anniversary edition

The cover of the Sheboygan Press 107th Anniversary edition

The week before Christmas, the Sheboygan Press, one of the papers I edit, celebrated its 107th anniversary. Our business might be news, but our readers also love history. We run a weekly column from the head of the country historical society, and it’s really popular.

Seven years ago, for our centennial, we ran an anniversary edition and included a replica of our very first edition. For this edition, we decided to celebrate our birthday with a vintage styled newspaper with stories from throughout the decades.

As a new editor and a newcomer, it was a great way to learn about the history of the city and of the newspaper. I learned about Charles Broughton, who led the newspaper to become “one of the most influential, liberal papers in the state”. The graphic on the front page trumpeted many of his and the newspaper’s campaigns and accomplishments including the preservation of local wetlands.

Broughton was also a fierce anti-Prohibitionist, and on the front page of the commemorative edition, I included an editorial I assume he penned railing away against the Anti-Saloon League, which branded the Sheboygan Press a “bootleg newspaper”.

It was fascinating looking through our bound archives to see the features we had. Our paper used to have a society editor who chronicled just about everything when it came to the who’s who of Sheboygan. The society editor chronicled local teas, travel and social events. It’s odd that in this age of social media when we reveal just about everything to friends real and virtual that I find it a slightly creepy invasion of privacy to have this level of detail about the local goings on. Discuss.

In our first edition, the publishers ran an announcement of their intentions in launching the paper, and to be honest, there wasn’t much that I would change. They wrote:

IN PRESENTING this the first issue of the SHEBOYGAN DAILY PRESS, the publishers do so with a sense of deep responsibility mingled with feelings of pride that Sheboygan has now a daily morning paper and one that will represent the people and all classes of people.

…It is a hard matter to please everybody, and it would be foolish and futile for us to attempt to do that.

…Sensational stories and fake news will be given a wide berth. We realize that our city is a growing one and its interests will always receive our first thought. Anything that tends to advance Sheboygan and put it in the front rank will always have our cordial support. Of course there may be times when certain public affairs will demand attention and notice and when it may be difficult for us to take an impartial stand, but if such an emergency arises, as it surely will, the influence of the SHEBOYGAN DAILY PRESS will always be for what we consider the right.

When my news editor and I first came up with the idea, I felt like it was definitely one of the crazier things that we had come up with since I started. But I went to our ad director who let me know about the replica edition we had created for our centennial. The ad team embraced the idea. Actually, they didn’t just embrace it, they didn’t just run with it. They bloody well sprinted away with it. Initially, we were only going to run with four pages, but our advertisers loved the idea so much, they sold almost three pages of ads in a day. We added two more pages to the section. It’s a very nice thing to be adding pages to a mid-week edition because we have so much ad support.

We promoted the project on Facebook and even paid to ‘boost’ our posts to reach people beyond our normal audience. One post has 203 likes, which is pretty good going for a local newspaper.

I had a lot of fun putting the edition together, and I think that showed through with the edition. Our readers loved it and responded to it, and our advertisers really loved it too. What more could I ask for? We need to surprise, amuse and engage our readers more like this. It ended the year on a high note, and I am looking to carry that momentum into the new year. Happy 2015!