My interview on TRT about Arianna Huffington stepping down from the Huffington Post

TRT World in Turkey interviewed me about the legacy of Arrianna Huffington as she stepped down as editor-in-chief from the ground-breaking site that bears her name. I will count myself as one of the sceptics when the site was launched, but I was happy to have been proven wrong.

The Huffington Post did create a new model for content in the digital era. On the plus side, it is good to see something that has worked, but on the downside, I see that model as creating as much content as possible for as cheaply as possible, which negatively impacts those who try to make a living from their creative efforts. It’s alumni also have made their mark, especially Jonah Peretti of Buzzfeed.

When I was asked why she stepped down, I alluded to talk about her influence being diluted after Verizon bought Yahoo, which had bought the Huffington Post. But I also see another reason. In 2016, general news and comment sites like the Huffington Post are a lot more difficult to build into a successful media company, but the focused sites like the health site that she will now focus on are seeing much greater success.

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

For Hire: Heading back to the future

Nearly two years after I joined Gannett, and as a result of the ongoing restructuring and latest wave of cuts, I now find myself back on the job market. My job as Executive Editor of the Sheboygan Press, Manitowoc Herald Times Reporter, Oshkosh Northwestern and Fond du Lac Reporter has been eliminated, and my responsibilities shared out amongst other staff.

I feel lucky to have worked with some amazing people, and I want to pay tribute to my former colleagues at all of the sites that I oversaw at some point during the 20 months. You delivered the best journalism that you possibly could; you pushed the envelope and tried new things; you were visible on social media and in the communities; and you rolled with the punches. I’d thank every one of you personally, but they’d start playing the Oscars end-the-speech music. I must thank one person in particular, though: Lowell Johnson, the general manager of Sheboygan and Manitowoc. He taught me a lot about management and the business of local media. More than that, he is a champion for his communities and a great guy. I really will miss working with him.

I saw the handwriting on the wall several months ago, so was already in the process of developing a Plan B. It is essential these days, no matter if you work in legacy media or a VC-funded start-up, to have an eye on other opportunities. Luckily, the market is much better now than in 2013, when I was last looking and the world had barely begun its slow climb out recession. In the past 36 hours, I’ve already discussed some options that have me more excited than I’ve been in years.

That being said, I really want to think broadly about my next steps and I am very much open to exploring other ideas and opportunities. In 1996, I went boldly towards digital because I had seen the future, and knew it was digital. A decade ago, I was sitting in the BBC News Online newsroom chatting with Paul Brannan, then the deputy editor of the site, and he expressed succinctly why we were passionate about what we were doing. “Everyday, we get up and get to create the future of media,” he said. Damn straight. It was thrilling then, and it’s just as thrilling now. My future still is digital.

That’s about the only filter I’ll put on this job search. Here’s my goal:

To find a position that fully utilises my two decades of global experience as a media innovator, leader and executive. That position could be with a disruptive project at a major news organisation, a communications position with a progressive company, a leadership position with a media start-up or a teaching and research position at a forward-thinking higher education institution.

For those of you who don’t know my background, here’s my potted bio and achievements:

  • In 1998, I became the BBC’s first online journalist outside of the UK. We pioneered multi-platform storytelling and audience engagement techniques years before they became mainstream.
  • In 2005, I was part of the launch team of the BBC World Service interactive radio programme, World Have Your Say.
  • In 2006, I became The Guardian’s first blogs editor, and I was part of a team that oversaw a dramatic explosion in the blog network at The Guardian.
  • In 2010, I took a buyout from the Guardian to join Suw and take our media consultancy global. I trained hundreds of Al Jazeera journalists in engagement and social media verification techniques before and during the Arab Spring. Suw and I were part of the launch team for Firstpost.com for India’s Network 18.
  • Since 2011, I have been and continue to be an in-demand data journalism trainer and consultant, working with CNN International, Reed Business International, Czech TV, Singapore Press Holdings and WAN-IFRA.
  • Since 2012, I have been a faculty member for the Eurovision Academy, the training centre for the European Broadcasting Union. I have done data journalism and multi-platform newsroom management courses and am co-presenting a seminar on innovative converged newsrooms.
  • In 2012, I was a member of the management team of the Media Development Investment Fund, which invests in independent media in countries without a history of free media. I was the editorial lead and a on staff consultant for the Fund’s Knowledge Bridge, which was created to help clients in the portfolio transition successfully to digital.
  • From 2014 until recently, I was a regional local media executive with Gannett, overseeing a handful of news sites in Wisconsin. In the first year, we grew reach at the two sites I initially oversaw off the back of strong digital growth. At HTR News Media, we grew reach from 84 percent to an astounding 87 percent.

In an ideal world, Suw and I would love to stay put in Sheboygan. We love where we’ve landed, our lovely little corner of Wisconsin, but we are both realistic and are willing, albeit reluctantly, to relocate.

Good talent is hard to find, and the depth of global, digital experience I have is very rare.  If you’re interested, get in touch.

Podcast revolution driven by mobile devices with four wheels

Podcasting has been buzzing over the last year in the US. One reason is smart content, with NPR’s Serial, which was download at least 80 million times.

However, there is a tech aspect at play as well. According to podcast hosting service Libsyn, two-thirds of podcasts were downloaded by mobile devices in 2014, up from 43 percent just two years before. But this is not just about the rise of the smartphone but also of connected cars. 

My car can connect to three apps on my iPad or smartphone – podcast and local service discovery app aha, music streaming app Pandora and podcast app Stitcher. Of course, I can stream anything from my device to my car via bluetooth, but these apps have controls integrated with my car’s infotainment system. I can move easily through the menus using a joystick dial in the centre console of my car. If I find a coffee shop, restaurant or retailer via aha, the address finder is integrated with my cars satnav. 

And all of this means that podcasting is starting to make appealing revenue. For the full piece, head on over to the Media Briefing

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. 

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.

Journalism job seekers: What to bring to the interview

I know from my own recent job search how difficult it is to get that interview. Once you get an interview, you want to give it your best. From my own recent experience interviewing journalism candidates, I found that candidates, both starting out and experienced, were failing to put their best foot forward once they landed an interview.

Since starting as executive editor for two newspapers in February, I’ve been through two interview cycles, one to fill the position of regional features editor and another for summer intern positions in both of my newsrooms. Now that I’ve conducted a couple of dozen interviews with candidates, I’m going to offer up some advice to job seekers. Most of this I would have thought obvious, but I have been shocked at how few candidates I interviewed came properly prepared.

  • Come with story ideas. Whether it is for a reporter’s or an editor’s position, prepare detailed and relevant story ideas to discuss in the interview. For both the editor’s role and the summer intern position, I had people completely fail to bring story ideas. That doesn’t fill me with confidence in your interest in this position.
  • Research my publications. Throughout my job search, when I got an interview I did as much research about the publications of my potential new employers as I could. Not only does this generate the story ideas mentioned above, it also allowed me to demonstrate some understanding, admittedly superficial, of the local news climate and the challenges facing the business. I was shocked when applicants hadn’t even bothered to look at my sites.
  • Do a little research about the community. The more that you can demonstrate an understanding of the communities and audiences you will be serving, the better. An international business newspaper has a very different community to a local weekly, for example, and story ides for one may not work for the other. Researching the community will, again, help you come up with relevant story ideas.
  • Bring ideas on how to build audience and yes, revenue. This isn’t a mistake, but in this competitive job market, this gets my attention. A couple of candidates for the regional editor’s position highlighted this in their resumes and cover letter, and it immediately got my attention. Although both were ultimately unsuccessful, this got my attention. In 2014, a journalist needs to know and care about the business.

I would have thought that most of this was Job Search 101, but I was surprised at how poorly prepared some of the people who applied for jobs at my papers were. One applicant for the regional features editor’s job didn’t even seem to be aware of the job she had applied for, saying that she wanted to be a features or opinions editor. Within a few minutes it became obvious that she was neither interested in nor prepared for the interview. It was a first round interview to winnow the field, and she definitely made my job easier.

In both interview cycles, we ended up with great candidates who made the final choice very difficult. The successful candidates came to the interview with energy, knowledge of the papers and community, and great story ideas.

The journalism job market is very tough. I know: I spent six months last year looking to move from media consultancy back into a full-time newsroom leadership position. It was a lot harder to get interviews this time round than was back in 2006, the last time I was looking for a job. So when you do land that interview, you really want to nail it.

I don’t think that any of the advice above is earth shattering, but based on interviews I’ve conducted recently, it either isn’t universally known, or candidates think they don’t have to bother. But if you really want that job, then a little legwork up front will pay big dividends when it comes to the interview.

I’m doing a new round of interviews for a reporting position in one of my newsrooms. We’ve already had a number of strong applicants, but if you have a passion to create the future of local journalism, then I want you to apply. I’ll be starting the first round interviews soon so don’t delay.

Newspapers: Community, priorities and platforms

I’ve been having a cracking conversation via blogs, Facebook and Twitter about how newspapers can rethink what they cover and, in doing so, cover more of the lived experience in their communities. When I said ‘cover more’, some journalists felt as if I was adding another bale of straw to their already breaking backs.

Andrea Gillhoolley, the community engagement team leader and reporter for the Lebanon (Pennsylvania) Daily News said this to me on Twitter:

After years of declining readership and revenues that have led to savage cuts, to say that local journalists are stretched thin is an understatement. They are stretched to breaking point. I understand that. I was with the BBC for eight years, and half of the time I was there, there were cuts. I was with The Guardian three and a half years, and half of the time I was there, there were cuts, and deep ones.

When the cuts started, the talk was about ‘doing more with less’. It was about finding efficiencies and cutting out the duplication of effort, but after years of cuts, newsrooms now find themselves able to do less with much less. Editors have had to become a lot more creative on how they work with the staff they have left, with other resources if they are in a group, and with their communities.

John Robinson started this conversation when he challenged newspapers to break out of their traditional paradigm. In that post, he asked:

Is the disconnect between how I live and what the news covers unusual?

And he added:

What would happen if the newspaper or TV station compared their typical content with the day-to-day interests and activities of their readers/viewers? And what if they took those results and changed the way they report the news? Would that make their products more relevant to the people they aim to serve?

John was talking changing the mix of coverage to increase relevance, not simply doing more, an idea which really resonated with me.

For years, I have been talking about how journalism competes in the attention economy. In an age when content, information and entertainment are not scarce, people’s time and attention is the scarce resource. Newspapers aren’t just competing against other newspapers, magazines or TV and radio outlets that produce news. Newspapers in particular, and journalism in general, are competing against every other thing that can capture people’s disposable time and attention. That’s the competitive challenge, and it is daunting when one considers that we join this fight with smaller staffs and fewer resources.

Creating a community platform

Journalism can win in this hyper-competitive fight for people’s attention, and we’re starting to see digitally-savvy media organisations succeed such as PolicyMic and Buzzfeed (my jetlagged brain originally wrote Buzzworthy – the merger of Buzzfeed and Upworthy). It’s a new mix of internet memes, content and commentary. Newspapers have always been a package of hard news, lifestyle and comment, something that is much clearer outside of the US (where I’m from) than inside, where a particular model of non-partisan media, an anodyne AP-style with little voice, has come to rule.

For local media, I don’t really see the option to become partisan like the British press or US cable news. Local media became non-partisan in the US because it was the only way economically to appeal to a wide enough cross-section of the community with a single publication. I also don’t see local newsmedia becoming regional versions of Buzzfeed. However, I do see the opportunity to become the voice for the community.

Steve Yelvington, a friend and someone I look up as a true journalism pioneer, has been speaking about a “new kind of people’s journalism” for more a decade. In a post last year, he expanded on what he meant, specifically saying that “people’s journalism isn’t ‘citizen journalism'”. He said:

We can apply traditional definitions of “newsworthy” and “journalism” if we like, but there’s really not much point. This new news will flow of its own accord, propelled by people’s interests. There are no gatekeepers in this environment. … Professional journalism has had years to think about how to adapt to this new reality, and on the whole, it’s failed. [This people’s journalism is] not a replacement. It’s a new, complex model that obsoletes some of what pro journalism did in the era of mass media but creates new opportunities for adding value.

The key is focusing on the “new opportunities for adding value”. I still believe that there is an opportunity for local newsmedia to become community platforms. This goes far beyond simply monitoring social media and using it as voxpops (man-on-the-street quotes) for stories.

Steve’s thinking led to Bluffton Today, “a blog-centered community website”, which is still going seven years after launch. In 2007, Steve was interviewed by IFRA about the project, and it is worth reading in full, and this is the thinking behind the project:

The important thing to recognize about Bluffton Today is that it’s a multimedia operation that endeavors to exploit the unique strengths of each medium.

The newspaper is free and home-delivered, taking advantage of print’s advantages in browsability and discovery. The website engages people in a conversation through blogs and photo-sharing, taking advantage of the Internet’s advantages in human interaction and immediacy. These two sides come together through a professional news staff that uses the Web as a listening post. We pick up some blogs and photos for the print product, but the real “secret sauce” is that the community conversation helps the professional journalist connect with the real interests and passions of regular people, and not just the agendas of the institutions and newsmakers that pro journalists usually cover. Our own research shows that the professional news staff of Bluffton Today is closely aligned with members of the community when asked about community issues and problems, while there is a big gap at most other newspapers. We think that tight alignment is one of the big factors contributing to the extraordinary readership success of the newspaper.

It is a community platform in which professional news staff play a slightly different role by amplifying the real interests and passions of the community, things that people “groove on”, as Dan Conover said in a comment on John’s original post.

How does a community platform scale?

The challenges for many larger media companies is how to use their scale effectively against an army of digital insurgents that don’t share incumbents’ cost base. I think that local media face a slightly different challenge, even if they are part of a larger group. Yes, they can draw on the group’s resources for regional coverage, but that regional coverage will most likely be done reasonably well by other media than a local newspaper. The real place to add value is local content and conversations that no one else is providing.

This gets us back to the original issue I touched on: How do you scale local content with greatly reduced staff?

This is where the community platform is key, and the concept of a local platform is different in 2013 than when Bluffton Today launched in 2007 in part because most local audiences are probably already interacting online on a social network. Here are just some ideas on how to create an economically viable, scalable community platform. 

• Sharing photos

Steve and his group, Morris, were smart. They created a local photo sharing service, Spotted, which you can see on Bluffton Today. In 2007, Steve told me that at some of the newspaper sites for Morris, up to 40 percent of traffic was to local photo galleries.

The best photos can be highlighted not only online but also in the newspaper. People still like to see their words and their pictures in print. 

What shocks me is that many newspapers developed the ability for their audiences to share photos only to abandon these efforts. My guess is that they feel the efforts cannot compete with Instagram, Facebook or Flickr, but I’ll wager that there was a ‘build it and they will come’ attitude. Communities take effort, and this is especially true these days with so many social media services competing for people’s online attention. 

• A true community forum

“A good newspaper, I suppose, is a nation talking to itself,” playwright Arthur Miller said in 1961. Journalism has always been about more than simply providing information, and for me, the greatest opportunities remain for newspapers both national and local in becoming a platform for real conversations. I mean much, much more than comments on the bottom of articles or staff produced columns. ‘Community’ on most news sites is an entirely passive, technology-focused effort that manages to suck the social out of social media. 

USAToday has long had head-to-head pieces on major issues. There should be much more of this on local issues. 

Josh Stearns, with the Freepress project, has also  contributed to this blog conversation. His concern is that as news media struggle for survival that they will only focus on affluent audiences that premium advertisers want to reach. He referred to a 2006 talk that “editor Tom Stites gave at UMass Amherst in 2006. ‘Why is it that less-than-affluent Americans are being zoned out of serious reporting?’” This is even more important today as inequality is on the rise in many countries across Europe and North America. 

However, it comes back to the same question as above about resourcing. How do weakened news organisations cover a wider range of society? Again, a community platform strategy can help with this, providing a place for groups and people to provide perspectives that might not be covered. This is not an effortless or resource-free strategy – a mistaken assumption made by many media organisations – but a platform strategy is about multiplying your resources through outreach. 

• Engage super-users

When I was on the launch team of the BBC’s World Have Your Say, one of my strategies was to engage our most passionate users. At conferences, I often give the example of a listener that I simply referred to as “Steve from Utah”. I asked him to test an audio commenting technology that we wanted to use. He not only tested it, but without me even asking, he recorded a promo for the new service. If you engage your most passionate members of your audience, you’ll be amazed at what they’ll do. 

Journalism.co.uk recently reported on how Swedish Radio has been engaging its super-users:

In addition to four people within a dedicated social media team, local super-users generate ideas and inspire teams at the various radio stations. The super-users are themselves organised by a Facebook group, and have annual masterclasses.

These active social media strategies go far beyond passive comments on articles, which don’t attract much engagement on many local newspapers anyway. These are active strategies that require active outreach, and if I were an editor of a newspaper, I would lead these efforts. 

To me, redirecting some of the scarce resources remaining to these strategies would be a much more strategic use of staff time and effort. I believe that it would deliver a newspaper and digital services more in touch and more engaged with the communities it serves, and that for me is a good place to start rebuilding local journalism. 

 

 

Newspapers, changing paradigms and defining priorities

If you like this post and are looking for an editor or digital media leader, I’m still in the market for a full-time editorial management job, so get in touch. After a few years of working independently with news organisations including Al Jazeera, CNN International, B2B publisher RBI and India’s Web18, I’m looking to invest in a news organisation that will invest in me. 

Although John Robinson has stepped out of the editor’s chair at the News & Record in North Carolina, (a beautiful state if you haven’t been), he is still challenging his newspaper and his fellow journalists to think different. In his latest post, he looked at how he spent his time and how those priorities were reflected – or not – in his newspaper. He writes:

My newspaper isn’t alone in not reflecting how I live. It is typical of most people and their papers. And it’s not restricted to newspapers; TV news has the same news diet, and it’s not in touch with mine.

Is the disconnect between how I live and what the news covers unusual?

NewImage

This reminded me of a report from 2007, Frontiers in Innovation in Community Engagement, by Lisa Williams, Dan Gillmor and Jane Mackay, which challenged news sites to become better at “translating the lived experience of their community”. I blogged about the report at the time, and the quote that really jumped out at me then is still relevant now:

Broadly speaking, the most successful sites are most effective at translating the lived experience of their community onto the web. But only a tiny fraction of lived experience is news. One way of looking at the process of wrapping an online community around a news organization is that it’s an effort to dramatically broaden the range of lived experience represented by the news organization’s output – output that now includes content supplied by nonjournalists.

Recently, I interviewed for an executive editor’s position in the US and, during part of the interview, I did have a moment when I was possibly too honest and said the papers seemed to be “subsisting on the fumes cast off by official life”: Crime, council meetings and planned events. They did have features, in which I could tell the reporters were trying to stretch their wings a bit, and excellent coverage of school sports, but it still was a heavy diet of life as seen through the lens of cops and councillors. A bright spot was their blogs, which covered a range of lifestyle issues including local music and even video games. They promoted them in the paper (minus a link or QR code), but the blogs were hidden pretty effectively on the sites themselves.

Were I to get that job, I would love to revamp the blogs into a mixed community platform that opens up to outside contributors. For the live entertainment blog, I’d get free tickets for contributors. It would take effort and some editorial resources, but it is a formula that scales. I think a food and drink blog would be essential, and it is easy to monetise. And that is exactly what newspapers need right now, editorial projects that generate income to allow them to cover what the blogger won’t or can’t – cops and councils – while bringing in their community to cover that broad range of lived experience.

Dan Conover, left this great comment on how to choose the verticals for this type of community network:

For new media ventures to be successful, they need to fit a formula like this: It needs to assemble a coherent audience (a precise fit for a defined group of potential advertisers) with a sustainable audience-to-reporter ratio, around a topic with intense interest. Forget what people do. Forget what they tell you in focus groups or surveys. Find out what they groove on, and then see if you can do better than break-even on covering it.

To put it succinctly, Ken Sands, who set up a pioneering blog network in Spokane, told me a few years back that the sweet spot is the intersection of location and passion. Local isn’t enough, and hyperlocal plus hyper-niche simply doesn’t work. It’s too narrow to generate enough of an audience to justify the effort or to attract advertisers and sponsors.

Setting priorities

That brings me to another point. This post grew out of a post on Facebook in which John asked about rethinking beats. He quoted Matt DeRienzo of Digital First Media who left a comment on Facebook and said:

We recently established a full-time poverty beat. We are also going to be dedicating more resources to commodity breaking news, though, because competition with TV station web efforts is killing us.

I applaud Matt for establishing a poverty beat because when I’m back in the US I see green shoots of growth after the Great Recession, but I also see a lot of people struggling mightily. I also hear about the struggle to prioritise because of competition from local TV in real-time, breaking news. TV is brilliant at it, and the workflow is much better suited to it, which is something I realised during my years working for the BBC.

Newspapers are facing all kinds of challenges these days, and one of the biggest is how to set priorities in an era of scarce resources. As John says later in his post:

Mass is dead or dying. News orgs can’t do everything.

In digital, in fact, in journalism, there are so many things you can do that you have to decide what you must do. As Rob Curley at the Orange County Register says to new hires:

• Truly understand what our readers need from us
• Truly understand how our readers consume our stories
• Truly understand relevance

Relevance and needs go beyond hard news, and newsroom leaders need to figure out how to cover more of the lived experience of their communities in a way that scales and supports public service coverage. Understand relevance to set priorities and find out what people really groove on, and allow the community to help you cover those passionate niches.

UPDATE: Thanks to Francesco Magnocavallo who let me know in the comments that the original link to the Frontiers in Innovation of Community Engagement no longer worked. I’ve added the working link to the post.

Highlight good discussions to encourage positive online debate

There has been a lot of handwringing about the broken-ness of comments online. Great comments take the right strategic editorial approach and a bit of effort. Did anyone really believe the only thing a media company needed to do was slap a comment box on the bottom of articles? Too often that seems like the case.

What still baffles me after all these years is the low-hanging fruit that most news organisations are missing with community. Digitally native media doesn’t miss these easy wins. For instance, Lifehacker has a Discussion of the Day. Walter Glenn sums up the idea:

Great discussions are par for the course here on Lifehacker. Each day, we highlight a discussion that is particularly helpful or insightful, along with other great discussions and reader questions you may have missed. Check out these discussions and add your own thoughts to make them even more wonderful!

It’s a simple and positive way to drive people to the editorial features focused on discussions. They even call their commenters participants. Simple touches that all communicate a positive sense about the conversations they want to create.

Why don’t newspapers do this more often and print the best responses in the paper as well? Highlighting the comments in print would be a way to reward the  best comments, and hey, it might also drive some print sales. It ain’t rocket science, just some simple strategic thinking about user engagement.

Lifehackerdiscussions