Gannett puts a digital guy in charge of a newsroom, me

A little more a than a year ago, I was doing data journalism and consulting for Czech TV, and Kvapilová Pavlína, the head of online at the time, said to me incredulously, “Why aren’t you in a newsroom?” It was a good question. For the last four years, I’ve had a great time working with news organisations all over the world to seize the opportunities of digital media, but I missed working in a newsroom.

I won’t miss it any longer. Today, I started my new job as the regional executive editor overseeing two Gannett-owned newspapers in Wisconsin.

I met with journalists at one of the papers, and the first question that most of them asked was why someone with my background would come to Sheboygan and Manitowoc, Wisconsin, to work with their newspapers. The decision was a mix of professional and personal reasons that I’ll be explaining over the next few days, but the key professional reason was that to get the opportunities I really want – the opportunities to drive not just digital innovation but also the editorial direction of a news organisation – I needed experience managing newsrooms.

Last October, Rick Edmonds of Poynter asked “How many top newspaper editors are from digital backgrounds? Still darn few”. Jim Brady of Digital First Media gave this explanation:

It’s more than being slow. It remains hard to find people who understand digital and who have run newsrooms.

This isn’t a criticism of Jim, who I count as a friend, but it is difficult to deny that this is one of those brilliant professional Catch-22s. You don’t have the experience so you can’t get the experience. The industry has rarely promoted newsroom leaders from the digital side. Over the past five years, I have seen more broadcast and print editors take over online leadership roles than I have digital editors take over multi-platform roles. In effect, we have had a digital ceiling. That might change for the next generation of digital leaders, but or mid-career digital journalists like myself, that’s been the reality.

I’ve been a digital journalist since 1996, and I’ve held ground-breaking positions for the BBC and The Guardian. I’ve helped launch innovative multi-platform programmes for the BBC, and Suw and I were part of the launch team for India’s Firstpost. However, up until today, I hadn’t run a newsroom. Now, I’ll be running two. Lowell Johnson, the GM for the two newsrooms, and Mike Knuth, the Executive Editor of the Green Bay Press Gazette and former executive editor and GM of the two papers, deserve a lot of credit in seeing an opportunity to bring me on board and convincing me that this was the right next step in my career.

I was inspired to make this move by friends such Brett Spencer at the BBC and Alison Gow with Trinity Mirror, who came from digital backgrounds but took on overall leadership roles in their respective media. It’s opened up great new opportunities for them, and I am thrilled by the opportunity that is before me.

After years of writing about how I think local editors should engage with their communities and about rethinking the role of the newspaper in the 21st Century, I finally get to put my ideas, and myself, to the test. I have long been hungry for this challenge.

Back to Rick Edmonds at Poynter, he wrote, “With the ice broken, I would look for Gannett, Advance and Digital First to add to that cadre as top editorial jobs come open. And I am eager to see what changes this first generation of digitally tilting editors can produce.”

Watch this space. This job will definitely keep me busy, but I’ll be writing here and elsewhere about I navigate this new phase of my career. It’s going to be a wild ride sometimes, but damn it’s going to be a lot of fun.

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?


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.

Digital advertising does pay, just not for newspapers, yet

Last week, WAN-IFRA said what many of us in digital journalism have known for a while, that we’re losing the battle for attention. They said that digital news audiences lack the same “intensity” of print audiences. Put simply, digital audiences are less loyal and spend less time with each digital news source. WAN-IFRA CEO Christoph Riess has put the problem this way:

We are not losing readers, we are losing readership. Our industry challenge is engagement. Because someone is a subscriber does not make him a loyalist.

Several people in the industry have been trying to raise the alarm for years now. Two years ago, Ken Doctor pointed out that audiences were spending 7 hours a month on Facebook versus 20 minutes a month on the New York Times or 8-12 minutes on the average US newspaper site. US digital journalism pioneer Steve Yelvington has been talking about this for years, speaking about the problem with audience frequency. As Steve said earlier this year:

Forget all the newspaper industry puffery about how we’re reaching more people than ever. Frequency and time spent are the important metrics.

And the reality is dismal.

From a business standpoint, this has meant that while digital advertising spend has increased dramatically, news organisations’ share of that digital revenue still remains piteously low. As WAN-IFRA noted:

Overall digital advertising market rose from US$ 42 billion to US$76 billion from 2007 to 2011. Only 2.2 per cent of total newspaper advertising revenues in 2011 came from digital platforms.

What you will continue to hear over and over and over, from the likes of former Guardian editor Peter Preston, is that print still pays the bills. They will tell you that you can’t make money online. Preston cherry picks figures from the recent Journal Register bankruptcy filing in the US, pointing to that fact that print revenue is down 19% but still represents 50% of the group’s revenue. However, he conveniently leaves out that digital revenue at the news group is up 235% from 2009 to 2011. Yes, they probably started from a low base, but it is pretty impressive growth. Many news groups in the US have seen their digital revenue growth slow or stall this year, and at least the Journal Register team can point to 32.5% growth this year alone.   

The reality is that you can make money online but that newspapers are not competing effectively for digital advertising. As WAN-IFRA noted, “Search advertising accounts for 58 per cent of all digital advertising and 13 per cent of all advertising expenditure”. US news analyst Alan Mutter noted in April:

The share of the U.S. digital advertising market garnered by newspapers shrank to the lowest level in history in 2011, according to newly published data.

With the growth of digital formats like highly targeted search, mobile and social advertising vastly outpacing the ability of publishers to develop competitive new products, newspapers sold only 10.3% of the $31.7 billion in digital advertising purchased in 2011.

When the Newspaper Association of America first started counting online sales in 2003, newspaper websites carried 16.7% of all the digital advertising in the United States.

There is money to be made online, but newspapers aren’t the ones making it. That’s the problem and, unless newspapers focus on creating not just large audiences but loyal audiences, that problem won’t be solved. Newspapers also need to build up knowledge about those audiences to better serve them journalistically and to provide better targeted advertising.  Those are the challenges we need to meet, and we need to ignore the voices in journalism that say we can’t make money with digital. They have ruled the debate for far too long and have delayed us from meeting the real challenges of digital. 

Journalism: It’s about people

It’s not often when in the flood of social media about journalism a new theme comes out so clearly, but today, the theme I’m hearing is about people. Steve Yelvington, of Morris Publishing in the US, flagged up this post by his colleague, Derek May, an executive vide president at the group. Like John Paton‘s Journal Register Company, Morris is embracing a digital first strategy, but May quoted Billy Morris at length of the challenge facing his company, well known challenges. Morris said that “digital first” was a good first step, but he announced a new strategy: “Audience First”.

What does “Audience First” mean? It means the people come first. What the people want in digital form, we provide in digital form. What they want in print, we give them in print. And what it takes for businesses to reach the people, we provide – both print and digital.

They are setting ambitious audience growth targets, to double their news audience and quintuple their “total audience”. They believe that:

In the digital era, doing a good job on news gets you only a very small slice of the digital audience.

This is really interesting, and as a journalist, it’s something that I’m going to have to digest. On one level, I understand perfectly what he means. The newspaper has always been a bundle that included a lot more than what I might call public service journalism. I guess it begs the question: In a digital era, what is the bundle of information, products and services that creates a sustainable business to support itself, including public service journalism? It’s a fascinating, platform agnostic way to frame a solution to the problems facing news organisations right now.

I’ll tell you another reason why I like the idea of Audience First. In the near term, the next five years, at newspapers, print and digital will still have to co-exist. As much of a digital journalist as I am, I know that simply shutting off the presses would require most newspapers to gut their existing news operations. You only have to look at what happened at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that went digital only and went from 165 journalists to 20. (Note, I’m not suggesting that digital first advocates, especially as I count myself as one, are advocating shutting off the presses.) A counterpoint to the Seattle PI is The Atlantic magazine, which sharpened both its print and digital offerings. In 2010, it turned its first profit and a decade, and in October of last year, The Atlantic announced that its advertising profits were up by 19%.

It takes a village

The next story of people-focused journalism comes from a former college classmate of mine, Cory Faklaris, who works for Indianapolis Star.

In the US, the newspapers that really have really taken an economic beating in the last seven years are the big city metros, and the papers in Philadelphia are a good case in point. The Philadelphia Inquirer, part of the Philadelphia Media Network, is up for sale for the fourth time in six years.

Chris Satullo at Philly public radio station WHYY worked at the Inquirer for 20 years. Satullo notes that another former ‘Inky’ reporter, Buzz Bissinger (name straight out of central casting) asked in the New York Times, “Who will tell Philadelphia’s story“. Satullo responds: The rest of us.

But, please, don’t waste too much breath asking the wrong question: What will happen to the ink-on-paper artifact called a newspaper? That one’s settled: Newspapers will shrink into a graying niche.

Your real worry should not be whether newspapers survive. What you should worry about is the future of newsrooms, those buzzing, resourceful dens of collaboration that make everyone who works in them better than they could be alone.

Satullo points out a truism, as true in the glory days of newspapers as it is now: Great journalism is collaborative. Amen.

Put the audience first regardless the medium, and win more of their precious time by not only giving them great journalism but engage them in doing it. This sounds like a winning strategy.


Linking and journalism: The Workflow issue

There was an interesting discussion about linking and journalism amongst a number of journalists in North America. Mathew Ingram of GigaOm and  Alex Byers, a web producer for Politico in Washington, both collected the conversation using Storify. It covers a lot of well worn territory in this debate, and I’m not going to rehash it.

However, one issue in this debate focused on the workflow and content management systems. New York Times editor Patrick LaForge said:

[blackbirdpie url=”!/palafo/status/70668697051725824″]

Workflow and how that is coded into the CMS is a huge issue for newspapers. For two years when I was at The Guardian, most of my work was on our blogging platform, Movable Type. Movable Type had scaling issues, as did almost every blogging platform back in 2006 when I started at The Guardian. However, Movable Type and other blogging platforms also make it ridiculously easy easy to create content – rich, heavily linked multimedia content. It was so much easier than anything I had ever used, especially when coupled with easy to use production tools such as Ecto and MarsEdit.

However, due to the scaling problems with Movable Type, The Guardian moved its blogging onto its main content management system. We didn’t have a choice. We had outgrown Movable Type. However, I’m being diplomatic in the extreme when I say that the new CMS lacked the ease of content creation and publishing that I had grown accustomed to with Movable Type and WordPress. Furthermore, there was an internal conflict over whether to use the web tools or the print tools to create content, and in the end, the print tools won out. The politics of print versus the web played out even in the tools we used to create content. That was an even more jarring move. It was like trying to create a web story with movable type, and I’m not talking about the blogging platform.

Most newspaper CMSes are more WordPerfect from the 1980s than WordPress. That’s why you have journalism outfits setting up blogs on Tumblr. Creating content on tools like Tumblr is like falling off a bike instead of trying to write caligraphy with a telephone pole. You can build a robust, advanced content management system without making the tools to create content so piggishly ugly, bewilderingly confusing and user surly. However, newspapers code their workflows into their CMSes. The problem is that their workflows aren’t fit for modern purpose.

Newspaper newsroom workflow is still print-centric, apart from a very few exceptions. The rhythm of the day, the focus of the tools and much of the thinking is still for that one deadline every day, when the newspaper goes to the presses. From this post by Doc Searls on news organisations linking to sources (or not linking as the case may be), see this comment from Brian Boyer about his shop, The Chicago Tribune:

At the Chicago Tribune, workflows and CMSs are print-centric. In our newsroom, a reporter writes in Microsoft Word that’s got some fancy hooks to a publishing workflow. It goes to an editor, then copy, etc., and finally to the pagination system for flowing into the paper.

Only after that process is complete does a web producer see the content. They’ve got so many things to wrangle that it would be unfair to expect the producer to read and grok each and every story published to the web to add links.

When I got here a couple years ago, a fresh-faced web native, I assumed many of the similar ideas proposed above. “Why don’t they link?? It’s so *easy* to link!”

I’m not saying this isn’t broken. It is terribly broken, but it’s the way things are. Until newspapers adopt web-first systems, we’re stuck.

Wow, that’s a really effed up workflow by 2011 standards, but a lot of newspaper newsrooms operate on some variation of that theme. It’s an industrial workflow operating in a digital age. It’s really only down to ‘that’s the way we’ve always done it’ thinking that allows such a patently inefficient process to persist. Seriously, has no one really thought that it’s easier to export plain text from HTML than to bolt on a bunch of links, images and the odd YouTube video to a text story destined for a dead tree? Want to cut some costs and increase the quality of your product? Sort out your outdated industrial workflow, save a lot of money, hire more journalists and improve your web and print products. Simples. (Well, after sorting out your workflow, hire a digital sales team, and then you can hire even more journalists. That’s a post for another time.)

Murdoch shifts from sites to ‘digitally delivered editions’

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

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

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

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

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

Innovation: Focusing on finding “The Next Big Thing” leads to performance pressure

This cross-posted from The Media Briefing, a new site in the UK for media professionals. ?I like the cut of their jib. They are not only creating content, but they are also adding value to their content using semantic technologies to make it easier for busy professionals content relevant to them.

You want innovation? You can’t handle innovation.

Seriously though, once they’re established, most companies are geared toward stability, not disrupting their own operations. Newspaper and magazine companies are no different.

And print media had no real impetus to change radically until recently. Newspapers and magazines took the challenge from television and radio in its stride – but it took the combined impact of multi-channel television, video games and the internet to challenge print media’s dominance. But if you thought the last five years were disruptive, brace yourself for the next five.

The change in media economics has been a shift from scarcity – with few sources of information and entertainment – to more content choices than the human brain can possibly process. In this super-saturated media market, it’s about to get even more crowded.

AOL and Yahoo have decided to focus their strategies on content, although Yahoo in particular has tried this before and failed. Even if AOL fails, its efforts will put additional pressure on print media. AOL launched a local news service, Patch, in the US: Warren Webster, Patch’s president, recently told Ken Doctor in the that he can match the content production of a like-sized newspaper for 4.1 percent of the cost. As Ken wrote:

“Patch can produce the same volume of content… for 1/25 the cost of the old Big Iron newspaper company, given its centralized technology and finance and zero investment in presses and local office space. (Staffers work out of their homes.)”

Demand Media is already operating in the UK, bringing its model of consistent work for freelancers at ridiculously low rates. They march to the beat of Google‘s drum, commissioning content based on popular search terms. The content may be easy to parody, but Demand is preparing for what many are predicting will be a US$1.5bn floatation on the market.

So how will you turn staid institutions into nimble players in the new media environment?

One strategy that won’t work is locking a bunch of smart people in a room to come up with The Next Big Thing. The Economist, as successful it is, tried to do that with Project Red Stripe. It didn’t work, leading to a kind of performance anxiety and creative paralysis.

The industry has spent a lot of time hiring innovation officers and investing innovation in a few positions. In the not-so-distant past, the people in these positions have had no budget, no staff, an ill-defined role and, therefore, little impact. Clay Shirky in his seminal blog post, Newspapers: Thinking the Unthinkable, said that these people saw what was happening and simply described it to their colleagues. Clay says:

When reality is labelled unthinkable, it creates a kind of sickness in an industry. Leadership becomes faith-based, while employees who have the temerity to suggest that what seems to be happening is in fact happening are herded into Innovation Departments, where they can be ignored en bloc.

Innovation is about creating a culture of constant of improvement. If you could do one thing that would save every single journalist in your organisation ten minutes on every story – it might not be sexy – but these cost savings are necessary to compete with someone who does what you do for a fraction of the cost.

Steve Yelvington, a digital content pioneer in the US, worked on the NewspaperNext Project, and he’s been working on digital projects long before most media execs even knew what a computer was.

The NewspaperNext project looked at disruptive innovationthrough the lens of Clayton Christensen, author of The Innovator’s Dilemma. The basic question was this: “How and why (did) simple, low-end, inadequate, ‘junk’ products and services so often topple the big guy?”

These insurgents do it by starting with a product that is “good enough” and then constantly improve it. Insurgents start out “beneath” the incumbents, but then move upmarket. Recent hires by the Huffington Post, Yahoo and The Daily Beast show how pure digital companies are now starting to lure top talent away from the once imperious names of US journalism.

Wracking your brains for the next Big Thing is not the answer. The rules of the media market have already changed and it’s time to listen to the people you once thought were barking mad. Your survival might just depend on it.

New Statesman – Welcome to the fifth estate

Kevin: Laurie Penny writes in the New Statesmen about the continued prejudice shown by mainstream commentators towards political bloggers in the UK: "Cosy members of the established commentariat eye bloggers suspiciously, as if beneath our funny clothes and unruly hair we might actually be strapped with information bombs ready to explode their cultural paradigms and destroy their livelihoods.

This sort of prejudice is deeply anodyne.

Bloggers aren't out to take away the jobs of highly-paid columnists: we're more ambitious than that. We're out for a complete revolution in the way media and politics are done."