Thursday, October 29, 2009
Gene Foreman worth listening to on journalism ethics. My experience taught me that it's most critical to talk before acting.
I agree that case studies are a great way to go in training journalists. But the most important thing to teach may be the value of talking about our work, not just rushing headlong into things. That especially applies to ethical questions. It's one thing to recognize an ethical question; of course, it's absolutely critical. But it's another to know how to talk about such decisions. It's so important to have an environment where people feel comfortable challenging the consensus view in an organization or the views of the leaders of an organization. I hated it when I was an editor and learned we hadn't discussed an ethical issue before taking action. If we had had a good discussion without me, even if I didn't agree with the result, at least I knew that we had followed a process for approaching our work. (I also came to believe that it was very important that editors share their thinking with the public about the tough decisions they made. That's a benefit of an editor's blog. It allows journalists to talk about their work in real time.) Journalists are generally by nature very independent. But when it comes to ethics, they're not just acting for themselves. They're acting as representatives of an organization. So if they're not talking about these things, they could get themselves and their employer in trouble. Yet it's not as easy as it might seem to get people talking.
Wednesday, October 28, 2009
Tim McGuire right about the need to rally behind the Medill Innocence Project and against Cook County prosecutors
Tuesday, October 27, 2009
Who knows how the Chicago News Cooperative will turn out, but it's great to see this kind of experimentation.
On the other hand, such efforts raise some questions for me:
- Why don't existing newspapers go into partnership with The New York Times the way these start-ups are doing? Sure, they might worry about losing circulation to the Times, but couldn't the future look like some form of amalgam news product, in print and online?
- Do we really want non-profits benefiting one for profit newspaper, in this case The Times, instead of making its material available for all comers? (Disclosure: I'm on the advisory board of the Texas Tribune, which will do the latter.) Sure, the Times is going to pay for the content it receives, but will it continue the relationship if the print material isn't exclusive. Essentially, the Times is being subsidized because the cooperative will be able to operate at a lower cost because of its non profit status.
- I'm delighted to see the multi platform approach of the Chicago effort, but doesn't it seem like visuals - photo in particular - are being given short shrift in these efforts? Photo is such a central part of reflecting a community and involving a community.
- Why aren't we seeing the same kind of creativity on the business side? Have people given up on the prospect of making local news/information efforts profitable? I hope not. I believe it would be better if the experimentation extended to how to make money, something beyond charitable contributions, etc.
Thursday, October 22, 2009
This is the talk I gave at Webcom 2009 in Montreal on Oct. 22, 2009. I hope the talk reflects a more refined and perhaps expansive view than an earlier presentation I gave at the UC Berkeley Media Technology Summit at Google in Silicon Valley.
Here's a link to a Quicktime movie of the presentation on Vimeo. There you can see all the keynote slides I used and hear me reading my remarks. You can also find the slides separately on Slideshare.com. The text is below.
While the talk contains the same lessons as my speech to Google, this version contains more and broader perspective on why the Rocky couldn't survive in the Internet era. It attempts to place what happened in a larger context.
Did the Internet kill the Rocky Mountain News?
And, if it did, what can we learn from its death?
Montreal, Oct. 22, 2009
“Bonjour. C’est un honneur d’etre ici avec vous aujourd’hui. Je suis desole que je ne pourrai pas donner cette presentation en Francais.”
The title of my talk is, “Did the Internet kill the Rocky Mountain News? And, if it did, what can we learn from its death?” To give the twitter answer, for those of you who want to get to the bottom line right away, here’s my talk in 140 characters:
“YES and no. Internet the fundamental cause of death. Economic collapse the final blow. Denver could not support two general interest papers.”
The lessons from the Rocky’s death will take a little longer to explain, and will be the focus of my presentation.
As we’re at the time of year when Halloween is approaching, perhaps a ghost analogy for my appearance today would be appropriate. I’d ask you to think of me as sort of like the ghost of Marley in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. I’m here from the Other Side to remind you about some principles I think are worth holding fast to in your professional life, principles I’ve had time to distill after the death of a publication with which I was so closely identified.
In the end, this talk isn’t about the death of a newspaper or how the Internet killed it. It’s about life, about business lessons for the Internet era. I come to you not as someone focused on the past, but as someone who’s looking to the future, someone who believes there’s never been a more exciting time to be a journalist. My hope is that our time together will give you perspective that will help you as you build the future, and not just at newspapers. While this will be a newspaper-centric talk, because that’s the core of my experience, I believe you’ll find that the lessons I’ve learned apply broadly across radio, TV, magazines and other media, too.
Before I subject the past to scrutiny, you need to know I don’t exempt myself from criticism for what happened. I was the top editorial person for the Rocky’s final 11 years and part of the business leadership team. I bear my own share of responsibility. I also must tell you that it’s a lot easier when looking back to see things that seem obvious to us today, but were a lot more difficult to see when we were in the thick of the fight, and most of the revenue growth and almost the total revenue pie came from the main print product.
I think it’s important to establish a common understanding of what we’re going to talk about. So let me start with a brief history. The Rocky Mountain News was Colorado’s oldest newspaper, founded in 1859 when Denver was little more than a hamlet of log cabins. The paper went on to cover the news in three centuries, from the Civil War to the War on Terror. It became so much a part of the fabric of Colorado that many readers called it “My Rocky,” a term of endearment rare for any newspaper. It was owned for more than 80 years by a deep-pocketed company, E.W. Scripps, that still today is controlled by the founding family.
Scripps started as a newspaper company, but navigated through the advent of radio, TV and cable - starting successful new media businesses each time. In the ‘90s, after going public, Scripps innovated with its free cash flow and hit a home run building lifestyle cable networks, including HGTV and the Food Network, now worth roughly $6 billion.
So some pretty smart people were at the top of the company that owned the Rocky Mountain News. Yet none of that was enough for the Rocky to survive in the Internet era. The Rocky published its final edition on Feb. 27 of this year, the first major paper to shut its doors after the economic crash of the fall of 2008.
On the day the closure was announced, Scripps CEO Rich Boehne told the staff assembled in the newsroom:
"You are the model of what a great newspaper should be. It's a tragedy for the industry that you disappear." He was talking to a staff that since 2000 had won four Pulitzer Prizes, a total topped by just six other newspapers in the same period. And the staff knew that from a circulation standpoint, when the Denver papers competed for readers head to head on weekdays, the Rocky came out on top.
So, why did the Rocky disappear? Looking back now on that difficult day, the word that stands out in Boehne’s statement is “newspaper.”
As one former Scripps executive told me in talking about what has happened to the newspaper industry, “We had all the advantages and let it slip away. We couldn’t give up the idea that we were newspaper companies.”
The first lesson I hope people who care about the future of local news take from the Rocky’s experience is this: Being a “great newspaper” isn’t enough in the Internet era. You have to know what business you’re in. We thought we were in the newspaper business. We were right and at the same time deeply mistaken.
At a newspaper, people largely think about tomorrow. In the Web era, you need to think of now and forever. Thinking about tomorrow isn’t enough anymore. Consumers today want services when, where and how they want them, and they want to be able to participate, not just receive. That means that thinking like a newspaper is not enough.
It’s understandable that we thought we were in the newspaper business. In the 1990s, Denver was the site of what was sometimes called America’s last great newspaper war. The Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News had competed for 100 years and each saw the grand prize close at hand. Each wanted to become the only newspaper in town - something we thought of as “owning the Denver market.” We thought winning would guarantee a stable and profitable future. We misunderstood the competitive landscape.
The problem was we were fighting the last war. We didn’t understand what was happening to the playing field. Media companies used to think they were in control. That they could “own” a market. What we didn’t take into account is that in this new era, consumers were going to be in control. This reversal is the product of the Internet revolution and one of the reasons I believe it’s true that the Internet, and the change it represents, is the single biggest reason the Rocky Mountain News can be no more.
I believe that if we had spent more time trying to build the depth of our connection with the community using online tools from the very start, the fate of the Rocky might have been different. Which is why I think lesson #2 is so important. You must know your competition. Of course our competition was another newspaper. But that was the obvious competition. Much bigger competition - for people’s attention - was occurring elsewhere. We needed to experiment more, and yes, fail more, too. If we had, perhaps we would have been better able to build a range of publications, in print and online, that would have served our more diverse and demanding audience.
Of course, it’s important to note that the Internet revolution - this is the first Web page - parallels other major changes in our society that also impacted the Rocky’s fate. One is demographic. As a society, we are far more diverse today. While at one time a single general interest publication might have been able to connect with a huge audience, that is much more difficult in an era of fragmentation, not just media fragmentation, but societal fragmentation. It’s also important to note that the decline of the daily newspaper also reflects that more and more people are questioning the value of the basic institutional building blocks of our society. It’s not just newspapers or media that are looked upon skeptically by the public. The distrust extends to the courts, to Congress or parliament, and other institutions.
Why then do I say the Web killed the Rocky? Because the paper was the victim of a wave that kept building until it felt like we were being swept away by a tidal wave. It wasn’t a wave of technology alone; it was a wave of shifting attention, away from old media to new tools that gave people more pleasure, more power and more insight. Consider...The Web only went public in 1992, not 20 years ago. By 1999, just seven years later, more than half of Americans used it on a regular basis. In 2000, Craigslist started expanding to other cities from its San Francisco base, landing in Denver the next year. In 2001 Wikipedia went live. The next year it was Google News’ turn. In 2003, iTunes opened its online doors. Skype and Myspace launched the same year. 2004 gave us Yelp. 2005 YouTube and Facebook. 2006 Twitter. 2007 the iPhone. Fifteen years after that totally simple first Web page I showed you in the previous slide, we arrived at the iPhone. Talk about fast. Talk about a wave.
The result of the surge that became a tidal wave is that people have so much media and information coming at them that it’s a problem, something Google calls “attention management.” People have fast portable tools. Better computers. That means more competition for newspapers. The coffee shop shifted from a place where people read papers to a place where people find wireless connections to work on their laptops. Advertising follows eyeballs and the eyeballs were moving to the Web. So the money did, too.
A good example of this trend comes from my own paper. At staff meetings in 2006, I handed out a survey of media usage at the start of the meetings and gave back the collated results at the end of the meeting. At every meeting, the result was the same: People paid to be newspaper journalists spent more of their time reading news online than they did in print. And when you added in all the other things they did online, the contrast was overwhelming. They were living in a digital world and producing an analog product. A recipe for trouble.
The Rocky’s first foray onto the Web came in 1995, the year Netscape, Windows 95 and Amazon all launched. The newsroom partnered with another major newspaper company in a site called Fastball, providing Colorado Rockies stories and data. To give you some perspective, that same year Colorado’s leading television station put up a Web site, but all it had was a picture of the station’s building, its address and phone number. No links or news at all. At that time, believe it or not, much of the talk about “new media” at many newspapers was about things like AudioText, where users could call in and select different categories of news, and fax on demand.
The Rocky had been burned in the new media world before. In 1990, it made what it considered at the time a major play, launching an electronic service called the A LA CARTE EDITION. The paper sent software to a few thousand users who requested it, many of whom had 300 baud modems.
You can see from this introduction to our first electronic service that we couldn’t help thinking of ourselves as a newspaper company right from the start. We wrote that the goal of the new edition, was “ultimately to strengthen and preserve the printed daily newspaper.”
The service was shut down after about 9 months, I was told, because “we just couldn't show that it was having any measurable impact on retention of print subscribers and it wasn't producing revenue.”
Right from the start, new offerings were measured by what they did for the core product, not on their own merits. A big mistake.
The Rocky’s first Web site, this is the home page on the very first day, grew out of the newsroom’s night copy desk crew, a few of whom had learned some HTML. It was a bottom up effort. There was no advertising involvement. Under the direction of the senior night editor, a small team built a Web site that went live on March 1, 1996. The Post had put up a site late the previous year so we knew we needed to do it, if only because we couldn’t let them have a leg up on us anywhere.
The launch of the site was a perfect example of how the attention of the paper’s leadership was on print, not on new possibilities. We were wrestling with a decision to pull back print distribution to 13 counties adjacent to Denver, a money-saving move to match the $5 million in savings we believed the Post had achieved by narrowing its printed page. We cut about 30,000 circulation, or 10% of our total, in one day. The Post kept delivering to all 64 Colorado counties.
On the day before the Rocky opened its doors to the world online, the page 2 column by the editor began: “I have never been much good at saying goodbye. But that is my task today for many loyal readers of the Rocky Mountain News.” It wasn’t until the fourth paragraph that he introduced the Web site. He wrote: “Nonetheless, some of our key stories, features and photographs will still be available outside our new service area. This will be possible through our two new electronic ventures.” It would have been so easy to say something like “I have good news and bad news.” But no, the attention was on the subscribers we were losing instead of the new services we were offering.
The message to the newsroom at that time regarding the Web site: “Do not let it interfere with the print edition.” And as managing editor, I made sure that we kept our focus on the print competition.
We knew the Web was a place we needed to be. But we didn’t have a clear strategy. Mission. Or objective. It was a “complement to the paper,” as we said in our initial “About us” page.
Which brings me to Lesson 3: You have to have a strategy and you have to be committed to pursuing it. We perceived the Web site as a newspaper online, as a complement to the paper, not as its own thing. That’s not a strategy for success.
Senior management’s focus in the 1990s was on keeping the newspaper alive. Again, to be clear, that’s understandable, at least to a point. We were fighting for our lives and the money then lay in print. We didn’t understand the Web or new technology and didn’t have the time to learn much about it. We weren’t a consumer-driven company, except that we knew our priority was to get papers on the porch on time in the morning. Otherwise, we feared our subscribers would switch to our competitor.
Without clear objectives, an organization stumbles from one priority to the next. The 4th lesson: You must know your goal. On the print side, we had a clear objective. But our online objective kept changing. Of course again this is somewhat understandable; the online world was also changing rapidly.
Because the Rocky’s newsroom was unionized, management felt it had to quickly make a decision about where to house the new service, if it wanted to avoid union rules governing the new enterprise. We moved it out of the newsroom almost right away, and it wouldn’t come back until “the war” was over, five years later.
Which brings me to lesson#5. Legacy labor/management relations and organizational structures cannot be allowed to dictate how a new operation works. Keep new ventures free from the rules of the old.
Even without a clear goal or strategy, the Web team - and the company - did go on to do some interesting things.
Scripps partnered with another newspaper company to produce an outdoor recreation site called “Go West,” another short-lived effort because costs so exceeded revenues. The Rocky bought an online real estate service. It built web sites for customers. It became an internet service provider.
But the Web leadership kept changing, which meant new marching orders; there was tension between corporate and local leadership about direction on the Web; and staff turnover was heavy. Indicative of the struggle to find a strategy was how the name of the site kept changing. It started as Denver-RMN.com. (A really catchy url.)
This was a typical story page.
You probably noticed that it appears we had little interest in advertising. But we already knew that the classifieds might be an important franchise online.
Then we changed the site’s name to InsideDenver.com. We thought the Web was going to be more about what to do than about news. (The story is that Denver.com was available but the $50,000 price tag was considered too steep.)
Finally, we chose to go to our newspaper name, RockyMountainNews.com, despite how unwieldy it was as a url.
We generally saw the web as a few advertising boxes we could sell. We didn’t see the value of audience. Scripps bought sophisticated software to run its cable and newspaper Web sites. Although it tried to put the focus on readers, in the end it let technical people develop a culture based on how they wanted technology to work - stable and secure - rather than putting the priority on remaining nimble in a rapidly changing world. We kept trying to build perfect systems, slowing our progress, instead of working iteratively.
And in Denver, we thought we needed to reinvent everything for our market instead of accepting solutions that would work across the company.
What did we discover? That the people running a new business need to be free to do what’s best for that business, regardless of the potential impact on the old. That’s lesson #6. Why couldn’t newspapers have invented something like Yelp? Probably because editors would have gone ballistic over reader reviews with misspelled words and would have felt uneasy with reader contributions being given priority. The Rocky’s Web team producing InsideDenver.com used the slogan, “Before you go out, go InsideDenver.com,” that could have led in that direction. But the mission was changed because InsideDenver didn’t sound like a newspaper and didn’t encompass the idea of our all-important classifieds.
A pivotal moment - perhaps the most telling about the paper’s approach to the Web - came on the morning of April 20, 1999 when two students opened fire at Columbine High School. The world was watching.
At that time, we had one content producer whose job was essentially to shovel the newspaper onto the Web. The Web team was on the first floor of our building. The newsroom on the third. After news of the shooting broke, the producer came to the newsroom and asked the city editor for any news he could give him. “I’m not giving you anything for the Web site,” he remembers being told. “They’ll steal it.” They, in this case, was The Denver Post. The culture of the newsroom at this point was still to save any possible scoops for the morning paper to keep the Post a day behind us. The Rocky’s Web team ended up relying on our TV news partner for its reports. Even with that, the traffic numbers that day weren’t matched for two years. Neither the Rocky nor the Post won an Eppy Award for coverage of Columbine. That was taken by the Boulder Daily Camera, which didn’t have anywhere near the resources of the two Denver papers to cover the story. But both papers won Pulitzer Prizes for their print coverage.
But on the same day we blew it online, we learned the most important online lesson for a newsroom: It pays to share your content in real time. We decided to give all our best photographs from the high school to the Associated Press as soon as we had them in our computer system. The result, the Rocky pictures you’ve just seen appeared on front pages around the world the next morning. The staff saw the tangible benefits of sharing in real time. The quality of their work captured the attention of the world and raised the paper’s profile. That day was a turning point for how the newsroom worked with the web, although the results wouldn’t become fully visible until a few years later.
In 2000, the owners of the Denver papers called a truce. The Rocky was bleeding money and the Post was heading the same direction. So they asked the Justice Department to approve what’s known as a joint operating agreement, which allows newspapers to merge business operations while maintaining separate and independent newsrooms.
The agreement, written in 2000 under the direction of two seasoned newspaper executives - William Burleigh and Dean Singleton - didn’t even mention the Web. Even though by that time more than 104 million Americans had internet access and spent an average of 4.2 hours a week online, the Web wasn’t perceived as central to the success of the new business. It was believed that savings from combining the business operations of the two papers plus the ability to raise advertising rates would produce very healthy returns for both owners. Instead, what happened was that classified revenues dropped by more than $100 million a year from the start of the JOA to the end, and national and display categories tanked, too.
The JOA did offer one significant benefit to our Web efforts. It gave the papers enough economic cushion to make them feel comfortable enough to negotiate new flexible contracts with the Newspaper Guild to move the Web editorial team and programmers back into the newsroom - this time at the very center of the room, not in a dark corner on the 1st floor, a symbolic move to try to indicate the site’s importance to our future.
This was critical to the multimedia and database creativity that followed on the Web. And I think it was critical to our growth in traffic, from roughly 600,000 uniques a month in 2001 to 2.2 million a month when the paper was put up for sale.
But again, the focus in Denver when the agreement went into effect in early 2001 and for the next few years was on print. The Web in many ways became even more problematic. The papers had two basically similar Web sites using different content management systems and supported by a third advertising system. Instead of focusing on new media and new ways to serve audiences with niche print, online and mobile products, the owners spent $130 million to upgrade their printing plant (they knew they would achieve savings by doing so) and $100 million to build a new headquarters on a prominent site in downtown Denver. The Web was essentially in limbo for a long time, with the Web leadership on the business side continuing to turn over, making it hard to gain any traction except in the newsroom.
Still, we produced some work of national - even global - caliber such as Final Salute, which won two Pulitzer Prizes.
A related story in our coverage of the war at home was called Wake for an Indian Warrior. The slide show that was part of the story of the first Sioux to die in Iraq had somewhere in the neighborhood of 2 million page views.
Despite the many such successes on newspaper Web sites, it’s not clear that the newspaper industry understands the Web today, after all these years. Clearly, it hasn’t figured out the business model. And I think it’s safe to say that it’s only partially figured out how to serve readers online. That’s partly because you need to get the right people into an organization, people who can see and seize new opportunities. Which brings me to Lesson #7: If you want to compete in a medium, you have to understand it.
A good example of our lack of understanding of the Web came in 2005 when Denver took its first big leap online under the JOA. This was the same year YouTube went live. Executives in Denver perceived a need for a vehicle to compete with weekly newspapers, which they thought were taking local ad share. In response, the Rocky launched YourHub.com, a network of more than 40 “citizen-journalism” web sites serving the Denver metropolitan area. All content appeared online first. Most came from readers. The best content of the week - again, almost all from readers - was published in 18 weekly zoned print sections. The first site went live that spring. But guess what? Google couldn’t find it.
The company that built the site was a key contractor for a major newspaper company and worked for other large companies, but it didn’t adequately understand search engine optimization and built the site in such a way that it didn’t show up in Google searches, although Yahoo and MSN did find it. We weren’t smart enough as a company to know that needed to be a basic requirement of the project and didn’t know how to evaluate programming to make sure it was. (I don’t have to tell you that if Google doesn’t find a site, its opportunities are very limited.) Ultimately, it was Scripps employees at Shopzilla who studied the architecture of the site and advised us how to rebuild it so it would show up in Google search rankings. See what I mean about the importance of having people who understand the medium they’re working in?
Another example from that effort. Craigslist had come to Denver four years earlier, but we still couldn’t get the classified advertising leadership to agree to compete with Craigslist by offering free classifieds on these community sites, even private party under a certain dollar amount. The argument went on for almost a year, a year we sent the message to users that we didn’t understand how they wanted to use the web or that advertising content was valuable to them.
One of the things that was new to newspaper people on the Web was the ability to track users in real time. For the first time, we could actually understand what our readers were doing. My lesson from that, the 8th in my list, is that any online operation needs to “Measure, measure, measure.” While newspaper companies had experts managing circulation accounts to make sure they met the requirements of the Audit Bureau of Circulations, they were less committed to an intense focus on web data. I think newsrooms and entire news organizations have to use data more to guide their allocation of resources.
By the end, Scripps’ former Web VP felt we were cooking on all cylinders as a news Web site. But that’s probably too generous a view. I think we had far to go.
This, for example, is our section for the Democratic National Convention in Denver.
And this is a guide to the city from that same period.
This brings me to Lesson #9: Ask yourself: Without R&D, how are local news companies going to get out on the edge and develop new offerings? Now that newspaper companies are filling the bankruptcy courts, they’re scrambling to find ways to survive on the Web. But their efforts seem mostly about making money off their current offerings. You don’t see them developing Yelp, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, etc. I think they still could develop successful new services. But it would require something they haven’t historically done, research and development.
So, as you can see, there are many reasons to say that the Web killed the Rocky Mountain News. But it’s not quite that simple. Let me explain why I also said, “No,” in answer to the question whether the Web killed the Rocky Mountain News.
While the digital revolution is the fundamental force reshaping our media, I don’t believe it means that Denver can’t have a significant multi-platform local news organization that continues to put ink onto paper. However, the city clearly can’t support two papers of essentially the same size with essentially the same mission, and that was what the owners were trying to do.
It could have just as easily been the Denver Post that folded. The main reason it was the Rocky that closed was that its owner had a very different view of the short-term future, say the next five years, for newspapers in metropolitan markets. They saw nothing but losses and risk in the future. Scripps is a public company. The Post is privately held and its owner has a great deal personally invested in the paper, not just financially but emotionally. He was ready to stay the course and try to make it work.
So when the market collapsed and the specter of another Great Depression raised its head in the fall of 2008, Scripps decided it needed to get out. That’s why the economic collapse was the final blow.
I believe one newspaper with an owner who can make decisions quickly can build a future in Denver, despite the opportunities both papers missed over the years. But there are no guarantees. The digital wave is powerful and the fixed costs of daily newspapers are a burden that could sink many more or make them mere shadows of themselves.
To conclude, I’m concerned that many newspaper companies are making the same mistake in this decade that the Rocky made in its final decade and a half.
Newspaper companies have to look for ways to answer the needs of the people in their communities. They have to know what business they’re in. We thought we were in the newspaper business. It seems like that’s what too many still think. They’re not. They’re in the news, information, knowledge and connection business. And when I say connection, I don’t just mean connecting readers with their community. I mean connecting buyers and sellers.
Which brings me to the final lesson: Know your customers. If newspapers would spend more time trying to understand their customers instead of focused on their own internal issues - such as which newspaper department should get credit for Web revenue - they would be more likely to be successful. That’s a hard switch for traditional manufacturing operations like newspapers to make. But I don’t think I need to explain why it’s essential. The following quote explains the dilemma newspapers found - and may still find - themselves in.
“We were not used to the market telling us how things should be. We were used to telling people what we thought they needed and how they needed it,” is how a Scripps marketing exec put it. That has to change.
So, given my experience at the Rocky, what are some things I think local media companies should do if they want to thrive in the Internet era?
They should think bigger at the same time as they think smaller. They should look for opportunities to scale. They’re still too focused on unique, market by market solutions. Newspapers can’t think anymore of building or selling one monolithic audience. They need to build many niches and many audiences. Interests align across geographies, so there’s no reason that everything they do need be limited to their “markets.”
To do what I just described, I think local news organizations are going to have to be open to new kinds of partnerships, to working with others instead of trying to do everything themselves, to sharing revenue and content. The I-phone APP model is something newspapers should explore. Apple built a platform and lets others use it. Couldn’t newspapers work together and build community platforms that others would want to develop?
Local news organizations need to grow revenue rather than fighting to protect the piece of the pie they already have. They need tools to serve readers relevant advertising and they need to be able to deliver targeted audiences to advertisers.
Local news organizations should give consumers more control. They’re still thinking too much about themselves and not enough about what the consumer wants.
They should stop looking longingly in the rear view mirror at 30% margins. It’s certainly arguable that those margins came at the expense of the future of the franchise. What happened was that the publisher became a chief revenue officer instead of a chief product officer, the way Steve Jobs or other successful tech business leaders might see themselves or that newspaper pioneers like Hearst and Scripps saw themselves.
And, finally, the most difficult recommendation of all, local news organizations should stop making decisions about new business opportunities based on how they’ll affect their legacy business. The main newspaper cannot dictate the shape of the future.
Now that you’ve heard from the ghost of a dead newspaper, I hope you feel that the lessons I’ve gleaned from my experience at the Rocky Mountain News are helpful in thinking about your own situation. I don’t come to you to attack the Internet for killing something I loved. I come to you to praise the possibilities of the digital world and to encourage you to experiment without fear. I don’t want others to succumb to the same fate as the Rocky Mountain News. I want to see others thrive. I’d be happy to take any questions.
As a reminder, here are the 10 lessons I’ve discussed today. I’ll keep them up during our conversation.
Wednesday, October 21, 2009
Newspaper companies say they must be paid for their content online, then I get print subscription for $1.15 a week
The online experiment was scary, at least for a person who still loves newspapers. I discovered that it was pretty easy to live without the print edition and that although the iGoogle version wasn't the best experience, it gave me enough connection to Colorado news that I didn't feel like I needed more. I could read my favorite columnists on Google Reader, and I could pick up a lot of headlines on the radio or TV. I wasn't missing the satisfying reads that you occasionally find in the Post, because I still was getting other good magazines and newspapers.
But I just signed up to become a regular subscriber again. Why? Because I got a call offering me a subscription for $5 a month, or as the vendor told me, $1.15 a week. I was promised this fee would hold for a year, and that I could pay month by month, canceling at any time.
$1.15 a week. This from an industry that is shouting about how it needs to be paid for online content. I'm not sure what's driving the paper's decision to discount so heavily. But it tells me that an industry that regularly touts how valuable its content is still can't get over the need for high volume circulation and will go to great lengths to get it, even if it means sending the message that its content isn't anywhere near as valuable as it says it is. A conundrum that the industry is going to have to figure out.
Either its content is valuable or it isn't. And my latest subscription price tells me the latter is true, no matter what industry leaders say when they're trying to take it to the chins of Web competitors.
I wish Len Downie and Michael Schudson had called on journalists to fix their own house, instead of urging "collective" action
Yet it concerns me that their perspective skews too far toward government solutions at a time of incredible dynamism - and, yes, destruction - in the marketplace. They argue that American society must now take “collective responsibility for supporting independent news reporting.” The result, I fear, is that too many will now focus on societal solutions rather than on what news organizations - both fledgling and established - can do on their own to improve their financial footing. Instead of subjecting their own practices and traditions to scrutiny, journalists may now be too eager to knock on the doors of Congress. Or they'll place their hopes in other benevolent institutions that might make it possible for them to continue the work they love.
Downie, with whom I serve on a media and governance working group for the University of Virginia's Miller Center of Public Affairs, and Schudson, whose work was part of my studies when I went to graduate school at Northwestern, are deservedly influential figures in the profession. Yet I wish Nicholas Lemann, dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, had invited a third person with a stronger business background to team up with them in their investigation of what might be done to help American journalism. They're too quick to despair about future business prospects. Why, for example, do Downie and Schudson seem to believe that Internet advertising is inherently “low-cost?” They argue that it is “unlikely” that online revenue can be the primary support for most news organizations. And that, they say, is “why we will be exploring a variety and mixture of ways to support news reporting, which must include non market sources like philanthropy and government.” Must include? Really? (Disclosure: I support nonprofit journalism efforts and am on the advisory board of one, The Texas Tribune.)
Their fundamental economic belief is flatly stated deep in the document, on page 75: “Many newspapers can and will find ways to survive in print and online, with new combinations of reduced resources. But they will no longer produce the kinds of revenues or profits that had subsidized large reporting staffs, regardless of what new business models they evolve.”
How they know that I do not know. Yet it is the basis for their argument for further efforts to enroll the government and philanthropic organizations in supporting news reporting. Am I missing something or isn’t the most successful Internet business of recent years, Google, a huge advertising-based economic engine, generating what anybody would characterize as significant profits? Is there really no way that newspapers and other news organizations could do something similar or better? Downie and Schudson give a nod to efforts to improve the economics of online news, but it almost seems like they’ve given up on the possibility that the news they, and I, so value - independent, original and credible - could actually be highly valued by readers and advertisers in the future.
They seem to bemoan the fact that the number of journalists today is the same as in the early 1970s. I understand that. But what they don’t say is that a journalist today is so much more productive than a journalist in the early 1970s that a body for body comparison isn’t relevant. I started as a reporter at a time when we still had typewriters, took messages on pink pads, didn’t have voice mail or fax machines, let alone cell phones, laptops and all the other marvelous tools of our time. Journalists are far more efficient today than ever was possible before. That's one of the reasons I believe journalism today is in many respects so much better.
Downie and Schudson do a great job of pointing out how some of the new online organizations focus on matters of public importance. But they don’t probe whether traditional news organizations could reposition themselves and do the same. I see possibilities in mega brands like The New York Times or CNN teaming up with local journalism organizations, with each focusing on what it does best. But not necessarily in a nonprofit structure. Maybe each could strengthen the other, working together, in a new kind of business network.
Ultimately, I am hopeful that we will see solutions that dramatically increase online revenue when we figure out how to deliver relevant advertising to the right audience and when we figure out how to charge for content in a way that doesn't seem punitive, but rather provides additional value for the user. There's no question that the current business model of newspapers is broken. But that doesn't mean a new one can't - or won't - be found, even without government help.
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
Well, in 15 days, the half-hour video on Vimeo has been played 5,716 times. Now, of course I understand that doesn't mean everybody made it to the end. But still, the number amazes me. On Slideshare, 861 people have viewed the presentation. And the page on my blog with the text of the speech has been viewed 8,146 times. It's hard to imagine how difficult it would have been to reach an audience of that size with such a talk only a decade ago, but my guess is I would have had to go on the lecture circuit for a year to reach a similar number of people. And I kind of doubt I would have wanted to do that or that many groups would have invited me. Now, people can grab what I did and use it for their own means. I think this development represents such an improvement. Access. Access. Access.
I'm going to do the same thing when I speak on Oct. 22 at the Webcom 2009 conference in Montreal. My title for that talk is, "Did the Internet kill the Rocky Mountain News? And, if it did, what can we learn from its death.?"
The Twitter answer in 140 characters to those questions is the following: YES and no. Internet the fundamental cause of death. Economic collapse the final blow. Denver could not support two general interest papers.
Mutter is stellar when it comes to media economics. But his comments on endorsements seem to reflect how long he's been out of a newsroom and seem kind of strange given how smart he is about how the Internet has changed the role of newspapers.
I've written extensively on this topic and below have pasted my own column from the Rocky Mountain News prior to last year's presidential election. Bottom line: Just because a paper gives up endorsements doesn't mean it will stop doing exactly what Mutter thinks a newspaper should be doing: "vigorously vetting candidates and forthrightly informing readers of the findings." It just means that it won't take the extra step in most cases and actually tell readers how to vote. I think that makes sense.
The following is my column published on Oct. 18, 2008, under the headline, "Input, not endorsements."
I'm asked quite often these days when we'll publish our endorsements for president and other federal offices.
There seems to remain a fascination among some about what a major newspaper like the Rocky Mountain News will do. Perhaps it's because they believe the opinion of our editorial page could make a difference. Or perhaps just that they look forward to us stirring up political debate.
I've struggled to respond this year because I've been wrestling with how to handle endorsements in a media landscape dramatically altered by the Internet.
At the start of this decade you would have found me making an impassioned argument about the importance of a newspaper taking a clear position as a leader in its community. But as I indicated in a column at the time of Colorado's presidential caucuses, I feel differently today. And so, it seems, do many of you, based on the reaction to that column.
Today I have come to believe that rather than recommending how you should vote on partisan races, we better serve you by providing perspective that may help you shape your own opinion. After all, our motto is, "Give light and the people will find their own way."
When E.W. Scripps, the founder of the company for which I work, created the first chain of newspapers more than 125 years ago, he encouraged Americans to vote the way he thought they should.
Newspapers were far more partisan then. What's more, he actually did have more access to candidates and information about them than almost anyone. There was no radio. TV. Or Internet.
Going back farther to the time of the Founding Fathers, we know, of course, that newspapers were political; there was no attempt to separate opinion from news. Readers understood that. They bought newspapers in part because they agreed with their point of view. Readers didn't need endorsements. The opinion of the paper was clear in its news coverage.
But we live in a different world today, a world where citizens have a wealth of information available to them. If anything, what they need is a trusted source to help them evaluate that information and come to their own conclusions. As a result, I think it's time to change how we operate on the editorial page.
That's why, from here on out, it will be the exception for you to read an editorial endorsing a candidate in the Rocky.
This decision is based in part on an exercise I often undertake when I try to determine the right direction for the paper. I ask myself what I would do if I were to start a news organization today, one unburdened by the history of my own company and industry.
It seems you have two basic choices: Establish a clearly opinionated publication or Web site, a la HuffingtonPost.com on the left or Free Republic.com on the right, or try to give readers something they can trust because of its clear commitment to fair-minded and incisive reporting.
I believe the latter is the best course for the Rocky. But what about the editorials and opinion columns, you are probably wondering. How do they fit into this vision of mine? Well, I don't think fair-minded readers resent opinion per se. In fact, it's clear that they value opinion writing a great deal. What they do resent is evidence that their newspaper is in the tank for one political party or the other. And too many readers tend to confuse endorsements - particularly if a majority happens to be for one party - as evidence that a newspaper is partisan as opposed to principled.
Endorsements are probably the decisive factor contributing to confusion about this distinction. I think the better way is to focus on critiquing issues and actions in real time.
You may have noticed that our editorial page has been more aggressive this year in running commentary on the major races. Since the start of the Democratic National Convention we've written nearly 20 editorials involving John McCain and Sarah Palin, Barack Obama and Joe Biden. We've tried to contribute to the discussion by probing issues or the candidates' conduct without ever urging you to vote a certain way in the polling booth.
Just last week, for example, we strongly criticized McCain's bailout plan for "failing" mortgages. I think knowing that we weren't likely to endorse either candidate may have made it easier for us to hit him hard for abandoning his fiscal conservatism when we thought he deserved it.
I suspect some of you were surprised by that editorial because you expected us to endorse McCain and refrain from criticizing him. That's not how we have ever operated, but that's how endorsements color some readers' perceptions. Our editorial board does lean center right and might be expected to be more sympathetic to McCain's views. But while some of the principles that our editorial page values might be more closely linked to the Republican Party, we pride ourselves on being nonpartisan. I don't just mean that we endorse candidates from both parties - Sens. Wayne Allard and Ken Salazar, for example. But also that we don't care where good ideas come from.
Now you may ask if I feel this way why did we take a formal position on all the Colorado ballot issues. I think ballot issues are different from candidates. Some of them are difficult to decipher without the aid of political observers - such as our editorial writers - who have followed closely their history and are familiar with the motives and goals of the proponents. But most important, they're more like bills in a legislature. They're specific and limited in scope. Ultimately the question is yes or no. If you're confused, you can always vote, "No," to preserve the status quo.
But when it comes to candidates, you don't really have that option. Nor do we when making an endorsement. Even though that might be our first choice.
That's not a commentary on this presidential election. Personally, I think there's much to admire about both candidates. And we'll give their advocates plenty of room to explain why you should support them.
In the end we'll leave it to you to come to your own conclusion, trusting that's what you want and believing this newspaper's editorial page can be most valuable to you if it helps you reach an informed decision, with an emphasis on informed. After all, ultimately that's our job. It's not to pick presidents, senators or representatives.
Monday, October 12, 2009
Good column by L. Gordon Crovitz in The Wall Street Journal today. The headline is "Media Moguls and Creative Destruction," spinning off a new book entitled "The Curse of the Mogul: What's Wrong with the World's Leading Media Companies." The column's conclusion about what any media organization should do: "Focus on what makes each brand different and more valuable than the ever-increasing number of alternatives that technology makes inevitable." Good advice, I think. But probably not enough, even if I'm not sure there's anything more that news organizations can do. The reason I say it may not be enough is that in most cases, achieving scale seems so critical. Easier said than done. At the same time, scale may not be enough. Look at the big newspapers and how they tout the fact that their total audience is growing at the same time as their print circulation is declining. While that's true, in the digital world, total audience isn't the key, or at least it doesn't seem to be to me. What's key is knowing who the audience is and where they are. What good does it do an advertiser in Denver if most of the readers on a local Web site are from distant cities or have no interest in their product because they're the wrong demographic for the advertiser.
Chicago Tribune Editor Gerald Kern gave a stirring speech at the Medill School of Journalism last week. I thought it especially interesting how he defined the mission/brand of his news organization.
- We stand up for our community and citizens.
- We capture the Chicago experience.
- We move people emotionally and intellectually.
- We help people navigate their daily lives.
- We fuel conversation - the Tribune is a social medium
- We break news - we don't just report it.
Monday, October 5, 2009
The release of the video of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in a strange way provides insight into the meaning of newspapers. Shalit was abducted by Hamas in a cross-border raid in Israeli territory outside Gaza more than three years ago. It's an outrageous aspect of international relations that he is still in the custody of Hamas.
My purpose in writing today, though, is not to condemn Hamas for using him as a pawn, although I think the group's conduct is abhorrent and immoral. My purpose is to reflect on how his kidnappers used a newspaper to establish the authenticity of the tape they released in exchange for 20 female prisoners.
It makes one ask what else could they have used to establish that a video was produced at a certain place and time. Clearly the paper is also used to hide that he's reading from a prepared text, approved or even written by his kidnappers. But it's hard to imagine what else they could have used to establish that the tape is real. Perhaps they could have used a laptop screen facing the camera, showing the news of a certain day. But would it have been the same? I don't think so.
What does that say about newspapers? I think it's a reminder of the unique role they can play, even in a digital era. It gives a different meaning to the term "newspaper of record." The newspaper establishes the authenticity not just of a video, but also in a broader sense the people and places it covers. That's why editors should remember the historic aspect of each edition, the fact that the newspaper can reflect a community in both a timely and a timeless way, and in fact should do both every day. In an era when news is instant, the paper itself should be something different. It should reflect the day, but it should also memorialize it in such a way that its readers understand what makes it special, different from all other days. That takes a different mindset than the mindset at many newspapers, which, sadly, is still to fill the holes around the ads with what happened yesterday.
Here's to the day when Gilad Shalit will be free to read a paper of his own choosing in his own country, free at last. That will be a paper worth keeping, a front page worth remembering in a video of his return home.
Sunday, October 4, 2009
Saturday, October 3, 2009
"Lessons from the Rocky Mountain News" is being tweeted more than any other document on SlideShare right now. So we've put it on the homepage of SlideShare.net (in the "Hot on Twitter" section).
This is interesting to me because it's indicative of how much things have changed for a writer. A person's work is spread across the Web in different ways that would never have been possible in the print era. I have a slideshare page, but the traffic to it doesn't show up on the stats for the blog I actually own and control. I also have seen my talk summarized and discussed on many other Web sites and blogs. While they generally include a link to the original text, I doubt most people bother to spend the time to read it. The summary is enough. Again, the traffic doesn't come to my blog, so it doesn't show up in my own accounting. Is that bad? I know there are those who believe so. I don't. What I see is a conversation spreading, just the way it might among friends. The easier it is for that to happen, the better.
Friday, October 2, 2009
First, Hilary Schneider, executive vice president of Yahoo, stressed the importance of two key words: relevance and simplify. Amen. Those two words are great touchstones for anyone working on the Web
Economics Professor Marshall Van Allstyne of Boston University introduced a term new to me to explain how to make money in a "free" world: proprietary complementarity. He gave hope that it's possible to make money in a "free" world. Industries can succeed by giving away things for free, he argued. And he cited a number of examples to support his case, including Adobe giving away Acrobat for free but selling Distiller software and Microsoft selling software but giving away the system development tool kit. He said news "needs a complement." You can't own facts, but...
And finally, Jeffrey Ulin, a lawyer with the Haas School of Business at Berkeley, argued why the long tail theory won't work. The conclusion from his talk is that the cost of content is going to have to come down because "windows" for making money from content (at least in the film, TV world) are compressing in time. I think it would have been hard to come away from the conference not thinking that the need to continue reducing the cost of producing content isn't going to go away even if the economy comes back.
The final day was packed with good speakers, not all of whom I can do justice to here. But I'm told that presentations will be posted on this slideshare page. Also, you can read the twitter feed of participants from the first full day here on coveritlive.com. The feed from the second day is here. You can read my presentation from the first day here and see my slide deck here.
Alan Mutter of Newsosaur organized a very rich conference, certainly unlike anything I've attended that catered to the newspaper industry. We need more such collaboration across the traditional divide between newspapers and technologists. My only suggestions for others trying to do something similar are that it should become a standard that all such meetings stream live on the Internet and that all presentation slide decks go live immediately on the Web. The meeting was on the record, with reporters in the room, except for the evening conversation with former News Corp. COO Peter Chermin. So why not stream it live, especially when it comes from as sophisticated a technical location as Googleplex? Then instead of the Twitter feed being essentially reportage of the event, it could become more commentary and conversation during the talks. It would have been cool to have the twitter feed projected behind the speakers or beside their slides, for example. And the same could be done on the Web, where the twitter feed could run next to the live video.
A few other thoughts:
It came through loud and clear that readers/users are still looking for somebody to help cut through the tangled Web and make it easier to use.
The growth curve for Web advertising still seems huge, but the ineffectiveness and dismal quality of a lot of Web advertising also seems obvious. Much to be done on that front. This is also scary for newspapers, because that money shifting to the Web is going to have to come from somewhere.
In news organizations, it seems like newsrooms are perceived to be "getting the web" more than advertising departments.
It's unbelievable that no newspaper company has a simple, easy-to-use self-serve advertising vehicle. I'm talking display. Although classified in many cases is also so bad that I had one accomplished journalist tell me he gave up trying to place a classified online at a newspaper that was once a Web pioneer.
NPR is a great success story of the last few decades, and Ellen Weiss, its vice president for news, demonstrated why. Smart. Funny. But she also offered a word of caution for those who think nonprofit status is easy or a panacea. Even NPR is seeing its model being disrupted because it gets almost 40% of its $166 million budget from member stations (those annoying fund drives) and in the Internet era people no longer have to listen to NPR through their member station. I'm a big believer that newspapers should shift to a membership model along the NPR line. But she explained why membership is so difficult for start-ups. It takes time to build the loyalty NPR has built.
Chi-Town Daily News is another example of how while non-profit is a welcome addition to the mix, it's not "the solution." Geoff Dougherty, founder and CEO, spoke and I couldn't help but admire his commitment. He's switching from non-profit to a for-profit to try to make the effort work. What happened there would be a good case study for a serious, in-depth article.
On the other hand, it's clear that there's tremendous energy on the non-profit front and good things are happening. California Watch is an exciting development, for example.