Monday, May 16, 2011

The Story So Far: What We Know About the Business of Digital Journalism

EDITOR's NOTE ::: This post was to have been published Friday evening, but became a victim of the 30-hour Blogger / Blog*spot outage. Since then I have gone on to write Part 2 (which is included) and I also decided to tack on what was to have been my PDF report on the state of the newspapers, entitled "RED STREAK." The oddest thing was reading it - created in July 2009 and last modified in September 2009 - and please forgive the length of this post - I decided to just run with it, as my PDF is eerily similar to the CJR paper! ~ Dave Lucas

One of the news sites I faithfully check every day is that presented by New York Magazine. Last Wednesday morning I noticed they'd posted an article about Columbia Journalism Review's 146-page report on the future of digital journalism.

NYMag : “The Story So Far: What We Know About the Business of Digital Journalism” is a gripping read if you enjoy sentences like “engagement is the unit of monetization." It gets bleaker from there. Apparently, it’s hard to make money online! News editors are chasing page views rather than encouraging loyalty. Online ads and editorial content aren’t linked like they used to be. And basically nobody knows where mobile media is going."

Selling Your Soul for $124 Per Tweet, and Other Lessons of Digital Journalism

I have been working on a PDF report of my own. "Red Streak" offers observations and possible band-aid solutions to shore up the vanishing American newspaper industry. I have never been able to nurse the report to completion: I intend to immerse myself in CJR's PDF this weekend in hopes it will help me bust through the barrier and finish...
"While this report will examine some legacy business models for media, our focus is on the economic issues that news organizations—large and small, old and new—face with their digital ventures. That includes sites on the web, of course, as well as video platforms and mobile devices.

This report focuses on news organizations that do original journalism, defined for our purposes as independent fact-finding undertaken for the benefit of communities of citizens. Those communities can be defined in the traditional way, by geography, but can also be brought together by topics or commonalities of interest. We also look into media companies that aggregate content and generate traffic in the process."
To download the complete version of "The Story So Far: What We Know About the Business of Digital Journalism," a new report on digital news economics from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, click here.

CJR explains how the report was accomplished:
"We define digital journalism broadly. While many publishers still see it as an online phenomenon—that is, displaying content on a PC screen via the Internet—we have included other platforms, including hand-held devices and tablets.

We found several challenges in preparing this study. First, while a great deal of data about digital ventures is available, much of it is unverifiable. Small startups and other private companies have no legal reporting requirements, so some of the figures we cite here are taken with appreciation and on good faith. Further, digital revenue is still such a small sliver of the total for publicly traded companies that, when it is broken out at all, it is rarely displayed in such a way that reveals how much comes from a particular station or publication. And it often isn’t clear how much of a company’s stated digital revenue represents genuinely new income as opposed to legacy dollars reapportioned to online businesses.

We sought to make this report accessible to newcomers and useful to those who have spent years in this field. We have tried to explain such terms as “CPM” (cost per thousand of views) and “impressions” (advertising spaces on a digital page) in the text. And we have tried to be as rigorous as possible in examining numbers that media companies provide when describing their digital results."
So, you may want to go ahead, read the New York Magazine article, hop on the link to CJR and then download and read the PDF. Check back here over the weekend or early next week for I will now present my analysis/conclusions.

The report asks the question "What kinds of digitally-based journalism in the U.S. is the commercial market likely to support?" - The study was basically confined to "for profit" news enterprises.

Among key points:

  • Mainstream news organizations were already losing audiences before Internet use ramped up. "Newspapers began to experience significant circulation declines decades ago."
  • The digital transformation accelerated after 9/11.
  • Craiglist is cited as the stone that brought down the papers' glass houses of classified ads.

Sadly, almost underlining the sheer ignorance that persists in the newspaper industry, the report states that many publishers still regard digital journalism as an "online phenomenon," which it most assuredly is NOT.

And the newspapers just don't get this, either: "...people's access to information has shifted from relative scarcity to surplus." Like manna from heaven, no one no longer needs to pay a red cent for a newspaper!

Have a look at a traffic chart from the report... Hmmm... the numbers are similar to those for my blog!
LARGE AUDIENCES vs. ENGAGED AUDIENCES

Now, pay attention: the following quote is for anybody with a website:
"Publishers [bloggers] mistakenly focus on page views rather than the length of time."
Underline that in your brain. LENGTH OF TIME. The longer folks spend on you site, the more powerful you and it are! So, we're looking for ENGAGEMENT.

Here's another bit of info I gleaned from the report: readers who come to your site via social media come "ready to engage, and be engaged." Facebook and Twitter, at this moment in 2011, are your most valuable assets. Coming in second, a link from a major A-List blog or newspaper blog via your comment that will lead people back to your blog!

There's a lot of discussion regarding the theory and mechanics of web advertising. Not everyone is into that, so those of you who are should download and digest that part of the report. Now, here's what was to have been my PDF:::

RED STREAK [draft 3]

1. Hello - A lot of fuss over “FREE’ — well, I am writing a book about the decline of the newspaper industry. after contacting a few publishers who assured me no one would be interested in reading it, I decided to offer it FREE as a FREE PDF DOWNLOAD. It’s not finished yet, but my intention is to make this book as FREE as a book could ever possibly be. “If you paid for this document, you paid too much” is going to be prominently displayed on page one! I’ll announce when it’s ready on my blog, hopefully within the next 30 days.

In the 1860's newspapers were ahead of the curve. What a thrill it must have been for someone in, for instance, Carson City NV to receive three local papers from three traveling friends: one from California, one from New York and one from Chicago! Even month-old newspapers made for fascinating reading.

Fast forward to the 1960's, when days-old newspapers from distant cities or even month-old papers from other countries made for fascinating reading. The 21st Century internet has brought that type of fascination into a real-time experience...

Newspapers are presently doing what Detroit carmakers did for years: trying to design a new body for an old model: the old business model just isn't going to fly with the public, no matter how glitzy the exterior shell. Not the answer!

As for the reporters covering the news, they were lucky to have one story published a day, if at all. Now they can blog and tweet as many times a day as they like. News coverage has evolved and reporters embrace the technology: but TV and newspaper newsrooms and managers are lost. They don't know how to deal with it.

Round and round this goes, with the people committed to saving newspapers demanding to know “If the old model is broken, what will work in its place?” To which the answer is: Nothing. Nothing will work. There is no general model for newspapers to replace the one the internet just broke.(1)

(1) "Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable" by Clay Shirky
http://www.shirky.com/weblog/2009/03/newspapers-and-thinking-the-unthinkable/

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Ink that could be changed to reflect additional details or make corrections

Gif-style animated photographs like the ones that appear on Newspapers in Harry Potter Movies .. the "magic ink" would expire, freezing the days' hot sheet in place, shortly before midnight

The technology exists
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The causes of journalism’s downfall — some self-inflicted, some beyond anyone’s control (a worldwide economic meltdown) — are well known. To time-travel back to the dawn of the technological strand of the disaster, search YouTube for “1981 primitive Internet report on KRON.” What you’ll find is a 28-year-old local television news piece from San Francisco about a “far-fetched,” pre-Web experiment by the city’s two papers, The Chronicle and The Examiner, to distribute their wares to readers with home computers via primitive phone modems. Though there were at most 3,000 people in the Bay Area with PCs then, some 500 mailed in coupons for the service to The Chronicle alone. But, as the anchorwoman assures us at the end, with a two-hour download time (at $5 an hour), “the new telepaper won’t be much competition for the 20-cent street edition.”(2)

(2) The American Press on Suicide Watch, Frank Rich, The New York Times, May 10 2009 Page WK8 of the NY Edition http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/10/opinion/10rich.html

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Every newspaper needs a star reporter: A "Brenda Starr" or a Brendan Lyons, if you will. Lyons and his ilk are to freedom what flouride is to toothpaste. Journalists are needed to keep the democracy healthy!

THE KEY CHALLENGES

A - All of a sudden, it seems newspapers lack the financial resources to operate

B - Focus on LOCAL content (but don't ignore world news!)

A newspaper should be what 21st Century America is: diverse and bi-lingual

The days of political bias are done. No more bashing particular candidates. No more "endorsing." All sides and angles should be represented in any given article. Just bring the information home to the reader, in a democratic fashion.

Fill the HYPERLOCAL gap: hold workshops, encourage participants from outlying communities and suburbs to involve themselves with the newspaper. WRGB CBS6 allows viewers who photograph weather-related images to email them in, and they are displayed on the 6pm news, some within minutes of arriving at the station.

Locals in outlying communities (after workshop training) can email, text or phone in their stories for immediate inclusion into the newspaper's website

The newspaper should also seek to partner with area TV and radio stations in a more give-and-take relationship of informatiion-sharing (as opposed to broadcast media "checking the paper" for news stories to cover)

YouTube is great BUT the local newspaper should have a page where it can filter LOCAL videos, some of which could actually become fodder for news stories or feature articles.

INTERACTIVE is the wave: let everyone "comment" on any story or article or opinion. They can't be anonymous: a commenting system like Disqus or even something modeled after the one blog*spot uses would be adequate. Think FORUM. Lively exchanges of ideas and reactions. Also: No restrictions on people plugging their own URLs (for blogs, etc.) : If a great blog comes down the pike, it could be incorporated into the paper as a link, making the newspaper website MORE VALUABLE to readers. "Gee, I wish I could remember blogger Joe's website" "He's always on the newspaper site, just check there!" Suddenly, like Google is the place to "search" - the local newspaper is the place to go find LOCAL people ONLINE!

That brings us to

SOCIAL MEDIA

Again, CBS6 has runaway with a Facebook presence and twitter tweets by popular news anchors. Newspaper people can tweet stuff without giving up the details of the story they are working on. Twitter can become a "teaser" for the newspaper website... which should OPEN with an ad page, perhaps four on the page, with a button that could be checked by the reader saying something like "check this out after I read the paper" so that the ad will pop up when the viewer X's out of the newspaper page ALSO there could be a "view ad now" button, so there's a choice:

The newspaper should have (like I do on my blog in the right-hand column) a constantly updating friendfeed or twitter feed.
The page shouldn't be a bandwidth hog: a nice, clean loading page where everything is upfront... some ads tossed in but not superimposed-over or any of those annoying ads that float across the screen.

there could also be an option to "make your own newspaper" where readers could pick and choose topics: a list would be delivered to their email as many times a day as they choose (each email $pon$ored, of course!) with truncated text or maybe the first paragraph or two of the article(s). [Note: paper.li does this today in 2011]

GIVE PEOPLE ACCESS TO CONTENT WHEREVER THEY ARE WHENVER THEY WANT IT: on their iPhone, cellphone, blackberry, online... what about a service for the visually impaired (actually, anybody could use this) where they can dial a phone number, listen to a couple of ads followed by a menu of stories:
Press 1 to hear about how the Mayor's cat got stuck in a tree
Press 2 to find out why it's costing more to heat your home
you get the idea... each vocalized story is preceded by a :15 second advert"

LOCAL, SOCIAL MEANS LOCAL CLASSIFIED ADVERTISING

It must be extremely well-sorted and managed: 3-lines maximum, and FREE for the advertiser, The READER who, let's say, is interested in hiring that "Babysitter, M-f 7a-7p, references, have transportation, Albany Area" - has to click on the ad and pay $1 from either a pre-paid account with the newspaper or a pay-pal account - in other words, the respondent to the ad HAS TO BE REALLY INTERESTED or "serious" about whatever he or she is responding to.
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RULE # KEEP PRINTING

I have a subscription to the Albany Times-Union. [Remember this part of the post was written in 2009] I get the paper delivered to my home on Thursdays and Sundays. The subscription also comes with a pasword-protected PDF version of the paper delivered to my email account. Except for the very first time, I haven't bothered to peek at the PDF version!

Keep printing that traditional SUNDAY newspaper (but make it availabe on newsstands 4pm Saturday afternoon)

Special features, comics, Parade Magazine

Seek out GREAT columns and columists, horoscope

Include "The Week In News" on CD - which would include extra photographs and text that did not appear in the published versions, perhaps even embedded videos (taken with a cheap flip type camcorder) of interview

A comprehensive TV guide that is NOT UNDERWRITTEN AND CONTROLLED BY THE LOCAL CABLE FRANCHISE [Note: Thankfully, they ditched that model, but now you can't get the TV Lite delivered with the Sunday paper, but you CAN get it in the version of the newspaper you BUY at a store.Totally dumb or what? I cancelled the paper as soon as I heard about this. Now I just buy the paper on Sunday only at the store.]

That's how far I got with my PDF! I guess we can agree on one thing: newspapers are in trouble and don't have a clue what to do about it, and as evidenced with the Times Union and the TV Lite, the papers have no idea what the readers wanr (I guess I canadd the new "skimpy" comics section to that!)
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