If you can’t beat ’em, or buy ’em, use the API

Newspapers should produce amazing local databases with great maps, ratings and reviews.

A newspaper company should buy Yelp.

Yelp now has an open API. Newspapers should stop trying to develop something better, and use the API to provide users with Yelp’s functionality on their own sites, applied to their local businesses.

Apply that logic everywhere it makes sense. No need to re-invent the wheel if you can tap into a massive database for free using an API, a la Google Maps mashups.

Do it this week.

The innovation gap: Your advertising department could use a hand

So here we all are.

In the newsroom, in j-school, in our little corner of the blogosphere, producing great journalism, training great journalism students, and pointing out fantastic examples of both to each other and our peers, doing our best to make the transition to online news.

One problem.

We forgot to bring the advertising department to the party.

Yeah, sure, as journalists, it’s not really our job to figure out how to monetize this stuff.

That’s what we tell ourselves as we post our multimedia projects without templates that include ad positions. That’s what we tell ourselves while print revenue declines — and online doesn’t grow anywhere near fast enough to make up for it.

Alright, so without going too far into whether journalists are supposed to be thinking about this or not, here are five ways to improve online advertising revenue at your newspapaper.com. (How’s that for burying the lede?)

  1. Embrace contextual advertising: Make AdSense your friend. Spread a little around your article pages: It’s like free money falling from the sky and not nearly as annoying to your users as giant Flash banners. And it loads faster.
  2. Go big, cut down on ad positions, and charge more for display ads: Let advertisers feel like they are buying a full page print ad opposite your content. Use giant 300xwhatever skyscrapers that are practically like a sponsorship for the page, and let that be the only display ad on the page. Charge far more for that exclusive spot, and sell it to your big full-page type clients.
  3. Target affiliate programs to relevant pages: Do I want to sign up for Netflix while I’m reading a crime story? Maybe not, but sell me on iTunes and Netflix from your music and movie review pages, and maybe I’ll bite. That goes double for travel site ads on your travel pages. The near future of affiliate ads is widget-based ads where your users will be able to sign up for a service or buy a product without leaving your page. Keep it relevant and your conversion rate should only go up.
  4. Sell more than eyeballs: The page view is dead, but the CPM model of online ad sells lives. That can’t be right, right? Find something to sell to your clients: Relevance, demographics, most popular stories and sections, a chunk of syndicated/wire content that is a huge hit in your town. Dig into the numbers and make something work.
  5. Party together: If your ad sales staff doesn’t know what ad positions are available online, or doesn’t pay enough attention to the news site to know what lots of people are looking at without seeing local advertising, you need to get together, form a committee, have some meetings, and just generally talk to each other. Even if your desk is in the newsroom. Seriously, this isn’t going to work unless the smartest people in the building sit down together and make it happen. If you really think your journalism is going to be affected by letting the ad department know there’s room for a 5-second preroll ad position on all that video you’re shooting, you might be in the wrong business.

So now it’s your turn, of course. What’s the smartest bit of online advertising you’ve seen at a newspaper.com lately — or better yet — what’s the smartest thing going on in online ads anywhere right now that you think we should let our sales staffs know about?

Further reading: Scott Karp’s been all over this territory recently. Start here, and work your way into it.

Hope for mobile news

I’ve gotta admit, when it comes to the question of newspapers adopting new delivery systems, I’m usually the one wagging my finger and saying “You better…”

But John Duncan over at The Inksniffer has a far more hopeful approach when it comes to the prospects for cutting deals with cell phone carriers and getting headlines from newspapers to mobile phones:

“There will, I’m sure, be Powerpoints. I think big cellphone operators, who like to do business with big brands and who can tailor their products by geography, will seek out local newspapers as partners very quickly. Readers may tell researchers about how little they trust newspapers but big telecoms trust us a lot. They advertise with us already. Newspapers know them. Newspapers play golf with them. Newspapers used to carry their books to school for them when they were young.”

He’s probably thinking of larger papers and larger newspaper companies, but the message is clear — this is one area where newspapers can play a few pieces of capital they’ve built up over the years.

As an added bonus, it’s not rocket science. Get your text headlines out on a mobile screen. It’s not difficult. After that, move on to pushing your video content out to iPods. Plenty of instruction booklets sitting around about how to do that. (Note to self: Do that.)

Flickr Pro and the freemium business model for newspapers

Given the recent developments around our house and the logical uptick in uploading to Flickr, I went ahead and took the $24.95/yr plunge.

What I get for my money: Unlimited uploading, unlimited image storage, unlimited bundling and feeding of images, and all the old stuff that had been pushed out of my top 200 by the new stuff has come back to life, which means you can once again see any and all of my vacation pictures from the last few years. I know, it’s ahrd to contain your excitement.

But the fact that I finally laid down some cash for a service I had used for free for a few years started the wheels turning in my head.

The question, as always: What are your online newspaper readers willing to pay for?

I’ve bitched and moaned about TimesSelect being a backwards way to pull your opinion leaders out of the public forum and hide them behind a paywall, but I’m starting to get over it. After all, it’s the News that Everyman needs, and that stays out in public where he can get at it.

But when we want just a little bit more, there it is, available for a price.

Freemium.

It’s the business model that makes Flickr and Feedburner and WordPress.com viable and perhaps profitable.

Create a tool that millions of users can play with for free, but make sure there are premium features they can pay just a little bit more to access. Make them look cool. Call them “Pros.”

Sooooooo if you’re not a big regional paper with a stable of columnists you can pull behind a paywall, what are the features that can get readers to shell out that little bit of cash?

It’s a damn fine question. There might be easy answers when it comes to classified advertising, but not news content. What exclusive content are you willing to pull out of the hands of the masses?

Will the real online news business model please stand up?

Terry Heaton’s take on the Yahoo/Amigos deal and other attempts to make up for lost print revenue with online advertising dollars turns on this point:

“…the essential problem for all local media companies is their insistence in the belief that a model of scarcity online will generate the kinds of revenue needed to offset losses to legacy platforms.”

For as long as I’ve been interested in this business, I’ve thought local advertising is the way to go at local online news organizations, but Terry’s counting out even that seemingly-obvious model, taking fragmentation and the unbundling of news as a given. Which I do. But I still think branding is a big part of unbundled content, feeds, and widgets.

We give away information so that we can increase the presence and prominence of our brand, get the newspaper’s name out in front of more eyeballs, and draw attention to any and all baby-step innovations we have to offer.

Making money off that is, of course, a long-term proposition.

Some more from Terry: “The longer we wait to aggregate the local web, the more we accelerate our own demise.”

“…aggregate the local web…” Now we’re on to something here.