Dealing with the elephant: Incremental change

This is the second post in a short series I’m going to write about the business model for online news before I go back to my usual divisive blathering about how to avoid bureaucracy and feed trolls.  The starting point, the givens in the equation, are listed here.  Suggest what I should tackle next using the Skribit widget in the sidebar of my blog.


“Elephant Mud Frolic” by Intrepidation on Flickr.

If you read the post I wrote last week about building better business directories on news Web sites, you’ll notice a few things about the approach I’m taking to talking about the business model(s) for making money in online news:

  1. I’m not offering up some massive overhaul to the entire system of paid journalism at the moment, like taking newspapers non-profit, but there’s a lot to be said for that model, depending on how you feel about PBS or the BBC.
  2. What I’m making an attempt to focus on are incremental changes; ideally, these should be moves that can be put into action at your site quickly and effectively, without major staffing or organization overhauls, even though that might not be the worst idea.
  3. There are plenty of ideas floating around the Web that qualify as “little things” you can do to grow revenue on a news site, but I think somewhere in between the smallest things (like adding Google AdSense or other targeted text-link ads to all your ad positions) and the largest things (complete re-organization of the news industry), there’s a market for ideas that revolve around some of the medium-sized steps you can take to open new revenue streams that have little, if anything, to do with your print product.

For example, how about starting an ad network for local blogs?

It’s a simple equation:  Local bloggers have content; the local news organization has advertisers.  Keep it simple: Sell banner ad positions on the network as an upsell when an advertiser buys a spot on your news site.  “For $5 a month more, we can put your ad on a network of 25 local blogs with X average page views per month.”  Split the revenue with the bloggers 50/50 or come up with a formula based on page views.

Also, add a page featuring the latest headlines from the blog network to your news site.  For bonus points, keep an eye on that page and feature links to posts on relevant local blogs on article pages on a regular basis.  For super extra bonus points, throw up a Ning network for the local bloggers to give them a place to talk with each other directly.

So again, as with the business directory plan, you’ll find that running an ad network for local blogs involves the news and advertising sides of your organization actually communicating from time to time as you add new blogs to the network and award monthly revenue shares.

I’ve seen examples of local blog networks maintained by news organizations, and I’ve seen examples of advertising networks for higher traffic blogs, but has anyone tried what I’m pitching here?

The stenography ends here

A few takeaways from this morning’s presentations at the Knight Foundation meeting today in Chicago:

  1. The stenography ends here. The days of chasing cops and government down for raw data (crime blotter, etc.) to parse into 8 inch stories is coming to an end.  Everyblock and the Sunlight Foundation are a good start.  More projects that extend these efforts to get government to make raw digital data available are an essential step to newsroom reorganization.
  2. New media tools are (just?) a means to an end, but ignore the trends at your own peril. While it doesn’t matter which video platform you use to get content out into the diaspora, it matters that you understand that there are existing best practices for online video, there are independent producers of news, entertainment and information using those platforms and practices, and there are HUGE success stories already in the medium.
  3. The idea that professional journalism is the “lifeblood of democracy” could be outdated. Could be.  When the barrier to publication and communication is as low as it is today, the democratic role of things like newspapers has to evolve.  There’s a big disconnect between the necessary giant investigative award-winning reporting coming from places like the New York Times and Washington Post and the type of local investigative work that gives a community information that affects their daily lives.  They’re getting that information from many sources, and not all of them are professional capital-J Journalism.

Awesome conversations here as always. Follow some of the livetweeting if you can.

You can be a journalist without a job at a mainstream news organization

That headline seems obvious, no?

Then why is it that when journalists see layoffs, buyouts, and newspaper companies in trouble, they sigh and say “Should I stop wasting my time and start applying to advertising agencies?

Really?

Here are a few ways you be a journalist without a full-time job at a mainstream news organization:

  1. Become a placeblogger.  Report on your community.  Beat the local newspaper, because you’re on the ground in your neighborhood and they’re probably not.  Make friends, and eventually, you may find yourself in the advertising business after all, selling space on your awesome local news blog.  Example: Baristanet.
  2. Freelance.  It sounds scarier than it is.  If you’re passionate about your beat, you might already be blogging about it.  That means you have some sort of body of work, or demonstration of your expertise on a given subject.  Use that to sell your ideas to magazines, niche publications that have money to spend and small in-house staffs.  My first paid reporting gigs were in a tiny little niche of the tech industry that I was interested in, if not necessarily passionate about.
  3. Got an idea?  Get a grant.  The Knight News Challenge is a great place to start.  If you have a great idea for how to do something innovative with local news, anywhere, you should be applying for a News Challenge grant, and this time next year, you could be getting paid to do something amazing, full-time.
  4. Get a job at a non-profit, and do journalism that matters for them.  Is that something like PR?  Maybe, but if you love the work they do, isn’t this a bit of a shortcut to saving the world?

None of these gigs involve working full-time for a big media company.  What was it exactly that you wanted out of journalism?  To work for a big company, or to be a journalist?

It’s not that simple, of course.  My health insurance is a bit more reliable now than it was when I was a student or a bartender.  (And you don’t even want to know how underinsured I was when I freelanced in the movie business.)

But if journalism is your passion, you’ll find the work you want.

Why we don’t read your paper

Tim Ball, in a post titled “Newspapers and why nobody reads them” writes:

“The problem for newspapers isn’t that I’m getting this information from another source. It’s that I don’t want it at all, and the local-local focus of metro newspapers in the last several years has made them not just less valuable to me, but increasingly annoying to me. I want to be able to pick up the local paper in a large city, toss out the Local section and get all that I need from the other sections.”

Go read the whole thing.

I’m a bit of an evangelist for local news, so I don’t agree with everything Tim says, but I’m definitely part of the market in question here.  And, living in a new town, I definitely couldn’t care less about what the city council or school board have to say.

Back in Santa Cruz, the circulation area was smaller compared to Rochester, even if the town was much bigger than the suburb we live in now, so the chances the local paper had of hitting a topic I was interested in were much better.

And more than that, because I could certainly read the (hyper)local paper here, the local politics, development issues, and crime stories always hit (literally) closer to home, and drew me in, even if it was just to criticize the paper’s coverage of a given issue.  (Yes, I ended up working there for a year, too.)

For more pontificating about local news, check out last weekend’s Carnival of Journalism, which I sat out with a hyperlocal sinus infection.

Building a local news site from scratch

[If you’re reading this in late April 2008, I’ve managed to post something on time for this month’s Carnival of Journalism, hosted by Yoni Greenbaum this time around.]

Lately, when failing revenues and/or an ill-fated JOA results in a newspaper closing up shop, there’s talk of “what if” they continued publishing online, but I have yet to see anyone actually pull it off.

And this is where the update will go when twelve of you tell me about papers that have shut down in print but stayed online. I’ve definitely seen signs of papers that have switched from daily to weekly and boosted their online presence, but what I’m after are examples of papers that have totally folded, but rebuilt themselves as an online-only news source in town.

Once you get past the ugly preliminary steps (think: layoffs, dismantling the press, moving into a far smaller space), the fun part (yes, yes, perfectly aware of how flip I’m being about the ugly part) starts:

What tools do you hand a few reporters and photographers (and readers) to start from scratch?

My short list:

  • Drupal, for built-in community, commenting, reader blogs, and profiles, plus integration with third-party services like Flickr, Twitter, YouTube, and news aggregation.
  • Nokia N95 or similar phones for live video via Qik, live text coverage of local events, and calling in audio reports. Lots of this should flow live to the site, unedited.
  • Laptops with wireless cards to file stories from anywhere, anytime.

Also, a good pair of walking shoes, because your reporters are going to be out in the community all day long, walking their beat and getting to know the locals. This is not a job you can do from behind a desk. If you didn’t leave the newsroom today, think about talking to a source in person tomorrow.

What’s on your short list of must-haves for reporters starting a local news site from scratch?

Mercury falling

[NOTE: What follows is a view of the last two years of trouble at the San Jose Mercury News from my personal point of view, as a graduate student in the neighborhood, a reporter (and later as an editor) working for the same parent company, and even as a reader. I don’t pretend to know everything about the inner politics of the Merc or MNG, but here’s the way it looks to me…]

In the Spring of 2006, when Knight Ridder was up for sale and the bidding was winding down, I was lucky enough to sit in on a talk that Jerry Ceppos gave to some faculty members and a few students at the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at San Jose State.

Ceppos, a former VP of News at Knight Ridder, spoke (off the record) about the possible outcomes of the upcoming sale of the company and the future of the Mercury News.

I had my own ideas, but really, the worst-case scenario that Ceppos presented has come to pass.

McClatchy bought Knight Ridder, spun off a set of papers that didn’t fit their model to cut down on the debt they were taking on, and then they were buried in debt anyway.

MediaNews picked up the San Jose Mercury News; the sale closed while I was interning on the ANG regional desk at the Oakland Tribune. A few of my best stories landed on the local front of the Merc, and I was proud.

___

I’m not going to go into great detail here about the many rounds of downsizing and layoffs at the Mercury News in particular or MediaNews in general.

While I agree with the people who say that MediaNews cuts with too wide a thresher, I also believe that most major metro papers have newsrooms bloated with role-players from a previous era.

I don’t believe your restaurant critic has better taste than the people on Yelp.

I don’t believe that local movie, TV, or music critics have a great amount of unique local value in the era of Rotten Tomatoes and Netflix. I don’t believe that a newspaper in San Jose needs a national issue on its front page every day, with few exceptions. I don’t believe in the Editorial We. I don’t believe that the best newspaper columnists can keep up with the best bloggers in the niches or styles I care about.

So given all that I don’t believe, I don’t believe in 800-person newsrooms, or even 400-person newsrooms.

But at some point, if the Merc is going to start moving substantially in any direction at all as a force in local online news, the bleeding has to stop.

___

But it doesn’t.

Matt Mansfield is taking a buyout.

Dean Takahashi left for VentureBeat, which started as SiliconBeat at the Merc before Matt Marshall took the concept on the road.

Mike Bazeley left, too.

Editors have left, and publishers have been replaced, and their bosses at CNP have rotated, and I’m not sure anyone left after Friday is going to have the time or morale (or approval from MNG) to Rethink much of substance.

I’m writing this a few days before a scheduled round of buyouts and layoffs at the Merc.

And at the same time, I’m on my way out of town, moving away from the Bay Area a few short weeks from now. So this is my send-off to hand-wringing that goes on here, in the part of the country where newspapers have probably been hit the hardest by the effects of the Web and the economic changes in the news industry.

I’ll miss seeing the Merc and the SF Chronicle and the Sentinel lined up in the racks around downtown Santa Cruz, but I’m looking forward to reading the D&C and the local GateHouse papers. Heck, we might even take a print subscription of the weekly in the town we’ll be living in.

___

Here’s what I would do if I were in charge of where the Merc goes online after this Friday:

  1. Abandon NGPS and rebuild the site in Drupal with proper commenting, registration, user profiles, blogs for all users.
  2. Take blog posts and podcasts out of the little ghetto-ized boxes on the homepage and feature them as you would feature any other piece of content.
  3. Make your multimedia players as big and bold and featured as the Las Vegas Sun. The work your staff is doing demands and deserves it.
  4. Recruit local bloggers from neighborhoods around San Jose to lead local social networks – if you built the site with Drupal, this wouldn’t be complicated. They can moderate, manage, and cheerlead as necessary. Give the readers/users a sense of ownership of their neighborhood coverage.
  5. Don’t feature national/world news on the homepage unless it happens in San Jose, with few exceptions.

I’m perfectly aware that very little of this is easy to do, given the development and design situation at MNG, but #4 could be launched quickly with Ning or (less quickly) with WPMU if you can identify the right bloggers. They don’t have to be writing about their neighborhoods already. I don’t write about living in Santa Cruz or local politics on this blog, but I was very excited about Citizen Santa Cruz while it was running. (I’ve been told it will be back soon – stay tuned, locals.)

These aren’t revolutionary ideas – they’re happening at other papers in towns with less economic, organizational, and environmental pressure to change.

So change. Or die.

___

Obviously, I’m curious to hear what present and past Merc reporters and editors think about all this. I’m sure there will be plenty of stories and blog posts and handwringers in the next few days as the lists of buyouts and layoffs circulate.

I’ll leave with this thought:

If a start-up were to hire 10 of the most talented people who left Yahoo and the Mercury News in the last short while, they could build a kick-ass innovative local news organization in any two towns in Silicon Valley.

___

[UPDATE: Mike Bazeley is in a much better position than I am to write an obituary for the Merc, as he worked there for 11 years. He’s written it here.] 

Work with us, people

GateHouse Media is hiring two reporters. Here’s the important bit from Boss Owens’ post on the matter:

The ideal candidate:

  • A recent college graduate (or graduating this spring)
  • At least six months experience blogging
  • Capable of shooting and editing his or her own video
  • Ready to do more than sit in an office and make phone calls or pull the latest agenda item from a city council meeting and try to turn it into a story
  • Believes in local news and local community and sees a role for journalism in helping a community communicate and learn about what is happening in that community

Go read that whole post and write to howens [AT] gatehousemedia [DOT] com if you’re interested.

As an added bonus, I’ll probably bug you on IM and Twitter and SMS all day about when you’re posting your next video or blog post or podcast or whatever you choose to produce.