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Staffers at the recently closed Rocky Mountain News, backed by three entrepreneurs, say they’ll start a news web site on April 23, provided some big “ifs” drop into their lap.

They’ll start the site if 50,000 subscribers join, and if they agree to each pay $4.99 a month, and if they pay it all in advance — roughly $60 per year per subscriber. If they don’t get those numbers, the effort dies.

So what does $60 a year get you? According to an AP story (see the link below), news will be free, while paying customers will get “extra features” that include access to certain blogs and columnists, as well as some mobile features.

This is not a tall order; it’s a gargantuan one. Getting 50,000 subscribers would be equal to about 25% of the Rocky’s final paid circulation. Why would anyone want to pay a cent for “extra features” when users can simply click over the to Denver Post and get whatever they need, free? I agree that newspapers need a new financial model. But that model isn’t going to work if one site is trying to charge while I similar site gives it away free.

I am not a fan of charging for the news — which is no longer a commodity — produced by major metros (Smaller properties are a different story; more on that some other time). Newspapers tried to charge years ago, and they dropped the fees because they could make more money charging advertisers for access to a growing audience. Things are bad, and media companies, trying to survive, are grasping at straws.

The Rocky didn’t survive, and some very talented journalists are trying to keep their craft alive. While my heart prays for success, my head tells me otherwise.

Read the AP story:

http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5jUKFN5dgQ9zftjAOZ8ajWiedUkPgD96VC4080

So maybe this is a bit extreme. Democracy has been around in these parts for hundreds of years, so why would the death of a newspaper change that way of life? Think it through, folks. Because it can.

Say what you want about newspapers, but they provide an invaluable public service — they keep watch over public officials and government in a way that no one can. Newspapers uncover scandal, explain important societal issues and detail societal abuses. They also write about the kids next door dying of cancer, the puppy saved by a local animal shelter, and the well meaning people who feed the hungry.

And, society is rapidly losing the people who do all of those things.

Here’s what’s happening:

Every time a newspaper downsizes its staff, it takes away a community resource. When those resources start to leave, who takes their place? Who monitors our government? Who tells the community what’s going on?

Some say internet writers will sprout up and create niche sites that take the place of what we’re losing with newspapers. These niche sites will tackle narrowly focused subjects that will keep the public informed.

I don’t think so. Sure, there are all sorts of people blogging and offering opinions.

But there’s a monumental difference between pontificating and doing the serious and objective reporting, analysis, writing and the editing that follows. Look at Rush Limbaugh. You can argue all day whether he’s a genius or blowhard, but you can’t argue that he’s a serious journalist. He’s not. He has a point of view and offers his thoughts on those points. You will not see him, or his ilk, digging through thousands of pages of documents to pull out one piece of information that determines whether someone has done wrong.

Without newspapers, we run the risk of government gone wild. Without the checks and balances that serious reporting provides, government will have no incentive to be open and transparent. It’ll be much easier to claim records and meetings aren’t public, votes don’t have to be explained, new laws and legislation doesn’t have to be challenged.

Folks, that’s not a stretch. Wait until the first big city loses its newspaper. And wait until a Blagojevich-like scandal rocks that city. And wait for the reaction when it takes weeks or months to come to light — if it comes to light at all.

Losing a newspaper is not, simply, the loss of some reading and a few reporters. It’s the lose of the one real mechanism we have for keeping our government in check and keeping our democracy as we know it.

(Check out my new blog at www.aimgroup.com)

The Ann Arbor News has announced it’s closing, being replaced by an online operation and a twice-weekly newspaper. Properties in Flint, Saginaw and Bay City are also cutting back to three days a week. You’ll want to read this:

http://www.mlive.com/news/ann-arbor/index.ssf/2009/03/ann_arbor_news_to_close_in_jul.html

Remember, check out my new blog for the Aim Group at: www.aimgroup.com

And, starting in May, check out my monthly column for Newspapers and Technology

I’ve tried to get the word content out of my vocabulary, when discussing what we put online. I’ve gone to information, because it seems to me to more fully describe what we’re trying to provide. Here’s how I see the difference:

Content: That’s what the newsroom provides. It’s the backbone of news sites, because without those valuable and important breaking news stories, updates, photo and video galleries, users would have very few reasons to come to us.

Information: That’s everything else. Money-saving coupons. Marketing information. Subscription offers. Everything else that tends to be ignored on newspaper homepages, unless it’s in a paid advertising position.

It helps me better focus on the user experience when I think about information. So in addition to the content the newsroom provides, I want to highlight valuable information from throughout the site.

Doing so boosts traffic and brings more value to a number of different areas. If circulation is selling the Sunday paper at $0.99, wouldn’t local users want to know that? If there’s a coupon online for a $5.99 pizza, isn’t that valuable information? And if your organization is helping raise money for a good cause over a period of time, wouldn’t customers want to know where to give?

Some will argue that putting this information on your home page takes away from news. I don’t think so. We all study online metrics and understand what stories do well and which ones don’t. Too often, we put news stories on our home pages that attract few page views. Why not replace those with information that drives clicks and stickiness?

We did an experiment once that proved the point. On a slow news day, we took out a poor-performing story and replaced it with this headline:

Get an oil change for less than $11.

The story had garnered a couple of dozen page views in the two hours on the site. In the same amount of time, the coupon generated more than 200 click-throughs.

Over and over again, valuable information trumps content users aren’t interested in. If newspapers want to create more web site value, they should look at the totality of what they have to provide, and pick the best, regardless of where it’s produced.

Pick your favorite newspaper. Take a look at it online. Then, take a look at it on your mobile phone. In many cases, they look just about the same, right?

That also means that, in many cases, we’re going about distributing information the wrong way.

Online is clearly different from mobile. Online users want to surf for information, and our best users stay with us looking at lots of different things. On mobile, users generally seek specific bits of information, such as the current weather conditions, the price of a specific stock, or a sports score. Mobile users get what they want and get out.

So, if the two users act differently, why to we insist on giving them information the same way?

Newspapers need a multi-platform digital strategy that takes into account the differences in our distribution channels — printed product, online and mobile. There are already substantial (but not substantial enough) differences between the printed product and online, and I don’t need to go over them here. So if we’ve made differences between print and online, why not do the same with mobile?

Newspapers should provide information that mobile users want, not information that’s easy for us to provide. It’s really easy to send a feed of your online offerings to mobile. It’s harder and more time consuming to figure out exactly what mobile users want.

What should we do? Start by redesigning mobile sites. Give users a very few of the latest breaking news headlines, and concentrate on those snippets of valuable information they want. A mobile front page dominated by the current weather forecast, the latest local sports scores, a few tips on things to do and a money-saving coupon or two (especially in these times) now might hold more value than a constant scroll of headlines on a way-to-long mobile page.

You might say that’s not a news site. You’re right. We’re in the business of providing valuable information, and that goes beyond the important content newsrooms provide. The important differences between content and information is the subject for another blog.

I’m a digital media professional and the views expressed in this blog are mine alone. Please visit my website for more digital information at http://www.raymarcano.com

Stories of the Gray Lady’s demise are, probably, highly exaggerated. That’s because the New York Times is investing heavily in R&D of products that may be — get this — 5-10 years out. Most newspapers are concentrating on short-term revenue initiatives that will help stop the bleeding now. But the Times is taking a longer view, and they’re right on the money. The work they’re doing now will help them more quickly and smoothly transform the newspaper into a full-fledged digital product.

Among the efforts: Automatically resizing and reformatting data to fit the device you’re using; a “smart” system that would keep track of what information users are consuming across multiple devices; and a system in which content is delivered to your TV and automatically resized depending on how far you are from the set.

(Read the full piece at: http://news.cnet.com/8301-1023_3-10193349-93.html?tag=mncol)

You might look at these projects and think, this is something a technology company might produce. And that’s exactly the point. Technology companies look at innovative, new and unique ways to build products that potentially have multiple applications — and customers. Newspaper companies, if they have developers, lock them into building products that might be good for their purposes only. There’s no chance to license the work. No chance to do work for others. No chance to broaden the work for purposes outside the narrow sliver of what we do.

If we think more like a technology company, we can build innovative products for the future and  resell our expertise now. For example, we don’t really need vendors to build IPhone apps — we can do that fairly easily. We don’t need to wait for vendors to provide the kinds of products that NYT is working on; we can do those ourselves.

And, while we’re taking the long view, we should resell our expertise in our own communities, creating a new revenue stream that can help support the longer view. Take a look at a project of the MainStreet Media Group,  isoars.com. This small company has built a business that will build web sites for local company while offering them valuable ad space in paper and online. It’s an interesting way to marry all they have to offer.

There’s no reason we can’t consult with local business on search engine optimization, website design, and mobile phone applications. We have the expertise in house, and in many cases, have the best talent in town

  • Who knows what their online bounce rate is? What about keyword or entry page conversion rate? Do you know what your most popular site keywords are? Chances are you don’t, and that’s why most e-paper sites aren’t maximizing audience and revenue. We don’t understand the basics of search. Omniture gave a terrific session Tuesday morning that outlined how e-paper sites can take advantage of search. All the advice made sense, but in order to take full advantage of search, you’ll need someone who can learn the ins and outs. That requires a resource and some training, Don’t let the economy hold you back.
  • Le Echos in France publishes 10 daily digital editions. That’s where we need to go. Newspapers make the mistake of taking content and putting in online and on mobile, as if both distribution channels are the same. They’re different, with users who want different things, and we need to begin treating them as such.
  • How come we’re not taking advantage of all of the distribution channels available to us? Facebook? Linkedin? Twitter?
  • I got tired of the all-out insane prices at the Mandalay and walked over to New York, New York. They have a terrific food court that included a New York pizza place and deli. $4 for a huge slice that was enough to fill me up, but I couldn’t pass up the $3.50 foot long dog. The $7.50 I spent on dinner wouldn’t have gotten me an appetizer at the Mandalay.
  • Flying back Thursday. May not blog until Friday. Cheers

Random thoughts: More details on later blogs

  • Tony Hsieh and Zappos.com sure have it right — company culture and customer service can make or break an organization. He told the crowd at the opening session: “Customer Service is not an expense — it’s a marketing cost.” I never thought of it that way, and I bet a lot of others haven’t, either.
  • E-readers are coming, and coming fast. Newspapers have a lot to figure out — how to reconfigure information so it displays properly, how to build ads, how to transition users from print to these new devices — and we’ve only started that discussion in small corners. This is a chance for the industry to change the business model, and we have to start planning now.
  • Technical problems at my session led to some interesting moments. But we improvised and got through it fine. Thanks to all who were patient with us.
  • There are a lot of smart people here. I would think that, together, we can cure what ails us.
  • $20 for a burger? $35 for fried rice? $4 for a cup of coffee? No wonder tourism is down. You can get here and stay here cheap, then have to live on McDonald’s or Subway.

Hey all. I’m in Las Vegas at the Newspaper Association of America and will blog this week. Check back often!

Last week, the Cook County sheriff in Chicago made headlines when he sued Craig’s List,. He demanded Craig’s List remove the erotic section channel on it site because it promotes prostitution. Here’s the latest on the story, which includes the Craig’s List response to the suit:

http://news.cnet.com/8301-1023_3-10191150-93.htm

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The story set off glee in some newspaper quarters, because it was the latest in bad press for Craig’s List. Remember the fair housing suit from a few years ago (the courts sided with Craig’s List, BTW)? Even if Craig’s List is protected by law, maybe, just maybe, stories like this would cause people to abandon the site and place their classified ads online with their local newspaper (even though said newspaper, in most cases, still insists on charging for the information).

Why would people flock back? Because, the logic goes, users are getting tired of a classified site that contains scams, spam and hookers. Newspapers have a competitive advantage because they’re a reliable and trusted source that ensures its ads are truthful and honest.

There’s only one thing: Few care about that advantage anymore.

It’s more important for users to connect with someone who wants to buy what they have to sell — and do so quickly. You put an ad on Craig’s List, it’s online in about fifteen minutes. Put an ad on a newspaper site, and it could be 24 hours. Why? Because many newspapers still review at the ads before they’re published to ensure there are no red flags with the information that goes online and then in the newspaper. Newspapers take great pride in that vetting.

But that competitive advantage doesn’t exist anymore. Not in instant-gratification world. Think of your own habits. If an online page doesn’t load in three seconds, you’re ready to move on. If the site you’re viewing doesn’t have the information you want within a couple of clicks, you move on. Forget about leaving a voicemail; who wastes that time? Instead, you expect an instant response via a text message.

Technology has trained people to get what they want immediately. The newspaper classified model doesn’t work in the online space. Instead of holding ads, newspapers should put them online as fast as they can — and take them down later if there’s a problem. And, you’ll be surprised at how few problems there are.

Taking this one step isn’t going to solve online classified issues — but it’s a small step that might help a little.