And there goes the Star-Ledger (and another $10 million)

Two years after offering a buyout that decimated its newsroom by cutting about one-third of its staff, The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J., the state’s largest daily paper, is offering another such buyout.

In a memo to staff today, Publisher Richard Vezza stated that the paper had lost $9 million in 2009 and was on pace to lose another $10 million this year.

Sounds like a fun place to work. I’d feel worse for the paper, if they weren’t owned by Advance Publications (parent company of Advance Internet), which has the worst newspaper websites around.

Does triCityNews produce news, or just ad space?

Anil Dash wonders whether triCityNews is in fact a newspaper at all.

Not once in David Carr’s piece did the publisher of the triCityNews, Dan Jacobson, mention content, journalism, journalistic mission or serving readers. Instead, he talks about how “I don’t want anything that detracts from the paper and the presence of those big, beautiful full-page ads” and “business sense” and “running lean” and keeping advertisers happy.

All that’s great, but you would think that someone who started a “newspaper” startup less than 10 years ago, would talk about his love of journalism or how his newspaper is serving the community better. You know, the reasons that all of us got into journalism. Maybe this is Carr’s fault for not choosing one quote that relates to journalism, but Dash concludes:

That’s not to say Jacobson doesn’t value journalism. It’s just that it’s absolutely clear that his priority is his advertisers. Thus, I submit that the triCityNews, while certainly a paper, is likely not a newspaper.

Making a profitable penny saver is a lot easier than making a real, profitable news operation that serves its community. It sounds like the triCityNews exists to be a pleasant place for local advertisers. It has lots of ad space that is surrounded by soft, friendly content.

Even Carr admits that the triCityNews is ”boosterish.” Maybe it even has some friendly content thrown in about frequent advertisers.

Good for the triCityNews for serving the advertisers of Ashbury Park. Nothing wrong with that. It’s just business.

But shame on Carr for not proving that the triCityNews serves its community well. Most people in a community aren’t advertisers, and they are served by quality editorial content. Maybe the triCityNews is a fantastic editorial product, but I wouldn’t bet on it. 

It can’t be that hard to be profitable weekly with 3.5 full-time employees — of which at least 1.5 have nothing to do with editorial and another being a publisher with no journalism background or apparent love of journalism. It looks like the editorial content is mostly produced by some part-time columnists and the executive editor.

For a real eye opener, Dash puts all of Jacobson’s quotes together. Then judge for yourself whether Carr has founded an oasis in the newspaper industry or just a paper with a lots of ads.

Christian Science Monitor to cease publishing print newspaper

The Christian Science Monitor will end weekday publication of its print edition next April, concentrating on a daily Web model.

The Monitor will also be adding a Sunday magazine. Please excuse the wildly-misleading New York Times headline that says the Monitor will be online only. In fact, the new magazine will cost more per issue than the old weekday publication.

The Sunday magazine will cost $89 for a years subscription, while the old five-day-a-week print edition cost $219 a year. That translates to more than double the subscription revenue per issue. The idea is to make the print product more valuable per edition (for both readers and advertisers), while also shedding much of the printing and distribution costs that plague daily publication.

Part of this transition includes upgrades to the Monitor Web site, CSMonitor.com, (which makes perfect sense). From the press release about the upgrades:

  • Original reporting on global news and events seven days a week
  • Continuously updated stories
  • Global conversations between readers and Monitor staff
  • Links to valuable content elsewhere on the Web

Top editor John Yemma said a decision on the future of the Monitor was coming this fall in the podcast I had with him a week ago. At the time, he said the Monitor was considering either adding a weekend edition on top of its weekday publishing or going to a model that focuses on online with a weekly news magazine.

The Monitor went with the latter, more logical option. This is what the weekly magazine will feature:

  • The Monitor’s well-regarded analysis of both US and global news
  • Weekly snapshots of life around the globe and news around the Web
  • Profiles of individuals who are tackling tough problems and trying to make a difference
  • Special emphasis on the environment, innovation, money & values

This is a model I have been trying to sell people on for more than a year now (and brought up at ONA 08 to the “super panel.” The idea was essentially scoffed at by some execs at dying print publications). Here is why I have championed this model:

  • Daily reporting on the Web — Newspapers all across the world are filled with old news. Print publications are ill suited to break news and to report on news as it is happening.
  • Analysis pieces once a week — Daily reporting is not always the best way to look at the bigger picture or to provide historical context. This is where strong, thoughtful and, yes, often long analysis pieces come into play. This is the kind of reporting that belongs in print. I may not want to spend a few hours reading about one subject online (I’ll get distracted quickly), but I am willing to devote much more time to print, especially on weekends. I’ll say it again, I love the Economist magazine.
  • Synergyrent a car bulgaria — Top editors like to prentend like their employees don’t waste time, but they do — a lot of time and resources. And what are they wasting time doing? Duplicating content for print and the Web. A lot of the beat bloggers I work with complain that they have to “re-report” news for the print edition after they post it online. This often means reconfiguring a story to fit into the print model. It might mean finding “man on the street quotes.” And it can mean finding ways to explain things in print that simple links do much better on the Web. All of this means, however, wasted time and resources. But if print doesn’t care about breaking news, this isn’t an issue.

I think the Monitor’s new model could work very well for a lot of publications. At the minimum, we’ll learn a lot within a year from now how much this new model makes sense and where it can take traditional news media.

Squandered profits, shattered brands: the tragedy of newspapers

When historians come to write the history of the newspaper industry over the last two decades, they’ll talk about how newspaper companies squandered it all with a series of unfortunate — and often short sighted — decisions.

I want you to read what Alan Mutter had to say about newspapers in his latest blog post. Think about this for a second:

If newspapers had invested in new products even a modest fraction of the bodacious profits they reaped in the last decade and a half, they might have invented anything from MarketWatch to Yelp to Google.

Instead, publishers concentrated on accelerating profits to lift the stock prices that determined their bonuses and/or borrowed what proved to be dangerously large sums of money to buy more of the newspapers they regarded as perpetual money-making machines.

Most newspaper companies are still money-making machines, with profits that far outpace the typical Fortune 500 company. The problem? Massive debt burdens.

Cheap credit earlier this decade led a lot of newspaper companies to make a lot of really bad decisions (well, a lot of industries are facing this same problem right now). Companies were gobbling up newspapers left and right, and now those acquisitions are worth a fraction of what they paid for them. Many of them are simply over leveraged now.

To put this in perspective, Journal Register Co., a publisher that already has defaulted on its reckless debt, still generated a 16.9% operating margin in the last 12 months. That surpasses the margins in the same period of such companies as Exxon (15.7%), General Electric (14.2%), Boeing (8.7%), Wal-Mart (5.8%) and Amazon.Com (4.7%).

This vapid struggle to remain profitability may be the final nail in the coffin for several over-leveraged newspaper companies:

The bitter irony for the newspaper industry is that the desperate reductions in staffing and newshole are compromising dangerously the quality of the products that built each of its valuable franchises. The compromises, which typically dismay most loyal and discerning newspaper readers, are likely to speed the declines in circulation and sales that are the root cause of industry’s faltering profitability.

If you’re a newspaper reader, how much longer will you consume a product that is continuously getting worse? Less news, shorter stories, more ads, less sections, etc.

The Washington Post and The New York Times are two papers that are not owned by over leveraged companies. Their brands have remained strong during these troubled times. Many smaller publications like weeklies are doing fine as well.

But the papers of Tribune, McClatchy, Philadelphia Media Holdings, Journal Register, Lee Enterprises, et al?

Not so much.

Today is the day for change in your newsroom

You don’t need a fancy new CMS, a new editor in chief, new business model or prayer to start innovating today.

This month’s Carnival of Journalism, hosted by Will Sullivan over at Journerdism, asks a very pragmatic question:

What are small, incremental steps one can make to fuel change in their media organization?

Pragmatic questions need pragmatic answers.

Stop wasting money on software and IT you don’t need:

Times are tight, right? Then why does every one of your employees have a copy of the full Microsoft Office Suite? A lot of those people probably hardly ever touch it, and those that do use the software could probably get away with a much cheaper software solution.

Don’t waste money on IT spending that you don’t need to spend, especially on software that makes you less productive. Most of your employees could do everything they need to from Google Docs. Google Docs is either free or cheap ($50 a seat for the premium version per year), and it allows for powerful collaboration.

News organizations are now trying to cater to different audiences — print, Web and mobile. It’s hard to properly disseminate content to those different streams without good collaboration.

Google Docs has fantastic collaboration built in. It could save a lot of time spent sending e-mails back and forth, and even — gasp — time spent in e-mail. Teams can share documents for specific projects. 

I use Google Docs for everything I do on BeatBlogging.Org. I love how no matter what computer I’m on, I can have access to all my documents. I love how easy it is to share documents with people. I love the simplicity. 

When I worked at Stars and Stripes, I had a full copy of Microsoft Office. There is nothing that I ever did there that I couldn’t do with Google Docs. In fact, I still used Google Docs when I wanted to share documents with other employees.

Yes, some of your employees probably need Office because it does have features that Google Docs doesn’t have, but the vast majority of your employees don’t need it. Regardless, Google Docs will help with work flow. 

Create a culture of learning, everyday:

This isn’t as far out as it sounds. Sign up for Lynda.com and similar sites. Purchase books on HTML, CSS, Flash and other tools. Encourage your employees to subscribe to RSS feeds of sites like This Week in Django.

Have your employees sign up for free blogging accounts at WordPress.com or a similar site. Have them sign up for Twitter, Facebook and other social networking sites. The only way to understand social networking is to get out there and do it.

Allocate a few hours each week when employees are expected to spend time learning new skills and tools. Encourage your employees to spend their down time at work learning. Allow your employees to take courses while they are at home.

Let’s make it easy for our employees to get wired, and let’s get everyone on Wired Journalists.

Have seminars and classes every week:

This again, isn’t that crazy of an idea. These seminars and classes can be led by employees. Many newsroom already host weekly classes where blogging, Twitter, HTML, social networking, video, etc are discussed. 

But if you don’t have qualified employees in some of these areas, bring in outside people. The last thing you need is for your employees to learn the wrong ideas and techniques or get discouraged when their teachers doesn’t really know what they are talking about.

We can’t honestly expect all of our employees to be up-to-date on the latest trends if we don’t even talk about what those trends are and how we can use the newest technology to produce better journalism. Remember, some trends aren’t worth our time. They have to help us produce better journalism and connect better with our readers. 

I’d also have every one of your beat reporters and editors reading BeatBlogging.Org for great ideas on how to incorporate social media.

Work flow says a lot about your organization:

Organizations with modern work flows are often more innovative. Now, maybe you can’t change your whole newsroom work flow overnight, but you can at least change how your team works. Maybe just your team adopts Google Docs to share ideas, but it will still make your team more efficient and allow you to produce better results.

I’d strongly consider project management software like Basecamp. Basecamp combined with Google Docs can help transform a newsroom into a modern, efficient organization. Many Web teams especially don’t have software to help manage projects and work flow.

Basecamp is the kind of modern IT spending that makes sense. Why newsrooms still blow money on Office or even Exchange e-mail makes no sense to me. Microsoft programs are terrible for collaboration, and they’re expensive. 

I think any small news organization would be crazy to spend money on Outlook/Exchange. A bigger organization can spread the cost around to more employees, but a smaller organization has to pay a lot of money for software, servers and people to maintain both.

And Outlook/Exchange that doesn’t really allow employees to be efficient because of its 20th-century mindset. Google Apps and GMAIL is a great solution for many newsrooms (if you’re a small paper like a weekly, you’d be crazy to use anything else).

E-mail is not a project management tool:

How many of your news organizations send out e-mails about mandatory meetings? How many of your organizations also send out reminders about said meetings? Now how many of your organizations how a calendar system like Outlook?

Well, why don’t your news organizations just place these mandatory meetings on your calendar? People need to stop living out of their inboxes. Your inbox is not where you should go to find out what to do each day.

That’s what your calendar is for. Many companies all over the world have created a culture in which e-mail is the main productivity tool. But using e-mail for anything more than it is intended for makes everyone less productive.

There really is no excuse for employees to be CCed and BCCed on every little e-mail. Frankly, it’s embarrassing when many employees get hundreds of e-mails a day. A lot of those e-mails should be IMs or on another, more relevant communication platform.

Outlook/Google Calendar, Google Docs, Wikis, Basecamp, etc will all make your news organization more efficient. We all have less resources today. Let’s put those resources to better use.

Is the downfall of newspapers really just a rebirth of journalism?

Newspaper ad revenues are again down by double digits, more newspapers are defaulting on debt and we’re entering one of the worst economic crises ever.

Ad revenue will continue to dry up. Many traditional print advertisers (car dealers, real estate agents, etc) are facing tough times and some are going out of business. This economic crisis will claim many people’s jobs and shrink ad budgets around the country.

It will further squeeze already squeezed newspapers. Even CPMs are down. Many newspapers have been slow to embrace video ads, which pay much better. Newspapers also have not been able to discover newer revenue streams.

It’s well known that many older newspaper subscribers do not frequent newspaper Web sites, and this is one major argument against cutting back on the number of days that newspapers publish. Many of these core newspaper readers still read and enjoy newspapers every day. Newspapers don’t want to alienate some of their most loyal readers.

The problem is that newspapers have to move forward into a Web world. Resources are still skewed wildly in favor of print at most newspapers. With little audience overlap between print and online products, newspapers have little synergy and are unable to produce products that compliment each other.

Imagine how much more sense it would make to have The Washington Post, for example, to publish daily online and produce a once-a-week print publication that focuses on analysis, enterprise stories and the big picture. It would be the Yin and the Yang. It would be synergy city.

Many newspapers may never see this reality. Ad revenues will continue to plunge, newspaper managers will continue to cater to print subscribers who are slowly dying off and leaving for richer online experiences and this will be the end for many dailies.

But maybe this could be the event that brings synergy to print and the Web. There is still a future for print — albeit a much different future than daily newspapers are used to. I receive The Economist, National Geographic and the Sunday Washington Post (it would be much stronger if it were the only Post edition each week). A lot of younger people do like print publications, but we don’t like daily publications.

They make little sense. I don’t have time each day, or the will, to read a daily print product. Daily print products also clog up my apartment and are bad for the environment. But giving up on print would be a mistake too.

Could the death of daily newspapers be the catalyst that brings in older readers to Web journalism?

If older readers came onto the Web en masse, newspapers would no longer have to cater to two distinct audiences. Finally, newspapers could produce a print product that made sense in a Web-first world. I fear this reality, however, can only happen if many older readers are forced to start reading online news because many newspapers fail.

And while I will lament and mourn the loss of newspapers around the world, I believe this is a better future. The downfall of newspapers could lead to better journalism. So many news organizations are held back by the past, by bureaucratic inertia, by institutional memory.

Imagine a future in which the only thing holding back news organizations was our imaginations. This economic crisis could not come at a worst time for newspapers, and, frankly, no one really knows how bad it is going to get. I do know, however, know that in good times and bad, people want to be informed.

Maybe, just maybe, this crisis will force us to reinvent journalism. Maybe it will spark an unprecedented wave of innovation as we face the realities of a new world for journalism.

Could it be the turn of the tide?

The online ethics seal: together we can be more transparent

At ONA 08 and a week later at Poynter Seminar on ethics, I talked about my online ethics seal idea.

The idea is very simple —  to form a series of ethics seals that Web sites, blogs and news organizations could embed on their Web sites. I want these seals to be in the same vein as the Creative Commons.

Right now there are five seal categories:

  1. Sourcing
  2. Objectivity/advocacy/opinion journalism or opinion
  3. Linking
  4. Copy editing/fact checking (does a second person fact check?)
  5. Conflicts of Interests
Each category can have a different level. For instance, your blog could say that you do not accept anonymous sources, while I might accept anonymous sources as long as two-independent sources confirm the same information. This will create a lot of freedom for people to customize their specific ethics policy within our open source framework.

The seals are developed by the community:

  • The seals are open source — The community gets to decide which level of the seals means. This also means that people are free to change the language of a seal as long as they open source their new seal.
  • That means the seals will evolve — Over time, we can update the ethics seals to reflect the current state of the Web. There will be version 1.0, 2.0, etch of each seal.
  • The community is more than just blogs — Any online ethics seal can’t succeed if it hopes to only serve blogs (or “govern” them). Rather a good seal should be applicable to traditional media sources and new media sources. It should be a common ground, because on the Web traditional and new media lines are blurred.
  • The seals are just beginning — Right now I have laid out five seal categories. Maybe we need more categories. Maybe we need less. Together, we’ll figure out the core areas to develop seals around.
Why would I want an ethics seal?
  • Transparency — This is the name of the game. What these seals are saying is this is how you and your news organizations/blogs go about reporting/posting. It’s not about casting judgement. Just about transparency. So what if your blog publishes rumors? What I’m saying is just be honest with your users.
  • Advertising — Advertisers consider blogs even less valuable than social networks. Why? Stigma. Many people feel that bloggers have no ethics. That’s not true. Many bloggers do, but they aren’t clear on what their ethics are. Many bloggers and online publications want ethics policies, but where do they start? We’ll make selecting an ethics policy as easy as selecting a Creative Commons copyright policy.
  • Ease of use — Why develop your own ethics seal and policy, if you could adopt an open source policy that is widely used and understood by users? Developing a custom ethics policy can take a lot of time. Instead, you can mix and match different seal categories to form your own policy in a matter of minutes. Want customization? The seals are open source. Customize our seals and wording. Just make sure to post what you have changed.
  • Our users will thank us — Even the most staid of traditional media sources make it tough to know how they report (almost every news organization has an copyright policy on every page, but an ethics policy is no where to be found). They are not transparent about the reporting process, but our readers deserve better. Imagine if my blog and The New York Times had the same open source ethics policy? It’s possible. This would ultimately be really great for users, because users would be able to easily understand how each site reports because our ethics policies are open source, widely used and easy to identify.
Our users will ultimately be the biggest winners:
  • Let’s be transparent — Why are copyright policies so widespread and yet ethics policies are so clandestine? What is ultimately more important to our readers? How we report and blog or how they can use our content? If you think you have better ethics than “those bloggers,” prove it. if your blog practices journalism, prove it. This is about being honest about who we are.
  • This will help users find relevant content — Part of the ethics seal is a central Web site and database that lists participating Web sites and blogs by seal type, content type and geographic location. If I want to look up a local sports Web site in my area, with a certain ethics seal, I can do so. Maybe I’m looking for technology rumor blogs. By utilizing the same open source seals, people will be able to find similar content. If you don’t want your national security news to contain anonymous sources, you can select from news outlets and blogs that do not use anonymous sources.
  • It comes with cool icons — Obviously entire ethics polices cannot be embedded in the footer of Web sites, but cool, memorable icons can be. Each seal category will have its own icon. Each “level” will have its own color. The five seals will be placed in a row in a footers on every page of a Web site to help people quickly comprehend what kind of ethics policy that Web site has. Each seal will link back to a page on our Web site that lists the full ethics for that given seal.
  • No legalese, please — Each seal will be written in plain English. Ethics seals are non-binding. There is no reason for them to read like the back of a credit card offer. So, they won’t. We’ll make them easy for anyone to understand.
Take action:
  • Post suggestions — Post your thoughts in the comments section of this post or on your blog.
  • Join the Wiki — We have an online ethics wiki. Join the Wiki and help shape the future of this project.
  • Spread the word — Link people up to this post. Tell them about the seal. Tell people about how together we’re going to usher in a new era of reporting transparency on the Web. It doesn’t matter anymore on the Web if someone works for a newspaper or a blog. What ultimately matters is how we go about reporting and creating content.

If you could start from scratch would you build the same product?

I was just at Cleveland.com, and I was looking at all the new features the site has launched recently.

Certainly, the new features are upgrades over what used to be there. The new design is a step forward. The site, however, is a hodgepodge in many ways.

A lot of Cleveland.com doesn’t make sense. Different sections have different designs. The site is hard to navigate.

The search engine is worthless and rarely returns relevant results. The UI still needs a lot of work. It’s hard for me to quickly find the content I want.

And the homepage design suffers from being overly crowded. It’s a prime example of the Wall of News. Plus, the homepage doesn’t have a clear graphical focus or main story.

I couldn’t help but think that if Cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer could start from scratch they would do things differently. There is no way that Cleveland.com is the site they ultimately want. But it’s the site they have because of years of legacy code and legacy decisions.

I hate to see the past holding back news organizations on the Web. The Web demands agile development and quick decision making. I assure you that Web-only news organizations will not fall into the same trappings as traditional news organizations.

The pace of innovation on the Web from most news organizations feels very print like. It’s OK to tweak a print design every 5-10 years, but a Web site needs continual R&D. Not only do Web sites require new features, but they also require that those new features fit into existing designs and frameworks (Cleveland.com feels so broken and disjointed at times).

The Las Vegas Sun blew things up and went from being a zero to a hero in a matter of months. You can say all you want about how they have a unique JOA or about how they aren’t making money right now off their Web site. That doesn’t matter.

There is nothing stopping Cleveland.com, The Plain Dealer and their Advance Publications overlords from making Cleveland.com into a very good site.

Nothing, except bureaucratic inertia. Nothing, except being beholden to yesterday’s decisions. Nothing, except old media think.

And, to be honest, I do not have faith that either Cleveland.com or Advance have the right Web talent and minds in place to turn things around. Maybe most news organizations can’t do everything that the Sun is doing, but every organization could adopt their aggressive Web mindset. Every news organization could embrace agile development.

It is the mindset of The Las Vegas Sun that really stands out. It is mindset that is killing this industry. There is too much can’t do attitude and not enough can do.

One can’t help but wonder if all the legacy editors who cut their teeth in print simply do not understand the pace of the Web. Print was a monopoly. It never demanded innovation — agile or not.

Innovation can start from the bottom, but mindset starts from the top. When a high school Web site is better than most “professional” news Web sites, you know the problem is mental, not financial or technical. If it seems like I’m rambling, it’s because this is getting depressing.

How many news organizations can honestly say that the Web products they have right now are the products they would want to make if they could start over? If the answer is no, why not start over?

What do you have to lose?

Supply and demand is a bitch

SupplyDemandTriangleExtras.jpg

I have some lessons from ONA 08 over at BeatBlogging.Org (version 2.0 nonetheless), and I wanted to highlight the supply and demand part of the post:

  • This is an issue facing journalism on the Web and not just beat bloggers. Right now, there is simply more supply of written content than there is of demand for it from advertisers. This means low CPMs for written content. It also means that text-only beat bloggers need to get a lot of page views to make a decent amount of revenue.
  • On the other hand, there isn’t enough supply of video content on the Web to meet advertisers demands. Advertisers love video ads and pre-roll. They want to stick it on your content, but are having trouble finding enough content.
  • I’m not suggesting that everyone jump to doing video, but diversifying content can help boost revenue. This could be a once-a-week podcast or vodcast with a few ads in it. It could mean shooting some video for your beat blog. But realize that video content can get a much higher ad rate than printed content can.

News organizations need to diversify their content. This means more audio, more video, more multimedia and — yes — less written content. Now, none of this matters if our multimedia content has terrible SEO and exist within ghettos.

CNN.com understands how to get people to watch lots of video. CNN.com automatically plays a new, related clip after a clip is finished. Users can build custom playlists and watch hours of video — and ads.

Most news organizations, however, allow video and other multimedia content to exist within arbitrary ghettos where that content is not connected to similar content. When a clip ends, the content stops. Related content is not linked together.

And the biggest crime of all: A lot of multimedia content on news Web sites is not properly indexed and searchable. That my friends is one of the worst ideas ever. Search is the key to content distribution.

News organizations need to address this supply and demand issue. Trust me, redundant, non-local news is not in demand. And it’s probably not that in demand by users either.