NewsPay: Bill Mitchell describes what it takes to sustain entrepreneurial journalism.

brandbowl

Brand Bowl makes a run at social media metrics for advertising

For all the measurability of digital publishing, tracking the real impact of social media advertising remains a hope still awash somewhere between art and science.

Screengrab/BrandBowl2011.com

Brand Bowl, a project organized by a Boston ad agency and presented on Boston.com, used tweets about Super Bowl ads to fashion formulae gauging reach and sentiment for a five-hour window during and after the game.

USA Today ran an ad meter, too, and others tracked the number of YouTube views of each ad as well as such indices as lift to share price.

I’ll focus on Brand Bowl as one index aimed at combining various metrics. Even though social network advertising is expected to account for only about 10 percent of online ads in the U.S. this year, it’s a fast-growing category that news sites will need to do a better job of understanding and explaining to their advertisers.

Relying on selected keywords, Brand Bowl used a monitoring system called Radian6 to track the total number of tweets about a brand advertised during the game; the calculated sentiment about each brand; and overall performance — the “Brand Bowl score” — in the context of all tweets measured. Here’s the math behind each metric:

  • Total tweets by brand: Add up all tweets mentioning the brand’s Super Bowl ad.
  • Sentiment about each brand: Add positive tweets and netural tweets and subtract negative tweets. Then divide by the number of total tweets about the brand.
  • BrandBowl score: Add positive tweets and neutral tweets about a brand and subtract the negative ones. Then divide by 302,977, the number of total tweets for all brands.

The winners? Ads for Doritos captured the first category, Most Talked About, with 34,063 tweets. Ads for Volkswagen emerged as “Most Loved” with a result of 31.1 percent from the calculation described in the second bullet above. And Chrysler’s ode to the struggles of the company and the Motor City took overall honors with the best ratio of net favorable or neutral tweets to all ad-related tweets measured.

The Chrysler ad, in other words, produced the best combination of reach and positive feelings. A commenter on the ad agency’s site highlighted some of the still unanswered questions.

“Stepping away from tweet volume and sentiment,” wrote new media consultant Ari Herzog, “I’m curious if there is a measurable correlation between the above content and 1) money spent on each spot and/or 2) products purchased over the next month. In other words, to what extent will social media help brands see positive ROI after deducting the cost of producing the advertisements?”

It’s too soon to address the heart of Herzog’s question — what’s the long-tail payoff of the ad? — but the Wall Street Journal’s Driver’s Seat blog provided some early indications Tuesday:

Moments after the spot ran during the third quarter of the Super Bowl, online searches for information about Chrysler and the Chrysler 200 spiked on auto-shopping web sites. Edmunds.com reports that research on Chrysler models on its web site jumped 328% after the ad appeared.

Autometrics Inc., a company that tracks activity on more than 100 auto-related web sites, reported that 131 people actually sought price quotes from dealers within 10 minutes of the ad’s airing. By midnight it was up to 839. By comparison, Audi’s commercial for the A8 generated 380 requests for quotes, Autometrics Chief Executive Stephen Shaw said.

I come away from Brand Bowl with a question that’s prompting lots of speculation but no measurement: What was it about that Chrysler ad that provoked such apparent good feeling and engagement to the point of action?

The answers, whatever they may be, hold big implications for news as well as brands in a social, multimedia world. Read more

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Friday, Jan. 07, 2011

medcity

MedCity startup yields 7 tips, 2 hot leads for journalism entrepreneurs

When Chris Seper and his colleagues pitched a local nonprofit on investing in their MedCity News startup, his potential investors didn’t focus that much on the quality of MedCity’s reporting or the number of its page views.

Instead, they zeroed in on the scalability of the operation’s “custom content” — previously known in the newspaper business as “advertorial” — and the connections between that content and the firm’s website and syndication services.

Seper, president and co-founder of MedCity, says the importance of custom content didn’t surprise him. But it underlines for me the importance of a line of business that many startups are only beginning to explore: helping customers previously known only as “advertisers” become thought leaders for their own customers. Read more

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Monday, Nov. 01, 2010

Winners of Poynter’s Entrepreneurial Journalism Prize Announced

Two ventures focused on civic affairs — I-News and Localocracy — have been selected as winners of the Poynter Promise Prize, an incubation project in entrepreneurial journalism run by The Poynter Institute and funded by the Ford Foundation.

I-News, the Rocky Mountain Investigative News Network, is a Denver-based nonprofit that produces in-depth investigative reporting that is published on its own site and is distributed to participating news organizations.

Localocracy is a Massachusetts tech start-up that provides an online town common where registered voters using real names can weigh in on local issues. The company licenses tools for audience engagement to news organizations, governments, and local groups.

The winners were selected from a field of 15 finalists in a contest kicked off on Poynter Online Oct. 1. Four judges picked the winners: Bill Mitchell and Wendy Wallace of Poynter’s entrepreneurial journalism faculty, and Mark Briggs and Jeremy Caplan, Poynter’s Ford Fellows in Entrepreneurial Journalism Teaching.

Briggs announced the winners during a session that he chaired Saturday about entrepreneurial journalism at the Online News Association conference.

The contest invited applicants whose ventures “advance the journalistic ideals of The Poynter Institute (standing for journalism, strengthening democracy).” The winners will receive up to $10,000 each in contracted accounting, legal, research or promotion work, plus coaching and mentoring by Poynter faculty and the Ford Fellows.

“I’m thrilled that I-News was chosen for this first-ever Poynter Promise Prize,” said Laura Frank, executive director of I-News Network. “With Poynter’s help, I think we can set I-News on a path that will show there really is a sustainable business model for investigative journalism.”

Said Conor White-Sullivan, CEO and co-founder of Localocracy: “Media is the bridge between citizens and government, and as we re-imagine that bridge, our partnership with Poynter will help ensure that the tools we are building help local journalists meet deadlines and community needs every day.”

By working with these ventures, Poynter can share lessons learned with other journalists and entrepreneurs.

One of Localocracy’s objectives, for example, is to see how user-generated content and comments about local issues can best be leveraged into a resource for helping journalists cover their communities. Among the topics Poynter will explore with the I-News Network is the challenge of sustaining investigative reporting after initial stages, when projects are often supported by foundation grants.

Competition for the prize began with three-minute video pitches submitted by about 40 applicants. That field was narrowed to the 15 finalists, who responded to questions about where their ventures are headed and how Poynter might help.

The incubation project is financed by a grant from the Ford Foundation. Read more

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Wednesday, Sep. 22, 2010

Post-Gazette’s Premium PG+ Service Profitable But No ‘Holy Grail’

A year into its subscription-based PG+ service, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has learned a few things about charging for content online:

  • Profitability is possible, if only modestly so, with incremental online services that control costs.
  • Niche content beats general interest. And sports is the king of the niches, at least in Pittsburgh.
  • The most promising path to the future of newspaper business models begins with the “s” at the end of the word “model.”

The paper launched PG+ Sept. 1, 2009, with content not previously found on the paper’s website, including blogs and chats by sports columnists, an early rough by editorial cartoonist Rob Rogers and a few other features that have since been switched to the free site.

“We didn’t want to just put a pay wall around our website and cross our fingers,” Post-Gazette President Chris Chamberlain told me in a recent phone interview. “We wanted to test the waters of paid content and do it in a way that created new value as opposed to taking it away.”

Revenues exceeding expenses

Access costs $3.99 a month or about $36 a year with an annual subscription. Chamberlain wouldn’t say how many subscriptions have been sold. He said annual revenues have reached six figures but declined to reveal which six.

After launching PG+, Chamberlain said, he expected it would take a year “to know whether we should continue.” Revenue began exceeding expenses in April.

Costs include “three or four” full-time equivalencies as well as “some investment in technology, servers and programming.”

He added: “This is not the end-all, be-all, it’s not the holy grail for the reinvention of our entire business. But the creation of an online paid content product is something we’re proud of.”

The 39-year-old Chamberlain, who has been president of the privately-held Post-Gazette for just over a year, joined the company in June 2008 after two years with the Journal Register Co. and six years working in strategic planning and advertising at the New York Times. He’s an English major with an MBA who worked for an advocacy group in Washington, D.C., pushing transparency in international banking before getting into the media business.

Chamberlain said he and his colleagues knew that sports would figure heavily in PG+, but said the “overwhelming” interest in content related to the Steelers, Pirates and other Pittsburgh sports teams has been bigger than expected. Sports accounts for as much as 90 to 95 percent of PG+ traffic during events such as the NFL draft, he said.

In an interview a year ago with my Poynter colleague Rick Edmonds, Chamberlain said he expected PG+ would change over time, and it has. A redesign in April provided a new look and new functionality, and the staff has shifted content based on traffic.

Chamberlain described Mackenzie Carpenter’s pop culture blog and video feature, Omnivore, as one of his favorite online features, but said it didn’t generate much interest on PG+. So the paper moved it to the free side and attached pre-roll advertising to it. (PG+ has no advertising.)

Chamberlain said PG+ is just part of a multi-pronged digital strategy that also includes niche sites. He noted, for example, that the Post-Gazette’s sports franchise already includes team and fan apps and niche fan sites, with probably more sports products to come.

Sponsored events bringing in new revenue

The Post-Gazette’s push to develop new revenue streams has compelled the company to experiment beyond publishing, as it has moved into areas such as sponsored events with free admission. Those events have included a Post-Gazette “summer camp” featuring classes on fly fishing and cooking, as well as higher-brow discussions of the midterm elections.

The Post-Gazette did not create a new events arm, instead reshaping the mission of its existing marketing department.

“We work with sponsors to find out what they want — and what fits with our own editorial values,” he said of the funding arrangements for the events.

“It’s a new revenue stream,” he added, “often tapping into different dollars [than usually sought by newspapers] — it’s not ad dollars, it’s community marketing dollars.”

Events provide the Post-Gazette with a revenue stream on the flip side of PG+: Instead of serving a small audience with paid content, they pursue big crowds with sponsors picking up the tab.

“When you’re trying to get a high level of engagement in addition to all the public relations around an event, you want to fill a room with a good crowd,” he said.

Although he refused to provide specific numbers, he said revenue from the events business has surpassed PG+, with each fairly modest “relative to our core [newspaper] business.”

He added: “It’s a coincidence that these two lines of business are emerging at the same time for us. What they really represent is an overall diversification of our business model that recognizes that we’re no longer just a newspaper.

“That’s our legacy, that’s our core … but we’re a media company and we have to have a number of models that might be very different from each other in order to stay current with our customers.” Read more

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Sunday, Sep. 12, 2010

10 Ways Journalism Around the World Is Being Revived and Reinvented

Prepping for a session for the International Press Institute (IPI) annual congress last week in Vienna, I asked the panelists, among other things, to describe a media trend they find encouraging. 

In addressing the same question, I found myself hooked by an idea that has no metrics but seems quite real nonetheless: a significant shift in attention from the diminishment of journalism to its rediscovery and reinvention.

This sort of epiphany arrives at different times for different people; many digital pioneers have declared as much for years.

The turning point for me came in the 152-page report on the future of news that I edited for IPI along with Poynter Online Director Julie Moos. The report, “Brave News Worlds: Navigating the New Media Landscape,” was published last week.

The 42 essays were written by news executives, leaders of nonprofits, digital thought leaders and educators from more than 20 countries. None of them argue that journalism’s transition from print to digital will be smooth. Of course it won’t be.

But the authors — a list that includes Jeff Jarvis (p. 8), Alan Rusbridger (p. 12), Clay Shirky (p. 18), Roy Greenslade (p. 26), Paul Tash (p. 39), Dan Gillmor (p. 42), Grzegorz Piechota (p. 60), Paul Bradshaw (p. 74), Sheila S. Coronel (p. 95), Yuen-Ying Chan (p. 112) and Daoud Kuttab (p. 140) — provide evidence of new traction in sustaining journalism that matters.

Spacer Spacer

To make the report more useful (we’ll supplement that bulky PDF with more accessible formats), we highlighted main themes by adding tags to the top right of each article’s first page.

I list 10 of those tags — processed, partnered, linked, engaged, innovated, independent, trusted, investigated, trained, sustained — in a concluding article in the report (p. 149). I focused on three of them in our panel discussion:

Investigated: Describing what she suggests may be “a Golden Age of global muckraking,” Columbia University journalism professor Sheila S. Coronel points out that cutbacks in U.S. newsrooms have challenged investigative capacity, noting, “With many newspapers at death’s door, there’s worry about whether they can keep the [investigative] flame alive.

“But elsewhere,” she adds, “democracy and technology are prying open previously closed societies and providing citizens with information unavailable to them in the not-too-distant past. From Bahrain to Burma, from Russia to China to Zimbabwe, the new muckrakers are using blogs, mobile phones and social media to expose the predations of those in power.”

As a judge for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting earlier this year, I was struck by the high quality of investigative work by news organizations of all sizes. As those organizations struggle to establish their role in their communities, the professional demands of investigative reporting emerge as a big opportunity for journalists to differentiate themselves in the media ecosystem.

That’s not to say they’ll do that work entirely on their own. Grzegorz Piechota, head of social campaigns at the Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza, documents how the paper collected 40,000 personal accounts of childbirth in the course of its investigation of 423 maternity wards across the country.

As Coronel puts it, “The future of investigative news will be collaborative.”
 
Partnered: To its credit, the IPI congress mostly moved beyond such clichéd characterizations of collaborative journalism as “citizen surgeons” or “citizen pilots.”  Palestinian journalist Daoud Kuttab challenges such thinking by highlighting the groundbreaking reporting of courageous bloggers and other non-journalists in oppressive societies.

Alan Rusbridger, editor in chief of The Guardian in London, takes Coronel one step further and argues that the future of news, period, is collaborative. He and his colleagues have their own name for it — “mutualized news” — and include openness as a key characteristic along with collaborative.

A core challenge for news organizations going forward will be developing systems to incorporate what digital thinker Clay Shirky describes as “coordinated voluntary participation” of readers and users.

Drawing on research for his new book, “Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age,” Shirky describes such participation as “a new resource … that allows us to treat the connected world’s free time and talents in aggregate as something which, used right, can change the very idea of news — what it is, how it is created and experienced and shared.”

The report is laced with examples of partnerships — with local bloggers, schools, even competitors — that were once considered unthinkable and are now increasingly regarded as essential by news organizations.

Sustained: The report does not focus much on business models per sé, but instead describes ways that journalists worldwide are creating new value for a range of constituents across new and legacy platforms. Some of that new value will result in new revenue streams; some of it won’t. News organizations will almost certainly be smaller, with some of their diminished news capacity replaced by the contributions of — and collaboration with — partners.

Paul Tash proposes three imperatives to find such paths: Control costs, embrace new ways, believe in the business.Alex Jones, who also authors an essay in the attached report, and my Poynter colleague Rick Edmonds, have documented the extent to which news has been lost, especially over the last decade.

It’s unlikely that advertising and circulation revenue will ever generate as much revenue to support news as they once did. Even multiple revenue streams from sources such as grants, custom content, memberships and donations will likely produce less money than news organizations enjoyed previously.

A hybrid approach appears to be the most viable path ahead. Poynter (and St. Petersburg Times) chairman Paul Tash proposes three imperatives to find such paths: Control costs, embrace new ways and believe in the business.

I hope you’ll download the report and read more about how news is getting found the world over.
Read more

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Saturday, Aug. 21, 2010

Telegram & Gazette Pay Meter Can Be Adjusted to Balance Reach & Revenue

When I began poking around telegram.com Saturday morning, I wasn’t sure how many clicks I had remaining of the 10 that I was entitled to as a registered (but not subscribed) member of the Worcester (Mass.) Telegram & Gazette’s newly metered site.

After click number 25 or so — it may have been staff writer Bill Ballou’s account of the Jays’ 16-2 trouncing of the Red Sox — I began to suspect the Telegram & Gazette of tweaking the meter.

Publisher Bruce Gaultney confirmed by e-mail that “being able to turn the meter up and down is an advantage of the system,” but he and online director Mark Henderson said they’d made no such adjustment yet.

No matter. Whatever explains my experience, the extra clicks underline a key strength of the metered approach: The ability to adjust the meter however makes sense to manage the tension between revenue and reach.

Earlier pay wall had limited reach

The T&G has addressed this tension before, deciding in 2006 that the pay wall it had in place for the previous four years was limiting its reach, according to Henderson.

With the entire site restricted only to subscribers, Henderson said, “We weren’t reaching enough people — we thought we weren’t growing enough outside our typical subscriber base.”

When Gaultney arrived as publisher that year, he tore down that wall, telling a T&G reporter at the time that “it certainly wasn’t working for us.”

In retrospect, he said, the 2,100 online-only subscribers back then (2-3 percent of print circulation) doesn’t look so bad. But he said he much prefers the meter to the wall.

“Our main goals are to get our home delivery customers to register for something of value — and to keep traffic up on the site.” – T&G Publisher Bruce GaultneyThe meter installed by the T&G on Aug. 16 requires registration or subscription after just two clicks per month on content created by Telegram & Gazette staffers.

Wire copy, advertising, almost all obits (regarded as advertising since readers pay for and write them, with few exceptions) and reader-produced blogs are not counted by the meter and remain free. Photos — staff-produced and otherwise — as well as material from the paper’s locally-zoned weeklies and TelegramTowns.com are also exempt.

Subscribers to the printed newspaper get free access to all online content, but only if they take the time to register. Nonsubscribers can buy online access for $14.95 a month, which also includes home delivery of the print edition if customers choose to accept it. Day passes cost $1.

Unlike the kind of blunt pay walls that the Tallahassee Democrat and other papers have installed recently, a metered approach provides publishers with more flexibility.

The Worcester meter restricts access to content that drives somewhat less than half of the site’s traffic, according to Henderson. It represents a bigger gamble on paid content than, say, the Lancaster, Pa., paper’s decision to meter obits, which account for roughly 5 percent of its content. (In the Lancaster setup, only out-of-area users get charged.) But it also reflects the T&G’s interest in preserving and expanding its reach as much as possible.

“Our main goals,” Gaultney told me in a half-hour phone chat last week, “are to get our home delivery customers to register for something of value — and to keep traffic up on the site.”

By early Wednesday morning when we spoke, he said: “Both of those things are happening at rates greater than I thought they would.”

Shifting subscribers’ mindset

The T&G is trying to shift the mindset of its print subscribers (71,000 weekdays and 81,000 Sunday) so they think of T&G content as something they pay for regardless of platform, sort of like paying a utility bill for water that flows into the bathtub as well as the kitchen sink.

It’s not quite the same, of course. Finding alternative online sources of news about Worcester is probably a good bit easier than figuring out another way to fill my tub.

Despite the risks, the T&G strategy has interesting potential, especially if the paper can eventually migrate those paying customers from print products, which cost a lot to produce and deliver, to much cheaper digital platforms.

And if the paper can also increase overall paid circulation by 2 or 3 percent by adding online-only subscribers, so much the better.

The trick, of course, is doing all this without losing so much traffic (the reach problem created by the old pay wall) that advertising revenue takes a big hit.

That’s where the meter comes in. If monthly unique visitors and page views are down, just dial it back to permit more clicks before the gate closes and the system requires registration or payment. Or at least that’s the idea –  how it will really work remains to be seen.

Though the Telegram & Gazette’s approach is similar to that of Journalism Online’s Press+ system, the paper used Clickshare and Saxotech, the two vendors who built the earlier pay wall system for the paper.

I had stopped counting by the time the Telegram & Gazette put a stop to my freeloading Saturday, but I’m guessing it was somewhere north of 30 clicks.

From the point of view of managing a customer like me — out of the area, unlikely to become a paying subscriber — the paper could afford to be generous with a few extra clicks. I already had been persuaded to register and provide my ZIP code (the kind of information advertisers crave), as well as my daytime phone number, which I trust the paper will not use to make me more valuable to anyone at all.

When I spoke with Henderson after the meter had been in place for a couple of days, he said “thousands” of print subscribers registered for online access during the meter’s first two days. When I asked how many nonsubscribers the paper had won over — via free registration or subscription fees — he wouldn’t get any more specific than “less than a thousand.”

In a brief chat Saturday afternoon, Henderson declined to provide additional numbers.

T&G meter “not a pilot for the Times”

Gaultney said he recognizes that the meter will diminish overall traffic, but he said he believes the meter will avoid “crashing traffic to the point that we need to be concerned about it.”

The site attracts about 800,000 unique users per month, according to Henderson. That has remained stable in recent months, and advertisers will be interested to see what happens with the meter in place.

The Telegram & Gazette is owned by The New York Times Co., which has announced that its flagship paper will introduce a metered pay model for nytimes.com in January 2011.

Gaultney said he and his colleagues consulted with corporate in creating their metered system for Worcester, but stressed, “This is not a pilot for the Times.” The differences between a local paper and the Times’ national reach, he said, suggest quite different uses for metered charging.

I came away from my conversations with Gaultney and Henderson with a few unresolved questions, perhaps worth considering by sites working on various forms of online pay schemes:

Why not engage users publicly in a discussion of your plans?

Last Monday’s letter to readers about the new charges, from Gaultney and editor Leah M. Lamson, generated 335 comments by the weekend, mostly negative. That feedback was met with silence from the paper.

Gaultney said the staff talked about engaging users in the comments area, but added, “I guess our view was that, as we watched it happen, it was sort of self-correcting. We saw our own readers getting in there and saying things we would have said [in defense of the meter]. So we decided there was no need for us to do it.”

Maybe, but I’m not convinced. I much prefer the approach taken by John Robinson, editor of the News & Record in Greensboro, N.C., who regularly mixes it up with readers in the comments area of his blog.

I recognize the risk of engaging with anonymous commenters intent on ranting. But especially when the majority of them are either registered or paying subscribers, isn’t it time to engage them directly — and publicly?

Why not offer some new value to users in exchange for the new fees?

Gaultney says the T&G has already created substantial value for its readers: all that local content created by T&G staffers. Fair enough, except that readers got it all free one day and had to pay for it (or register for it) the next.

In an age when so much new value can be created by smart aggregation, linking and packaging, why pass up the opportunity to do so? If you’re going to ask previously nonpaying customers to start paying, why not give them all the incentives you can?

Most importantly, given their paramount importance to the paper’s bottom line during this transitional period, why not provide current print subscribers with irresistible reasons to register for online access?

If newspapers really are as indispensable to their communities as they claim, they’re going to have to prove it online as well as in print. Read more

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Thursday, July 22, 2010

GlobalPost to Test ‘Soft Meter’ with Journalism Online

Phil Balboni believes in his bones that consumers will eventually pay for online news.

But the runway he envisions — maybe 10 or 15 years — is too long to count on, even for the well-financed GlobalPost venture he founded 19 months ago in Boston.

So he has an interim plan he expects to roll out as soon as he can finish implementing Journalism Online’s Javascript to make it happen: a soft, metered approach to paid content, set up to “invite support” rather than charge a fee. [Update: Balboni told me by e-mail Monday that launch with the Journalism Online software has been set for Aug. 12.]

“We’re not charging,” he said. “We’re asking people to support GlobalPost journalism — and not without giving them something in return.”

Balboni plans to use Journalism Online for GlobalPost’s Passport membership program. He envisions significant improvements to Passport, accompanied by a price cut. GlobalPost launched Passport last year at $199 a year, cut it to $50, and now will reintroduce it at $29.95. The site is also introducing monthly pricing for the first time, at $2.95.

His short-term goal is to convert 1 percent of the site’s 900,000 unique monthly visitors from free to paid membership. At about $30 a year, that would generate about $270,000 a year, which would supplement advertising revenue, syndication and paid research fees.

GlobalPost is privately held, and Balboni refused to reveal its finances. He said published reports that the site generated $1 million in revenue last year are incorrect.

A request, not a fee

For those tracking the various paid content approaches, the key difference with GlobalPost is that users who refuse to pay can continue reading the site. What they won’t get is content that GlobalPost has set apart — from the start — as available only to paying Passport members.

Journalism Online’s Gordon Crovitz confirmed in an e-mail that GlobalPost will be the first national — or, for that matter, global — site to use its Press+ service to begin collecting money from users. Balboni said last week that he is in the process of integrating the Journalism Online code.

The idea, Balboni said, is to interrupt readers after they’ve read a half-dozen pages on the site with a pitch to buy a Passport membership.

That’s similar to the metered approach the Financial Times has taken. The New York Times has said it expects to pursue a similar path when it begins charging for its site in January 2011.

But on GlobalPost, Balboni said, “nobody will stop you in your tracks, unlike the hard stops” of other metered sites. “We’ll be urging people to become Passport members and we’re going to try to give them reasons why they should.

“The whole magic here is getting more people to see the message of a way to contribute financially and to receive benefits as a result.”

Changing the Passport program

He hopes several improvements to the Passport program will convince people to join. They’ll get:

  • Brief daily reports from correspondents from the G-20 countries
  • Weekly online chats with one of the more than 50 correspondents the site has contracted with around the world
  • Monthly telephone conference calls with correspondents and editors
  • Travel videos by correspondents offering tourism tips about the countries in which they live
  • Discounted subscriptions to such magazines as The Week and Foreign Affairs
  • The opportunity, for a price, to order specialized research from various hot spots around the world

Balboni set ambitious goals for the Passport program during its first year, insisting last fall that GlobalPost needs 25,000 members to support the level of journalism it hopes to deliver. Yet fewer than 500 people have joined, with numbers dwindling in recent months.

Balboni described Journalism Online as a good partner, but it’s clear that the vendor is wrestling with its own startup issues as it develops versatile tools for publishers to charge online.

He said a plan to offer two tiers of Passport membership (which is still described on the site) was scrapped after it became clear that Journalism Online would be unable to differentiate one type of member from another.  

“We ended up deciding that maybe it makes more sense to lump all membership benefits into one pot,” he said.

Paid content is the (distant) future

As founder and president for 16 years of New England Cable News, Balboni is well versed in TV’s transition from free to paid. As high as he is on the long-term prospects for paid content online, he said he has no illusions that such a path will work any time soon for a site like GlobalPost — one with little brand recognition and a product focus (international news) filled with free competitors.

Advertising remains the major revenue source for GlobalPost, but Balboni is pushing for a day when subscription and membership fees account for half the take.

“It’s difficult to think about the future of journalism,” he said, “and believe that we can even achieve survival — let alone quality — if we don’t get people to pay for the product as they have in the analog world.”

But GlobalPost, he argued, is secure in its run to find a sustainable model. In May, he secured the final investments required to meet the goal he set to capitalize the venture: $10 million.

It remains to be seen how memberships will fare, but for now at least, he said: “We have sold all the shares available to sell.” Read more

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Thursday, July 15, 2010

Three Early Questions Emerge After Lancaster’s Metered Obit Launch

Memo to news organizations cooking up paid content schemes: Before you go to market, go to school on LancasterOnline and other outfits willing to take some heat for early experiments and mistakes.

LancasterOnline is the Pennsylvania newspaper site that last week began charging readers outside its home county an access fee to view more than seven obituaries per month. (A related development from the supply side: three dozen TV stations have begun charging funeral homes to post obits online and on the air.)

LancasterOnline editor Ernie Schreiber declined my request for numbers of subscribers so far, in part because most readers in Lancaster’s target audience haven’t hit their freebie limit yet. But he did respond to other questions, and we continued our debate about where “new value” fits in the paid content scenario.

If I were among those queuing up with Journalism Online or other vendors pitching pay plans, I would ask questions like these:

  • Is it realistic to ask consumers to empathize with the news industry’s financial plight and pay today for something that was free yesterday? In my view, the launch of a paid content system is the perfect time to provide reasons why skeptical readers should shell out some money.

  • How can a news organization communicate to a broad range of constituents why it has shifted to paid content? I’m not talking just about the target audience, but also about industry critics and people within the company.
  • Most importantly, what new value can be created — what new job can be done — so that consumers will decide this product is worth more than the money they’ll pay?
  • “In this first partnership with a news organization, Journalism Online has launched the infrastructure of a nationwide pay system for online news,” Schreiber told me by e-mail. “It’s not a finished product, but it’s a good beginning.”

    Fair enough. But I don’t buy his next argument — that news organizations can successfully begin charging for previously free, existing products and services before supporting those new fees with new stuff.

    “Added value means added work,” Schreiber pointed out, “and in most newsrooms, there are not added workers to do that work. That doesn’t mean the job can’t be done. It means careful research and planning are necessary to find the right software and right production process to deliver added value products that subscribers really want.”

    Here’s the problem: news organizations no longer have the luxury to charge first and innovate later.

    Schreiber shared e-mails from a couple of out-of-area obit readers who were upset about suddenly being faced with a charge after they read their first seven pages each month.

    Schreiber and his staff responded, and in at least one instance won some understanding — if not necessarily payment — from one of the two customers. “I understand the plight of the newspaper industry’s revenue stream,” wrote the reader, whose identity Schreiber did not disclose. “Technology in our society has been a blessing and a curse. I will continue to check the Lancaster obituaries but will be most mindful on clicking on any extraneous ones.”

    While newspapers are dealing with the challenge of keeping their businesses afloat, they need to realize that they also have to have these conversations with customers much earlier in the process.

    Among the challenges facing news organizations in such conversations with customers is the need to have them sooner in the process — why not begin researching customer needs well in advance of the new charges?

    Interestingly, one of the harshest critics of Schreiber’s obit plan — blogger and journalism entrepreneur Steve Buttry — played a leadership role in the “Newspaper Next” project launched by the American Press Institute several years ago. Schreiber believes in the “jobs to be done” approach advocated by Newspaper Next.

    Schreiber took exception to Buttry’s harsh critique of his obit plan, and I thought Buttry’s immediate dismissal of the plan reflected more noise than signal. I was also surprised that Mark Potts was so certain of what will and won’t work in this arena.

    In retrospect, especially as the debate has unfolded, I’ve spotted more signal in the noise. Potts and Buttry are highly experienced new media entrepreneurs whose opinions, even the impolite ones, are worth considering.

    I worry that such reactions can discourage experimentation, but Schreiber is a good example of someone willing to take his lumps in the course of charting a new course. And as heated as Schreiber and Buttry were in their initial salvos, I credit them both with staying in the conversation, as my former colleague Keith Woods would put it.

    By last week’s end, some good discussion was under way about the unresolved (at least in my mind) question of how best to monetize the various death-related services that media provide. Prompted by Buttry’s thoughtful pursuit of the issues, the discussion has continued.

    The week did include at least one surprise for Schreiber and his colleagues: “There was a programming glitch in days two and three that allowed an unknown number of in-market readers to subscribe,” he wrote. “Some did. (That’s fascinating in itself, one of those unexpected discoveries.)”

    “Journalism Online quickly fixed the problem and canceled the subscription charge for these people. But before I deliver any subscription count to anyone, I want to make certain that these in-market readers have been purged from our subscriber list.” Read more

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    Tuesday, July 06, 2010

    Lancaster Paper Charges to View Obits in First Use of Journalism Online

    Monday morning, the website for a midsized paper in southeastern Pennsylvania became the first to go public with the paid content system of Journalism Online, the startup engineered by Steve Brill, Gordon Crovitz and others.

    LancasterOnline, which serves the Intelligencer Journal-Lancaster New Era, began informing people who live outside Lancaster County and read its online obituary listings that visiting the obits page will cost $1.99 a month after they’ve viewed seven pages each month. Annual subscriptions cost $19.99.

    Over the past several months, I’ve checked in periodically with the plan’s architect, Ernie Schreiber, who has worked for the paper for 37 years and serves now as editor of LancasterOnline.

    Among other things, he has shared stats on his site from Google Analytics and the summary sheets he used to come up with his plan.

    “It’s not going to amount to enough to reverse the fortunes of our newsroom, in and of itself,” Schreiber told me. “But it might be a model for the next steps in how we meter other content … And it might pay for a few reporters.”

    The plan has several characteristics often associated with successful paid content ventures:

    • Its content is valued by discernible audiences and is difficult to obtain easily elsewhere.
    • Its payment system is flexible enough to adjust to market response.
    • By preserving free access to local customers who are most important to advertisers — and to the news organization itself — it avoids jeopardizing existing revenue streams.
    • It shouldn’t drive away casual, out-of-market obit readers, the sort of drive-bys who aren’t especially valuable to most advertisers but can be important to overall traffic.

    One area where Lancaster falls short: providing customers with significant new value to persuade them to spend money today for something they got yesterday for free. How many more obit subscriptions might LancasterOnline sell, in other words, if it were to bundle customized obit newsletters as part of its monthly or annual fee?

    Answers to such hypotheticals will have to wait; Schreiber says he would want to ask customers what they want rather than presume a market for newsletters. 

    But Journalism Online’s Crovitz told me in an e-mail exchange last week that Schreiber and his colleagues are “asking exactly the right questions: What journalism do we provide that is differentiated, even unique, that people can’t find elsewhere for free? And what kind of access is worth enough that people will pay for it?”

    First of many paid content launches this summer

    Crovitz said Lancaster’s launch will be followed by “many other launches over the summer.”

    Many will test the paid potential of bigger chunks of content than obits. “The most popular,” he said, “will be metered access to a website as a whole rather than a focus on a particular area of content.”

    Schreiber figures more than 100,000 out-of-area visitors are reading obits on the site over the course of a year — and more than 10 percent of them several times each week. He believes enough of them will pay to continue reading them that the site will generate at least $100,000 a year and maybe more.

    He acknowledges that some of his scenarios are quite aggressive, especially a best-case conversion rate from free to paid of 75 percent.

    Noting that he and his colleagues have also tracked revenue at a 15 percent conversion rate, Schreiber told me via e-mail over the weekend that the “wide range in revenue possibilities makes the point that we really don’t know what to expect, which is what makes this venture exciting.”

    Schreiber came up with his metered paid content strategy after looking at site stats nearly a year ago. He noticed something interesting: More than five percent of the 47.4 million pages served over the previous year were obits.

    Hedging his bets

    “That struck me as a significant enough body of readers and page views that would be worth monetizing,” Schreiber told me. “But if for some reason we drove people away in droves, we’d still have 95 percent of our readership.”

    Then Schreiber began to figure out ways to segment the audience to be charged, and to modulate users’ experiences of being charged.

    Analyzing where the site’s obit readers were located, he found that 52 percent of the viewers were outside Lancaster County. New York City was the biggest source of that outsider traffic, followed by Harrisburg (the state capital) and, further down the list, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

    As rigorous as Schreiber tried to be about tying his strategic decisions to actual user behavior, he recognized the imprecision of many of the metrics he was working with. For example, Google defines “unique visitor” as “unduplicated (counted only once) visitors to your website over the course of a specified time period,” but meaningful results are limited by inconsistent use of cookies and changing IP addresses.

    To be on the safe side, Schreiber considered several possibilities in the course of running his numbers, including a scenario that assumes the site’s actual obit traffic is just 10 percent of what Google estimates.

    “I did it two ways,” he said. “If those people are really out there, he’s what we might make — and if those numbers are grossly inflated, here’s what we might make.”

    Google Analytics does not provide as much detail about individual pages as it does about an entire site, so Schreiber made some rough guesses about how often his target audiences were returning to his obit pages.

    His calculations yielded the following annual estimates of out-of-county obit readers (assuming Google Analytics is providing an accurate count):

    Four times a week:      17,692
    Twice a week:              29,489
    Once a week:               42,758
    Every other week:        54,733

    From those statistics, Schreiber calculated revenue at price points of $1 a month, $3 a month and $10 a year, among others, before settling on $1.99 a month and $19.99 a year.

    He also tinkered with how many pages people could view before the fee kicks in, studying the Financial Times’ metered approach in the course of devising his own system. (The screens that inform LancasterOnline readers of the fee are set up a lot like the Financial Times.)

    His annual revenue projections range from $100,000 to $500,000, depending on the subscription rate. If the uniques are grossly overstated, he figures the revenue stream might be no more than a tenth of his low end: $10,000 to $50,000 the first year. He says he’ll consider anything between $10,000 and $100,000 to be “a successful demonstration of the metered approach.”

    (Schreiber contacted me later Monday to stress that the six-figure projections are purely hypothetical and that the low-end projections are far more realistic. “It seems reasonable that over the course of a year we could sell 500 subscriptions at $20,” he said, which would bring in $10,000.)

    One way to frame the challenge: To hit $100,000 in annual revenue, LancasterOnline will need to persuade just over 5,000 of its out-of-area obit readers to cough up $19.99 a year.

    The role of obits in a newspaper’s relationship with readers

    Schreiber weighed several issues in hatching this plan, including the issues of customer service and commerce raised in last week’s discussion about the policies of Legacy.com and other obit-related services. 

    The Lancaster newspaper has 95,000 Sunday subscribers and 81,000 daily. It costs $239 for an annual subscription to get the paper seven days a week, and customers who subscribe to any of its print editions — daily, Sunday or combined — will avoid the obit pay meter. So will readers who subscribe to an e-edition that costs $5.15 a month (which also is free to seven-day print subscribers). 

    Since print readers — primarily local residents — already pay funeral homes to have death notices and obits printed in the paper, Schreiber did not want to charge locals to read the obit pages online.

    “Our premise is that when a family through a funeral home pays for an obit, they’re really paying to alert the community [where] the newspaper circulates,” Schreiber said. “No part of that fee is associated with a promise to circulate that obit worldwide.”

    Among the objectives of his approach, Schreiber said, is “treating grieving relatives or friends with respect.”

    “That is why I like the metered model,” he added in an e-mail follow-up last week. “It allows us to distinguish between two types of audience that obituaries attract, the bereaved and the community-minded. The mourning son who visits our site one time, or a few times, to read the obituary of his mom will not be asked to pay. The former Lancastrian who now lives in Texas and reads the obits a two or three times a week to stay in touch with her hometown will be asked to pay.”

    Many readers outside Lancaster will end up paying, he believes, because of the paper’s position as “the prime aggregator of the community’s obituaries.” Even though funeral homes post information about the deaths they handle, Schreiber argued that most people won’t spend the time to “go searching a dozen different [funeral home] sites to read five or six obits.”

    A better alternative, in his view, will be paying a couple of bucks a month to read the obits on Lancaster Online.

    Crovitz described the Lancaster venture as “exactly [the] kind of experimentation that will lead to successful models for paid access to websites and other digital editions and will define the best practices that the rest of the news industry is so eager to learn about.”

    I asked Crovitz to compare current technology with the options he faced setting up The Wall Street Journal’s successful paid content system.

    “In contrast to the either-or choice of a decade ago, new e-commerce technology such as the Press+ platform gives publishers many choices, such as the metered approach, in between a completely free model and a blunt pay wall,” he responded.

    “The right answer for publishers lies within these two extremes, and we are about to see many experiments to find the right approach for each publisher and each website.”
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    Sunday, July 04, 2010

    Financing Final Farewells: Legacy.com and the Business of Death

    Newspaper obits have come a long way since the Times of London started publishing its “Death’s Doings” column in the mid-19th Century. But the ongoing pressure for newspapers to generate as much revenue as possible is generating new controversy about what might be termed “death’s commerce.”

    Last weekend, an artist and programmer named Maciej Ceglowski published an item to his personal blog headlined “The Great Legacy.com Swindle.” Following the suicide of a friend, Ceglowski encountered the paid obituary services of Legacy.com and The New York Times website. He was not pleased.

    In a follow up e-mail, Ceglowski told me “the online obit market is something I gave zero thought to until my friend died, but strikes me as quite interesting (and somewhat sinister) now.”

    He was especially upset at the Times’ failure to alert users to the $79 fee for a death notice before charging them for it — a problem Legacy.com has since corrected on its partner site with the Times. He was also bothered by an automated reminder seeking up to $79 to preserve his friend’s guest book “in perpetuity.”

    Katie Falzone, Legacy.com’s director of operations, e-mailed Ceglowski early Sunday to apologize for the lack of disclosure on the Times page, a problem she attributed to an incorrect link. By the time I went to the site later Sunday, the link had been fixed and Ceglowski had updated his post to include Falzone’s e-mail.

    An Issue for Print as well as Online

    The controversy mirrors some of the debate surrounding paid obits and death notices on the print side, where the numbers are bigger. In April, Alan Mutter denounced the $450 sought by the San Francisco Chronicle for a 182-word obit for one of his friends, provoking this headline on his Newsosaur blog: “Death-notice price gouging: Why?” Back in 2006, Mike Hoyt, the editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, went after the Kansas City Star with a piece headlined “My Mother’s Obit” published in the magazine’s May/June issue that year.

    “The final bill was $404, and I paid it,” Hoyt wrote. “But I didn’t feel good about it.”

    The issue will re-emerge soon as part of the great pay wall debate when The Intelligencer Journal-Lancaster New Era newspaper in Pennsylvania begins charging out-of-area Web surfers to read local obits.

    Students at the Medill School of Journalism last year produced an exhaustive study (PDF) of the past and future of obits, an analysis nicely summarized by one of their professors, E-Media Tidbits contributor Rich Gordon.

    The 29-page study was sponsored by Legacy.com, which was also the focus of some of the students’ main recommendations.

    Legacy.com is privately held and won’t discuss finances, except to confirm that its extensive operations — including partnerships with more than 800 newspapers and publication of obits for 7 of 10 Americans who die every day — are profitable.

    “Ours is a unique business that is sometimes misunderstood,” Legacy.com’s Hayes Ferguson told me by e-mail Tuesday, “especially when the user experience — which usually comes at a very difficult time — is limited or atypical. But for the overwhelming majority of folks who have used our services — many families visit Guest Books for their loved ones every day, leaving newsy notes or posting photos of new family additions — it is a source of great comfort.”

    Covering the Cost of 800,000 Monitored Comments

    Ferguson, who serves as Legacy’s chief operating officer, points out that about 800,000 entries are posted to its guest books each month. She said that traffic is monitored “24/7, 365 days, by a staff of 80 part-time reviewers … to ensure that inappropriate content is not posted.”

    At a time when news organizations everywhere are debating whether and how to monitor comments, Ferguson describes Legacy’s efforts in that regard as “a major undertaking (that) we and our newspaper partners feel is well worth the resources required.”

    As for the automated reminders that Ceglowski objected to, Ferguson said Legacy sends “millions each year and only a tiny fraction of people complain.” She added: “When we didn’t send out those reminders, people were frustrated that the Guest Book had gone off line without our notifying them. So it’s a tricky situation that we’re always open to re-evaluating. But right now, we feel it’s the right approach.”

    She said such reminders are not sent if someone has already sponsored the continuation of the guest book ($29 or a year; $79 for what it describes as “in perpetuity”). Sponsorship is limited to one person, she said.

    Spacer Spacer

    “We receive scores of e-mails and letters from people thanking us and our newspaper affiliates for providing a means to express condolences and remember loved ones in a carefully monitored, trustworthy place; get advice from experts; and connect with others,” Ferguson said in her e-mail. “If we didn’t charge for some of our services, the level of care we offer — both in screening content and handling customer issues — would not be possible.”

    In our e-mail exchange, Ceglowski told me that he accepts “the idea that there is a ‘death industry’ and I don’t want to suggest that any paid service is off-limits.”

    Relationships with Readers

    He added: “I know there are businesses that find this prospect very appealing, but I hope that as a culture we decide to short-circuit this move to for-profit companies trying to own the online presence of the dead.”

    A key consideration, raised by both Mutter and Hoyt in their critiques, goes to an issue of special concern to newspapers as they navigate their way through (or around) obit angles of the paid content debate: their relationship with readers.

    Which readers do they care most about? And what will news organizations do to strengthen, rather than erode, the relationships they want with the customers (paying or not) they need to survive? Read more

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