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

Getting Paid the British Ways: Pay Walls, Syndication, Meters

July is looking like a big month for pay walls, with The Times and Sunday Times erecting on Friday even bigger barriers than Gannett installed Thursday on three of its newspapers sites

Steve Outing minces no words in his critique of Rupert Murdoch’s strategy for his London papers (“uber-dumb,” declares his headline), but what I appreciate more is Outing’s hands-on reporting about The Times’ pay wall and the WordPress plug-in introduced by The Guardian.

Outing tested the hardness of the Times’ pay wall and found it very hard, indeed. So much so that only the homepage is visible to non-subscribers. Even Times headlines have disappeared from Google, and content appearing on the paper’s interior sections — Money, Sport, Life, etc. — is all but dead to the rest of us.

Outing’s reporting prompted me to check Google’s treatment of headlines from the three Gannett papers that installed pay walls Thursday. Not quite as bad as the Times of London, it turns out. Headlines from this morning’s Tallahassee Democrat at least show up in a Google search, even if clicking gets non-subscribers no closer to the story behind the headline.

More disconcerting was my discovery that the blog maintained by executive editor Bob Gabordi — the paper’s best hope of engaging readers as they decide whether to subscribe online or not — is now itself behind the pay wall (it also appears to be suffering from a funky headline at the moment, as you’ll see if you click through).

Back in London, I’m intrigued by the syndication system introduced by the Guardian that encourages  publications of all sizes, including blogs, to publish Guardian copy in full on their own sites. The benefit to the Guardian is that its advertising gets distributed right along with its content, not to mention increased awareness of its journalism. By way of example, Outing published this Guardian piece on his own blog.

Let’s not leave the world formerly known as Fleet Street without revisiting the ongoing wisdom of the metered approach to pay walls executed so well by the Financial Times. Registered but non-paying readers get 30 articles a month, with a variety of paying options thereafter.

The New York Times has said it will do something like this when it begins charging for its online content next year, and I’ve yet to see an approach that beats the metered way.

One final bit of news from Outing’s blog: his report (mid-way in his post) that the key people hatching the paid content plan for MediaNews Group were laid off last week.
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Thursday, July 01, 2010

Pay Walls Debut at Three Gannett Papers Testing ‘Journalism as a Service’

Gannett stepped into the world of paid content today with what it termed “a small-scale test” at the Tallahassee Democrat, The Greenville (S.C.) News and The (St. George, Utah) Spectrum.

The fee for online-only is $9.95 a month; Web access bundled with a print subscription varies by market. In Tallahassee, seven-day home delivery (with Web access) costs $20. An online day pass costs $2.

Kate Marymont, vice president of news for Gannett’s Community Publishing Division, told me in a brief phone chat that “we know this is not the model, this is a small-scale test.”

Marymont acknowledged that others in the company have been more directly involved in the details of the pay wall initiative than she has been, but said “we weighed a lot of factors” in selecting the three sites from the division’s 81 papers, including “what’s at risk.” She added: “We didn’t want to start at our very largest properties.”

She also said the company wants to test the power of niche content to support online fees (think Clemson football coverage in Greenville; Florida State in Tallahassee) as well as the consequence of a pay wall in a smaller market like St. George (19,919 daily; 23,413 Sunday).

More broadly, she added, “We want to test the idea that our journalism is more of a service than a product, and that we should give readers a selection of delivery methods.”

At Marymont’s suggestion, I followed up with Gannett’s vice president of corporate communications, Robin Pence, in pursuit of a more specific sense of how the three sites were selected. Pence said she was unable to address the question herself, and that the key people involved in the project were unavailable.

Pence said Gannett has not yet decided on the approach for its other markets, but that the company will use what it learns from the test sites “to help us develop our long-term strategy for paid content.”

The idea of addressing a range of consumer needs with multiple products — across various platforms for a single, all-inclusive price — may be gaining traction in the industry, as John Murray of the Newspaper Association of American told me earlier this week in a discussion of reader loyalty programs.

Reconciling the bundled approach with niche services could be a challenge, though.

Marymont said the Democrat has “beefed up” its FSU coverage, for example, but it’s not immediately clear from the site what’s been added — or how a subscriber willing to pay for enhanced Seminole coverage can do so without paying for everything else on the site at the same time.

The Democrat will be able to see how many of its paying customers are accessing football coverage online, of course, but the current set-up does not enable discrete online purchasing decisions based on the FSU niche.

Bob Gabordi, executive editor of the Democrat, has been getting an earful from readers about the pay wall on his blog, including some support. He appeared to be doing his best to be helpful with launch day tech glitches, and he obviously has his sleeves rolled up as he helps guide Gannett into the uncertain laboratory of paid content.

At first glance from afar, the three pay walls in question appear more like blunt instruments than nuanced lab experiments.

Gabordi told readers this week that the site generated 14 million page views in June, a number certain to drop as a result of the all-or-nothing pay wall.

Spacer Spacer

Since online access is provided at no extra charge to home delivery customers — the people regarded as most attractive to local advertisers — the loss of lots of free readers online may be offset by the arrival of relatively few paying ones.

If so, it may turn out that blunt will be good enough — and perhaps less of an experiment than a line in the sand. Read more

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Friday, June 25, 2010

How Loyalty Programs are Retaining Subscribers from Baltimore to Copenhagen

As some news organizations prepare to kick off their much-anticipated experiments with paid content, others are focused on ways of hanging onto revenue they’re already collecting.

A new report sponsored by the World Association of Newspapers (WAN-IFRA) tracks a range of initiatives in the areas of advertising, subscription marketing, outsourcing and cost-cutting.

Satisfying advertisers, the report points out, will require a shift from simply selling them products to providing them the help they need with such challenges as figuring out search engine marketing/optimization and navigating their way into ad networks well beyond the boundaries of the local paper.

WAN says that serving readers will demand delivering a lot more value for their subscription dollars, noting by way of example Journal Register Co.’s expansion from “nine products on two platforms” in 2006 to “97 products on 7 platforms.” It also highlights the folly of twinning price hikes with cutbacks that gut the news report and fail to stir real innovation.

The full report, titled “Million Dollar Strategies for Newspaper Companies,” is available only to members of WAN-IFRA and is part of the “Shaping the Future of the Newspaper” project. An executive summary can be downloaded here without charge (PDF).

What I find most striking in the 70-page report are some new wrinkles on old tricks, especially ways that subscriber loyalty programs may be gaining ground as a preferred means of retaining customers. Done right, such programs may eventually morph into membership plans that could bundle a variety of a news organization’s products and help justify circulation price hikes that more and more papers are implementing.

Making it “harder to say good-bye to the newspaper”
 
Take, for example, the street-level bookshop at Politiken, the leading newspaper in Denmark. I stopped in there one drizzly Saturday morning last Fall after teaching in Poynter’s Scandinavian Summer School. I picked up a couple of travel guides and an English language version of a popular Danish novel. But I paid my bill and left the shop oblivious to the range of products and services available to Politiken subscribers via its Politiken Plus loyalty program.

“We can say 70 percent of (our subscribers) use Politiken Plus during the year,” the paper’s sales and marketing director, Poul Skott, told the authors of the WAN report. “The more products we have the better … the harder it is to say good-bye to the newspaper. It’s going to hurt a bit, because you can only get a Plus card as a newspaper subscriber.”

This Google translate page will give you a sense of what the program offers, including special offers on travel, restaurants and theater, and how the activities and deals of Politiken Plus are integrated into the newspaper.

In a follow-up e-mail, Skott told me that Politiken has eliminated discounts for new subscriptions, the first time, he said, that any Danish morning paper has been so bold in 35 years.

Discounting is still a way of life for most American papers, of course, but the incentive programs appear to be coming on strong.

The Los Angeles Times introduced a new reader loyalty program earlier this month, and the WAN report highlighted incentives offered by another Tribune Co. paper, The (Baltimore) Sun. 

Canceling your subscription a money-losing move?

Coupons are an important part of Sun Rewards, with a wide array of them delivered in special quarterly sections provided to all home delivery customers. Coupons are enjoying a strong resurgence in these recessionary times, an industry trend highlighted by my Poynter colleague, Rick Edmonds, in a post last year.

Coupon use has been growing among upper income consumers, and the growth of such geographically-targeted services as Groupon show that newspapers certainly don’t have the coupon business to themselves.

In a phone conversation earlier this week, the Sun’s director of circulation marketing, Gary Olszewski, told me he tells Sun readers who are thinking about dropping their subscriptions that walking away from all those coupons means “they’ll be losing money by not subscribing.”

Like Politiken, though, the Sun also enables its subscribers to take part in a wide range of activities that go well beyond saving money at the grocery store.

Giving Readers Something to Talk About

Denisa Protani, manager of the paper’s Sun Rewards and Partnership programs, said the Sun is “bumping up the jam” on its loyalty initiatives by giving readers something to talk about. Rewards members can enter lotteries for movie premieres, dinners and other events. Last May, the Sun invited more than 100 families to spend all night camped out at the Maryland Science Center before a screening of “Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian.”

Tracking the impact of such initiatives on circulation is difficult, but the recent subscriber numbers indicate that the Sun lost fewer readers than other papers its size.

Acknowledging that the paper has gotten “a little bit thinner” during the hard times of Tribune’s bankruptcy, Protani said: “A lot of people hung in there with us because of the Sun Rewards program.”

She said she has hundreds of e-mails from thankful readers, many of them suggesting a link between the Rewards program and subscriber retention.

“Things have been tight but we will never drop our paper,” reads one such e-mail sent by Sun reader Michelle Smith and forwarded by Protani. “The discounts and contests are something we all enjoy as a family and the value far outweighs what we pay for the paper. Thanks so much!”

Among the more specific goals of the Sun Rewards program is to shift more of the paper’s home delivery customers into the ranks of EZ Pay auto-payment. Readers who subscribe via EZ Pay qualify for the additional benefits as “Sun Insiders,” benefits the paper gladly provides to the 20,000 readers who, as a group, are about 40 percent more likely to keep subscribing.
 
The principle at the heart of subscriber retention is customer value, of course. Midway through the WAN report I encountered a chart that frames the value challenge as well as any I’ve seen.

 

The focus on value as a function of benefits minus cost is hardly revolutionary. But the chart, produced by a Salt Lake City market research company called The Modellers, also serves up a useful mantra for media struggling to understand exactly what their content, advertising and other services are really worth to customers.

Framing a subscription as a membership with real value

Reading the report’s take on loyalty programs prompted me to call John Murray, who heads the audience development area for the Newspaper Association of America. Murray said he says he sees a new vision for such programs beginning to take shape: “Loyalty programs in the past have been seen as a retention tool, but I’m hearing more and more talk about the role they can play in bundling (the various products offered by a news organization). Loyalty programs should help retention, but they can also help in the justification of price increases that we’ve been seeing lately.”

By way of example, he pointed to price hikes scheduled to take effect Thursday at two Gannett papers, the Tallahassee Democrat and The Greenville (S.C.) News, both of which will begin charging for online content. (The common ownership comes through loud and clear in the similarity of the papers’ announcements, here and here.)

Despite the predictable fracas kicked off in the comments attached to both announcements, I think Murray may be on to something. Over time, I’m guessing that a membership that gets me the news and information I need across a variety of platforms — along with a lot of stuff and savings quite unrelated to news — will be something worth paying for.
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Sunday, June 13, 2010

Milkshake Mistakes and Cheezburger Lolcats: Shirky’s Latest Lessons for News

I’ve just started digging into Clay Shirky’s latest book, “Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age,” published Thursday by The Penguin Press.

Shirky’s thesis: Social media enables and encourages us to make much more creative and generous use of the 200 billion hours that Americans spend watching TV each year.

As someone who doesn’t account for a very big slice of that TV time — and who experiences more of a cognitive deficit than surplus by the end of most days — I began the book a skeptic despite my huge regard for Shirky.

But Shirky makes his case: Americans are making the transition from couch potatoes to couch contributors and more.

“…For the first time in the history of television,” he writes, “some cohorts of young people are watching TV less than their elders.

“Several population studies — of high school students, broadband users, YouTube users — have noticed the change, and their basic observation is always the same: young populations with access to fast, interactive media are shifting their behavior away from media that presupposed pure consumption.

“Even when they watch video online, seemingly a pure analog to TV, they have opportunities to comment on the material, to share it with their friends, to label, rate, or rank it, and of course, to discuss it with other viewers around the world.”

But it’s Shirky’s discussion of marketing research into McDonald’s milkshakes — and the phenomenon of user-generated captions for cat pictures on ICanHasCheezburger.com — that holds the larger lessons for journalists and the news organizations they’re struggling to sustain.

Relating the story of research aimed at driving up sales of McDonald’s milkshakes, he reports:  “Almost all the researchers focused on the product. But one of them, Gerald Berstell, chose to ignore the shakes themselves and study the customers instead.”

Berstell describes his user-first approach to product improvement in a 2007 journal article (PDF) he wrote with Clayton M. Christensen (“The Innovator’s Dilemma“) and two other authors titled, “Finding the Right Job for Your Product.”

I’m encouraged on two fronts: the idea builds on the “jobs to be done” approach to news organizations that the American Press Institute has taken with its Newspaper Next project. And the focus on customer — as opposed to product — reinforces the approach I took in my own search for new ways of sustaining news.

Shirky’s focus on users extends from understanding what customers need in a milkshake to recognizing that many consumer needs can be satisfied by users as opposed to traditional content providers. 

Enter his discussion of the ICanHasCheezburger site, the monument to laughing out loud about cats (lolcats) sustained by user captions added to cat photos uploaded by other users. Coincidentally, the New York Times tracks the site’s profitable business history in an article published today.

“Let’s nominate the process of making a lolcat as the stupidest possible creative act,” Shirky writes, contrasting the silly site about cats with Ushahidi.com, the user-driven service that updates communities in crisis with information that’s often more a matter of life and death than laughing out loud.

But he makes the point that a lolcat remains a “creative act,” and that “you can move from mediocre to good in increments.”

As he puts it, “The real gap is between doing nothing and doing something, and someone making lolcats has bridged the gap.”

Shirky has done some of his best work in analyzing gaps, including that chaotic chasm created, as he puts it, by the old stuff of journalism breaking before the new stuff gains traction.

I’m guessing Cognitive Surplus will provoke more of the kind of disruptive thinking touched off by Shirky’s essay last year: “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable,” now accompanied by 1,219 linked responses.

The response I’d attach to the first couple of chapters of his latest work is a question that goes to the heart of some of the most interesting work underway these days in journalism: What can be done to encourage more of the audience to move from consumption to creation — and to nudge more of our “creative acts” from mediocre to good?
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Sunday, June 06, 2010

Locals Pitch: We Want Time’s ‘Assignment Detroit’ House

The Journalism that Matters conference handed TIME magazine the sort of kicker to its “Assignment Detroit Project” Sunday that newsmagazines usually can only dream of.

Three conference participants — Detroiters Juanita Anderson, Alicia Buggs and Arthur Leggett — proposed that TIME turn over the house it bought on the city’s east side to locals committed to pursuing the story of “the real Detroit.”

The group, which acknowledged that it came up with the idea only 24 hours before, has no track record in producing community news. (Monday update: In an e-mail exchange with Anderson, I learned that she served as executive producer of Detroit Black Journal 1982-1988 for public television in Detroit and as series producer for Say Brother 1988-1993 for WGBH in Boston, winning seven Emmys in the process.)

Whether these individuals or a larger or different group ends up with the house strikes me as less important than the opportunity they’ve presented to TIME. Finding the right group of successors would be tricky, but what better legacy for “Assignment Detroit” than to encourage enterprising community reporting going forward?

Leggett, who works in advertising, said, “We’re not looking for a handout, we’re looking for a hand-up — or rather, better yet, a handoff.” He said his group would establish itself as a nonprofit organization and would welcome the collaboration of other community groups, as well as mainstream news organizations such as the Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press. 

Last summer, TIME spent $99,000 for a six-bedroom house on the city’s east side and announced that correspondent Steve Gray would spend a year living there — and reporting about the city — as part of its “Assignment Detroit” initiative.
 
TIME said it would donate the house to charity at the end of the project, but did not identify likely recipients.

As part of a pitch session at the close of the four-day conference, Anderson, Leggett and Buggs mocked up a TIME cover to show how it would approach the Detroit story differently than the magazine has.

The group also displayed the cover to the Oct. 5, 2009 TIME story about Detroit that Anderson, an assistant professor at Wayne State University, dismissed as “a dismal failure.”

TIME’s coverage of Detroit – produced with staff reports by various Time Inc. magazines supplemented by contract bloggers, high school students and others – has drawn mixed reviews. Its innovative approach to an important American story has been hailed as enterprising by some, but some of its coverage has been attacked as misleading and excessively negative.

Roger Gafke of the Reynolds Journalism Institute described Sunday’s pitch for the TIME house as “a gutsy ask” in light of the criticism that Anderson and other participants had leveled at the magazine during the four-day conference. Time Inc. was also among the contributors (PDF) to a $4,000 cash prize to be awarded in the next few weeks to whatever is judged to be the most promising pitch for a new media venture by conference participants.

Gafke was among several coaches providing feedback to the pitches Sunday. Others included Jennifer 8. Lee, the author and former New York Times reporter, and J-Lab director Jan Schaffer.

Lee pointed out that while TIME may like the idea of giving its house to a community news group “in principle,” its executives will need to be persuaded that the recipient group has a strong likelihood of success. She advised Anderson and her colleagues to begin establishing a strong track record as quickly as possible.

Although I heard about the pitch for the TIME house on Saturday, I was enroute to the airport during Sunday’s pitch sessions. Thanks to the conference Twitter feed, JTM organizer Bill Densmore’s relentless documentation and an audio/video recording, I was able to get the gist of the proceedings. (The TIME pitch comes at about 1 hour, 46 minutes into the above recording.)

Journalism that Matters has been conducting conferences around the country in recent years aimed at encouraging community journalism. The Detroit gathering included sessions on a wide range of topics, including this one exploring some of what it takes to sustain community news start-ups.

JTM Detroit included just under 100 registered participants, including community journalists, former news organization staffers, professors and activists — but very few current reporters or editors for mainstream news organizations.

Among the participants was Brian Steffens, executive director of the National Newspaper Association, the organization of 2,700 mostly smaller dailies and weeklies around the country.

As important as it is to encourage the creation of new sources of news in the nation’s communities, Steffens urged journalism entrepreneurs to view his member newspapers as potential partners in community story-telling.

Schaffer’s J-Lab is encouraging just those kinds of partnerships in five cities around the country. The New York Times is teaming up with journalism students. Wouldn’t it be interesting if community news entrepreneurs found a way to partner not only with local weeklies and metro dailies but with a giant like Time Inc. as well?

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Tuesday, May 25, 2010

McClatchy, Others Use PlaceLocal to Help Advertisers Reach Small Audiences

The biggest hurdle facing local online advertising, as Mark Potts and others have framed the problem, is the challenge of keeping rates low enough to attract advertisers pursuing small audiences — but high enough to generate sufficient return.

This particular slice of the news revenue picture is becoming all the more contested as competition heats up at the local level, with AOL, Yahoo and others entering the market along with established news organizations and community-based initiatives.

Partly because margins are so small on the revenue side, controlling costs is becoming ever more critical.

And that’s what makes PlaceLocal from PaperG — along with other initiatives in this sector — especially interesting: the potential to slash costs of production and sales by automating the ad-building process and saving time and money for advertisers and publisher alike.

McClatchy, the nation’s third largest newspaper publisher, is among more than 30 clients that have signed on to use PlaceLocal — not just to cut costs but to change the way its newspapers match up potential advertisers with small chunks of their audiences.

Chris Hendricks, the McClatchy vice president for interactive, says he’s hoping the product will help the company’s newspapers “speed up the sales cycle” by enabling ad reps to create ads for customers quickly and easily — and that it will lead to contract renewals that won’t require as many return visits by the reps.

Coinciding with a New York Times piece about PlaceLocal a couple of weeks ago, PaperG quietly enabled all comers to plug in their local restaurants, Yoga studios — or anything else — and produce a demo ad with the PlaceLocal app.

You can enter the name and ZIP code of your corner saloon here, and get a sense of how PlaceLocal works. Within a few minutes, the application has searched the Web for the merchant’s existing “Web assets” — photos, information about hours of operation and testimonials posted to such sites as Yelp. The program then assembles the data in formats matching specs of the Internet Advertising Bureau, ready for any publisher to plug into a page.

(By way of example — and with no involvement of the merchants themselves — I plugged in the name of a once-legendary newsie bar in Detroit and an old friend’s funeral home in Connecticut. The mock-ups inserted below appear smaller than they would in an actual ad.)

PlaceLocal is no magic wand. Sometimes it pulls the wrong photos from the Web. Not every customer review it finds is suitable for inclusion in an ad.

Big questions remain unresolved as well: Will self-serve ad production really catch on? How effectively will self-serve applications incorporate deal-based pitches with coupons and other sales incentives? Will publishers be able to generate a big enough volume in local online advertising to make low rates sustainable? Perhaps most importantly, will enough consumers respond to these ads to support the advertisers’ investment?

Victor Wong, the 23-year-old Yale drop-out who heads PaperG, said in a telephone interview last week that he and his colleagues are carefully watching the experimentation to see what’s working and how the product might develop.

So are publishers and advertisers.

Looking for a way to promote her new business of cello and voice lessons, Gaby Benalil of Albuquerque concluded that it would cost too much to advertise on the local TV station, KOAT-TV. As she told the Times last month, she discovered that she could spend just $200 to build her own PlaceLocal ad that would run on the station’s website for six weeks.

I followed up with Benalil last week and she shared the results displayed on her PlaceLocal dashboard: Her ad was displayed a total of 46,253 times, resulting in 53 click-throughs to her site, a rate slightly below the 0.2 to 0.3 percent click-through rates regarded as reasonable performance levels these days.

But she said more than 10 people who clicked on her ad followed up with a phone call. A half-dozen of them signed up for a program of summer lessons. Benalil described herself as “very satisfied with the results,” especially the hand-holding PaperG representatives provided by phone as she created her ad.

Wong said a number of advertisers have created ads for themselves without benefit of a publisher to display them. In those cases, PaperG matches them up with a local partner — if one exists — or links them to an ad exchange that will display the ad up to a spending limit set by the advertiser.

Increasingly, PaperG and other vendors are discovering that small advertisers prefer to buy advertising for a set time period and budget rather than on a cost-per-thousand basis, a metric of sales that many small business owners still find confusing.

The first of the McClatchy papers to roll out the product will be the Miami Herald, where Raul Lopez, general manager of MiamiHerald.com, describes PlaceLocal as “a really good door-opener.”

He likes the automated ad-building, even if — at least initially — his ad reps will be doing the work as opposed to the advertisers. “The fact that you can walk in with a live ad that has pulled in elements from the Web takes me back to the days of spec ads in print,” he told me in a telephone chat last week. “It gives you a much better chance to establish a good relationship with the customer.”

Getting the advertisers themselves to do the work remains another challenge. As Herald exec Elissa Vanaver points out, self-serve ad creation is not a concept fully embraced by many small business owners thus far.

I’m betting that will change over time. As advertisers discover the ways social media can help grow their customer base, they’re likely to get more comfortable with the approach of PlaceLocal, including customer testimonials.

Bad service and faulty products will get under-performing merchants just what they deserve from customer reviews. But outfits that are satisfying their clientele will rely on existing customers to help find new ones. And like Gaby Benalil in Albuquerque, they’ll get more comfortable investing the time required to build their own ads.

Count on the crowd — Ken Doctor calls it “commerical crowdsourcing” — to change advertising every bit as much as users are shaping the future of news. Read more

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Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Spot.Us Experiments with User-Directed Sponsorship Revenue

In some ways, it seems like a no-brainer: Encourage consumer engagement with advertising by giving users a stake in deciding how the revenue gets spent.

As far as I can tell, though, Spot.Us is breaking some new ground with the “community-centered advertising” feature it rolled out Tuesday.

In brief, here’s how it works: Answer three questions posed by a Spot.Us sponsor, and you’ll earn a $5 credit that you can assign to any one of the site’s user-funded stories.

In fact, the arrangement doesn’t look much like online advertising — no banners, no tiles, just a simple three-question survey. Implicit in the approach is that a relatively small number of engaged users — engaged enough to answer a few questions about the advertiser’s product or cause — can be more valuable than many more users who may or may not notice whatever message the advertiser delivers via a traditional ad.

The new feature adds a fourth choice to the Spot.Us navigation. As reflected in buttons at the top of the site, users can start a story, fund a story, read a story and — now — earn credits. That’s pretty understated from the point of view of most advertisers, and it reminds me of the “underwriting” model employed by public radio and TV.

I tracked down Spot.Us founder David Cohn by phone for more details.

Cohn, who launched Spot.Us in 2008 with about $340,000 from the Knight Foundation, has been anxious to find a way to add advertising to the site’s mix of grants and user contributions.

So when he was approached with an offer of $5,000 from an outfit called Mortgage Revolution, he decided to turn it into an advertising experiment instead.

Mortgage Revolution is a start-up that sponsors conferences for mortgage brokers and donates its profits to charity, according to its website. Cohn said the firm told him that Spot.Us could use the money for whatever it wanted — perhaps to fund a story involving some aspect of real estate. Cohn wasn’t comfortable with that kind of story-funding approach, but he figured he might be able to find another way to use the money.

As he thought about it, he said, he realized that the idea of user-funded journalism doesn’t necessarily mean that the money itself has to come from users, “but that it has be under the control of the community.”

So rather than decide on his own how to allocate the $5,000, he turned the decision(s) over to Spot.Us users — to 1,000 of them, each with the chance to direct $5 to the story of his or her choice.

Cohn sent an e-mail to about 3,000 recipients of the Spot.Us newsletter Tuesday. Within the first few hours, more than 150 had answered Mortgage Revolution’s questions and earned $5 in credits.

I spent last fall exploring user-first ways to pay for news, but I didn’t come across any ways of involving users in advertising that are quite as simple as what Cohn describes: “Our budget — your decision.”

Now that he’s launched version 1.0 of the experiment, Cohn says he has two questions:

  • How long will it take to get 1,000 people to get involved? As he points out, “It takes a lot of energy to get 1,000 people to do anything that requires even the slightest bit of concentration.”

  • Will another advertiser be game for round two?
  • Cohn said he believes this approach to advertising may be especially appropriate for “cause marketing,” noting that a foundation that wants to raise awareness of homelessness, for example, could engage users with several questions on the topic and invite their suggestions for addressing the problem.

    In an April 1 post introducing community centered advertising, Cohn acknowledged that “we may find that the Spot.Us community [will] react negatively” to the idea.

    As he said Tuesday, though, Spot.Us itself is “an experiment in transparency and control of money” for news. “This is just a matter of applying it to advertising.” Read more

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    Sunday, May 02, 2010

    Freelance Group Hopes to Become an “a la Carte News Service”

    If you’re freelancing these days by choice or by circumstance, there’s a matchmaker looking for you in L.A.

    The Journalism Shop, launched last summer by two former L.A. Times staffers as a service for former colleagues at the paper, has opened its doors to other journalists seeking work around the country.

    Brett Levy, who co-founded the initiative with Scott Martelle, says The Journalism Shop may evolve into “a kind of a la carte news service.”

    With fewer than 30 active writers today, the operation would need significant growth to step into the role Levy envisions. But he says the need for such a service is real.

    “When you consider current news services,” Levy explained by e-mail, “they push stories to publishers whether they want them or not. With The Journalism Shop, news organizations only pay for articles requested from our members. Nothing gets written by The Journalism Shop until a commitment is made.

    “When The Journalism Shop really gets going, we can pitch a few story ideas each day, allowing publishers to pick and choose only the stories they’re likely to use.”

    There’s a lot happening on the freelance front these days.

    Demand Media is attracting a lot of coverage about the big numbers projected for its IPO in the Fall and the small paychecks it’s offering writers in the meantime.

    At least one other freelance clearing house, Ebyline, is expected to launch over the next month or so. And what looks like a strong conference on the Future of Freelance Writing is already sold out for next month at Stanford.

    Here’s a condensed and edited transcript of my e-mail exchange with Levy.

    Bill Mitchell: What’s happened in your first eight months?

    Brett Levy: Since The Journalism Shop first launched, we’ve had a very enthusiastic response within the media community. Both working journalists and nonworking journalists sent e-mails expressing support for the concept.

    To reinforce our success, we bought ads on Facebook and LAObserved. This helped bring us new assignments, mostly in the L.A. area, but a few from national organizations.

    Our survey of former Los Angeles Times employees, which ran in December of 2009, also gave us a huge boost. I got the sense that the results kind of shocked the media community in general, and served as an eye opener for nonjournalists. (Links to the survey are still available at the bottom of TheJournalismShop.com home page.)

    I also should mention that during the first few weeks, we received a lot of requests from journalists who never worked at the Los Angeles Times. We thanked them, but told those journalists that we were only accepting recent LA Times employees. We saved those e-mails and have recently contacted them.

    How many members?

    Levy: I count 28 active members, about 5 inactive members and two or three pending. A couple of them, including Bogota-based Chris Kraul, joined in the last few months.

    How much work have they gotten via the Journalist Shop?

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    Levy: Because we don’t track all jobs that come over the transom, it’s hard to know exactly how much work The Journalism Shop brings in. Instead, we created a blog on our home page that showcases the work of our members. Sometimes the work comes through The Journalism Shop, sometimes via other sources. In one case, three members, myself included, received six-month contracts to work for a major non-profit organization (sorry, we’re not allowed to mention the name) and this weekend we received a one-year renewal for two of the members. The third member found a better-paying contract with another news organization.

    What’s the response been like since you widened your net on April 21? How many applicants from outside the L.A. Times diaspora?

    Levy: We really would like to reach journalists in major cities such as San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago, New York, etc. Right now, I’d say we have about a dozen applicants, and we built a list over the last year of about 30 names of those wanting to join. A couple are from the recently created Los Angeles Times Diaspora, but many are new to us.

    What are you and Journalist Shop members learning about entrepreneurial journalism?

    Levy:
    For me, the work is like riding a rickety roller coaster. So far, most of the time is spent climbing the rungs while wondering if the motor is strong enough to carry us to the top; I’m hopeful that in a few months the easier part will begin.

    If there is any one thing I’ve learned: Technology is great, but connections with other people are the key to winning better contracts. Make one customer happy, and they tell their friends.
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    Tuesday, Apr. 27, 2010

    Deconstructing Allen’s Playbook as a Model of Entrepreneurial Journalism

    In the days since the New York Times crowned Politico reporter Mike Allen “THE MAN THE WHITE HOUSE WAKES UP TO,” there’s been endless debate about just how much influence he wields or whether his considerable talents might be better deployed on other journalistic pursuits.

    From the point of view of entrepreneurial journalism, I find myself more interested in what it takes to satisfy the audience described by that headline. It’s a community not limited to the White House staff, obviously, and includes anyone whose job or personal passion is linked to the issues, personalities and quirks of Beltway politics, government and media. 

    Scan the “Playbook” daily briefing that Allen sends out to more than 30,000 e-mail subscribers, and you’ll get a sense of how he caters to those constituencies.

    It’s hardly a new concept. The Hotline, owned since 1996 by National Journal, has served that market for more than 20 years. The difference is that Playbook reads like a serendipitous early morning e-mail from Allen and The Hotline provides a much more structured, institutional approach.

    The question for local journalists and media execs looking at Playbook becomes: How do we sustain a media enterprise that audiences turn to — at dawn or otherwise — when they need reliable, engaging, actionable information about topics that really matter to them?

    Allen as community builder and revenue driver

    Deconstructing Mark Leibovich’s 8,200-word piece suggests some key characteristics of Allen as entrepreneurial journalist. Unlike some of the media pioneers who find themselves selling ads as well as covering communities, Allen enjoys the luxury of a cleaner focus on his copy. But with a salary The Times places above $250,000 and Politico’s reportedly strong revenue base, Allen’s brand of innovation appears safely described as entrepreneurial.

    What makes him so? He’s obviously a good aggregator and curator. But he’s also figured out how to cultivate what Leibovich characterizes as “friend-sources.” He’s fast. He’s entertaining. He’s selective.  He’s an authoritative voice. He’s got some personality. He’s a promoter and a community builder and, in the process, a revenue driver.

    Each of those is freighted with some journalistic peril. In re-shaping the traditional reporter-source relationship to friend-source, how might he put his independent judgment in jeopardy? What might he sacrifice in accuracy and context in the pursuit of speed? And what are the revenue implications of such issues as credibility and trust?

    From what I can see as a new reader of Playbook, Politico is taking some well-placed risks in pursuit of the sort of innovation that can serve audience and publisher alike.

    As someone who last worked as a Washington reporter when a Bible-thumping president was threatening to whip Teddy Kennedy’s ass, I hardly qualify as a member of the Beltway community addressed by Playbook.

    But there I was Tuesday morning, reading Playbook in bed on my phone (just like Katie Couric, according to Leibovich), and Allen tips me off to the birthday of a friend.

    So, what’s the impact of having your birthday noted in the most popular early morning document in the in-boxes of Washington’s power elite?

    Not much, apparently. My friend responded to my birthday greetings with a late night e-mail reporting that her 16 hours of exposure in Playbook had resulted in exactly one birthday message (mine) and that, oh yeah, Allen misspelled her name.

    Playbook and its place in the media landscape

    But that’s a nit, especially in the context of an audience that’s probably quite willing to pay the price of an occasional typo or dropped word en route to juicy excerpts from Laura Bush’s new book.

    Thursday’s edition underlines Allen’s friends-and-family tone, which offers a sharp contrast with the snark of so much of what’s written about the politics-government-media trinity.

    With a link to the reporter’s bio, Allen writes: “Who was POTUS referring to when he said during his remarks to the travel pool about Air Force One, ‘Okay? One more. I’ll give him the last question since this is his first ride on the plane’?” The newbie, Allen reports, is NPR’s Ari Shapiro.

    In my limited read so far, Playbook appears more inclined to pass along White House announcements of personnel shifts than to provide hard-edged analysis of who’s up and down and why (see the White House memo about press office promotions in Thursday’s Playbook).

    I’m guessing there’s pretty high tolerance among Allen’s readers for his promotion of Politico copy and events — and for the in-column text advertising set off only with asterisks and generating what the Times estimates at $15,000 a week in revenue.

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    Critics accusing The Times of exaggerating Allen’s importance by making him its magazine coverboy are missing the point, in my view. Allen and his Playbook warrant all that play and more as a snapshot of the emerging 21st Century media landscape.

    In the same Sunday edition, editors of the New York Times Book Review provided their own glimpse of an earlier news era with a cover review of “The Publisher: Henry Luce and His American Century” by Alan Brinkley.

    In an editor’s note, Times executive editor Bill Keller wonders “what Luce would make of the current media landscape.”

    In his review, Keller notes that, “in Brinkley’s view, the legacy of Luce lies not in any great influence over America politics or policy, but in the creation of new forms of media that — in their day, before their eclipse by television and then the Internet — ‘helped transform the way many people experienced news and culture.’ “

    In a messier, more modest way, Allen is up to the same thing.
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    Sunday, Apr. 11, 2010

    Xconomy Detroit Tracks Innovative Ventures with Innovative Journalism

    Xconomy is a journalism startup with a look and feel that’s part trade pub, part community blog and part old-fashioned news wire.

    Focused on coverage of high-tech innovation, the site was launched in Boston in 2007 and has added editions and staff in Seattle and San Diego. All three cities are natural targets for a niche full of venture capital, angel funds and reinvention of the world as we know it.

    On Tuesday, Xconomy launched in Detroit, a city that co-founder, CEO and editor-in-chief Bob Buderi acknowledges “would not be on our list” were it not for special circumstances.

    Among them: the Michigan roots of Xconomy Chief Correspondent Wade Roush and Co-founder, COO and Executive Editor Rebecca Zacks. Says Roush: “Nobody thinks of Detroit as a hub of innovation, but it’s going to have to become one if it has any hope of rebuilding its economy.”

    Buderi, a former technology editor at BusinessWeek and former editor in chief of MIT’s Technology Review, described Detroit’s situation as “an American story that will play out as a story of challenge and innovation — a city that’s down but not giving up.”

    A launch-day post by the site’s Detroit correspondent, Howard Lovy, reflects much more of “stake in the place” than is often exhibited in traditional journalism. In each of its cities, Xconomy recruits contributors (called “Xconomists,” of course) to write op-eds for the site. Tuesday’s launch in Detroit includes proposals to rejuvenate the local economy from the head of the city’s TechTown center for entrepreneurship and from a Harvard professor who has helped start companies now worth more than $20 billion.

    Detroit’s unusual media landscape

    The venture reflects an intriguing new wrinkle in the already unusual media landscape in Detroit, where the daily newspapers provide home delivery only three days a week and Time Inc., purchased a $99,000 home to house Time magazine’s bureau chief and maintain work space for visiting correspondents from all its magazines. The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, meanwhile, is helping finance broadband Internet access and computer training for 5,000 low-income households in Detroit.

    For Xconomy, what closed the gap between a nice idea and Tuesday’s Detroit launch, according to Buderi, was money from the Kauffman Foundation, often described as the world’s largest foundation focused on entrepreneurship. The alliance represents an unusual hybrid of a foundation and a for-profit news venture teaming up to provide coverage that would probably never happen otherwise.

    Buderi refused to say how much money Kauffman provided, which strikes me as an odd gap in transparency, but which Buderi says is “a simple matter of not wanting to reveal such a detailed picture of our resources.”

    Lesa Mitchell, Kauffman’s vice president for advancing innovation, describes herself as an avid, daily reader of Xconomy who believes the site can help link up the Detroit area’s “connective tissues” between inventors, entrepreneurs and big companies. In a telephone interview, she said “you can literally feel” that kind of linkage in places like Boston and Silicon Valley, but not in Detroit.

    Mitchell (no relation) talks about the eco-system of a city’s innovation community the way journalism entrepreneurs talk about the environments they’re trying to help sustain with their coverage. It may be a stretch to compare Detroit’s crippled economy to the dilapidated business models for news, but they both certainly require enormous reinvention.

    What’s interesting about Xconomy’s coverage of innovation is the innovation it brings to its journalism. The site reflects the insiderish feel of, say, Politico, but with some of the familiarity that you might expect from a small town paper.

    “Continuous beat reporting”

    Luke Timmerman, 34, Xconomy’s national biotechnology editor, says his work as “a local beat reporter in three cities” scattered across the country reminds him more of his first, small paper in Wisconsin than his stints at Bloomberg News and The Seattle Times.

    In a telephone interview, he said he files two or three stories a day for Xconomy, a pattern that secures his standing with sources as a guy who’s not only paying attention to what they’re doing and saying — but publishing it quickly.

    He acknowledges that Xconomy does not invest as much time as he enjoyed as an investigative reporter at The Seattle Times, where he once spent four months on a story.

    “The idea of that one big Sunday narrative piece that says let’s not worry about every turn of the screw … makes for a well-written and edited publication,” he said, “but it creates a distance between the newspaper and a lot of the institutions it covers.”

    He describes what he does as “continuous beat reporting,” especially well-suited to the 24-7 cycle of Web publishing. It’s an approach to journalism that includes a broader definition of news than he found in newspapers. By way of example, he describes his crowd-sourced work on a list of former employees of Boston’s Genetics Institute. He posted the story March 22, and updated it as recently as Sunday (April 18) with additions to the list that former colleagues are both helping create and are using to reconnect with one another.

    Each city’s edition includes a local blogroll and Timmerman says the site tries to avoid the “not invented here” bias that still discourages some news organizations from linking to competitors. He points out that an Xconomy syndication deal with The Seattle Times means his byline still shows up in his former paper.

    Asked about compensation, Timmerman said “the popular conception that people can’t make a living” online is turned on its head by an Xconomy paycheck that delivers 50 percent more than he was making at the Times.

    Bob Buderi: “If they’re good stories, there are no space constraints.”Among the lessons CEO Buderi says Xconomy has learned so far: Stories published online don’t necessarily need to be short. “It turns out that long, in-depth stories work fine,” Buderi said. “If they’re good stories, there are no space constraints — and that’s an incredible feeling.”

    He said the site breaks long stories into multiple pages and tracks the traffic to each page to see how deeply users are reading into the story. “Sometimes we’ll see 80 percent of the readers getting to the fifth page,” he said.

    Xconomy pushes for innovation on the commercial side as well, pitching advertisers on 12-month deals that involve local promotional events as well as conventional tile advertising on the site (and avoid the need for all those repeat sales calls). He said those deals range from several thousand dollars a year to six figures, depending on the market and services provided.

    Buderi said the site resists the temptation afflicting some niche publications to lower the wall between advertising and news, insisting that Xconomy’s ethics guidelines preserve the integrity of its content.

    Foundation support as a PR expense

    The financial assistance provided by Kauffman is interesting on several levels. Some news startups are considering the so-called low-profit model as a way of making it easier for foundations to provide them with grants. In this case, Kauffman’s Mitchell described the foundation’s payment to Xconomy as more of a public relations initiative than a traditional grant.

    “In the case of PR (as an example) it is not out of the ordinary for a foundation to hire an expert to run a very specific program,” she told me in an e-mail Tuesday. “So in this case we wanted to use the model of Xconomy as a for-profit company reporting on innovation and (entrepreneurship) at a community level to highlight all of the entrepreneurial activities happening in Detroit.”

    Lovy, Xconomy’s Detroit correspondent, said he will file from his home in suburban Ferndale for now. He says his coverage will likely differ in several respects from that of his colleagues in the site’s other cities, noting that “there is relatively little deal flow” in Detroit.

    “A great deal of what I expect to report will be attempts to get things moving,” he told me by e-mail. “Government and universities are important to the story, along with talented entrepreneurs who have recently found themselves out of work and have no choice but to launch their own companies.

    “Also, I’ll likely cover the region’s attempts to diversify from automotive, and show how there has always been the seeds of a diversified economy within Michigan’s ‘one industry.’ Lots of challenges here, and as a reporter it’s a fascinating story to cover.” Read more

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