9 Questions: Zell's Clown Car, The New "100," Tablets & Print Circ & Daughter of Alesia
Angry Tribunites take to the streets! Juan Williams friends and foes face off! Maybe, it’s true what the political pundits say: these are angry times in America and….maybe in the news world. Recent news, though tinged with agitation and angst, encompasses far more, and is setting the tone for a raucous 2011. So with that, let’s look at some of the questions we may have about news business news. Here are my nine of the moment; what’s yours?
1) Is 100 the new 10? Until recently, valiant start-ups from Voice of San Diego to Minn Post to California Watch birthed themselves with two handfuls of people, more or less. A couple of million in raised money, and a couple of years of running room, and these start-ups started to define a new era of online-only metro journalism. Now, though ambitions have quickly grown. Just in recent works, “100” seems to be the new rallying cry. The National Journal has re-launched, hiring 100 new staffers, while Bloomberg Government’s done the same, on its way toward 300. Not to be outdone, NPR launched its Impact of Government state coverage project, announcing 100 staff positions, though its funding for sustaining those positions hasn’t yet been arranged. “Public media” advocate Bill Kling has called for 100 news staffers in each of four cities (“Public Media $100 Million Plan: 100 Journalists Per City,”), with funding targeted for mid-next year.
Why the 100? Given the scale of reporting loss of 6000-plus daily newsroom reporting positions within the last three years, there’s a quickening acknowledgment that onesie-twosie additions may be like spit in the ocean. Overall, it’s a scale argument, and for Bloomberg, National Journal and others, the wider notion is that you have to create a substantial product to have a sustainable long-term business model.
2) Doesn’t the Juan Williams contretremps emphasize how much NPR has become a news player? National Public Radio has been around for 40 years, but only recently has it been considered a player, a national player mentioned along with the Big Four commercial broadcasters, the Times, the Post and the Journal? Its journalism has merited inclusion for longer, but it’s the higher public profile it has taken on that has made the difference. That’s due to pushes both at NPR itself, since Vivian Schiller took over as CEO two years ago, and at the bigger metro stations that are rapidly assuming a digital news role, from San Francisco to Chicago to Boston. NPR’s iPad and other digital plays also display which league it intends to play in.
So when NPR offered itself as giant piñata for the eager right with its mishandling of the Juan Williams episode, it was far bigger news than it would have been even three or five years ago.
NPR (and New York Times) contributor David Brooks put it well last week: “…the damaging thing to me is, NPR has really worked hard over the past 10, 20 years to become a straight-down-the-middle network. I’m not sure they always were decades ago. But now they really are. And now, because of this unfortunate episode, they begin to get some ideological baggage again. And that is damaging.”
3) Hasn’t the recent Tribune saga seemed like a vintage Western? You know, horrible things happen to a little hamlet. The bad guys pillage and plunder. Then, somehow, it’s morning, and the bullies are gone. The village people come slowly out into the sunlight, first unbelieving that the yoke has been lifted. Then they celebrate and gradually become more vocal, loudly celebrating the end of villainy. That’s what’s happened as we see the specter of Chicago Tribune editor Gerry Kern filing a workplace harassment complaint after Lee Abrams’ racy e-mail antics, then following up with editorials condemning the former owners for what they’ve done to the Trib. Throughout the Sam Zell melodrama, we’ve tended to forget that the Tribune company still houses many decent folk, good journalists yearning to breathe free. The last week was a reminder of that; let’s hope it’s not Prague spring. How long will it take for Sam Zell’s clown car to empty out?
4) Isn’t the Seattle Times/KING TV newly announced ad network a smart, regional ad play?
The Times has built out a good local, blog network, but hasn’t monetized it — for itself or its blog partners — well. The intention of the new Times/KING-TV network is to do that, and more. At best, it combines the best of ad selling smarts know-how, print, TV and online, and recognizes how community blogs are additive, both to audience development and to revenue. The keys, in Seattle and elsewhere: connect up the bigger network to state-of-the art targeting tools and analytics.
The fruits of these networks may be small pickins’ at the beginning, but over time, they offer newfound abilities to geo-target on a massive scale, and to sell a range of marketing services, not just space or time.
5) Is there a new 10% for engagement philosophy emerging? Steve Buttry’s TBD engagement staff numbers four five, more than 10% of its staff. California Watch, the one-year investigative start-up, counts two among its more than a dozen staffers. The big notion: look for ways to actively engage readers — California Watch’s recent lead-in-toys testing clinic is a good example — and not as an after-thought, but as part of the journalism. It’s an old concept — the seeds of Jay Rosen’s “public journalism” of the ’90s made digitally new. Dailies have been many engagement forays, here and there. The interesting thing is whether an engagement tithing ratio emerges in the new world.
6) With the latest circulation reports showing another 5% drop in daily, isn’t the next shoe to drop the impact of the iPad and its Android cousins on those numbers in 2011? There will be lots of tablets under the Christmas tree this season. Expect to see further flight from print among those tablet news readers. News publishers would love to sell readers subscriptions for tablet access, and we see the national players like the Journal and the Times positioning themselves well to do that. Yet, there are a couple of big obstacles. The first is how and how well Apple and other players will let publishers interact directly with those print customers — commerce, data, pricing and more. The word in the industry: Apple’s announcement of its terms of engagement is imminent. The second, big issue for non-national daily publishers; creating and sustaining a tablet product that’s worthy of the medium and one that readers will feel is fair to pay for.
Those circ reports point to a new issue; circulation revenue is headed south, down in single digits across the industry. It had been headed north, unevenly, over the last couple of year. That’s because the pricing up of print subscriptions and single copies more than made up for the loss in numbers of copies sold. That’s no longer true, marking the year as one in which both circulation revenue and advertising revenue are in decline.
7) Will the cats of newspaper industry be successfully herded? After pouring millions into his Alesia project, Rupert Murdoch gave the retreat order to his would-be Roman warriors, killing the tablet-oriented paid news portal initiative. Though his News Corp is the biggest news company in the world, it still a little less than six percent of the business, by revenue. News is among the most splintered of industries, and that makes getting a critical mass of news suppliers agreed on anything quite difficult. Next up in the effort is the AP-led “rights consortium.” As much as it is an assertion of rights, it is as much about a new drive to capture significant sums of new revenue through smarter application of content-tracking technology. Expect the consortium or new company to go forward by December with double-digit funding in the millions. Of course, News Corp is unlikely to play, while the New York Times and Gannett may chart their own separate paths. Finally, NAA (Newspaper Association of America) task forces have been meeting to try to get industry consensus in two areas: 1) mobile formatting and ad standards; and 2) e-preprints, trying to transition that Sunday circular revenue online.
8.0) Speaking of Apple, and Amazon, where will the feds surface as the new news marketplaces take shape? While publishers wait for the white smoke to waft from Cupertino on Apple’s “offer” for news subscriptions, we’ve got to wonder if and how the “we-want-to-help,” newly activist federal agencies will act. The FTC, the FCC and the Department of Justice all have shown concerns about concentrations of power around commerce and news, and about the lessening supply line of news itself. In that both Apple and Amazon, each with a huge installed customer base, can exercise a new chokehold over news commerce, we may see new inquiries.
9) Won’t we recall the New York Times local news partnerships as one of the most noteworthy initiatives of 2010? The Times finally inked its deal with Texas Tribune, and that gives it new marketing in the biggest cities of America’s second biggest state. Add in the Bay Area (Bay Citizen) and Chicago (Chicago News Cooperative), with plans to sign more deals in 2011, and you can see the big city, big brother strategy assuming a significant footprint. At its current output – three+ pages of print news a week in each market – it offers only a patina of regional coverage. It’s foundational, though, setting into motion a business that boosts print advertising and circulation revenue, digital potential and feeds regional journalists and journalism.
Imagine tablet products, for instance, that are both national and local (the New York Times’ Press Engine tablet platform should enable that) and imagine new partners from local daily papers to public radio stations to new start-ups. The Times isn’t the only one in this game: Reuters, the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg and even Comcast Sports and are all moving forward with various local partnership products, as the new national/local news business gets re-knit together.