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December 22, 2014

Nine Questions: Philly.Com Gets Risque, Anti-Trust and Newspapers, Senior Niching, craigslist Killers and the Sweet Science of Content

Midsummer brings us a surprising amount of news and innovation. Isn't anyone on vacation? Here's Nine Questions on what I'm seeing and hearing:

  1. How desperate is a paper in bankruptcy? Longtime Philadelphia Inquirer crime reporter George Anastasia does great short videos on the site, called "Mob Scene". Current advertiser: "Club Risque," whose cuties pitch the upscale gentlemen's club briskly in 15 seconds. "Text us at Risque to stay updated on special promotions. Come down here and meet us. It's a real mob scene." Now that's product placement that seems to cross several lines. The advertiser that rotates with Club Risque: Applebee's.
  2. Is MissionLocal a model of the future? Supported by the Ford Foundation, among others, and staffed in part by the UC Berkeley Journalism School, it's a vibrant, bilingual, multimedia site, focusing on a diverse and energetic San Francisco neighborhood. Good piece about it on KQED's California Report.
  3. Can you get me the Greatest Generation niche? Check out the Mercury News' new Sunday Extra print section. The idea: there's an (old) niche that still likes the Sunday TV book, but it's way too expensive to print for everyone. So the Merc is packaging TV Week with a six-page wraparound Sunday Extra (Steve Yelvington has made the good point that any newspaper naming a section "Extra" should think again) — and then charging subscribers an extra 50 cents a week for it. Or as it says, "a fraction of the cost of a magazine."  Sunday Extra's article tell us the target demographic, with pieces on a 72-year-old "yoga pioneer", a "Seniors" column, "Wanda Jackson still rocking at 71," and a feature on the 72-old prince of sibling revelry, Tommy Smothers. Journalism Online has talked about lots of niching, but I don't know they've come up with this one.
  4. Is the newspaper industry serious about a craigslist killer? No, not the Philip Markoff case, the alleged serious killer now indicted in Boston, after a craigslist-assisted meet-up apparent gone deadly. The NAA, in its renewed vigor to find new solutions to the industry's revenue woes, has been strategizing a "craigslist killer". That's right, a new industry-wide solution to beat back Craig Newmark's homegrown largely free classified product that has made much of a multi-billion dollar classified business obsolescent. Of the initiatives NAA is comparing — among them CircLabs, Journalism Online, Attributor, ViewPass — this could be the best one of them …. if it were 1999 instead of 2009. Classifieds are so last century.
  5. Will the run-up in newspaper share prices grease the skids for property sales? Wall Street had decided newspapers have a future, as downsized, increasingly cost-effective, hybrid news companies. Share prices have doubled and tripled in some cases. So we can almost hear the pitches would-be buyers (the Pagliuca/Connors group in Boston, Meisrow Financial in Chicago) must be getting. "You're buying at the bottom. The worse is behind us." So are the Globe and the Sun-Times, among others, good deals? Is this a real bottom of newspaper revenue? Remember, Sam Zell, Brian Tierney and Chris Harte all thought they were buying at a bottom, too.
  6. Will the Globe follow the Portland newspaper model? The Portland (Maine) Guild showed great stamina and flexibility in partnering with new private equity owners, qualities that the Boston Guild hasn't shared. Yet, an emerging model of private or angel investors, foundation support and labor participation in ownership may prevail. It's a shaky assemblage that may play to the uncertainty of the times. Can newspapers really sustain  robust newsrooms and traditional for-profit business models or are hybrid models a better hedge against the unknowns?
  7. What is Christine Varney taking from her newspaper industry talks? Obama's new anti-trust chief has drawn a lot of attention for her interest in Google's books deal, and beyond that, to Google's great search dominance. Varney has also been meeting with news industry people, management and labor, getting a sense of what's wrong in the news business. Publishers, of course, would love clarity about how much they can work together — on paid models, on negotiations with Google+ — without incurring anti-trust wrath. Unsurprisingly, Varney and her people haven't given them the bright line they'd like. Will Varney allow newspapers to get together, cartel-like? Will Google's dominance in search, and leading role in news search (providing 25%+ of news site traffic), become part of reinvigorated anti-trust enforcement?
  8. Aren't newspapers missing the importance of the new content factories? TechCrunch brought attention to AOL's big content push — 500 full-time writers and editors, plus another 1,500 freelancers. Consider also that Demand Media is producing 3000 stories a day and has built an archive of 650,000 stories and 150,000 videos. Yes, they are more feature-like than news, but then again, that's where much of the ad interest is in journalism. The Demands and AOLs are applying a bit of science, a bit of algorithm, to content production, and publishers ignore this approach at their further peril.
  9. Is GrowthSpur the right local tonic? Mark Potts' new tools-and-networking company aimed at aiding local media start-ups may find fertile ground.  We see lots of start-ups — the Pocantico group and far beyond. At the same time, local is getting so much more competitive. Take my former journalistic stomping grounds of the Twin Cities. MPRNews now looks like a direct competitor to the StarTribune and Pioneer Press sites, and then there's burgeoning MinnPost, and early web pioneer WCCO, among numerous others. So GrowthSpur is on to something, aiming to bring order, sense and scale to local markets. We'll have to see how wide it is aiming, and who else will soon be entering local markets, seeing fresh business opportunity in growing chaos.

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