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February 20, 2018

Nine Questions: Savior Bezos, Chronicle Debacle, Patch Undone, the Long Beach Lunge & More

August has been the wildest of months, with the expected Globe sale the only expectation that’s been met. After that, some form of chaos. Nine questions on what we’re seeing:
  1. Didn’t Jeff Bezos’ buy just prompt the same five stages of newspaper grief that most newspaper ownership shifts have meant? Newsroom reaction seems oh-so-predictable. a) Shock of a major change. b) Sadness of what (more) may be lost. c) Questioning: What’s it mean to the paper and to me? d) Euphoria: Maybe this guy can figure out a way to turn around the paper — and the industry? e) Confusion on the risk and the reward, the promise and the peril. Yes, Jeff Bezos’ purchase of the Washington Post is electrifying and offers more potential upside (“Where is Our Netflix for News or iTunes for Ideas“) than say Sam Zell’s 2007 Tribune coup. Yet, we heard the same set of emotions, in roughly the same order. We haven’t yet seen the newspaper messiah (and likely won’t in Tennessee), but newspaper people can only hope.
  2. How well is the Orange County Register’s new formula working? In a burst of confidence, the Register is today jumping county lines. Publisher Aaron Kushner’s crew has targeted Long Beach, launching the Long Beach Register there today, with a news staff of 20. It’s a shot directly at the MediaNews-owned and Digital First Media-run Long Beach Press Telegram. Today, the paper is a shadow of its former well-staffed stuff, its newsroom having been emptied out and regionally consolidated over the painful years. Kushner’s formula is borrowed from his five-day local section launch in his home Newport Beach/Costa Mesa market. Focus a 16-page broadsheet tab on local news (10 of those pages) and sports (the other 6) and give subscribers the mothership OCR for all their regional and national news. One idea here: the local LB Register will seem more entirely local than the Press-Telegram, which maintains the traditional all-things-to-all-readers approach, combining local, national and more in its pages. Watch that approach — and count the local stories. The Register starts with about 4% of the Telegram’s readership, in Long Beach. Will its full-court press prove out Kushner’s contention that content and community connection are the mandatory building blocks of reader and ad revenue? Which of these two news organizations will be alive in Long Beach in 2016; I doubt both of them will be.
  3. Among the non-media watcher journalists, didn’t the New York Times’ Ross Douthat nail a key competitive failing of the old Washington Post? Douthat, one of the Times’ few conservative editorial voices, points out in both a column and a post how Politico Pro took markets away right under the nose of the Post — and how it could have taken them themselves. Though the Pro products are successful, don’t be surprised to see the Post re-awaken and copy the strategy (“The Newsonomics of Influentials“).
  4. Might Patch be seen as just another point on the learning curve of hyperlocal? Just this month, we see two new local launches, each trying to skin local differently. One is Kushner’s Long Beach incursion. The second comes from Wrapports, the Sun-Times owner in Chicago, as the company announces Aggrego. Borrowing a page from Journatic, the Tribune’s partner in hyperlocal, tech-aided experimentation, the trash talk between the two approaches has already begun (Good coverage from Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon). The notion of tech used this way to collect local data and releases is a winner; how it is executed will determine a winning model.
  5. Is reader revenue one of the answers to the next stage of hyperlocal? The halving of Patch (“The newsonomics of Patch’s unquilting“, up now at the Nieman Journalism Lab) is just another curve on the long road to marry local news and digital. Like Backfence and many newspaper forays, it has found audience, but insufficient revenue; that, of course, is the story of news on the web for two decades. I wonder whether “local” as an add-on to the main digital All-Access pitches of newspapers may work. After all, if you’ve already got a customer and can add some deeper local news (two reporters, doubling what Patch largely offers), might a small percentage of them pay $49 a year? If a paper got 3000 customers in an area of 25,000 households, it would have $150,000 to fund those two reporters. Yes, Jim O’Shea’s Chicago News Cooperative and Pierre Omidyar’s Hawaii Civil Beat (which is now partnering with HuffPost) have circled around similar territory. Daily newspapers, though, have a large installed bases of now-paying-for-digital customers. As with the Chicago Tribune’s “Printers Row” print/digital book supplement, thousands of readers have been willing to pay more — for more.
  6. Where will Jeff Johnson and Joanne Bradford now take the San Francisco Chronicle? The duo, ex of LA Times and Demand Media, clearly didn’t like what they found what they took the reins at the Chronicle two and a half months ago, as publisher and president respectively. Their big move last week: taking down the Chronicle’s four-month-old paywall. It isn’t the smoothest of dismantlings, with the paid SFChronicle.com site still hard-walled, while Chron content is once again (as it was since the site’s founding in 1994) available for free. Consumers — to the extent they are paying attention — may feel whipsawed. Free, paid, free; come again? While, predictably, some have jumped on the takedown as a sign of the paywall apocalypse, it isn’t. Overall the newspaper industry is boosting circulation revenue in the 5% range again this year, after doing that in 2012. As newspaper coroners do an inquiry, look to the issues the Chronicle shares with the Boston Globe and its fellow Hearst paper, the Houston Chronicle. All three have built substantial free city sites, and the move to separate out the value equations — new paid newspaper site alongside a still-free portal — is a knotty one. While the Globe’s claimed 39,000 digital-only subs with its good execution of BostonGlobe.com, it is still losing reader revenue year over year. The Boston.com/SFGate “problem” is one other publishers wouldn’t mind having, but it will take more work to figure out the right business model in those markets. It won’t be the only rock Johnson and Bradford turn over.  If you’re a would-be advertiser, the latest digital audience data you’ll find on its “online solutions” page is from 2010.
  7. Didn’t the chill from Bezos’ buying of the Post go around the world? The global press saw the Grahams selling as a major turning point in the global press downturn. One reason is clear. While in the U.S., much of the press has been in public company hands for a long time, private, family ownership still reigns. They the Graham name, and some know the Grahams. If the Grahams couldn’t stay the course, can they? Those questions are being asked from Germany to Brazil this month.
  8. Can we get a peek into the new Australian news wars? Rupert Murdoch’s News Ltd controls about 70% of the Australia news market. Long the cash cow of the News Corp News Division, it now is reeling financially along with the rest of the world’s press. You can get a glimpse of the delight from rival Fairfax (holder of 20% of the market, and likewise in complete, print revenue-deprived restructuring), as Fairfax’s Financial Reviews surveys the revent changes at News Ltd. The New York Post’s Col Allan has recently been dispatched to help engineer a turnaround. FR writer Neil Chenoweth provides a competitive view in “Murdoch’s News Corp empire turns on itself.”
  9. Has Mr. Silver heard of Facebook? Or Google? Does he know the amount of money invested in digital media? Does he know what ad exchanges are? These are some of the questions Blip Network’s Justin Krebs raises about Nate Silver’s criticism of the New York Times business side, in a guest post here at Newsonomics.

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