Saturday, 26 December 2009

THE WIDENING RANGE OF REVENUE SOURCES IN NEWS ENTERPRISES

It is obvious that both the offline and online news providers are in the midst of substantial transformation and that the traditional means of funding operations are no longer as viable as in the past. This is disturbing to the industry because it has enjoyed several decades of unusual financially wealth and few in the organizations know how to find and generate new sources of revenue.

The financial uncertainty facing the industry is not unusual, however. We tend to forget that news has historically been unable to pay for itself and was subsidized by other activities. In the past newspapers and other news organizations engaged in a far larger range of commercial activities than then they do today and publishers had to be highly entrepreneurial and seek income from a wide variety of sources in order to survive.

The initial gathering and distribution of news was paid for by emperors, monarchs, and other rulers who needed information for state purposes. Later, wealthy international merchants hired correspondents to gather and relay news that might affect their businesses. When news became a commercial product, newspaper publishers subsidized the operations with profits from printing books, magazines, pamphlets, and advertising sheets, income for editors from shipping and postal employment, profits from operating book shops and travel agencies, and subsidies from communities and political and social organizations.

Today, however, news organizations are struggling to maintain themselves and develop digital operations by primarily focusing on the two revenue streams they have known in recent decades: subscriptions and advertising. Many people are being disappointed because those are failing to provide sufficient financial resources to sustain their operations.

The need to seek income from multiple sources is clear, but runs somewhat counter to the values of twentieth-century professional journalism, which denigrates commercial activity and thus engenders organizational resistance to new business initiatives. Continuing staff reductions and other budgetary cutbacks are eroding some internal opposition, but are rightfully leading to questions about how far one goes down the commercial road before news gives up its independence.

In both the online and offline news worlds, a wide variety of revenue generating activities are appearing—some based on traditional subscriber/single copy sales and advertising sales—but many others moving into new areas of monetization.

Many news organizations are increasing the range of advertising services provided to sell and create ads for their own media products, but also to provide clients services that can be used in competing products as well. New types of advertising offerings are being created to link across platforms, sponsorships of online and mobile news headlines are developing, video advertising is being offered online, and special “deals of the day” advertising spots are being offered.

Some organizations are increasing their product lines producing paid premium products and niche content for professional groups and persons with special interests; some are providing business service listings for a fee; others are creating a variety of non-news products; still others are operating additional business units creating paid events, running cafés, book and magazine shops, and providing training and education activities.

Sales of other products and services are being increasingly embraced through e-commerce (linking published reviews films, performances, and recordings to sites where customers can buy tickets, DVDs, CDs, etc.), creating and selling lists and databases of local businesses and consumers, producing special reports and books, selling photographs and photography services, and even selling items such as computers and appliances.

A growing number of news organizations are seekings subsidies though reader memberships and donations and grants from community and national foundations.

These are healthy developments because they increase the opportunities to create revenue that can fund news activities. Obviously, the abilities and willingness of different news enterprises to engage in the range activities vary widely, but the fact that they are appearing show that news organizations are beginning to adjust to the new environment and becoming more entrepreneurial than they have been for many decades.

What is needed now is not knee-jerk opposition to these efforts from news personnel, but thoughtful development of realistic principles and processes to minimize any negative effects of these new initiatives on news content so that trust and credibility are not diminished.

Monday, 21 December 2009

IMPLICATIONS OF CHANGING DEFINITIONS OF MEDIA MARKETS

An important contemporary development is the shift of media market definitions from traditional platform-based definitions to functional definitions. This is occurring because media product platform definitions are losing their specificity and uniqueness due to digitalization and cross-platform distribution developments.

Newspapers are becoming news providers, delivering news and information via print, online, mobile, and other platforms; broadcasters are moving off the radio spectrum, exploiting not only other streaming and video-on-demand opportunities, but also text-based communication on web and mobile platforms.

Although functional definitions clarify what companies actually do, they obscure wide differences in audiences, business relations, and revenue sources on the different platforms and give some the mistaken impression that a functionally defined operation can be successful operating the same way across the different platform environments. The functional definition is also confusing some policy makers and regulators concerned with effects of cross-media activity, consolidation, and concentration who do not carefully sort out the different elements of product and geographic market definitions among the platforms.

From the business standpoint, the fundamental problem of the functional definitions is that it leads many content providers to believe they can simply repurpose existing content across platforms. They are happy to do so because the marginal cost is near zero, but they ignore the facts that it also commoditizes the content, that the content losses uniqueness, and that similar presentation may not be appropriate on other platforms. Consequently, the repurposed content can produce only a small marginal increase in revenue.

To ultimately be successful in functional markets, companies need to offer a good deal of new content and launch new products on the new platforms rather than merely reusing what is already there in the traditional ways. Leading cable channels, for example, early in their development relied on motion pictures and syndicated programs previously shown on network television, but soon realized that they needed original programming to attract better audiences and gain additional revenue. Financial newspapers have begun to get it right on the Internet, offering more content and tools than in their print editions and establishing specialized niche products for different types of industry and business readers.

We are all watching to see who among general content providers manages to get their functional approach to markets right using the Internet, Mobile, e-Readers, and other platforms.

MEDIA, INNOVATION, AND THE STATE

There is a growing chorus for governments to help established media transform themselves in the digital age. From the U.S. to the Netherlands, from the U.K. to France, governments are being asked to help both print and broadcast media innovate their products and services to help make them sustainable.

State support for innovation is not a new concept. Support of cooperate research initiatives involving the state, higher education institutions, and industries has been part of national science and industrial policies for many decades. There has been significant state support for innovation of agriculture/food products, electronics, advanced military equipment, information technology, and biomedical technology and products.

State support tends to work best in developing new technologies and industries and tends to focus support on advanced basic scholarly research through science and research funding organizations, creation and support for research parks and industrial development zones for applied research, and incentives and subsidies for commercial research and development.

Many governments also support efforts to transform established industries. These are typically designed to promote productivity and competitiveness as a means of preserving employment and the tax base. In the past there has been some support for technology transfer from electronics and information technology to existing industries and for retraining, facilities reconstruction, and entering new markets.

Trying to apply those kinds of research and transformation policies in media is challenging, however, because much of media activities tend to be non-industrial and are dependent on relatively rigid organizational structures and processes that are difficult to change. These factors are complicated by the facts that media engage in negligible research and development activities, have limited experience with product change and new product development, and tend to have limited links to higher education institutions.

It is clear that a growing number of managers in media industries understand the need for innovation because of the declining sustainability of current operations and because Internet, mobile, e-reader, and on-demand technologies are providing new opportunities. The real innovation challenges in established media, however, are not perceiving the need for change or being able to get needed technology, but organizational structures, processes, culture, and ways of thinking that limit willingness and ability to innovate. This is compounded because many managers are confused by the opportunities and don’t know what to do or how pursue innovation.

Today, the innovation challenge facing media—especially newspapers--is not mere modernization, but fundamentally reestablishing their media functions and forms. What is needed is a complete rethinking of what content is offered, where, when and how it is provided, what new products and services should be provided and what existing ones dropped, how content will differ and be superior to that of other providers, how to establish new and better relationships with consumers, how the activities are organized and what processes will be employed, what relationships need to be established with partners and intermediaries, and ultimately how the activities are funded.

The state’s ability to influence media innovation of this type is highly constrained. Governments worldwide have proven themselves ineffectual in running business enterprises and they have limited abilities to affect organizational structures, processes, culture, and thinking in existing firms. What governments can do, however, is to fund research that identifies threats, opportunities and best practices, provide education and training to promote innovation and help implement change, offer incentives or subsidies to cover transformation costs and support new initiatives, and help coordinate activities across industries.

These kinds of support will be helpful, but they will not be a panacea because the greatest impetus for and implementation of change and innovation must come from within companies. The support will only be helpful if companies are actually willing to innovate and change to support that innovation. The extent they are willing to do so remains to be seen.

Friday, 6 November 2009

FAIL OFTEN. FAIL EARLY. FAIL CHEAP.

Rapidly evolving technologies and market adjustments have thrust media into states of nearly perpetual alteration that require agile and swift responses to gain benefits and defend the firm from outside forces.

Managers who have been used to stable environments and well conceived plans are often reticent to move to seize opportunities with quick and decisive action based on incomplete information and knowledge. The turbulent contemporary environment, however, require leaders to rapidly evaluate the potential of new communication opportunities and to take risks in a highly uncertain setting.

This is disturbing to managers who are used to employing well developed and elegant strategies that require significant investment and commitment. Declining to test opportunities until a clear roadmap is produced, however, takes away flexibility and the ability to rapidly change with contemporary developments.

While preserving the core activities of media businesses, managers need to simultaneously look for emerging opportunities that can be pursued, communities that can been served, and experiences that can be delivered. It is important to get in quick and inexpensively, to build on small successes, and to abandon initiatives if success proves elusive.

It is better to fail often, fail early, and fail cheap than to avoid risky moves, lose potentially rewarding opportunities, and forgo learning from innovative initiatives.

In the current tumultuous environment, failure has become a form of research and development. Try things; drop those that don't take you somewhere interesting; document what you learn from each unsuccessful initiative; move on to something new. What you learn from unsuccessful efforts is usually more important that what you from success.

The only real failure in the rapidly changing world of media is doing nothing and hoping things will get better on their own,

Sunday, 25 October 2009

JOURNALISM AS CHARITY AND ENTREPRENEURSHIP

Many journalists pursuing new online initiatives are learning that good intentions are not enough for providing news.

The latest group to do so is former Rocky Mountain News reporters who started rockymountainindependent.com this past summer using a membership payment and advertising model. The effort collapsed Oct. 4 with them telling readers, “We put everything into producing content and supporting our independent partners, but we can no longer afford to produce enough content to justify the membership.”

There problem is hardly unique. The conundrum facing many journalists is whether to pursue the noble work of journalism as unpaid charitable work or to become engaged as journalistic entrepreneurs with a serious attitude toward its business issues—something many despised in their former employers.

If journalists want pay for their work, if they want to provide for their families, and if they want to pay mortgages, they need to spend more time figuring out how to provide value that will extract payments from readers and advertisers. To do that they have to construct organizational structures and activities that support the journalism; they will have to ensure that startups have sufficient capital; and they will have to engage staffs in marketing and advertising activities, not merely news provision.

One of the most difficult issue for these new journalism providers—as well as existing print and broadcast providers—is that journalists tend to overestimate the value of news for the public. What the public actually wants is less, not more, news.

It is not that the public doesn’t want to be informed, however. It is just that journalists spend so much time, space, and effort conveying commodity news that provides little new and helpful information for readers and cannot generate sufficient financial support. By commodity news I mean the simplistic who, what, and where stories about what happened yesterday. Those kinds of stories are readily available from many sources and provides readers little for which they will pay.

Instead, in a world of ubiquitous commodity journalism, successful journalists need to be spending time exploring the how and why of events and issues and helping readers understand and cope with what is expected next. Effective journalism in the new environment needs to focus more on today and tomorrow than on yesterday.

Success in the contemporary journalism environment it is not merely about providing news, but about providing helpful and advisory news explanation based on solid values and identity to which readers can relate. It must be part of entrepreneurial journalism or new ventures will fail.

To get there, however, journalists starting up new enterprises will need to develop resources and entrepreneurial motivation to sustain their efforts more than a few months. Most new commercial and noncommercial enterprises require 18 to 36 months of operation before they develop a loyal audience and achieve a stable financial situation. Unless journalists are willing to work for free during that time, they will have to raise capital to survive; and if they want their new organizations to thrive and develop they will have to provide a different kind of news than most are used to creating. It will need to be unique and better than what is already available.

Saturday, 24 October 2009

4 STRATEGIC PRINCIPLES FOR EVERY DIGITAL PUBLISHER

As publishers move more and more content to the Internet, mobile services, and e-readers, these digital activities change the structures and processes of underlying business operations. Many publishers, however, pay insufficient attention to the implications of these changes and thus miss out on many benefits possible with digital operations.

This occurs because publishers become focused on issues of content delivery and uncritically accept the fundamental elements of the processes involving platforms and intermediaries. In order to gain the fullest future benefits from the digital environment, however, publishers needs to strategically consider and direct activities involving the users, advertisers, prices, and purposes of their new platforms.

In creating business arrangements with platform and service providers and intermediaries, 4 fundamental strategic principles should guide your actions:

1. Control your customer lists. The most important thing you do as a publisher is to create relationships with and experiences for your customers. It is crucial to ensure that your content distribution and retail systems do not separate you from those who read, view, or listen to your content. If you do not operate your distribution or pay systems, or don’t have strong influence over their operations, this important part of the customer experience falls outside your control and— worse—you never establish direct relationships with customers that allow you to get to know them better, to create stronger bonds, to use them to improve your products, or to up-sell services. If you must use intermediaries, ensure that you have full access and rights to use e-mail, mobile, and other addresses for all your content customers and that you have some influence over the look, feel, and content of the contacts that your service providers have with your customers.

2. Control advertising in your digital space. Users see advertising placed on your website, your mobile messages, and your e-reader content as part of your product and it affects the experience you deliver to them. It is not enough to control the size and placement of ads; you also need to control the dynamic functionality, types, and content of ads. The experience your product delivers is of little interest to outside providers of digitally delivered advertising, but it must be to you. You should control your own advertising inventory and maintain approval rights and—as with audiences—you should have the ability to make direct contact with advertising customers so you can add value by working with them to achieve greater effectiveness and provide better benefits across your content platforms.

3. Control your own pricing. Do not put yourself in the position of merely accepting the ad suppliers’ price and payment for advertising appearing in your digital product. The digital space and audience contact that you provide is the product and service being purchased and some contact is more valuable than others. Know how your value compares to that of competitors and set your prices according. Don’t be a price taker, be a price maker. Digital advertising will not grow to become an important part of your business if you let the most important decision of the revenue model reside in someone who does not care about your business.

4. Drive customers to platforms most beneficial to you. Digital media give you the opportunities to serve customers where and when they want to be served, but you need to use those opportunities to drive them to your financially most important product. Internet sites, e-readers, mobile applications, and social media are highly useful for contact and interaction, but not yet very effective for revenue generation. The best effects typically result from increasing use of your offline product or driving traffic to your most finally effective digital location. Make sure that all the distribution platforms you use are configured for easy movement to other digital platforms that benefit you most, even if they don’t directly benefit your service provider.

Digital publishing can only become successful if you get the business fundamentals correct by controlling the most important commercial aspects of the operation. The value configuration created by customer interfaces and partner networks must be arranged to work in your favor and strategic thinking needs to guide how you organize and direct those activities.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

CAN PUBLIC BROADCASTERS HARM COMPETITION AND DIVERSITY?

This is not trick question and it is being increasingly asked as public broadcasters grow larger, offer multiple channels, move into cross-media operations, and increasingly commercialize their operations.

The Federal Communications Commission will have to consider that question shortly when it considers the effort of WGBH Education Foundation—operator of WGBH-TV, the highly successful Boston-based public service broadcaster—to purchase the commercial radio station WCRB-FM.

WGBH is the top ranked member of the Public Broadcasting Service in the New England and produces about one third of PBS’ programming. It operates a second Boston television station, WGBX-TV, and WGBY in Springfield, Massachusetts. In addition it operates FM radio stations WGBH (Boston), WCAI (Woods Hole), WZAI (Brewster), and WNAN (Nantucket) and is a member of National Public Radio and Public Radio International. It operates two commercial subsidiaries involved in music rights and motion picture production.

This month it announced it was planning to purchase WCRB-FM, a classical music station that serves the Boston area. The purchase would allow it to alter its WGBH-FM format to compete more directly with WBUR-FM, the leading public radio station in Boston that is operated by Boston University.

WGBH Educational Foundation is an enterprise with $580 million in assets and revenues of $280 million annually. It has more than 600 employees who are paid more than $50,000 annually and has 5 paid more than $225,000. Its president and CEO is paid about $340,000 and 2 vice presidents about $250,000 annually. This is not a small, poor charitable enterprise.

Were WGBH a commercial broadcaster, those who hate big media would be howling in protest, arguing that it puts far too much control of the airwave in the hands of one organization and that the concentration will create market power that harms competition. But they are strangely silent.

However, in deciding whether to permit the purchase, the FCC will have to consider whether the expansion of the public broadcaster harms competitors and plurality and diversity.

Similar questions are being asked elsewhere as well. Across the pond, the British Broadcasting Corp. has recently been the target of a good deal of criticism because of its increasingly commercialized operations and because its expansion of public service operations in TV, Radio, and Internet at the local, national, and international level are seen as affecting commercial firms and competition.

The BBC is one of the largest broadcasting companies in the world, operating on revenues of £4.7 billon ($7.4 billion) and it has assets of £1.5 billion ($2.4 billion).

Many commercial broadcasters and publishers in the U.K. have criticized the growth of the BBC operations and the debate became especially heated recently when James Murdoch, the News Corp. head in Europe and Asia, made a public speech charging the BBC was engaging in a “land grab” and that its ambitions were “chilling.”

“The expansion of state-sponsored journalism is a threat to the plurality and independence of news provision, which are so important for our democracy," Murdoch told the Edinburgh International Television Festival. Whether you agree with him or not, you have to give him credit for co-opting the language of critics of big commercial media.

News Corp. and the other commercial firms competing with the BBC obviously have self interests at heart, and some commercial firms have certainly behaved in ways that harmed public interests in the past, but their arguments should not be casually dismissed.

If competition among commercial firms, between commercial and non-commercial firms, and among non-commercial firms is good for pluralism and diversity, cannot concentration and reductions in sources of news and entertainment due to acts of large not-for-profit firms also harm competition, pluralism and diversity?

Saturday, 26 September 2009

PUBLISHERS URGE MORE PUBLIC AID FOR NEWSPAPERS, BUT H.R. 3602 WON'T SOLVE THEIR PROBLEMS

The push for government support for newspaper continues and this week publishers and their supporters—including the Newspaper Association of America—went before the House Joint Economic Committee detailing how the current economic climate has harmed their finances and arguing for preferential changes to tax and pension laws. They asked to be allowed to extend application of the net operating loss provisions from 2 years to 5 years and for changes in laws to allow them to underfund pension funds for a greater period of time. Both would improve their operating performance and balance sheets.

This is a case of the newspaper industry seeking long-term business benefits to solve a short-term crisis caused by poor management decisions and the recession. The leading newspaper firms and their representatives are making concerted efforts to dupe legislators and the public into believing their troubles are part of the general trends in the industry, rather than the result of management decisions and the financial crisis that is diminishing. If the provisions are passed, the public treasury will be diminished for years to come and risks for employee pensions will be increased.

Newspaper executives and other witnesses were sympathetically treated at the hearing this week, but it is unclear whether they will be able to achieve the policies they advocated.

Another proposal that the commercial firms are uninterested in themselves, but expressed sympathy for, would broadening laws regarding charities to include not-for-profit newspapers. Their support was astute because the House Joint Economic Committee’s chair, Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), has introduced her own bill (H.R. 3602) to allow newspapers to become tax exempt under section 501(C)(3) of the tax code. Her bill somewhat mirror Senate bill 673 by Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-Md., that was discussed earlier in this blog (Analysis of the Newspaper Revitalization Act, http://themediabusiness.blogspot.com/2009/03/analysis-of-newspaper-revitalization.html). There are some differences in Maloney’s bill that need to be highlighted.

Under Section (b) of H.R. 3602, companies would qualify for tax exempt status through a 3-part test.

First, companies would have to be “publishing on a regular basis a newspaper of general circulation” to qualify. This provision stipulates no periodicity so it does not limit qualification to dailies, which are experiencing the greatest economic and financial difficulties. This language provides the exemption only to established papers and would thus exclude startups until after they were regularly publishing, requiring startups to initially obtain financing through other than tax-deductible donations.

The language in this first test requires that publications be “a newspaper of general circulation” and this will lead to questions whether it applies to newspapers focused on specific audiences in a community—such as African Americans or senior citizens—or papers providing more focused content—such as news and information for a specific neighborhood or devoted solely to politics or crime. This ambiguity could be used by IRS examiners against some papers and could be used by some publishers to take advantage of a policy not intended for them.

The second provision requires that qualifying papers publish “local, national or international stories of interest to the general public and the distribution of such newspaper is necessary or valuable in achieving an educational purpose.” The provision regarding type of coverage is better than the Senate bill because it does not require publication of all 3 types of news—something not done in many local papers.

The third provision requires that content preparation “follows methods generally accepted as educational in character.” This provision is exceedingly vague and its application is unclear because it does not deal with the content of the paper, but with the preparation of the paper. How “the preparation of the material” follows accepted educational methods would seem to require that the papers be part of an educational activity, such as being linked to training in schools or universities. This would highly limit the applicability of the bill to existing newspaper operations.

Like the Senate bill, Section (c) permits papers to carry advertising “to the extent that such newspaper does not exceed the space allotted to fulfilling the educational purposes of such qualified newspaper corporation.” This would require papers to publish no more than an equal amount of editorial and advertising content. This is lower than the limit of postal service limit (75%) and would force most existing papers to drop about 1/3 of their existing advertising or incur damaging costs by printing more news pages than they do now. This would cripple the finances of any daily paper.

Finally, Section (d) of the legislation permits qualified companies to accept tax deductable charitable donations to support their operations.

This bill, like its Senate predecessor, is likely to have limited affects on the newspaper industry because it will not interest newspaper owners because most of their papers are producing profits and it will preclude their abilities to benefit from greater profits when the advertising recovery occurs.

There is a place for not-for-profit media and journalism, but H.R. 3602 S. 673 will not do much to improve coverage or the overall condition newspaper industry. It is likely to continue to gain support from the commercial newspaper industry, however, because it can be used to provide cover for government policies that they really want.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

RADIO STATIONS FACE SIGNIFICANT STRATEGIC CHALLENGES

Fundamental market changes are pushing radio stations towards an uncertain future and managers and owners need to begin developing strategic responses to developments in their industry.

The challenges are being caused by declining demand for radio offerings due to lifestyle changes, the wide availability of substitutable audio platforms, and the primary content currently being offered. Audience behavior toward radio is changing and many U.S. stations now only make money for 4 to 6 hours each day. Overall, audiences are spending less time with radio and exhibiting less station loyalty than they did in the past, and young audiences are particularly difficult to attract and serve.

A major impetus of change is that audiences for music worldwide are progressively replacing radio listening with personalized playlists they have created on their computers, MP3 players, and mobile phones and by CDs on which they burned those favorites. They select music that suits their individual tastes and many have wider repositories of music in their own libraries than are offered on broadcaster playlists. Satellite and Internet radio are compounding the problem by offering hundreds of choices of highly focused music formats. These developments are increasingly making radio a less relevant platform for music entertainment delivery than it has been.

Concurrently, a wide variety of non-music programming is being offered by Satellite and Internet stations and audiences are increasingly using these services, as well as downloading podcasts on a variety of topics of individual interest from both broadcast and non-radio sources.

These problems are compounded in the U.S. because the rise of radio groups after deregulation in the mid 1990s led to national radio programmers making selections, reducing the range of genres of music and other content on radio stations. Overall, programming has become less local and less relevant as content decisions have been made elsewhere.

Advertisers sense the problem with audiences and the share of advertising expenditures going to radio is declining. Worldwide radio advertising expenditures are about 7 percent of total expenditures, down from a height of 9 percent in 1999. In the U.S. they peaked in 2002 at nearly 13 percent and are now down to about 10 percent. This downward trend is seen among most of the traditional leaders in radio advertising expenditures –Mexico, Japan, France, UK, Spain—and only in rapidly developing countries such as Brazil and China is the share spent on radio on a clear upward trajectory.

Another indicator of the problem is seen in the considerable weakening of sales prices for radio stations in recent years.

Radio station owners and managers need to start spending a good deal of time thinking about what is happening to their industry and how they will need to change their place in the media use mix. They need to seriously consider what business they are in and what unique value they produce so they can reposition their functions for audiences and advertisers.

The structure and offerings of the radio industry have been adjusted several times during its 9-decade history, but the last time the industry needed to recreate itself so dramatically occurred with the arrival of television. The arrival of television resulted in radio shifting from a general entertainment and information medium to a music entertainment platform in many nations. In the U.S., broadcasters on A.M. radio later shifted toward a talk and sports platform after F.M. developed and music migrated to that spectrum, creating new opportunities on both bands.

Repositioning radio again will not be a simple task, but it is one the industry needs to begin undertaking now. If radio managers do not start thinking ahead about the negative trends appearing in their industry, they will soon experience the alarm and fear that is pervasive in the newspaper industry. It is better for companies and industries to act before crises develop fully because they can respond to and help direct the course of change rather than merely experience its negative effects. Whether decisive action will emerge in the radio industry before we reach that point remains to be seen.

Friday, 21 August 2009

THE TRANSACTION COST PROBLEM OF NEWSPAPER MICROPAYMENTS

The desire to monetize online news is leading some to enthusiastically promote micropayment systems. A number of the leading newspaper sites are leaning toward a cooperative payment system that will allow readers to use a single account to access material at the leading papers. Such a system will not be technically difficult to implement, but getting the price right will be a significant challenge because of transaction costs and significant differences in the economic value of articles.

To create the best industry wide effects, a micropayment payment system would need to include as many papers as possible (see "The Challenges of Online News Micropayments and Subscriptions" http://themediabusiness.blogspot.com/2009/05/challenges-of-online-news-micropayments.html). The fact that a consortium is currently being sought only among the major players illustrates, however, that such a system would be cost inefficient because content from smaller papers would attract fewer transactions and be more expensive to service.

A widely inclusive system would encounter the problems of small payouts that have plagued collecting rights societies for authors, composers, and performers. Those systems have found that the costs of managing transactions, accounting and auditing, and conveying funds to rights holders incur higher expenses than the payments due many rights holders and that such a system is possible only when the rights holders and content that generate the most transactions subsidize those that generate the least.

This occurs because each right must have a separate account, uses of all rights must be monitored and recorded, funds must be collected, expenses for accounting, auditing and other administrative costs paid, and funds must be transferred to recipients. These activities incur significant transaction costs.

Even a cooperative system limited to newspapers that attract the largest number of customers will encounter transaction cost challenges.

In single content sales systems, for example, the cost of making transactions takes up the bulk of the price. In the sale of mobile telephone ringtones, for example, the composer, arranger, and performer get only about 20% of the price. For digital song downloads everyone associated with the content--songwriter, arranger performers, and record company--receive less than half. This occurs because merchant and financial transaction costs are very high. The cost for using a credit card adds 5 to 7 percent to merchant costs and the expense for bank processing of each transaction is a minimum of about 25 cents. Even electronic fund transfers between bank accounts incurs about 30 cents in transaction costs.

These realities will affect the structure and pricing of newspaper article micropayment purchases. The most efficient system for users and firms will require the use of prepaid customer accounts to reduce the number of bank system transactions. This will allow users to transfer funds to their accounts and then purchase articles at pennies a piece. Funds collected would be then periodically transferred to papers. Such a system could also include the option for occasional users to make credit cards purchases of articles, but the price would have to be $2 to $10 per article to make it worth the effort.

The biggest pricing challenge, however, is that some articles will be more valuable than others and will be most sought after by consumers. This means newspapers will have to figure out BEFOREHAND which stories fall into those categories and they will have to decide what prices to charge for them. Papers will have to hire personnel to try to figure out before publication which are the most economically valuable stories--something that will be extremely hard to do--or they will have to set prices based on the costs invested in creating each story (something current newspaper accounting systems do not support). In either case, increased costs will result. The only other reasonable option is to set prices per article based on the overall average cost of producing an article or a column inch of editorial copy. This, of course, over and under prices content simultaneously.

Moving to a micropayment system is not merely a matter of starting to charge for content online, but involves changing the fundamental business model of papers. Newspapers have historically bundled all content into one product available at a single price. In retailing, bundling has always worked best for getting consumers to buy more of the product at a lower price than if bought individually. With this tactic the producer gains profit because the costs of distribution and sales are collectively lower. A second tactic involves bundling products of unequal or uneven value that are sold together to achieve a joint price that is higher than would have been obtained individually.

Newspapers have historically benefited from such bundling by filling pages with relatively inexpensive news agency and syndicated content and by including huge amounts of information culled from public sources that did not require significant investment of resources or added value. Unbundling and selling individual articles with a micropayment system will produce little consumer willingness to pay for this type of content--a significant problem because it is the bulk of editorial content in most newspapers today. Unbundling will also increase transaction costs, thus reducing profitability. This will force higher prices on consumers that will affect demand.

Disaggregating the newspaper and making more money off some individual articles will also create pressure for additional payments from journalists who write the most valuable articles. This will also increase costs of the micropayment system.

Making money from online journalism is, thus, not just a matter of saying "Let's all start charging." It will require fundamental rethinking of the value chain, what content is offered, and how it is produced. It will also require significant thought about what's in it for consumers--something that is glaringly missing from current discussions of starting online payments. The consumer challenge is especially salient because most online news readers do not currently buy newspapers. If they are not willing to pay for news in print, why will they suddenly be willing to pay for that same news online? If papers can't figure that out, no decision to implement micropayments will end happily.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

GOOGLE SETTLEMENT STEALS RIGHTS AND REWARDS APPROPRIATION

I received another letter from the Google Book Search Settlement Administrator this week informing me that my rights will be affected by the proposed settlement of the class action suit against Google for copyright infringement by scanning books and other publications. I have been a de facto part of the class action lawsuit because I am the author of numerous books, chapters, and other publications affected by Google’s decisions to scan and sell copies of materials still protected by copyright.

The settlement has been supported by the Association of American Publishers—which represents major publishers—because it protects their interests, but it is opposed by the National Writers Union and the American Society of Journalists and Authors because it seriously degrades the rights and interests of those who actually write the content. The split between publishers and authors is not surprising because anyone who has observed the uneasy relationships between musicians, authors, scriptwriters and recording, publishing, and production companies immediate recognizes they have very different and competing interests.

Under the proposed settlement, the court will take away portions of my copyrights that were created under legislation and protected by international treaties and it will give them to Google. The only way for me to protect my rights is to take deliberate affirmative action to opt out of the settlement and to seek to enforce my rights against Google individually—not a great option since its capacity to hire lawyers and stretch out litigation is far higher than mine.

The process and effects of the settlement are stunning and will dramatically alter authors’ rights. For nearly a hundred and fifty years copyright law has recognized that copyrights belong solely to the author (or persons to which the authors sell them) and that commercial uses of copyright material can only be made through negotiating terms of use and payment with the copyright owners.

The Google settlement will essentially rewrite copyright law by allowing the company to use the material without permission, without negotiating how the material will be used, and without negotiating compensation and payment provisions. It is particularly offensive because the court will be saying the government doesn’t have to protect authors’ rights, but authors’ have to protect their own rights. This is a significantly different approach from that which prosecutors and courts have taken in the cases of music, game, and software file sharers who have violated copyright on the Internet.

The settlement disassembles the basics of copyright law without legislative consideration and essentially forces the results on rights holders. Its effects are far reaching. Not only does the settlement apply to U.S. authors, but it is binding to authors worldwide even if they are not aware their rights are affected by the suit.

The settlement turns copyright upside down. Instead of protecting authors’ rights, the proposed settlement asks the court to reallocate the economic and moral rights to authors’ work, to give Google rights to use their material, and to determine the compensation authors must accept. To make matters worse, the effect of the settlement essentially gives Google a monopoly over the scanned publications and does require the company to make them available to other online services that might offer them at different prices or with different compensation for authors.

The proposed settlement is theft—pure and simple—and its proponents want to ravage and rewrite authors rights so that Google's acts will no longer be defined as larceny. The result will reward Google for illegally appropriating material, hardly a message that society should want to send to thiefs.

If the court accepts the settlement, authors will be victimized for the sake a $150 billion Internet company and the world’s biggest publishers. Where is the equity and the justice?

Friday, 14 August 2009

JOURNALISM STARTUPS ARE HELPFUL, BUT NO PANACEA FOR NEWS PROBLEMS

One of the most exciting developments in journalism is the widespread appearance of online news startups. These are taking a variety of not-for-profit and commercial forms and are typically designed to provide reporting of under-covered communities and neighborhoods or to cover topics or employ journalistic techniques that have been reduced in traditional media because of their expense.

These initiatives should be lauded and supported. However, we have to be careful that the optimism and idealism surrounding these efforts not be imbued with naïveté and unbridled expectation. All these initiatives face significant challenges that require pragmatism in their organization and sober reflection about their potential to solve the fundamental problems in the news industry today.

We need to recognize that these online initiatives are not without precedent. We can learn a great deal about their potential from other community- and public affairs-oriented media endeavors. Community radio, local public service radio and television, public access television, and not-for-profit news and public affairs magazines have existed for decades and provide some evidence about the potential of the startups. Most rely heavily on the same types of foundation, community support, and membership financial models that startups are employing and this gives them a head start in the competition of those resources.

Despite sharing fundamental objectives and goals, these existing news and public affairs enterprises exhibit wide differences in the services they provide and their effectiveness in offering them. Many suffer from precarious financial conditions.

For the most part, such initiatives are highly dependent upon volunteer labor, individuals with the best of intentions who contribute time and effort. Those who manage the operations must expend a great deal of effort to train, coordinate, motivate and support these volunteers. This incurs cost and takes time from other activities.

Most of the organizations operate with highly limited staffs of regularly employed personnel and this is especially true in news operations. Professional journalists working in these organizations tend to be poorly paid; few have health and retirement benefits; most do not have libel insurance that protects aggressive and investigative reporting; few have access to resources to invest time and money in significant journalistic research. The consequence of these challenges is that there tends to be high turnover because the operations typically rely on young journalists who use the organizations to gain professional experience and then move on to better funded or commercial firms.

The community and public affairs operations also exhibit widely disparate size and quality in their journalistic activities. Even most affiliates of National Public Radio—which is generally considered the most successful of non-commercial news operations—tend to have small and relatively undistinguished news operations. Most rely upon the exceptional content of the national organization, large metropolitan affiliates, and the best of the content collectively produced by other local affiliates. Affiliates with larger news staffs and quality tend to be limited to those linked to university journalism programs or in the best-funded metropolitan operations.

The challenges faced in these organizations should not deter the establishment of new online initiatives or keep the rest of us from supporting them. We need to be realistic about their potential, however. In the foreseeable future these startups will tend to supplement rather than to replace traditional news organizations. They may be part of the solution to the problem of news provision, but they alone are not the remedy.

Monday, 10 August 2009

OMG! NEWSPAPERS MAY NOT BE DEAD!

Success in businesses is not the result of highly mysterious factors.

To be successful an enterprise must offer a product or service that people want; it must provide it with better quality and service than other providers—or at a lower price than competitors; it must change with the times and demand; and it must never forget to focus on customer needs rather than its own. And a limited number of competitors helps. Duh.

Many journalists have trouble understanding these principles, however, and we were treated to 2 classic stories in which journalists breathlessly announced this discovery over the weekend.

The New York Times told us about the “resurgent” Seattle Times. The Times is starting to reap the fruits of monopoly caused by the demise of the print edition of the Post-Intelligencer and the stabilizing economy. It has picked up most of the print readers from the P-I, raised its circulation prices, and been able to keep the higher ad rates that were charged when ads were put in both papers. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/10/business/media/10seattle.html

The Associated Press told us “Small is beautiful” and that local papers do not feel competition for big players like CNN, metropolitan television, and Craigslist because they focus on local news and advertising not available elsewhere. “Less competition means the print editions and Web sites of smaller newspapers remain the focal points for finding out what's happening in their coverage areas.” http://tech.yahoo.com/news/ap/20090809/ap_on_hi_te/us_small_newspapers_1

Journalists are also starting to discover that the industry might not be as dead as they have been portraying it to be. A number of stories have reported that the drop in advertising due to the recession appears to be near bottom, that profits and share prices are rising, and there is no wholesale rush to the web by print newspaper readers.

These “surprises” are developing, I believe, because journalists have never covered their own industry with the same interest and vigor that they have covered other industries. This is partly true because they have adamantly and publicly expressed distain for the business side of the news industry and because they tend to accept and endlessly repeat the views of publishers without critical fact checking or seeking better understanding of the business dynamics of news. Whatever happened to the old journalism adage "If your mother says she loves you, check it out!"

Perhaps they will learn.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

PROFITS, RECESSION, AND RECOVERY

New York Times Co., Gannett Co., Media General , and McClatchy Co. have all reported profits in the second quarter and the results have led to share prices doubling and tripling.

The developments must come as a surprise to those who saw the poor performance of recent quarters and convinced themselves that the newspaper industry is dead and gone.

Admittedly, the positive results in the past 3 months were achieved through restructuring, reducing news staffs to their 1970s levels, heavy cost cutting everywhere, and postponing reinvestments. But it shows there is still life in the industry and that the industry can be expected to recover in the coming year if economic conditions continue their current rate of improvement. As I have said many times, a industry with $50 billion in revenue is not going to ignore that revenue, close the doors, and disappear overnight.

Many have viewed the poor company performance in the past 2 years and then mistaken the steep concurrent drop in advertising as evidence of a general decline caused by long-term industry trends. In doing so, they have disregarded the impact of the economy on newspaper advertising and mistaken the dramatic drop in advertising as being an indicator of the industry's broader condition rather than the shorter-term results of 4 quarters of negative growth that have affected the economy as a whole. Some have also ignored the effects of corporate debt problems had on the industry's overall condition.

In multiple blogs and articles journalists and editors have pointed out that newspapers have fared worse than other media in the recession and used that the fact as evidence that the industry is a death's door. Two decades of research on newspapers during recessions, however, has shown newspapers typically fare worse because retail and classified advertising on which the industry relies are more affected by downturns than brand advertising (See post “The Credit Crisis, Volatile Markets, and Recession and Media” and the articles below). Obviously a lot of newspaper managers and journalists don't pay attention to research about their own business.

If one looks at the newspaper advertising expenditures over time (see Figure below), one sees that they fall with recessions and then recover. This pattern was especially evident from 1991 to 1993 and 2001-2003 when short downturns pushed newspapers into decline.

If one considers different category of advertising, it is clear that the classified advertising—which was a driver of growth in the 1990s—was significantly troubled after 2000, but recovered and spiked in 2005 (Figure 2). Its relative decline by comparison to retail and national advertising is probably the result of some substitution with the Internet, nevertheless newspaper classifieds produced $10 billion in 2008—3 times that of online classified.

U.S. newspapers are in a mature industry with low growth potential once recovery from the recession occurs. Most companies will performance reasonably well after the recovery, but certainly some companies will have difficulties because of imprudent strategies and choices. Nevertheless, the industry as a whole will still remain in place producing revenue for many years to come.

It will do so because more than 45 million people are still willing to purchase a paper daily and retail advertisers still gain better results from newspaper advertising than from broadcast, Internet, and other forms of advertising.


Related Articles of Interest
Picard, R.G. & Rimmer, T. (1999). Weathering a Recession: Effects of Size and Diversification on Newspaper Companies, Journal of Media Economics, 23(4):21-33.

Picard, R.G. (2001). Effects of Recessions on Advertising Expenditures: An Exploratory Study of Economic Downturns in Nine Developed Nations, Journal of Media Economics, 14(1): 1-14.

Picard, R.G. (2008). “Shifts in Newspaper Advertising Expenditures and their Implications for the Future of Newspapers,” Journalism Studies, 9(5):704-716.

van der Wurff, R., Bakker, P. & Picard, R.G. (2008). Economic Growth and Advertising Expenditures in Different Media in Different Countries, Journal of Media Economics, 21:28-52.

Friday, 17 July 2009

ONLINE AGGREGATORS AND NEWSPAPER STRATEGY

Google, MSN, and Yahoo and other aggregators are cited by newspaper executives are harming newspapers. But what have they actually done? It is important to have a realistic understanding of their effects if one is to fashion strategies for the future of newspapers and news organizations.

Aggregators carry news stories from major news services and thus make international and national public affairs, entertainment and sports news widely available. The headline news on the aggregators’ home pages is becoming the primary news provider for those less interested in news and the online sections are well-used by news consumers who want more news or more timely news than appears in their daily newspaper.

Aggregators and others sites carrying content from news services are now contributing about 20 percent of the revenue of Associated Press, for example, taking some financial pressure off newspapers to fund the cooperative on their own. Other news services are also gaining income from online operators, thus helping them keep prices lower for newspapers as well.

So how do aggregators news harm newspapers? They harms papers to the extent that some less committed newspaper readers are willing to substitute their local paper with a news sources that don’t cover their cities. Some are willing to do so and this is taking some subscribers and single copy purchasers away from newspapers. U.S. newspapers have lost approximately 6 million circulation since 2000, but about half of that was circulation of the 70 competing newspapers or second editions papers that have been closed since the millennium. So one can thus say that at least 3 million people have decided to use other news sources.

Aggregators are also accused of STEALING value through their search functions and links to newspaper sites. Certainly the aggregators are CREATING value with the technique but are they taking value in violation of copyright or norms of content use? The answer is “no” because they do not represent the material as their own and direct those searching to the newspapers own sites, where they are exposed to advertising sold by the online newspapers.

Newspapers are now getting between 7-10 readers online for every reader they have in print. This plays an important role in making their sites attractive to advertisers, a development that generated the $3.2 billion in online advertising revenue that newspapers received in 2008.

Newspapers, of course, could stop the aggregators from linking to their content by putting it behind walls and charging for its use. If they did so, the aggregators could not link to it legally or technically without users encountering a pay or registration wall. So why haven’t newspapers done this until now? Frankly, because they get more readers and more advertising income by offering the material free.

Publishers are increasingly arguing that they should turn newspaper sites into paying sites and they have been holding joint discussion about how that might happen and whether it would be beneficial to do so simultaneously. This has raised some antitrust concern, but it raises real and significant questions of what such a strategy would accomplish.

In my estimation it is not as easy answer to the challenges newspapers face and has some elements that put its effectiveness in doubt. This is primarily because it is uncertain what existing readers will do. Will they subscribe to print AND online? Will they stay with print only? Or will they drop print?

The first option would be financially beneficial, but is likely to attract a limited number of readers unless the joint pricing is so attractive that it produces little new income for the newspaper firm. If that is the case the benefit of the strategy is reduced. The latter option would be very damaging to papers because print advertising creates more value than online advertising and prices for print ads would decline more than would be gained online.

It also needs to be recognized that people who do not currently buying newspapers are unlikely to buy subscriptions to online news sites. Thus, creating a paid model will likely reduce the boosted audience that free online news currently provides. This would have a negative effect on online audience and the increasing revenue that is being obtained from online advertising.

But what of heavy news users? As I have written in other entries in this blog, heavy users tend to be promiscuous and move between many online news sites. A commonly used system for micropayments would be necessary or these heavy users will reduce their use of multiple sites if each requires separate payment registration. Even with such a system in place, it is unlikely that more than 5-10 percent of the newspaper purchasing population would regularly use such a system.

Moving to a paid online model will not be as easy as agreeing that everyone should switch to paid on January 1 next year. It will require considerable strategic thinking and providing new types of value for consumers if it is to be successful. Even then, the benefits for newspapers will vary significantly depending upon the size, location, and competitive situation of individual newspapers.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

THE POOR CONNECTION BETWEEN INTERNET ADVERTISING AND NEWSPAPER WOES

Self deception is more damaging than lies told to us by others because it more strongly affects our perceptions and decisions. One of the biggest self deceptions in the newspaper industry today is that the Internet is striping newspapers of advertising dollars and is a primary cause of its economic woes.

There is no question that Internet is increasingly attracting advertising revenues. They reached $23.4 billion in the U.S. in 2008. Looking at the numbers more closely, however, one sees a different story. About half those expenditures are search and lead generation fees that don’t compete with traditional newspaper advertising. Search payments alone are the single largest category of Internet income and represent 40% of total online fees.

Internet classified advertising—the direct competitor to newspaper classifieds—has never exceeded 20 percent of online advertising revenues and it is declining as a percentage of the total. Online classified advertising was $3.2 billion in 2008, about one third of the classified advertising expenditures in U.S. newspapers. Nevertheless, some newspaper executives and industry observers act as if all the online classified revenue has been diverted from newspapers, but the evidence of that is not very persuasive. As this figure shows, between 2003 and 2006, Internet classified grew considerably, but newspaper classifieds not only held their own but increased as well. Clearly there has been a significant decline in the past 2 recession years, but there is no evidence it is shifting to online classified advertising.

U.S. NEWSPAPER AND ONLINE CLASSIFIED EXPENDITURES, $ BILLIONS
If one considers annual gain or loss of classified advertising in the two media one sees that the patterns do not indicate any substantial demand side substitution (advertisers switching from one to the other) because the figures do not rise and fall in the same patterns or in somewhat similar amounts.

NET GAIN/LOSS FOR NEWSPAPER AND ONLINE CLASSIFIEDS, $BILLION
So why does the Internet constantly get the blame for newspaper woes? I believe it is because of it is just the newest in a series of threats to newspaper revenue. The Internet certainly is taking some money from newspapers, but it isn’t the worst culprit. The real competitor is direct mail and home delivery advertising that have taken much preprint and display advertising from newspapers in recent decades by delivering better household reach. That was compounded by the significant reduction in the number of large retailers in the late 1990s and 2000s. The development of the recession in 2007 and 2008 is currently playing the major role because newspaper advertising—especially classifieds—is more strongly affected by recessions than other types of advertising. But recessions come and go and there is no reason to believe that an advertising recovery will not accompany an improvement in the economy.

I don't mean to say that some former classified advertisers are not shifting to online sites, or starting their own company sites, allowing allows them to market more inexpensively. But newspapers can strive to get them back and to keep others from leaving by aggressively marketing to those people and firms and by creating effective print and online newspaper classified packages that provide more effective advertising responses for them.

The end for newspapers is not in sight and those who think that the $50 billion industry is going to collapse and disappear within a year or two because of Internet advertising are just not paying attention close enough attention to what is really happening across media industries.

Friday, 12 June 2009

SALARIES RISE BUT JOURNALISTS DON'T BENEFIT

Salary data from the annual newspaper compensation study done by the Inland Press Association underscores the points I made in a lecture at Oxford University recently on why journalists deserve low pay.

According to the salary study, average newspaper wages in the U.S. increased 2.1% between 2008 and 2009, but that result was skewed because hefty increases went to producers of interactive (online) content and editorial personnel involved in new business development. Journalists on the average received no or marginal increases depending upon their category.

My lecture, which was carried in a significantly reduced form in the Christian Science Monitor , and redistributed by multiple online sites and blogs, produced shock, anger, and invective by many journalists who missed its point. The text of the full lecture can be found at the website: http://www.robertpicard.net/files/Why_journalists_deserve_low_pay.pdf

Journalists today create very little economic value and are having a difficult time getting people to pay for the social value they create. The fact that newspapers are rewarding those who help create new businesses and revenue streams far above traditional journalists accentuates this point.

I admit that the title of my speech was deliberately provocative. It was meant as a wakeup call from a former journalist who loves the news industry. The reality is that no one deserves either high or low pay. The level of pay is EARNED. Journalists deserve pay based on the economic value they create (evidenced by what the public is willing to pay for news) or on the willingness of the public to support social purposes contributing funds to foundations or non-profit news operations.

In today’s world—in which the mass audience for newspapers and its business model are disappearing—continuing to provide the same types of coverage and content in the past will not create economic value and earn good pay. I do not believe that Internet news aggregators, community journalism, and blogging will ever replace the functions of good journalism and it will not replace the functions of most newspapers in the short to mid-term. There is hope for journalism.

If journalists want to promote good journalism and value creation that makes them earn more pay, they will have to take more responsibility for coverage decisions and content choices so that journalism becomes more valuable. Journalists have shown unusual willingness to leave those decisions to publishers and editors who have stopped acting like journalists. But it need not be that way.

Thursday, 4 June 2009

THE END OF JOURNALISM?

The question of whether we are witnessing the end of journalism is perhaps the most common topic at contemporary gatherings of journalists and journalism scholars. Although hushed and apprehensive conversations about it have taken place in recent years, today’s discussions are open and filled with alarm and fear.

Many of the voices and opinions, however, misunderstand the nature of journalism. It is not business model; it is not a job; it is not a company; it is not an industry; it is not a form of media; it is not a distribution platform.

Instead, journalism is an activity. It is a body of practices by which information and knowledge is gathered, processed, and conveyed. The practices are influenced by the form of media and distribution platform, of course, as well as by financial arrangements that support the journalism. But one should not equate the two.

The pessimistic view of the future of journalism is based in a conceptualization of journalism as static, with enduring processes, unchanging practices, and permanent firms and distribution mechanisms. In reality, however, it has constantly evolved to fit the parameters and constraints of media, companies, and distribution platforms.

In its first centuries journalism was practiced by printers, part-time writers, political figures, and educated persons who acted as correspondents—not by professional journalists as we know them today. In the nineteenth century the pyramid form of journalism story construction developed so stories could be cut to meet telegraph limits and production personnel could easily cut the length of stories after reporters and editors left their newspaper buildings. Professionalism in the early 20th century emerged with the regularization of journalistic employment and professional journalistic best practices developed. The appearance of radio news brought with it new processes and practices, including “rip and read” from the news agencies teletypes and personal commentary. TV news brought a heavy reliance on short, visual news and 24hour cable channels created practices emphasizing flow-of-events news and heavy repetition.

Journalistic processes and practices have thus never remained fixed, but journalism has endured by changing to meet the requirements of the particular forms in which it has been conveyed and by adjusting to resources provided by the business arrangements surrounding them.

Journalism may not be what it was a decade ago—or in some earlier supposedly golden age—but that does not mean its demise is near. Companies and media may disappear or be replaced by others, but journalism will adapt and continue.

It will adapt not because it is wedded to a particular medium or because it provides employment and profits, but because its functions are significant for society. The question facing us today is not whether journalism is at its end, but what manifestation it will take next. The challenges facing us are to find mechanisms to finance journalistic activity and to support effective platforms and distribution mechanisms through which its information can be conveyed.

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

The Challenges of Online News Micropayments and Subscriptions

The impetus toward subscriptions for access and micropayments for single use of online news is growing because online advertising alone cannot sustain the news organizations necessary to provide high quality and broad coverage.

In recent weeks Rupert Murdoch announced News Corp. will begin shifting its newspapers to an online paid model in the next 12 months, starting with Wall Street Journal and then progressively shifting papers such as the New York Post, The Times of London, the Sun and The Australian to a paid model. Dean Singleton followed by indicating MediaNews Group will begin doing the same for its papers, including Denver Post, San Jose Mercury News, Detroit News, St. Paul Pioneer Press, and Salt Lake city Tribune.

Clearly charging for online news is likely to reduce online consumption because of elasticity of demand, but—setting aside the extent to which demand for online news will fall if a price is imposed—moving to a paid model will also creates two common, industrywide challenges.

First, it forces each publisher to bear costs of setting up their own payment system. Secondly, it imposes a heavy burden on consumers. The latter burden results not from having to pay for news, but from the fact that online readers typically do not use only one online news source—unlike the market for print newspapers in which readers typically subscribe to only one paper.

It currently appears that each online newspaper or their corporate parent will set up their own payment systems. The options being most discussed are subscriptions for use or electronic wallets from which to make micropayments for occasional use.

These factors will have a particularly negative affect on the heaviest online news users—voracious and promiscuous readers who seek news from multiple news organizations. If each newspaper sets up its own payment system, for example, these readers will have to have separate payment accounts for the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, and dozens of other publications they wish to visit.

To deal with this challenge the newspaper industry should seek to create a joint venture or cooperative to solve the problem. Companies should work together to developing a single system that is usable across sites and one that can be extended to handle payments for other types of online content. Such a system would simplify and encourage payment for content, but also develop a new revenue stream by turning the payment system from a cost center to profit center by charging companies for its use.

Free is clearly not the right price for news, but the movement to a paid model will not be as simple as transferring the existing subscription and single copy payment models for print newspapers to their online counterparts. Seeking payment online creates new challenges and opportunities that will require new thinking about how payments are made and more cooperation across the industry.

Saturday, 2 May 2009

Seeing through the Haze Surrounding Websites, Blogs and Social Media

Communicating regularly is hard work. It takes skill; it takes a voice; it takes having something to say; it takes time. Making money from it is even harder.

The functions provided by websites, blogs, and social media clearly make it possible for people to express themselves in ways never before imagined, to share their opinions, to express their hopes and dreams, and to share the details of their lives. Media companies are watching these developments and many are rushing to provide content on any communication technology or application the public uses.

Although large numbers of people are trying the new technologies, they are reacting to them in different ways. Some find them highly useful and satisfying; some find them worthless and disappointing; some find them a worthy pastime; others find them a waste of time. What this means is that—like all technologies—they are more important to some people than to others. Consequently, managers need to be realistic in assessing their potential, the extent to which they are being used by the public, and the extent to which they provide opportunities that media companies should pursue.

Because those promoting the technologies are self interested, uptake figures are easy to come by. Finding out who has tried the technologies, but decided they were undesirable is harder. However, research is showing some interesting results in that regard. We now know that 60 percent of the people who try Twitter stop using it within a month, that only about 5% of blogs are regularly updated, that more than 200 million blogs have been abandoned, and that about 37 million web domain names are deleted every year.

Most people and organizations who try these new communication opportunities make limited use of them or give up on them altogether because of boredom or because the opportunities don't provide sufficient results. This is not to say they are not unimportant, however. A good number of individuals and companies are using them to create new abilities and opportunities to communicate with friends, colleagues, and customers and to establish new businesses and revenue streams. Doing so, however, takes commitment that most people and firms are unwilling to make.

From the business standpoint one has to be realistic when evaluating the opportunities presented. Media executives need to ask hard questions: Do all media companies need to provide content across every available platform regardless of the cost and effort? Are all types of news and information appropriately carried on all platforms? In what ways is branding and marketing for the company actually served by these engagements? How are these monetized? What are the returns on the investments? What are the risks of not engaging these technologies?

Success is not easy in this technological environment. It requires investment, effort, regular activity, and provision of content that people want. Media managers choosing to use these new technologies must be clear-headed in their decisions and pursue well-founded strategies or they will be lost in the maze of competing and alternative opportunities.

Saturday, 25 April 2009

BANKRUPT NEWSPAPERS GIVE EXECUTIVE BONUSES

Failure isn’t what it used to be. Bankrupt newspaper companies are following the lead of AIG and Lehman Brothers and rewarding executives with large bonuses. The Tribune Co. is trying to pay out $13 million in bonuses, the Journal Registers Co. is trying to pay $2 million, and Philadelphia Newspapers has already given hundreds of thousands in bonuses to its corporate officers.

Company spokesmen say the bonuses make good business sense by rewarding good performance and keeping executives from leaving the companies. Both arguments are hollow. The first rationale rewards performance in running the companies into the ground and the retention rationale assumes other newspaper companies are hiring and would want to hire the tainted executives.

The issue of bonuses has emerged because newspapers filing for bankruptcy are not liquidating, but using Chapter 11 to create reorganization plans that will allow them to change the terms of the debt and union contracts. They have to seek approval from the bankruptcy court for their expenditures.

It is true that most of the papers in these bankrupt companies are making operating profits, but their corporate parents are losing money. The fact that profits exist are one of the reasons the companies have been petitioning the bankruptcy courts to allow them to pay bonuses. Not surprisingly, company debt holders—including states that are owned taxes—are not too happy with the idea and employees who have suffered layoffs and wage concessions are rightfully resentful.

The bonus debacle is yet another indication that the bankruptcies were created in the board rooms and corporate offices, not by the economic downturn. Poor corporate and management decisions are their root problem.

The newspaper business is clearly hurting because of the recession, but it is not a unique phenomenon. About once a decade for the past 50 years, recessions have played havoc with newspaper revenues, but the industry has survived them. Poor economic times, however, push companies whose managers have not paid sufficient attention to their balance sheets into financial crises and bankruptcy.

The last time we saw such wholesale problems was in 1991-1993 recession. Ingersoll fell into insolvency in 1991 and was broken up after its use of junk bonds for financing backfired. The New York Daily News went into bankruptcy that year as part of the collapse of the Robert Maxwell house of cards. United Press International went into bankruptcy in that recession as well. All three were victims to poor managerial choices made earlier and their positions became untenable in the recession.

History is repeating itself.

The bankruptcies today are the result of companies surpassing their financial capabilities and because executives have exceeded their own abilities to manage the firms. Some newspaper executives unwisely loaded their companies with enormous debt to make acquisitions and others are in trouble because the cumulative weight of poor management over a period of time has finally caught up with them.

Most newspapers, however, are surviving the downturn and will be serving their communities for many years. They are responding to the poor advertising climate with responsibility and thrift--NOT by giving executive bonuses that should be used for strengthening their businesses.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

PERFORMANCE PROBLEMS SHAKE MYSPACE

The high hopes that News Corp. had for MySpace when it paid $580 million in for the social networking site in 2005 have never been realized and appear more elusive than ever.

Consequently, MySpace co-founders Chris DeWolfe (who is CEO) and Tom Anderson (who is President) are being pushed out of their management roles in major shakeup of the company's leadership.

The move is signals News Corp’s concern over the site’s declining market share and poor returns.

In the past three years Facebook has surpassed MySpace in total number of users worldwide, but MySpace has managed to remain the largest site in the U.S. and has 130 million users globally.

In 2008 the company had estimated advertising revues of $585 million, with the bulk coming from its ad-sharing deal with Google. But it will take a long, long time for News Corp. to recoup its investment at that pace. That revenue problem is compounded because Google has been unhappy with its MySpace deal and is unlikely to continue it at present terms when it expires next year.

The shakeup at MySpace underscores the value creation challenges that online media face. Services are typically offered free to generate high numbers of users and then these are used to create audiences for advertising or as a market for up-selling enhanced services. Although the audiences are attractive for some advertisers and some types of advertising, online advertising is not yet as effective as television and print advertising for most brands and retailers.

DOES ONLINE NEWS STILL NEED OFFLINE TIES?

When the Seattle Post-Intelligencer ceased publication in mid-March it continued www.seattlepi.com as a web-only publication. It employs 20 persons, making it one of the largest online staffs of any local Internet news organization.

Although it has a much smaller staff than the print edition did, the site continues to cover local news and sports, provides national and international feeds, and features local bloggers. In many ways it is what many observers have called the future of post-print journalism. It is well recognized that print is an expensive way to convey news, information, and commentary so observers argue that the Internet is the answer for community informational needs because the public is increasingly getting their news there anyway.

It is still early days for forming a definitive view of how dropping print may affect online demand, but the P-I’s situation gives a unique opportunity to observe effects. In February—before the print edition closed—the website had 1.8 million unique visitors. In March, that number dropped to 1.4 million unique visitors. If these initial results hold true over time, it would indicate that print still provides some important reputational and marketing benefits to online activities.

Those interested in the online future of journalism should be watching the Seattle situation with interest in the coming year.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

THE WILD AND WOOLLY WORLD OF CABLE, SATELLITE AND BROADBAND MARKETING

Increasing competition among cable, satellite, and broadband suppliers, combined with slower growth in consumer uptake because the industries have reached maturity, is leading to aggressive marketing efforts to wrestle market share from other companies.

If the leading companies followed classic marketing strategies, they would be offering consumers better arrays of networks and services, better customer service, and/or better prices in efforts to attract more customers.

Instead, many of the largest competitors have been engaging in acts that harm customers and consumers by using illegal and deceptive marketing practices and strategies designed to unwittingly wring greater revenue from their customers. Although the companies apparently think there are benefits in behaving badly, their marketing practices are increasingly getting them into trouble.

Aggressive telemarketing—which has always offended consumers—has landed a number of leading firms in hot water. Comcast and Direct TV have just admitted charges and are paying fines to the Federal Trade Commission for violating telemarketing rules by ignoring the federal do-not-call list. The FTC has also filed a suit against Dish Networks for similar violations.

Companies tend to advertise heavily when competition is high and ads for cable, satellite, and broadband services have helped the revenues of thousands of television stations, newspapers, and magazines across the U.S. Unfortunately, the veracity of advertising claims in cable, satellite, and broadband services has been widely questioned by consumer groups, governments, and other competitors. In recent months Bright House Networks filed a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission about the practices of AT&T, the National Advertising Division of the Council of Better Business Bureau chastised Cablevision for advertising claims after complaints from Verizon, and Verizon itself has been sued for misleading claims by NJ Division of Consumer Affairs.

The industry also sought to market different levels of broadband Internet services to customers and planned to charge different rates for users—a strategy that would allow them to advertise a low price even when many customers would have to pay a higher price based on usage. Plans by Time Warner, Comcast, Frontier Communications and other firms to offer tiered service plans have now been dropped after complaints by customers and legislators.

Cable and satellite firms have traditionally been mavericks and rogues in the media industries and many Internet service firms followed their example. Even though the industries have matured and the number of players has been significantly reduced through mergers and acquisitions, the wild and woolly world they created is still evident in their marketing practices.

We can only hope they will learn to become good corporate citizens—or at least firms concerned about their own reputations.

Saturday, 11 April 2009

TECHNOLOGY RESTORES COLLECTIVE CONTEMPLATION

Humans are social and tribal animals and we have always collectively contemplated the meaning and potential responses to issues and events. In the past tribes gathered around fires and villagers gathered in taverns, cafes, and community halls to consider contemporary developments.

Individual engagement and participation in discussion were the norm, with some reliance on leaders and those who held the history and wisdom of the community.

Lifestyle changes in the 19th and 20th century society created mass society and reduced time and opportunities for collective contemplation. It was replaced by a form of representative contemplation and a greater reliance on expert and professional commentators. The effect was primarily to produce communications telling members of communities what to think and do.

Contemporary communication technologies are dramatically altering that situation and supporting a return to collective contemplation. While not producing face-to-face discussion, blogs and technology-assisted social networking have increased opportunities for discussion and interaction. Individuals are gaining greater opportunities to share their opinions and views, to inform each other, and to respond to and engage in conversation that has been impossible for many years.

Concurrently, technologies are beginning to allow effective meta analyses of buzz, blogs and social networking that gather topics and some sense of opinions being expressed. These information technologies allow us to aggregate the views of millions in ways not previously possible.

Where such technologies will take us in unclear, but the contemporary engagement and contemplation by millions of people online is far better for society than the disenfranchisement that mass society previously encouraged.

Media organizations will have to wrestle with how this collective contemplation is altering the roles and functions of editorial writers, op-ed authors, and columnists. They will have to increasingly engage with the public and see their roles as provoking conversation, not merely telling people what to think.

Saturday, 28 March 2009

EVERYONE'S NOT ATWITTER

Journalists and technology writers are enamored with communications technology and tend to portray successful technologies as representing large scale trends. We are regularly presented with news stories and promotional materials about the rise of new technologies and about how their uses create social trend that are significantly altering society.

The release of the new iPhone was recently featured on network evening news, Blackberry has been heavily discussed because its use by Pres. Obama, and Twitter has been featured in numerous television and newspaper stories. The impression given by coverage is that anyone who doesn’t have an iPhone or Blackberry and anyone who doesn’t Twitter is out of touch with the mainstream and being left out of modern society.

These new means of communications offer interesting possibilities, but their consumption needs to be seen realistically. Blackberry, for example, has 14 million subscribers-- about 5 percent of all mobile phone users in the US. iPhones represents about 1 percent of mobile phone users. The number of Twitter users is currently around 1 million, representing only about 3 tenths of 1 percent of the US population.

Certainly those kinds of numbers can create businesses successes for their firms, but we have to be realistic in interpreting their overall impact on technology markets, social interaction, and diffusion of technologies. Not everyone wants to or will be equally wired, communicating, or sharing mundane details of their lives with their friends and the world. Some persons will find communications enabling technologies more rewarding in business and personal terms than other persons.

It is easy to forget the size of market when discussing the impact of diffusion of technologies. Without doing so, however, one gets a warped sense of their role in contemporary life.

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

ANALYSIS OF THE NEWSPAPER REVITALIZATION ACT

The Newspaper Revitalization Act introduced by Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-Md., would permit newspapers to operate as not-for-profit entities under the tax code and is being heralded by some observers as a means of saving newspapers, much as was the Newspaper Preservation Act of 1970. Good purposes aside, it is useful to study the act to determine whether it will actually accomplish the goals that are stated as its rationale.

The bill is a small bill, about 435 words, that would amend the IRS Code of 1986 to permit newspapers to be given 501(c)(3) status, thus obtaining tax exempt status and the ability to accept charitable contributions. Currently tax laws do not permit newspapers to be operated tax exempt, but they do have mechanisms that permit foundations to own them or support them financially.

Paragraph (b)(1) of the bill would allow general circulation newspapers “publishing on a regular basis” to establish themselves as tax exempt organizations. The language does not limit periodicity so daily, bi-weekly, weekly, monthly, and other combinations would be possible. It would thus permit a range of neighborhood and community non-dailies, as well as dailies to use the mechanism.

Paragraph (b)(2) stipulates that the newspaper contain “local, national, and international news stories.” This section is somewhat problematic because non-dailies, particularly neighborhood and community papers, do not typically carry national and international news and nationally oriented dailies do not typically carry local news. The bill contains no provisions that require local creation of content, thus allowing publishers to fill a paper only with syndicated material or other content produced elsewhere.

Paragraph (c) permits advertising, but limits it “to the extent that the space allotted to all such advertisements….does not exceed the space allotted to fulfilling the educational purpose of such qualified newspaper corporation.” This provision is apparently intended to ensure advertising does not dominate the content and effectively limits advertising to 50 percent of the content. This provision, however, is problematic because daily newspapers and most non-dailies currently contain two-thirds to three-quarters advertising. Indeed the regulations governing Post Office (USPS) distribution limit advertising to 75 percent.

The bill does not require that newspapers have paid subscriptions or even requests to receive the paper, as do USPS regulations, so it would apply free circulation papers.

By giving not-for-profit status to newspapers, the bill would also make the paper eligible for USPS not-for-profit rates, which would permit lower postal delivery rates for such papers than those afforded for-profit papers. This might raise issues regarding the fairness of competition if commercial publishers exist in the market

It should also be noted that the bill makes no provision to limit payments to publishers and editors. This creates the potential for some abuse. A small commercial publisher could use the mechanism to become “non profit” to avoid company taxes by not taking compensation from profits but taking a higher salary instead—effectively letting tax payers subsidize his/her income.

One drawback of using 501(c)(3) status is that entities are not permitted to engage in direct political activities, such as endorsing candidates for local, state, or national office or possibly even taking positions on governmental proposals. This would somewhat limit the scope of content and could lead to IRS investigations if complaints were made to the IRS that a paper was taking sides, was too conservative or liberal, or evidenced some other kind of agenda that was deemed political activity.

It appears that the overall effect of the bill would be limited. It will be appealing to very few dailies and most neighborhood and community papers will have difficulties complying with its content and advertising requirements. Even with tax exempt status, the costs of creation, publishing, distribution of a newspaper probably can not be covered by many publishers with a 50 percent ad limit, unless they are especially effective at raising charitable contributions over time.

The bill appears to be well intentioned, however, it can not solve the problem it purports to address in its current form and creates potential for some abuse.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

THE OVERBLOWN JOURNALIST EMPLOYMENT CRISIS

Journalists keep raising the crescendo of the chorus that journalists are losing their jobs and journalism is suffering. They point to the fact that about 10 percent of journalists have disappeared from newspapers since the millennium when U.S. newsroom employment reached a peak of 56,373.

It is true that cutbacks are pandemic these days, and that these employment reductions hit close to home for journalists, but some context is usually useful when considering the numbers and their impact. Let’s take a look at the U.S. numbers.

The American Society of Newspaper Editors has conducted a newsroom employment census for 3 decades and it presents a telling story. According to the latest ASNE newsroom employment figures, there are 22 percent more journalists in newspapers than there were in 1977 (43,000 in 1977; 52,600 in 2007). Even granting employment losses of 2,000-4,000 since the last census, employment is still about 18 to 20 percent higher than it was in the 1970s. That doesn't seem like an industry employment CRISIS, except for those who unfortunately lost their jobs.

If mere numbers of journalists are considered an indicator of quality, the growth of journalist employment from 1970s to 2000 should have made journalism extraordinary in the 1980s and 1990s. No one should have been surprised by the savings and loan debacle, the Soviet Bloc collapsing, the international debt crisis in developing nations , U.S. aid to governments in central America and the Iran-contra affair, child labor in the developing world, the explosive growth of Chinese economy, or rising domestic and international terrorism. But we were surprised and journalists didn't forewarn us. Obviously, the attention of the rising number of journalists was turned elsewhere.

If you look at newsrooms you can see the problem. Most journalists in newspapers do everything BUT covering significant news. They spend their time doing celebrity, food, automobile, and entertainment stories. Look around any newsroom, or just the lists of assignments or beats, and you soon come to realize that 20 percent or fewer of the journalists in newsrooms actually produce the kind of news that most people are concerned about losing.

It is not the mere number of journalists that matters; it’s the choices that editors and publishers make about how to use the journalists available to them. Journalists are a crucial resource and how they are utilized has a significant influence on quality. Few newspapers have cut sections or types of coverage, choosing instead to cut throughout the newsroom and not to reassign journalists to the kinds of journalism that matters most to society.

It should also be noted that decisions where to cut employment in newsrooms have not been equally spread among employment categories either. According to ASNE statistics the number of newsroom supervisors has declined only seven tenths of one percent since 2000; copy editors 1 percent, photographers and artists 10 percent, and reporters 11 percent. There may be reasonable rationales for that, but the numbers seem unusually lopsided to me. If there are fewer reporters and photographers to be supervised and edited, one would expect that fewer editors and supervisors would be required and warranted.

Maybe it’s about time that journalists stop whining about their troubles and initiate some internal discussions about how their own newsrooms are structured and operated.