Required reading: The birth of Red Eye

From the inestimable Owen Youngman, the sort who always says his mood has never been better in spite of whatever crisis is breaking.

Here he outlines the birth of Red Eye, the youth-focused commuter paper of The Chicago Tribune, and a classic example of disruptive and lean product innovation at work.

The great job you might not think of

Two must-read blog posts from erstwhile colleagues prodded me into finishing this entry, which I started far too long ago.

It’s for all those friends of mine – unemployed, underemployed, or just feeling dead-ended in their traditional newsroom gig.

There’s a  type of job out there you might be good at. It has a title you’d probably never think to look for. Your skills might match it anyway.

“Product manager.” (Here’s an example.)

Terrible title. (Could it be more bureaucratic?)

Great job, though — especially in terms of influence and power.

Product managers get to decide what functionality to add to a website (think commenting and audience-photo submissions for a newspaper site).

They’re at Ground Zero of the launch of new freestanding brands (think of a locally focused entertainment product), or managing the digital equivalent of an old warhouse.

At its core, the role is about representing the customers (note the plural, please) in all decisions – designing a site, deciding what functions a mobile app should have, figuring out what forms of content and advertising a new digital venture should have.

Years ago, when I first started developing new products, I was struck by the similarity of product management to  the role great section editors play – especially over how to allocate your staff and what the highest priority was at the moment.

In other words, if you’re inquisitive, smart and decisive, you can be a great product manager.

Many of the great ones I’ve known and worked with started their careers in newsrooms. They’re always asking questions. They’re voracious readers of anything related to the topic at hand. They know what the competition is up to. And they’re always, always pitching new ideas.

I’m not the only one who has latched onto that analogy. Matt Sokoloff – a long-time product manager for the Orlando Sentinel and Tribune Interactive, now a Reynolds Journalism Institute fellow at Missouri, uses it with students all the time.

“A good journalist can write a good article. But a great journalist can write a great story,” he says. In the same way, “a great product manager can build a great product.”

A couple caveats – both around the idea that you can’t simply waltz into the job and play everything by ear.

Section editors and street reporters tend to rely on experience and intuition (at least they did back in that other century, when I had those jobs).

Product managers risk disaster if that’s their main research tool. They need to use real data – and if none exists, run tests to generate some. (See Eric Ries’ excellent The Lean Startup for more.)

Second, about that plural noted above: Almost every product has multiple customers – and the ones who actually pay are highly important. For most news media, that means the advertisers, not just the audience. And even those segments have sub-segments that you must understand.

Understanding all those nuances takes enormous work. But then being good at a beat, or running the best features section in the state takes work, too.

Leftover stuff:

It’s worth noting that both of the blog posts that prompted me to finish this screed tie back to perhaps the most-brilliant piece of the year about entrepreneurial journalism: David Skok and James Allerton’s remarkably thorough three-part discussion with Harvard Prof. Clayton Christensen.

The piece takes Christensen’s groundbreaking research on disruptive technology and applies it to the business side of news. It’s a true must-read for anyone interested in the future of our business – and it’ll be required reading for the next group of students I’ll be teaching at AU.

Finally, if you want a condensed, rigorous look at those ideas, get your boss to send you to API’s upcoming session on disruptive innovation for news, part of its Transformation Tour.

What 18 students taught us

My friend and former colleague Bill Day and I just finished a great six-week course in entrepreneurial journalism for 18 graduate students in American University’s Interactive Journalism master’s program.

We set out to be intentionally provocative, because Bill and I have seen too many great ideas for projects and products turn into smoldering wreckage because of miscommunication between journalists and business folks. (OK, and partly because Bill and I just like being provocative.)

So we taught it as if it were a master’s level business-school class. We used case studies about interesting media start-ups. We taught the ABCs of financial statements (yes: We made journalists look at numbers) and the grandular details of different revenue models. And we required every student to pitch a sustainable news-and-information venture.

We heard some terrific ideas. But as Tom O’Malia*, a serial entrepreneur and director emeritus of the Lloyd Grief Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at USC,  reminds anyone who will listen: Ideas are cheap.

Entrepreneurial ideas are only useful if they can be refined into a workable business concept – one that has real, paying customers, and delivers clear value to those customers.

Tricky distinction, especially for reporters.

No, your audience is usually not a paying customer. (We won’t get into the tiresome paid-content discussion here – but even at newspapers and magazines, subscription fees from the audience are a small portion of revenues, and an even tinier portion of the profits. The real paying customers are the advertisers.)

We were gratified at how quickly the group caught on.

Many of the ideas were terrific, and got only better by the final pitch session. We’re going to be intentionally vague about the specifics – several folks are still working on their ideas with an eye towards actually executing them in the real world. Suffice to say our interest was piqued by proposals to:

  • Mine rich internal archives of entertainment reviews at a major media company
  • Connect reporters and people who have compelling information to, um, share. (“Leak” is such a loaded word, wouldn’t you agree?)
  • Attack a classified-advertising niche that has largely – and strangely – been left untouched. So far, anyway.

Great. But you know what was even better?

The weak ideas – the ones that started life as “Hey, kids! Let’s put on a website!” (All credit to Mark Potts for that line.)

Over just two months, those weak ideas got better. From vague beginnings emerged sharp proposals to create:

  • A unique alliance around a hyperlocal site to provide modest, yet stable, funding that doesn’t rely on local ad dollars.
  • Community and hobby-driven sites that focus on narrow, but attractive, niches. (All I’ll say about one of those niches: The hobbyists scraped together $15 million to construct a building for their pastime?!? That’s a niche I’d like to capture.)
  • A clever blending of non-profit status, cheap technology and Internet cafes to support women in West Africa.

The point here is not that all of these ideas will work. Perhaps none will.

The point is that 18 young people – hard-core traditionalists, inexperienced cubs, even some NGO and government types – innovated. They combined creativity, perseverance and some basic business principles to develop concepts that are worth testing in the marketplace.

And therein lies the future of journalism: Smaller, nimbler, more creative.

*(As an aside: Bill and I owe a huge debt to Tom for graciously sharing his curriculum and research.)

 

Been silent lately …

… while I started a new gig. I’m now serving as a senior director and publisher for a news and public affairs project at PBS.org.

My time working with both GrowthSpur and Localist.com has been a blast. But the chance to work with Christine Montgomery and the crew at PBS was too much to pass up.

I remain involved with GrowthSpur as a member of its advisory board. The team there has better insight than just about anyone into the growth of independent journalism in the blogosphere (and the economic challenges those independent blogs place), and is doing vital work to help invent the future of journalism.

The same could be said about my new work, too. More on that in the coming weeks. Suffice to say that my new social-networking avatar is the guy on the left here.

Astute Muppet watchers will recognize him as Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, chief scientist at Muppet Labs, “Where the future is being invented today.” How cool is that? I mean, what could possibly go wrong?

If the prospect of being Beaker-ed doesn’t scare you, I’m still looking for a couple of savvy digital producers who join the new team. Details are at pbs.org/jobs.

ONA parachute training in Birmingham

My friends at the Online News Association put together a terrific program at the University of Alabama-Birmingham for entrepreneurial journalists and others interested in starting news and information sites. (Thanks to the Gannett Foundation for the necessary financial support.) 

I spoke a bit about emerging business models to support these kinds of sites (and – plug warning – the work of my partners at GrowthSpur).

You should search on Twitter for the #ONAUAB hash for some of the fascinating discussions that grew out of the sessions. Less fascinating, perhaps, was my presentation – but for those who asked for it, it’s here.

(Why, yes – I used Prezi. My friend Tim Windsor snarks that Prezi screams 2009 the same way a Yamaha DX7 synthesizer screams 1983. But, hey, I liked a-ha.)

Also: Here’s Robert Hernandez‘s excellent presentation on how journalists can use social media tools (both to build audience, and to be better reporters).

And @DannySanchez’s informative riff on free tools doesn’t have a perfect online analog – but he writes about nearly all of those tools (and even more) on his blog, Journalistopia.com.

Why independence matters (Chap. 4,312)

When you check out Tigers.com this morning, you see video of a brilliant catch … but not of a badly botched call that cost a team a perfect game.

Similarly, if you check out TwinsBaseball.com, you see video of home runs … but not an equally botched call that cost the Twins (disclosure: my favorite team) the game.

All credit to MLB Advanced Media: The glaring videos are available on the sites. You just have to hunt for them. (The Tiggers’ video is on the story-level page; the Twins/Mariners’ um, “infield single” is utterly buried on the site’s video ghetto.) Frankly, YouTube was easier. (Wondering if MLBAM has take-down notices flying this morning.)

A small thing, perhaps, in a world where cellphone and surveillance video is used as a publicity weapon in an international incident, and a major oil company is behaving like Keystone Kops in the Gulf – but one more tiny example of odd results when the economics of publishing change.

No magic bullets – so try a hail of them

I’ve been preparing a presentation to the terrific News Entrepreneur Boot Camp at the Knight Digital Media Center next week. I’m part of a panel of folks who have transitioned from the newsroom to business-side roles.

As part of the prep work, I’ve re-read a hefty stack of posts about emerging revenue models for news – advertising-supported for-profits, L3Cs, non-profit structures, even the wishful-thinking paid-content model.

Running through many of the pieces was an irksome thread: A focus on single solutions. Most framed the discussion in terms of “what’s the source of revenue,” as if there were a magic bullet that can solve every operation’s money woes.

There isn’t, of course. What’s more important, though, is there never has been. In times like these, naiveté isn’t charming – and for entrepreneurial journalists, it can be downright dangerous.

No successful news media organization has ever relied solely on a single source of revenue. In fact, the most successful industry segments – newspapers, magazines and broadcast stations – have long had many revenue sources, almost too many to list.

There’s more elaboration – and a rough list of the different sources — in this deck.

Key takeaways:

-  Don’t think too broadly. Even something as seemingly straightforward as “advertising” isn’t a single source of revenue. There are myriad advertising products – each with distinct strengths and weaknesses, sets of customers and sales models.

- As you plan the revenue models for your own proto-business (that’s what start-up journalism sites are, folks), copy the best of traditional organizations. Find multiple streams of revenue.

(Lest this come off as too scolding: I think it’s fantastic to see journalists actually interested in this sort of question. For decades, most of us acted as if the money that powered our organizations was created by magic. Worse, some assumed that it was the result of their brilliant journalism. For a welcome example of incisive, if tardy, analysis, see James Fallows’ terrific Atlantic piece on Google and the news industry.)

Dear Nikkei:

I’m doing this, well, just because I can.

(People who make up asinine policies first need to understand the underlying technology.)

Hat tip @JeffJarvis – who will not seek damages for me linking to him.

Defense loses this ballgame

Most of what I hate about the newspaper industry was encapsulated in a single session at the American Society of News (not Newspapers! Really!) Editors meeting in D.C. a few days ago. An otherwise smart agenda took the inevitable detour down the rabbit hole with yet another discussion of pay walls.

Walter Hussman, publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in Little Rock, flogged his usual paywall-as-a-defense argument: In a world where online users are worth less than print readers, he seems to say don’t bother with the former. “Why would I want to be platform agnostic when I can get (ad rates of) $40 (per thousand print readers) instead of $4?”

 I was reminded of two recent, similar quotes:

  •  An analysis ascribed to Washington Post president Steven Hills in a devastating New Republic piece on the paper’s woes: Post print readers are worth $500 a year in revenue; online readers are worth only $6.
  • Rupert Murdoch’s assertion that users will cough up for online content: “When they’ve got nowhere else to go they’ll start paying.”  

Hussman and Hills are both falling for the same “defense first!” mentality that has crippled innovation at newspapers. They’re implicitly assume print readership will stay the same forever (it isn’t ), and that print ad revenues will maintain, too (they aren’t).

Rupert is making an even bigger mistake. He assumes “nowhere else to go,” conveniently forgetting that his media empire was built on expensive printing plants and government broadcast licenses, each of which makes competition economically unfeasible.

Clearly, Rupe hasn’t noticed that those monopolies are gone (or maybe he’s blustering). Local television stations are emerging as real competitors  to newspaper sites in many markets. Some, like Allbritton Communications in Washington, are building separate sites to target niches and general news. And there are plenty of independent  local  sites, with new ones springing up all the time. On their own, they may not seem formidable. But enough of them in a community could ruin a local newspaper publisher’s day. No wonder potential entrepreneurs are licking their chops.

 (The ease of publishing via free services like WordPress  and Blogger are a key reason that “information wants to be free.” More on that, including some semi-geeky economic theory, another day.)

 If competition makes paywalls nothing more than defense (and the numbers sure seem to make that case), then what’s a better answer? What gets at Hussman and Hills’ arguments that print readers are worth more?

Let’s take this out of the emotional world of change for a second, and into the dispassionate world of math. Everyone remember the commutative and associative properties from third grade?

If your print readers are worth 10 times your online users, then work to get 10 times the number of online users. You’ll make the same amount of money. (Actually, you’ll end up with more – production costs are lower on digital platforms. No paper, no trucks.)

Daunting? Sure. Simply regurgitating your print product in digital formats won’t grow your audience ten times. No single product will, either.

But a network of niche products is part of the answer.

So is good app for the iPad (and don’t forget the waves of similar devices that are sure to follow).

It also means forcing the business side of the house to think clearly and execute.  And it means engaging in biz-side thinking ourselves.

If our goal is to grow our audiences again – not merely milk the ones we have – we have to engage consumers. We have to give them what they want, when, where and how they want it.

Yes, it’s not easy. Innovation never is.

But doing nothing – or hiding behind a paywall – merely guarantees a slow, lingering death for newspapers. That’s unfair to shareholders, to employees – and ultimately to the communities we serve.

A gratuitous post about baseball – and what it means for paid content

Minnesota Twins logo, 1961My favorite ballclub opens their brand-new stadium today, so forgive me if I seem a bit preoccupied.

Watching all the hoopla – on multiple media platforms at once – gives us all another lesson on the folly of the paid-content argument from some traditionalists. Continue reading →