Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Jailbreak: Library of Congress Opens Up Phones and Ebook Readers

As if Andrew Wylie's efforts to jailbreak authors from skimpy ebook reader royalties was not news enough for the moment, the U.S. Copyright Office issued a rulemaking statement from the Library of Congress on how to apply the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) to certain aspects of ebook and software publishing. One key result of this statement is that it is no longer illegal to "jailbreak" smart mobile phones such as Apple's iPhone and Motorola's Droid X to install legally acquired software that is more to the liking of their purchasers than the software installed by the device manufacturer.

The caveat in the statement is that the new software must enable interoperability with other software on the handset or to enable connection of the device to an alternative phone network on which the owner has a contract for service. So, for example, if you have an iPhone with a Web browser that doesn't run Adobe Flash software, or a Motorola Droid that doesn't support complete Android functionality or allow connection to alternaive networks, then hack away, techophiles. The net effect of this ruling is that software cannot be used to prevent other software from using a phone or a phone from using another contracted  network. It appears, then, that so-called "jailbreaking" of phones and is also now legal.

As if that weren't interesting enough, consider the second key ruling that covers ebooks. The Library of Congress statement releases most books that can be listened to using text-to-voice technologies on ebook readers from copyright claims to this audio generation feature. Since publishers make good money selling audio books, this is not likely to be a popular ruling in their circles. The ruling is an end run of sorts, since its rationale is based on the need to prevent discrimination against visually impaired people who may otherwise not have access to ebook materials. Would the U.S. Supreme Court rule against blind people in favor of book publishers to overturn this rule? Not likely.

There is a potential loophole in the finding; the exemption applies only when all of the devices on which ebooks are licensed prevent text-to-voice delivery. Publishers could, in theory, license ebooks on a rarely-used ebook reader to satisfy the needs of the visually impaired for voice-to-text support, thus allowing them to lock out voice-to-text on more popular devices. Don't think that it might not happen. In the meantime, perhaps this is strong motivation for publishers to build better voice-to-text technologies that serve their marketing purposes more effectively.

These types of rulings come out every few years, so this is not necessarily indicative of further immediate rulings against the efforts of publishers to lock down software and information media against technologies that can tailor their products more to the liking of their purchasers. However, it is an indication that there is a growing sentiment in government circles that copyright is being used in some instances to restrain innovation rather than to promote it. In a global economy in which rapid innovation may be the key to outpacing slow growth, the revenues of those governments rely upon robust business revenues and personal incomes that are benefiting from such innovations.

The DMCA still serves an important function in the fight against intellectual property piracy, but it fails to address the broader issue of effective competition in a global economy. In this sense many governments that have followed the U.S. lead in extending the term of copyright to nearly century-long protections have skewed their economies into unsustainable patterns of growth. "Life-plus 70" sounds great until you realize that the real enemy is not piracy but innovators who can deliver more entertaining and useful content more rapidly than your own rest-on-your-laurels operation. These rulings from the Library of Congress are a limited-case reminder that intellectual property that inhibits competition from other legitimate intellectual property  is not in the public interest.

In this sense, the DMCA may have been a death warrant for many traditional software and information publishers, lulling many publishers into thinking that piracy prevention would keep them from having to invest in more innovative business models with any due speed. The protective glove of the DMCA is being loosened gradually, giving publishers time to adjust, but it's not likely to stay on much longer as developing nations continue to play a more bare-knuckled game of innovative competition that is likely to leave many publishers behind. Think of the small disservices that the Library of Congress has provided to publishers in its recent finding as a small service of sorts to remind them of the greater issues at stake.

Whose Right(s)?: Wylie Prods Publishers on Ebook Licensing

Buried in the front matter of my book "Content Nation" you will find the phrase "Copyright © 2009 John Blossom," indicating that I own the rights to the materials that John Wiley & Sons has published. Look at my contract with John Wiley, though, and those rights are about as useful as a deed to the Brooklyn Bridge sold by some back-street con man. Wiley has my materials sewn up pretty well on just about any technology that they can imagine coming forth, leaving me, and most other authors, with a pittance of the proceeds from these sales via royalty payments. It's a state of affairs that's been fairly status quo in the book publishing industry for several years - that is, until literary agent Andrew Wylie decided to rock the boat recently with a stab at liberating its authors to get a fresh deal for their ebook rights.

As one of the most prominent and long-established literary agencies, Wylie has a large stable of popular authors whose contracts with major publishing houses precede by many years the dawn of ebook publishing. Looking at the legal limitations in these pre-ebook contracts and at the opportunities to be had for expanding its take from ebook sales, Wylie decided to test the legal and commercial waters and to start up their own ebook publishing service via Amazon's Kindle ebook service. Wylie's new Odyssey Editions already has a page set up on Amazon for its test case authors, with classics in from authors such as Philip Roth, Saul Bellow and Norman Mailer never before available in ebook format already available for purchase at typical Kindle prices. Interestingly, these Odyssey Editions ebook titles are not yet showing up in search results for these titles on Amazon, although in some poking around I found that the Amazon's listing for the print edition of Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint (published by Doubleday's Vintage division) links to the Kindle edition of the same title from Odyssey Editions.

This obviously tight collaboration between Amazon and Wylie is easy to understand when you look at the pricing for these particular editions. You can buy the paperbook version of Portnoy's Complaint from Amazon for $10.20 plus shipping, or the ebook edition with instant free delivery for $9.99. With miniscule costs for "stocking" this title for readers buying Kindle editions and no middle-man profits to give to Doubleday, there's a much fatter pie to slice up between Amazon, book agents and authors for ebooks. The buzz is that authors and their estates are getting a much nicer take via the Wylie deal, though there's no indication as of yet that Amazon has eased their typical 70 percent share of Kindle revenues. Certainly nobody's thinking about the betterment of humankind in these machinations in any great way. You can blame authors holding out for more royalties for ebooks as much as publishing houses reluctant to offer them for the delay in getting some of these vintage titles in electronic format.

While this is a highly provocative move that's raised quite a bit of attention in publishing circles - The New York Times phrased it "Stirs a Fuss" - Wylie has been careful so far in its statements to indicate that the door is open to negotiating a settlement with print publishing houses. My own sense is that a settlement will be likely, but not until print publishers have exhausted a few more rounds of spin and legal briefs to try to regain some leverage in such negotiations. The strong backing of Amazon in this turf battle complicates the issue of settlement even further, as Amazon has made few friends recently in publishing circles with its increasing dominance of ebook sales. Ultimately this is more of an Amazon fight using Wylie authors as a prominent test case than it is a rogue literary agent charging bravely into the front lines of a fight for authors.

With all that said, though, this is a battle that's long overdue. The idea of an author being offered fifteen to twenty-five percent of revenues as royalty payments from publishers for ebooks is not realistic. This traditional formula, based on print editions, does not reflect the way that the risks of publishing are managed in an electronic era. When publishers had to stock titles in warehouses and manage marketing, shelving and returns from retail outlets, the bulk of the risk was on publishers to maintain a title's marketability for an author. In the era of ebooks, publishers take on a relatively small amount of risk by making materials available in electronic form. More to the point, most major publishers have done virtually nothing to develop and promote the new electronic channels on which much of their future revenues depend. There is no Wiley Kindle or Macmillan Nook, no global network that reaches billions of people that book publishers helped to sponsor to distribute their wares. Book publishers are swooping in for sloppy seconds by claiming publishing rights via technologies that are hand-me-downs for them in virtually every sense.

This road to easy profits is truly foreign to the reasons for which modern copyright was spawned in the first place. Copyright enabled eighteenth-century print publishers, the high-tech growth industry of its era, to take major risks that enabled a wide array of authors to reach mass audiences for the first time in history. Outside of specialties like textbooks and scientific publishing, today's book publishers have risked virtually nothing in electronic publishing for their titles compared to the likes of Amazon, Google, and the dozens of print-on-demand and smaller ebook imprints that are transforming book publishing via online technologies. They are truly the last belles to come to the ball of electronic publishing, reluctantly at that. The rewards in business should go to the risk-takers, not those who want to sit on old claims with old technologies when those resources can be monetized far more effectively via aggressive players with new technologies.

With the explosion of book titles and other electronic materials now available to readers online for little or nothing, the greatest risk-takers of all in publishing these days are the authors themselves. Authors must struggle to get heard above the noise of online content already surrounding their topic areas. The mass-marketing engines that major publishers have set up will continue to work for a handful of prominent authors and popular niche and genre titles, but in general the "hits" of literature will be fewer and further between and packaged increasingly for least-common-denominator audiences choosing between a popular book or a DVD at their local supermarket. For the legion of middle-market authors trying to build their own niche markets, they'll be better off with electronic distribution systems that allow them to take a larger share of the profits from electronic services that make it easier for people with highly specialized tastes to find and appreciate their titles via searches and social media communities.

Thinking of my own book, John Wiley's approach to managing distribution meant that my book, a far-ranging analysis of social media's impact on business, marketing and society, was being shelved along with computer programming manuals. In the search engines of Amazon and Google, it finds virtual shelving in the interests of any number of categories that Wiley would never think of marketing into in a thousand years. Major publishers simply cannot define and react to the highly tailored niches that authors can find and service rapidly via electronic publishing. It will be better for most authors to take the fifty percent of an electronic market and run - knowing that their share of profits will be as secure as their ability to stay relevant in a given set of search results. Yes, you won't be on Oprah as often, but Oprah's retiring soon - and, along with her, the dream of mass market glory for many authors. Best to put those dreams aside and play the market from the bottom up. If you're truly a great author you'll be found soon enough - and in the meantime you'll have your most important rights already locked up.

I suspect that the next chapter in this story will not be written by Wylie or Amazon but by Google when it announces its Editions ebook sales initiative later this summer. While titles from major publishers will get the lion's share of media attention at its launch, my guess is that Google will be well-tuned to the needs of the kind of middle-market authors that are largely neglected by by major publishing houses. Amazon's move with Wylie affects a relative handful of authors compared to those who may be willing to consider building their career using an inherently cross-platform publishing solution more attuned with where technologies are headed for ebook reading. Why get locked into either reader suppliers or publishing houses when search engines and social media channels can carry your titles to the niche audiences that you care about most on the platforms that they like the most? Consider Wylie's little fuss-stirring just the opening skirmish in a much broader battle for book-writing talent that has the search engine prowess of Google written all over it.

Whose Right(s)?: Wylie Prods Publishers on Ebook Licensing

Buried in the front matter of my book "Content Nation" you will find the phrase "Copyright © 2009 John Blossom," indicating that I own the rights to the materials that John Wiley & Sons has published. Look at my contract with John Wiley, though, and those rights are about as useful as a deed to the Brooklyn Bridge sold by some back-street con man. Wiley has my materials sewn up pretty well on just about any technology that they can imagine coming forth, leaving me, and most other authors, with a pittance of the proceeds from these sales via royalty payments. It's a state of affairs that's been fairly status quo in the book publishing industry for several years - that is, until literary agent Andrew Wylie decided to rock the boat recently with a stab at liberating its authors to get a fresh deal for their ebook rights.

As one of the most prominent and long-established literary agencies, Wylie has a large stable of popular authors whose contracts with major publishing houses precede by many years the dawn of ebook publishing. Looking at the legal limitations in these pre-ebook contracts and at the opportunities to be had for expanding its take from ebook sales, Wylie decided to test the legal and commercial waters and to start up their own ebook publishing service via Amazon's Kindle ebook service. Wylie's new Odyssey Editions already has a page set up on Amazon for its test case authors, with classics in from authors such as Philip Roth, Saul Bellow and Norman Mailer never before available in ebook format already available for purchase at typical Kindle prices. Interestingly, these Odyssey Editions ebook titles are not yet showing up in search results for these titles on Amazon, although in some poking around I found that the Amazon's listing for the print edition of Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint (published by Doubleday's Vintage division) links to the Kindle edition of the same title from Odyssey Editions.

This obviously tight collaboration between Amazon and Wylie is easy to understand when you look at the pricing for these particular editions. You can buy the paperbook version of Portnoy's Complaint from Amazon for $10.20 plus shipping, or the ebook edition with instant free delivery for $9.99. With miniscule costs for "stocking" this title for readers buying Kindle editions and no middle-man profits to give to Doubleday, there's a much fatter pie to slice up between Amazon, book agents and authors for ebooks. The buzz is that authors and their estates are getting a much nicer take via the Wylie deal, though there's no indication as of yet that Amazon has eased their typical 70 percent share of Kindle revenues. Certainly nobody's thinking about the betterment of humankind in these machinations in any great way. You can blame authors holding out for more royalties for ebooks as much as publishing houses reluctant to offer them for the delay in getting some of these vintage titles in electronic format.

While this is a highly provocative move that's raised quite a bit of attention in publishing circles - The New York Times phrased it "Stirs a Fuss" - Wilie has been careful so far in its statements to indicate that the door is open to negotiating a settlement with print publishing houses. My own sense is that a settlement will be likely, but not until print publishers have exhausted a few more rounds of spin and legal briefs to try to regain some leverage in such negotiations. The strong backing of Amazon in this turf battle complicates the issue of settlement even further, as Amazon has made few friends recently in publishing circles with its increasing dominance of ebook sales. Ultimately this is more of an Amazon fight using Wylie authors as a prominent test case than it is a rogue literary agent charging bravely into the front lines of a fight for authors.

With all that said, though, this is a battle that's long overdue. The idea of an author being offered fifteen to twenty-five percent of revenues as royalty payments from publishers for ebooks is not realistic. This traditional formula, based on print editions, does not reflect the way that the risks of publishing are managed in an electronic era. When publishers had to stock titles in warehouses and to manage marketing, shelving and returns from retail outlets, the bulk of the risk was on publishers to maintain a title's marketability for an author. In the era of ebooks, publishers take on a relatively small amount of risk by making materials available in electronic form. More to the point, most major publishers have done virtually nothing to develop and promote the new electronic channels on which much of their future revenues depend. There is no Wiley Kindle or Macmillan Nook, no global network that reaches billions of people that book publishers helped to sponsor to distribute their wares. Book publishers are swooping in for sloppy seconds by claiming publishing rights via technologies that are hand-me-downs for them in virtually every sense.

This road to easy profits is truly foreign to the reasons for which modern copyright was spawned in the first place. Copyright enabled eighteenth-century print publishers, the high-tech growth industry of its era, to take major risks that enabled a wide array of authors to reach mass audiences for the first time in history. Outside of specialties like textbooks and scientific publishing, today's book publishers have risked virtually nothing in electronic publishing for their titles compared to the likes of Amazon, Google, and the dozens of print-on-demand and smaller ebook imprints that are transforming book publishing via online technologies. They are truly the last belles to come to the ball of electronic publishing, reluctantly at that. The rewards in business should go to the risk-takers, not those who want to sit on old claims with old technologies when those resources can be monetized far more effectively via aggressive players with new technologies.

With the explosion of book titles and other electronic materials now available to readers online for little or nothing, the greatest risk-takers of all in publishing these days are the authors themselves. The mass-marketing engines that major publishers have set up will continue to work for a handful of prominent authors and popular niche and genre titles, but in general the "hits" of literature will be fewer and further between and packaged increasingly for least-common-denominator audiences choosing between a popular book or a DVD at their local supermarket. For the legion of middle-market authors trying to build their own niche markets, they'll be better off with electronic distribution systems that allow them to take a larger share of the profits from electronic services that make it easier for people with highly specialized tastes to find and appreciate their titles.

Thinking of my own book, John Wiley's approach to managing distribution meant that my book, a far-ranging analysis of social media's impact on business, marketing and society, was being shelved along with computer programming manuals. In the search engines of Amazon and Google, it finds virtual shelving in the interests of any number of categories that Wiley would never think of marketing into in a thousand years. Major publishers simply cannot define and react to the highly tailored niches that authors can find and service rapidly via electronic publishing. It will be better for most authors to take the fifty percent of an electronic market and run - knowing that their share of profits will be as secure as their ability to stay relevant in a given set of search results. Yes, you won't be on Oprah as often, but Oprah's retiring soon - and, along with her, the dream of mass market glory for many authors. Best to put those dreams aside and play the market from the bottom up. If you're truly a great author you'll be found soon enough - and in the meantime you'll have your most important rights already locked up.

I suspect that the next chapter in this story will not be written by Wylie or Amazon but by Google when it announces its Editions ebook sales initiative later this summer. While titles from major publishers will get the lion's share of media attention at its launch, my guess is that Google will be well-tuned to the needs of the kind of middle-market authors that are largely neglected by by major publishing houses. Amazon's move with Wylie affects a relative handful of authors compared to those who may be willing to consider building their career using an inherently cross-platform publishing solution more attuned with where technologies are headed for ebook reading. Why get locked into either reader suppliers or publishing houses when search engines and social media channels can carry your titles to the niche audiences that you care about most on the platforms that they like the most? Consider Wylie's little fuss-stirring just the opening skirmish in a much broader battle for book-writing talent that has the search engine prowess of Google written all over it.

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Numbers Game: Looking at the Google/Apple/Microsoft Wars from the Bottom Line

You can look at the competition between Google, Apple and Microsoft for content technology supremacy from any number of angles these days, but let's try the bottom line on for size first and see where it leads the story. While I am a little ahead of earnings announcements from Apple and Microsoft this week, it's likely from what analysts are saying that Apple will please investors on overall revenues - perhaps even surpassing Microsoft this quarter, if not next - but deliver disappointing profit margins. That would seem to be in line with Apple's strong push to buy market share for its new iPhone 4 and iPad devices at any cost, a cost that apparently includes taking huge risks on apparently known service issues with iPhone 4 and known limitations on content delivery on iPad. Apple is not alone in worrying some investors, though, as Google's earnings also feature strong revenue gains and year-on-year earnings growth, but not such strong growth as to please some financial analysts.

On the surface you might say that these three companies are neck-and-neck in a fight to the death for electronic content supremacy. But looking at this from more than a quarterly earnings perspective, I do think that the real long-term victors in this story are going to be Google and Microsoft, with Apple playing an important role but increasingly becoming locked in to character traits that shift from being virtues to defects. By contrast, Google's virtues are just beginning to come to fruition, while Microsoft may yet manage to pull off an IBM-like transformation of crumbling old business models that help it to retain enterprise market revenues while rethinking its consumer platforms.

Of all three of these, Google has the strongest overall prospects. With more than USD 30 billion in cash on hand, wise strategic investments in global markets and forward-thinking platforms, Google just keeps expanding its potential revenue base with little to lose. One of the key reasons that Apple has tripped as of late is that it was keen to rush its hottest mobile products to market ahead of competitive devices coming out that are equipped with Google's Android operating system. Being first certainly does count in marketing, especially when you have a journalist-charmer like Steve Jobs able to whip up media coverage to a fine froth as a virtual science. But in the process of doing so, Apple left many key opportunities on the sidelines. By insisting on a proprietary approach to product hardware and operating system development and tight control over who may market via its App Store, Apple was able to charm relatively affluent technophiles in the U.S. and other developed nations. However, this came at the expense of rapid penetration of both developed and developing nations such as India and China through less expensive devices and more flexible partnering relationships.

Put simply, Apple has insanely beautiful products but an "old school" marketing strategy that carries with it inherent limitations on its margin and growth potential that Google lacks. Perfect control over a product can get you only so far in a world in which open partnerships are setting the pace for product and market development. An interesting contrast can be found in Google's newly announced App Inventor for Android.  App Inventor promises to make the development of applications for mobile platforms about as easy as it is to write a post for a blog. Hmm, millions of people around the world developing apps that suit their personal needs versus some thousands of software developers popping out apps that are mostly reskinned versions of Web pages or ebooks that have to pass through Apple's skinny mother-may-I filter. Guess who's about to win the apps war. Add in search, ads and Google's upgrades to its own app store for premium software due later this year and it's a foregone conclusion that Apple's key potential revenue advantage in mobile is about to start dissipating.

Google also has potentially strong trump cards against Microsoft's key strengths, but in spite of its ongoing identity crisis Microsoft has a lot stronger overall market position at the moment than Apple from which to launch a comeback. Microsoft's key strengths are a very successful launch of Windows 7, an operating system that puts the nightmare of its Vista operating system in the rear view mirror, and continued reliance on Microsoft system and office automation software in enterprises. While its Bing search engine is still a relatively minor contributor to earnings, it is an investment in future growth that is likely to pay off as Microsoft finds a widening array of partners looking for an alternative to Google as a search partner that will be respected toe-to-toe by search-savvy Web audiences. This is likely to help contribute to revenue diversification via ads and partnerships. All of these are likely to help Microsoft fuel a shift to more enterprise revenues via Web-based information services and a revamped mobile strategy that eliminates platform clutter and leverages Bing's strengths.

At the end of the day, though, it will be Google leading in many if not most key categories for market share and global growth over the next few years. Premium apps? Search will be essential to find them as thousands of them turn into millions and billions. Throw in Google's support for any Web-based application in its apps search strategy, including Google own forthcoming games platform, and findable software and rich content is going mostly Google's way. In a couple of months, Google TV will usher in an era in which we will use search to integrate the Web, TV and our mobile devices as never before - again a key opportunity for ads, as well as for premium content revenues. Mobile devices? Android has just started to hit the market in significant ways in the past six months; a year from now Android will be nearing Apple for mobile unit dominance. Tablet players from Google, HP and Microsoft will further diminish the unique advantage that Apple enjoyed as a first-mover into this segment, especially as more people opt for platforms that allow more easy content portability.

Microsoft will continue to lead in office automation and systems, but as new platforms such as Google Wave and maturing platforms such as Google Apps for Domains gain momentum, it will become harder for Microsoft to claim significant advantages in Web-based enterprise services. Devices using Google's upcoming Chrome OS browser-based operating system may also challenge Microsoft in enterprise markets where most work is done in Web-based services. There is enough cash from existing product lines to fuel more competitive enterprise offerings from Microsoft, and more likelihood that investors will nudge Steve Ballmer off to the sidelines to enable a new generation of Microsoft engineers and managers to take the lead. There is plenty of good thinking at Microsoft that is just looking for the right leadership to get it pushed up the priority chain into the right product and services offerings. Its main trailing indicator for growth will be the lack of a growing content monetization strategy. Bing will carry Microsoft in this direction only so far. With Yahoo cutting off its flank for the moment in destination content, Microsoft will need to pull off some small miracles in social media development or acquisition to get its ad revenues rolling more robustly.

So there you have it. One company hands out rubber bands for a major product "fix," another withdraws a "social media mobile phone" that may not have cracked even a few hundred units in sales, while Google just hums along with supposedly drab operating systems, search products, videos, ad networks and programming tools that most media outlets ignore, don't understand or love to hate - none of which stops Google from growing. Love it or hate it, we're entering the Google decade for many of our most fundamental content technology platforms. The good news is that this will also be the Web decade as a result, empowering intelligent content and services providers to pursue their own rapid growth strategies that benefit from Google's strengths. May you enjoy the opening bell of the markets for years to come.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Three New News Trends: Picks and Pans From the Reinvention of News

As my friend Ken Doctor can attest, these are busy times in the news industry. Payment models, editorial models and distribution models all seem to be up for grabs as news publishers try to brain out a path to survival and success in The Second Web. Three key trends in developing the "new news" seem to be gaining attention recently: payment for Web access to news, responding to Web search trends to develop news content and new approaches to local news development. While it's great to see news organizations experimenting with more innovative approaches to news production, not all of these trends are being played equally or likely to pan out equally. Here are my picks and pans from the news world's recent attempts to move towards better news coverage:
  • Payment for news. Ugh. So far, not so good, overall. With all of the fanfare that Gordon Crovitz, Steve Brill and others ushered in last year promising that we'd be seeing all sorts of great models by mid-2010, the truth is that most of what we are seeing in new news payment models is quite disappointing and the less disappointing experiments are still embryonic. Rupert Murdoch encased all of the Times of London's online content behind a payment firewall starting last week, charging one GBP per day or 2 GBP per week for access to anything but their headlines. Well, have at it, Rupert, but the Web stats seem to point to Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger's prediction of a 90 percent loss of online readers being about right. Thinking of all of the great, subtle ways that this could have been approached using many of the new tools available for intelligent analysis of news access, NewsCorp simply took out the meat cleaver and punted, perhaps in part to meet its commitment to some form of payment by mid-year. If you had to flip a coin and call this either Murdoch's D-Day or his Dunkirk, I think that you'd have to opt for the small boats back to Dover on this one. Yes, you can keep old models afloat this way for a while, and, in the process of doing so, never grow. Next.

    If the Murdoch effort is a failure, then you have to give at least an incomplete to Gannett newspapers, which is experimenting with payment systems via some of its smaller city newspapers such as Tallahassee.com. At first pass, this is yet just another full-scale paywall, this time bundling Web and print subscription access for $9.99 a month. In smaller markets where single-newspaper dominance rules, chains like Gannett may think that they can make progress with such options. but in the not-so-long run it's more likely to prompt more efficient competitors to take on these markets. The promising aspect of this trial is found in a Poynter report which indicates that there are other payment models being readied for experimentation, including payments for popular, targeted niche content such as key collegiate sports teams.  Semi-kudos to Gannett for at least taking an incremental approach before burning their bridges to news consumers nationwide. I think that charging for regular access to niche content that's valued by specific audiences is probably the best way to focus on news worth monetizing via consumer payments.

  • Covering key search trends. The New York Times highlighted recent efforts by Yahoo's newsroom to jump on developing news content that follows key trends in popular Web searches. The concept is to find out which topics are of most interest to people at a given moment and to drive their own journalists' content up into search results - and Yahoo! News pages - that delivers key insights, interviews and how-to information to respond to those interests. Through Yahoo's Associated Content acquisition, they are already well on the way to building a huge library of click-worthy topical content that can attract advertising revenues cost-effectively. These latest efforts hope to attract more premium advertising dollars to more newsworthy topical content. While ballyhooed by the NYT as something new, this is really a very old model - ever hear of "feature sections?" - adapted to the real-time news world of the Web. It's also somewhat disingenuous for the NYT to state in its article lede: "For as long as hot lead has been used to make metal type, the model for generating news has been top-down: editors determined what information was important and then shared it with the masses." Hmm, this seems to ignore decades of nearly automatic repackaging of press releases as bona fide news items by major news organizations. I do think that Yahoo is moving very strongly in the right direction in its news generation, a direction that other online news organizations have been pioneering for quite some time. Too bad that more news organizations don't take such a pragmatic approach to developing profitable Web content that can support general news reporting.

  • Succeeding in local news. With news organizations bleeding money, staff and readers, the time has come for many of them to reinvent themselves more radically to respond to the challenges of today's news environment. Fortunately, both newspapers and the journalism schools that support their cutting-edge thinking are moving towards such experiments rapidly. One such experiment in news reinvention comes from the Journal Register Company, which publishes hundreds of local and regional papers in  northeast and midwestern U.S. communities. The Journal Register's Ben Franklin Project is an effort to face the problems of local news production economics head-on by refocusing on technologies and techniques that create more sustained audience engagement and value. On the technology front, the Journal Register has announced that it has shifted the lion's share of its daily and weekly news production to freely available Web publishing technology platforms such as WordPress, rather than sticking with costly and often ineffective Web publishing platforms used by many news organizations. Since many mainstream news competitors use these technologies already, it's a smart move to shift product costs to the same footing, given the broad array of capabilities that have been developed for these platforms. The other leg of the Ben Franklin project is to get audiences involved in deciding which stories get covered by Journal Register journalists. People in their communities will be encouraged to comment on items that need editorial coverage and interact with journalists as they develop editorial content. While there's probably room in this model to incorporate citizen journalism more directly, this is a gutsy and long-overdue effort to get local news producers turning local news coverage into facilitated community conversations.

    Honorable mention for local news innovation has to go to MainStreet Connect, which is coming up with a new way to franchise local news coverage that includes local merchants and community "heroes" as an integral part of its editorial mix. The MainStreet Connect platform enables franchisees both technology and a business model to develop both content and advertising that seems to work pretty well. Content includes a mixture of hard news, community commentary and soft news including "advertorial" pieces developed with the support of local MSC staff. Content includes pieces such as "Gourmet Mom Has to Gallop No More" about a local career mother who gave up the fast track to start up a local "fast food slow-cooked" gourmet grab-and-go eatery. What's impressive about this effort is the amount of apparent engagement by community members - and advertisers - in a relatively short time, facilitated by promotion through local chambers of commerce and other bridges to local advertisers. When your neighbors are your customers, and vice versa, this type of approach to content development is crucial to making local news more than just the same old coverage of events via methods developed in journalism schools. MainStreet Connect is developing crucial bridges into marketing conversations that are very likely to be models for how local news builds truly effective revenue models that sustain not just their publishing but the economies of the communities that support their publishing.
Will any of these experiments be the shining salvation of the news industry as we have known it? Probably not. With so many interesting and engaging sources for news available these days, there is no sure-fire formula for success on the scale that news organizations have experienced it prior to the emergence of popular born-on-the-Web news services. There is simply too much interesting stuff out there coming from too many directions to make us stand up and salute the "important news" that journalists would like us to crave automatically. Journalism must work hard to get our attention, now, and that's a great thing. It has been said very often that news is "the first draft of history," a concept that must be adjusted to a world in which history increasingly gets written not just by those with access to printing presses and cable television franchises but as well by those with mobile phones, blogs, email and, sometimes, just the willingness to publish a comment. Or, to put it another way, history is no longer written just by the winners, but by everyone who had a hand in its shaping. Finding value in this new first-draft world of The Second Web is still a work in progress, but it's encouraging to see so many news organizations trying to grasp on to its new essence.