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.
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