Monthly Archives: January 2010

The iPad and the Prototype for My News Startup

She didn’t get quite the press coverage as Mr. Jobs, but Annie rolled out the first color versions of the prototype for our would-be news website about an hour after the iPad was unveiled in California. My favorite Danish-born, Rome-based web designer and I are zeroing in on what we will present online (but locked down) to potential collaborators, funders and assorted media biz muckety mucks just like you!? The color version makes it ever more clear that we see eye-to-eye on just about everything…except for, uh, colors. It’s made extra hard by our shared desire to avoid the various shades of red that we see in so many news sites. We’ll see…

Our little coincidence in timing with the folk at Apple only stirred further thoughts about trying to stay up with the fast-changing online world as I try to imagine how our humble offering will work and look when it’s up and running for real. It’s a constant struggle to try to calculate the way technology will change habits and choices of the consumer, and the ways it will not. Will the iPad encourage/discourage people to read longer or shorter pieces? Will it encourage/discourage pay models? Is it basically the web on wheels? Or the web in bed? Again, the fascinating tension with technology and the news business was on display in San Francisco: the mobility and multi-functionality of this new device will help journalists do their work faster and wider (and allow more people do journalism or some iteration therein) even as it would seem to encourage ever more the FREE flow of their work.

Since my core content will be written articles, I for one am constantly asking myself about reading. If video is always there, tempting even the well-meaning, would-be interested reader, is the written word ultimately dying a slow death before our eyes? I don’t think so. In fact, I am waiting for the big thinkers and master builders of Silicon Valley to come up with something electronic/digital/portable that feels both like the latest, slickest thing that offers everything AND is focused on the written word. I think people want that, they want state-of-the-art help turning off all the flashing images of our world.

As for our prototype, we know that on one hand it must help demonstrate what our core content will be, and also show that we will deliver it in an aesthetically appealing and technologically intelligent way. But no, we will not have an iPad version with our presentation. I met last Friday with a sharp and straight-forward content management strategist who is advising me on the project. He said it is important even in with a news and media site to offer at least one technological innovation with a new startup. What about making it video-free?

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Time to Update (Overhaul!?) Biz Plan. Can Paid Content Help Boost Ad Cash?

My would-be adventure from old media hack to new media journopreneur (saw that term today for 1st time…gotta be something better out there, folks?) began late last spring with the sense of wonder in front of a startling “new” piece of technology: Powerpoint. Set to start on my business plan, I was experimenting with something other than basic text software for the first time. Ever. It would be an early clue that the technological hurdles, though always imposing at first sight to a luddite 40-year-old lifelong reporter, are manageable. Tougher, of course, would be trying to figure out what to actually say, and how to shape the business model inside those ever malleable slides.

I used a few images and tight text to zero in on the moving target of arriving rapidly at profitability in an industry that is fundamentally broken. My idea was different, I told myself, it was high-profile AND cost-efficient. But I needed to crunch the numbers. I would, of course, do some estimating and, on the first round, toss out some blatant Hail Mary’s. I got some good help from a sales/publicity chief at one of the top Italian dailies, with loads of online experience, to put some more meat on the bones. Despite all the scenarios we could allude to, it was clear that we had one basic goal: Build Traffic. There is no other word. No other way. If you take away all the talk, the income side of the equation is right now, and for the foreseeable future, centered on hits/page views/unique visitors. Eyeballs. The fact that the interactivity/activity/clickability of the internet means you can now, more or less, quantify those eyeballs in a way that you never could in print (or even TV) is both the great curse, and great opportunity of the Great Transformation in terms of the three-way Audience-NewsSource-Advertiser menage.With the goal of providing general-news journalism (NOT generic/commodity!), my business model can contain scenarios and forecasts for building a subscriber component, but it must be fundamentally ad-based. For now.

Still, for a startup, aiming to build a premium offering, I am approaching the question convinced that both free and paid content actually have all the potential to make each other stronger . They need each other. Even if you want to go quickly to pay, you must start out giving the stuff away in order to create a readership that you might someday charge for it. Conversely, too often the mistake is made to only refer to pay models for their direct subscription/micropayment income, while they can actually produce better…stickier…eyeballs for advertisers. Not only is brand loyalty/relationship that comes with being a subscriber mean more time spent surfing on the site once you get or go there, it also means a greater likelihood of clicking through from an RSS or Twitter feed or Facebook recommendation if YOUR website-of-choice (or one of them) pops up before your eyeballs.

With the many changes that have occurred in the past few months, both inside and outside the ongoing laboratory of my mind’s project, mean that I too must make changes. The NYTimes pay meter and I-Slate are just two bits of news, with little clarity on either. It is also even clearer (at least for me) that Twitter and Facebook are going to be a mass delivery system for the future. But overall, it still feels to often like chasing phantoms, herding cats, pick your metaphor. Hard as hell. This is what a Salon veteran has to say about it from his first-hand experience.

Ultimately, I think I must keep an ad-driven open site model for at least the first 6 to 12 months. But I am ever more convinced that I should present my project as being ideally situated –in the medium and long term – to have a significant pay/subscriber component. Even with the patchy data available, the folks at mondaynote have crunched the numbers on the NYTimes pay proposal. It’s time to (re)crunch my own.

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What NYTimes Meter means for….ME!

There is an unspoken subtext for the Where-Art-Thou fist-shaking and hand-wringing among journalists and media industry critics about the destiny of the news biz: every voice is colored by what it all might actually mean for us individually: in influence and income and water-cooler-wiki schadenfreude. It’s not that people aren’t in good faith when they pronounce whether this or that technology or business model is good for the health of our woe begotten industry and precious democracy. But these are not uninterested third parties: it is the commentary class itself called upon to comment on themselves and their destiny (and that of their colleagues/bosses/industry betes noires) at a moment that there is both enormous risk and hints at opportunity for their professional futures. Everyone has a dog in this fight, in other words, which makes for one helluva loaded debate.

I then will be straight up front here with my self-serving point of view: right now, I am thinking most about what the NyTimes meter system (and I-Slate, for that matter) means as it relates to my not-so-modest would-be world news site. Is the birth/survival of a pay system good for my attempt to build and sustain my site? Is the survival of the NYTimes itself good for my site!? What will I have to do to adjust to the new e-book features and technology. The short answer to the first two questions is in the affirmative, as it would be as well for my fallback career as a MSM writer and foreign reporter-for-hire. In either scenario, my future will be rosier if a value is put on name-brand news. As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t have either a distinctive enough voice or clear enough point of view to draw a profitable audience as a blogger. Being abroad doesn’t help. As a would-be startup, all of this adds to the pressures and uncertainty. I will literally be updating my business plan after this week’s news, though trading in one set of uncertainties for another.

I am ultimately confident in the staying power of name-brand news: and my project is banking on it. For now, the Nytimes remains the standard bearer for serious branded print news in the English speaking world. They cant do it alone, but their survival is key for others making it too. And whatever the merits of the metered approach, it seems clear they can’t survive by giving it away. At the end of the day, if you run a business that is broken you must work urgently to fix it. Anyone advising against change may ultimately not have your best interest at heart. This was how Steven Berlin Johnson put it in a tweet yesterday: “Baffled by why-punish-your-fans arguments against Times meter. What’s wrong with extracting value from people who find value in what you do?”

Furthermore, it is a fallacy repeated often these past few days that the Times produces so-called “generic” or “commodity” news. This is probably true 70 percent of the time, ie, you can find the wire version of some times story. But think of the near daily scoops last fall from Dexter Filkins in Afghanistan. Of stories broken in DC that drive the debate for days. Unique features from halls of power and hard to reach places, and of course the weeks/months/long investigative pieces…all reported/written/edited by top professionals.

I also do not agree with Jay Rosen’s assertion that NYtimes journalists’ driving goal is to reach as many people as possible. Instead, I believe, it is simply to be able to continue to do their work to the best of their ability with the proper means necessary. Influence, which was hardly in short supply at the Times before the news reached tens of millions online, is always a relative and often immeasurable thing. Cranking out a good story – and letting the chips fall where they may – is what it’s ultimately about. So long as there’s tomorrow.

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Building a Brand, Listening to Sartre

The French news site Rue89 is a perfect case study for my project-in-progress. When it was launched in 2007 as an original-reporting web alternative to old media stalwarts like Le Monde and Le Figaro, it broke through virtually on Day One with a huge scoop related to Nicolas Sarkozy’s then wife Cecilia’s decision to not go to the polls in his bid for the presidency. The site has continued to break stories and beat the competition. But Rue89 is also instructive because despite its virtual instant credibility and forward-thinking approach to the news business – and traffic that multiplies by the day — it is still struggling to generate profits.

But perhaps I personally have the most to learn from them because it was founded by veterans of the traditional media, a core group of former editors and foreign correspondents of the French left-wing daily Libération, founded in 1973 by none other than Jean-Paul Sartre. (For those counting, that’s three or four degrees of professional separation from one damn smart French dude…)

I met Rue89 editor-in-chief Pierre Haski for lunch Tuesday in a cozy bistro in the 20th arrondissment, around the corner from their cramped and buzzing one-large-room HQ. Haski appeared generally more optimistic than when we’d met for the first time in July. The good news: they’ve doubled advertising sales in the past year. The bad news is that the overall ad revenue generated remains flat, as rates have continued to plummet. Still they are heading for a rather speedy (by news biz standards) break-even (and beyond!?) point in the next year or two, as their audience continues to grow even as their costs remain stable–but also because of a surprising windfall from new media training courses they run for journalists and others. They are also looking to begin selling affordable fine art and design items on their site, with the stamp of Rue89. Lesson: Always keep eye out for any related stream of revenue, short of selling hot dogs, especially if it helps build reader and professional connections.

This former Johannesburg/Jerusalem/Beijing bureau chief has also just completed another successful round of capital investment, and joked that he now finds himself regularly using biz and financial parlance that he’d never even heard of. The biggest challenge in moving from fulltime journalist to journalist/entrepreneur isn’t even necessarily the workload, but the requirement to divide your time and brain matter in very different arenas. “I’m a workaholic, so the time isn’t a problem. It’s having to constantly be thinking about things that have little to do with the actual journalism.” Still, he seems to be having fun, in part because the site is a full-bore collaboration between 20-somethings and 40 and 50-somethings, like him. (Reminds me of former Time and People capo Jim Gaines, now heading up flypmedia.com.)

What interests me particularly about Rue89 is this migration/melding/ecosystem evolution between old and new media. How do you make something feel new and reliable at the same time? How do make something that exists in the ether feel like a place that people want to visit? What is the interplay between social media and mass media in building an audience (Haski’s and Rue89 getting quoted in MSM is no less important than twitter links). All of this translated into ugly but essential corporatese: How do you create a brand?

We both agree that the name of the thing definitely matters, though of course it is worthless without all the rest. Theirs is great because it is nothing like an MSM newspaper name, but sounds like some place that you oughta know. Haski liked the working name for my site-to-come (More on that to come! Anticipation among my 3.5 million unique visitors is mounting!! Mom, I already told you the name). He also gave me all kinds of good advice on building an audience, and passed along other contacts who might help bring the project forward.

Unfortunately, there was no time to ask Haski about his former colleagues back at Liberation, nor the legacy of that old media brand’s famous founder. As for me, I hadn’t read any Sartre since university — or were they the Cliffnotes? A quick check now on Wikipedia tells me that Sartre’s thought was based around the idea of the predominance of the “thing-in-itself.” Any reflection upon the Thing is a form of anxiety, i.e. the human condition, and necessarily a limit to its fulfillment. Sartre, I guess, is telling me it’s time to get back to work.

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On (Haiti) Twitter Streams and Tugging Heartstrings

This will be the first of what I hope are relatively rare detours from my main objective of chronicling the launch of a new world news site. It’s all linked, of course, in part because no matter what I’m working on or thinking about, no more than 10 minutes pass without my brain rewiring back to the project and its many moving parts and shifting uncertainties. A new funding possibility has arisen, while work continues on the prototype website. Of course much more to come on both fronts. But there is a personal bit of irony (or inevitability?) at play here: after years of armchair quarterbacking/critiquing website layouts and functionality — both from the point of view of journalist and reader — by the time I actually get to step on the field and help decide how one will look and behave…I have just gotten swept up by the next platform. That is, Twitter.

Thus when I think about the website, I think about Twitter, and whatever other platforms exist or will exist in Feed form, which I am convinced is how much of news and information will be consumed in the foreseeable future… But two months and just 50-something tweets after signing up, I’ve naturally been thinking a lot of other things about Twitter too, as I mostly watch and consume from the sidelines. Here’s one Thought-in-Progress…

If you find yourself in a poor country, suddenly surrounded by poor children desperately trying to sell trinkets for pennies, or you’re strolling down a First-World urban boulevard and happen to catch the eye of a desperate panhandler, many big questions and one smaller, straightforward question may (or may not) start shooting through your mind. If only for that passing moment. Why does such human misery still exist in our world of plenty?  How does destiny play its course? What can I do (within the limits of my own selfishness and distractedness and personal obligations) to even slightly account for all the suffering in the face of my own good fortune? And that leads straight to the single, simple question ricocheting in your mind in front of a person with their hand held out: Do I give something?

Over the past week, we have suddenly seen these internal morality plays come out in full view on a massive scale – and in real time – thanks to the likes of Twitter, and other social media platforms. We had already witnessed Twitter’s power to circulate hard-to-get information during the post-Iran election unrest. Michael Jackson’s death set off a new kind of instantaneous collective nostalgia on the pages of Facebook and tweets of Twitter. Now, the story line with the Haiti earthquake is Twitter’s debut as real-time collection hat.

Raising money via the web of course is hardly new, nor are e-outpourings of grief. But the unprecedented $20 million collected in a virtual flash via text messaging is a rather stunning development, triggered by the masses of instinctive responses to calls for help in the face of what is by far the most massive human tragedy since real-time became our time. “text *Haiti* to 90999 for a $10 donation to the Red Cross! It’s that easy!,” trumpeted a Michigan sales manager named Andy, who was repeating a message multiplying on computer screens and cell phones for days. The “c’mon guys!” rallying cries, like the collected money itself, should rightly be celebrated.

But if possible, I want to just try to understand what comes with this outpouring, and what it says about the hyper-connected digital world we are becoming.

Typically, the moment of facing a stranger’s suffering remains confined within our individual conscience (or sub-conscience), and attempts to actually articulate why we do or don’t drop that coin in the hat inevitably come out sounding maudlin or callous or just plain schizophrenic. That hasn’t seemed to stop the countless would-be do-gooders from broadcasting their hearts on their Twitter sleeves. For some, it sounds much like those personal tweet of condolences “shouted out” to Michael Jackson’s family, to momentarily feel a part of the world of around-the-clock publicity. Others want to simply impress that new sort of social network populated by “friends” and “followers”.

But many, I think, are actually trying to hash out how the horrible situation in Haiti makes them feel, by firing out messages as if their thoughts are still just banging around in their head. Some address the social and political aspects of what has happened, noting Haiti’s intractable poverty that has long gone unaddressed. Still, most commentary is much more reactive.  “What’s happening?”, after all, is the standing invitation that Twitter offers, as if both no one and everyone is listening. A certain Chinadoll1017 tells us: “All the news reports about Haiti is bumming me out. So depressing…I wish I could help :(“

Another twitterer mephistolesnc, says she’s “Watching Anderson Cooper on CNN. These stories are horrible.” Hours later, after a series of unrelated, jokey postings, she announces: “My donation confirmation—> Fund Name: ontd_startrek: Help for Haiti Date: Jan 14, 2010 6:29:58 PM (over $8000 raised so far!)” Another person sums up her day a week into the Haiti drama: “3 great things today: doing a little charity w/my partner, making pot roast & hearing my kid count to 10. Edgy…right?”

No, Twitter is not the right place, and 140 characters are not sufficient space, to make sense of either these events, or the emotions they provoke as they exist in the context of the lives we are doing our best to live. Dave Eggers works through the sense of guilt and helplessness much more successfully in his novel You Shall Know Our Velocity, while the Italian photographer Oliviero Toscani has spent years tugging at the contradictions of how we process the grave inequities of our consumer-driven modern culture.

Now Twitter is tearing down more walls and quickening the tempo of this dynamic. Scrolling through the “feed”, the news is no longer separated by sections of the newspaper or the size of headline. And of course, there is no separating the news and information and intelligent analysis from the meandering thoughts of, well, everyone. All tweets were created equal. And speed is of the essence. In this light, it all can’t help but to make me wonder if the person who declares that watching Haitian earthquake victims is “so depressing” and drops ten bucks by SMS is no different than the comfortable masses passing by and dropping a dime in the hat of the huddled victim of hard circumstances. But how much more can we expect from ourselves?

As we’ve seen both by the raising of money and consciousness (at least for now), these new media platforms have the potential to serve great new functions in society. But they can also push us further toward the numbing effects of banality.  It will be ever harder, it would seem, to break through all the chatter. Another medium, popular music, may continue to have better luck cutting through to create bona fide communication. There is one line, belted out by Bono, that tends to ring in my ears whenever there is something like what we’re seeing in Port-au-Prince over the past few days. It was a song written by Bob Geldolf that actually did help to – permanently – raise the world’s consciousness about poverty, hunger and inequality: Well tonight thank god it’s them instead of you…

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Tell Me Everything

Yesterday, I had the latest in a long and continuing series of “Please-Tell-Me-Everything-You-Know” meetings. This connection, like with our web designer Annie, I owe to my kids. Adrian Dernell’s son goes to the Paris nursery school where my daughter went last year. Again my blabbing about this project to another (probably uninterested) parent is what generated the connection. LESSON: talk to everybody (everybody!) about what you are doing, and make sure they understand at least enough to know what sector you are talking about, and that you need help…without begging for it!?

These meetings, even if the person on paper might not seem to have anything concrete (money, skills, time) to offer beyond the meeting itself, always feel precious. Occasionally they’ll lead to the next meeting, sometimes they’ll offer direct advice about my project, but usually its just a way to collect the experiences and knowledge of others and apply them to the very specific conditions of the project I am trying to launch. The question of whether their vibe and/or analysis offers encouragement or discouragement is a wild card, and most be taken with a grain of salt either way. But just about any live conversation with someone is always worth you time.

This latest encounter came on a cold and raw Tuesday morning at the tiny Café Antoine on Rue La Fontaine. Adrian is a Franco-American former Bloomberg TV journalist who eight years ago had an idea for a startup, EuroBusiness Media (like mine, simple enough to explain on the back of a business card) and was ready to make the jump to upstart entrepreneurship. Unlike mine, his leap was also out of journalism and into PR (though as he and I discussed, technology and economics are blurring that line more every day). Still his product is delivered – like everything these days, except the kitchen sink – digitally. And he too had to start from scratch. He recounted the early days back in 2002, which he still remembers down to the smallest detail: launching without a roster of clients already set up, mistakes he committed (not presenting to early potential clients that they would in fact be christening the thing, with benefit and risk as such), connections he capitalized on, luck he made. Also the eureka moment: when someone in one of the many exploratory conversations he was having told him he just needed to flip his biz model: revenue should come from clients (PR-driven) rather than audience/adverts (journalism-driven). And he was collecting that revenue—and then profits—pretty damn quick.

He also talked more generally about how some relationships end that you didn’t think would, and others endure against the odds, as well as  investors (people want to see that you have figured out how to produce your product), and pitching (have an answer for everything). Like others, he warned of the pitfalls of taking my project to established news companies, which often lack the direct and single-(profit)-minded corporate “processes” that other companies rely upon. “Another company might not necessarily be faster, they’ll tell you that the decision needs to go before the board next September. But at least you know when and what they will be deciding…”

The core of his business is to produce video interviews with Europe-based CEOs that get delivered like PRnewswire, typically timed together with earnings reports. The profiled companies pay for his services. We agreed that print media has no business model right now. But you can’t say that to investors, he told me. You have to say that YOU have found the model! Adrian thinks that the content that my startup would offer is unique and attractive, and he was generally encouraging and good morning company. Still, the first thing he did after ordering his orange juice was to suggest that I might find some interesting job opportunities in PR.

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Something to Touch

About 20 minutes after my (very) late-night post yesterday, the first real meat and bones of this project arrived by email: the draft of the wire-frame for the prototype homepage. In its current form, it is in only black and white and grays, with mock headlines, no photos, no moving parts…and it looks fantastic! Che emozione!! Months of research and meetings and worrying, and lately realizing how ultimately insufficient my old-style business plan felt, I’m no longer just grasping at straws–I’ve got something to touch.

It is also confirmation that my gut was right about the designer. I imagine startups are filled with the kinds of coincidences like the one that landed Annie Skovgaard Christiansen as the designer of this website. Back in Rome for the holidays, I was talking to a couple I know well, Francesco and Alessandra, who are about as far from the news business, online world as you can get. That didn’t stop me from talking to them about my project at 90 mph! And the time had come, I told them, to actually get the thing up on its own URL, etc. At which point Alessandra reminded me about Annie, whose oldest son was in nursery school with my both of our sons, and who works for one of Rome’s top web design and management firms. A day later, Dec. 23, to be precise, we were already mapping out how we’d establish the working relationship, and even what the site might look like.

I had talked to various folk about how/who to find to build the beginnings of the site (I have none of the design or technical abilities to do it…I even needed a hand getting this basic wordpress blog set up). I got all kinds of advice: find someone in India, in Eastern Europe, in small-town America (the dollar’s weak), an ad on Craig’s list, notice on twitter, and I actually got a few names of specific recommendations. (Others said just do it on WordPress.)

Several people described a tradeoff in terms of costs and culture gap/language. Anyway, it was going to be my first actual investment beyond my own time in the project, my first business decision if you will. Ultimately I would have taken the plunge in one of those different directions because NOT deciding was the only decision not on the table. But (re)finding Annie was such perfect pre-Xmas timing, not only because I already knew and liked her (she is a native of Roskilde, Denmark, and we were two of three foreign parents in the local Rome school where our sons went) and not only because I now see that she has a great eye and touch…but because she knows both what she likes and what I’m after. She understands news (not that it’s rocket science!?), and makes it feel like she’s been working in this particular profession all her life (she hasn’t) in the way she asks questions and builds the site. A web engineer colleague of hers will help develop the site, once she and i have agreed on the general architecture. As for the economics of this first business decision: it won’t be as cheap as India, but the culture gap feels less than zero.

There will be more to come about the actual choices of this first incarnation of the website, but I’ll close with the email that Annie sent a little while ago, with both of us working again well past midnight…

“Yes I know what you mean. Being a freelancer, a workaholic and when it comes to my work sometimes a control-freak I have often found myself working late nights. Often without having anybody noticing it. As a web designer, when you are not talking about branding, your clients often think your work is secondary. It can be difficult to understand that a very simple layout can mean hours and hours of browsing, looking, thinking, drawing, canceling, redrawing and sometimes restarting. Often the person responsible for the site is somebody that only thinks of the future workload that the new site inevitably will be creating for him. Rarely the person who decides the remake or the start of a new site and the person eventually responsible for it are the same.

Even the developers with whom I am normally working with will look into the sky when I passionately talk about whether to move a title two pixels up or two pixels down.

This is different. Here I am working with somebody that actually wants a site!!! My client expresses his opinion on everything I send him…sometimes immediately! Fantastic!”

Annie has already put in more to this project than anyone but me. Hopefully she’s just the first. Working with fun, talented people is a big part of why I’m doing this. I’ve gotten bits and pieces from others, some of whom are no less enthusiastic about the idea/project than I am, but who just aren’t in a position to devote their time until it turns into something bigger. But for it to get there, I will have to find a few more people eager to jump in early, even if there’s little or no up front cash. Whether the dollar is weak or strong, good timing is always valuable currency.

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