Category Archives: advertising

TIME Casualties, Newsweek Funerals & New Startup Biz Models. Revenue Before Branding

The dire straits of Newsweek is a grim, though hardly surprising, development. Neither as a longtime Time magazine guy nor current New Media wannabe dude does the prospect that this historic brand might vanish offer me any satisfaction whatsoever. Those dancing on graves reveal more about themselves than they do about either the deceased or the reasons for the demise. That a chunk of the old stuff is bound to fail/disappear is by now a given, and all the victory shouts and schadenfreude is just the shit talking of middle school playgrounds. Indeed as Clay Shirky has pointed out, failure is one basic fact that unites the MSM with the would-be new stuff.

So what do the current predicaments of Time and Newsweek tell me — downsized Time foreign staffer, current Time (and Time.com) contributor — about getting my startup up and started? It is clear that both these weekly print/digital brands and potential real-time vessels still carry weight with the general public. It is also clear that the management no longer sees the value in staffing the world like they once did. On good days, you can see that the Brand + the DNA of the institution + the network of collaborators can still turn out some pretty great and sellable stuff ….on bad days, they’re running on fumes.

There is a fine line where a quick dot.com piece  can start to look like a mediocre blog post, where a decent dot.com piece is “repackaged” for print, and doesn’t quite cut it. And then, with a mix of insight, pavement-pounding and a nose for the zeitgeist, a colleague can tell us who we are as a society — and it both sparkles as the print cover and finds weeks-long legs on the web.

But we are still left wondering what the future will ultimately be of a “respected global news brand” that is not committed to investing in the production of first-hand, on-the-ground reporting. These are innately national/international publications that don’t have the option like the LA Times or Chicago Tribune to retrench geographically and focus on local news for its local reader base.

Still, as always, we’re talkin’ about a revolution, and I have (by choice/necessity) thrown myself into it, unburdening my brain matter with trying to hold on to the past. It helps to imagine old brands in new ways. And in turn, imagine my own project in new ways, with new models, almost every day. Both Time and Newsweek could potentially evolve into content-distribution vessels, portals, brands that acquire their content from others. And I’m not talking just single freelancers, but companies in the business of offering a consistent, tailored stream of content to those who have the brand/audience that can sustain it.

Maybe there’s terrain to be exploited on the continuum between the Ny Times and Yahoo news? And without staffs, but WITH coming paywalls/iPads, etc, there will be a need for quality content. And that’s where lately I’ve begun to see the business model for the launch of my own project. That may be what globalpost may be pivoting toward, with a series of partnerships at least as impressive as its unique viewers growth.

The urgency to discover business models in itself will help drive the evolution of the way news is produced. That of course goes for Demand News consciously downgraded quantity-over-quality, but should also be the case for those of us who want to offer something better to readers. Frédéric Filloux, as always, boils it down nicely in his most recent Monday Note. A believer in new technology, an incisive (and entertaining) critic of the serial mistakes of legacy news, the former editor of the French daily Liberation still believes that “professionalism” matters…and has value.

Two conversations I have had in the past two weeks: one with another MSM dude breaking off and doing his own thing, the other with a European internet executive (hopefully I will have more to tell about her in coming weeks…) have convinced me that the business model must begin with what is generically called ‘B2B’, that is, selling our product directly to other businesses, in our case, other major brands or web portals. In France, they call it an agence, which is an all-encompassing term that includes the wires (AFP), but also smaller content providers. In the new digital world, it can mean many things.

If we do pursue this course, it would mean a shift of focus from mass branding to targeted selling. I have no preconception of what the business must look like: I just want it to work, survive, thrive…If content is King, selling it is the crown (the power), and brand is the castle. Nice to have all the elements, but maybe it is no longer necessary? And here in Europe, we know that some castles without kings are nice to look at, others simply disappear into history…

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A Paywall So High. What if a Digital Startup Used Print as a Business Model

Right now the project is on two distinct rails that will converge. Soon, I hope. One is completing the prototype for the website, the other is reworking the business plan. I must dive in and out of each one every day (along with other, unrelated journalism work), and I am always forced to think hard, and make decisions that feel binding and pivotal to the future viability of the thing. More than multi-tasking, this is multi-stressing.

A coffee break I had this morning with a former old-media colleague, however, pushed to the surface a simmering thought that could have major consequences for both the prototype and the business plan. If you are going to have unique content…..he got me thinking…If your potential readership falls somewhere well short of massive… If advertising just aint cutting it. If the iPad showed us the future….why not just throw the blueprint out the window? And the website too? (Sorry Annie, halt the prototype!?)

Along this line of thinking, since I am launching a new product now, I shouldn’t even be toying around with Freemium models or new shortcuts to drive traffic. If I’ve got sumpin’ good, and unique, I oughta just put it up behind a paywall so high that I could call it a…er, uh…newspaper. Or magazine. Some of them are still making money, y’know. German papers announced impressive profits last quarter. NewsCorp just announced some turnaround numbers. My friends at Internazionale magazine, which brings the best foreign journalism into Italian, are having great success with their weekly, even as most other media in Italy are suffering through the crisis and industry upheaval toward the digital future. Their older cousins in France, Courrier International, are also continuing to grow subscriptions. We’re talking PRINT, folks! Rising Sales!! And so, you know what these two successful mid-sized pubs are doing with their websites? Nothing revolutionary. Making the most out of the space with minimal investment. Trying to look smart, sure, but not looking to cash in.

At least in general news, no one is cashing in online. Not even Huffington. Hyper-successful Politico began to turn a profit only after they introduced a weekly best-of print addition. In France there was even an experiment last year Vendredi, to do a weekly print product that republishes the best of the web-only journalism and commentary. Think outside the box. Think about cashing in on value where others are giving stuff away.

For me, it’s tempting. In some way, it takes you out of the rough surf of the changing platforms and fickle/distracted readership, and puts you on the dry land of a captured clientele. It wouldn’t have to be print, per se, it could be a straight-to-tablet product, and subscription-only website and email newsletter.  It’s tempting, yes, but it would not be strategic. My product is not specialized enough. And having your product available, mostly or entirely for free, on the internet, offers the kind of marketing and publicity that money can’t buy. This of course is also part of the internet revolution. And so our destiny, for better or worse, will play out online. From the heart that is our website, through the veins of social media and the information stream. Sometimes progress on your business model is simply eliminating hypotheses. None of this may matter much to anyone trying to predict the future of print media. But there is a clear message to at least one person: Annie, the prototype is back on! I’ll Skype you later…

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Six Reasons Why I Will Add Paid Component to My News Site Business Plan

As the U.S. print media knows well, undoing a mistake is much harder than making it. Fortunately for me, my business errors (for now) are simply a question of reworking some hypotheses on a powerpoint presentation rather than reinventing on the fly the way you generate and collect revenue. So, my own personal verdict is in: my would-be world news website will have a system for charging for content. Details to come…

1. 9 out of 10 dentists agree: Ad revenue alone will never cut it

2. will mark our content as original/top-shelf, as differentiated from generic/commodity

3. NYTimes will be doing it

4. South Coast Today (Massachusetts) is already doing it

5. Loyal (paying) visitors are better customers for my advertisers

6. Steve Jobs wants me to

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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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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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