Category Archives: paywalls

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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Dream Scenario: Twitter, iPad, & My News Biz Ambitions

Lots to wrap your head around these days if you want to be part of the future of news. Through the hail, I see the same three blinking lights ahead that other lonesome hacks and big-time news execs must see: Twitter, iPad and Pay Walls. Or put another way: Mobile Feed, Lean-Back News and MoneyMoneyMoney.

For months, these little blips of the future have been ricocheting off my would-be world news project, and ricocheting off each other. Time to allow the damn light to shine! to imagine how it might all actually work out for the best. Of course it won’t — never does — and even if the future is brighter, it’s still a moving target. But hashing it out here, with the information we have to work with, will help prepare for the changes to come. Also let’s this poor slug stop for a moment to dream the dream…

TWITTER

I never liked the experience of getting my news from websites and blogs. I LOVE Twitter. My “brother-in-law” said he could see i had become possessed when i used my hands to mimic the upward flow/downward scroll of the feed. Twitter has finally created the right channel to get digital news into the light, vertical format that it was made to inhabit. The gentle passing stream has replaced the bang-you-up chase, run-you-over wave–the constant risk of DROWNING — that was “surfing the web.” Ahhhh. much better now, thank you. Twitter will be the way we consume news when we are mobile, that is to say both literally/physically on the go with our smart phones, and moving through our work day and socializing at our desks. Some media companies, news suppliers seem to think that Twitter is a play area/gossip zone, and put up only or mostly their most glib offerings. They are wrong. This is the future of keeping people truly informed! It has the potential to create something for journalism that is like the radio and daily newspaper melded into one.

Verdict for me/mine: Very good news, especially from the git-go. My project aims to be smart, world news that plugged in people across the globe will want a crack at seeing. Twitter is the obvious and open place where I can go to deliver it..

ps: The recent uptick in talk of Twitter applications, aimed at developers, is also a call out to journalists to develop “news applications” for twitter, including the human kind of application. HuffPost is taking it on before the rest of the pack, and will benefit no matter how it turns out. here’s my first tiny, one-man crack at it.

iPAD

I come most recently from the world of glossy newsweeklies. My web-only project (more details to come. I promise) was actually born from a weekly product. It is high-end, not mass market. It is journalism, in the classic sense. Seeing various news and magazine demos of iPad apps makes you see that there is a way to get people — and advertisers — to commit to, and pay for, quality content. Long and not-so-long form.  We don’t know if it will be the savior of news business, but it reminds us that we are searching for a way — a platform, device, what have you — to use the best technology and ideas out there that actually help us separate from the above sensation of being mobile: on the go, or at our desks.

Verdict for me/mine

I am tempted to return to my old idea of getting LOTS of funding up front, and quickly build my product around a tablet application. That would, however, probably be VERY stupid. In the meantime…sticking with premise of this post, to dream of glory…I can see my brand on iPad as the future flagship of the whole damn thing, something to work toward…where its true value (in every sense) is realized.

PAYWALLS

None of the above fantasies can truly come to life if we don’t find ways to get cash for what we produce. Last week we heard on the iPad subscription front, this week on Twitter ads front.And of course, something is tipping us toward a general acceptance that it shouldnt and wont all be FREE. This is of course just a start. But it helps to envision how the ecosystem, and our habits, as both users and consumers, might evolve.

Verdict for me/mine

OK…Here’s my business model/dream scenario, circa Jan. 2012: My product has taken off from a modest start, in large part because my unique professional content stands out in the twitter (and other social media) stream. People love the stories, we’re timely and lively and the brand is catching, the output is growing. A small team of web developers and multimedia producers have just helped launch the iPad application.Some of our most loyal readers have quickly signed up for a yearly 50-week subscription at 70 bucks. Those of them who have already been web subscribers ($35) get the first six months free on iPAD. My content online and on Twitter is metered, but more and more people are just making us one of their dozen or so paid outlets. Oh by the way, I happen to also have a growing syndication business with some of the top US newspapers, who have pay walls of their own and want some exclusive foreign news. Indeed the whole industry has largely bounced back as Twitter and tablets have helped people find their sweet spot for both staying informed in real-time and remembering how to savor old-style serendipity. Satisfied, well-served customers are typically paying customers.

As for me, I am proud of my 15 employees, and am actually turning a healthy profit. Google wants to talk exit strategies. Hey, I even got invited to some seminar at the University of Missouri to schmooze with Jeff Jarvis and David Carr. But I decline! I have no time….If your memory serves you well, I am finally taking a week off all to myself…to go follow Dylan in friggin’ Japan!!!

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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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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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