Connecting in rural America

A Democratic Party exile lays out a strategy that might work for news, as well as candidates.

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It had a familiar ring — a frustrated advocate decrying the lack of:

  • a hyper-local, comprehensive strategy, including
  • attention to issues such as local health care and the condition of roads and bridges, conveyed through
  • in-person contact with the community, to “talk to people about these things.”

It sounded like a prescription for solid daily news coverage, the kind that might help a local newspaper thrive.

But the man urging that those needs be addressed is not a newspaper publisher. His name is Matt Barron. He’s a resident of Williamsburg, Mass., who has left the Democratic Party after 41 years of active membership because, he says, party leadership refuses to hear and act on the obvious — that it has lost and will continue to lose rural voters if it doesn’t mend its ways.

I read about Barron this morning in the online edition of the Daily Hampshire Gazette of Northampton, Mass. And as I did, I wondered whether the newspaper industry ought to pay him heed. Many have wondered whether the press has lost its audience, particularly in red state America.

“Barron noted that when politicians say ‘go to my website for information or assistance,’ it does two things. First, it prevents many rural voters from getting that information as they have no internet access. Secondly, it reveals a complete lack of understanding of one of the biggest issues in rural areas today — the unavailability of broadband.”  “Democratic Party leader Matt Barron leaves party over neglect of rural areas”

Hmm. We talk about news business models on this blog. All good business models begin with an assessment of who one’s customers are. In the case of a newspaper, that assessment needs to include how easily they can access whatever platforms the newspaper is using — print, website, mobile phone.

Barron touts the use of rural radio and newspaper ads as an inexpensive and effective method of reaching constituents. Perhaps if more candidates would buy display ads, local newspapers would be healthier. But one wonders, too, whether they would be healthier if they devoted more cash to basic, local news coverage.

A redesign for you

Three updates and a design note for readers

Gadzukes, a lot is happening out there. Here, too.

The SaveMyDaily site has been reorganized. With the post count approaching 50, it was time to make the blog easier to read. Please check out the “Pick a Topic” list in the site margin. If your time or interest is limited, click on a subject to see just the pertinent posts. Your humble host hopes the feature will help focus our efforts toward a successful end.

As for doings elsewhere, here are updates to posts previously published.

Fish or Foul? (Newspaper publishers care about what they print — and pay a price for it.): In a Dec. 15, 2017, post on Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg acknowledged that the company’s network is more than an elaborate maze of digital plumbing:

“Facebook is a new kind of platform different from anything before it. I think of Facebook as a technology company, but I recognize we have a greater responsibility than just building technology that information flows through. While we don’t write the news stories you read and share, we also recognize we’re more than just a distributor of news. We’re a new kind of platform for public discourse — and that means we have a new kind of responsibility to enable people to have the most meaningful conversations, and to build a space where people can be informed.

“With any changes we make, we must fight to give all people a voice and resist the path of becoming arbiters of truth ourselves. I believe we can build a more informed community and uphold these principles.”Mark Zuckerberg

For more on the steps Facebook is taking to do that, take a look at the company’s “News Feed FYI: Addressing Hoaxes and Fake News.”

Making it clear (Better online news design might regain reader trust.): In “So, is it news, opinion or advertising?,” Michelle Morgante, managing editor of The Merced Sun-Star, points out that readers often don’t know the difference between the three. If online news sites do label every piece with a descriptive design element (NEWS, OPINION, etc.), it might be wise to include a link that explains the difference between them — or a link to Morgante’s column.

Discriminating distribution (Should the distribution method dictate the news content?): The Nieman Lab reports that The New Haven Independent, a nonprofit online-only news outlet, has tailored its cop shop policy in recognition of the reach and persistence of internet news. Paul Bass, the paper’s editor and founder is quoted as saying, “With the advent of the Internet, what’s online becomes people’s main or only source of news. People’s reputations are at stake, and often the arrest itself and not the outcome is what is known about them.” (“No mugshot exploitation here: The New Haven Independent aims to respect the reputations of those arrested in the community it covers” —Neiman Lab)

Fish or Foul?

Newspaper publishers care about what they print — and pay a price for it.

Thus far in our discussion of newspaper business models, we’ve posited that being the gatekeeper and owning one’s distribution system is desirable, for two reasons.

1) It guarantees that the publisher has control over the news product and can ensure it’s of sufficient quality to fulfill its public service role.

2) It enables the publisher to wring every cent of profit from the distribution of the news product and the sale of ad space, which subsidizes the cost center that is the newsroom.

What would happen if news publishers no longer cared about the first reason, and didn’t have to subsidize any newsroom at all? Certainly seems like a lucrative model.

Are we watching it happen? Not by traditional newspaper publishers, but by new companies playing a mutated form of the traditional role?

Which brings us to the recounting of a robust discussion your host recently had with a dear friend, a former ad director of a daily newspaper, now retired.

In the comfort of his living room, over glasses of wine shared with he and his wife (who remained tactfully quiet and admirably pleasant), the question of whether or not Facebook and Google are publishers boiled over.

I argued that they are; my friend contended that they are not.

The companies are a new form of business, my friend said, a glorified pipe through which content generated by others passes, with a certain amount of revenue, of course, staying behind to build more pipe and fatten the wallets of its owners.

I countered that, since their algorithms dictate which ads and content their servers send out, Google and Facebook are exercising discretion and are therefore acting as publishers, not just pipes.

It’s nary impossible to build a sustainable business model if you don’t understand the marketplace and the nature of your potential competitors. So let’s noodle on here.

A newspaper printing press and its circulation department are akin to the internet service providers (ISPs) that computers use to communicate around the world. Both the press and circulation system and an ISP act as a conduit, a smooth-bore pipe.

The staff of the newspaper, though, determines every bit of news and advertising that does, or does not, go through that pipe. Newspaper publishers exercise discretion.

Google and Facebook do too — your news feed doesn’t just happen, you know — algorithms (which are just coded forms of human logic) create your feed.

Newspaper publishers accept responsibility for what they publish. Google and Facebook don’t even describe themselves using that term.  They are neither fish nor fowl, neither a smooth-bore conduit nor a publisher wholly responsible for the content their servers send out.

We may cry  “Foul!” but theirs is a business model with which we must now compete — or use to our advantage.

UPDATE (02/16/2017)

In a Dec. 15, 2017, post on Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg acknowledged that the company’s network is more than an elaborate maze of digital plumbing:

“Facebook is a new kind of platform different from anything before it. I think of Facebook as a technology company, but I recognize we have a greater responsibility than just building technology that information flows through. While we don’t write the news stories you read and share, we also recognize we’re more than just a distributor of news. We’re a new kind of platform for public discourse — and that means we have a new kind of responsibility to enable people to have the most meaningful conversations, and to build a space where people can be informed.

“With any changes we make, we must fight to give all people a voice and resist the path of becoming arbiters of truth ourselves. I believe we can build a more informed community and uphold these principles.”Mark Zuckerberg

For more on the steps Facebook is taking to do that, take a look at the company’s “News Feed FYI: Addressing Hoaxes and Fake News.”

Ads at any cost?

Can algorithms be trusted to fill ad space with discretion?

Warning: This post is going to begin in one place and wind up in another. Hang onto your hat!

An opinion piece in the Sunday New York Times, “How to destroy the business model of Breitbart and Fake News,” details the work of a Twitter group called the Sleeping Giants.

The group is building one dam after another in the river of online ad revenue that flows to Breitbart News.

Advertisers may not know their digital ads are appearing on the site, for the ads are placed by an automated ad-serving process. The Sleeping Giants enlighten the advertisers, by sending them screenshots of their ads as they appeared, right next to Breitbart content.

The last thing an advertiser wants from a marketing campaign is for the ads to appear with content inconsistent with the company’s brand, confusing or even alienating the very consumers the campaign is designed to attract.

“The Giants and their followers have communicated with more than 1,000 companies and nonprofit groups whose ads appeared on Breitbart, and about 400 of those organizations have promised to remove the site from future ad buys,” says the Times piece.

Any business that depends on ad revenue to survive is in trouble when that revenue dries up because advertisers walk away. Will Breitbart’s business model be weakened to the breaking point? We’ll see.

But wait. What happens when the problem runs the other way? (Yes, here’s that turn we warned you about. Stick with us!)

What happens when a website yields its ad-space inventory to a remote, automated ad-serving vendor, and then discovers that some of the ads running on its pages are contrary to everything the website stands for?

One of my daily pleasures is to read the online version of an award-winning New England newspaper, a leading light in traditional journalism circles. I was floored one morning when I saw, next to an excellent story I was reading to the bottom, an ad that shouted, “Should Trump Put Hillary in Jail?” Yellow letters over an unflattering headshot of Clinton proclaimed her “GUILTY!”

Curious, I hovered my computer’s cursor over the ad and read the line of code at the bottom of the browser window. The ad was served up by Google Ad Services. I clicked on it and landed on a self-proclaimed news site that was, if not a purveyor of fake news, certainly a slinger of clickbait headlines and one-sided stories.

I wondered whether the paper I’d originally been reading was aware it had sent me to a news site that was the antithesis of traditional journalism.

So.

We’ve jumped from the role of the befuddled advertiser into the role of the befuddled publisher. Still with us? Sweet.

Here’s the business model question: Are all ads worth running?

If a news business model restricts ads to those served up by the paper itself (as in the old days), then the paper maintains control.

If a news business model depends on revenue from remote ad-serving processes and vendors, it must rely on whatever rules the vendors allow one to impose, as well as the vendors’ interpretation of those rules.

That seems to be a riskier proposition, all the way around.

Leaping out of the box

The silo model — a niche approach to citywide coverage.

In our last post, we proposed working on six business models, but only two (online only and online lead, print follow) were really new.

Let’s leap out of the box and consider an online model that doesn’t look like a traditional newspaper. It doesn’t even look like a single business.

Say you live in a city where the daily has gone under. Your city needs to know what’s happening within its boundaries.

Now imagine a loose network of online-only start-ups. They are silos, on purpose.

CitySports just covers sports. You love sports? You’d subscribe. You sell golf balls? You’d place an ad. It’s a clean read, a clean buy, simplicity amid the online cacophony.

CityEd just covers education. You have kids in school? You’d subscribe to CityEd. You want to recruit high school grads to your college? You’d place an ad.

CityGov, CityCourts, same idea. CityEats for coverage of restaurants and grocery stores, CityBuys for consumer retail.

In each case, the websites (and associated Facebook pages and Twitter feeds) appeal to a particular segment of the city’s readers and advertisers. Each silo’s reporter(s) and editor are devoted to the beat, specialists in the topic. Each silo’s design is specific to that topic. But, and here’s where the economies of scale come in, the silos have help.

A unifying structure of shared resources floats over them all. They share a tech staff, an ad portal, a business back-end, a circulation database and a customer support team that is second to none.

They also share an upper level editorial staff that provides guidance, coordinates cross-silo journalism, and manages the coverage hit squad, which includes experts in data analysis, digital and video design, and plain old-fashioned investigative journalism. Each silo can call in the hit squad when a story calls for more effort than the silo staff can provide.

Let’s say this model survives in the marketplace. Financially, it’s a success, but how does it measure up to the traditional business model?

That question leads us right back to where  this blog began.

One way to evaluate the success of any new model for news is to compare its results against the list of BENEFITS we’ve compiled here. Let’s ask ourselves, benefit by benefit, can the new model do this? Can it do that? Does it provide something better?

No matter how far we leap out of the box, no matter how far we leave the traditional newspaper business model behind, its benefits will remain an accurate measure of our success.

Back to that model thing

One size may no longer fit our need for news.

Let’s talk turkey.

Back to finding sustainable news models. If the presidential election is any sign, we’d better pick up the pace. If we can help solve the newspaper business model problem, we’ll solve about half (if not more) of the world’s other problems, too.

Here’s the thing: One model won’t do. Not anymore. News is becoming a layered thing, and the businesses within each layer face different opportunities and challenges than those above or below. Your humble host can see a need for at least six models.

Model 1, national newspaper: The prima donna of large chains, this species of news producer can cheaply build a nationwide circulation base online because it has cross-country appeal — it’s producing original news about big issues that interest readers from Alaska to Maine.

It can compete for national advertisers. It’s supported by profits gleaned from smaller dailies in the parent chain. It might anchor a chain-owned wire service that’s fed by and to the smaller dailies and is also resold to other content providers.

It can be a destination website to which online viewers turn, or, through business deals, become a utility, available anywhere a viewer/reader is looking for national news (e.g., buy a subscription to your local daily and get a free subscription to the national paper). Or it can try to be both, a destination and a utility.

But, national papers compete on their beat, and, given the aggregating effect of the internet, how many of them can survive? How many versions of a given national event will the market bear?

Model 2, small chain: A smaller, regional newspaper chain without national aspirations, perhaps a portfolio of weeklies with an anchor daily, can also exploit economies of scale and can offer advertisers a regional buy. The papers may be able to repackage and share content (especially if the weeklies publish on different days of the week), but coverage and circulation overlaps and adjacencies also can pose severe branding and management challenges. Should there be one shared regional website, or one for each publication or both, and what about Facebook? Circulatory cannibalization, brand confusion, and online content duplication can all occur.

Model 3, solo daily: The standalone daily newspaper, the traditional monopoly model, still exists but faces (as we all know) new challenges. This business can be nimble, but has little opportunity to employ economies of scale, has a limited circulation area and is reliant upon that area’s economic viability.

Model 4, online only: Like it says. Online. Only.

Model 5, online lead, print follow: We borrowed this idea from one of this blog’s followers (see, Dan, I WAS listening!). The model is this: produce a daily online news report, then develop the best of the stories for a weekly print edition.

Model 6, weeklies: The name of this blog is Save My Daily, but it may be that, in the end, our country winds up with a whole bunch of weeklies, one daily in each state capital, and one or two national papers. If that’s where we’re headed, it behooves us to consider the model for a healthy weekly.

Look, we’re just chewing this turkey down. There’s a lot to digest. If you have ideas or thoughts to share over the table, please comment. Thanks.

Resurrecting the classifieds

Does it make sense to capture digital ads in print?

Last week I excavated a treasure from our attic archives: the classified section of the May 10, 1992, Maine Sunday Telegram.

It’s a 30-page section. On the back is a full-page ad placed by a car dealer, and there are many sizeable display ads inside.

Thirty broadsheet pages of classifieds, and it doesn’t even include legal or public notices.

I told a couple of friends about it. We agreed we’d forgotten what the classified section of a newspaper used to be.

“I miss them,” said one of my friends. “They were fun to read.”

Indeed they were. Lucrative, too. Where did those ads go?

A reasonable guess:

It’s easy to understand why print newspapers lost their classified ads to online alternatives. Their reach is worldwide, they’re interactive, they’re fast, they’re searchable, they’re cheap, or even free.

The local daily isn’t the only loser, though. We’ve lost something, too. Whereas before, we could turn to a single place each week — the Sunday classifieds — to find out about transactions happening in our neighborhood, now that information is scattered all over the internet.

The classified section isn’t news (it isn’t written by the news staff). But the section provides valuable information to the community, nevertheless.

What to do? Any clue? Me neither. Well, I do have one crazy idea.

Why can’t the paper print the digital ads? Would zillow and craigslist license their content back to the local daily?

Imagine a paper with a 10-town circulation area. It enters into a licensing agreement with zillow.  Per that agreement, once a week zillow sends the paper basic information — address, price, listing agent, listing agent’s contact information and one picture — for every property for sale within the 10 towns.

On Sunday, the local daily prints a classified section that includes the zillow data, in addition to any classified ads sold.

What’s in it for zillow? Its digital listings are printed and distributed within the communities in which the properties are located.

What’s in it for the daily? A fat classified section that could be marketed to increase Sunday sales and to entice more paid advertising.

What would it cost?  Paper and ink and layout/coordination labor.  Worth it?

Hmmm.