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.”

Are your doors open?

Customer service comes in many forms — in person, in print and online.

Some business problems apply to all models.

Have you ever checked into a hotel and discovered that the key card you’ve been given doesn’t work? Annoying, eh? You have to schlep back down to the front desk, dragging your bag behind you. …

Imagine you own a hotel called NEWS.  Every room has a bed, a table, a chair and a bath (collectively, the news report), but the rooms differ in design and style, because, you’ve learned, some guests prefer one style, some, another.

In our hotel of news, some readers have their report delivered to their home on paper, some read it on their phone, others on their tablet or their laptop. Some prefer podcasts, others want newsletters sent by email.

Every one of those “rooms” has a door.  How well are those doors working?

I stopped at the local weekly’s office last Friday and bought a copy, thinking I’d find a house ad inside or a postcard insert that I could use to start a print subscription. No form. Nor could the folks in the office start a subscription for me. I’d have to call the chain’s regional headquarters, I was apologetically told, or go online.

I subscribe to the digital version of an out-of-state daily. When I try to log in using my cell phone or my tablet, the font size of the log-in box is too small to read.

How common are problems like these? How many doors to the rooms we are so feverishly trying to design are hard to open? One wonders.

Want to test your doors?

  1. List the ways new readers become subscribers (i.e., your doors).
  2. Design a one-page form to capture all of the problems that new subscribers might encounter (plus “other,” for problems you can’t foresee).
  3. Ask friends or family members who aren’t subscribers to help with a two-week test. Assign each a particular “door,” give them the form and ask them to subscribe and use their subscription for at least two weeks (you can reimburse them and cancel their subscriptions when the test is over).
  4. Collect the forms. Evaluate the results. Prioritize the problems.
  5. Fix what’s wrong. (If you don’t know how and can’t afford to hire a vendor, see WHAT IF below.)
  6. Repeat steps 2-5 until your doors all open on command.

WHAT IF you don’t know how to fix a door or can’t afford to hire a vendor to fix it for you?

Your humble blogger would like to suggest a novel approach to that problem. In their weakened state, could local papers begin to help one another? We’ll always want to compete on the news report, of course (may the best news report win!). But couldn’t we help solve common business problems, share solutions? Chances are, whatever “door” issues you have are shared by others in your state. Why not use your state press association to brainstorm and share solutions?

Just a thought. Because we want all our NEWS hotels to stay open.

Reconnecting

When a community stops subscribing, the ties that bind may break.

I was standing in the barn doorway the other evening, talking to the farm’s manager. A cold wind was pulling blond tendrils from her ponytail, whipping them across her face as we relaxed and talked about horses, until the beauty of the moment caught my attention.

“What a gorgeous sky,” I said, looking west. The manager turned and looked up at the crescent moon. A planet sparkled, just to the left. The fresh wind on our faces, we began to guess the planet’s identity.

“I used to get the Kent County News,” the manager said, referring to the local weekly. One of her former teachers, she went on, wrote a column for the paper, telling everyone what they would be seeing in the night sky. She missed reading the column. She missed reading the paper. “I feel disconnected,” she said.

The Kent County News is still published here. But, as with many in the community, the barn manager’s life has become complicated and busy. Her subscription has lapsed.

“WHEN men are no longer united among themselves by firm and lasting ties, it is impossible to obtain the co-operation of any great number of them unless you can persuade every man whose help you require that his private interest obliges him voluntarily to unite his exertions to the exertions of all the others. This can be habitually and conveniently effected only by means of a newspaper; nothing but a newspaper can drop the same thought into a thousand minds at the same moment.” —Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

Not so today. Today, we have a president who is using a social media platform, Twitter, to drop his 140-character thoughts into the minds of millions of people at the same moment.

He does not control the distribution channel. He does not control Twitter. If our president-elect were to become a true despot, a danger to our nation, would the managers of Twitter shut him down?*

Ah, but then what if he bought a majority interest in Twitter — what if he did own the distribution channel?

Our traditional newspaper business model, literally, puts everyone on the same page, enabling all readers within a given community to share a common base of knowledge.

Another benefit of the original model, though, and one that’s sorely lacking now, is that it was robust enough to finance standalone monopoly newspapers, individual businesses, successful one-town, one-city, one-region papers.

It is the existence of thousands of independently owned and operated newspapers that helped keep our democracy strong up until now. A Donald Trump would have had to buy ads in every paper in America to try to achieve the reach he now has, for free, on Twitter.

I’ve recently begun asking new acquaintances how they get their news. So far, I’ve asked three. The responses were Twitter, Twitter, and Facebook and Twitter.

It is readily apparent that developing new, sustainable news models won’t be enough. The news product that the models produce must be so good that, as my husband once wrote, readers can’t afford to miss it.

Our task is not one, but two: Build the water tanks and fill them, and then convince the horses to drink. So that we all may be — safely — reconnected with each other and our communities.

*UPDATE:  Well, well, well.  On January 12, The Verge published a story saying that the employees of Twitter have, indeed, discussed the idea of banning Trump’s tweets.  See “Inside Twitter, employees reckon with Trump.”

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.