Building a news bridge

A red-blue newspaper exchange could close the gap

We’re going to take a break in our discussion of Thales Teixeira’s findings on digital disruptors to talk about a new idea. Here it is:

What if every American in a blue state who has a digital subscription to their daily newspaper were given a digital subscription to a daily newspaper from a red state?

What if every American in a red state who bought a digital subscription were given a digital subscription from a blue state?

What if American newspapers, weeklies and dailies, took it upon themselves to bridge the gap between Republicans and Democrats?

Why don’t we lead?

Digital subscriptions make it possible. Why not build the knowledge of people who, by subscribing, have demonstrated they care enough to read about their own communities? Why not build their knowledge about another community, on the other side of the gap?

Imagine the conversations one might hear in town, not just about the latest school board meeting here, but also the school board meeting there. Imagine the conversations you might have in the newsroom, about how your sister paper covered an issue or event.

The initiative, to reach scale, should be led by national newspaper organizations. It should be branded and marketed (house ads, at least). It should be exceedingly easy for subscribers. We want them to read both publications.

Big chains might find it relatively easy to set up sister relationships within the chain. Small, independently owned papers might need help finding a sister paper — maybe, could ask their own readers to help identify one.

Why don’t we lead?

Connecting in rural America

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

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)

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.

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.

We hear them, don’t we?

A newspaper that doesn’t understand its readers may lose them.

Does it all come down to empathy, the lack thereof?

Wednesday’s post ended this way, referring to fake news: “At least we can agree on what we don’t want and work to snuff it out.”

Not so fast. WAMU’s Diane Rehm spent part of Wednesday’s show on “The Power of Fake News And Personalized News Feeds.” Listeners who called in said that fake news was not a problem because Trump supporters were smart enough to know it was fake, and besides, plenty of real news was out there to counter it.

Common sense leads us to believe that, if fake news didn’t generate ad revenue or sway views, it wouldn’t exist. Fake news exists because it works, both as a source of money and as a powerfully persuasive tool. Fake news pays off.

But of course, the premise that Trump won because fake news swayed voters is insulting to those who voted for him.

Some of Diane Rehm’s listeners were understandably defiant. The mainstream media didn’t hear us, they seemed to be saying, so we turned away from you. We created, read and repeated the work of our own, preferred news sources because you weren’t speaking to us.

Which brings to mind the words of Terry Egger, CEO and publisher of the Philadelphia Media Network.

The Philadelphia Media Network, a public benefit corporation, is an enormous experiment in news business modeling, and, through its parent, the The Institute for Journalism in New Media, is fostering the creation and study of other news models, as well.

Egger was a speaker at the New England Newspaper & Press Association 2016 Conference. During his talk, he explained the three principles that are guiding him as he strives to lead the way to a sustainable news future. First of the three: empathy.

There was a time, Egger reflected, when newspapers controlled the message, its distribution and how and when it was distributed. Now, the receiver has all the power. “We have got to establish the relevance of what we do,” Egger said. “We have to think of our customers, deeply, always.”

How, exactly, does one do that in a newsroom?

Perhaps by following up on voters the paper wrote about when Obama first took office, the ones who were laid off, lost their homes, lost their way, to find out how they are faring now. As well as bank and mortgage company executives and the companies’ owners.

Perhaps by spending a day on the job with an undocumented immigrant and writing about the low-level jobs that local employers can’t find citizens to fill.

Perhaps by treating the campaign as a job-hunting exercise — the kind so many readers face — inviting them to help draft a job description for the office of president, sticking it out front, measuring each candidate’s qualifications against it.

Perhaps by recognizing how overwhelmed readers are by the volume and complexity of information they encounter, and so making content as clear as possible — consistently labeling all opinion pieces as such, being careful of our word choices, being cognizant of the shift of labels (sexist, racist, misogynist) from the candidate’s comment to the candidate, and justifying that shift when it occurs. For readers are simply too busy to parse our meaning from our words.

If we had begun each day considering what our readers were facing as they drank their morning coffee — might our news coverage have been different?

A news business model is only a skeleton. We humbly suggest that Terry Egger’s use of empathy as a guiding principle is a good idea for all who labor to turn that skeleton into the body of work that keeps our democracy strong.

For more on fake news, see:

Too much of a good thing, II

Keeping the online report local might protect the local daily.

Where were we?

Oh yes. The aggravating effects of online aggregation. Continuing with yesterday’s topic and a source already quoted, according to Jim Rutenberg’s April 17 article in The New York Times, Jim VandeHei believes that survival “depends on giving readers what they really want, how they want it, when they want it, and on not spending too much money producing what they don’t want.”

As a newspaper’s ad revenue declines, subscription revenue must increase. Online viewers have a world of content to choose from and are notoriously resistant to paying for any of it.

Thus, the advice. Give them what they want, how they want it, when they want it — convince them to become a subscriber.

Methinks it’s time to consider different perspectives.

Let’s start with one of our imagined dailies from yesterday’s post, the Herald, about to cover a campaign stop by Bernie Sanders at the state capital.

Presume the Herald presides over a rural corner of the state and is a member of The Associated Press.

The Herald editors decide they’ll use the AP’s campaign-stop story as a sidebar. For their main piece, they’ll send a reporter and a photographer to the event with a busload of local Bernie supporters.

(The supporters are quite happy to invite the journalists along, knowing Bernie will get excellent coverage in the local paper as a result.)

In the print edition and on the Herald’s website, the story about the supporters’ day trip runs with the sidebar from the AP.

(I am presuming that, as an AP member, the Herald would have the right to publish whatever AP stories it publishes in print on the web as well. Not sure that’s true. If you know one way or the other, please comment.)

In print and online, the Herald has produced what its subscribers expect.

But — and here’s an idea — perhaps the newspaper should refine its approach for platforms designed for the mobile web — Google’s Accelerated Mobile Pages, Apple News and Facebook’s Instant Articles.

When the Herald pushes its news feed to them, the paper could withhold all wire copy and wire photos. The effect would be to make the Herald stories totally local and therefore totally different than everything else being served on those platforms.

One would hope that, as the Herald maintains a local focus, producing news uniquely pertinent to its local readership, it would maintain its subscriber base.

Now, let’s consider the perspective of a newspaper or online-only news organization with national aspirations — The New York Times, Politico, etc. We’ll call them “the majors.”

The majors have a much tougher row to hoe. They need to convince a world of potential subscribers that they are the best source of national news. And, unlike the Herald, the majors face serious competition from each other, for none have a naturally local angle.

Of course, each of them is going to try to produce the best story of the Sanders event. Of course, the stories will be similar. Of course, the internet will aggregate them, creating a confusing clutter of similar pieces.

And — and this is the real problem — not all of the majors will enforce a paywall. Some of them will let readers peruse the Sanders story for free. The free stories will likely be most often read, which will improve their standing on search results pages. Right?

(If I’m wrong, please comment.)

I’ve got no ideas here. First of all, the AP has to cover the national story for its members. That’s why it exists — to cover events its members can’t afford to cover. I reckon the same could be true for the national newspaper chains that have formed their own wire services. They have to be there, on behalf of the dailies that are owned by the chain and can’t be there. Right?

Add in other news organizations without a geographically local focus and what do you get? As VandeHei decries, “50 competing but nearly identical stories about a presidential candidate’s last speech.” Competition, aggregated online.

It’s bad for everyone, but how can one expect a major to refrain from covering a national event, to let the other guy cover it and glean whatever associated pennies fall out of the internet ether? I’m afraid the market is going to rule here, and it will be ruthless.

No, I don’t have any ideas, unless — consider a jury trial of national interest. The court will only allow one member of the press to attend. The majors (and they know how to do this) form a pool; one reporter goes in and his/her story is given to all.

Could this model be applied to national stories, with a twist? Would the majors agree to take turns? You take Bernie; I’ll take Hillary; we’ll share stories? Only one version of each gets published?

Crazy idea. Nah.