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.

Keeping our eye on the prize

What kind of news do we want?

Yesterday, I drove to the local community college to watch two touring debaters from Great Britain discuss objective media versus partisan media.

The free event, hosted by Chesapeake College’s Honors Council, focused on a question of preference, for living in a country where major media outlets would be balanced and objective, or for living in one where major media outlets represented different political and world agendas.

The debaters, James Baross and David Jones, landed their points with vigor.  Here are just a few of them:

Jones stood for one state-sponsored but independently run media outlet that would strive to report balanced and unbiased news, maximizing truth (e.g., the BBC), and that, when found in error, would publish retractions with the same prominence as the original mistake.

Conversely, he warned, in a commercial news landscape offering a plurality of views, each view stems from the top, from the news outlet’s owner. When an owner  (and one’s boss) is pushing an agenda, Jones cautioned, the agenda takes primacy over facts and accuracy. And partisan media sensationalize the news to drive up readership, creating disparate visions of America. Citizens are forced to choose between competing realities, each defined in opposition to the other. Society becomes polarized.

Baross stood for a media world consisting only of partisan, commercial outlets presenting news aligned with their ideologies (e.g., Fox News, MSNBC). You don’t have time to evaluate and interpret the tremendous flow of facts and events that an unbiased news source would present, he reminded the audience. Wouldn’t you rather have someone who shares your views do that for you? Doesn’t it make sense, Baross suggested, for you to follow an ideologue from the mainstream media who thinks the way you do? Besides, it’s impossible to be truly neutral, he reasoned. Even when a news source is simply presenting facts, judgments and evaluations occur.

To illustrate that point, Baross told a story about two monks in a monastery.

One of the monks goes to his pastor and asks, “Pastor, am I allowed to smoke while I pray?”

“No, no, how dare you!” responds the pastor. “You are desecrating a sacred activity!”

Another monk asks the pastor, “Pastor, is it okay if I pray while I smoke?”

“Of course it is, my son,” the pastor says. “Praying is an activity to be done at any time, all the time, whatever you’re doing.”

Just the framing of a question, what comes first and what comes last, changes the way in which a situation is perceived. “Even in a world in which you simply tell facts, you can’t avoid implying position; you can’t avoid bias,” Baross concluded.

“We agree,” responded Jones.  “You can’t have an unbiased news media source. But what you can do is, you can set up a primary news organization that has the overriding ideology of promoting unbiased information.”

Ooh, they’re good, those debaters from Great Britain.  Their arguments reminded me that, while we try to find ways to financially support excellent news coverage in this country, we also need to keep our eye on the prize — what sort of news coverage we want.

That task may have become a little bit easier this week. For in this world in which we live, in addition to objective news and partisan news, we face a new player — fake news.  At least we can all agree that we don’t want that. The advertising revenue that legitimate news sources so desperately need should not be shared with purveyors of outright lies.

This week, The New York Times reported that Google and Facebook now say they intend to choke off advertising revenue that has been helping to support the producers of fake news.

“Google kicked off the action on Monday afternoon when the Silicon Valley search giant said it would ban websites that peddle fake news from using its online advertising service. Hours later, Facebook, the social network, updated the language in its Facebook Audience Network policy, which already says it will not display ads in sites that show misleading or illegal content, to include fake news sites.” Google and Facebook Take Aim at Fake News Sites

At least we can agree on what we don’t want and work to snuff it out.  It’s a good start.

The benefit of Capitol coverage

We need newspapers to keep their eyes on our public servants.

You might surmise from my last post (Too much of a good thing, II) that I think our national leaders need only be covered by a few journalists, to avoid cluttering up the internet with similar reports on identical topics.

Au contraire. One of the benefits, in fact, of the traditional newspaper model as it worked in the past was that even dailies from midsize cities could afford to post a reporter in our nation’s capital to cover the state congressional delegation.

A state’s senators and representatives work a long way from home. A full-time reporter working the Capitol Hill beat can keep an eye on them, sending back stories explaining what they’re up to and why.

However. We’ve been seriously slogging away at the topic of saving the news business for two months. Shall we take a break?

Oh, let’s. I invite you, gentle reader, to divert your attention to the C-SPAN video of President Obama’s speech at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, held on April 30.

It’s a hoot.

My favorite joke begins just after minute 11:30, when the president thanks the “award-winning reporters” present — the stars of the movie “Spotlight” — and then goes on to say he’s just joshing the crowd:

“… As you know ‘Spotlight’ is a film, a movie, about investigative journalists with the resources and the autonomy to chase down the truth and hold the powerful accountable.

“Best fantasy film since ‘Star Wars’. …” —President Barack Obama

At the end of his speech, the president turns serious, acknowledging the differences he and the press corps have had.

“… But we’ve always shared the same goal, to root our public discourse in the truth. To open the doors of this democracy. To do whatever we can to make our country and our world more free and more just, and I’ve always appreciated the role that you have all played as equal partners in reaching these goals. …

“… At home and abroad journalists … engage in the dogged pursuit of informing citizens and holding leaders accountable and making our government of the people possible. And it’s an enormous responsibility. And I realize it’s an enormous challenge at a time when the economics of the business sometimes incentivize speed over depth and when controversy and conflict are what most immediately attract readers and viewers.

“The good news is there are so many of you that are pushing against those trends. And as a citizen of this great democracy, I am grateful for that. …” —President Barack Obama

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.

Gatekeeper benefit, continued: The new gatekeepers

News editor or algorithm — who’s selecting your news?

“My kids get all their news from Google News,” a friend of mine said the other day, when we were discussing which print papers we still buy and read.

Her comment got me thinking about gatekeepers. Yesterday’s post was about the role of the traditional newspaper as a gatekeeper. Today’s post is about the gatekeepers of Google News. I count five.  Am I right?

Envision Google News as a funnel. Soaring above it are all of the pieces of digital content generated by every news source in the world. Let’s call it the news bubble.

Who decides which stories in the news bubble are seen by the viewer at the bottom of the Google News funnel?

Gatekeeper 1, the newspaper, publish or not: Only stories pursued and published are in the news bubble. In that sense, the local daily still remains a gatekeeper. Only the story that the paper deems worthy reaches its website.

Gatekeeper 2, the newspaper, participate or not: Each news source decides whether to participate in Google News. Those that do allow all or part of their content to enter the Google News funnel.

Gatekeeper 3, Google staff, include or not: Google folks decide what news sources the service will accept (see Info for news publishers).

Gatekeeper 4, Google computers, display order: Unlike a print newspaper, Google has an unlimited news hole. It can display all the links to content to which it has a path, which is far too much news for a viewer to comprehend. Google computers decide the order in which the links are to be displayed:

“The results you see in Google News, except as noted, are selected by computer algorithms that determine which results are displayed and in what order.” How Google News results are selected

If one accepts the logic that the articles displayed most prominently are more likely to be viewed, then the display order algorithm becomes, in effect, a gatekeeper.

Gatekeeper 5 (optional), Google computers, personalization: Busy readers, faced with such a plethora of choices, may choose to limit their view to their topics of interest and preferred sources (see Personalize your news settings).

Although it’s the viewer who decides to use the personalize option, once in use, the option is run by an algorithm, which, in effect, is acting as a gatekeeper.

Finally, the viewer clicks on a link of interest and ends up back at the daily newspaper website that allowed its story to enter the Google News funnel.

The gatekeeper benefit

Experienced editors select the news for the community.

It seemed obvious, barely worth mentioning, up until now.

In the traditional print newspaper model, the paper is the content gatekeeper.

Whom does that benefit?

If news decisions are dictated by the publisher’s point of view, the paper’s gatekeeper role benefits the publisher and his or her interests.

If editors are free to make the best decisions they can (the typical situation in our country), the paper’s gatekeeper role benefits the public.

Editors are far from infallible, but it’s their business to be on top of the news and to evaluate, each day, which stories are worth pursuing and, in the case of wire copy, which versions of which stories should be in the paper.

Readers who disagree have recourse; the editors are right there, in the community the paper serves.

And each day, editors have another chance to learn from errors they have made, another chance to get it right.

Not a bad system. But the newspaper’s gatekeeper role is being supplanted. More tomorrow. Stay tuned.

The benefit of one-to-many dialogue

The traditional daily shares its soapbox with readers.

Have you ever sat down, in a fit of opinionated passion, to pen an epistle to the editor of the local daily?

I have — when I was upset about an event I had witnessed, when I wanted to thank people for help I had received, and when the newspaper’s editorial was too slanted to be tolerated.

(Tiny confession: I’ve sent more than one letter for the last reason.)

Traditional dailies reserve two pages in each edition, the editorial page and the op ed page, for venturing into opinion. It’s where readers turn to find out who’s riled up at whom.

The pages typically contain the publisher’s opinion (the editorial of the day), an editorial cartoon, letters to the editor and pieces by nationally syndicated columnists.

It’s usually an interesting read. Some dailies try to make it even more so. When I was the wire editor of the Concord (N.H.) Monitor many moons ago, my job included laying out the opinion and op ed pages. The Monitor had recruited a stable of local experts in various fields, and I managed their scheduled submissions. It was fascinating work. They were the content experts of the day, blogging, as it were, through the paper. But I digress.

A block of space on the opinion pages is reserved for letters to the editor. It’s foolhardy to engage in a writing war with a publisher who buys ink by the barrel, but many march in with the courage of conviction.

It does take courage, for most newspapers require your signature and will publish your name with your letter. That tends to raise the level of discourse.

(If you don’t believe me, just compare the letters in the local daily print edition to the anonymous comments posted in an online edition.)

It’s a community benefit, this public opportunity for a one-to-many expression of ideas and opinion. It’s also an individual benefit for any reader who, in essence, is allowed to borrow the publisher’s press for a day.