Leaping out of the box

The silo model — a niche approach to citywide coverage.

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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.

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.

Too much of a good thing

Who needs 50 versions of the same story?

Aggregation is an aggravating fact of online life.

Imagine three traditional dailies in the state of Indiana: the Herald, the Messenger and the Town Crier. In addition to their print publications, each publishes online via its website.

Imagine that presidential candidate Bernie Sanders visits the state capital, Indianapolis.

All three papers send reporters to Indianapolis. Also attending are members of the presidential campaign traveling press corps, including reporters from The Associated Press and major newspaper chains.

The next day, consumers of the print editions of the Herald, the Messenger and the Town Crier read their paper’s version of the story. It might run with a sidebar written by the AP or another wire service, but basically, one version of the event is presented.

Online, though, all of the versions of the story — those written by all of the local reporters and those written by the national press — turn up on the results page when a reader searches for “Sanders” or “Indianapolis.”

And thus we have, I think, the phenomenon that was bemoaned during a breakfast conversation described by Jim Rutenberg in an article in The New York Times on April 17.

Rutenberg described his conversation with Jim VandeHei, a co-founder of Politico, and Mike Allen, a Politico journalist. VandeHei was describing what their new venture would NOT do.

“It starts with Mr. VandeHei’s admittedly provocative proposition that ‘journalists are killing journalism.’ They’re doing this, he says, by ‘stubbornly clinging to the old ways.’ That’s defined as producing 50 competing but nearly identical stories about a presidential candidate’s latest speech, or 700-word updates on the transportation budget negotiations.”For News Outlets Squeezed From the Middle, It’s Bend or Bust

I’d encourage you to read Rutenberg’s article long and nuanced article top to bottom. This post, though, just focuses on a fragment of the article, that bit about “50 competing but nearly identical stories.”

Herd journalism has always existed. One example: When the Challenger space shuttle blew up after launching on January 28, 1986, hordes of journalists descended on Concord, N.H., the home of Christa McAuliffe, the “teacher in space” who was on the shuttle.

The Associated Press’s hub bureau for Northern New England was in Concord, which also was (and remains) the home of an award-winning daily, the Concord Monitor. The AP would be sending out stories and photos from Concord to its members around the world.

But the fact that the story was covered didn’t matter. It was a national story, and the nation’s newspapers wanted their version of the story for their readers.

Though fewer newspapers today can afford long-distance remote coverage, it still occurs, certainly at the in-state level.

But today, all of the stories are published online as well as in print. Thus, due to the aggregating effect of search engines, online readers are faced with many versions of the same story.

It’s confusing for the readers and seems inefficient of the news-gatherers, and it leads to the questionable new field of designing headlines to win click-throughs, regardless of whether or not the headline is truly representative of the story.

What’s a newspaper to do? What should journalists and the industry, collectively, do?

I promised to keep posts short. We’ll noodle through some ideas to address this issue in part 2 of this post, to come.

The benefit of worldwide coverage

Newspapers root the tree of global news.

The traditional daily provides articles from all over, supplied by a wire service.

Before the internet, before radio, before TV, the daily was the only purveyor of news from away. The demand for it was so great and the cost of providing it so high that newspapers joined together to form the not-for-profit news cooperative called The Associated Press. Together, the papers shared the cost of gathering news from afar.

They still do, today.

“… AP staff in 280 locations in more than 100 countries deliver breaking news that is seen or read by half the world’s population on any given day. It remains a not-for-profit cooperative, owned by 1,500 U.S. newspapers, which are both its customers and its members. …” —www.ap.org

There are other wire services, of course. Large newspaper chains, in fact, have their own. But the AP remains a unique model, a worldwide circulation system for news, supported and run by its members. Its staff of experienced reporters and editors gather and write original stories about the region they’re covering, and they also help member newspapers share their own stories with each other.

“For more than a century and a half, men and women of The Associated Press have had the privilege of bringing truth to the world. They have gone to great lengths, overcome great obstacles – and, too often, made great and horrific sacrifices – to ensure that the news was reported quickly, accurately and honestly. Our efforts have been rewarded with trust: More people in more places get their news from the AP than from any other source. …” — www.ap.org

My first news job was as a part-time file clerk at the AP’s Northern New England bureau. To this day, just the thought of lifting the cover of an AP bureau directory throws me into a reverie. Tracing one’s finger down the names of foreign locales where, should one be brave enough to venture forth, one would find a fellow AP staffer — what a network! All the way around the world.

You can have Facebook. I’ll take the AP.

“… There are only two forces that can carry light to all the corners of the globe — only two — the sun in the heavens and the Associated Press down here. …” — Mark Twain (The New York Times via twainquotes.com)

In February, I heard an international expert on media economics address a gathering of New England newspaper reporters, editors and publishers. He told them that the print newspaper business model wasn’t broken. He said it could still return a decent profit — if they concentrated on providing local news that their subscribers could not easily obtain elsewhere. That being so, he added, he couldn’t see the need for wire service copy anymore, given the ready availability of that kind of content on the net.

I wanted to stand up and shout, “No!” (Remarkably, I restrained myself.)

I hope daily publishers don’t take that piece of advice. The AP only exists because its member newspapers need it and want it, but its benefits go way beyond their circulation area. The AP’s benefits extend around the earth.

Without our dailies, I fear for our nation. Without the AP, I fear for our world.