Jan 25 03:44

Do you see the man in the gorilla suit?

One of the most interesting people I've met in the past few years is Wes Edens, CEO of Fortress Investments, a billionaire and world traveler originally from a small town in Montana.

Say what you will about Wes today, but you can't argue with the fact he started with nothing and built himself a very prosperous company.  That makes him, to a large degree, a man worth listening to.

When we met, he talked a lot about business -- the importance of hiring the right people, not being afraid of change, not being afraid, period, and making your own observations.

Edens talked about the classic experiment of watching two teams of people pass a basketball and telling the audience to count how many times one team passes the ball.  Invariably, many people miss the guy in the gorilla suit who walks through the players, stops, beats his chest, and then keeps walking.

The lesson Edens said he took away from this was, "make your own observations."

The smart business leader doesn't do something because others are doing it or because some might criticize it.

His advice: observe the business environment and figure out what you think you should do and then do it.  Trust your observations.

That little conversation played a big role in how I went about planning The Batavian and continues to drive what I do.

It isn't my goal to live up to the expectations of the so-called -- self-appointed or not -- experts. 

My goal is to make my own observations and then do what I think is right.  If that means I fail, then at least I'm going to fail doing what I believe in rather than what somebody else thinks I should do.

And if I piss some people off along the way because I'm sticking to my own observations, well, I guess I just have to learn to live with it.

I have a plan. I'm going to keep after that plan, unless something happens to make it impossible, whether others understand it, agree with it, or not.

Jan 06 03:13

Newspaper pass along rates

I'd like to see somebody do a study of what newspaper pass-along rates really are -- and not a study sponsored by the newspaper industry.

I've heard numbers over the years ranging from 2.5-1 to 3.5-1.

At one time, those numbers might have been true.

I suspect the pass along rate is closer to 1-1 these days.

Anecdotally, my observation is that there's a growing percentage of people who keep the habit of subscribing to a newspaper, but rarely take it out of its wrapper.  Most papers go to the curb weeks after delivery wrapped and yellowing.

Also, in households and offices were people have more options for obtaining news, the idea of EVERYBODY who might have access to picking up the available newspaper seems like an incredibly quaint idea.

Among the younger members of secondary readers, the numbers of readers must surely have dropped significantly as more young people turn to online as their primary news source.

Is there any credible and current information out there to suggest that a newspaper pass-along rate as anything other than 1-1?

Nov 22 13:31

Forget "value-added journalism" -- Think, disruptive innovation

The new buzz phrase for entrepreneurial journalism (itself a buzz phrase) is "value-added journalism."

We see it expounded upon in this post by Kevin Anderson. Kevin is a really smart guy who has said nice things about me, but I'm going to disagree with the business proposition of "value-added journalism."

Let me introduce two other terms first:

  • Disruptive innovation -- which is innovation that attacks a competitor or competitive landscape by offering a product that is just good enough to find a market, to get a job done for consumers, and is under valued by the competition.  Here's a video of Clayton Christensen explaining that in terms of the invention of the steam engine and how initially, ship builders didn't value it, until it was too late.
  • Sustaining innovation is the kind of change brought to a product or service by incumbent companies.  When newspapers started putting classifieds online and charging an up sell fee, that didn't change the marketplace or fill an unmet need, but added a new level of service for existing customers.  

The idea of "value-add" is fundamentally a "sustaining innovation" mindset.

We see that mind set in this quote, which Kevin provides, from Alan Kohler:

It doesn’t matter whether it’s free or online, to survive it must do more than just report what readers can find out for themselves but don’t have the time.

He says, according to Kevin, that journalism must “explain what events mean, not just report them”.

Actually, there's a great market, as I've found, for reporting events.

In a market where we compete directly with a local newspaper that maybe (being generous) has 7,000 subscribers*, we routinely get 5,000 local readers a day (and well more than 6,000 on a big news day) to our web site.  That's pretty good, I think, for a three-year-old pull technology to achieve competing against an incumbent 100-year-old push technology.**

We've found 90 local advertisers who believe enough in what we're doing to provide us with sustainable revenue and a chance to continue growing and we're looking forward to a good and growing 2011.

But I don't think there is anything "value-added" about what we do.

We're serving a market that wasn't served before, and that market is the one that asked the perpetually unanswered question in most markets, "What's going on in my community right now?"

We don't always answer it perfectly -- we miss stuff some times, we're late sometimes -- but we answer it "good enough" when compared by consumers to the alternatives.

It's true that some of our success can be attributed to "community engagement," which in Kevin's post is identified as "value added," and that might be, but what I've really found is there is an audience for "get me news of my local community quick and make it easy for me to find what is new since my last visit to your site."

There isn't a lot of demand to explain it to them.

Our mindset is fundamentally a disruptive innovation approach to news.

While there is a place even in our model for bigger packages, lengthier stories, time-consuming investigations, more in-depth features, it is not foundational to what we do.  It's important to surprise and delight readers with unexpected quality (or what I hope is quality), but it is not a fundamental business strategy, not now, not on the web.

Journalists who want to go into "entrepreneurial journalism" set themselves up for failure if they're thinking about "value-added."  To achieve the kind of value-add people like Alan Kohler promote means to add expense, or it means taking time away from doing what I call "quick-hit journalism" -- post fast and post often about what's available now.

The web is fundamentally a disruptive technology. It's made publishing dirt cheap.  One of the key ingredients that AOL's Patch has right when it comes to online news publishing is that the expense ratio vs. print is about 4 percent.

To get going with a successful online news start up, all you really need is a scanner, a camera and a copy of Word Press (though, I'd recommend Drupal).  I guarantee you, you will be able to build an audience and build a business.  Start telling people everything you can about what's going on in their community right now, from why the fire truck just screamed down their street to what's happening at the American Legion's chicken BBQ, and you will grow an audience and be able to turn it into cash in your pocket. I promise.

* The competition has a circ, last I heard of 10,500 over three counties. The Batavian covers only one of those three counties, so we bound our competitive market in terms of that one county.

** If you're not familiar with the terms of "push" vs. "pull," push means, essentially, delivery, where "pull" means the audience has to take the initiative to come to you.

Nov 15 00:12

The Link Fetish

Terry Heaton is a brilliant online philosopher. He thinks very deeply about vexing digital media issues. But in his latest post, Online Advertising's Missing Link, he gets off on the wrong foot with me.

Links are the currency of the Web, the real value of any form of content in a hyperconnected universe. Madison Avenue wants nothing to do with this, and this is increasingly problematic for those who count on advertising to make a living.

Jeff Jarvis has been writing about the value of links for years, like this little gem from 2005:

In this new world, links are currency. Links grant authority. Links build branding. Links equal value.

Heaton goes on to talk of the value of links giving great examples of how links can create attention, but I'm not clear on how links generate revenue.

In one of his examples, he notes how another one of my online heroes, John Hegel, tweeted a link to a YouTube video that had five million views.

As impressive as that might be, YouTube is still losing money (what revenue it does get is off of passive or intrusive advertising), and there's no evidence I know that the musical artists in that video realized any economic benefit from those five million views (conversely, they very well may sell some records and/or concert tickets from those views, but we really don't know how much actual economic value has been created by those views).

For a link to be of real value in commercial terms, it needs to lead to profit -- not just revenue.

When I see pundits talk of links replacing advertising, or how advertising and publishing are being displaced, I simply don't see a lot of factual information to suggest the disruption taking place is generating profitable replacements.

My business, The Batavian, is profitable, but we make our money off of what I consider traditional, retail display advertising. There's nothing fancy, newfangled or particularly innovative about our approach to making money.

And I believe it's working very well for us.

Here's what I agree with Heaton on:

I don't want to be "sold," but I do want to be "aware." The problem with our culture is that everywhere we look, we're being sold. It's what we do. We created the form, and it's worked well in growing businesses and fueling the economy of commerce. But somewhere along the way, we crossed a line, and now we're turning to technology to get out of the way of the relentless bombing. "Just get 'em in the tent," is a license for distortion and any form of showing off. We pay $10 for a movie at the theater and sit through a half hour of ads before the show starts. Signs block everything. Commercial breaks on TV run 5-minutes. Websites are blocked with roll-overs (conveniently located where your mouse comes in contact with the page), roadblocks, pop-overs, pop-unders and anything else that "works" to get our attention. The print industry throws out pages that resemble NASCAR race cars.

Well, except, the home page of The Batavian is something like a NASCAR race car.

But I argue that our ad model is both passive and contextual.  Our ads don't block content or flash at you.  They are there for you to look at if you so choose, and you have a high likelihood to look at them because (at least if you live in Genesee County, New York) they are all relevant to you. They are as local as our content.

But they're still advertising.

And most of the people who will see those ads didn't arrive at The Batavian because somebody tweeted a link (though some did, though many of them are already regular readers of The Batavian). More than half of our audience are people that come to the site on a daily basis with the specific purpose of looking at our local content (news and advertising).

One of the important lessons I learned from John Battelle's book. The Search, was the importance of user intention to understanding user behavior on the web.

Every user goes to a web page with an intention -- be it to search, to read an article or to skim headlines, etc.  Whatever that intention is, publishers are on dangerous ground once they expect to subvert that intention.

Publishers also train users to come to pages with intentions that are contrary to the publisher's best interest -- the way most news sites are designed, for example, with nothing but headlines and links, train users to skim rather than engage with content.

As I've written before, not all links are created equal. We make a mistake when we make a fetish of the link, which is where Heaton sort of lost me with his post.

The fact of the matter is, links rarely get clicked.  If even 10 percent of the readers of this particular post clicked on even one of the three links above, I would be surprised.  Why? Because the people who are reading this post came with the specific intention to read this post.  They're not interested in having their intention interrupted.  When that intention is met (if they haven't already fallen asleep or clicked their browser's back button deciding this is all BS) they will go back to what they were doing before they came to this article, without clicking a single link of any type on this page).

The huge amount of traffic some aggregators can generate for some web sites has blinded some people to the true value of a link.  They ignore the fact that it takes a tremendous amount of traffic to generate an impressive number of click-throughs.  I call this the Drudge Effect, because most of us learned about how aggregators could drive traffic when the Drudge Report first became popular.  But the traffic Drudge would drive to your news site was only a fraction of the total audience hitting Drudge's home page.

It's not like one million people hit Drudge's home page and clicked on every link on that page. It's more like one million people hit Drudge's home page and at best clicked on only one link.  If one percent of those one million people happened to click on the link to your news story, that seemed like a big spike in your traffic, but it was only a drop in the bucket of the overall traffic going to Drudge.

Here's an unexamined truth of the web: A click has value. A link has no value (it might have some SEO value, but that's not what we're talking about here).

Fact: Until a link is clicked, it's only just a few characters of HTML.

And most people don't click on links, at least not in any meaningful proportion to the number of links created every day.

And this is why it is so hard to make money from publishing online.  The link rarely leads to actual revenue.

Until we can say with certainty that a link in and of itself creates profits, it's a misnomer to say it has any sort of intrinsic value.

What publishers need to concentrate on, then, is not links, but content.  It's the job of publishers to meet the needs of user intentions, or fashion content and advertising models that generate user intention compatible with the goal of making money. 

Information may want to be free, but it's still the most valuable commodity on the web. I mean, without information, what would we link to?

Yes, intrusive advertising diminishes the value of content, but that doesn't mean advertising is dead.

Commerce is still part of life, and so long as it is, there will be users with the intention of finding out what their is to buy in relation to their other interests.  For the local publisher, that means local ads, for the niche/special interest publisher, that means ads that fit those interests.  The ads may be delivered in mundane ways or in creative ways, but they will still be ads that match user intention.  Link or no link.

Oct 05 03:14

Howard's Five Rules of Hyperlocal Advertising

You can read about hyperlocal content strategies on dozens of web sites, but nobody ever talks about hyperlocal advertising strategies.

Content is cool. Revenue is an after thought.

Many people seem to assume that if you build a local web site that attracts readers, any old advertising you happen to throw on a couple of ad slots will some how magically generate enough revenue to pay for the enterprise.

Truth is, if your advertising strategy isn't as well conceived as your content strategy, your hyperlocal dreams will never become reality.

Here are my five rules of hyperlocal advertising:

Rule #1 of hyperlocal advertising: Local is relevant. In general, it's all the relevant you need. Google has taught us that contextual, relevant advertising works best on the web, but if you run a local news site, your target audience is very well defined: You appeal to people who are interested in information related to your community.  When you display ads for local dry cleaners and neighborhood eatries, you are providing contextual advertising. You don't need articles about spot removal for your dry cleaner display ad to display. It's automatically related to any local story you run. The fact that both your articles and your ads are local is all of the relevance you need. You don't need fancy algorithms and cookie tracking to serve highly targeted ads to your core audience.

Rule #2 of hyperlocal advertising: Advertising is content. Local readers read local ads. They are very interested in what the local sales and specials are, what events are taking place at what restaurants and what new businesses are about to open around the corner.  The more informational your ads, the more they will engage local readers.  If you're able to provide a smorgasbord of local, relevant ads, people will visit your site just to look for local businesses to patronize.

Rule #3 of hyperlocal advertising: The more local content (the more local ads) the better. It's important that your display ads act like a directory of the best local businesses in your coverage area. In order to achieve the goal of becoming a destination point for people to find out what local businesses are offering, you need to serve up a ton of local ads.  Further, you diminish your local focus by placing ad network ads on your site.  It should be your goal to keep all non-local ads off your site, including national chains.  Your advertisers, all small, local business owners like yourself, will appreciate your efforts to put local businesses first in your revenue strategy.  You can generate a lot more money with a local-only strategy than you ever could hope for from ad networks.

Rule #4 of hyperlocal advertising: Small, local business owners need to feel their ads are part of a site where lots of local people go. This is the main rule related to local editorial content -- the reason most journalists start local news sites.  In order for your site to be a must-be advertising spot for local business owners, it must be the news site that generates all of the buzz and conversation in your community. You need people talking about your content so that business owners hear their customers talking about your stories. If you're not hearing from readers, "I'm addicted to (your site)," then you're not creating enough buzz to sell lots of ads.  You can line up all the metrics you like, but if you don't have buzz, you won't sell ads. Once you have buzz, metrics don't matter.

Rule #5 of hyperlocal advertising: Keep it simple. Flat rates, no rotation, no CPM pricing. Mark Potts said it at Block by Block, but I've heard it before: "Small, local business owners can't even spell 'CPM.'" In all my years of dealing with local advertising, every time I spoke with an advertiser I found they either didn't like or were confused by banner rotation.  Nothing pisses off an advertiser more than to visit your site, reload your homage page a dozen times and never see his ad. You need to ensure that every time your customers visit your site, they see their ads.  Next, price your ads in an easy to understand format, which usually means monthly rates with no respect to number of impressions served.

Bonus rule: Break any one of rules one thru five and you greatly diminish your chances of local advertising success.

Oct 01 01:18

How to beat AOL's Patch

First, this is not a bash Patch post. I have friends who work for Patch. I think they're doing some good things.  If time proves me wrong about the advantage of local news site ownership, a Patch victory would be better than the alternative (which is the death of local news, or a win by a soulless aggregator).

Here's a few of things I like about Patch:

  • They have a strong grasp of what the cost structure needs to be to win at this stage of local online news development. (By this stage, I mean, the current need to minimize costs won't always be that way.) 
  • Related, Patch leadership gets that you can do a lot more coverage with a smaller staff when you're strictly online.
  • Patch is putting the coverage emphasis on local original content rather than aggregation (though they do aggregation). They hire people to live and work in the communities they cover.  This is smart.
  • Giving away business directory listing to local businesses is a smart way to start building relationships with local business owners.

My pal Mel Taylor has written an important post about how local site owners could get steamrolled by Patch if they're not savvy.

If you're a local site owner -- or an aspiring one -- there's lots of ways Patch could beat you.

But Patch also has weaknesses the local site owner can exploit.

If you're a local publisher, two books you should read -- and this applies even if your competitor isn't Patch, but, say, a newspaper -- Clayton Christensen's Innovator's Solution, and the first 50 or so pages of Michael Porter's Competitive Advantage.

If you're an online publisher, whether you know it or not, you've essentially decided to be a disruptor. The web is inherently disruptive to traditional media.

Patch is a disruptive innovation.  Their low-cost expense model and things such as free business directory listings are disruptive tactics against traditional media.

If you're in business for yourself -- whatever your business -- you also need to understand the concepts of competitive advantage.  You need to be able to quantify your competition's strengths and weaknesses and align your business strategies not to try and defeat your competition at its strongest point, but rather exploit your competitors weaknesses.

Because Patch is owned by a behemoth company, it has weaknesses that can be exploited by the the local site owner.

As good as Patch is with it's cost structure, you can still keep your cost structure lower.   While AOL can afford to lose money on a specific Patch location to try and drive you out of business, if you're savvy, you have some breathing room.  There's a lot of infrastructure costs -- executive salaries, HR, bookkeeping, legal, etc. -- that you don't have.  Your trick will be to hold on long enough to outlast what will be a growing demand by AOL for Patch to turn a profit.

Further, Patch is staffed by employees with fixed salaries.  If you're a sole proprietor, you're salary is what you happen to make this week.  Sure, you'd like to make more, but if you truly believe in what you're doing, you'll eat ramin for a week if you must to survive and stay in business.  Patch has fixed personnel costs that you simply do not have.

Which brings us to revenue.

Walmart has been able to reportedly use predatory pricing schemes against local competitors and drive them out of business because they had numerous profitable stores elsewhere.  As far as I know, Patch doesn't have any profitable locations yet. 

Hold that thought for a minute.

Patch also has sales reps who expect to be paid by commission (I assume -- I doubt their sales reps are pure salary -- pure salary rarely works in sales).  Reps who are paid by commission are loath to discount, because that means less commission.

So there are two pressures Patch faces that make it hard for them to discount their ads (and I'll grant, I'm speculating here).  First is, no profitable locations to buttress discounts in other markets; commissioned sales reps who really won't want to discount.

You, however, as an independent, have neither of these pressures.

Depending on the growth stage of your business, you can afford to beat Patch on rate. In other words, you can disrupt the disruptor.

Of course, the biggest weakness Patch has is Patch isn't you.  You are truly local. Your business is based in the community you cover, not New York.

You need to be sure your advertisers and readers know this.

If you feel that Patch is a threat, what you need to do as soon as you finish reading this is create a one-sheeter that brags about your traffic, what readers say about you, what advertisers say about you and proclaims your devotion to your local community and that your local business -- like your advertisers -- is locally owned.

Which raises the next issue: Do you accept only locally owned businesses as advertisers? If you don't, you should.  You should make it part of your publicly known mission that your goal is to help locally owned businesses grow (another reading assignment, Stacy Mitchell's The Big Box Swindle).  If your site currently has ad network ads, including Google AdWords, you need to remove that code from you site right now.  If you're going to be beat Patch, you need to be all about local and only local.  And beat that drum as loudly and as often as you can.

It will never hurt to remind local business owners that Patch is based in New York, that revenue is siphoned out of town, and that you're the local guy who will always be there.

When a chain shop stats to losing money in a particular market, the corporate CEO will just order the store closed. A local business owner who's sole source of income faces that challenge, his only option is to figure out how to make money in another way.  That's part of the local advantage.

Your fellow small business owners will understand that as soon as you start talking about being truly local.

Have you joined your local chamber of commerce yet? If not, do that today.  Part of your job is to be out in the community, even when you're not selling ads, and be seen as one of the local business owners.

One other important point about advertising:  Right now, Patch's advertising model appears to be what's known as "limited inventory."  In that model, you put a few ad slots on a web page and rotate a limited number advertisers though those slots.

The limited inventory model sucks. Advertisers hate it and it limits both your revenue and your options.

I prefer what I call the unlimited inventory model -- which consists of putting as many ad slots on a page as possible.  No ads rotate.  Advertisers love seeing their ads on every page view. They distrust sites when they can't see their ads every time they visit.  

If you follow my example, you will have a tremendous selling advantage against Patch.

The Patch site design is also more newspaper like rather than web like. By that I mean, control-oriented newspapers use a hierarchical home page design with top stories, story blocks and lots of headlines and links.  A webcentric page design is blog-like so that readers can login and quickly see what's new since their last visit.  This site design also opens up more ad positions that are adjacent to the content that readers are actually reading.

And if you find yourself actually in direct competition with Patch, and you're savvy about the concepts of disruption and competitive advantage, you will regularly figure out other smart ways to beat Patch.

As I said, while I'm not anti-Patch, but as an independent publisher, I certainly want to offer encouragement to other independent publishers. 

Patch can be beat, but you will need to be smart and work hard to do it. But then, you need to be smart and work hard just to survive in this industry anyway.

Sep 26 04:10

For-proft, non-profit and ???

There were moments at #BXB2010 in Chicago on Friday when it felt like a religious war was about to break out. At any minute I expected somebody to yell "PC" and somebody to answer "Mac! Damit!"

The clear divide in the room was over how to fund journalism.  On one side there were the advertising-supported sites, and on the other, the donation-supported sites.

Some of the divide was expressed verbally -- one participant got up and stated flatly that advertising is evil -- and some of it appeared in the #bxb2010 Twitter stream.

My reaction at first was extreme irritation with the non-profit side of the room, but then I realized -- there was also an incredible energy in the room.  Here we had assembled some 40 or so independent publishers who were all putting their careers on the line to pursue a market some industry pundits, even today, dismiss as an digital-non-start: Local media.  

A doff of my fedora to anybody willing to invest their resources and time into community journalism.  It is truly doing God's work.

This is what led to my little speech about the local community being the foundation of democracy.  I tried to not make my remarks about non-profit vs. for-profit, but I did want to send a message to the non-profits: In your zeal to avoid the stench of commercialism, don't forget the important role small businesses play in your community.

That said, I do think there is a problem with thinking the grant-funded, foundation-funded, donation-funded, non-profit model of journalism is somehow more pristine, more sacred and less likely to compromise journalistic standards.

I firmly believe the opposite is true, and here's why:

  • You can't escape the stench of money or making a sales pitch to somebody somewhere, somehow.
  • Don't assume you're going to do any better getting readers to contribute than you will do selling subscriptions.  Chances are, they won't.
  • You've still got to sell yourself.  Are you ready to do PBS-style pledge drives? Who's going to make the telemarketing calls?  Money will not just magically appear because you declare yourself a non-profit.  No matter how much people love your journalism, only a small percentage will ever click the PayPal "donate" button.   So, to get donations, you must make sales calls. There's essentially no difference between selling an ad to a business and selling a person on making a donation, so why is selling an ad evil, but begging for a donation isn't?
  • Since you're unlikely to garner a broad spectrum of donors and build a diverse donor base, you're going to have to rely on a few key funders. 
  • Any large funder who gives you money is going to expect a return.  Either they back your coverage as it is, and you better not change; or, they see a branding benefit to being a major sponsor, which carries its on weight on the credibility scale; or, they have an agenda.  It might be that they simply want a good watchdog of government, but it might also be that they need you to get firmly behind public transportation because the donor's real source of the money is a company that builds light rail systems.  Some grants are explicit, in fact, about their issue-promotion goals.  In one way or another, you're selling your soul.
  • Even if there is no obvious expectations at the time you take the money, such expectations -- even expressed subtly later -- might emerge.  Or the source of money may be quite neutral for a long time, but then a pet issue comes up, and now you better bend to the donor's will.
  • Some donors simply come with baggage.  What if you're in a community where a large casino operation is based?  They come to you and offer to fund half your operations.  You may not see a conflict because they're based outside of your exact coverage area, but a lot of people are vehemently opposed to gambling and will believe you are a compromised news source because of the gaming tie. 
  • You will have to have a board of directors.  This board of directors is likely to be drawn from your community.  Because part of the job of the board is to help draw donations and reassure donors, they will need to be leading citizens. Leading citizens always have other interests -- whether they be tied to the political world or the business world, they will bring their own baggage.  And some of them will not understand why you don't bend your coverage to their personal needs.
  • There's simply only so much charity money available.  Big corporations only need so many tax write-offs, and foundations are besieged by competing charities.  Grubbing for money will get harder and harder as more non-profit news orgs emerge.  No source of revenue is a bottomless well.

In summation, I don't see how being a non-profit shields a journalist from conflicts of interest, ethical dilemmas or even outright advocacy on the behalf of key donors.

Now, we've all heard the stories of publishers ordering articles pulled to suit a particular advertiser, but in my experience, the publishers that cower in such circumstances are facing a much bigger issue than journalistic credibility. They're main concern is corporate credibility, which is all about cash flow and profit margins.  Nobody at Corporate ever looks at the journalism awards in your foyer or the community kudos for demonstrating an ethical spine. Corporate wants to know one thing: Are you meeting your numbers.

When you're a independent news organization, the only numbers you need concern yourself with, truly, are paying the landlord and the grocer.

Since your source of revenue in the advertising model is an incredibility diverse group of small business owners, and each of these individual owners account for only a fraction of your overall revenue, you're not facing much pressure at all from any one source of income. 

There isn't any one advertiser who could pull his ads from my site in a huff and threaten my business.  As I point out above, that may not necessarily be the case for a foundation-supported, grant-supported non-profit news site.  In the non-profit model, one major donor jumps ship, and the ship might sink overnight.

In the history of The Batavian, not a single advertiser has tried to influence my coverage. 

Of course, I get requests, "can you write something up on my 5th anniversary?" or "can you see something about the Lion's Club fundraiser?" but these are legitimate soft features or light community coverage anyway.  I do try to fit them in, honestly, if I can, and when I can't, I find advertisers understand. 

That's a far cry from the kind of ethical dilemma's the non-profit crowd seems to believe that for-profit owners might face.

The fact is, the idea that advertisers are constantly meddling in coverage is a myth. The truth is, the small business owner has much bigger worries than how you're covering the next election, or whether you're making life hard on the mayor.  He wants to know first and foremost: are you helping to add a few more ting-a-lings to the ring of his cash register.

So, my bottom line: I believe that advertising supported journalism -- especially for the small, independent operation -- is the purest, cleanest, best way to fund local reporting.

Right now.

Terry Heaton has recently written a doomsday piece about the future -- or lack of it -- of advertising.

For nearly as long as I've been involved in online publishing, people have been predicting the death of advertising.  And death may yet come.

But it's not hear yet.

And we have a lot of aspiring independent publishers trying to figure out how to fund their dreams.

We can't lose sight of the fact that, for at least right now, advertising works.  When done right and done well, it works very well.

Also at #bxb2010 there was a lot of chatter about finding new revenue models, in part because of a distaste for advertising and in part because some people have bought into the idea that advertising has no future.

The problem for local publishers, though, is they have no future as publishers if they can't pay today's bills.  They have no time for the rest of us to cast about for some creative, disruptive, forward-thinking way of funding journalism.

And that's the meaning of the headline on this post: "For-proft, non-profit and ???."

Right now, all we know is either grub for donations or sell ads.  Anything else is just a big, fat question mark.  If you want to be in business now, question marks don't pay rent. They don't buy cameras, and they don't even supply note pads.

The vital issue for the aspiring publisher is: Revenue now.

If the aspiring publisher believes the way to go is try and gather enough donations to at least keep a cabinet full of raman, well, God's speed and God bless.

But there's also no need to be scared of being a dirty capitalist, selling ads and trying to grow a profitable business.  It's a place to start.  Only time will tell if it creates the next generation of media moguls or a whole new class of burned out half-wits scraping by on the public dole.

(Note:  There are other business and editorial advantages to advertising, but that will have to wait for another post at another time.)

Sep 21 03:16

Six keys to local news start up advertising revenue success

1. Keep it simple, stupid. The typical small business owner now knows the web is important and is even excited to get involved in web marketing, but he or she hasn't had time to really understand the web.  If you start talking with them about banner rotations, click-throughs and impressions, they will tune you out. You need to sell advertising in terms they understand, which means a flat rate for a given period of time (such as monthly).  Most of your advertisers are used to buying ads from the local shopper (such as the PennySaver). That is a good model for how you should price and position your ads.  I see a lot of start up sites using page designs modeled after newspaper sites, which means there is a limited number of ad positions and ad rotation. The typical small business owner hates rotation.  When they hit your site, they want to see their own ad -- every time.  If they have to keep reloading the page to see their ads, they get frustrated. They start to question the effectiveness of their advertising on your site ("nobody ever sees my ad, because I never see it). You need to remember, you're a start up. The business owner doesn't know you, doesn't know your business, doesn't know if it will work.  The lack of visibility caused by rotation only reinforces these doubts.  Your page design needs to accommodate an unlimited number of ads so that every ad you sells appears on every page view.

2. It's the relationship, stupid.  There is a certain magical thinking I come across on the web that self-service ads will solve all of our problems. Selling and servicing individual advertisers is time consuming.  Depending on your selling style, you might need to call on each advertiser multiple times to get a signed contract, and then you've got to build the ad and monitor its metrics.  You also need to maintain regular (at least monthly) contact with the advertiser.  It seems obvious: Self-service would be so much less time consuming.  But, go back and look at rule 1: keep it simple, stupid. No matter how simple you might think your self-service web application is, it's not simple enough for the busy small business owner who has neither the time nor the inclination to learn the web as well as you know it.  Don't think self-service will be your savior.  It will be your doom.  While selling and maintaining ads is time consuming, it's also a chance for you to get to know your advertisers, and them to get to know you.  You're not really selling banner impressions. You're selling yourself and your vision.  Small business owners naturally tend to root for other small business owners.  The small business owners in your community can be your early converts and your early fans. They're the most networked people in your community. When they become your fans, it starts to create the impression that "everybody" in town is reading your news.  That may not be the truth at first, but pursue this strategy and it soon will be.

3. It's all about market share. The first thing you should do when planning your ad sales campaign is figure out who advertises the most across multiple platforms. Try to discern who has the best grasp of marketing. You also need to know who are the local business leaders -- the local business owners other business owners respect the most.  These are your HOTs (high opportunity targets).  Go after these businesses first.  There's an old rule of brand building -- associate your brand with other brands that people trust.  You want to know what the best brands in your community are, and then make sure they become your first advertisers. If you have to discount your rate card by 75 percent to sign a HOT, do it.  Sign the HOTs and at any and all cost until you've got five to ten of these advertisers on your site.  The business owners who would otherwise sit on the sidelines will now be easier to sell. Also, the HOTs competitors will be more likely to want to not be left out. Further, having a lot of ads on your site doesn't just help you sell more ads, it helps you build credibility with readers.  If a new reader logs on and sees several local ads, he or she is going to know you run a site that is popular locally, and they're going to feel more compelled to return.  You should start selling ads the first day you're in business, because selling ads isn't just about making money; it's also about building audience.

4. If you're local, be local.  If you believe in hyperlocal news, you should also believe in hyperlocal advertising.  I think everybody who talks about hyperlocal news talks about it in terms of local-only news, no national news (readers can get it too easily elsewhere); rather, local means a keen focus on the defined local community.  So, why, then, would a hyperlocal site put a national ad network ads on its pages? It's beyond stupid.  One of the great ways you can build a relationship with local advertisers is talk about how you are there to promote the local business community. If you're simultaneously taking ad network ads (or admit a willingness to accept chain advertising), you're undercutting your local-only message.  Trust me, there's more revenue to be made in hyperlocal advertising than diminishing that opportunity by displaying non-local advertising (local being defined as a locally or regionally owned business, not a national company and not a chain).

5. Don't overprice your ads.  There is a tendency to think that just because the local newspaper site is getting $15 to $75 CPM, your site should also get $15 or more CPM.  You need to remember, yours is a disruptive business.  You need to deliver more value at a lower price, especially in the start up phase when you're trying to win trust.  Your flat rate ad should be priced low enough that its a pretty easy decision for a small business owner to go, "What  the heck, I'll give it a try."  (Of course, the price needs to be still high enough that when you sell out your target number of ads, you're profitable.)

6. Don't be afraid of metrics. if you follow the model of putting every ad on every page, you're going to deliver to your advertisers a significant number of ad impressions. That number will be impressive in itself.  But more importantly, for most of your advertisers, you're going to send their sites more traffic than just about any other web site (save Google or Facebook).  It's simple math: a .03 percent click-through rate on 400,000 impressions gives an advertiser more visits to his or her site than 100,000 impressions (delivered in rotation -- also rotation ads get local click-through rates) These are numbers that will demonstrate to most advertisers that their ads on your site are delivering sufficient results for the price you're charging.  Share these metrics with your advertisers.  Even when the click-through rate is less than 1 percent, you're still bringing more attention to their business than pretty much any other online marketing they might try (if your site is getting a good amount of traffic for your market), and you will have an especial advantage over any newspaper site competitor you might have (which is doing rotation, probably).  This is one of the key benefits of the "unlimited inventory" model (as opposed to the "limited inventory" model most newspapers sell).

Sep 21 02:05

Five things you need to know about starting a local news business

1. Be prepared for long hours.  If you're not prepared to work 14 to 16 hours per day, seven days a week, you're not ready to start your own small business.  You might not be able to put in that level of time commitment because you're recently married, or working another job, or have kids, or just have too many  other interests you want to pursue.  I've known a lot of small business owners in my life, and most of them put in long hours even years after setting up shop, but all of them put in these kinds of hours when their businesses started.  It's not something that is unique to doing a local news start up.

2. Plan to keep your expenses to a minimum.  Clayton Christensen, the world's foremost authority on disruptive business strategies, says, "Be impatient for profits and patient for growth." The more expenses you take on, the harder it will be to obtain profitability.  It should be your goal to achieve profitability within three to six months.  The more people on your payroll -- meaning the more partners you have, usually -- the more revenue you need to generate.  If you're local start up consists of more than you and a partner, you're probably over staffed.  A spouse makes the best partner because then you really need to pay out only one salary.

3. Be prepared to be a jack of all trades. The skills needed to run a local news start up include, but not limited to, reporting, writing and editing news (plus photos and video), ad sales, ad graphics, marketing, community engagement (online and off), bookkeeping, some level of tech knowledge related to servers and content management systems,* the legal issues surrounding content publishing and business strategy and tactics. If you don't personally have the skills, you need a partner who does.  The skill sets of partners should complement each other so all bases are covered.  It might be possible -- if you have all these skills -- to start a local news business as a solo operation, but as you begin to have success, you won't be able to keep pace with the work demands.  Finally, be a learner.  You might have most of these skills, but you won't have mastered them all.  When I took over The Batavian, I realized that while I had some PhotoShop skills, there was a lot I didn't know, so I bought books.  I also studied advertising and revisited some of my sales training.  I never assume I know all I need to know about what it takes to run my business.

4. Be able to think and plan strategically.  Starting a local news business isn't something you do just because you need a way to make a living, or just want to find a way to stay/be in journalism. If your goals are purely commercial, the crassness will show through and you will fail at finding opportunities to differentiate your business from your competitors. And no matter what your market, you will have competitors. You need to understand both the concept of competitive advantage and disruptive innovation. You need to know what advantages your business has over your competitors and how you are disrupting their tried-and-true business models.  You need to understand why readers and advertisers will or do gravitate toward what you do.

5. Be prepared to have fun.  To be successful, you must love what you're doing.  Running a start up business is hard, frustrating even some times depressing work.  The news business is unique is that you will have hundreds of critics (which is also another reason why you need a clear vision about what you're doing and why, so you can be confident of your course in the face of criticism).  Your mistakes will be public. Your failures will be public. There will be times when readers publicly denounce you; and, for any of 100 different reasons that have nothing to do with your business, advertisers will quit you.  There will also be days when you wish you didn't have to work all day.  You'll miss your loved ones. You won't be able to keep up with the latest movies, TV shows or music.  You may not be able to go out of town for a friend's wedding or a brother's birthday. Starting a business is and must be the whole of your life.  But you know what, running your own business is much better than working for The Man. And if you do it right, you will be treated in your community far better, with greater appreciation and adulation, than you ever received as a newspaper reporter, or any other salaried job.  If you do it right, you will feel deep in your heart that you're doing something meaningful and important, and that will carry you through any dark hours.

(Credit where credit's due: Brad Flora's post got me thinking along these lines).

Sep 16 22:42

Hammering on comments again

Newspaper sites continue to fail at comments.

The latest poster child of the clueless approach newspapers take to comments is an otherwise very fine newspaper -- the Deseret News.

The DN is going to limit people to only two comments per day per story.


They say they will allow only two comments per day per story, and comments will be pre-screened.

Their article announcing the changes telegraphs their cluelessness in the first sentence:

Newspapers have always had an interest in feedback from their readers. The primary source for this feedback, Letters to the Editor, has had a prominent place in newspapers for more than a century.

Comments are not letters to the editor. They are not "feedback."  Such a notion indicates the Deseret News editors still view their roles as "we report, you read."  Feedback is fine, but the idea of a conversation is completely beyond their comprehension.

Typical newspaper think.

Comments are conversation.

Comments are about engagement, both audience to audience, and news staff to audience.

Comments are about community.

Polices that subvert comments include moderation and posting limits.

While I naturally applaud the DN's new real name policy, the DN editors again show they don't understand comments by instituting this policy in order to bring more civility to comments.

A real names policy will not bring more civility to comments.  The purpose of a real names policy is more ethical than comment quality.  People using real names can be assholes as much as John Schmoe.

The only sane comment policy begins with the concept of management and leadership.

A newspaper the size of the DN must have a community manager, and reporters and editors must participate in and help manage comments.

Any other approach is doomed to failure.

If you're a publisher unwilling to invest in comments and community, you should just drop comments completely.

However, if you do that, the next natural question is, why are you even publishing on the Web, then?

Aug 27 14:25

Introducing VuFindr.com

I've always been interested in photography, but when I had a good SLR I couldn't afford much in the way of film or developing.  Then, when digital came along, I couldn't afford, nor justify, anything but a point-and-shot camera.

In running The Batavian, I realized that with no photography staff, the "reporter armed with nothing more than a point-and-shot" just wouldn't cut it.  There are some photo assignments that can only be handled by a quality SLR camera.

So I bought a Nikon D90.

This immediately led to an improvement in my photography, which led to a lot of positive reader feedback, which encouraged me even more to take photography more seriously.

I'm very pleased the the ongoing positive feedback I get from friends, family and readers for the pictures I've been taking.

I don't know where a serious interest in photography will take me, but I keep pursuing it.

This has led me to set up a photoblog: VuFindr.com.

Aug 22 20:15

Site Registration

If you've ever tried to register for the site and were not successful the reason is: ever since I moved howardowens.com to the current hosting service, e-mail hasn't works, so there are no e-mail notifications going out for registration.

Also, I get a tremendous number of spammers trying to sign up for accounts. This leads me to (combined with how busy I am running The Batavian) not to ever look at the new account list.

So, if you have a registration pending: e-mail me and I'll approve it (if I believe you registered with your real first name and last name).  And in the future, new registrants will be asked to contact me via e-mail to request account approval.

I'm at gmail and the username is howardowens (humans will know how to turn that into an e-mail address).

I'm feeling a little inspired by this post from Leo Laporte to turn away from social networking sites and post a little more here.  If that happens you can expect a mix of subject matter, from the more personal stuff I would most likely share on Facebook, to more profession oriented stuff I generally saved for Twitter.

Right now, I'm not thinking of dropping either service (twitter is how I get most of my profession's news these days), but I'd like to do a little more with this blog.

Bottom line is: People in the business who expect nothing from me but profession related posts will be disappointed.

Aug 19 01:08

Newspapers: Don't be the web

The newspaper in the town of my birth, San Diego, has launched a redesign.

The redesign features fewer stories on the front page, more space for graphics and the name plate has been changed to the snappier "U-T" rather than the apparently more cumbersome "Union-Tribune."  The amount of actual news on the front page has been greatly reduced (and if you compare it to a San Diego Union or Evening Tribune front page of 1971, tremendously reduced).

While the redesign story says the U-T is recommitting to watchdog journalism and more in-depth coverage, everything else screams "we want to be the web in print."

The trend of snappier, more graphic printed newspapers began decades ago, but I continue to maintain that it's no coincidence that as newspapers have moved toward trying to be more like magazines, or now, the web, readership has declined.

There is lot of reasons for readership declines, but what I don't get is: Why did newspapers stopped trying to be a newspaper.  

A newspaper is about black and white first and foremost: headlines and words. 

Newsprint is a writer's medium, punctuated and enhanced by exceptional black and white photography.

The effort to move newspapers toward color and fewer words has been destructive to the greatest value proposition of a newspaper: To be a product that thoughtful people spend time with.  The endless chasing of "time-starved readers" has done nothing more than alienate core subscribers.  And I also believe created a product that is even less interesting to younger generation of readers.

This remains one of my pet peeves.

I love the web. I think it has great, great strengths as a news delivery platform, and news organizations need to figure out how to more effectively deliver news online, but at the same time, publishers need to stop investing in splashy redesigns and instead invest in good, quality print journalism.

The way to fight print circulation declines isn't to move away from good print journalism, but to embrace what makes print a great platform for great journalism.

My advice to publishers: Embrace the web as the web; celebrate print as print. Don't try to transfer one mindset on the other.

Jun 20 17:25

Telling the story of community in photos

Some of you will remember that my first online endeavor was to launch an online news site in eastern San Diego County called East County Online. That was in 1995.

Some time ago I did a tweet suggesting that somebody should start an online site that told the story of a local community not with the written word, but almost entirely with photos.

I thought it would be an interesting experiment.

I doubt whomever started EastCountyNews.net knows anything about me or ever saw that tweet, but it is, in fact, a community news photo site. And the publishers took it a step further. it's also in print.

That's pretty cool.

Apr 04 20:24

Consumers vs. Creators (or Will the iPad Destroy the World?)

At a talk I gave a while ago, I was introduced as one of the early champions of "citizen journalism."

I cringed a bit.

While I revel in the idea that in the new digital age any one can create, I realized early on, not every one will.

While I'm a fan of Jay Rosen's aphorism, "the people formerly known as the audience," I've never took it to mean that EVERYONE will become content creators.

I'm down with Power to the People. Digital tools have unleashed a new era of creativity that is explosive and energizing.

The era of digital media created new threats for established publishers, and it also created new opportunities.

For most of my career, and most of my boorish, loudmouth pontificating, I would like to think I've been more about pushing for newspaper people to embrace change as opportunity, albeit, because ignoring the threat will kill you.

I've never hearlded citizen journalism as a replacement professional journalists (I'm not sure many people ever really believed that, but I've certainly not been among them).  More, I've loved Dan Gillmore's phrase, "journalism as a conversation."

I love the idea that stories are no longer static. We no longer live an era when an article is discussed with an editor, researched with an eye toward "the official record," written with great seriousness, edited with great thoroughness, and committed to paper as an inviolate document (at least, that's the newspaper journalistic ideal).

Now, the savvy Web journalist can take what he knows, publish immediately, correct on the fly, collect input from readers (might be a comment, a phone call, an e-mail, a Tweet, etc.), link to a responding blog post, write an update, and let the story breathe its own life, whether that life might be minutes or days.

And, of course, any member of the "people formerly known as the audience" can start from scratch themselves, any place, any time and for their own purposes.

This approach leads, or should, I believe, to better informed citizens, and I hope, to greater civic engagement.

But all this new power does not mean that just because citizens will participate in the news process, they will. Just because you can drink beer, doesn't mean you will. Just because you can watch baseball doesn't mean you'll turn on the TV. Just because you can plant seeds doesn't mean you'll choose to grow peas rather than flowers.  People make all kinds of lifestyle choices that are not powered by the ability to do something, but rather the preference to do something.

Today, Jeff Jarvis (@jeffjarvis) posted this Tweet:

This whole consumption v. creation (& app v. site) thing worries me because it reverts power to companies v. us all.

My reply led to a short conversation in which, once again, Jeff and I don't see eye to eye.

Jeff pointed me to an article from ClickZ that contains a very impressive number for the total count of people who have posted something to the Web: 48 million. Wowza! That's a lot of people.  Or so you think until you stop to consider, there are 309 million people in the United States

That means about 15.5 percent of the U.S. population has posted something to the Web.

That number tracks pretty close to the 90-9-1 Rule, which was never meant to provide a precise measure of the actual participation inequality, but it is a consistent rough measure.

The vast majority of people in the United States (and I'm sure the world, but to keep the argument straightforward, we'll deal with this limited scope), are media consumers, they are lurkers, not creators.

And like people who prefer beer over wine or cats over dogs, they are making a choice of preference, not compulsion.  Putting more beer in the world won't create more beer drinkers.

Jeff isn't buying it. He's quite apocalyptic about the meaning of the iPad -- bad Apple and big media are trying to destroy us creators and turn us all into audience again.

Where Jarvis sees a conspiracy to destroy the wonders of the Web, I see a savvy business man -- Steve Jobs -- recognizing reality and going where the money is: That vast sea of consumers who have not the slightest interest in creating content and never will.  The iPad is aimed at them (and perhaps those geeks among us who want both the laptop for serious content creation and the iPad as an entertainment device).

Steve's timing seems impeccability brilliant: I think consumers are ready for more portable, convenient, easy-to-use Internet.  The iPhone and iPod helped create the market and now Jobs is going with the next logical step in a sustaining innovation strategy.

Jarvis seems to think that evenutally all 309 million Americans will create. He tweeted:

Why draw a distinction w/online? Telling friends at Denny's is little different from telling your on email, Facebook.


The Internet will get closer to what we do in life (not the other way around). In life, we talk. So do we online.

My response:

You're a Utopian, Jeff. Which isn't a bad thing. Helps drive innovation. But at some point Utopian visions hit brick walls.

To me, it's pure fantasy to expect the 90-9-1 Rule (it should really be called the 90-9-1 Law) to be broken.  The whole world will no sooner become a populace creators than it will become a planet of dandelion eaters.

The reason most of this morning's Denny's patrons will never submit a status update to Facebook is because they think nobody cares about what they have to say (a far more admirably humble attitude than those of us who expects the world to hang on our every tweet), or they fear such postings will come back to haunt them. Or: They. Just. Don't. Care.  There are a multitude of reasons why even very savvy Netizens will never do a status update, tweet, blog or comment, even on a post about their own grandchildren.

Steve Jobs is not evil for introducing a product aimed at that vast, immovable sea of humanity we sometimes derisively call consumers.  There's money to be made there.

The big question is, who will make the money creating content and games for them: The established media companies, or new disruptive innovators?

Media companies have famously failed to recognize the true disruptive nature of the Web, and have fallen hopelessly behind in the world of HTML, links and video uploads.  I wouldn't assume they will not do any better in adopting to the world of apps and touch screens.

Just like the 90-9-1 Law is unchangeable, the "audience is control" nature of the digital era isn't going to be changed by any one device, and in fact, each new digital device further fragments the digital media world, making it harder for large corporate media concerns to survive and prosper.

Digital publishers should not be sending flowers to Steve Jobs, but neither should online innovators be hanging him in virtual effigy.

Apr 02 03:47

The why and how of a real names policy on comments

If you run a online news site, you should allow users to comment on posts. And if you allow comments, you should require users to register with their real names.


It starts with basic news ethics: Readers have a right to know who is saying what.

Newspapers long ago stopped allowing anonymous letters to the editor. Ethical editorial page directors go to great lengths to ensure the author of a letter is who he says he is.  There is no small measure of credibility tied to using your real name when expressing an opinion or stating what you believe to be facts.

Newspapers also have established policies on anonymous sources. Setting aside for a minute that some papers don't follow their own anonymous source policies, the best policies require some verification by a trusted reporter or editor of the true identify of the source, some vetting of the source's motivation, and ensuring the source is used primarily to provide facts, not opinion.

The argument is at times made that since newspapers allow anonymous sources, online news organizations should allow anonymous comments.  The logic doesn't follow, however, because anonymous comments come from unvetted sources -- there is no examination of their motivations or conflicts of interest, nor any idea if the person is even remotely who he represents himself to be even in anonymity. In most news environments, anonymous comments go live without any verification as to their news value or truthfulness.  No ethical news editor would allow such unfiltered information to flow freely into printed news columns. Why is it OK on the Web?

Real names may not prevent people from spewing misinformation and defamatory bile, but at least if readers trust that the person making such assertions is using a real name, they can judge it accordingly, or fact check the source themselves.

A situation came up recently at Cleveland.com where a judge allegedly/seemingly (she denies it) used a psudonymous name to comment on cases that had come before her court room.  If there had been a real name policy in place and enforced at Cleveland.com, there never would have been an issue about revealing her identity, which clearly the public had a right to know.

Newspapers set themselves up for a horrendous ethical dilemma when they create a situation whereby public officials, who have obvious conflicts of interests, can support their own agenda, or oppose another's, through anonymous, unfiltered and unvetted commenting. The public, for example, has a right to know if the person pushing cuts to local bus routes is the politician who wrote the legislation or just some well informed citizen.

As another example, if the mayor is promoting a zoning change downtown, and a persistent commenter keeps arguing against it, the mayor has a right to know if that is a future electoral opponent or the local competing developer who stands to lose by the change. And so do the readers.

It is sometimes suggested that rather than require real names, persistent identity should be required, or pseudonyms. 

There are two problems with this suggestion.

First, it doesn't solve the exceptionally important ethical issue of the readers right to know who is saying what; second, it's too easy for sock puppets to promote an agenda using multiple identities.

There are some who seem to assume that the whole issue of comments and identity have to do with avoiding racist hate speech, nastiness, vile flame wars and the like.  While a real name policy can help in this regard, that is not the primary reason for requiring real names (again, it's primarily about ethics).

At The Batavian, we've banned two people who we know were using their real names.  People can still be jerks even when their name is attached to their comments.  Real names might tap down some of the vileness, but it doesn't eliminate it.

But if you have a real name policy -- and this is the key point in using identity to police comments -- it makes it much harder for the bad actors to re-register under a different name.

In a policy that requires only pseudonymity or persistent identity, if you kick Julie123 off your site on Tuesday, by Thursday, she can be Becky123 and you're none the wiser.

Which brings us to enforcement of a real names policy.

Frankly, I will not reveal all of my secrets in a public way of how I catch fake names.  I don't want to educate those who might chose to subvert my policy on The Batavian.  I would be happy to discuss this in detail with any news organization on a non-disclosure basis if requested.

But first and foremost, the vast majority of people who would seek to comment without their real names do so in very obvious ways.  The guy who registered with "Not Me" is obviously faking it.  Even if the person uses a plausible sounding name, such as Richard Montadello, will leave other inconsistencies in his registration to raise suspicion.

I approach a real name policy as a "best effort" practice. If you can get past my radar with your registration and get approved, the next test is your behavior. 

Trollish comments, repeatedly making statements that the average person would find embarrassing to be associated with, will likely mean that further investigation into your identity is required.  When such comments come from a recently registered person, the yellow alert goes to red pretty quickly.

At which point, I check public databases for names that match in the zip code provided. If no match, the user is asked to provide either by fax, e-mail or in person a copy of a picture ID.

But the best police of real identity are other registered users, members of the community.

We had a gentleman who got away with a fake name for about six months.  He claimed to be a small business owner employing 50 people in factory jobs.  For a small business owner in a small local community, his attitudes about supporting local business (or not supporting it, as the case may be) were pretty strange.  One day one of my advertisers said to me, "Who is this guy? I've asked all my friends, and nobody knows who he is."  So I checked with the chamber of commerce and the economic development office (where a man who employed 50 people in an industrial capacity would surely be known) and nobody had ever heard of him.  He was banned, but not before he sent me a nasty e-mail refusing to reveal his true identity.

But because his comments were always on business-related issues, and he seemed so well informed, if not a little out of step with the local business community, don't you think the other business owners had a right to know who he was?  I think so.

I make no promise that every person who comments on The Batavian is using a real name, but I do promise a best effort to enforce that policy and that people who violate the policy will be banned. That's the best I can do and for the most part, and our users seemed satisfied with this "best effort" approach.

And it's clear that users care very much about our real name policy.

They care because it helps create a more trusting environment.  They care because it helps promote community (I know who you are and you know who I am, so its more social, fun and rewarding to participate with you -- one of the same key features that makes Facebook successful). They care because they appreciate that on The Batavian, for the most part, we can discuss local issues as mature adults (it still does get out of hand some times, but we get better all the time at keeping a lid on nasty arguments).

As I alluded to before, a real name policy will not magically make an online community a more civil environment.  If community managers are not taking ownership of the community -- which is a matter of both policing and participating (weed, seed and feed, is the old community managers motto), then no imposed policy is going to work.  Online community is not a set-it-and-forget it proposition.  It is labor intensive and requires dedication.

A couple of closing points.

-- I'm not against anonymity on the Web.  In certain forums -- say one dedicated to victims of child abuse -- it is absolutely necessary.  Also, there is nothing wrong with an individual setting up an anonymous blog.  If the market place embraces his anonymity and finds what he has to say valuable, bully for him.  My advocacy for real names deals strictly with a professional news organization environment where ethics should be a hallmark of a credible news organization.

When you put it in those terms, all of the arguments about how the Federalists Papers were written anonymously (even if the argument isn't entirely historically accurate) become pretty moot.  We're not talking treatises to change the fate of a nation here, but information and commentary shared under the banner of a legitimate news organization.

-- A real name policy, contrary to what some say, will not prevent anonymous news tips or scare off the whistleblower.  At The Batavian, we get anonymous news tips all the time.  They just don't come through comments.  This argument against real names is a pure straw man.

As a closing emphasis: I strongly believe that news organizations that allow anonymous comments are committing a grievous ethical blunder. There is no justification or excuse for it. They are tarnishing their brand and credibility at a time they can least afford to devalue either.

Aug 29 16:46

The Newspaper Original Sin: Keeping online units tethered to the mother ship

Alan Mutter started it. He said the newspapers "Original Sin" was not charging for online content from the beginning.

He was wrong, of course -- many newspapers tried and failed at paid content online in the early days, and even the ones who stuck with it never generated enough revenue to make up for their declines in advertising revenue.

But Mutter's "Original Sin" meme started a trend toward "Original Sin" guess work about just where and when newspapers went wrong with their online strategies.

Steve Buttry hits on one possible answer with his "Original Sin" post. His answer: The bundling of online ads with print ads.  Bundling devalued online ads and taught advertisers online could be viewed as an add-on, just something extra.

There's merit to the assertion, but it misses why newspapers bundled ads in the first place.

Simply put, they couldn't sell online advertising in the early days.

In most cases, publishers relied on their existing print sales staffs. 

That seemed logical, I suppose, but in an era when selling print advertising was more like order taking and less like selling, why would a fat-and-happy print sales rep go out and actually SELL a low-margin online banner?  That was too much like work.

Steve makes the point that bundling taught advertisers to see online as nothing but an add-on, but the flip side is that back in the day, local advertisers barely even knew online existed, let alone how it might benefit their businesses.

Publishers who needed to justify the salaries of their online staffs needed to ensure online operations contributed to the bottom line. The only way to do that was through bundling.

And bundling was easy. Advertisers who might not get online, at least understood that online audiences were growing agreed it made sense to put their ads online with an established local brand  at a low cost. Advertisers simply didn't object to bundled pricing.

Besides bundling, publishers also tried hiring online-only sales reps. The problem, however, is they were rarely really online-only. They weren't allowed to sell against the print reps, and had to consult with print reps on mutual clients, were encouraged to go out with print reps on "four-legged calls" and easily fell into thinking the only clients worth calling on where the ones already buying newspaper advertising.

Throughout the history of newspapers online, there has simply been a lot of thinking that there isn't much different between the Web and print.

It's understandable. The Web, especially in the early days, is a text-dominated medium. The natural response is to think editors could simply move print stories into pixels and be done with it. From the very beginning we called this "shovelware" and "the daily dump," but the practice has persisted.

If publishers thought the Web was no different for content, how could they possibly be expected to see online sales were different, too?

And this leads to my theory of the "Original Sin."

The Original Sin was? Failure to create separate business units for online.

And I'll plead guilty to a share of this sin.

As director of new media in Ventura and VP of interactive in Bakersfield, I certainly had some grasp that online wasn't print. I did push such innovations (at least for the time) as comments on stories, video, web-first publishing, locally focused home pages, user profiles/social networking. But looking back, I see now that I still had a lot of newspaper-think in my outlook.

In both Ventura and Bakersfield, I saw it as my job to figure out how to make enough money online to pay for the newsrooms as constructed at the time.

That seemed impossible without being tethered to the mother ship, mooching of established customers and existing sales, and hoping some day, some how, we could convert that bundled revenue into pure online revenue.

It wasn't until late 2007 that a switch tripped in my head and I realized I needed to flip the expense/revenue picture upside down. Instead of thinking about how to generate more cash, I needed to figure out how to create a news operation that could exist profitably based on a reasonable expectation for local online revenue.

In a market where the newspaper newsroom might cost $10 million, I knew how to make $1 million online, or even $2 million, but I didn't know -- and still don't -- how to make $10 million.

So if I can make a million online, why do I need operate a $10 million newsroom, especially given the greater efficiencies of online publishing?

It was that realization that lead to planning The Batavian (not that The Batavian will ever make anything close to $1 million, just illustrating with round numbers).

Here's what a separate online business unit would look like:

  • Minimally staffed on both the sales and content side.
  • Both staffs would operate in a building far away from the newspaper office.
  • No newspaper content would feed the web site, and the online staff wouldn't consult or work with the newspaper staff on stories. There would be a total wall of separation.
  • There would also be a total wall of separation between sales staffs.
  • The separate business unit would be competitive with the newspaper, not complimentary.

It's a little surprising to me that after all my study of Clayton Christensen and other thinkers on disruptive innovation  that I didn't see more clearly sooner the imperative of a separate operation, but it is what we should have been doing.

The thing about this approach is that by starting small, starting with the lowest cost possible, in the disruptive innovation model, you have your best chance to grow a $10,000 business into a $10 million business.  In a disruptive world -- which online is by its very nature -- if you start out with a $10 million expectation you're only going to end up making the kind of mistakes that eventually lead to failure.  By starting smaller, you can adjust more quickly to a turbulent environment.

So, if the "Original Sin" had'n't been committed, if newspapers had created more totally separate business units, would newspapers be "saved" today?

I don't know.

The strategy could have hastened their demise, but I think you can also make the case that by letting newspapers be newspapers, and keeping online far away, you would have had fewer readers dropping subscriptions in favor of free online content. Maybe. Maybe the online competitor would have been seen  by readers as just another media outlet, not a replacement for the newspaper.

It might not have saved newspapers, but it would have been the right thing to do, because it would have led to greater innovation. It also would have helped publishers retain a foothold in communities they served should the newspaper ever fail.

And it may not be too late for this approach, but newspapers are pretty hemmed in now with their existing newspaper.com operations -- making too much money to put at risk, but not enough to make a difference in the current model.

Jun 24 14:49

Newspapers started small, cheap and with different standards

There are those in our industry who seem to assume that newspapers emerged in 1835 in full flower, that many of the elements of the newspaper world that were until recently taken for granted were all part of world of James Gordon Bennett and Horace Greeley.

An example of such thinking might be found in this post by Bill Doskoch.

The assumption, in my perception, is pervasive, and it colors the view of today's journalist toward development of online news; in fact, the assumption may have blinded many executives (including online executives, including myself for a time) in their expectations how to build an online news business.

For more than a decade, we expected to build online news organizations that could support a super structure of the modern newspaper newsroom -- with the all the reporters and editors and big story packages (look at all the emphasis we put on big Flash multimedia productions) and that we could keep doing journalism just the way we always did it.

While we bemoaned shovelware (taking the same exact print story and repurposing it for the Web), we took little time to really examine what might might be different about online publishing that should change the way news is gathered and presented.

That's why we were slow to embrace blogging, slow to recognize the power of social networking, and why, even today, most newspapers treat reader interaction (re: comments on stories) as a nuisance rather than an essential part of the business.

Look at the typical newspaper.com home page design -- the level of sophistication and attractiveness may have improved from five or six years ago, but these sites are still trying to recreate the newspaper experience, the packaged-goods experience, shoving everything possible into a single, wholistic collection of pixels.

From the in-the-trenches newspaper journalist perspective, today's surviving reporters and editors keep looking to paid content as some sort of savior, ill-equipment mentally to understand why it simply won't work, and unwilling to accept any online news model that looks different from the print world they've loved.

The seeming fact that no online news model has yet emerged to support their paradigm of journalism -- the large staffs, the watchdog journalism (at least to the level they expect), and the comfortable 9-to-5 work shifts -- is proof to them that online can't or won't work they way they expect.

Any experiment in online journalism that doesn't fit their paradigm is just folly.

These reporters and editors need to go back to J-school, and one that offers some history of newspapers rather than priestly pronouncements on religious tenants in the High Church of Journalism.  Or at least reflect on what history they did learn.

James Gordon Bennett, Horace Greeley, E.W. Scripps and Joseph Pulitzer were not just earlier versions of Woodward and Bernstein. They were entrepreneurs, visionaries and risk takers who experimented and explored the capabilities of new technologies with a goal of meeting readers needs and growing audience.

They put ads on their front pages. They ran straight murder trial transcripts. They sent row boats out in the harbor to meet incoming ships so they might be the first with the news Europe. They produced multiple editions in the race to build reader loyalty. With the penny press, they disrupted the incumbent six-penny newspapers. They pushed partisan positions. They crusaded, some times to the point of unjustly influencing the course of events.

These entrepreneurs competed fiercely, which led to an intense circulation war between Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. This war became so pitched, that both papers embarked on a short era of sensationalistic reporting that we now know as "yellow journalism."

Pulitzer, who also ushered in graphics and color comics, so regretted later his participation in this low-brow craft that he endowed the Columbia School of Journalism.

The early giants of journalism got much wrong and got much right, but little that they did would resemble journalism of the past 60 or 70 years.

They didn't, for example, do much in the way of investigative journalism. Nelly Bly worked for the New York World, but even her greatest public service reporting -- locking herself in an insane asylum -- isn't what many of today's newsroom pundits mean by high-cost investigative journalism.  it was a stunt, just like her most expensive adventure, going around the world in 80 days. That really brought down a president, didn't it?

Most of the other muckrakers who set the stage for investigative journalism didn't even work for newspapers. They wrote for magazines and published books.

It took a long time for newspapers to build the cash flow to afford big time, expensive investigative journalism, and for publishers to recognize its value (and some of them still aren't convinced) in helping to retain readers.

So if it took newspapers more than 100 years to build the business and content models that we all now cherish, why do we expect a fully formed online model to emerge in just 10 years?

There are a number of worthy experiments in online publishing going on out there. Maybe rather than scoff, some of these skeptics should stop yapping and try an experiment or two of their own.  Maybe one of them will find the model that will one day employ a legion of highly paid investigators, at least until the next disruption comes along.

May 10 23:34

Events that have contributed to the decline of newspapers

  • The professionalization and creation of "objective" journalism in the 1920s
  • Movies, 1920s
  • Radio, 1930
  • Mass migrations caused by Great Depression and World War II, dislocating communities and families
  • Television, 1950s
  • Birth of suburbs, automobile, decline of mass transit, 1950s
  • Shoppers, i.e. PennySaver, (not sure when they started, but let's put them in the 1960s)
  • Unrest of 1960s, distrust of mainstream institutions, rise of alternative press
  • Watergate
  • Wal-Mart and other Big Box retailers in the 1980 and 1990s, putting out of business traditional newspaper advertisers (at higher margins than pre-prints from Big Boxes), often with help of government subsidies.
  • Cable television, and not just more news, but more choices.
  • Digital media and all that comes with it -- more choices, greater competition for attention, craigslist, more competition for advertising dollars, etc.

If you fail to look at the decline of newspapers in context of the historical arch of events, and you fail to see that the same forces driving down circulation are the same forces decreasing community involvement and civic engagement, then you'll never have a clue how to solve the problem. If you don't see the whole picture, you'll look for quick fixes like government aid or legislation, grants and annuities, paid content or just whine about "society can't function without us."

The solution lies in figuring out why increasingly society is deciding it doesn't need us and fixing that problem, not in hair-brained schemes that attempt to force journalism on the masses.

May 07 01:19

Stop the insanity: The government has no business messing in the news business

This tweet:

Why didn't I watch Senate hearing today? Because I'm busy working on journalism's future, not worrying about its past.

Proved quite popular this evening.

I posted it in light of news about the Senate Subcommittee Hearing today on the future of journalism.  For months (years?) we've been assaulted with notions of  "saving" newspapers -- should we give them non-profit status, issue some sort of taxpayer bailout, make Google pay, relax anti-trust laws ... etc.?

There's a whole host of proposals out there to "save" newspapers that any real capitalist should find not only laughable but horrifying.

Let's be clear: If a newspaper can't compete in the free market it's not worth saving. If a newspaper needs aid from the government to survive, it's not worth saving.

A newspaper is a business, just like any other business. It's not a church. It's not a social services agency. It's not a civic organization.  It's a business.

When a business model is broken, or a strategy is flawed, or time has just passed it by, that business - even whole industries -- die. It's a process of evolution. It's necessary for the ecosystem of society.

Journalism will not die, though every newspaper might stop printing and some companies that now spew ink to tell the news will cease. Journalism will not die.

If businesses that support journalism are now are not able to compete in the free market, if they are unable to adapt to the changes in the market, they simply do not deserve to survive.

The only thing that will save journalism is the free market. Any other solution will lead to ossification and ultimately will greatly damage democracy, because citizens will become only more jaded and distrustful of a press that through government-backed monopoly power suppress entrepreneurial competitors.

I work my ass off every day -- 14, 15, 16 hours a day -- trying to create a sustainable online news site.  Maybe I'm on the right track, maybe I'm not, but as an entrepreneur I feel I have a right to put forward my ideas, my business model in a free market and see if it works.  

If it doesn't, fine, but I shouldn't have to compete against media companies that are given government favor through changing anti-trust laws or granted special privileges.

The free market should decide what journalism will be in the future, not some gray-haired Senator or government bureaucrat.

May 02 21:54

If you're not doing comments right, you shouldn't do them at all

Maybe it's time your newspaper reconsidered its Web site's commenting policy.

If the same group of people are dominating the discussion and ganging up on newcomers who aren't part of the clique, maybe it's time to reconsider your policy.

If flame wars are frequent, sock puppets obvious and informative discussions rare, maybe you need to reconsider your policy.

If you cringe every time you see a new comment has been posted on one of your stories, maybe it's time to reconsider your comment policy.

Those among you who have followed my career for any length know I'm an advocate for comments on news stories. I believe conversation and news are two great tastes that go great together, like beer and chocolate or peanut butter and apple.

And while I've noted that comments can help increase page views, I've never advocated comments purely as a cheap way to drive up banner impressions. To me, it's always been about building community.

Unfortunately, for many newspapers, comments are more like the mother-in-law who won't shut up at Thanksgiving dinner. She seems necessary, after all she brought the pie, but she really isn't very entertaining and sometimes offensive. And she's probably the main reason your sister and her family decided to stay with her husband's parents.

If you aren't managing your comments well, you're doing your newspaper more harm than good  Your advertisers question the wisdom of associating their brand with yours -- at least the smart ones do -- and your readers are questioning your professionalism.

This issue came up on the Online-News discussion list this week, so I know many newspapers are struggling with comment management at the moment. It also came to a head this week in Batavia, where the Daily News was hit by a particularly ugly comment thread in which a socket puppet attacked fellow elected officials, one politician is posing as a defender of said politician, and a community activist brought to light unfounded allegations against a city councilman (I won't dignify the charge by repeating it here, and because I know these people, it's pretty easy to figure out who's who).

I don't bring this up to bash my competitor -- in fact, I rejected (so far) the idea of discussing this issue on The Batavian for fear it would come across as petty -- but the struggles the Daily News has with comments (and granted this is something new for them) illustrates a point that has implications across the industry.

If you allow behavior in your comments that would never fly in your news columns, even your letters to the editor, is your comment conduct really ethical?

Just because the law protects you from libel claims arising from comments on stories, should you really allow libelous statements to stand, especially when submitted anonymously?

Here's how you fix your comment policy:

  1. Assign one person on staff -- ideally, make this a full time job -- to be community site manager. This person will participate in the community, both online and off and be known as a person of authority and friend to the community.
  2. Require every writer to read and respond to comments on his or her own stories. Journalism online is more than a "I publish and you read" job. Reporters need to be part of the conversation. This leads to more civil discussions and more fruitful discussions.
  3. Require real names. This is hard to enforce perfectly, but not impossible to make a consistent feature of your site.  The smaller the community - where reputations can be broken so quickly -- this is especially important.  People will often say anonymously (you'll note none of the garbage in the Daily thread has appeared on The Batavian) won't they won't say when people know who they are.  Real names also serve as a check against sock puppetry, which has no place in a local community site.
  4. Act swiftly to remove libelous statements. The law doesn't require this, but journalism ethics does.  This is also why you need a pro managing your comments.  All kinds of grey areas arise when deciding what comments to delete, and even after more than a dozen years of managing online communities, I'm not sure I always get this right.
  5. A subtext to all of this -- make sure the community knows you take the community conversation seriously and expect it to be productive.

If you're unwilling or unable to take these steps, you should seriously consider turning off comments. They are likely doing your newspaper more harm than good.

Mar 14 16:27

The imperative of localism and local news

"Hyperlocal" is an ugly word.

This fad coinage is meant to represent a new discovery, a new way of thinking about journalism: "Hey, gee, we should do some of this local stuff. People might actually like to read about their home towns."

"Hyperlocal" is ugly because it attempts to rewrite history, ignoring the noble, once-primary role of newspapers -- largely forgotten by journalists and publishers in the past several decades -- as the concourse for community life.

In the decades preceding the current "hyperlocal" fad, professional journalists, and the people who manage them, didn't seem to realize is that "local" is what newspapers did before the "professionals" took over and decided the local flower show was nothing more than a calendar item and real news mean combing over every council member's campaign contributions.

Now before I go too far in bashing "professional" journalists, let me clarify what I mean: When Walter Lippmann wrote Liberty and the News in 1922, with its indisputable and irrefutable call to eliminate the average newshound's careless handling of fact and his facile understanding of events, he correctly diagnosed the need for a better educated, less callow, more thoughtful kind of reporter. But what Lippmann meant by professionalism, and objectivity, is not the brand of professional journalist that eventually emerged.

Lippmann's conception of "professional" had nothing to do with learning the craft and tools of reportage so that one might demonstrate better news judgment or never forget a who, what or when; it had everything to do with applying a scientific, intellectual approach to gathering facts, weighing evidence and presenting reports.

Journalism has gone astray by giving us too much of the former and too little of the latter.

For the purpose of this post, I'm speaking of professionalization -- with its stenographic and reader-may-care approach to news -- as practiced, not as it should be.  (I'll have more on Lippmann in a later post).

The Hyperlocal Fad
There would be no need for a word such as "hyperlocal" if there wasn't a void to fill in community news coverage. The bare existence of the term speaks to the unfocused and misplaced coverage of most newspapers over the past several decades. The advocates of "hyperlocal" needed a term to differentiate what most newsrooms did compared to what they should do; or for those outside of the industry who applied the word to their own Web start-ups, they used "hyperlocal" to describe the opportunity left gaping by newspapers.

But what we now call "hyperlocal" is what William Allen White called "locals."  White saw no distinction between the role of a newspaper in its community and the community. The Emporia Gazette printed to be the community, not merely to deliver the news.

The narrative arch of the Gazette says something about what a community newspapers should be, and where local newspapers went wrong. As White grew older, achieved greater wealth, and settled into national prominence, he increasingly ceded editorial control of his newspaper to a J-school-educated, younger staff. In Home Town News, a biography of White, Sally Foreman Griffith writes:

The divergence between White's vision of journalism and his staff's reflected different conceptions of the Gazette's proper role. The divergence appeared most clearly in the continuing conflict over the paper's locals. According to Frank Clough, Lambert's successor as city editor, both William Allen and Sallie White constantly complained that their weren't enough locals in the paper. But the editors argued that the Gazette was no longer a local paper and should emphasize "its district news, its associated press reports, and its features rather than its strictly Emporia news." Clough told Mrs. White on one occasion, "the Gazette is just like a boy who is too big for short pants and his parents don't think he is big enough for long ones."  ''Go along with you,' she retorted. 'Tell your reporters we need some more local items and don't let your pants get too big for you.'" The two generations finally compromised on a policy of publishing the locals that were brought to the Gazette but seeking out only items concerning "the town's more prominent citizens." From the point of view of White's earlier broader vision of community, such compromise amounted to defeat.

Newspapers and Democracy
There has been much consternation of late among the print set about newspapers dying and its effect on society, such as this column in the Seattle Times, which asks:

Who will tell the people what their institutions are doing? Who will ferret out the corruption? Who will fend off the legal challenges to public information? If no viable alternative emerges, what does that mean for our representative democracy?

Those are all fine questions, and certainly nobody is suggesting that a community should be without reporters who know how to hold government officials accountable, but there is also a trace of pretension in that line of thinking, that only newspaper journalists can do the job. and that's the only kind of journalistic job worth doing.

Newspapers abdicated their role as stalwarts of democracy in the mid-20th Century as they moved away from conveying community life to takers of minutes and recorders of controversy, more dedicated to the process of government and wire reports than what their friends and neighbors might be doing at the church on Wednesday night.

Once people could no longer pick up the local gazette and find out who was visiting from California and when Helen Carter was going to sell her famous peach pies, the papers became less relevant to their lives.

Without that relevancy, society and democracy suffered. People became not only less informed, but less involved in their communities.

Consider that 57 percent of Americans say that if their local newspaper went away, both online and in print, they wouldn't miss it and it wouldn't hurt the civic life of their towns. The numbers are just as dismal when the question is isolated just to regular newspaper readers. This is in keeping with an earlier Harris poll that found nearly two-thirds of Americans say their local newspaper doesn't serve its community well.

There is a nexus, I believe, between readership declines and less engaged communities that cannot be blamed entirely on the rise of radio and television nor on changes in urban-to-suburban lifestyles.

Readership Declines
It's not often discussed in newsrooms, but readership declines started at least fifty years before the introduction of Mosaic. Readership peaked in the late 1940s, more than a decade after radio became a commercial force, and years before television reached popular saturation.

And while U.S. newspapers are not alone in facing competition from new technology or changes in social habits, the readership slide is greater in the U.S. than any other industrialized nation, with American papers now ranking low on readership 1,000 adults.

There is certainly something going on with American newspaper readership that can't be blamed on radio, television, the Internet nor changes in lifestyles.

In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam writes about Americans becoming increasingly disengaged from their communities in the final quarter of the 20th Century. People stopped joining bowling leagues, or the American Legion, or showing up for the big community fundraiser.

Putnam writes about social capital, the idea that interconnectedness among people is what sustains a community. Web 2.0 geeks like to talk about social networks, but social networks exist in the non-digital world as well. If you understand the importance of people learning about what's going on in the lives of their friends, family and neighbors, it's easy to see why a newspaper that carries such news is contributing to the social capital of its community.

When newspapers stopped making such deposits in the bank of community good will, they became increasingly disengaged and less relevant to their home towns.

By every measure, according to Putnam, civic engagement peaked in the mid-1960s, well after the rise of television and suburban flight.

It wouldn't be surprising however, that people stopped reading their local papers long before they stopped attending Rotary meetings. People are, after all, social animals. The long habit of social networking with people in their community would be less easily broken than a connection to a paid-circulation newspaper.

Circulation and readership declines are lagging indicators of a failure to contribute social capital.  Declining community participation is a lagging indicator of less knowledge about friends and neighbors.

Both might be equally blamed on the turn from community news to more professionally produced political and process coverage by newspaper staffs. I call this "Castor oil" coverage, as in "we think this is important and we don't care whether you, dear reader, agree -- take it and don't whine about it."

(And note, too, readership declines started before newspaper chains became massive entities and were often publicly traded, so readership losses are not necessarily an ownership problem, either.)

Building Community on the Web
Sadly, its probably too late to save newspapers, and it's too late for newspapers to save their communities.

The Web won't save newspapers. The mere transference of newspaper journalism onto digital devices is a doomed business model.

But the Web can save and revitalize local communities.

I've spent my career in or around small newspapers. I've never worked for a big metro, and outside of once dreaming of an editorialist's job with the San Diego Evening Tribune, I've not aspired to life at a paper of more than 100K circulation. I'm a home town boy at heart, even though I've never really had a home town.

One of the great benefits of launching The Batavian is that it brought me into contact with Bill Kauffman, author and historian whose books include Dispatches from The Muckdog Gazette and Look Homeward, America.

Before I met Bill, I never heard the word "localist," but I know now, that's what I am (and I'm not alone; there is a movement in this country of localists/placists), and localism is at the core of my political philosophy. I believe strong communities make for a stronger democracy.  Call me a Luddite in the face of digital globalization and international hyperlinks, I still believe in the importance and vitality of geographic communities (and I'm sure I'll get the comment or two calling me naive for not bowing down to the inevitable gods of a one-world community, or communities of interest replacing geographic connectedness).

Kauffman writes of himself in Look Homeward, America:

I am an American patriot. A Jeffersonian decentralist. A fanatical localist. And I am an anarchist. Not a sallow garret-rat translating Proudhon by pirated kilowatt, nor a militiaman catechized by the Classic Comics version of The Turner Diaries; rather, I am the love child of Henry Thoreau and Dorothy Day, conceived amidst the asters and goldenrod of an Upstate New York autumn.

Like so many of the subjects of this book, I am also a reactionary radical, which is to say I believe in peace and justice but I do not believe in smart bombs, daycare centers, Wal-Mart, television, or Melissa Etheridge's test-tube baby.

You may not agree with all of Kauffman's politics, but there is something to be said for finding fervor and valor in cherishing your home town and the unique individuals that give it vitality.

As journalists, we've gotten away from cherishing community -- that isn't objective enough -- and it's hurt not only democracy, but our business model.

Strong local communities are important to the education of our children, the safety of our streets, the growth of our businesses, the employment of our neighbors and the quality of our parks.  By every measure, our well being depends on the quality of life were we live.

There's nothing wrong with leading a digital life, but in the end you still need a life beyond the walls of your dwelling, and the kind of life you live in your community depends on the quantity of social capital you build.

It's impossible to squander social capital and expect a community to thrive. We still share in the responsibility for potholes and clean parks, whether or not we drive or walk a dog. We are all part of a geographic community, whether we admit it or hide behind our Facebook friend feed.

And journalists, most of all, and publishers, and even the ad sales reps, can't escape from social responsibility. If communities are to become vital again, journalism is going to either provide the bonds and lead the conversation, or cease even its current tenuous hold on relevance.

It's ironic, given what I hoped to accomplish with The Batavian, that I picked Bill Kauffman's community before I ever read a sentence of his work. The mission of The Batavian was never, in my mind, merely to fix the local news business model, but also to revitalize community journalism. Of course, to me, the business model and the journalism model are one and the same.  Revenue declines are closely related to readership declines, so we must fix readership before we can fix revenue.

The early results of The Batavian drawing together a community and creating a more engaged readership is promising. I do believe the digital tools of instant publishing, unlimited space, conversation and connection can re-energize the kind of community journalism that inspired William Allen White to grow the Gazette into a great local institution.

If this approach works -- whether it be The Batavian or similar ventures --  we can reverse the trend of "bowling alone" and bring back the kind of community life that best serves a vibrant democracy.

But to make this approach work, it's going to take people -- including many of today's trained journalists -- to rethink everything they've learned about community journalism as practiced over the past half century or so. Merely promoting the "hyperlocal" fad isn't going to get the job done. We need to bring back locals, and bring back the direct connection and involvement in the community by the people covering the community. This isn't the detachment taught in J-schools. It's participatory and social. But it will work. It must.

Books to Buy:

Mar 02 01:37

Reactions to VC-backed 'scalable' local news sites

I've received almost universal positive feedback on my "hyperlocal" post (well, from everybody but Jeff Jarvis).

I think the only people who would disagree are those at least maginally connected to the New York VC bubble, where the cocktail chatter is always about "scale." It's never about building a sustainable business model.

Lucas Grindley put up a very smart post, comparing the SUNY/Times approach to a get-rich-quick-scheme. I think he's dead on.

Why would anyone build a site targeted toward a small group of people and then worry about whether it can "scale" to serve a large group? That smacks of a confused business strategy. A hyperlocal business must first be able to make money by standing on its own -- even if it never becomes a franchise.

That's real scalability. Quite frankly, it's dumb to start any business that can't break a profit unless it rapidly expands. I'd be leery of anyone pitching such an idea, which isn't much sounder in strategy than a Ponzi scheme.

Lucas also writes:

There is no shortcut to online success. Media companies look at their competitors from the technology world and see only what exists now, conveniently overlooking the immense effort and sacrifice it took the founders of Facebook or MySpace to attain.

Unfortunately, newspapers continue to look for the quick fix. Reality check: There isn't one. It takes hard work to create new business, and the fact is, most businesses fail. I think Lucas is on to something -- these VC-backed "scalable" local news sites are really just a ploy to huckster some money, not build a sustainable business model.

The question VC's should be asking is, "is it sustainable?" Not, "Is it scalable."

Nathan Walls also takes a smart look at the issue and concludes:

Maybe there is a way to abstract a platform and aggregate neighborhood sites, but, just as mountains have their own weather, neighborhoods are unique and not taking the time to dive into them and understand them is a mistake. The large, monolithic approach is not the workable one. There’s no rule saying there must be a way to build and sustain a larger business out of “hyperlocal” content.

Finally, in comments, Jane Stevens points us to Brownstoner.com, a Brooklyn-based independent news site that will now face some SUNY-backed competition.

In looking at Brownstoner, it struck me what the SUNY-Times sites are, it turns out, are socialistic efforts.  Brownstoner is now facing competition from a government backed agency (SUNY) using essentially free labor. How is that a fair competitive situation?

Government should let free enterprise thrive, not try to kill it.

Mar 01 15:16

VCs chasing fool's gold in funding 'hyperlocal' projects that 'scale'

Over the past three days or so, I've had a few conversations about "scale."

If you haven't dealt much with the IT side of the online world, you may not be too familiar with the meaning of the word in context.  For years, the only time I heard the word "scale" was when applied to server architecture.  You need software and hardware to scale, meaning grow, in order to handle increased traffic demands. That's the simplest way to put it.

Now scale is being applied to "hyperlocal" start ups.  And the meaning in this context, as I take it, is that a "hyperlocal" business needs to have the capability to expand in multiple towns and neighborhoods rapidly at a very low cost.

I woke up this morning to this tweet from Jeff Jarvis:

jeffjarvis @howardowens But there's no way to afford one full-time pro from an organization per town or neighborhood. Doesn't scale.

He was referencing a debate we had on his blog about a new Times/CUNY "hyperlocal" project.  In comments, I offered up a critique of the approach.

In his post, Jarvis wrote:

The Times is working in two neighborhoods in Brooklyn — Fort Greene and Clinton Hill — and three towns in New Jersey — Maplewood, Millburn, and South Orange. In each of these two pilots, they’ll have one journalist reporting but also working with the community in new ways. The Times’ goal, like ours, is to create a scalable platform (not just in terms of technology but in terms of support) to help communities organize their own news and knowledge. The Times needs this to be scalable; it can’t afford to - no metro paper can or has ever been able to afford to - pay for staff in every neighborhood and town. (emphasis added)

In response to my comments, I received a private e-mail from somebody quite familiar with the "hyperlocal" space and funding such projects and he too raised the issue of scale. A couple of days ago, I had a phone conversation with another expert in the field, and he expressed concern that no venture capitalist would fund a "hyperlocal" play that didn't "scale."

Now, granted, I have an apparent conflict of interest on this topic because I now run a local news project that from the beginning has faced criticism that it will never scale.

Still, I'm convinced The Batavian approach is the only option if you want to build strong positive-margin local online news businesses.

It may be a bitch to "scale," but it's the best approach to the problem.

The "hyperlocal" approaches that supposedly "scale" don't scale in one very important aspect: building new audience for community news.

Sure, they might appeal to a segment of the population that is already involved in a community, but they're not tackling the "Bowling Alone" problem.

In order to build a high-margin business with local online news, a sad fact must be addressed: that local community news is currently only a niche product.  Entrepreneurs need to think about not only "how am I going to appeal to the people who care now, but how am I going to get more people to care about their community so I can grow my audience?"

It's an exceptionally hard question, but I'm convinced we're making progress with The Batavian. Increasingly, we're seeing people involved with the site who were not previously activists in the community, and I've heard from some who were not previously regular newspaper readers.

There's no way around it: Local news is a high-touch proposition.  You need professionals in the community who champion the community and act as evangelists for the Web site. The job involves more than just covering stories or even asking civic leaders to post their own items (and that in itself is significantly hard, continuous work).

The "it's got to scale" approach is merely repeating the mistakes of local newspapers from the past half-century or more. It's creating a sterile and disengaged product that does nothing to solve the problems chipping at the foundation of the newspaper business.

The mistake newspapers have made -- and Jarvis hits on it in his own post when he says newspapers never had a correspondent in every neighborhood -- is that newspapers have becoming increasingly detached from their communities.

As newspapers became more cookie-cutter (and this isn't just a chain newspaper problem, but it has befallen family-owned papers as well) and the craft of journalism was transformed into a profession, newspapers have simply become less interesting to many of the people they purport to serve. Editors and reporters are often just passing through a newsroom, stepping along their career paths, blwoing into town with attitudes that maginalize real local news in favor of "hard news" and a "take it or leave it" attitude when readers don't like what they do.

There's no involvement, no conversation, no agenda for nourishing the community.

(Caveat: I've met some publishers, editors and reporters who very much care about and are involved in their communities, but these are exceptional people.)

Meanwhile, increasingly, we're getting what we're after in Batavia -- people who know our site LOVE our site. It's a thrill to walk around town, meet people and have them excited to meet me because of what we've done with The Batavian.  I had a little fan base when I was a young reporter, but it was nothing like the response I sometimes get in Batavia.

And that's the excitement and engagement you want (and I'll say, I think we're only half way to where we need to be in Batavia) if you plan to grow your audience beyond a niche concern.

A cookie-cutter "hyperlocal" play, with no paid staff in the commmunity and some regional or national brand, just isn't to get you that level of engagement.

The Web is all about people. Because the Net is based on technology, many people tend to think that technology alone can solve any problem.  But besides Google, what pure technology company has really been successful? Every other success I can think of has been about people, from the personal voice of blog writing, to the real people who power YouTube, to the stunning success of social networks such as Facebook.  People come to the Web to make connections with real people. A faceless technological approach leaves them cold.

The VCs who are funding these supposedly scalable "hyperlocal" solutions are chasing fools gold. They would be better off pouring their money into today's stock market, or maybe buying a bank. They are investing in products that will never be better than low-margin businesses, even on a national basis -- in part because "scale" also means their easily replicatable, which means low-barrier to entry, which means lots of competition and even low margins and more likely no profits at all.

If you want profits, invest in people, not technology.

Mar 01 05:17

Why nobody clicks on your home page links

During my last trip to Boston, I asked a friend: "When is the last time you picked up the Boston Globe and read it cover to cover, every story?"

He starred at me blankly, not comprehending the question.

It was a stupid question, because pretty much nobody ever reads a newspaper cover to cover, not even a small newspaper.

We all read a newspaper the same way -- we scan, looking for interesting headlines, skimming the leads, looking for something interesting.

Once we find something interesting, we will start to read and maybe even follow the story past the jump, but the vast majority of headlines that pass before our eyes are merely a blur as we hunt and peck for a useful nugget or two.

Yet, some people seem to think that just because a link on a home page exists, it gets clicked.

If you run a newspaper web site and are under the false impression that just because you put a story link up, people will follow the link, I invite you to open your login to Ominture and study the Paths report. You'll be disappointed in what you will find.

What you will find, unless some sensational story hit that defies the rule, is that not a single story link is among the top-10 paths followed.

What you will find is the vast, vast majority of visitors hit the home page and left. They didn't click a single link. The next most frequent path, at between 4 percent and 8 percent of your visitors, will be home page to obituaries.  The third most popular path will be home page, obituaries, home page and then exit.

The rest of your top 10 paths will round out with home page to another section front and then exit -- meaning, still not a top 10 path that leads to a story click, not even home page, sports section, story link. 

When you do get to a home page-to-story-link path, that path will represent little more than 1 percent of your site traffic.

Before you start blaming your site design for this lack of story traffic, stop again and think about how you read a newspaper.

People go to your home page not to find stories to read, but to harvest headlines on the off chance one or two of them will be of sufficient interest for a click.

That's one reason newspaper.coms are foolish to let aggregation sites such as Topix display all of their headlines and leads.

Topix is in the business of creating a substitute home page for your community news.

By aggregating all of your content, as well as other media covering your town, they are aiming to create an experience for users that says, "You don't need to visit all of these other sites. We're all you need. We've got all of the headlines (which you will only scan) and free classifieds, to boot (not that Topix free classifieds seem to get much traction).

At GateHouse Media we asked Topix to stop aggregating our content because we couldn't figure out what value we derived from Topix trying to steal our audience. It would have been different if Topix actually generated traffic for our sites, but referrers from Topix never rose much above 1 percent of our overall traffic.  

Some would argue that Topix is paying for its headlines and leads by the traffic it generates, but if it's not generating much traffic how do you measure whether it's hurting more than helping?

Compare Topix, however, to a site like Google News.

Google News drives a significant amount of traffic to news sites.  Why? Because it has one primary purpose: to drive traffic to news sites. It's a click-away site, meaning Google believes the greatest value it provides its users is to serve up links worthy of a click.

My bet is that most of the clicks driven by Google News are derived from search, not from the automated aggregation pages. People click on headlines when they express a specific intention through search to find a particular story.

As I've said before, the web is intention driven.  If your home page is designed to meet the intention of headline skimmers, that's going to be the majority of your audience. But if your home page is designed to get people into your stories, like a blog does, then you will design your site accordingly.

Think of how you read a newspaper and don't be surprised that few people click on your headline links. Think about how you want people to use your web site, what intention-driven mindset you want to satisfy, and design your web site accordingly.

Mar 01 04:02

Why home page ads may be more valuable than story page ads

All web activity is intention driven.

People visit web pages, whether arriving via search, a link or a bookmark with a specific intention.  That intention might be to read a specific story, see what's on sale, scan headlines or connect with a friend.

How well a web page helps a user satisfy that intention determines whether a user will return to that page or recommend it to others.

The page may not efficiently satisfy a user's intention -- the web world is full of poorly designed pages that survive by providing a marginal benefit to users, newspaper.com sites chief among them -- but so long as the user is free to focus on that intention devoid of distractions or unexpected interruptions, the user experience will be OK.

Much has been made of eye track studies that demonstrate banner blindness. What's interesting is the only "banner blindness" eye track reports I've been able to find demonstrate banner blindness on story pages.

I've never seen such a study -- and if you have, please let me know -- on a newspaper.com home page.

The banner blindness studies support, I think, the proposition that user behavior on the web is intention driven.  When a user clicks on a link -- whether from aggregator, search engine, blog or newspaper.com home page, the user has expressed an intention to read a particular story or post. The user is solely focused on that task, so she ignores the banners.

But what is the intention of a user visiting a newspaper.com home page?

I do not have available to me an eye track study to support my theory, but I do have years of experience studying heat maps of user behavior on home pages in Ventura, Bakersfield and GateHouse Media, and I believe the user intention is to scan the newspaper.com home page looking for something interesting.

Notice, I didn't say "something interesting to click on." Just "something interesting."

Users visit a newspaper.com home page not so much because they want to dive deeper into the site, but because they want to see what is new.

We can debate whether the typical newspaper.com is doing well at satisfying that intention, or more importantly, whether that is the right intention to meet, but I believe that is the typical user intention.

Most such well-intentioned users are most likely looking for the latest news, or other new content, but I would contend that a scanning user is a user who is more likely to take in the full breadth of the home page -- they'll see your top nav links, your promos for your special features and, most importantly, your home page advertising.

This is why it's probably a mistake for newspapers not to put more advertising on their home pages. The home page audience is more likely to notice a home page ad than an story page audience. (I know there are studies that contradict this theory, that more ads on the home page lead to less effective ads, but I don't believe this proposition has been fully and fairly studied at the community news level, where local ads tend to be highly relevant to local users.)

And it's also why newspaper publishers should think about how to get more visitors to the home page. That's where the money is, and that's best vehicle for generating audience growth.

Conversely, story pages need to be parred down to the essentials. Banner ads on story pages are a waste. Contextual ads might have some value, but the best move a publisher can make with story pages is use single-focus pages as a vehicle for promoting other content.

By visiting a story page, a user has expressed at least a marginal interest in the content you have available. Use the story page to present more content, be it top headlines, most e-mailed stories or "related stories."

I've seen page views increased by 10 percent with the introduction of a pretty low-tech "related content" widget.

Giving users more content choices on a content page works -- more advertising choices, not so much.

Your goal as a newspaper.com publisher is to increase user loyalty. Your ideal user visits multiple times per day, ideally by constantly refreshing your home page to see what is new.  The more you can entice the occasional visitor into reading your content, the more likely that user is to become a frequent home page visitor.

If your advertising is highly relevant to that user, he is more like to take notice and also be inclined to support the businesses that support your news operations. It becomes a virtuous circle.

When designing your web strategy, think constantly of user intention. Ask, how are people going to use this page? Then design your page strategy around that intention so that both the user's consumer needs and your business needs are satisfied.

Mar 01 02:37

The myth of the deep link

Not all links are created equal.

Not all links generate traffic.

Some links are downright harmful.

Yet, to a large class of digerati, the link is a fetish.

Woe to he who questions the value of a link.

I'm sorry to state the truth, but just because you create a link doesn't mean a single user will click on it.

Even Google doesn't treat all links equally. Internal and external links appear to get weighted differently, and the better the Page Rank of a site, the more valuable are its external links.  For Google, too, the words associated with a link play a role in how its algorithm evaluates the link.

Not all links are created equal.

And some links can be downright harmful.

The first time my blog was hacked, some spammer filled it with redirects and then linked to it from a hundred other blogs. Google immediately punished my site by  lowering its Page Rank. HowardOwens.com went from the first search result for "Howard Owens" to a single interior story link on the fifth page of search results. I was dead to Google for about three days. (Thanks to Matt Cutts for resurrecting me.)

Needless to say, I wasn't happy with those 100 unwanted links.

A link can also be harmful when it is associated with words that misrepresent the content of a site.  This can harm search results or leave people with a false impression of the site being linked to.

A link from a mega site like Fark might be fun, but it isn't necessarily helpful to a local publisher.  Some publishers will complain about the non-monetizable traffic, but bandwidth sucking links isn't the real harm. The real harm is for publishers who sell ads on a CPM basis. 

A local advertiser, on a CPM model, can see an entire month's worth of bought-and-paid-for inventory served up to a non-local audience in a matter of hours based on a Fark link.  And the Publisher is left serving up less valuable remnant ads for the balance of the month, and the advertiser is left wondering why his ad stopped appearing on the site.

Modern ad serving software has methods to help account for such spikes in traffic, but such balancing isn't perfect and some impressions are wasted.  Mainly, the example still demonstrates that not all links are created equal.

And depending on the context, a link might act as a substitute for actually visiting the site receiving the link.

If a headline and lead, for example, tells a user all he or she needs to know about a particular news story, why would that person click on that link? In that scenario, you can drew one of two conclusions: Either the story wasn't sufficiently compelling that the non-visiting user probably wouldn't have gone to your site to find such a story anyway, or the user will decide, "well, now I don't need to visit that site because I already know all I want to know about the news."

One result is neutral, the other result is harmful.

None of this is to say I don't believe in and support deep linking, or linking of any kind.

Back in 1996 or so when the first arguments over deep linking emerged, somebody on Steve Outing's old Online-News e-mail discussion list pointed out the value of linking, of networked sharing, by using this metaphor: when the water level increases, all boats rise.

I still believe in all boats rising, but I'm also not interested in making a fetish out of the link.

Any professional charged with growing a web business needs to make calculated observations about the benefit or harm of any web practice and decide for himself whether a particular practice or belief is going to benefit the long-term viability of the business.

When you blindly follow the herd, you're not doing your job.  I'm sure a guy like Eric Schmidt at Google would agree. That's "What Google Would Do" -- encourage you to make your own evaluations and observations.

Linking is one of those issues that should be carefully considered so that you ensure your linking practices and policies are a benefit to your business organization and not a detriment.

Not all links are created equal.

Mar 01 02:01

The myth of multiple gateways into a news site

If you run a small town, local community newspaper site, the most important page on your server is your home page.

Take a look at your stats: More than 50 percent, and maybe as much 70 percent of your Web traffic flows to your home page.

Now, some people who think they understand SEO might step forward and say, "Well, you're just not correctly optimizing your content for Google."

I say, those people don't know what the hell they're talking about.

It takes a little thought, but if you look at the typical small town newspaper web site, you'll understand that the content of such sites serves a narrowly focused audience -- people who live in that town (and a few stragglers who once lived there).

Now, the occasional story might arise that generates global interest, but on a day-in, day-out basis the content a local newsroom produces is of merely parochial interest.

No matter how well your site is optimized, if few people are searching for Joe Bubba's DUI arrest, that story isn't going to show up in Google. It's the "tree falling in the forest problem." Even if your story is indexed and highly optimized, if nobody ever enters search terms that brings the story to the surface, the story might as well not exist in Google.

And being a small town site, there are likely few if any bloggers who are likely to link to the Joe Bubba story.  I'm sorry, but unless Joe Bubba is somehow tied to Newt Gingrich, neither Instapundit nor Daily Kos is going to link to his arrest, no matter how shocking it is back home.

SEO has its place, but it doesn't negate the importance of a newspaper.com's home page.

I don't have the documents in front of me (and it's not online as far as I know), but Greg Harmon of Belden once showed me research that indicated about 70 percent of the traffic of a small-circ newspaper.com came from visitors within that paper's DMA.  In my own observations of traffic patterns in Ventura, Bakersfield, with GateHouse Media and running The Batavian, I would say that's roughly true.

And it makes sense. Again, the vast majority of content produced by a local newspaper is of purely parochial interest. If your in Los Angeles, you are not going to have much cause to visit the Web site for the Freeport Journal-Standard, unless you were from Freeport, Ill. or had family there.

Local news sites live or die on how well they meet the needs of a local audience.

The same cannot be said for major metro sites, and perhaps this is where some of the confusion comes from on this topic. The bigger the newspaper, the more bloggers there are who follow it's content, the more often it covers stories of a googable interest, and the bigger its global audience.

This is certainly true of sites such as the New York Times, CNN, Boston Globe and Chicago Tribune, for example. I've heard, but have not seen the actual stats, that as much as 70 percent of a major metro's traffic flows to interior pages.

Expecting that much interior traffic for a small town site is like hoping a banker will turn down his bonus. It's just not going to happen.

This is why small-circ newspaper publishers need to protect their home pages like Obama clings to his Blackberry.  It is the key to revenue and audience growth. 

Most local publishers have piss-poor home pages, but that's an issue for another blog post.  But even the worst newspaper.com home page is more valuable than the aggregate of all the internal story pages.  In part, that's true, because the home page is the only page most of that 70 percent local audience will typically visit. But, again, that's a topic for another blog post.

Feb 28 15:09

Four Types of Online Aggregation

Aggregation is the Internet term for harvesting information from a variety of sources and repurposing it into a single presentation.

There are four types of aggregation sites:
•    Human edited
•    Algorithmic selection
•    Social bookmarking
•    Automatic scraping or ingestion

Almost all forms of aggregation mean acquiring content without paying for it. The best kinds of aggregation add value for the reader.

Human Edited
Human-culled headline aggregation sites, such as Drudge Report and NewzJunky.com, are quite popular.

The Drudge Report, operated by Matt Drudge and one assistant, attracts nearly 7 million viewers per month.  NewzJunky.com is run by a single former newspaper employee in Watertown, NY and over the past two years has become the number one online news site for that region of the state, reaching about 67,000 people per month.

These popular aggregation sites do a tremendous job of driving traffic to originating news sources. A link from Drudge can take down servers.  Newspaper Web sites within NewzJuny's coverage area report a handsome surge of traffic based on a NJ link.

Quirky and idiosyncratic, human-edited aggregation sites give users a sense that somebody who is smart, or shares their beliefs, or is just zealous about the news, is out there looking for interesting links.

In the case of Drudge, especially, his audience is very curious about what he’s linking to, how he’s re-writing headlines, what he chooses to feature where. His loyalists try to read the tea leaves to discern what message he's sending.  Some critics have even accused Drudge – because of his choice of links and how he rewrites headlines – of conspiring with political campaigns and Fox News.

Scott Karp notes that Drudge, “a site that sends people away with links,” has the highest engagement of any site on the web.

But the most important difference between the top site and all the other sites, is that this top site — Drudge — has nothing but LINKS. … Drudge beats every original content news site by a two to one margin.

Here’s what ReadWriteWeb says about Drudge:

It sends people away to keep them coming back

There’s actually no content on the Drudge Report. Well, sometimes he will post an email or a memo on his site, but it’s 99% links out to other news sources. His site is designed to send you away to bring you back. The more often you hit his site to go somewhere else the more often you’ll return to go somewhere else again. You visit the Drudge Report more because you leave the Drudge Report more. This is one of the secrets to building traffic: The more you send people away the more they’ll come back.

37Signals has called DrudgeReport.com one of the best designed web sites on the web.

To clarify, my definition of design goes beyond aesthetic qualities and into areas of maintenance, cost, profitability, speed, and purpose. However, I still think that the Drudge Report is an aesthetic masterpiece even though I also consider it ugly. Can good design also be ugly? I think Drudge proves it can.

Algorithmic Selection
Some sites – most notably Google News and Techmeme – attempt to mimic human decision-making through computer programming.  Such algorithmic programs make computational decisions based on such factors as popularity of a site, how many external sites link to a particular story, and the popularity of the sites embedding those links.

It’s unclear if this approach is a clear winner in news aggregation.

Google News reached 5.6 million people in January, far below Yahoo! News’s 20 million.   However, even though Yahoo!’s news audience is three times the size of Google’s, Google is a sends nearly as much traffic to a typical low circulation news site.

Part of Google’s value to both reader and publisher is that the news search engine makes it easy to find headlines around defined search terms (the grouping of related headlines is also useful).  Author John Battelle coined the phrase “database of intentions”  to describe how people use Google – searchers have an intention to find specific information at defined times. In a news context, when people are looking for coverage of events, they do so with that intention-driven mindset. In that mindset, they are much more likely to click on a relevant link (much as they would click on an AdSense text ad in Google’s organic search).  This delivers value to readers and benefits publishers.

The Yahoo! News approach to aggregation, however, more closely satisfies the intention of the headline grazer, the person just looking for a quick glance at what is going on in the world or her home town.  The grazer is already in a mindset of “too little time to read too many stories.”

These intention-driven differences likely explains the disparity of click-throughs from Yahoo! News vs. Google News.

Earlier this year, Google launched a localized news service, allowing users to define a headline feed based on zip code.   While it would be tempting to compare Google local to Yahoo! local, the two presentations are very different approaches. Google remains a click-away site, while Yahoo!'s primary mission is to be sticky, offering up users many options to remain on the site rather than follow a link.

Social Bookmarking
Digg is the most popular social bookmarking site on the web. In January, Digg.com reached 24 million people.

Generally, social bookmarking involves site members saving links to a database and then allows other members vote on whether the bookmark is worthwhile. Links are then ranked with the most popular ones making its way to the top of the home page.

Top placement on Digg can bring an avalanche of traffic.

Other social bookmarking sites include Yahoo! Buzz, StumbleUpon, ReddIt, Mixx, Slashdot, Newsvine and Publish2.

Automated Aggregation
Computers can be used to aggregate headlines and links through two methods: Scraping (using a robot server to crawl news web pages) and RSS ingest (grabbing a site’s RSS feed and republishing it).

The most popular automated aggregator is Yahoo! News, which as we discussed earlier, reaches more than 20 million people. Yahoo! uses a combination of site crawling and RSS/XML ingestion (XML ingestion for Consortium member sites) (Also, note, the main Yahoo! News page is compiled by human editors).

While Yahoo! sends newspaper sites a reasonable amount of traffic, as we discussed earlier when comparing Yahoo! News to Google News, Yahoo! appears to refer a mere fraction of its audience to outside sites.  For an analysis of why, see the section on algorithmic aggregators.

Another popular automated aggregation site – reaching 11 million people  – is Topix.  Topix does have human editors in some of the communities it serves; however, it mostly relies on a robot to scrape sites.  It then aggregates the headlines geographically, allows people to comment on the headlines and is also trying to break into local classifieds (An interesting side note: a new site, OurTown.com, is trying to do much the same thing by re-aggregating Topix links).

GateHouse Media sites received a minimal amount of referrer traffic, about 1/10th of 1 percent, from Topix before we demanded the company – owned by Tribune, Gannett and McClatchy – stop aggregating our content (which included at the time full republication of our photographs).