On Atomizing Your Business Model: The Newspaper Industry

Continuing our series on the atomization of content and business models, today I look at the newspaper industry.

First, from the user point of view: online (vs. the print version), it’s much more difficult to find the glue that will make your news container (your URL) stick together. if you have a strong brand (the New York Times, for example), people will navigate directly to your site but readers can now access your content via RSS readers, blog posts and news aggregators like Google News. These have been flourishing, reorganizing newspapers’ articles (the new content atoms), into flexible reading formats. For newspapers, it’s a catch-22. You want to be indexed by news aggregators to drive traffic back to your site but you wonder if you’re losing brand equity at the same time. Efforts at trying to get readers to register to newspapers’ sites (to generate potentially valuable socio-demographics information) have been a major failure. Clearly, the only strategy now is building a strong brand online while allowing readers to access your atomized content via a variety of vehicles but that creates problems from a monetization point of view.

Traditionally, the newspaper business model has been found in these three revenue categories: reader subscriptions, traditional display advertising and classifieds. Except for a few exceptions (the Wall Street Journal comes to mind), experiments in paid online user subscriptions have been failures as digital content is much more difficult to sell as an aggregate than print content. Classified revenues are being nuked by free sites like Craigslist or Kijiji, or aggregators like Oodle. Newspapers have been also forced to offer free classifieds, managing to generate some priority placement /enhanced content revenues but not to the previous print level. Online display advertising is working but it does not monetize as well as print advertising.

To better monetize their destination site, newspapers have been looking at various new solutions. One is in-line text ads (double-underlined sponsored keyword ads appearing directly in the article text) delivered by companies like Vibrant Media but, as I mentioned yesterday, the blurring of the line between editorial and advertising content has created ethical issues within news organizations. Already in 2006, in an article called “Is It News…or Is It an Ad?”, the Wall Street Journal exposed the various issues around the product:

“This type of online advertising within the text of an article, known as in-text advertising, has been around for a while. But it used to be relegated to niche sites like the videogamers’ haven IGN.com and ScienceDaily.com. Now it is appearing on some mainstream journalistic Web sites, like those of News Corp.’s Fox News, Cox Enterprises Inc.’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Hearst Corp.’s Popular Mechanics magazine. That marks a departure from a long-observed tradition in the print medium of keeping editorial content separate from advertising. “Journalism ethics counselors decry the trend. “It’s ethically problematic at the least and potentially quite corrosive of journalistic quality and credibility,” says Bob Steele, the senior ethics faculty member at the Poynter Institute, a journalism school in St. Petersburg, Fla.”

More recently, Tim McGuire from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism in Arizona wrote about its use in the Arizona Central web site:

Michael Coleman, Vice-President of Digital Media for AzCentral, told me late Friday that the site has been using Vibrant Media for “two or three weeks.” Coleman described the relationship as a test and said this is not a “Gannett roll-out” of the concept even though some Gannet papers are using the system. “We’ve got a pretty non-committal contract with them, Coleman said. “The publisher made the call, and we decided to try it and see what happened.” Coleman said the experimental aspect of the deal explains why nobody has announced this deal.

Business Week wrote about the phenomenon in December:

Many journalists believe that selling the words in a story blurs the line between editorial and ad content. Some worry it creates an incentive to insert ad-linked words or order up certain types of stories. Forbes’ online arm caused a ruckus in 2004 when it rolled out in-text ads. After an outcry among the editorial staff and negative media coverage, Forbes ended the practice. (…)

Publishers are paid by Vibrant and other marketing companies based on how many times readers scroll over a word. Advertisers only pay Vibrant for how many times a reader actually clicks on an ad. In-text ads draw a higher response than traditional Web ads: About 0.2% of Web users click on posterlike ads known as banners; Vibrant CEO Douglas Stevenson says 3% to 10% scroll over and click on in-text ads, depending on the category.

I think the use of in-line text ads might be problematic thus far because newspapers have been using the technology to better monetize their destination site. I would suggest that the better use of this new ad vehicle would be to monetize a smaller atom of content, i.e. the news article, decentralized from the destination site. Embedding in-line text ads within RSS feeds or other distribution mechanisms might be a small price to pay to allow readers to access news article outside of the newspaper’s site. Another option would be to have RSS ads, like the Feedburner Ad Network.

I think the general takeaway here is that newspapers shouldn’t look at the same business models to monetize centralized and atomized content.

Update: The Kelsey Group discussesNewspaper Next 2.0, a “progress report” by the American Press Institute on the evolution of newspaper companies beyond the print edition.” I took a quick glance at it (it’s a 110-page document) but it does not seem to address many of the business model issues that newspapers are facing. As my friend Peter K. says in the post, “The report has a better fix on consumer-oriented solutions than business solutions. But that’s not surprising for a newspaper industry (i.e. editorial-driven) product. If the Yellow Pages Association commissioned similar research, it would probably be the other way around.”

Newspaper Industry in Trouble: Online Advertising Growth is Slowing

According to the Wall Street Journal, the newspaper industry’s online revenue growth seems to be slowing down and might not be the lifeline they were expecting. Here are the highlights of the article:

Last week, that lifeline began looking frayed. New York Times Co. warned Thursday that online advertising growth this year won’t be as strong as the 30% it had projected. On the same day, Tribune Co. reported that the growth rate for first-quarter interactive revenue was sharply lower than a year earlier. Gannett Co. likewise said online revenue growth slowed in the first quarter from a year earlier.”(…)

(…) last week’s news came as the number of online news outlets proliferates. Rival media such as TV stations and magazines have beefed up their presence, adding to threats posed by Web giants such as Google and Yahoo and popular sites such as CNN.com. Even the social-networking site MySpace has added a news feature and is boosting its ad-sales efforts. (…)

One major issue for many newspapers online: Roughly 70% to 80% of their online revenue is tied to a classified ad sold in the print edition — known as an “upsell,” says Paul Ginocchio, a newspaper analyst at Deutsche Bank. And as newspapers see a sharp erosion in classified advertising for real estate and jobs, their Web sites are being hit as well. Analysts say papers need to find new categories of advertisers. “Newspapers need to move beyond the traditional classified sources they’ve relied upon,” says Borrell’s Mr. Cassino. (…)

Underlining this pressure is a shift under way within Internet advertising. The ad formats that have so far proved strongest for newspapers — banner ads, pop-ups and listings — are losing ground to formats such as search marketing. Ad buyers say automotive, entertainment, financial-services and travel companies — all major newspaper advertisers in print and online — are aggressively shifting dollars into search marketing.(…)

What it means: here are my two cents as an outside observer (and newspaper junkie): obviously, media fragmentation online is hurting newspapers but I believe their general reluctance to embrace content syndication as a distribution/marketing strategy might be hurting them more. If you have an authoritative voice nationally or locally, you need to allow content syndication everywhere to try to drive traffic back to your site(s). Because of the lack of aggressive syndication, newspapers are being removed from the equation by news aggregators and undifferentiated content offer. I’m also a firm believer that becoming either a hypernational or hyperlocal-focussed news source will position you for the future. Everyone positioned in the middle will suffer exactly like what happened in retail with Wal-Mart. The launch of specific vertical sites (with or without a local angle) could also improve their situation. Finally, newspapers need to embrace blogging technology to improve their SEO strategy.

Update: Rich Gordon, Associate Professor at Northwestern University, suggests similar solutions: “Instead of trying to build the best destination, build the best network.”

Topix Relaunches and Embraces Citizen Journalism; TF1 Does the Same in France

Via Mathew Ingram’s blog:

Topix, the local news aggregator that is owned by several big U.S. newspaper chains (Gannett, The Tribune and McClatchy), is doing what amounts to a relaunch of the site and adding “citizen journalism” or social media to the mix, as well as moving to a dot-com domain (it used to be dot-net). Founder and CEO Rich Skrenta — who describes on his personal blog how this came out of an attempt to “de-suckify” the site — has a blog post at Topix about the changes, and says: “We’re now inviting members from our hyperlocal communities to take over the controls and help us edit the news.” (…)

Skrenta says that Topix is getting about 37,000 posts a day, and the site was looking for a way of featuring the top 1 to 5 per cent of those contributions that actually add something to the story. Now, anyone can submit a story, or facts about a story, or an opinion, or cellphone photos, and they will be handled by what amounts to an editor. (…)

At the same time, my friend Philippe Martin sends me this news about TF1 (one of the top TV networks in France). On their 1pm newscast, they will ask viewers to send them local videos using the Wat.tv site (also owned by TF1), which might afterward appear on TV.

What it means: newspapers and TV news organizations are starting to clue in on the importance of hyperlocal news and citizen journalism. It is a key success factor for them in the future.

Update on the Gannett Reorganization

Following on the previous Gannett reorganization story, Jeff Howe gives us an update on his blog.

“It seems that one of Gannett’s larger newspapers, the Indianapolis Daily Star, has hit a snag on its way to implementing the company’s “Information Center” newsroom, aka the Seven Desk Initiative (which I wrote about on Wired.com as well as in a series of blog posts). Part of the Star’s plans for reinventing its operations included asking its editorial staff to write advertorials. In a memo to management obtained by Editor & Publisher, the union representing the paper’s writers and editors strenuously objected to the violation of ethics guidelines that require the union to uphold a “high wall of separation between editorial and advertising.” Management then modified its request to include only copy editors and designer, but those “non-bylined” positions are also covered by the guild’s guidelines. ”

What it means: it’s important not to underestimate resistance to change within your organization especially when going through a major overhaul like the one Gannett is going through. It’s a fundamental change that needs to happen but I wonder why is the newspaper insisting that its editors write also advertorials? They must want more flexibility out of their staff but this seems more like a cost-cutting measure than a strategic overhaul.