The new watchword? Deconvergence — it’s time to separate digital from print

A couple of years ago, when the Seattle Post-Intelligence stopped publishing its newspaper, I suggested that the Seattle Times had a real opportunity to make a serious move into the emerging digital news ecosystem:

First, create geographic-based community sites: Put a pod of jurnos in each of the neighborhoods of Seattle that have a population of about 50,000 people, give or take a few thou. Each pod includes at least two reporters, an ad salesperson, and a community manager. Partner with strong sites that already cover neighborhoods well.  Today, I’d amend that to one jurno and one ad salesperson, and go for neighborhoods with smaller populations. The Times hasn’t done much in this arena except join J-Lab’s Networked Journalism project, in which it provides links to posts from 40 Seattle-area sites. But those links are not on the home page…you have to dip two layers down to find them. [CORRECTION: They ARE on the home page….I completely missed the five links out of the approximately 100 that are on the home page. See Kathy Best’s comment, below, that noted the error. My apologies. However, I stand by my next statement, because I believe that integration means that the content from the sites is integrated throughout the Seattle Times site, including the home page, i.e., treated as if they were part of a news organization  network.] That’s not really developing an integrated network; it’s patting them on the head.

Second, topic-based sites: Do a serious competitive analysis of topic-based beats. Abandon the beats that others own (How’s MaxPreps doing in the Seattle area?) Or partner with them, if you’ve got a strong piece of their action. Build out the beats you still own. Education? Transportation? Environment? Health? And create another pod of jurnos for each of those sites. Reporters, ad salesperson, community manager. Today, I’d add issue-based sites. E.g., in addition to a basic health site, a robust sub-section on health reform. When David Boardman, the Seattle Times’ executive editor, stopped by my office while he was in town last week, I showed him our local health site WellCommons. He commented that he thought that a health niche site wouldn’t work in Seattle, because there are hundreds of good health sites already. But I think it’s a perfect opportunity for the Seattle Times to serve as aggregator and curator, as well as begin the necessary transformation to social journalism. Even when we started WellCommons in Lawrence, KS, I thought developing a regional social journalism health site would be much easier in a larger metro area. (We’re above 100K page views a month now…not too shabby for a population base of 115,000 in Lawrence & Douglas County.)

Here's a rough graphic representation of the mini-metro network. Sumopaint's terrific online software, but it can't improve bad art skills. I'll ask my friend and graphics expert Val to fix it up, after folks send in some ideas on how to improve it.

Here’s a rough graphic representation of the mini-metro network.

Third, I envisioned the Times still putting out a newspaper, but suggested that, eventually, it might not appear every day.

Today, I say: Deconverge. Spin off print from digital. Separate management. Separate P&L. Separate buildings. Separate ad and content staff.

A year ago, you never would have heard me suggest that. Clinging to a fatal optimism, I still believed that newspaper culture could grow and change.

But I began heading in the deconvergence direction last year, when we began talking about developing a digital news network. The person to lead that network would need experience in digital ad networks, digital news, mobile and social media, we said. And nobody that person hired would need to come from a print background. We conceived of it as separate, because we didn’t want to “saddle” the organization with the print culture, we said. Hmmm. The word “saddle” should have been a big light in the sky.

My tipping point was on a particular frustrating day, when I watched, for the second time, Deseret News and Deseret Digital Media CEO Clark Gilbert’s presentation to Borrell Associates Local Mobile Advertising conference last September. At the end of the presentation, Gordon Borrell asked Gilbert if he was optimistic about the newspaper industry. “No,” he said. “Not at all.” He paused. “Am I optimistic that there is a path to doing it (making a transition)? Absolutely.”

Gilbert, who has studied companies and industries in transition at Harvard Business School, pointed out this fascinating and very scary fact: of the companies comprising any industry affected by disruptive technologies, only 9 percent survive. And 100 percent of those 9 percent follow a particular pattern. A key is investing in the future. “Do you want to ride this thing down? Or do you want to invest for the future?” he asked.
The cold reality is this: you can’t have  these two different cultures in the same organization anymore. They set up camps. They expend energy fighting each other for the same resources instead of toward creative efforts to improve their organizations. That’s what led to the demise of TBD.com.

Slide from Clark Gilbert presentation

Gilbert provided a list of what the 9 percent of surviving companies do. In case you can’t make out the text in the slide, the items are:

  • Separate physical location
  • Separate P&L
  • Separate direct sales
  • Separate content, product, and technology teams
  • Separate management structures

Does this mean that news organizations could have/should have spun off digital several years ago? Maybe. But it’s likely that approach would have resulted in a rapid disappearance and even more shrinkage of print-based journalism organizations that had served their communities for more than 100 years. Traditional newspaper culture — and tv culture for that matter — still had too strong a hold for organizations to invest as they should have in digital. And, as they started the first big downhill financial slide, the traditional culture would have been likely to set digital free as an entity that did not have the history with the community or the long-held trust, and settled for riding print down. Instead, here we are in 2011 where most traditional news organizations have laid off staff to preserve profits, merged digital and print newsrooms, and many are beginning to develop digital sales staff to capture appropriate ad revenues.

But now, if they don’t spin off the digital versions of themselves, invest in their future, and let print find its own level, they’ll die and take everyone in their organizations down with them.

So, following Gilbert’s list, they can separate the organizations’ P&L, sales staff, tech staff, management and put them in different physical locations. But the crux of the situation is: What to do about content? The tables have turned. For digital to thrive, and print to continue to be profitable while continuing to shrink and find its place in the new news ecosystem, we now have to repurpose web content to print. Print can’t afford the same compliment of writers and photographers parallel to those in the digital organization.

In the digital news organization, jurnos just focus on building and managing their communities, their web and mobile coverage. In the print organization, a distribution desk repurposes digital content for print. Maybe a couple of print-centric staff writers provide Sunday feature stories, but that depends on who the print audience is and what they want. Oh, yeah — it’s important to know who your print audience is, and who your online community is. Spend the money for good market analyses of newspaper and digital sites.

Also, make print a little more digital — more graphics, more photos, don’t force narrative into coverage that doesn’t need it (city council meetings, school closings, etc.) — so that the information that jurnos provide in their digital posts can appear the same in print.

btw, the opposite of converge is diverge. But I didn’t think that “diverge” encompasses the flavor of the situation traditional organizations find themselves in. Hence, deconvergence. Of course, unconvergence would work. Disconvergence could be a word that describes the current dissonant nature of convergence. Any other suggestions?

Another “Village Soup” site in Wareham, MA

I just added WarehamVillageSoup.com to the growing list of niche news sites and networks on Jurnos Wiki.

Anne Eisenmenger, founder and publisher of one of the affiliates of the Village Soup network, sends this info in a 7/12/10 email:

“The first out-of-Maine licensee of Village Soup, we have simultaneously worked to “reinvent” the community newspaper. We think we have done that with Wareham Week, a tight-and-bright professionally written, free local tab — with distribution that has grown from 4,000 in January to more than 7,000 today, just in the 8,600-household town of Wareham. (By contrast, the circulation of the paid GateHouse competitor is probably 3,000 and falling.)”

After six months, they’re “flirting” with a financial break-even point.

The list of web-only news sites is huge, and I’m sure not all are on the list. If you include all the sites that are part of the networks, which are at the bottom of the list, we’re approaching 5,000 sites. Most cover business, tech, sports and entertainment, but a significant growing number are health, environment, state government and politics, and geographic-based community sites.

Who sez journalism’s dying?

Talkin’ about….WellCommons

For the last year, I’ve been head-down in development. My (poor neglected) blog, Facebook and Twitter accounts have seen few words, photos, graphs or video. However, now my head’s finally up, and it’s time to talk about what much of that last year has been about: WellCommons, the new local health site that we at the Lawrence Journal-World recently launched.

OMG! It doesn't look like a news web site!

It combines social media and journalism. We think it’s what journalism looks like in a social media world. It’s a little WordPress, a little Ning, a little Facebook, a little Twitter, all embedded in a safe place and a trusted source, which is what journalism is supposed to be for a community (in addition to the watchdog role). It’s unlike anything in the digital news arena, as far as we know. We launched it in beta at the end of February, it went “official” in April, and we are now continuing to nurture it and watch it grow.

Several aspects of WellCommons and Ellington Community are unique:

The site resolves the “signal to noise” complaint about the web. In other words, its architecture helps people assess the reliability of content.

One ingredient of WellCommons’ secret sauce is that it is built around groups that all function the same way, whether started by a reporter or a community member. The other is that all participants use their real names.

This is how WellCommons works: Anyone can start a group (as long as it’s related to health). If you start a group, you put your content into “news” and “resources”. People who join your group put their content into the “commons” section. Participants are able to judge the quality of the information, depending on if it’s in a group’s news or resources section (content posted by the group “owner”) or the commons section (where anybody can post), and by knowing who posted the information.

Anyone who contributes to the site — reporter or member of the community alike — does so in the same way, through a public-facing web-based interface. Participants can also follow and message each other within the site, repost, and send posts to Facebook and Twitter.

WellCommons’ approach to health reporting is community-based and solution-oriented. Most health sites focus on personal health — what individuals can do to improve their own or their families’ health. But at a local level, health is a community issue. For example, we’re all supposed to get regular checkups. But does everyone in a community have access to good health care? Our kids are supposed to eat healthy food, but do school lunch programs provide that? We’re all supposed to exercise, but does a community have enough safe places to walk, jog, bike and play outdoors?

The site provides a new advertising model. We believe businesses that provide health products and services are a vital part of the community, and should be included. Businesses can start their own group pages; they pay to do so. They have direct access to and conversations with members of the community. They can buy display ads, which, at the moment, look like traditional display ads. Eventually, those ads themselves will become social media-enabled, with content that the business can change.

We put the site together with continual input from the local health community. About 40 people — from nonprofits and the local hospital, physicians, health advocates, people who were uninsured, locavores, etc. — met regularly with the news organization’s working group, and still meet quarterly.

That’s enough for the moment. In subsequent posts, I’ll cover more of the thinking and development that went into Ellington Community and WellCommons, including comments from folks who are using it, and will answer the burning questions: Why did this happen at the Lawrence Journal-World? and…How does the Reynolds Journalism Institute fit in?

I’ll also look at the long list of changes and additions we have planned. That list is long: adding databases and resources, a goals app, allowing people to post photos from their computers (right now they have to post a Flickr url), adding topics pages (yes, Web shells!), quizzes, letting people sign on with their Facebook or Twitter accounts, etc. We’ll also be adding another jurno (we have one amazing one now — Karrey Britt), so that we have the bandwidth to do indepth and investigative stories.

Journalism, journalists, j-schools and the new era

At LJWorld.com, we’ve created a new health site called WellCommons. It’s a very different way for a news organization to serve its community, because it uses the tools of the Web to integrate community and journalism. More on this in another post.

How our community will change the structure and function of WellCommons, and, by default, its new content management system, remains to be seen — it’s barely a month old. However, I think this structure is on the right path to serving the needs of the Lawrence/Douglas County health community in a modern way.

That’s why this blog post by Chris Lynch on his Lynch Blog was so interesting: He thinks that most journalism schools will close  because they’re teaching for the past, not the future. Others have said that, but his take on it and the discussion in the comments are worth a review.

I don’t agree with his concept of The Reader Elite — Webworld just isn’t organized that way. It’s organized into overlapping cells of topic areas. And if that topic area relates to someone’s profession, then that person is likely to pay for the information. You don’t have to look far to see examples of that in the journals that serve the energy, environmental law and technology, financial, scientific, etc., communities.

Where people are struggling with the idea of pay walls and paid content is in the kind of coverage traditionally provided by newspapers, television and public radio. Paying for noncontextual information is mostly a pipe dream in Webworld.

However, people might pay for an investigative piece if it’s in context of continuing coverage of that community. So, for example, continuing local health coverage might be supported by advertising from businesses that provide products and services for that community. However, investigating corruption in a state physicians’ review board might require three months of two people’s time. That’s something that you’d want to pay people expert in the field to do, and, if it’s important enough to the community, they might donate to that project. A contextual SpotUs, so to speak.

Explaining targeted ads

One of my favorite columnists is Steve Smith, who shares duties on MediaPost’s Behavioral Insider with Laurie Sullivan. Today, Smith provided some great clarity about targeted advertising, also known as digital ad targeting. It’s important for jurnos to wrap their heads around this, because it’s a useful technology, if not abused. (Oh how often have we hudroids said that about so many new technologies, including nuclear.) In Take Two Targeted Ads and Call Me In the Morning, Steve says:

How do you explain the technology behind digital ad targeting quickly and fairly enough so the consumer can make an informed choice about opting in or out, sharing their surfing history, etc.? Whatever regulatory or legislative measures come down the pike related to digital advertising in the next year, the industry still needs to find ways of translating a dark targeting art perfected by engineering dweebs into concepts and language that my 78-year-old dad can understand without reaching for his pistol.

It’s worth following the progress of behavioral marketing developments — and Behavioral Insider is a good place to start. (Dear FTC: I received no remuneration or gifts for this plug. And I’ve neither met, nor had communication with Smith or Sullivan.)

Newspapers need to grok online advertising, too

Newspapers’ Online Strategies Failed in 2009 — in yesterday’s MediaDailyNews, Eric Sass pointed out that newspapers’ online revenues have been falling along with their print revenues. The reasons, he says, are that online revenues were concentrated in online classifieds, and those never became independent from print classifieds. As print continued to plummet, they took online revenues along. Also, newspapers haven’t grokked search and display. Here’s a chart he picked up from NAA and IAB.

I’d add that newspapers also don’t understand that it’s rapidly becoming a niche news world, and have completely missed the boat on focusing their efforts on developing niche news sites. The mile-wide, inch-deep approach, i.e., news for a general audience doesn’t work anymore. But if newspapers shake off their ties to print, call themselves news organizations, and do develop niche news sites (which means developing community and walking away from the we-talk-you-listen old-style journalism), they’ll need to modernize their ad departments, too, and learn how to sell online as successful niche news sites have been doing for years.

They could learn from Federated Media, Netshelter.net, ESPN, Gawker Media, etc. (for a long list of niche news sites, check out the Jurnos wiki) and repeat their mantra:

Sell community, not content.

Another entrepreneurial jurno

The Kansas City Star reports today that 24-year-old Nick Sloan bought the online version of the Kansas City Kansan from Gatehouse Media. Gatehouse closed the Kansas City Kansan print edition in January.

Sloan, 24, said he became the sole owner of http://www.kansascitykansan.com on Saturday after negotiating an unspecified payment based on royalties.

“Right now it’s just me,’ he said. ‘I have a few things lining up, but as of right now it’s me and I’m looking to cover everything I can in Wyandotte County. I’m excited about it. I’m originally from Wyandotte County, so I have some idea of what readers will like.”


So far, he’s doing great.
He’s taking a beat-blog approach, and has been posting since Sept. 16. Today, he did 11 posts. Count ’em. 11. According to the Star’s report, he’s kept a couple of advertisers who had been putting display ads on the site, and he’s got a couple more.
(Cross-posted on RJICollaboratory.org)