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?

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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.

Yikes.

The other words I was starting to put in this headline: unrepresentative, half the story, less than half the story, and the whole story of Baltimore. How can I begin to characterize the research done by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, as reported in the LATimes article “Most original new reporting comes from traditional sources, study finds”?

PEJ, a nonpartisan project funded by the Pew Research Center, studied news reporting from 53 sources for three days in Baltimore, and followed six key stories for a week, in an effort to understand how the “ecosystem” of news operates in an age when new media is expanding and older outlets are losing resources.

Do this same research in West Seattle, and you’d find, well, a different story. Do this same research in Montclair, N.J., home of Baristanet, and the results might also be different.  And what about topic-based reporting. Isn’t The Body doing a better job on AIDS reporting than any newspaper? Isn’t Kaiser Health News doing a better job of health reporting than any daily?

There are quite a few headlines proclaiming that real news comes from newspapers as a result of the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism study, “How News Happens: The Study of the News Ecosystem of One American City”. The study’s worth reading — it’s very interesting. I think the researchers answered the first question in this graph in their introduction extremely well:

How, in other words, does the modern news “ecosystem” of a large American city work? And if newspapers were to die—to the extent that we can infer from the current landscape—what would that imply for what citizens would know and not know about where they live?

But I don’t think that this research can answer the second. Yet. The system’s in too much flux to come to any conclusion. Perhaps a better research area to study might be the communities that Patch.com has expanded into. As NYC and NJ metros have been shrinking, vacuums have been created that offer opportunities that organizations like Patch and others are filling.

I also think that until the transition settles out that there will be a tendency toward better local coverage and worse coverage of health, science, environmental, state government, entertainment, transportation, and justice, as the metros have been laying off their specialty reporters. However, I’m betting that topic-based regional niche news sites will eventually take up the slack and do a better job than the metros did, just because jurnos and the community can do more in the Web medium.

What would I do if I were the Project’s researchers? Pick a geographic area that does have strong local sites doing original reporting that are within the reach of a metro daily and take snapshots over the next three years. That might get at the whole story and point out holes that need to be filled.

Clone John Paton!

Jeff Jarvis did a fabulous interview with John Paton, who’s the new CEO of the Journal Register Company, which publishes 19 daily newspapers and more than 100 weeklies. Paton led ImpreMedia from legacy newspaper company to digital news company. Here’s a tease:

The result was in less than two years we went from 9 products on two platforms (print and crappy publications sites full of shovelware) to nearly 100 products on 7 platforms – with about 45% less costs.

It sounds as if he wants to use the same strategy for the Journal Register’s newspapers. This guy’s definitely worth watching. There he is in this thumbnail, named Editor & Publisher’s Publisher of the Year for 2009….just before E&P died.

This says it all

Silicon Alley Insider’s chart of the day.

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.

Michael Moore: Newspapers slit their own throat

Well, yes, Mr. Moore, they did. But it was a little more complex than the reasons you gave. mmoore

Newspapers lost their way when they became public corporations, beholden to shareholders and not their communities;

Newspapers lost their way when they hired publishers and upper management who didn’t come from news organizations, but from cereal companies;

Newspapers lost their way when they thought the Internet was a fad and/or a separate income-stream;

Newspapers lost their way when they thought they didn’t have to modernize and kept calling themselves newspapers.

The information and news from businesses in a geographic or topic-based community is just as valuable to the community as the news provided by journalists.

Hundreds of ad-supported niche news organizations have emerged during this transition. They’re employing thousands of modern journalists. We’re trying to lasso them into one place on the Jurnos wiki.

They’ve developed a business model. It’s working.

But, as Judy Sims recently pointed out in her SimsBlog, the lies that newspaper executives are telling themselves will prevent most of MSM from making the transition. But not my shop.