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?

WellCommons recognized in Knight-Batten Awards

Because he summarized it so well, here’s the post that LJWorld.com assistant director of media strategies Jonathan Kealing put on WellCommons, the local health site that we officially launched in April, a couple of days ago:

WellCommons was honored Monday as a “notable entry” in the annual Knight-Batten Awards competition.

Though WellCommons wasn’t among the top seven entrants, the site was among 30 others that were singled out for praise by the panel of judges.

Taking top honors was an effort by the Sunlight Foundation to add data and context to the coverage of a government event — coverage of the health reform summit — to make it more consumable for the audience.

ProPublica, 48HR Magazine, The Obameter from the St. Petersburg Times, Ushahidi Haiti, Publish2 News Exchange and The Takeaway took the next level of awards.

The Knight-Batten Awards reward news and information efforts that create opportunities to involve citizens in public issues and supply opportunities for participation.

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.

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.

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 example of poor reporting

You know, I really try to focus on solutions, leaning forward into journalism’s transition, maybe even contributing to it a tiny bit. And then I see another example of poor reporting from a traditional media journalist covering emerging journalism. This week’s bad boy is Newsweek, which did another pat-the-poor-little-hyperlocal-blog-on-the-head-and-say-there-there article.

Check out this sentence, which appeared early in the article:Picture 5

Thousands of hyperlocal sites have now sprouted nationwide. But the model has yet to produce a seminal success story—and in fact there have been significant failures, including LoudonExtra, which shuttered last month.

And then several paragraphs later, this:

Web-news guru Jeff Jarvis, director of the interactive-journalism program at the City University of New York, has done an extensive study of hyper-local economics, and he’s optimistic. “The most startling and hopeful number I have found is this: some hyper-local bloggers, serving markets of about 50,000, are bringing in up to $200,000 a year in advertising,” he says.

Didja think to ask Jeff to identify the successful hyper-local bloggers?

And, one more thing while I’m on this rant, hyper-local is the most stupid term I’ve heard in a long time. I admit that I was guilty of using it for a while. Then, I put my thinking cap on and realized that journalists were using the term to describe people — often journalists — who were covering communities of 30,000 or 50,000. Ho. That’s a good-sized small town. Most of those small towns have honest-to-god newspapers. Do you call the reporters at those small dailies and weeklies hyper-local journalists? No, you call them journalists.

So, Johnnie L. Roberts and the folks at Newsweek who further poo-poohed the emergence of the new type of journalism by giving the headline PeytonPlace.com to the article, you blew it! You missed the real story! Check out WestSeattleBlog.com, QuincyNews.org, Baristanet.com, the new KansasCityKansan.com, and dozens of other local Web-based news organizations that are making it. And while you’re at it, check out the hundreds of topic-based niche news sites that are employing thousands of jurnos, and are raking in hundreds of millions of dollars.