Falling Off the Wagon—And Into the Land of Oz

I started the Recovering Journalist blog six years ago because I believe strongly that the future of journalism involves a lot more than simply journalism. To be a complete journalist, it has become just as important to understand and appreciate the business of journalism. So I styled myself the Recovering Journalist and opined away on the state of the journalism business over the past few years—just as it hit a precipitous decline. It's been quite a ride.

Now, however, the time has come for the Recovering Journalist to fall off the wagon and return to journalism—albeit equipped with the philosophy and knowledge that fed this blog and my concurrent career as an entrepreneur, consultant and professor.

Beginning next month, I'll be serving as Vice President of Content for The World Company, the parent of the Lawrence Journal-World and other newspapers, in Kansas and surrounding states. This puts me in day-to-day leadership of the news operations of daily and weekly newspapers and their online operations—a full-blown return to journalism as it's practiced circa 2012.

Obviously, the worlds of journalism and news are very, very different than they were when I left daily journalism (with occasional return visits) 20 years ago. The Internet has changed everything; news is now social and participatory and interactive and a lot of other things; traditional business models for news are in shambles. These are the sorts of challenges I've been thinking about and working on for the past 20 years and writing about here for the past six years. Now it's time to apply all of that thinking to bringing a traditional newspaper operation into the new age.

In Lawrence, we have a tremendous head start: the Journal-World and associated sites such as Lawrence.com have been leaders in creating new models for journalism and new business models for news for the better part of a decade, under the ambitious, visionary leadership of the Simons family and pioneers such as Rob Curley and Adrian Holovaty. Very few other newspaper companies have been as progressive and forward-thinking. But as the Journal-World, like other papers, continues to struggle with the stark new realities of the journalism business, it's time to take the pace of innovation to the next level. That's what the Simons family and COO Suzanne Schlicht have hired me to do.

What does all that mean? It's too early to say in much detail. But it means being not just "digital first" but audience first: delivering news, information and advertising to audiences at high quality in whatever form the audience wants it—from print to online to mobile to e-mail to social networks to tablets. It means building editorial products backed by strong business models that support good journalism. It means helping newsrooms rethink the way they do everything to best serve their audiences. It means building strong partnerships with college journalism departments, like the excellent one at the nearby University of Kansas. And so much more.

I'm excited to get this opportunity to, well, put my money where my mouth has been. As a member in good standing of the Jarvis/Shirky/Rosen Future of News coven, I've been bloviating about this stuff for years, as well as teaching it and helping to start and nurture companies that have attempted to capitalize on the change swirling around the news business (another of those startups is in the oven, almost ready to go–watch this space).

Now I get to put all that theory and thinking into action, in search of a model that provides great local journalism to the people in and around Lawrence for years to come, and maybe, just maybe, providing an example that can be used elsewhere—hopefully many elsewheres.

What will become of the Recovering Journalist blog? Well, it's been in semi-retirement for a while anyway, and now the name seems quaintly inappropriate for an off-the-wagon journalist who's no longer in true recovery. I may return here periodically; I may pop up somewhere else. But I've got so much work ahead of me in my new day job that I can scarcely imagine having time to blog much.

Instead, please watch what we do on LJWorld.com, Lawrence.com, KUSports.com and our various other products in the coming months and years. I'd love to hear your thoughts and feedback as we—and I—head into this great new adventure, turning theory into practice.

The ruby slippers are packed, Toto's in his bicycle basket and the GPS is pointing down the yellow brick road. The Recovering Journalist is headed to Kansas—and hopefully the Wonderful World of Oz. (This time, please do pay attention to the man behind the curtain!)

Must Reads

Where have I been? Well, let's just say I got tired of saying many of the same things over and over. Besides, other people sometimes say them much better. Two cases in point today:

John Robinson, recently departed editor of the Greensboro News & Record and all-around smart, good guy, has gotten even smarter now that he's gotten some distance and perspective from his former job. (Same thing happened to John Temple.) He's blogging good suggestions on how newspapers can make themselves more relevant to and trusted by their communities, quickly and easily. Obvious stuff—except, as John admits, it wasn't so obvious until he got away from the daily grind.

The great Clay Shirky, who seems to have perfect pitch for understanding, explaining and analyzing the changes roiling the newspaper industry, takes on paywalls, er, online subscription models—and how they're changing the news business in many subtle, largely unrealized ways. It's very provocative stuff—there's too much of it even to pick out a representative quote. Go read it!

Newspaper Next, Five Years Later

Everybody in the newspaper business needs to read and think hard about Justin Ellis' Nieman Lab post mortem of the American Press Institute's Newspaper Next project from 2006.

Then ask yourself: Why are you still thinking about it as the "newspaper" business? Because that means you weren't paying enough attention.

Newspaper Next had its flaws, principally that it didn't go far enough in its "blueprint for transformation." (At the time, Jeff Jarvis correctly carped, "the project seems to be trying to move a big, old barge five degrees when we need to blow up the barge and pick up the pieces and build new boats.") But it still was a manifesto for change in a hidebound industry that was—and sadly, still is—staunchly resisting transformation.

As Ellis notes, even Newspaper Next's fairly timid recommendations had limited effect, further blunted by what he describes as newspapers' "near-extinction level event in 2008" (I wasn't aware it was limited to 2008—it's still going on!). The industry's dire financial problems and the massive staff cuts that followed choked off just about any of the kind of creative thinking about new products that Newspaper Next recommended.

As a result, five years on, newspapers haven't taken the kind of bold steps that Newspaper Next—much less bolder visionaries like Jarvis—prescribed for them. There's been a lot of talk, and too little action by an industry still gripped by fear of change, multiplied by unprecedented financial woes. The newspaper of 2011 isn't really radically different from the newspaper of 2006. Just thinner. Meantime, rivals like Facebook, Twitter, Groupon and the mobile revolution portended by the iPhone have flourished in the same period. At best, newspapers are playing catch-up—from farther and farther behind.

Worse, there have been unfortunate rollbacks of the sorts of interesting projects that Newspaper Next advocated, like Gannett's idiotic and ham-handed snuffing of the once-excellent MomsLikeMe initiative a couple weeks ago. John Paton, with his Digital First initiative at Journal Register and now the MediaNews properties, is doing by far the most interesting work in the field, but its results remain to be seen, and it feels too little too late. The time to act was long before Newspaper Next's 2006 manifesto.

Steve Buttry, part of Paton's Digital First team and an architect of Newspaper Next, has his own reflections on the project's legacy; he's disappointed, too. You should also read James Rainey's LA Times' analysis of the Philadelphia Inquirer's ill-fated effort to sell its own custom tablet, which on one hand is the sort of bold move Newspaper Next might have been applauded, but on the other hand was so ill-timed and botched that it just looks boneheaded. ZDNet's "How Not to Launch a Custom Tablet" story sums up the Philly fiasco nicely.

Newspapers, as Jarvis said five years ago (and before), don't need small experiments and test projects and niche products. They need rethinking from the ground up, with every single facet of the product and business severely questioned and cold-bloodedly scrapped if they're found wanting, with creative new products and approaches put in their place. Do you need every single feature you're stuffing into the paper? Do you need to print every day of the week? Are you selling to the right advertisers? Are your readers moving inexorably to the Web while you're still stubbornly trying to keep them on a printed product? (Hint: yes) These are all fundamental, foundational questions that newspaper managements need to be asking themselves (and their advertisers and readers), then truly listening to the answers and acting on them. That's what Newspaper Next, at its heart, was trying to encourage.

Jarvis was right five years ago, and he's even more right today: Blow up the barge. Build new boats.

I'll double down on what I said at the beginning: Still think you're in the "newspaper" business? Then you're part of the problem.


As the old joke goes, I'm shocked but not surprised by the smothering of TBD.com. 

Founder and president Jim Brady's departure, three months ago, amid frustration with meddling and bad decision-making by executives at corporate parent Albritton Communications, was a gigantic warning sign, of course. For all intents and purposes, Jim was TBD's heart and soul. Without him, the end was probably inevitable.

But those of us who were following the project closely, through friendships and business relationships, had begun worrying about TBD's longterm viability even before it launched. First trouble sign: when the site's smart GM, Whitney Patton, walked out last summer, frustrated by interference from clueless sales executives at Allbritton. And in the past few weeks, top site talents like product development whiz Bageshri Ghate and managing editor Paul Volpe have departed as well; other TBD stars have been actively looking.

So today's news that TBD will be folded into local TV parent WJLA is not really a surprise. But it's still a shock that such an important, innovative experiment in the future of local news coverage is being snuffed out so quickly. It shows an incredible lack of vision by parent company Allbritton Communications.

This was the biggest-budget effort to reinvent local news, and it didn't even survive a year. Way to innovate, Allbritton. Could TBD's leaders have done a better job with the product? Sure—it never really seemed to capture the local vibe, and it was always too city-centric and ignorant of the Washington suburbs. Was the name a disaster? Oh yeah. Like all startups, it had growing pains. 

But I hear TBD was doing just fine, thank you, in terms of traffic, meeting and exceeding its projections. It probably wasn't making its ad numbers—but that's doubtless because the TV people who muscled into the site's ad sales didn't really know what they were doing. Hint: You don't try to sell a local blog network on a blog-by-blog basis. (Oh yes they did!) And if you can't then figure out how to monetize that blog network with run-of-site ads, well…

The Allbritton people, led by CEO Robert Allbritton, said all the right things at the outset about giving TBD time to find its audience and grow—but they did little to back up those promises. Indeed, there were troubling early signs that jealous TV station execs were working behind the scenes to cripple their own startup. (Otherwise, why do the absolute minimum to promote it on-air?) Typical old-media stupidity and shenanigans. What a pity.

TBD was important, as I've written before, as an effort to find a new model for local news. By cleverly building a network of more than 200 independent local blogs around a skeleton staff of journalists and community managers, TBD was laying a path for a next-generation online metro newspaper (and broadcast) replacement that offered much broader coverage, relevance and reach at a fraction of the traditional cost of covering a large market. The model was completely sound (minus old-media meddling), and some smart entrepreneur or VC or media company will take it and run with it. You can bet on that.

I'll leave it to Jim Brady and others tell the full horror stories about what went on inside TBD—the insane battles over who should sell advertising, and to whom; the choking of the site's innovative blog network; the utter failure to promote the site in the Washington market; the creeping dominance by know-nothing TV people; the crazy, irrational personnel machinations that finally drove Jim out the door.

But as Brady tweeted today: "At good companies, the people who resist necessary change are pushed aside. At bad companies, they are put in charge." In other words, once again, the retrograde forces of old media have won–indeed, arguably, TBD, from the start, was DOA. But in the long run, by stifling this sort of innovation, they can only lose.

Update: TBD Editor Erik Wemple is quoted by Nieman Journalism Lab as saying:  “I think that we will continue to emphasize and to engage the community in a way that is very competitive with the industry and industry standards. … I think that 99 percent of the people won’t really notice too much of a change.” 

Frankly, I doubt it—TBD as we know it is over if it's subsumed into WJLA-TV. Brady, who's still very, very close to his erstwhile staff at TBD, tweets: "I love my @TBD peeps, but the 'everything will be OK' tweet does not reflect how people feel. They can't say it, but I can. Not good news."

Why TBD is Important

First, the disclaimers: Jim Brady, president of TBD.com, is a good friend. So are his top editors, Erik Wemple and Steve Buttry. And my company, GrowthSpur, is working with TBD to build local ad-sales networks for bloggers in the Washington area (contrary to one report, there is absolutely no financial relationship between GrowthSpur and TBD, btw; they certainly aren't paying us). So I may be a bit biased.

But I think TBD, just launched this week, is an incredibly important development for the future of local news, for many reasons. Let's tick off a few:

  • It's laser-focused on local news and information, not wasting any resources on non-local content that's available elsewhere. 
  • It's Web-focused, but also smartly incorporates traditional media—in this case, a local TV station and local cable-news station—as key elements. But make no mistake, the Web site is first and foremost, not playing a supporting role. 
  • It's aggressively curating and linking to every source of local news in sight (more on that in a bit)—even links to WashingtonPost.com and rival TV stations Web sites have already appeared on its home page. (Linking to competitors! What a concept!)
  • It's taking a smart approach to the all-important mobile space, with apps that don't paste the Web site onto a phone screen, but offer the kinds of things—traffic, weather, headlines—that people really want and need when they're on the go. 
  • It's doing some very sexy things with geocoding, putting a relevant, hyperlocal face on content in a metropolitan area whose sprawling geographical diversity makes local relevance essential. (I don't want news and info and listings about a suburb 40 miles away, in another state. I want to read about my neighborhood.)
  • Its leadership is convinced that TBD can make money covering local news and information. With $100 billion spent a year on local advertising in the U.S., and more and more of that moving to the Web, that's a very canny bet. Brady and the TBD gang are focused on making local online advertising work—not on protecting a print product or chasing dreams of subscription revenue. That focus makes a big difference.

All great things. But I think the most important thing about TBD is its approach to covering the Washington area: aggressively and adroitly mixing professional and blogger content. Finally, a well-funded, big-time local effort is taking to heart Jeff Jarvis' infamous "do what you do best and link to the rest" maxim.

That allows TBD to look like a big-time news organization with a very small staff. Indeed, it's got just 12 reporters roaming the vast DC area—a fraction of what The Washington Post deploys locally. But TBD's secret weapon is that it avidly supplements its staff reporting with content from more than 125 local bloggers (and counting), covering everything from neighborhood politics to food to allergies to parenting to living green.

In doing so, TBD is taking advantage of a powerful phenomenon that also underlies what's driving GrowthSpur: the enormous explosion in local blogging around the country over the past couple of years. Everywhere you look, every town, every nook and cranny, on all sorts of odd—and not so odd—local subjects, somebody's blogging, and they're often doing it passionately and well. 

Fed by cheap blogging tools, an increasing perception of the need for micro local coverage, and, frankly, a surplus of underemployed journalists (though not all of these practitioners are journalists, of course) the local blogosphere has turned into a hothouse of coverage–tens of thousands of little local journalism startups.

And that's what TBD is taking advantage of. I hesitate to even type the words "taking advantage," because it sounds pejorative, and TBD is doing anything but exploiting its blog partners. Indeed, contrary to a lot of arrogant, not-invented-here journalism organizations (Washington Post, I'm looking at you), TBD is bending over backwards to be a good partner to these blogs, giving them home-page credit, pushing them traffic and providing them with a cut of advertising (and GrowthSpur is helping with the latter, too). TBD is treating its blog partners with respect, and that counts for a lot. They deserve respect—these bloggers are working their butts off to cover things that are important to their community, and TBD is giving them recognition, traffic and revenue. Nice.

What does TBD get in exchange? Breadth and depth. TBD is going to be able to cover a huge percentage of what The Washington Post covers locally with less than one-tenth the staff. Not a bad equation—but the reality is that TBD may wind up covering much more than the Post. That's because TBD is going to link to Ellie Ashford's blog covering Annandale, Va., (a suburban town the Post barely knows exists, even though it's less than a dozen miles from the paper's newsroom), and to Lisa Rowan's D.C. vintage clothing blog (not exactly a Post beat), and to Mark Zuckerman's blog about the Washington Nationals (hands-down better than the Post's coverage of the team, and one of several Nats baseball blogs in TBD's stable) and to Jessica Sidman's blog about ice cream and other frozen treats (not generally part of the Post's mainstream food coverage). Multiply those examples by 125-plus blogs and you see that TBD is giving its readers one-stop access to a breadth of local content the Post can't even imagine.

To be sure, TBD is hardly the first site with an aggressive linking strategy and blog network–the "ist" sites (Gothamist, DCist, etc.) do a great job aggregating and expanding on urban blog content in several markets; NBC's owned and operated stations have quietly built strong (though a bit clumsy–they don't share credit well) local aggregation sites; Examiner.com is mixing staff (well, "examiner" reporting with aggregation to build city sites) and there are countless smaller local curation and aggregation experiments going on. 

In addition, TBD is very much still in its infancy, and working out the kinks—at first blush, I'm not sure its priorities and beat structure are quite right (it seems to be catering too much to hip downtown 20-somethings and too thin on the suburbs), and Brady concedes that many planned innovative features are still sort of TBD themselves. So it will be interesting to see how the site evolves and better serves the Washington market.

But TBD is without doubt the biggest, most ambitious effort yet to create a new paradigm for local news coverage of a major metropolitan area. To paraphrase Cory Bergman on LostRemote, TBD isn't just talking about a theory of a new kind of coverage—it's walking the walk. It's building the future. 

As it develops, I think TBD is going to prove a model for other local efforts around the country. It understands something very fundamental, something that once upon a time, a group of us referred to it as the Tom Sawyer strategy: when you're working with limited resources, use them to the maximum–and turn to the rest of the Web for help with filling in the blanks.

Reader Comments, Hawaiian-Style

The subject is civil unions for gay couples. So you can expect the tone of the reader discussion to be highly charged, and even shocking. Try this inflammatory reader comment on for size:

Everyone's so damn reasonable on this site.

Yep, that's pretty shocking. A high-friction, high-emotion issue like civil unions—and the reader discussion is, indeed, "reasonable." 

What's going on here?

Welcome to Honolulu Civil Beat, the new site covering Hawaii from eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and veteran editor John Temple. It's got a cockamamie paywall, er, membership plan—you can't read much on the site without ponying up $19.99 a month (good luck with that business model)—but the reader comments are outside the paywall, and true to the site's name, they're very "civil" indeed.

How come? Well, at a time when a chorus of news business voices is rising against the idea of anonymous comments on news sites (and rightly so), Civil Beat's subscription model is providing a foolproof antidote to anonymity: you can't comment without subscribing, and thus registering with the site's operators. Real names—or at least initials—are required, and enforced by membership registration. That certainly cleans up the level of discourse. 

But there's somethine else going on at Civil Beat that I think helps keep the level of discussion intelligent and friendly: the site's staff is actively participating in the conversations. You don't see that often at news sites, even on reporter blogs—too often, the comments are just a reaction to the story, and the author watches from a safe remove rather than mixing it up with readers. The results can be ugly.

In contrast, Civil Beat refers to its reporters as "reporter-hosts," and that's the magic: they're acting as emcees and participants in the conversation. This isn't just comments moderation—it's active participation. Not being a nanny, but being a member of the community. That instantly changes the tone of the conversation.

Dive into some of the site's comments areas to see what I mean: The civil unions discussion is here (along with some general talk about other topics—the site still has some work to do on focusing discussions around a topic). Here's one on homelessness, another hot-button topic on most sites. Note that the reporter-host—and even Omidyar and Temple themselves—are chiming in every few comments, reinforcing good behavior and gently guiding the conversation toward a level of constructive dialogue basically unheard of in most news-site comments areas.

News sites have found all sorts of ways to screw up comments over the years, usually by being incredibly naive about what it takes to run them properly. One of the biggest common sins is defaulting, all too often, to unregistered anonymity, which is why a lot of people now think that news sites need to go to much stronger levels of registration for reader participation. Why not? What have you got to lose? It can be as simple as simply asking commenters to register with their real names (yes, many will), or at least to use a consistent identity that can be confirmed behind the scenes—and policed if need be. Howard Owen has some smart things to say about this:

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….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.

For sure, Civil Beat's membership model, which effectively ends anonymity (you need a credit card to register), helps a lot. And it's early yet—maybe things will break down and the trolls will arrive as more people join the discussions (and as reporter-hosts get busier and less able to participate. I hope not). 

But this is a huge step in the right direction, and points toward a way toward fixing the cesspools that most news site comments areas have become. Editor Temple has a lot of other great ideas  for the site, and it will be fascinating to watch it innovate and evolve.

Civil Beat's slogan, as elucidated by founder Omidyar, is a very Hawaiian "Be cool. Be you. Be civil." It seems to be working. Mahalo.

PS: Scott Rosenberg has a little cautionary tale of what happens when news organizations don't participate in—or even read—their story comments.

Newsday’s Unconventional Subscription Model

When Newsday announced last spring that it was contemplating putting its Web site behind a paywall, I wrote a scathing critique of the idea. 

I was wrong.

Newsday, as it happens, is in a unique position, and is taking advantage of it. Owned by Cablevision, the paper is circling the wagons around its core news and cable market on Long Island. Its online subscription plan goes like this: If you're a Cablevision cable-TV or Newsday print subscriber, you get access to Newsday.com site for free. If you're not, Newsday wants non-subscribers to pay $5 a week, or $260 a year. 

That's a hefty fee, and not surprisingly, just 35 people have signed up for it since the pay wall went up about three months ago—a paltry number that left many observers a-titter and a-Twitter when it slipped out this week.

Yep, Newsday apparently has successfully alienated its non-Long Island audience. But that turns out to have been the idea.

Like other papers, Newsday is retrenching to focus on local coverage, supported by local advertising. On Long Island, it's basically the only game in town—the geography of the long, skinny island shields Newsday from most significant competitors. Newsday.com's coverage and advertising base are similarly limited to Long Island—and Cablevision has concluded that it can't make significant money from any audience outside that core area. Control of the cable system gave the company a means to enforce that strategy.

That makes Newsday's subscription model one of a kind. It's not charging its core audience for access; 75 percent of Long Islanders are Cablevision or Newsday print subscribers, and thus get Newsday.com for free. The site can detect and allow visits via a Cablevision modem or has a Newsday print account, or it can accept access routed through a different Internet provider if the visitor can provide a Cablevision or Newsday account number. Because Cablevision owns both the cable system and the paper, it can make this work. 

By putting up the paywall to outsiders, Newsday.com controls its advertising base, and also adds a sort of premium channel for cable subscribers—a nice competitive firewall against cable archrival Verizon FiOS.

The Newsday paywall isn't completely impregnable—there are whispers that it can be beaten by repeatedly reloading pages, or by using expired Cablevision account numbers, or by visiting mobile.newsday.com. And it still disenfranchises locals who aren't cable or print subscribers. But Cablevision views that as a marketing tool to get them to sign up for the cable system—or wants its $260 for a subscription to Newsday.com.

What Cablevision and Newsday don't want—just don't care about—is non-Long Island subscribers. Buh-bye. Take a hike. Adios. (Or pay $5 a week/$260 a year for access.) Those distant subscribers can't be monetized through local advertising, the reasoning goes, so why bother with them? 

Living outside Long Island, you may not like that (it does seem unfair to Long Island expatriates), but Newsday is willing to take the hit to hone its focus on its home market. It's simply not interested in site visitors from elsewhere, and its site, with its local focus, isn't intended to serve them. They have little or no value—even at $260 apiece, apparently.

Like it or not, the unusual strategy seems to be working just fine. Newsday.com says its unique local visitor statistics are down just slightly since it started requiring Cablevision or print subscriptions; Reportedly Web traffic-counter Nielsen says Newsday.com traffic has dropped by one-third or more—but Nielsen's measurements of locally focused sites are notoriously flakey. Those 35 subscribers at $260 apiece? Gravy.

Tad Smith, Cablevision's president of local media (and a friend and former boss of mine) explained the situation this way in a memo to his staff:

The way to measure success for newsday.com is not, therefore, to count how many people sign up to pay $260 per year for access to the website. Our objective instead is to grow our target audience's utilization of newsday.com's great content and tools. How does this create value? Those who value the website's benefits are more likely to be retained as Cablevision or Newsday subscribers, and the enhanced retention improves the economics of our business. This is quite similar to the value that is created by a targeted local cable network offered on your cable service.

As such, the newsday.com strategy is entirely different from the strategies pursued by other current and prospective online publishers. Other online publishers do not sell high-speed Internet services. They must sell their services to customers one by one. In short, newsday.com is unique in the advantages it brings Cablevision and vice versa and we like it that way.

(I do fault Tad for suggesting elsewhere in the statement that a point of the strategy is to emphasize the value of the print edition of Newsday by "provid[ing] print subscribers with a rich web experience." That's printie-think. Long-term, the intention should be to place a high value on the Web site as a standalone product.)

As Smith's memo and PaidContent point out, we really can't draw a lot of conclusions from the Newsday subscription experiment: It's unlike any other effort to charge for online content, because of Cablevision's control of both the access and the destination. 

It probably is instructive that the number of people who've signed up for subscriptions is so comically low—a loud warning shot to shortsighted newspapers that are boldly threatening to charge for online access (but timidly not actually pulling the trigger just yet). But because Newsday's situation is unlike any other, it's difficult to criticize the strategy. In its weird way, it seems to be working just fine.

Now if they'll just do something about that butt-ugly site design…

Bill Wyman Speaks Truth to Power

Millions of words have been spilled over the past couple of years about what's wrong in the news business (many of them on this blog). But if you want to read a few thousand words that explain the state of play with superb clarity and brutal frankness, check out Bill Wyman's just-posted twopart series exploring why the news business is in the mess it's in today. It's thoughtful and probing and justly critical of the people who lead (and work in) news organizations.

Among many other things, Wyman explains well why many of the more simplistic proposed fixes (charging for content, anyone? Anyone?) just aren't as simple (or effective) as they appear. And it includes some smart recommendations for what newspapers need to be doing, pronto—though it's probably too late. (Hint: Go local.)

Along with Clay Shirky's sterling essay a couple months ago on the state of the news business, Wyman's opus is one of the most essential pieces of writing about the current maelstrom. Go check it out. 

PS: Maybe the notoriety surrounding the series' publication will end once and for all the hilarious confusion between Wyman—the longtime arts and music journalist—and the former Rolling Stone who bears the same name (though not from birth). (Sorry, Bill, I couldn't resist!)

Introducing GrowthSpur

As much time as I spend on Recovering Journalist railing against the problems and failings of traditional media, I spend far more time away from the blog trying to come up with solutions and thinking about What Comes Next. That’s the main reason why I’ve been posting less frequently lately: I’ve been in the thick of creating a new company that will provide support for local media entrepreneurs.

It's called GrowthSpur, and it's the outgrowth of conversations among a group of new-media thinkers, including Jeff Jarvis and myself, about creating new business models to support local news and information  sources. GrowthSpur will provide tools, training, services and ad networks that will help local sites grow and become successful businesses. 

Countless local sites and blogs have been started over the past few years, mostly as labors of love, and there are many more to come as newspapers founder and journalists and community leaders look for new ways to provide news, information and forums to their neighbors. 

But as I know all too well from my experience as co-founder of early hyperlocal network Backfence, starting a successful local site is very hard. And many of these startups don’t give enough thought to revenue and business models needed to sustain a site or blog after the first blush of excitement or funding wears off.

That’s where GrowthSpur comes in. The company will provide a suite of tools and services that will take a lot of the guesswork out of starting or running local sites and turn them into successful, sustainable businesses, including:

  • Training local sites how to set up multiple revenue sources, including best practices in ad sales

  • Providing tools that local sites can use to manage and enhance their businesses, from ad-serving to analytics to mobile delivery

  • Organizing networks to bring local sites together to sell ads amongst themselves

  • Enabling “citizen ad sales” efforts that can provide additional sources of ad revenue to local sites by letting local entrepreneurs get into the ad-selling business

There’s no upfront cost to local sites for a GrowthSpur partnership. Our revenue model is a service fee on the advertising revenue we help you with. In other words, we make money if you make money. 

How much money? We believe, based on our research and experience, that a well-run, sophisticated local site can bring in more than $100,000 a year in revenue from advertising, e-commerce and other sources. GrowthSpur exists to help local entrepreneurs achieve that level of success—and more. 

While our initial focus is on independent local sites, we’re also aware that there are more traditional local media sites that can take advantage of the networks we’re creating to provide additional soruces of ad inventory and revenue. We’re happy to work with them, too.

As I mentioned, Jeff Jarvis, one of the smartest thinkers around about the changes in the media business, helped develop the concept and will be a senior advisor to the company. Other members of our founding team include:

  • Dave Chase, a former executive at Microsoft and its erstwhile local network, Sidewalk, who now operates his own local site, SunValleyOnline.

  • Tom Davidson, who focused on local efforts as a VP at Tribune Interactive.

  • Jennifer McFadden, formerly of New York Times Digital and co-founder of the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute.

  • Mel Taylor, a local advertising wiz who has shown companies like Tribune, Philly.com, FoxTV and ClearChannel how to improve their local online ad sales efforts.

My role is CEO and chief instigator. We’ve also assembled a first-rate advisory board, including people with extensive experience in local sites, media and startups:

  • Jonathan Weber is founder of NewWest.net, another pioneer in this field

  • Michael Rogers was the New York Times Co.’s futurist and editor and publisher of Newsweek.com 
  • Chris Schroeder is CEO of HealthCentral and former CEO of WashingtonPost.Newsweek Interactive

  • Liddy Manson was CEO of DigitalSports and a former executive of WashingtonPost.Newsweek Interactive

  • Josh Grotstein is CEO of MotionBox and was a partner in SAS Investors, one of the backers of Backfence. He’s also been an executive at Prodigy and NBC.

One more GrowthSpur resource: We’re privileged to be working with Jarvis’ New Business Models for News program at CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism. Their help has been invaluable in helping us understand the needs of local sites.

GrowthSpur is open for business, and we’re already working with our first group of charter partners. If you run a local site and would like our help, go to our site, read more about it and get in touch with us. We’re still in our early stages, but we’ll try to help you as much as we can. 

And while GrowthSpur will be taking much of my time, not to worry. I’ll still be making occasional trouble here at Recovering Journalist.

PS: Jon Fine at BusinessWeek has a column about GrowthSpur. And Jeff Jarvis weighs in at BuzzMachine.

Upwardly Mobile, Pt. 2: What Works

Just as it was stupid to paste a newspaper onto a computer screen, it's dumb to assume that what works on the Web works on a cellphone screen. They're very different.

In the first part of this two-part post, I described the explosive growth in the delivery of news and information to mobile devices such as cellphones and smartphones—and why newspapers and other local news organizations need to jump quickly into the mobile fray with sophisticated products that have real potential for advertising and even subscription revenue. In this part, I look at what works (and doesn't) in mobile—and why it's different from news and information delivery on the Web.

What really distinguishes mobile is immediacy and location. You want news and info you can use immediately to make a decision—to reroute your trip home because of a traffic jam, to find out about a fast-breaking story or sports score, or to search and find a restaurant, an entertainment venue or a local business. The phone in your hand is your direct pipeline to solving problems right here, right now, and mobile-enabled services have to recognize that. It's the purest definition of the old "news you can use" chestnut.

That breaks down when news organizations aren't smart about what they provide mobile users. I'm a subscriber to WashingtonPost.com's local text alerts, for instance, which veer wildly between traffic and weather bulletins (generally very useful) and not-particularly-time-dependent local news headlines (not very useful, and generally limited to District of Columbia news rather than the Washington suburbs where most of the Post's audience lives). The Post's iPhone-enabled site is fairly slick, but it isn't updated frequently enough: While the text alert service was prompt in delivering results of Virginia's gubernatorial primary election this week, the WashingtonPost.com iPhone app was hours behind with the news. The Post's mobile products are also very lazy about redirecting users to the Web site for more information (a lost opportunity) and do nothing with advertising (lost revenue!).

That's a case study in how not to do mobile news, or at least how to do it poorly. On the other side of the ledger is Tampa Bay Online's ambitious mobile service, which slices and dices local traffic and weather information (the latter very important in hurricane-prone Florida) down to the local town level, so that users get exactly what they want and need in those areas. It even provides localized radar weather maps.

Tim Repsher, who oversees mobile services for Tampa Bay Online and its parent company, Media General, says the secret to a good mobile strategy is "news and information, wherever, anytime, anywhere." A mobile user is "looking for something I want to know right now. … I want to know things as they happen." And that information has to be immediately useful and actionable—not something that can easily wait to be read later. Art Howe, whose Verve Wireless supplies mobile services to Media General and many other newspaper companies, echoes that sentiment: What works in mobile, he says, is "stuff that is immediate to peoples' lives. It's stuff that helps you through your day and your life."

Along those lines, mobile users want to be able to use their phones to search for restaurants, businesses and the like, preferably with reviews and other information (this is why Yelp's iPhone application is so good). Other things that work: Personalized classifieds notifications (e.g. the car you're looking for just popped into the classifieds database), hot deals, sports scores—even high school football results: Media General's WSAV-TV in Savannah signed up booster clubs at 44 high schools to provide real-time football play-by-play via text messages, and gave the boosters a piece of the associated ad revenue to keep them properly motivated. Smart.

Repsher emphasizes that Media General doesn't see mobile as a standalone business. "We use mobile to always draw people back into the core product," he says. "Mobile is supplemental to all your efforts, all your products. It should never be standalone." Media General also uses mobile services to help reporters and photographers file stories and photos, to update liveblogs and Twitter, to solicit and gather user-generated content, and even to help advertisers build their own mobile services. Oh yeah—Repsher also says the company's mobile business is "very profitable," with a very aggressive ad-sales effort.

That's a sophisticated mobile strategy, one that other papers and local news organizations should be studying and emulating. Just as the Web did 15 years ago, mobile is really taking off as a news and information delivery platform, and it may even prove to be more ubiquitous than the Web (the notorious "digital divide" doesn't seem to be affecting mobile growth, so seemingly everybody has—or will have soon—a cellphone or smartphone in their pocket). Perhaps even more so than the Web—and as a direct replacement for the portability of newsprint—smart mobile products give newspapers a chance to retighten their loosening grip on local audiences and advertisers.

PS: The NAA is doing webinars on mobile strategies.