Upwardly Mobile, Pt. 1

If you work at a news organization, what's your mobile strategy? You'd better have one. And it probably needs to be a lot better than it is.

Fifteen years after the Web forced newspapers to rethink the way they publish information and deal with readers and advertisers, mobile news is posing a similar challenge. The ability for readers to get news headlines, sports scores, traffic updates, search results for local entertainment venues and businesses, traffic and weather bulletins and so much more on their cellphones is changing news and information presentation and distribution almost as much as the Web did.

The numbers on mobile growth are explosive. Just about everybody's got a cellphone these days that will at least accept text messages; smartphones like Apple's iPhone, Palm's new Pre and the various flavor of Blackberries are proliferating, and offering many more ways to deliver information to people on the go. According to The Kelsey Group, 54 million Americans now access the Web on their smartphones; Nielsen estimates that about 40 percent of those regularly check their phones for news. And the vast majority of the news and information that people want on their phones is local: traffic, weather, local entertainment info, business searches, deals. "We believe that the mobile Web is a local medium," says Art Howe, CEO of Verve Wireless, one of the leading providers of mobile news services to newspapers.

Moreover, mobile usage numbers are going straight up.  Howe says his business is increasing at a rate of about 50 percent a month, and he expects to be serving about 1 billion mobile pages monthly by the end of this year. That's "crazy growth," he says. Indeed. The New York Times alone is doing 60 million mobile page views a month (double the rate a year ago), and its iPhone app has been downloaded 2 million times. CNN has 11.6 million unique mobile users. These are serious numbers for what's a fairly new medium.

Most significantly, mobile advertising is increasing, too. Kelsey Group estimates that advertising on local mobile information services will hit $3.1 billion by 2013, a 20-fold increase over 2008. I'll bet that's a conservative guess. The CPMs for local mobile ads are particularly high, too. "Advertising is really starting to lift off on a local level," Howe says. And based on experiences with cell services in general and the iPhone App Store in particular, there are encouraging signs that consumers will actually pay for mobile content and services, because of its immediacy and value and because, unlike the Web, they haven't really been conditioned (yet) to get it for free. Ooh! A subscription model!

So news organizations, especially local news organizations, need to jump on the mobile bandwagon. But many haven't. Ask a gathering of newspaper people who's got a mobile strategy (I've heard that question posed at a couple of conferences recently) and you tend to get … crickets. Or they've done a quickie "lite" version of their Web site to optimize it for a smaller smartphone screen, or they're blasting headlines indiscriminately via text messages, sans any advertising or business model. That's boring and dumb, and too reminiscent of the unsophisticated way that newspapers moved onto the Web 15 years ago. Mobile users, especially on smartphones, want much more, and the growth demands more sophisticated approaches.

Ironically, mobile is a particularly good fit for what newspapers have traditionally done best: covering local news. It wipes out one of online news' biggest perceived disadvantages—a lack of portability. For years I heard that digital news couldn't compete with printed newspapers because, well, you can't read news on a computer while sitting on the toilet. Well, the iPhone pretty much kills that argument. Indeed, portability is one of print's clear remaining advantages—but mobile devices match that, and add immediacy, interactivity, search and so much more.

But mobile is a very different medium than print or the Web, and consumers have very different expectations about the kinds of information they want delivered to their phones and how they want it delivered. In my next installment, I'll take a look at a few things that work—and a few things that don't. If you're going to be a player in mobile—and you'd better be, because it's primarily a local medium, particularly well-suited to newspapers and other local media—you'd better get it right. And fast.

That Loud Yelp You Hear is Newspapers Being Squeezed—Again

There's something I've said in passing in a couple of posts and comments recently—and in any number of offline conversations—that bears highlighting: I believe that Yelp is doing the kind of fundamental damage to newspapers' traditional local entertainment listing and reviewing role that craigslist did to classifieds.

I'm not the only one making this point. Paul Smalera made a great argument about Yelp's dominance in Slate's The Big Money recently, and Peter Krasilovsky raised the spectre of Yelp reaching critical mass as far back as November.

What's happening is that Yelp now has enough crowdsourced participants and reviews of enough businesses in enough markets to be a truly useful tool in trying to decide what to do for entertainment (and more). Combined with search and geo-location (Yelp's iPhone app is indispensable), Yelp is becoming a very powerful tool. 

That's a big deal for newspapers, which long have touted their allegedly encyclopedic knowledge of the local scene, as well as their restaurant and entertainment reviewers. But why grapple with clumsy newspaper entertainment-guide and calendar interfaces, and take the word of a single, over-stretched reviewer, when you can quickly see what the crowd is saying on Yelp about the place you want to go? And as Yelp expands its reach beyond restaurants and entertainment locations into other local businesses, it's becoming even more valuable. Advertisers will be sure to follow.

The last really defensible franchise for newspapers is local news and information, and local entertainment, dining and business listings and guides are a critical part of that franchise—especially in the ways they can attract advertisers. But if Yelp is providing a better, easier to use mousetrap, just as craigslist did with classifieds, newspapers are going to lose big. Yet again.

Choices in Charm City

What happens in a city when its newspaper dies? I've written about this question before, and it's a topic that more and more people are starting to discuss openly as big papers struggle. I continue to think the answer is something that would greatly surprise those who think newspapers are practically the only source of local news. There already are plenty of alternatives—and many more to come.

I spoke this week on a panel in Baltimore called "The End of Local News? If Communities Lose Newspapers, Who Will Fill the Void?" sponsored by the Phillip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. It was a particularly timely panel in Baltimore: The Baltimore Sun is pretty emaciated these days after multiple layoffs and cutbacks, and unfortunately it's one of those papers that shows up near the top of newspaper-watchers' private lists of big-city papers that appear to be particularly endangered. Baltimore could very well be a test case for questions posed in the panel's title, perhaps sooner rather than later. 

The other participants were an impressive bunch: Baltimore Sun Editor Monty Cook, former Editor Tim Franklin, WBAL-TV investigative reporter Jayne Miller and Baltimore African-American Publisher Jake Oliver. The moderator was Merrill College Dean Kevin Klose, former head of NPR (and a former colleague of mine at The Washington Post.) For the most part, not surprisingly, this august crowd with deep local roots couldn't even imagine a Baltimore without its Sun, and as a result there was a bit too much of the usual printie breastbeating about how only large metro newspapers can provide real local coverage.

Hogwash. And when my turn came to speak, I set out to prove it. For my presentation, I played show and tell: I cued up a couple dozen Web sites that already are providing coverage of Baltimore, right under the Sun's nose, and took the panel and audience on a rapid-fire tour of Baltimore's media ecosystem, circa 2009. It was hardly a comprehensive list—I'm sure I missed dozens if not hundreds of other blogs, hyperlocal sites, verticals and others that are already–and that's a key point—replacing the Sun as key sources of local information. Back to the panel's title: "Who will fill the void?" It's already being filled.

I've gotten some requests for the list of sites I showed, so I'll go straight to the examples and, as I did on the panel, let them do the talking, along with a bit of commentary about why I picked them:

I started with the Sun's site. It's your basic one-size-fits all metro newspaper Web site. Then I talked about other traditional media that have always provided local competition to the Sun, in print and broadcast: Miller's WBAL-TV, Oliver's Afro-American, the alt-weekly City Paper and Baltimore's excellent business and legal paper, the Daily Record. All cover communities, beats and stories the Sun doesn't get to—and have done so for years. Of course, I didn't even mention the other local TV and radio sites, ethnic papers, community weeklies, college papers, etc. These are longstanding members of the local media ecosystem in Baltimore that belie the notion that the metro daily is the only news and info source in town.

But that doesn't even begin to get to the newer players. I started with a handful of local news sites and blogs: Baltimore Brew, Baltimore Crime, Investigative Voice, BmoreNews, BlogBaltimore, InsideCharmCity. All of these are providing a window into Baltimore life; many are doing the kind of deep-dive local reporting that traditionalists seem to think is the exclusive province of metro newspapers. 

Then I pointed out some local vertical sites whose coverage areas map to (or go beyond) sections of the newspaper and serve specific local interests: Baltimore Real Estate Investing, Baltimore Injury Lawyer (whose "What's an Ear Worth?" headline got a big laugh), Gannett's MomsLikeMe and KidBaltimore. Local entertainment, nightlife and city guide sites: 600 Block, What's to Eat Baltimore? and Yelp, of course (which I think is now quietly doing the same sort of fundamental damage to local newspapers' entertainment, calendar and review franchises that craigslist did to classifieds a few years ago). And a couple from the endless list of local sports sites: CamdenChat, one of at least a dozen local fan blogs that covers and opines about the Orioles; and Baltimore Ravens, which I picked because it's a news and information site run by the NFL team, without any sort of journalistic filters. That's another new kind of competition for reader eyeballs the Web has made possible: direct publishing by the sources of news themselves. 

I showed some sites that aggregate local info: Localist; Examiner.com's local site, which pulls together bloggers and "examiners" writing about subjects inside and outside Baltimore (one of 60 such sites Examiner has built around the country, with so-so results, but uniquely positioned to move in with established sites if newspapers start to fail); Twitter, to show people talking about everything Baltimore (Twitter coverage of the panel is here, btw); and Outside.In, compiling content from myriad local blogs.

I also wanted to show the Baltimore audience that there's other interesting local work being done elsewhere: the terrific VoiceofSanDiego, which is doing the kind of local watchdog reporting that many journalists—including some on the Baltimore panel—somehow think can only come from newspapers, and its big-city counterparts around the country, like MinnPost, ChiTown Daily News. and the New Haven Independent. To show local community coverage on a smaller scale,  I trotted out Baristanet and WestportNow, two of the longest-running examples of the hundreds of hyperlocal sites now providing news and information for small towns. For a glimpse of what happens when technology is brought to bear on local information, I showed Everyblock and Fwix, with their unique ways of mapping voluminous local data and news.

As I said, this whirlwhind tour just scratched the surface—it literally took me only about 15 minutes on
Google and Outside.in to find my local Baltimore examples, and I know that I missed many, many others (apologies to proprietors of those sites for the omission; hell, the list of blogs started by ex-Sun staffers is a whole category unto itself!). And there are plenty more examples to come—after the panel I spoke to an experienced local entrepreneur who's planning an ambitious Baltimore online news effort, and I'm sure he's hardly unique.

The point is that the question of who covers local news and information in a newspaper-less city is a moot point. The replacements already are serving the audience the paper used to have to itself, and there are more in the wings. Are there business models to support all of this new media? Not yet, but there's no doubt in my mind that new business models will emerge to support local news and information. And besides—and this really befuddles traditionalists—some of the people who run these upstarts sites aren't even in it for the money. They're providing coverage of their city and specific topics because they love the place where they live and the specific subjects they cover, not because they're motivated by profit. That's a very interesting turn of events, and especially tough for big-iron, expensive legacy media to compete with.  

Baltimore is hardly unique—the demonstration I did can be done effectively in any city. I strongly suggest that traditional media executives—and anybody who doubts that newspapers be replaced—spend some time trying to find and understand this new competition. It's out there, no question. There's more to come. The big-city daily newspaper, already on its heels, is hardly the only game in town. If and when it disappears, there will be plenty of replacements.

PS: Writing on Nieman Journalism Lab, Tim Windsor makes a clever point that the Baltimore symposium proved that events get covered even when newspapers don't cover them.

The Future is ChicagoNow

It's been eminently fashionable to bash Sam Zell for his gutting of Tribune Co., and with good reason—a copy of the Baltimore Sun I saw recently looked about as substantial as a cocktail napkin, and that was before the Sun's latest newsroom layoffs. The chain's other papers aren't much better, by all reports.

But Zell's minions have also been doing more innovation than a lot of their counterparts in the industry, fiddling with everything from radical redesigns to ambitious hyperlocal networks. And now Tribune seems ready to unleash its most interesting experiment in reinvention yet: ChicagoNow.

It's a little hard to see exactly what ChicagoNow is up to—the beta site is still very much a work in progress, with a launch promised in a few weeks. But there are strong hints available if you click around the site, and a very promising—even thrilling—description of what's coming in a promotional video here. The ChicagoNow staff is blogging about its progress, too.

At its core, ChicagoNow appears to be an effort to create a new kind of local site by aggregating and curating local bloggers, staff material and other content, with a heavy sprinkling of social features, mobile options and other goodies. The video called it "HuffingtonPost meets Facebook for Chicago," which may be a bit strong, but it's a healthy ambition. This is the sort of source-neutral, smartly curated, aggregation-heavy, social-savvy, distribution-prolific local site that every news organization should be doing. It's what Web-centric companies like HuffingtonPost (which already has its own local Chicago blog/aggregation site) do naturally. 

In other words, it's the obvious way to go, the kind of thing people like Jeff Jarvis and I have advocated for years—do what you do best and link to the rest, as Jeff aptly puts it. Phil Anschutz's Examiner.com is quietly building cookie-cutter curated, aggregated sites around the country, and the NBC-owned TV stations are doing the same. But as far as I know, Tribune is the first major newspaper company to take this overdue leap into the future in a major way in its home market—the market it knows best and in which it can bring its expertise and power to bear for readers (and advertisers). Kudos to them. 

It remains to be seen how ChicagoNow will grow from its sketchy beta—the initial hints of content are good, but it needs an interface, and a good one is shown in a teaser graphic on the home page, reproduced here—but the Zellots are taking a huge step in the right direction. Finally, at long last, something very different than just pasting the newspaper on a screen. (It sure beats weird, timid, token efforts like the NY Times' new "social media editor." Wow. Bold.)

ChicagoNow is probably too late to the game to really help Tribune, alas, given the crappy economics of the newspaper business these days. But at least one of the big publishers is trying something radical, visionary and out of the box. It's about damn time. Everybody else in the industry should be following the development of ChicagoNow closely—and scrambling like crazy to get their own curated, aggregated, social sites ready for their markets.

Newspapers: There is No Magic Bullet

For newspapers, there is no magic bullet.

Charging for online content is not a magic bullet—in fact, in most cases, it may do more harm than good.

Micropayments are not a magic bullet—though they may (or may not) bring in a few extra pennies of revenue for the Wall Street Journal.

The Amazon Kindle (even in doublewide mode) is not a magic bullet—especially when Apple unleashes its rumored large-screen iPhone, aka the Kindle-killer.

Punishing Google is not a magic bullet—indeed, it's a short-sighted strategy that can devastate traffic and ad revenue.

Repeat: There is no magic bullet. In fact, most of the bullets just listed are of the dumb-dumb variety (as opposed to dum-dum, nitpickers). They reflect the thinking of executives and journalists who don't really understand the business of journalism, the reality of the new Internet-driven world, or what consumers are looking for these days. Mostly, they're defensive maneuvers, tired attempts to salvage a print-centric business model that is close to long gone.

Instead, news companies need to be working hard to innovate, to reach audiences in new ways, to create new forms of newsgathering and presentation and to pursue truly new revenue streams. That's a tough prescription in a time of across-the-board cutbacks, and no, there's no guarantee of success for many of the freshest ideas. But at a time when Rupert Murdoch reportedly is spending money for a crash project to find ways charge for content, or the New York Times, Washington Post and other publishers are fiddling with Kindle and other magic tablets while their industry burns, maybe they and others should be looking at other ways to, well, survive.

Here are some suggestions for things the industry in which the industry should be investing serious money and resources—and longtime readers know there's nothing really new here. But until we see some real attempts to break from hoary old business models and stale ideas, these still are wildly innovative by the standards of stodgy, unimaginative mainstream media thinking:
  • Aggregation/curation: I'm still waiting for the first big newspaper site to take a serious crack at aggregating all the local news and information it can find, regardless of source, and establishing itself as the expert on all things local. (Hint: Watch the Chicago Tribune to break the mold here in the next few weeks.) It's a logical extension of the local brand, and it's a lot cheaper than putting more reporters on the street.
  • Vertical products: One of the most broken things about the newspaper business is the "all things to all people" model. By trying to do a little of everything, newspapers don't really do anything well—for readers or for advertisers. New products that focus on specific, vertical audiences should be the wave of the future, but so far they're barely even a trickle (let's see—there's Gannett's MomsLikeMe franchise, and then…not much else).
  • Hyperlocal: Just about everything else you can think of—national news, international news, movie reviews, even sports—is done as well or better on the Web. Which leaves local as the last truly defensible newspaper franchise (at least until some startup figures it out). Newspapers should be reorganizing their staffs around local news and information, aggregating where possible and reaching out to blogs and user-generated content to fill the holes. That can result in a package of unique content that readers can't get anywhere else.
  • SEO: Instead of thinking of Google as the enemy, find ways to use it better. Search-engine optimization is standard procedure for successful Web sites, but all but unheard-of among newspaper sites. (Want proof? Search for a big local issue, name or icon, and see if the local newspaper site appears anywhere near the top of the results.) Newspaper sites should be doing everything they can to draw in readers who are searching for information that's all but hidden on their sites.
  • New forms of advertising: Banner ads are so…1997. Interstitials, pop-ups and intrusive ads are so…obnoxious. Classifieds are so…dead. Meanwhile, Google is making money off of local search, other non-newspaper companies are pioneering things like click-per-call and pay-per-click, and various startups are perfecting cheap ways to create and sell local ads. Could it be that newspapers are having trouble making online advertising revenue grow because they're selling the wrong kinds of online ads? Hmmm.
  • Expanding the advertiser base: Newspapers—including their Web sites—tend to focus on traditional advertising categories like banks, real estate, autos and retail. Quick, name four businesses you don't want anything to do with in this economy. Meanwhile, smaller, non-traditional local advertisers (plumbers, nail salons, cafes, you name it) are trying to figure out how to advertise online. Newspapers need to connect with them, pronto. 
  • Mobile distribution: Everybody's got a cellphone these days. But most newspaper sites don't reach them. Traffic alerts, headlines, latest scores, etc., are valuable pieces of information that readers want, and that newspapers can deliver via SMS, text or iPhone apps (with advertising and/or sponsorships, no less). But few papers do this well or consistently. In the same category: headlines and alerts via Twitter and RSS. Take these very seriously—don't pay them lip service or outsource them.
That's a start. Newspapers need to be looking for inspiration on additional groundbreaking initiatives from industry-leading innovators like the Cedar Rapids Gazette and the Bakersfield Californian, who seem unafraid to try new ways to serve readers and advertisers. I wish there were a lot more leaders to list, but there aren't, unfortunately. (You can find some other ideas here and here.)

There are no magic bullets. But there should be a constant, intensive search for new types of weapons. As long as newspapers are playing defense and falling back on predictable solutions, things are only going to get much bleaker.

A Couple of Good Reads

It's hard to keep up with everything worth reading about the state of the journalism business, but here are a couple of good ones I found today. 

First, veteran Washington Post reporter Walter Pincus, writing in CJR, surfaces some unpleasant truths about what's wrong with journalism today (he gets fuzzier when he talks about the Web and the future of news, but his basic diagnosis is very good).

Second, Ryan Tate on Gawker eviscerates journalist-turned-Hollywood-auteur David Simon's ridiculous testimony before the Senate's grandstanding hearing yesterday on the future of newspapers. Splendid stuff.

Inventing the Future in Iowa

The news about the newspaper business is bad. Circulation is sliding. Revenue is plummeting. Papers are closing. Layoffs abound.

Amid the chaos, far too many in the industry are paralyzed by fear. Their idea of innovation is a token, tentative project here or there. Or a foolhardy call to charge for content nobody will pay for. Mostly, they're cutting to—and past—the bone, chasing harebrained schemes, and generally praying that some miracle will happen, that the hundred-year-floodwaters will recede, the skies will brighten, and somehow the newspaper industry will be saved. 

It's not going to happen. They're simply rearranging the deck chairs on the newsprint Titanic. 

But not in Cedar Rapids. There, the Gazette (along with its associated TV station, KCRG) is trying something different. Radically different. Probably five years too late, but in an industry where not much of anything innovative is being tried, the Gazette's plan feels like a much-needed revolution.

The Gazette's leaders are talking about radical change for the newspaper and what it can be, in all forms—complete reinvention. I've mentioned this Iowa experiment before, but Steve Buttry, the former editor who is now the paper's "information content conductor" and leader of the transformation (along with publisher Chuck Peters), has now posted a detailed, multipart blueprint of what they're up to. It's heady stuff: a real manifesto for change.

You should dig in and read the whole thing (it's going to take some time). But I'll try to give you a Cliffs Notes version. Let's start with what amounts to the mission statement:

For consumers, we will be their essential connection to community life—news, information, commerce, social life. Like many Internet users turn first to Google, whatever their need, we want Eastern Iowans to turn first to Gazette Communications, whatever their need. For businesses, we will be their essential connection to customers, often making the sale and collecting the money. We will  become the Complete Community Connection.

Our company will provide an interactive, well-organized, easily searched, ever-growing, always updated wealth of community news,  information and opportunities on multiple platforms. We need to become the connection to everything people and businesses need to know and do to live and do business in Eastern Iowa. We need to change from producing new material for one-day consumption in the print product or half-hour consumption in the broadcast product to producing new content for this growing community network of information and opportunities.

Yes, that sounds at first blush like boilerplate from every newspaper's plan for change. And "Complete Community Connection" (aka C3) doesn't exactly roll off the tongue. But it's just the starting point for Buttry's vision:

We will reach some people who never read The Gazette and watch KCRG by doing important jobs such as connecting them with people of common interests or helping them find the products and services that help them live their lives. We will serve other people in multiple ways, producing and delivering their morning paper and their evening newscast, providing text news alerts during the day and networking them in the community in a variety of ways.

That still sounds a bit too print-centric, but wait:

We need to look at mobile opportunities and email opportunities as well as print and web. And we should watch for new opportunities as new technology presents new ways to connect. We should explore every possibility for providing people the news and information they want when they want it, whether that means email, text message, RSS feed, Twitter feed, social media, iPod, game device, GPS device or some other way of interaction. And, of course, print and broadcast will remain key platforms for some of this content for the foreseeable future.

C3 will be “my” web site, “my” email alert, “my” podcast, “my” text buddy, “my” shopping solution, “my” connection to customers, “my” solution for lots of life’s little and big jobs for individuals and businesses alike. (And yes, still, “my” newspaper.)

The entirety of Buttry's vision is a big departure from the usual newspaper model. It takes as a given that the audience—and its needs—are important. It posits that readers and viewers must be truly equal partners in the conversation about what's going on around town, rather than just being passive audiences. Above all, it proposes that the paper and TV station reclaim their roles as backbones of local life—and commerce. That's a position many papers imagine they have, but haven't really held for years. You can only get there by doing things very, very differently than papers are doing things now. That's where the Gazette proposes to go.

Most importantly, Buttry isn't just talking about editorial product change. Yes, he talks about bold plans for social networksdatabases, local information, calendars and "enriched" community news coverage. He also has some very interesting and innovative things to say about providing coverage, information, guidance and services to every possible phase of a reader's life, from birth to school to marriage (and divorce) to retirement to death.

But he goes much further. He wants everybody at the paper—even journalists—to be thinking about new ways to make money:

Revenue generation traditionally isn’t a journalist’s job, but helping develop a business model for the future of journalism is every journalist’s job today. The job cuts throughout our industry (including here) have done too much damage to journalism to cling to our long-nurtured disdain for the economic facts of life. Journalists can protect our integrity and still collaborate in developing a new business model.

Content and revenue must be planned together, so any innovation plan must address both needs. While I know big parts of the solutions here will and should come from colleagues in other departments, revenue generation must be part of the vision and I discuss it extensively throughout this blueprint.

Seen a lot of newspa
pers that truly think that way? I doubt it. But it's critical. And some of the ideas that spring from this shared journalism-business vision are very good (and very simple). For instance, he doesn't want the paper just to be a venue for people to buy and sell things like cars and homes (very occasional businesses for most readers, when you think of it); he wants the paper to provide a whole raft of useful (and monetizable) tools and services to drivers and homeowners, to be a critical part of their lives when at home or in the car. 

But the Cedar Rapids vision for new revenue streams goes beyond that, and even farther beyond the usual display, search, video and classified ads:

I will cite specific examples as I explain details of this blueprint, but those examples are only a start of the model I envision for C3 to move toward results-based performance of jobs for businesses, including conducting transactions for business customers. We need to connect the business with the customer and collect the money, taking a reasonable cut for ourselves.

That's good stuff, and long overdue. I'm going to take the liberty of breaking the next excerpt into bullets—you're welcome, Steve!—for better digestion:

  • Gift registries for weddings, anniversaries, graduations, babies, retirements and holidays are important opportunities. 
  • Obituaries offer chances to send flowers and contribute to memorial funds. 
  • Our products and content relating to the arts and entertainment must include opportunities to buy tickets to movies, concerts and other events online or to buy books or download songs. 
  • Sports sites will offer chances to buy tickets, clothing, memorabilia, etc. 
  • The calendar will offer registration for events and classes, ticket sales and so on. 
  • Dining content will include opportunities to make reservations or buy gift certificates. 
  • For Hawkeye sporting events, community festivals and University of Iowa events such as graduation and orientation, we will offer chances to make reservations online for lodging, meals and entertainment. 
  • Our iGuide business directory needs to include options for coupons, gift certificates, direct purchases, making reservations, placing orders, requesting information. 
  • When we use traditional ads priced by how many thousand people see them, we should seek to include options to click to download a coupon, buy a gift certificate or order a product, delivering more value for the business and a bigger pay-for-performance cut for us.
Some newspapers have dabbled in this sort of transactional business, here and there, as a possible alternative to classic display advertising revenue streams. But what Buttry is suggesting, correctly, is that the newspaper should strive to be an active, aggressive participant in any sort of business transaction that it touches or causes to happen. Or, as he writes, "We need to connect the business with the customer and collect the money, taking a reasonable cut for ourselves." 

Editorial purists will shudder—it seems so…dirty. But it's not, if the right protections are in place, and these are obvious revenue—and hell, reader-service—opportunities that papers have been foolishly ignoring for years, or paying little more than lip service. The Gazette is actually trying to do all these things. How radical.

With online advertising rates low and print advertising revenue declining precipitously and local broadcast revenue also in decline, newspapers need to broaden our vision of serving business customers and move swiftly into direct sales and other business services such as lead-generation and email marketing. This may be a phased process, where we start with lead generation, coupons, inquiries and links to business web sites as we work out the technology challenges of interfacing with the inventory and ordering software of other companies or find a vendor who has already figured that out. Of course, as we work those challenges out, we will have tremendous economic opportunities in selling our solutions throughout the industry.

Note that last line. Buttry understands the big differences between what he's proposing and what the rest of the industry is doing—and how his plan, if successful, can be propagated throughout the industry for fun and profit. Indeed, what makes the Gazette's vision so much different from those of other, far more timid newspaper companies is beautifully elucidated by Buttry:

As you read this blueprint, don’t assume anything based on how media companies have traditionally operated or how we currently operate. That economic model is collapsing and this is a blueprint for a new way of doing business — new relationships with the community, new relationships with business customers, new relationships with business partners and competitors, new tools and technology for doing business, new structure and organization for doing business.

Don’t assume anything based on the past. We are proud of our past and cherish our heritage, but we want to honor that heritage by pursuing a future that isn’t limited by assumptions from the past.

And Buttry fires another well-aimed shot across the bow of the rest of the newspaper business:

Our industry seems to be clinging to Darwin’s theory of evolution, hoping that gradual adaptation to changing environment will be enough to help us survive. That works in biology, but in today’s disruptive business world, survival of the fittest is a matter of revolution, not evolution.

This series of blog posts is my call for revolution in media companies, starting at Gazette Communications.

Everyone in the newspaper industry should heed this call for revolution and respond to it with real action of their own. Complacency is death. The Cedar Rapids Gazette is trying to find a different path to a different future, and offering to share what it's doing with its peers. That's leadership in an industry that's absolutely starved for some. Bravo.

Paperless in Seattle

The bad news: The Seattle Post-Intelligencer publishes its last print edition tomorrow. The good news: Hearst, after needless dilly-dallying over what should have been a fairly obvious decision, has announced that it will continue SeattlePI.com as "the leading news and information portal in the region."

Hearst Newspapers President Steven Swartz says the post-newspaper site "isn't a newspaper online—it's an effort to craft a new type of digital business with a robust, community news and information Web site at its core."

Hopefully, that includes lots of aggregation, reader engagement, social tools, user-generated content and other Webby features that will distinguish it from a newspaper-on-a-screen. If Hearst can use this opportunity for some bold experimentation in what a local news-based online site can become—and find an ad-based business model to support it—this could be a watershed moment in new media, and a model for other publishers to follow as the presses begin to go silent. Godspeed.

Journalism Is Not Just Newspapers

There's an interesting comment on one of my previous Recovering Journalist: What Will Happen When the Presses Go Silent?posts that I want to highlight and address more broadly than just the back and forth of comments.

A commenter named Dave wrote:

No contradicting your main point that papers fumbled the Web. But journalism's demise is no reason for celebration and netroots b.s. of "a thousand journalistic flowers" is wrong. There will be no flowers, just a brownfield.

This is a common sentiment these days: Somehow conflating "newspapers" with "journalism," as if papers are the only place that journalism is practiced. And that's simply incorrect.

There's lots of other journalism already in local markets: in small community papers, in alt-weeklies, in startup Web sites like MinnPost and Voice of San Diego, and even on blogs and TV news. And there will be more as as kinds of new journalistic endeavors I was celebrating in my post spring up. Newspapers simply don't have the monopoly on local journalism. That's a romantic notion.

I'm not celebrating the sad death of newspapers, and certainly not the death of journalism. Because journalism isn't dying along with the big dinosaur dailies. It's just mutating into countless new forms. As I've written before, the local journalism ecosystem will fill the hole left by the closing of a big daily quite well, and possibly even better than before. Don't fall into a trap of thinking that journalism is going away just because its large, printed version is becoming extinct. If anything, with the democratization of media brought by new technologies, the opposite is happening.

Let a Thousand Journalistic Flowers Bloom

Out of the wreckage of the Rocky Mountain News comes news that new Web sites are sprouting in Denver, featuring the work of former Rocky staffers who have gone out on their own. Good for them.

A group of former RMN sportswriters has started Inside The Rockies, to cover the city's baseball team. Other staffers are gathering at I Want My Rocky to post stories from their old beats. Some of them plan to spin off their coverage into their own blogs or sites. 

We're seeing this phenomenon elsewhere as news organizations downsize. The St. Louis Beacon carries the work of former Post-Dispatch staffers. In Phoenix, a group of former staffers from the East Valley Tribune has started The Arizona Guardian, to cover state politics. Jeff Jarvis wrote the other day about a reporter for the L.A. Daily News, Greg Hernandez, who went into competition with his former employer with a sharp-looking site within a week of being laid off. (And you know what? These folks are doing actual reporting, contrary to the idiotic canard that"real"  journalism can only be committed by large newspaper companies, and certainly not by blogs.)

It's not at all clear yet if there is a successful business model is for these sort of things. But it may be possible for some of the paper's stronger beat reporters to find a way to get advertisers or even readers to pay for in-depth coverage that was lost when the paper folded. 

This sort of thing was unthinkable a few years ago, of course, and it speaks to the democratization of information wrought by the Web. In the old days, you needed a printing press to be a publisher; now, with blogs and other easy-to-use Web platforms, everybody is a publisher. It may be a while until people laid off by the Rocky Mountain News or other papers can find a job; while they're looking, it's a great idea for them to take a shot at being entrepreneurs and starting their own online publications.

We're going to see much more of this in the months to come, as the cutbacks in newsrooms and of entire papers continue. Some of them are going to be dazzling successes and provide stiff competition or replacement for their former employers. Others will be interesting experiments. But they all point to the fracturing of the old, central journalism model into a million bright, shining, new sources of news and information, created and presented in new ways. And that's a good thing.