Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Humbling Experiences - Becoming Relevant

"Life is a long lesson in humility"   James M Barrie

Sailing quietly off our mooring, headed for Pulpit Harbor Saturday afternoon, I learned a well-kept secret about Camden Harbor. There is a ledge tucked among six moored boats northeast of Curtis Island. Yes, there is a green can to the east marking an area to be avoided, but a patch of water full of moored boats does not suggest danger. I know differently now.

I called the Camden harbormaster on Channel 16. Jim Leo came out, assessed the situation and advised my wife, Kathrin, and me to sit atop the ledge and wait for the rising tide to float us off, rather than getting dragged back into open water and risk ripping the hull. We heeded his advice, and 90 minutes later we sailed out to our rendezvous with friends Chris and Charlotte Beebe in Pulpit Harbor.

While waiting for what seemed to be a long tide-change, I thought about another humbling experience – our inability to keep our printed newspapers relevant to all our citizenry. I know we are not alone. Around the globe, the decline of readership of printed professional journalism is startling. I am humbled. I should be able to figure this out.

In our case, it seems that our success serving more than 150,000 unique monthly visitors on our online Digital Main Street in Knox and Waldo counties has created a perception for a growing number of folks that there is no need to pick up our printed products. With 150,000 unique visitors in a community of 80,000 we know we are delivering relevant content. And we are doing so not just for those who live here, but to folks worldwide who are connected to our area through family and friends or because they visit here and want to keep up with what's happening.

The popularity of our bizMember program, with more than 400 local businesses using our platform to provide timely answers to their clients, is further evidence that we are relevant. These anchors of our local economy see that the news they post is viewed 200 to sometimes 1,000 times and they tell us about the increased traffic across their thresholds.

All of us will continue to read printed matter. It serves a valuable purpose, different from online. Print provides what I call leisurely treats, for the young and the old. Print allows news, features, analysis, opinion and ads to be displayed in a way that invites the reader to discover. This is why print advertising, the historic and future subsidizer of professional journalism, is so effective. Print uses compelling graphics and words to invite the leisurely reader to discover the value of our advertisers' products and to imagine a future with them.

Online serves the person seeking timely answers. The Internet has made timely answers available on demand, 24/7, clean and simple. No need for fancy graphics to attract attention. When seeking a vote outcome, game score, details of a tragedy or celebration, a specific house, a favorite food, an entertaining experience or a special piece of clothing, we all head directly online to find it. But we are not always on task and are always potential consumers. It is during our moments of leisurely reflection that we are moved from potential to actual. Print has and still serves us at these times.

A second compelling reason to continue to read printed matter is evidenced by anecdotal evidence from Jack Shafer, former Slate Magazine media critic and current Reuters columnist. Shafer described his experience dropping his annual $640 New York Times print subscription and then resubscribing a year later.

Shafer said: “What I really found myself missing was the news. Even though I spent ample time clicking through the Times website and the Reader, I quickly determined that I wasn't recalling as much of the newspaper as I should be. Going electronic had punished my powers of retention. I also noticed that I was unintentionally ignoring a slew of worthy stories.”

He said: “My anecdotal findings about print's superiority were seconded earlier this month by an academic study presented at the annual meeting of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication.”

I downloaded the study to which Shafer referred — "Medium Matters: Newsreaders' Recall and Engagement With Online and Print Newspapers" written by Arthur D. Santana, Randall Livingstone, and Yoon Cho of the University of Oregon. The study asked questions of two groups, each comprising approximately 22 individuals. One group had perused the printed New York Times, the other had browsed the paper’s accompanying website.

Both groups answered questions on the extent to which the news stories made an impression. The study showed that print newsreaders remembered significantly more topics than online newsreaders and recalled more main points.

The research suggests that online readers tend to scan stories while print readers are more methodical in their reading. Also, newspapers offer news stories with more depth than online stories. Further explanations relate to the scattershot nature of the online news story coupled with its fleeting nature. These facts indicate that the online news consumer’s experience is quite different than that of the print consumer's experience. New York Times best-selling author Nicholas Carr reflects on the work of Marshall McLuhan in the 1960s, pointing out that the Internet not only supplies the stuff of thought but it also shapes the process of thought.

Carr says, “And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away at my capacity for concentration and contemplation.”

A common explanation for lack of impression of online news relates to the lack of salient cues, such as story placement and prominence which guide the reader in print.

This research suggests that our print product, to remain relevant, must move beyond being a primary source of timely answers and become a source of leisurely treats. Our Digital Main Street is serving you well in this regard. Yet we need relevant print products to sustain our journalists digging for the timely answers we provide online. These products will move beyond timely answers and feed the curiosity and openness to discovery in all of us. We are dedicated to developing these products. They will be focused on niches of curiosity. They will each be published less frequently so that we can take the time to compose and display compelling leisurely treats. And our advertisers will want to be there providing you with their versions of the same.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Analog dollars to digital dimes

This is the first of a series of brief columns I am writing for four newspapers I own in Midcoast Maine. I am trying to keep our readers abreast of what we are doing and where we are going at The Bar Harbor Times, Capital Weekly, The Herald Gazette, The Republican Journal and their related VillageSoup web sites.

Rockland —The Internet is continually disrupting old marketing and communication practices across society. Every business -- from real estate and travel agencies to lodging owners and financial advisers -- must adjust to establish new relevance in light of their client’s access to information they previously controlled.

The newspaper industry has been profoundly affected by this wide-open access to timely answers once controlled by newspapers, when that information existed only in print. Clay Shiky, an American writer, consultant and teacher on the social and economic effects of Internet technologies, describes the impact of this new access as a matter of newspaper publishers having to trade analog dollars for digital dimes. He says, “Digital revenue per head is not replacing lost print revenue and, barring some astonishment in the advertising market, it never will."

Village NetMedia with its four newspapers and VillageSoup are actively experimenting with ways to sustain time-honored professional journalism to support – and enhance – the communities we serve. Some in the news industry are standing firm, holding on to past ways, awaiting a clear view of the future.  Both approaches can be successful; each has its own risks: either you change too quickly and do not survive the crossing from past to future, or you change too slowly and miss the boat altogether. We are constantly re-evaluating our plans and progress and correcting course accordingly.

It is a fact that Village NetMedia is leading the industry with its unique online approach to serving those seeking timely answers to questions. No other news organization in the world is likely generating as much traffic, participation and revenue serving a market as small as we are in Knox and Waldo counties. We appreciate that you are responding so strongly to our approach. (For readers of this blog: In two 40,000 population markets we enjoy 2.5 million monthly page views; 152,000 unique monthly visitors; 70% of these visitors have visited more than 200 times and we generate more than $500,000 revenue online through our membership and display ad activity)

According to a recent study reported by Al Diamon in DownEast.com, our two web sites are generating more than seven to 10 times the traffic of the websites of all other Maine weekly newspaper websites. We exceed the industry average for percent of total advertising revenue from our Knox and Waldo websites. VillageSoup is successfully marketing the platform used by our four papers to other daily and weekly newspaper around the country. By the end of July, we will have 15 communities outside Maine adopting our VillageSoup platform, the Digital Main Streets, with others planning launches this fall.

Daily postings by our bizMembers, orgMembers and iMembers are giving local businesses, organizations and citizens the opportunity to serve on our Digital Main Street as they do on our real Main Street. They give you timely tips for preparing your home for weather changes, keeping your children’s teeth healthy and offering special recipes for seasonal produce. They tell you their daily luncheon and dinner specials, their newest product arrivals and special rate offerings. And the proprietor’s unique personality many times come through as well.

These briefs and offers are typically viewed between 200 and 1,000 times. Our local businesses typically enter 110 posts a day alongside 45 posts from our professional journalists in Knox and Waldo counties. No other local news site serving 80,000 people achieves this level of community participation. We are proud and pleased to offer this unmatched opportunity for you to timely learn the news that affect our community, share the views that unite our community and shop the goods and services that sustain our community. If you are not a daily viewer of these posts, give them a try. And you can see them wherever you are by subscribing to our free apps for your Blackberry, IPhone and Android.

Thanks again for your subscriptions, your memberships and your presence. Please stay on board for the entire crossing.

Next column I will talk about the newspapers.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Two mindsets, two products, two platforms

Alan Mutter’s recent “Reflections of a Newsosaur” discussed the extraordinary adoption rate of mobile devices. This phenomenon reinforces the idea that to sustain professional journalism, news organizations will move from publishing one branded news product (flagship newspaper) on two platforms (print and digital) to publishing two branded news products (timely lists and leisurely serendipity) on two platforms (phone and pad). 
Consumers have historically used flagship newspapers to satisfy both their search and discover mindsets. These mindsets continue today and will into the future. The Internet has made it both possible and necessary to design two distinct products for two distinct platforms to serve these distinct mindsets.
  • The products serving those in the search mindset, those seeking timely answers to questions, will be list-formatted and designed for phone devices. 
  • The products serving those in the discover mindset, those seeking leisurely serendipity, will be display-formatted and designed for pad-devices.

The timely-answer products will be free to the user. Whether the leisurely-serendipity products are free to the user or paid for by the user remains a question.
Some leisurely-serendipity products are and will continue to enjoy user fees. My bet is that the content satisfying the discover mindset, provided by geographic-centered news organizations, will be free. 

Geographic-centered news content, by nature of the fact that it is produced so frequently, does not have the lasting value of content produced for books, music and movies. And geographic-centered news does not offer the opportunity for financial advantage as does the news from The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg and The Economist. 

So while people will likely pay, if seamless and in small amounts, for books, music, movies and financial news, they will not pay for news and information that informs them as citizens. There are too many other ways to get this. It is of fleeting value. It does not have enough influence on the reader's investing acumen. 

Advertisers, using the new capabilities of these platforms, will continue to be the bedrock upon which geographic-centered news will be sustained. Dramatically reduced printing and circulation costs will compensate for the lost subscription revenue.

Phones and pads, while advancing rapidly in adoption, do not yet render the current pc and paper platforms obsolete. So, for now, the product designed for phones will also appear on pc's. And the product designed for pad-devices will also appear in print. The two distinct phone/pc and print/pad products will have the following characteristics.
  • The phone/pc product will be brief.
  • The pad/print product will be in-depth.
  • The phone/pc product will feature trusted “who, what, where.” 
  • The pad/print product will feature trusted “analysis, context, reflection.”
  • The phone/pc product will be published 24/7
  • The pad/print product will be published monthly. 
    • There will be four, possibly more, monthlies, spread for publication across the month. 
    • Each monthly will target distinct sociographic and psychographic segments of specific 20,000 to 40,000 population demographic markets. 
    • Each monthly will have a distinct content focus varying by locale. For example:
      • News Summary & Analysis
      • Sports & Outdoors
      • Arts & Culture
      • Design & Life Style
I do not pretend to have enough understanding of the needs of metro, regional, national and world newspaper markets to envision their future. I am confident that the above is at least as good a vision as anyone else has at the moment for those news organizations targeting the 20,000 to 40,000 population urban neighborhoods, suburban villages and exurban towns. And as I said in a previous blog, this is the market with the most exciting opportunity.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Guttenberg, ARPANet, Empowerment

I remain convinced that professional journalism is sustainable within the current digital information revolution. And to achieve sustainability, news organizations must use the technology driving the revolution in a manner consistent with the reason the technology was created in the first place.

This current information revolution is tied directly to Russia’s launch of Sputnik. In 1958, congress created the Advanced Research Project Agency (ARPA) to focus on research and development in the areas of space, ballistic missile defense, and nuclear test detection. Driven to increase the speed and ability of its scientists to access and share information, ARPA began creation of a government supported data network called ARPANET. ARPANET led to the birth of the Internet and the current digital information revolution.

Charles M Hersfield, former director of ARPA wrote the following in About.com - Inventors: "The ARPANET came out of our frustration that there were only a limited number of large, powerful research computers in the country, and that many research investigators, who should have access to them, were geographically separated from them….Bob Taylor, who was Director of the ARPA Computer Technology program at the time, tells the story correctly (see the article "25 Years of the ARPAnet" in the proceedings of the BBN Conference, September 1994). Bob and his colleagues wanted to see if there was a way to link the computers to each other, and connect the users to these netted computers in a way that facilitated access by the researchers.”

Thus, the technology enabling our current digital information revolution was created to empower individual researchers to access and distribute information unencumbered by limited connections. In the news industry, the Internet empowers  neighborhood citizens, Main Street businesses and community organizations to access and distribute news and information without the limits of our newspapers. News organizations must serve them in ways which enhance this new power.

Newspapers are a mass medium characterized by control of content access and content input. Holding fast to the rules and tools to serve masses is not a winning strategy for an organization wishing to sustain itself in the digital information revolution. We are in the information business, not the newspaper business. Multi-section newspapers have been the best and most efficient means to deliver information to masses. Those days are over. Less frequent, more narrowly targeted publications will replace them.

The last information revolution that empowered individuals by giving them access to information controlled by a few began around 1439.  It was nearly 600 years ago, when Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg invented movable type printing, printing presses and oil-based ink. It was nearly 600 years ago that the capacity of individual communication output and intake was dramatically changed. 

So, as in the era following Gutenberg’s inventions, today we have a market of newly empowered individuals. Our strategy to serve them must be focused on facilitating increased participation rather than holding fast to control. We must think in terms of serving dispersed markets not in terms of serving mass markets.

The four most important common traits leading to the success of new players such as Google, Facebook, Twitter, Craigslist and YouTube are: they serve individuals, they facilitate participation, they do not generate their own content and they dominate a world-wide market.

Which of these traits can we in the news industry emulate?  We must focus on individuals and not masses. We must facilitate participation. We cannot emulate no-self-content generating and no single news organization is going to dominate a world-wide market.
Disperse, hyper-local markets are the markets for which the Internet was designed. Hyper-local markets are our industry’s equivalent of the newly empowered individuals. And Main Street businesses can be valued participants delivering timely, useful news and information to the same people valuing the trusted news of professional journalists. 

And just as hyper-local markets are the targets best suited to this technology, small, independent news organizations are the organizations best positioned to take advantage of the Internet technology.  

Each urban neighborhood, suburban village and ex-urban town of 20,000 to 40,000 has many common traits which a one-size-fits-all approach can serve. But each has its own set of traits that make it different from every other like-sized community. This is the reason people choose to live in one place versus another. Independent, locally owned news organizations can best reflect and serve these unique community traits. Using the Internet, independent news organization can connect to each other, sharing tools, services and insights to perform as efficiently but more sensitively than can an aggregate of local entities under one ownership.  

These news entities serving these disperse markets are not likely to be darlings of the stock market commanding high multiple yields. But they will be solid businesses in their communities, facilitating participation and empowerment of its citizens, Main Street businesses and community organizations in community life.