Wednesday, March 27, 2013

What is a media startup 'success,' anyway?

I'm having some trouble understanding what "success" is as it pertains to a new publication. It's a term we in the press freely lob around to describe our peers' efforts, but we don't really define what the benchmark really is.

A recent PBS MediaShift article about Business Insider, Henry Blodget's sprawling enterprise, pushed the topic to the front of my mind.

In it, Dan Reimold writes:
A bit more than four years after its launch (and six years after the launch of its smaller predecessor Silicon Alley Insider), BI has become one of the boldest business news sites in the world. Its coverage base has expanded from tech and Wall Street to areas such as politics, retail, advertising, sports, science, and military and defense. It boasts roughly 100 staffers and 25 million monthly unique visitors (though Compete.com pegs uniques at 3.8 million last October). Amid jabs at its editorial and aggregation practices, it is regularly held up as a digital news success story -- with hopes its profits will match its web hits in the years to come. 
It's that "digital news success story" bit that I get hung up on. What does that mean, exactly?

I've been critical of the publication's editorial practices in the past, though I understand how they play into its business model. Still, that's not the issue at hand here.

We call BI a success. Here's what we know:

Traffic. It has captured a great deal of attention -- broad attention, not just by media pontificators -- through its search- and social-favoring editorial tactics. Its "readership," to use the print definition of the term, is large. (The size of its subscription base -- loyal, regular readers -- is unclear.) If more is better, BI is a success.

Employment. The company hires dozens of writers each year. From an economic and industry perspective, that's definitely a success. That means more money is flowing into the hands of those who make the publishing business what it is.

Credibility. The more people, notable and not, that BI hires, the more that others in the press -- tastemakers, in other words -- discuss and watch its actions. And because of key hires, e.g. Joe Weisenthal, the site has the attention of certain groups, such as those who work in financial services.

Lifespan. BI has managed to scale to these dizzying heights in the span of six years, a relatively short time.

All of the above are good reason to call BI a success. But there are several aspects of its operations that contradict this.

The balance sheet. Despite millions in revenue, the company has turned a profit just barely -- a couple thousand dollars in 2010. (Perhaps it made more last year.) That number will have to increase for the company to make up the money it has lost since late 2007, and increase further still for the company to start generating enough money to pay back the $13.6 million hole it dug in venture funding.

Readership. BI has a lot of traffic, sure -- but how much are those drive-by eyeballs worth, really, when they can't easily be sold against as a cohesive audience? There will always be mass media platforms, but right now the site's success is more a function of its distribution tactics -- which is at the whims of Google, Facebook et al -- than its actual content.

Employment. If you hired 100 people full-time, would you too enjoy such an audience? (How much success can be attributed to sheer brute force?)

Credibility. The established press tends to turn its nose up at gossipy rag sheets, and Business Insider is no exception with its desperate headlines and rudimentary prose. (Vanity Fair it is not.) While that doesn't impact the profit question -- someone's got to address the low end of the market, always; nothing wrong with that -- does this color how the average person defines success?

Lifespan. Is it subpar, average or over-achieving for BI to have reached profitability in three years? Most publishers give a print magazine the same window to turn a profit.

There are certainly other elements to consider, and to be fair, BI isn't alone in this space -- BuzzFeed, NowThisNews, the Huffington Post and -- for a time -- Gawker have all dabbled in this. (There are many less successful sites that have also done the same.) Meanwhile, there are plenty of smaller, niche websites that are narrow in scope, read loyally by a few, and profitable. And there are plenty of publications that straddle the line: Bloomberg Businessweek has high-quality content and a subscriber base, but is famously subsidized by a wildly profitable financial terminal business; the New York Times commands the most authority of any news organization in the U.S. and is considered a temple of quality journalism, but barely ekes out a profit.

So back to the fundamental question: is Business Insider a success? With consideration to all of the above, I'm not so quick to answer in the affirmative.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The impact of the Internet on quality in the publishing business.

A common refrain today is something along the lines of this:

"There's so much crap on the Internet right now. Newspapers, magazines, even websites -- they used to publish good stuff. Now, it's all bloggy snarky untrusted crap."

I don't disagree with the preponderance of low-quality content online. But we don't give the Internet credit for heightening competition between writers, editors, publications (and their parent companies) like never before.

It has never before been this difficult to be in publishing. No, I'm not talking about low salaries or staff cuts or demands for hamster-wheel content and clicks, though all those things exist. I'm talking about the fact that your competitors are a click away, and you can see them executing at every point.

It used to be that you had to wait until publications hit the newsstand before you knew where you or your publication stood. (Unless you had the inside line on a rival. Some do.) Now, this occasion occurs every minute, and it cuts across demographics -- you're no longer just competing within your publication type (consumer national, consumer regional, trade?) or industry (sci-tech? business? women's interest? sports? celebrities?). You're competing with everyone.

That architecture spread you ran? Dwell's was better. The fashion shoot? Harper's Bazaar has your number. The deep dive into a political figure's past? New York did it better -- or was it the New Yorker, New Republic or New York Times Magazine? Nevermind Politico, the Huffington Post or Ben Smith at BuzzFeed.

It can be absolutely paralyzing.

One result of this has been a lot of mission creep. Another has been the low-quality, reader acquisition editorial that I mentioned above -- when the walls break down between customers, they also break down between publications. But yet another? The formidable task of competing with the best, at all times.

It makes the old days of the Washington Post vs. the New York Times look antiquated. One on one? Now it comes from all sides, including from the very bottom.

Sure, you don't have to look. You don't have to click through. You don't have to read that tweet about that great story another publication did -- the one you thought to assign two weeks ago but never got around to it. But it's easy to do.

This can be scary for some. At times, paralyzing, as I mentioned. But it is also encouraging, because there has never been more of an impetus to compete. It is a burden, but also an immense driver. And it's driving your publication to heights never before attempted.

Monday, December 31, 2012

Reversing a slide into irrelevance.

I used to not read the Philadelphia Inquirer because I didn't have the time or patience to have the paper edition delivered to my door. For years, that option wasn't even available to me because I lived elsewhere. And until recently, its website Philly.com was too difficult (and later impossible!) to navigate for digital-native newsreading. So I simply didn't read my hometown paper.

Philly.com's desktop and mobile web editions have relaunched with a somewhat cleaner look and more comprehensive content offering, and that's great. But the company's decision to improve its Philly.com mobile app, keep it un-gated (for now) and make it free -- perplexingly and counter to every peer paper in the U.S., it wasn't before -- has made it much easier for me to share content from the Inquirer (and occasionally, Daily News).

One thing I've noticed working in the media industry is that the Inquirer -- and thus Philadelphia -- didn't really have a seat at the table where the national conversation takes place. This is partly due to the paper's insistence on ceding its national and international coverage to the Associated Press and focusing on its home region, and it's also because of Philadelphia's place in the modern pecking order of national importance. But it's also because of a fundamental technological oversight: its online presence was so poor that you couldn't share the paper's articles with others.

The problem: online is precisely where much of the conversation now takes place. What good is a newspaper without a platform?

That's changing. I find myself sharing Inga Saffron's architecture columns and Craig LaBan's restaurant reviews with a lot less friction these days -- a nice touch for local friends on social networks who may have missed the stories, but far more valuable for friends in other places, particularly if they're part of the Philadelphian diaspora. Now, my New York friends can see what's going on 100 miles south of them (or Washington friends 140 miles north of them) and perhaps be interested in what the city has to offer. Similarly, former Philadelphians across the pond can now keep up with a region in which they already have an interest.

Before this, it took enormous patience and desire to read, much less share, a Philadelphia news story online.

This is something New York has done magnificently well, of course, thanks to the Times and the myriad global-local media outlets headquartered there: the nation and world cares about New York, even though it doesn't live there. (I don't mean to downplay the importance of that city's position in finance, media, fashion and other industries, only to emphasize that you can't engage an audience without distribution to them. Until recently, Philadelphia has stumbled here.)

It will be interesting to see how social sharing impacts the way newspapers distribute -- and eventually create -- their content. Faced with falling revenues over the last decade and a half, city newspapers refocused on their core audiences; now, with a relatively even playing field online, it will be interesting to see how these publications rethink their readers: not as a group bound only by geography, but common interest. (See: college newspapers.) It's a subtle difference in many cases, but the opportunity for incremental revenue is enormous. Because it's hard to believe that a Philadelphia newspaper would have half the number of paying readers it did in 1968 when the population of its metropolitan area -- the area in which it has a virtual monopoly over coverage -- has only grown.

The first step in reversing the trend? A simple, sharing-equipped mobile app.

Friday, December 21, 2012

NYT's 'Snow Fall': The future of journalism? Wrong question.



The New York Times recently published a stimulating -- there's no better way to describe this sensory experience, believe me -- feature story/package. And everyone's talking about it.

'Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek' is brilliant for a number of reasons. It demonstrates one way to lay out a feature story online. It demonstrates the Times' leadership in this regard, certainly among newspapers, and its dedication to R&D. And it demonstrates the "multimedia journalism" that so many j-schools have been trying to figure out for so long. (Turns out there's a better way to do it than writing a print story and tacking on a related audio slideshow.)

But along with the praise -- and it was considerable; NYU's Jay Rosen called it "a break point in online journalism" -- came the criticism. "This is why American journalism is failing," tweeted a curmudgeonly Milo Yiannopoulos. It "isn't the future of journalism," wrote The Atlantic's Derek Thompson, setting up a straw argument he would quickly debunk with more nuance.

But nuance is sorely missing in all of this. Let's be clear: 'Snow Fall' is the future of digital storytelling, not the future of digital news. And that's a key distinction.

I'm tired of the word "journalism." What does it mean? It's the act of informing an audience about goings-on, as best as I can define it. It's not publishing (or broadcasting or...); no, that's the mechanism and business around it. And it's not reporting, though that's a key component of good journalism. Journalism is not monolithic.

To assert or deride the suggestion that 'Snow Fall' is the future of journalism, then, is to make a false argument. The he said, she said backlash to the issue is rife precisely because everyone is taking a narrower definition to the concept and running with it. How frustrating!

(It's precisely why criticism of "bad journalism" for blogging and "conflicts of interest" when lobbied at magazine editors rings just as hollow. Blogging? Not necessarily reporting! Magazines? Not necessarily news organizations!)

So let's embrace 'Snow Fall' for what it really is: an exceedingly interesting and discussion-provoking way to tell a story. It's not about the money, and it's not about the business model.

It's about the story.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Do magazines still channel the Zeitgeist?

Matt Haber has a bit of analysis in Capital New York today about Tina Brown's inability to channel the spirit of the times after she took control of a faltering Newsweek.

In it, he suggests that Tina Brown couldn't channel the Zeitgeist in print because it has moved to a different venue: social media.

He writes, quoting Buzzfeed's Ben Smith:
"This social conversation has always driven what used to be called the Zeitgeist," Smith continues. "You couldn't always see its component parts. It required these big, clear statements to make it visible. Now that conversation is always visible. What we're talking about is an elite conversation. Zeitgeist is an elevated word for it. Now it's on Twitter."
He cites Brown's time at Vanity Fair and other magazines as an example of how she dominated the conversation then, but doesn't now. I'm not so sure it's that simple, particularly since Haber leaves out one glaring example that doesn't fit his thesis: The Daily Beast, which until Newsweek distracted Brown did a fine job keeping up with, and occasionally starting, conversation online.

But it's the inferred point that Smith makes above -- a magazine can't channel or steer the Zeitgeist -- that I find most troublesome. Because that's not exactly true: Vanity Fair continues to dominate its category; the Esquires and Vogues of the world dominate theirs; even The Atlantic is seeing a resurgence. ("Why Women Still Can't Have It All," arguably this year's most talked-about story, began in print.) In many ways, increased competition online thanks to a proliferation of competitors has provided the spark for each of these very old brands to reassert (or in the Atlantic's case, further claim) dominance.

In other words, I'm just not buying the "It's the medium, stupid" message this piece offers.

Haber:
Put another way, all of our "likes" and retweets set the country's agenda more than a powerful editor's feature selection could.
So what is it, then? I suspect it's a lack of differentiation. Newsweek's challenge is that it covers everything and nothing at the same time; it's a dentist's office read for some and an edgy global read for others. Brown's problem is that she tried to go after TIME and The Atlantic in the same breath -- similar content meant for very different readerships. Broad as it is, even The New York Times has a distinctly common readership -- and a particular tone with which to address them. Newsweek is print's CNN, torn between multiple audiences and fading fast.

It's not this simple, of course; the fact that no one in the press took the Newsweek project seriously played a part, too. The most accolades I saw for the revamped brand were for Brian Reis' bold efforts managing its social accounts. Newsweek in many ways failed to get buy-in from the industry before it attempted to right the ship. Which means only a surprise could have turned industry perception around -- and reincarnated Princess Diana is not the surprise industry likes.

My point here is this: the Zeitgeist is made of people. And the brand Newsweek, for myriad reasons, failed to address them. It's not the medium; it's the message.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

During crises, Twitter a 'pop-up town square'

The New York Times' David Carr was kind enough to include my response in his latest column on how the tenor of Twitter changed from snark to sobriety as Hurricane Sandy began damaging the eastern U.S.

I'm in great company, joined by Kurt Andersen, Peter Kafka, Margaret Sullivan, John Herrman, Choire Sicha and Jay Rosen.

Calling it a “pop-up town square” for the affected area, @editorialiste said in a message on Twitter, it was “a great place to laugh, cry, argue, sympathize together.”

It's a nice look at how a platform can move from entertainment to public service in an instant, and a good read, too. (And not just because I'm in it.)

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Making money and doing journalism are not mutually exclusive.

I'm a journalist by training but I'm always cognizant of the fact that I'm in the publishing business. There's a big difference there.

My Philly (but soon to be New York) friend Sean Blanda has a great post on his personal blog about why there's not enough focus on the money-making aspect of publishing.

He writes:
Journalism students are hitting the job market without the skills that are most in demand. Many students I talk to still have ambitions of being a sports reporter or a fashion columnist and are just hoping that a publication picks them out of the hundreds of other grads just like them.
A laser focus on profits and nothing else is always a major hazard with any business, but he's got a point about balancing it out a bit better.

If we tossed all the classes dedicated to social media and blogging and useless tech that will be obsolete before graduation day, and focused on this instead, the industry would be better for it.

Sean agrees: "I’d rather keep the class focused on making money and not on the tools or technology." Amen.