Finding inspiration in Seattle

The first thing that stood out to me about the Seattle trip was how each media model attempts to serve a somewhat different type of audience. All the places we visited compete for similar readers and viewers, they are all located in Seattle after all. But the highlight had to have been how each place recognized the importance of building and audience, not striving for page views.

Before I get to the details of the trip, I want to highlight this idea of audience vs. traffic. It was something I discussed with the publisher and editor of the Idaho Post Register, Roger Plothow, for the legacy media assignment. Plothow guided me toward two posts he wrote that get at the importance of building an audience. If you’re interested: Audience versus traffic and his ideas behind paywalls.

Each visit really deserves its own blog post, but that would get too repetitive. So below are short reflections from each stop.

Seattle Post-Intelligencer

Yes, I think it was pretty clear seeing those empty office spaces was a menacing sight to any of us about to enter the journalism world. The paper cut down its staff by more than 100 after all. Having such a small staff also affected their news coverage. We saw this in how they frequently talked about how popular slideshows were on their site. They had slideshows of everything from celebrities to cats in Seattle. But what journalistic purpose does this serve?

Seattle Post-Intelligencer

Seattle Post-Intelligencer

If it serves anything, I think it’s more entertainment based. It’s a way to drive people to their site but not so great at growing an audience. Now the PI does still have reporters that go out and cover Seattle news. The fact is, they just don’t have the ability to cover as much of it anymore so they have to make tough calls on what to cover and what not to cover. (I can imagine this can be tough at times) The PI has had to switch how they try to reach their audience having moved over to online only. This shows in their type of coverage, yet they still do serve a certain type of reader. Even if it is one that likes browsing slideshows.

Tom Fucoloro

Fucoloro’s meeting was a stark contrast to what we went to next, The Seattle Times. This was one guy running two successful blogs. One guy! The content on these websites is very focused. One covers the news for just one neighborhood in Seattle, Capitol Hill, another simply covers biking in Seattle. So how are these blogs maintained? It’s a great example of developing a niche audience. There were enough people that wanted to read about these two subjects, that they can maintain themselves.

Blogger Tom Fucoloro

Blogger Tom Fucoloro

Idealistically, and Fucoloro hinted at this, a blog like Capitol Hill Seattle would hopefully be sustained by the community at one point. People can already post on the website themselves, but Fucoloro runs most of the news content and reporting, all while riding his bike. I liked seeing how this can be done. The key is finding something that people want to read about, whether they know it yet or not, and really honing in on that subject. It showed me that something this small can be done, and while you’re still young and have more freedom, it’s worth it to look into trying.

Seattle Times

Now the Seattle Times so different than the places we had been before, I didn’t know what to think at first. It was a full-scale newsroom with a large staff and hundreds of full desks. The first question I wanted to find out was how does a big paper like this still appear somewhat healthy? What immediately came across was the staff’s pride in being a family owned paper. I think this is a large reason due to their ability to still be in business. It has allowed them to experiment a little more liberally with new technology and innovations with the new journalism model.

Seattle Times

Seattle Times

The Times still prints their newspaper. Something I don’t see happening down the road. But what was refreshing to see was the fact they have people constantly analyzing the market. These people are trying to see what prices their readers will respond to. How many people are still reading print and who are those people and how many are only digital. This is work that needs to be done all around by newspapers. If they want to be ahead of the curve moving forward, they need to be able to predict what’s next. Unlike what happened across the industry with the rise of the internet. The Seattle Times showed me they are doing this and might even be ready to thrive in the future of news.

GeekWire

GeekWire was probably my favorite visit. This is because they were a true success, maybe even poster child, of entrepreneurial journalism. It started out as two former PI reporters. They knew there was an audience out there that read their tech articles. The two also knew they were being underserved while constrained by a newspaper’s guidelines. So they created their own website. One dedicated to solely tech news.

What I liked most was their loyal following they developed and the site’s alternative funding model. The events they host throughout the year help sustain the business and at the same time develop a strong GeekWire community. The staggered levels of membership was another interesting idea. It certainly wouldn’t fly at any traditional media outlet. But it’s a great idea. If readers want more perks and want to pay more for those perks offered by GeekWire, then there should be no reason they can’t.

Todd Bishop has a closer relationship with the business side of GeekWire than he would at a normal paper. But he’s shown that this can be OK. There doesn’t have to be a complete separation. Bishop said he would like to completely hand it over to someone eventually, but so far has shown it doesn’t effect his ability to do good journalism at the same time. We can learn all the reporting skills possible, but I’ve always thought we should be taught how to make money from those skills at the same time.

MSN and Amazon

The visit to Microsoft and the meeting with the Amazon employee immediately felt like typical corporate culture. Now this isn’t a bad thing, except for the fact that meetings are the popular form of communication in corporate life. But what I got from MSN News was the idea that they are actively trying to understand how people view their news. What they want to read and how they’re getting to their website. These are all important factors into understanding your audience. Something very important for a big company like Microsoft.

Both MSN News and Amazon know their customers/readers very well. They know how to respond to their demands and give them things they don’t know they want. It’s kind of scary to think they can tell us what we want, but it’s true. The aspect of MSN News that took me some time to wrap my head around was the Rumors section. At first I didn’t like it because it felt like it was a way for them to perpetuate untrue rumors and didn’t serve much of a purpose. But their thinking was that they were actively looking into these rumors so why not share with the reader what they are finding out to be true and false. It creates a level of transparency and is apparently something quite popular with MSN News’ audience.

While all of these places try to serve a certain audience, I learned that they understand the importance to creating an audience. They all go about it in different ways and attract different readers, but within each outlet, they’ve learned their audience’s wants and responded to them effectively.

Print and the industry’s mishaps

*From the Changing Media Business Models blog

I was really looking forward to Dan Potter’s visit to class Wednesday because I wanted to hear some of his insight into what mistakes the print industry made with the internet and what it’s doing to try and fix those mistakes now. Much of what print newspapers are trying to do now is figure out a way to charge for their online content — something I’m inherently not very fond of as I’ve grown up with the mindset that online is free, but that is slowly changing.

I was curious to hear from someone who has worked during the years before and after the internet’s presence in delivering news. Potter offered a wealth of experience in the business side of newspapers. When the Missourian began charging for its content last September, I have to say I wasn’t a fan. After all, who really was? Something I had been getting for free was now costing me about $5/month. What I was really interested in was how the paper’s paywall would affect its online readership. As I predicted, the readership went down, 30 to 35 percent as a matter of fact. So what is the problem here? The readers haven’t yet come around to the fact they will need to pay for the content eventually.

The fact is that I believe paywalls for online newspapers are going to become commonplace in the next generation.The next generation will be the ones used to paying for content online, not us.

Sure, we can continue to think of traditional forms of revenue for newspapers through ad sales and subscriptions. But don’t we think there’s the possibility for papers to do something else? My question is this: If the way news is delivered went through such a revolutionary change in the last decade, how come the business side of newspapers do the same? What put the industry in the position it is now was the fact papers didn’t act on the new technology. It seems like it was a problem many industries face — a problem with how to adapt to new technology. There’s a few complicating factors here that make a newspaper’s decision hard. The paper has to ask themselves if their readers are ready for the change. Is it the right change? How can we still profit off of this new technology?

Those are just a few questions the newspaper industry I’m sure was asking themselves. It seems now the newspaper industry is finally catching up with the digital technology integral to any publication today. What slowed this adaptation was in part due to the newspapers themselves, and second, because of the economy (the readers, advertisers etc.)

We didn’t get a chance to talk about it in class, but what I’ve been racking my brain about the last few months are other ways papers can make money. Surely there’s more ways than the ad revenue and subscriptions. Why can’t they take a note or two from public radio’s funding model? Or learn how to better tailor their content to a specific reader? A paper could create a staggered subscription plan that provides more services to higher paying members and more basic news access to lower paying members for example. That’s just an idea, but one that I think could be looked into.

I don’t know the answers to many of these questions because I haven’t had a chance to learn the business side of newspapers very well while here at the J-school. Hopefully there’s a type of business class required for each sequence in the future. I mean, we can learn all the skills required to be a successful journalist, but what good does that do us if we don’t know how to create a sustainable and profitable business model at the same time? My hope is that newspapers will eventually catch up in the economic shortfalls they’ve had in recent years and learn how to best take advantage of the technology available to them today — and that hopefully readers will come to value the news content enough to pay for digital subscriptions.

How to know when it’s time to change

*Note: This is a re-post from our class blog for Changing Media Business Models

It seemed a lot of what we discussed in class on Monday was how the main forms of media (Radio, Television and Print) are in the midst of changing how they rely on advertising funds. Plenty of other methods in advertising today include mobile/tablet platforms and Facebook or Google ads to name a few. It was clear these are rising forms of advertising and probably bring in quite a bit of money to the companies like Google themselves. But why is there still so much investment in traditional 30-second spots on local television stations, for example?

The print model has crashed and now we’re seeing newspapers struggle to find those new forms of revenue. It is just too easy today to reach the consumer through new media (or unmeasured media, now 40% of all ad spending) which is what companies, television stations, newspapers and radio need to understand. Just as the print model is slowly becoming obsolete for papers, traditional forms of advertising are falling out of style. This whole situation screams economic inefficiency. Millions of dollars are invested in traditional advertising (we’ll stick with thinking about the television model here), yet more people every day watch their television online — there’s no consistent commercial breaks there. So now if we keep thinking of how economically inefficient this might be, it’s tempting to think about dropping the traditional forms all together. However, that’s not so easy. Most importantly, it’s not entirely up to the advertisers — there’s the market itself to keep in mind.

It’s strikingly similar to what Clayton Christensen talks about in the first chapter of his book, The Innovator’s Dilemma. While some of the details regarding the technology behind the technological development of disk drives was a little over my head, what he discovers are patterns companies like IBM experienced from the 70s to the 90s. Smaller disk drives were being developed, yet the existing companies wouldn’t invest in them. Instead, they would continue to make the bigger, slower disk drive. They claimed the consumers wouldn’t like the smaller models because they had less storage capacity. But start up companies would then enter the market themselves and use those smaller models. This in turn forced the larger companies to also invest in the smaller drives. Now think of this pattern in terms of advertising. I think it’s strikingly similar, no?

This is what new companies are doing in the advertising market. They see a hole left by pre-existing companies and try to fill that void. Stephanie Padgett told us on Monday she predicts the television advertising market to be the next one to crash. It’s certainly hard not to believe her. After all, how many of us watch television shows when they actually air nowadays? The best case scenario is that the advertising economy decreases its inefficiency by investing in old ad technologies and instead figures out how to be innovative. The worst thing they can do is become complacent. But until then, we’ll continue to see the same pattern emerge as what occurred in the disk drive market. The key is to know when to take the chance with new technologies.