Saturday, February 7, 2009

That discussion at Harvard is winding down...

Martin Langeveld did a great post called A cafe shaped conversation nicely summing up what we learned. Here's the lede. Click to read to rest.

A great conversation has been going on at my previous post, with participants including:

  • A musician/entrepreneur who runs a hyperlocal social network in Fort Dodge, Iowa
  • A mountaineer/futurist who speaks and consults globally on new media matters
  • A newspaper editor in Waco, Texas
  • The president and publisher of “the most widely-read magazine in America” (a 32-million circulation newspaper supplement), based in New York City
  • The CEO of a Alabama newspaper holding company operating in 150 communities
  • An arts reporter/blogger in East Bay, California
  • A New York print evangelist/entrepreneur/educator
  • A Rhode Island consultant specializing in brands, organizational communications and enterprise technology design
  • Plus, yours truly, tucked away in snowy Vermont, and some of his fellow Nieman bloggers located at Harvard and Johns Hopkins
It was as if we all bumped into each other at a sidewalk café and started knocking around the problems of printed newspapers and journalism on the internet
As the meeting was winding down and each us returned to go back to either our day jobs or painting the bedroom or whatever each of us does in their private lives, this happened.

He ( not Martin Langeveld) said:
All of you (some more than others) are whistling past the graveyard.
If any newspaper model survives (and I have my doubts), it will be the early 20th century one featuring digital tabloids sold on cyberspace street corners, produced by aggressive entrepreneurs.
Because such a model begins with the interests of prospective readers and not with the concerns of self-important editors, “college-trained” reporters and contest-driven egoists, who now dominate our profession.
A little later:
I thought we might have a worldview somewhat in common. (I am a 69-year-old retired newspaper columnist.)
Somebody should hire us to fix this mess.
Then I said:
The downside is that we would have to come out of retirement. Have a boss or a client. And not have enough time to play with the grand kids. I say we already did our job. Let this generation do theirs.

If we can help, we’ll help. Maybe make a little cash on the side to keep the stress level down.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

The discussion at Harvard continues

My friends always wanted to go to Harvard. But I didn't want to leave New York City. So I went to a better college. But then I really confused everyone and became a Printer.

At any rate, the discussion is taking place on the thread that grew out of a post about the recent meeting of newspaper publishers. To set the context,
So, “a group of newspaper executives” has launched,* which “will be devoted to insightful articles, commentary and research that provide a more balanced perspective on what newspaper companies can do to survive and thrive in the years ahead.”
Post 30:
All of you (some more than others) are whistling past the graveyard.
If any newspaper model survives (and I have my doubts), it will be the early 20th century one featuring digital tabloids sold on cyberspace street corners, produced by aggressive entrepreneurs.
Because such a model begins with the interests of prospective readers and not with the concerns of self-important editors, “college-trained” reporters and contest-driven egoists, who now dominate our profession.
So I said in Post 31,

You make a point about “self-important editors,etc.”

But it’s not a newspaper problem, it’s a general formal organization problem. The phrase works as well with “senators, auto executives, our last President, school principals, University Presidents.”

If you put a qualifier in front of it, as in “SOME” + “self-important etc” it’s a useful statement about reality.

But disruptive technologies lead to disruptions in the communication ecology. People who have to spend most of their day in a bubble have a very serious signal v noise problem. It’s the echo chamber effect that explains how good, smart, hard working people can make really bad decisions.

The good news is that a discussion such as this one might help amplify the signal from the ground to cut through the noise up in management circles.

As for your prediction.

Once the focus on the “interests of prospective readers” is changed, versioned Print + web + delivery trucks can pretty much deliver the same customer experience you describe.

Added for this post, I should have said "no need for those aggressive entreprenuers to wait for epaper. The costs and processes of Print are now so affordable and well defined that most teams can do it today. Check out The Printed Blog. They say they are Coming to a newstand near you."

Epaper, kindle’s and whatever comes along will be great for serving niche markets and identifying fans.

10,000 Kindle subscribers for the NYT is still a tiny niche of 46 million page views on the web. Maybe it will grow to 100,000 or 200,000 with the next release over time. At a $9 monthly subscription fee that could turn into a nice revenue stream.

But newspaper don’t have time. Mostly because of debt obligations.

Netflix destroyed Blockbuster. In ten years, Google reinvented advertising. The trick is not where it’s going to end up. The proximate problem is how to get from here to there, and still maintain the position you’ve earned over the last 100 years.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Here's what "news" feels like on the Ground.

I do another blog called Tough Love for Xerox and posted the quoted part over there. But I thought it might help our newspaper folks to view it.

So while I was trolling the internets I had C Span in the background. Here's what I think I heard. The whistler blower on Madoff spent 4 hours, figured out it was a scam, and tried to get the SEC's attention. He had all the stuff except for access to emails. Everything else was public information.

The following should be confirmed:
I'm pretty sure I heard him say that there are still many undiscovered feeder funds, mostly in Europe.

Signal v noise is not a trivial problem. This one is going cost someone between $50 and $70 billion dollars.

posted a couple of hours later:
It's now 12:15 New York Time. The blablabla is starting to peak on the net. Here's the Google search on "Madoff Congressional Hearing." As of now Google says there are 537 stories, each no doubt with the "breaking news." I wonder how much money was spent to be "first with the news".

When will Our Captains of Industry and Government (and Newspaper folks) learn that in a google-mart economy with a NoDramaObama adminstration, Less (noise) really is More (signal) and More (noise) is really Less (signal.)

So how much value could be created by recording the Cspan hearing. Have a court reporter or two on the payroll to do the the transcript in real time. Do a copy check against the broadcast version. Cut and paste the important parts. (that's the editor's job) and Publish the result in tomorrow's Print Edition.

That way people can form their own judgments. Newspeople wouldn't have to waste their precious time and talent telling a story that everyone already knows about, only sooner for the real newsie fans. Or have ill considered opinions, so that they can join the talking heads tonight on blablabla TV. Plus it's a lot cheaper.

So. . .it's better, faster, cheaper. What exactly am I missing?

You might want to take a quick glance at Why Most of the "News" Sucks, Most of the Time. posted a couple of days ago or People Keep Talking at Harvard, which I did this morning.

People Keep Talking at Harvard

Another interesting discussion at the Nieman Journalism Lab.
The topic for discussion is "
a group of newspaper executives” has launched, which “will be devoted to insightful articles, commentary and research that provide a more balanced perspective on what newspaper companies can do to survive and thrive in the years ahead.”
After 30 years making and selling print and seven years teaching undergraduates, I suffer from the "What you should do is ..." problem. At comment 19, I said,
I’m a Print evangelist not a newspaper person, but the “sky is falling” stuff has been rampant in our industry for years, so a lot of it sounds familiar.

At any rate, I thought I would weigh in with what it looks like from the outside.

1. Newspaper companies are in trouble because of the massive debt they have incurred. The secular decline in readership has been going on since the 70’s. Profit was fine until advertising imploded.

2. The fact is that readers are a niche market. Most people view, scan, search Printed newspapers. Companies like the New Yorker have the best handle on the niche market of readers. Because of that fan base they seem successful with a read for free, pay for print, buy the stuff we make model.

3. The web is for talking, searching, and viewing. It is actually Telephone + TV +Search +a big filing cabinet+ the cheapest way to buy stuff every invented.

4. Print is for scanning, searching and reading for the mass market in phsyical space.

5. Since the real estate on the web is unlimited, the cost is going to continue to go down. Since the real estate in Print is limited, the cost can be stable. But it’s a location, location, location issue. If the Print is inserted in the right location with the right content, the advertising sell should be easy.

6. Newspapers should use the web to find and nurture tribes of fans. Data analytics are a big help. The number and quality of conversations started are a great place to start.

7. Once tribes and loyal fans are identified make stuff to sell them on the newspapers own website.
Why pay a publisher rent when the newspaper’s own website reaches the most probable buyers of a book produced by their staff. Given that the logistics of book printing and delivery have become trivial, publishing channels are a bug not a feature.

For the not readers, which is most of the audience, sell them posters, t shirts and tote bags.

8. Newspapers should consider the long tail of their content as a monetizable value. Consider replacing textbooks with targeted editions for students in K-12 focused on history, science, business, etc etc etc. Textbooks are another industry who’s value add is disappearing. Newspapers have massive under used capacity in their pressroom + they already give away copies of their editions as part of a “do good” program.

9. Reporters should be organized in teams of three to cover beats. Start with beats that are interesting to a potential fan base. Focus on that beat as a way to do business. Stop putting resources into following the news cycle. Devote the same place in the paper to that beat coverage.
As appropriate, print a special edition for the fans of that beat. As appropriate, print and sell and book covering that beat.

The same thing works for printing companies. Find your fans. Sell them stuff.
Meanwhile, by following a link from I got to this at
The third role, the "town expert" role, is where we all fail.
Since he's a writer, not a printer, he said it much better. The town expert is the three person beat reporting team.

So this is cool. So far, 8:10, EST there were two responses.
I really like #8 and #9. Both think about “the product” in new ways
As I say from time to time, print is not dead. I especially like #6
Ah...the power of a checklist and numbers. It makes it so much easier to focus.

Gladwell wrote a great piece about reducing medial errors in the ER a while ago. I'm betting that if every editor and every reporter carried around a Printed checklist about the size of credit card, it would drastically reduce the number of journalistic errors and keep everyone on the same Page.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Looking for a New Business Model

thanks to Jeff Mowatt for the point..

Usually when printers or newspapers talk about a new business model, they mean "how do I keep making money doing what I'm doing, only better." Maybe that's not going to work as well going forward. Here's what Richard Branson said at Davos,

Worth the click @Victor Pinchuk Foundation:
"Business must achieve its goal - making profit. But at the same time it should increasingly focus on solving social problems. This idea Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Corporation, shared with the participants of the Second Davos Philanthropic Roundtable conducted by the Victor Pinchuk Foundation during Annual Meeting of World Economic Forum.

[for a full archive of information on the event - see project's page]

'Capitalism is the only economic system that really works', he underlined, saying that the downside of the capitalist system is accumulation of great wealth in hands of relatively small number of people. 'Not all of these people use their assets to create new jobs and new opportunities.' Branson stated.

This is precisely why social role of business, as said by Richard Branson, is so important in modern world. 'A modern company should focus not only on making money, but also on solving social problems and investing in protection of environment.' he said reminding the participants about his own initiative to establish an award for development of know-how to reduce emissions."

Its not about saving journalism. It's about inventing journalism.

Good discussion over at the Nieman Journalism Lab - A Project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University.

It got started yesterday with a post headlined Newspaper Staff Cuts. Good News? by Mathew Ingram, . There were 30 replies as of this morning.

In Comment 23 I said,
I think the issue is not how many editors or how many journalists, but what they do. I’m a Print evangelist so to me the idea that the web will replace Print as a revenue stream makes little sense.

The real estate on the web is unlimited. CPMS are going to keep going down and down. The real estate in Print is limited. But it has to be invested wisely, not try to do general news or compete with “breaking news”. That’s for the web.

I think it’s about great beat reporting. Choose your best reporter. Support her with a great inside person to cruise the internets. Get a great writer on the team to take the dots revealed and connect them in a great story. 3 people per beat. The writer on the team has to be responsible for copy editing. Everyone on the team is responsible for fact checking.

Then publish those stories in niche Print publications with advertisers who are interested in being in front of the fans who follow that beat.

I’m from NYC so ..for example medical care in the Bronx, in Brooklyn, in Manhattan. Then filled with ads for health care organizations in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Manhattan.
Or education or small business.

Zoned editions with focused stories with advertisers who are local.

For me it passes the “why wouldn’t that work test.” But as I said, I’m a printer, not a journalist so I must be missing something.


In post 27, Matthew said
. . . .I think what you’re proposing is an excellent model, and one that is definitely worth thinking about.
In post 30, I said (slightly edited for publishing here)

I have to disagree with the conventional wisdom about ” the cost savings to be made about shifting totally away from print.”

It’s exactly the low cost of entry on to the web that makes it much less valuable. The cost of entry into Print and distribution is much higher.

From the point of view of aggregating eyeballs the web wins. If newspapers see themselves in the eyeball business it is rational to invest time and energy there. The problem is that the cost of eyeballs is rapidly going down to very close to zero.

Until there was serious competition in the eyeball business, advertising earned easy profits. The problem is advertising, not journalism.

The new opportunity is not saving journalism, but inventing journalism for a plethora of tribes of real people. It will grow by, among many other things, serving the niche, but rapidly growing tribe of people who read, instead of people who scan, search or view.

Use the web to identify and nurture tribes of fans. Use Print to sell them stuff they want and supply them with a physical search platform when they have some time during the day.

Besides why spend money rewriting Press Releases and calling it reporting. If you call it translating a document in corporate speak into plain language, it's much cheaper and easier. Sooner or later, some PR people will learn to speak in plain language for different tribes of real people.

Then it will get really easy. That means reporters can report. Writers can write. And if by some luck someone can find new patterns in the dots on the table, they can do "news analysis." But probably not every day. Unfortunately, "analysis on demand" is usually blablablablabla unless you have a really good budget.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Newspapers and/or Textbooks

I've been on my little soapbox about textbooks since 2006. In January 2006, I did a column at What They called Ipods and Textbooks. A while ago I did a post here called Watch Out Textbooks. For the folks in digital printing and POD, the version at my other blog is for you.

For our newspaper viewers, here's the argument about newspapers going into the textbook business.
NW Missouri State University Replaces Textbooks with E-books - Epaper Central:
"The pilot program, which used only the Sony e-reader preloaded with all the textbooks, was tested out with about 200 students in total. This spring they plan on expanding this program to include about 4,000 of the 6,500 students. They won’t supply e-readers anymore, but will give the student a package that pre-loads the textbooks onto their laptops.
. . .
This program is expected to save the campus over $400,000 a year, once they completely get rid of all physical textbooks. Most students spend over 1,000$ a year on text books, a price that is rising tuitions and making it more and more difficult for students to pay back their expensive loans after they graduate.
Princeton, Yale, Oxford and UC Berkeley are already targeting the Kindle for the electronic versions of their textbooks.
The use case:
A library of school board approved content in the cloud. Probably organized as a managed wiki. Next week the teacher is discussing the beginning of the Civil War. She goes to a GUI, clicks on the most appropriate chapters for her class AT THAT TIME, and within three days 30 64 page paperback books are delivered to her classroom. The content is limited to the beginning of the Civil War. The book contains a series of assessment quizzes she will give her class.

If your newspaper was publishing at the time of the beginnings of the Civil War you have the best content on the planet for the kids in your community. If you can unlock the content in the long tail of your published editions and reformat or even just select articles from those papers, you will be giving teachers a way to connect with history through the lens of their community. Priceless!

Or if you have a great science or business editor, and a long tail of content. Same story.
Or if you don't have a long tail of content, but have a science or business editor who follows current developments. Same story.

The trick is to link up with someone in the education space who understands standards and can help you write quizzes. The dirty little secret is that the only remaining value of textbooks is that they, not the school boards nor most of the teachers, set the framework for the curriculum. The other dirty little secret is that the real value of textbooks is the quiz at the end of the chapter.

Textbooks are the next to go. Their revenue stream is going to be worse than advertising, for them. But, given the talent at most newspapers, and given the deeps roots in the community, newspapers are perfectly positioned to win, while the textbooks lose.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

What business are you in?

At the most abstract level there are only a limited number of businesses.

The Rag Trade

The best business for the long term is infrastructure. You collect rent.
The best business for the short term is Rock 'n Roll. Big risks, big rewards.
The best business for fast growth is the drug business.
The lowest cost of entry is the sex business.
Most people are in the rag trade.

Selling printing is the rag trade + the sex business.

The rag trade is the right stuff for the right price at the right time. It's a great business if you can get the right stuff at the right cost and sell it for the right price. Consider WalMart.The sex business is the oldest profession. It's about delivering a "personal service". Consider barbershops, chiropractors and physical therapy.

The sex business is about making someone happy. It usually is not related to stuff. That's why the cost of entry is so low. The downside is that it is dangerous and unpredictable. You never know why someone is going to be happy. Mostly it is caused by things beyond your control.
Consider consulting, solutions provider, trusted partner.

Newspapers used to be infrastructure. They collected rent for the information real estate in Print. The marginal cost of Print real estate is very low. But not as low as the marginal cost of real estate on the internet.

The rag trade has the lowest, fastest cost of entry. It also is at the center of small business. Sell and deliver stuff at price that is less then your cost. The lower the cost, the less you can charge. The less you can charge, the more you can sell. Think Costco, Martha Stewart, the New Yorker magazine, ready to wear fashion and the Long Tail.

If newspapers used the web to get into the rag trade, every once in a while, they will stumble upon a hit. Think Obama's book sales. They have a shot at earning the rewards of the rock 'n roll business, without the risk. If they combine Print + Web, they will have a very cheap, very effective to sell stuff to fans. The marginal cost of the Print Page will get much lower. As newspapers continue to lower the cost of selling Print Page real estate, all the pieces are finally in place.

But then, you have all the problems of the rag trade.

Except for Rock n Roll, the general trend of societal evolution is to the infrastructure business.
Sex to infrastructure. Nevada, Amsterdam.
Rag trade to infrastructure. WalMart.
Education and government are now finally and quickly moving from sex to infrastructure.
Health is moving a little slower from drugs to infrastructure.

That leaves rock n roll. It's driven by creativity and the right movie or song at just the right time. But then, everyone gets the chance to be a star.