A lot of bad business decisions and poor editorial assumptions were made in the late '90s during the heydays of the Boom, one of which was Knight Ridder's decision to impose a cookie-cutter web template on all its newspapers and run their online operations through the rigid backbone of the Real Cities Network.
Knight Ridder, of course, is gone, but the sad legacy of its Internet arm, Knight Ridder Digital, lives on as a network of bland, generic websites representing the newspapers the company sold to McClatchy, which later resold to a batch of them to other buyers, among them MediaNews Group.
MediaNews bought the papers Knight Ridder owned in Northern California - the San Jose Mercury News, the Contra Costa Times and the Monterey Herald - in a complicated billion-dollar deal that was underwritten in part by the Hearst Corporation, which owns the San Francisco Chronicle, a direct competitor of both the Mercury News and the Times.
The deal concentrated Bay Area newspaper ownership under Dean Singleton, CEO of MediaNews. Observers speculated that Singleton was positioning himself to someday relieve Hearst of the money-losing Chronicle, or that, as I wrote, Hearst was just inserting its well-funded foot into a future deal that would ensure its own dominance in the market. [Read: Hearst and Singleton: Which is the Cat, Which the Mouse?]
Whatever happens eventually, the first inklings of what's to come from the MediaNews-Hearst partnership look disastrous: An idea to create a website built on the combined products of the Chronicle, the Mercury News and Singleton's other local papers like the Oakland Tribune. The Contra Costa Times reported:
"MediaNews executives revealed the company is discussing with Hearst Corp. a joint venture to begin a new Web site involving the Bay Area online products of the Times and Mercury News; of the MediaNews publications in the Bay Area; and of the Hearst-owned Chronicle. …
"'We've talked conceptually about a joint venture to start up a new Web site, which would probably use the BayArea.com name,' said Joseph Lodovic, MediaNews president. 'It's very preliminary. These are just exploratory discussions of things we could do together.'" (Thanks, Peninsula Press Club.)
What a waste of good pixels that would be. At a time when unique brand, editorial personality and formation of communities are the most important ingredients for successful online operations - editorial and financial - these two companies are considering doing just the opposite, building some sprawling, generic, blended website no doubt intended in part to counter the success of San Francisco-based Craigslist, which is sucking classified money from Bay Area newspapers.
Worse, SFGate, the Chronicle's online presence and one of the first newspaper-based web sites, pulls in big readership numbers - 7.3 million unique visitors and 75 million page views a month. Why would Hearst even think about diluting the Gate's impact by partnering online with the off-the-shelf sites of Singleton's papers or the former Knight Ridder papers? If it's for the money, you have to ask that if the Chronicle can't make enough with the Gate's monthly numbers then there is something seriously flawed with its online strategy. (Peter Negulescu, head of SFGate, told the Contra Costa Times he hadn't head a word about a new or merged Bay Area web site: "That's news to us.")
This type of thinking, whether the idea ever becomes a reality, reflects what I think Vin Crosbie was referring to yesterday in his indictment of newspapers' continued reliance on a set of out-dated beliefs regarding journalism and the web.
"Most of the speakers from mainstream media seem to have an intrinsic belief that the package of journalism they're been providing for the past 50 years shouldn't change, plus that their journalism ("quality, objective journalism") simply needs to be placed onto new platforms (the Web, mobile phones, etc.) to get more people to use it and ensure the future of journalism and the news media in general.
"The facts belie their faith in that belief. Newspapers' and news magazines' circulations and readerships are steadily declining, as is listenership and viewership of news broadcast. Some publishers and broadcasters claim that their websites' increasing numbers of users show that there are no declines but increases. But I know that the data from those sites show that those users actually use the news media online far less frequently and much less thoroughly than users of those media's traditional print and broadcast products. People are 'voting with their feet' and rejecting mainstream media's package of journalism, whether in print, broadcast, or online."
Nowadays, no newsroom web manager would endorse the continued shoveling of copy from print to pixels as an online solution, but that still is what most newspapers do. There are plenty of exceptions, of course, and we can point to those as advancing points on a continuum that eventually most others will follow or disregard them as outliers who don't represent the industry as a whole.
If the web has taught us anything in the last decade, it's that generic is dead. Generic journalism, generic design, generic regard of community - dead, dead, dead. If you talked with the journalists who worked on Knight Ridder papers in the last half decade, you heard again and again how hamstrung their were by the constrictions of their templated web operations. (As are the Newhouse papers like the Oregonian).
We live in an open source age, and that means organizational nimbleness, collaborative communities and ongoing innovation are values for success - characteristics unlikely to emerge from the MediaNews-Hearst web venture.
Bay Area.com? Blah!
One reason newspapers and other traditional journalism organizations have trouble embracing change is for them certitude is a treasured value and the changing future of news media offers nothing but uncertainty.
One thing is knowable, though, and Jay Rosen expresses it thoroughly in this piece about the changing nature of "audience": The power of publishing has shifted. Once only the privilege of institutions and individuals who had the means, digital technology has devolved publishing into a commodity activity. Jay writes (emphasis added):
"The 'former audience' is Dan Gillmor's term for us. … It refers to the owners and operators of tools that were one exclusively used by media people to capture and hold their attention."
"… You don't own the eyeballs. You don't own the press, which is now divided into pro and amateur zones. You don't control production on the new platform, which isn't one-way. There's a new balance of power between you and us."
You've heard the numbers - MySpace has an estimated 48 million users, Flickr reportedly hosts 100 million photos, and a recent Pew Internet & American Life Project study found "48 million Americans -- mostly those with high-speed at home -- have posted content to the internet."
The corollary of online media creation, of course, is online media consumption - not only are people spending time pushing things out onto the web, they are spending more time reading them, watching them, and interacting with their fellow "publishers." Metaphorically, they sit at their keyboards, switching hats during their digital days - publisher, audience, publisher, audience, etc.
In a world of such media agility, the role of - and the expectations for - professional journalism change. People who, as Jay puts it, "were on the receiving end of a media system that ran one way," are not content to be fed whatever comes down the journalistic pipe in whatever form journalists want to send it.
That does not mean there is no appetite for journalism and for news. There is, but journalism now must be conceived, executed and delivered in a social, economic and technical environment in which traditional journalists find themselves uncomfortable.
This discomfort can be allayed through better understanding of the new rules of media. Ask these questions: Which community are we writing for? What matters to them? What matters to us? Where do these interests overlap? How can we connect to them and them to us? What skills do we need that we don't have now? How do we get them?
I am not sure, as Jay suggests, that journalists - traditional news media - think an audience who speaks (and thinks) on its own is a "problem." No doubt there is frustration, confusion and, still, anger, among many journalists about this flattening of the playing field, but there is also recognition, acceptance and embrace in many circles of this change. [Read: The Conversation About Change Has Changed.]
Also, while I agree that the "people formerly known as the audience" are now also publishers, the concept of audience remains valid. We are all each other's audience. A good listener is an audience. So is a critic. Or someone who clicks on someone else's Flickr photo. The publisher-audience relationship remains, but today it is a loop, not a pipe.
Related: The Online Audience Gap
Yesterday, in commenting on Jack Shafer's column about newspaper downsizing, I cited a number he used to indicate the growth in online news audience - the New York Times' 25 million unique online readers in April. Howard Owens, in the comments, adds some context to that. He asks:
"How many of those unique visitors came back the next day, or within the next three days or even in the same week? I'm not sure this stat proves anything."
And points out that the user gap between the national news sites and the regional/local sites is gargantuan:
"The best surveys, if they are too believed, say that 9 percent of the online adults in the US visited a local news site yesterday. If you surf around to various newspaper site media kits, you'll be hard pressed to find more than a couple who are reporting anything near that level of traffic (that would be about 54,000 unique visitors each day (just for local users) in a DMA with 1 million adults and 60 percent online access). A regional newspaper site is keeping up with its peers if it's doing 2 to 4 percent of the local online audience on a daily basis.
"The size of engaged audience has certainly exploded the past few years, and there is no doubt national news is big business online, but where does that leave the regional/local papers? There's a big hole in audience growth that newspapers need to get serious about plugging."
Exactly right. The "audience" is out there. Journalists need to be out there, too.
Jack Shafer's column the other day on Slate about how the downsizing of the American newspaper may in fact be "right-sizing" hit the mark. Shafer made a couple of points worth remembering:
The public has a ravenous appetite for news - online. Shafer cites the New York Times' 25 million unique online readers in April.
Newspapers are paying the price of decades of over-reaching - in expanding circulation areas and flinging correspondents hither and yon, whether overseas or to statehouses, in efforts to mimic the Times.
Readership decline also started decades ago, but neither publishers nor editors reacted with the urgency until profits also started to fall.
Survival strategies for each newspaper will differ - the national papers and local papers have the best opportunities to build solidify or reinvent, respectively, their franchises. Mid-size regional papers in competitive markets (Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle) will have the toughest going.
There is opportunity online, and resources need to be moved there in advance of revenue.
What all this adds up to is Shafer's correct assertion that we are witnessing - and for those working on newspapers, suffering - the "delayed right-sizing of newspapers and newspaper publisher and editor egos in the multimedia age."
The good news, as bitter as it might seem for newspaper journalists, is that market dynamics are forcing newspapers to change, something they have resisted both as institutions and as individual journalists for years. Confronted with a reinvent or die scenario, they are choosing innovation. [Read: If Newspapers Are to Rise Again.] As Shafer points out:
"They're building out their Web sites, investing in free daily tabloids, partnering more extensively with radio and TV, sending advertiser-supported news to cell phones, and frantically devising business models to make the new equation work."
As I said a little while ago, "the conversation about change has changed" and now newspapers, long accustomed to operating in a financial and intellectual vacuum, must begin learning and using the tools of competitive enterprises, among them strategic planning, defining and understanding customers (readers/viewers/users), resource alignment and ongoing professional development. In other words, newspapers - and especially newsrooms - need to ask themselves on a regular basis:
Where do we want to go? (Vision).
What steps must we take to get there? (Goals and Priorities).
What skills must we have to get there? (Capacity).
Do we have enough staff with the right skills in the right places? (Resource allocation).
How will we know if it's working? (Measurement).
This is a big nut for newspapers to crack because of their reliance for so long on the "hey, news happens" culture that not only doesn't embrace planning and product development but disdains in an anti-intellectual way as non-journalistic.
Let's be clear, then:
Understanding your audience - your community - is good journalism.
Establishing editorial goals is good journalism.
Questioning current practices (why do we do things this way?) is good journalism.
Training journalists is good journalism.
Revisiting all of these issues each year is good journalism.
Shafer is right. Change is afoot. And newspapers are right to shout "we're not dead!" But staying alive is a pretty low standard for journalism, I think you'd agree. Newspapers that envision a future and invest in it will be able to do much better than that.
The going has been tough since so much of what I want to say in the book I've already said here (or others have said so much better than I elsewhere). Whenever I lack inspiration, or simply can't remember on which of the hundreds of Word files littering my computer I secreted away the exact quote I need right now, I call up a real journalist, ask him or her about their work, and come away recharged.
Today, Ken Sands did the job for me - and I didn't even have to interview him.
Ken, as so many of you know, is the online publisher of SpokesmanReview.com and a longtime advocate for, well, just about all the things newspapers should be doing online - blogging by the staff, aggregating community blogs, inviting local citizens to blog about the paper, webcasting its news meetings. Whatever it takes to engage an active, inquisitive, technology-empowered community.
In preparation for Bloggercon tomorrow in San Francisco, Sands posted a case study of SpokesmanReview.com on Jay Rosen's Pressthink. The two of them will participate in a session on citizen journalism.
Ken tells why he's going to Bloggercon (a rare representative of the traditional news media) …
"I am the publisher of that site. And I'm trying to do better journalism with it. I need to know about the tools in use (but not in our industry) and how to get them for my newspaper. I want to hear about technology that doesn't exist yet, but could be invented.
"This is no idle exercise. Ideas that come out of BloggerCon can meet their test in Spokane. Our newspaper is eager to experiment."
And explains the urgency with which he works for change in an industry that resists it from the core …
"… we know the users are in charge of their informational encounter with us. Increasingly we operate "on demand" from them. Only a fool would fail to recognize the new balance of power. But these are difficult notions for the Association of Tight-Assed Editors of America."
And offers a decade's worth of possible initiatives for SpokesmanReview.com, most of which could apply to Any Newspaper In America. Among them:
Consumer-goods comparison shopping.
A regional online encyclopedia.
Outdoors and recreation: real time data sharing.
High school sports news.
Holding politicians' accountable.
Most notable, I think, among Ken's cogent observations, are the many questions he asks. Will this work? How? Can we collect the data? Where should we start? Is this redundant or necessary?
So much of the book I am writing addresses the need for newsroom leaders (especially) and their staffs to focus on the future, to imagine what's possible, to envision obstacles and devise solutions, to, simply, think. To think about news, about their communities and their news organizations and find the places where they overlap.
Ken Sands - and many others at his newspaper - are already doing that. Go read how.
Mark Glaser writes in his PBS column, MediaShift, that the New York Times should put an end to TimesSelect, the paid-content option of its online edition that keeps op-ed columnists and the archives behind a subscription wall.
Glaser addresses Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger and reminds him he said TimesSelect was a "bet" and that it's time to call it in (emphasis added):
"That bet goes against the movement in the online world toward open conversations and open discussion of the important topics of our times. The business minds at NYTimes.com went strongly against conventional wisdom with the idea of closed thought available only to those with the money to pay for a print or online subscription."
How wrong-headed this is.
The Times is doing exactly the right thing - attempting to make money off of its online operation. The very fact - as Glaser points out - that "online ad revenues were up 25%" at the Times New Media Group and that web advertising for newspapers is growing at more than 30 percent a quarter means newspapers must make more and more "bets" on extracting revenue from the web if they are going to pay the salaries of the real-world journalists who are writing for both digital and print readers. Certainly, print advertising, which grew only 0.3 percent last quarter, can no longer pay the bills.
The hatchet-wielding in newsrooms last year and the dismantling of Knight Ridder should send a shudder of urgency through Glaser and all others who care about the future of journalism. The print business model cannot sustain journalism as we know it, so we must find new ways to pay for it.
Charging for full access to the newspaper, like the Wall Street Journal does, is one option. Selling subscriptions to pure online journalism products like Salon or TheStreet.com is another. Putting a price on the head of your most popular columnists, like the Time does, is yet another.
In a time of generic, ubiquitous news and RSS readers glutted with opiners, the Times and Journal are selling the one thing that is always worth something when the price of all else falls to zero: Value. As Glaser quotes Sulzberger:
TimesSelect is "a bet on the value of judgment, the value of insight, the value of experience."
Judgment. Insight. Experience. Valuable commodities in journalism or any field. Why shouldn't the Times, the Journal or any other newspaper charge for them if they can? Even Glaser's employer, PBS, puts a price - a hefty price - on its programming. The Shop PBS web page is loaded with DVD's of past programs selling for 20, 30 or 40 dollars, little less than the cost of a year's subscription to all the Times' columnists and its archives.
So far, TimesSelect has 482,000 subscribers -- 38 percent of them (183,160) online only. The rough math on that is $9.1 million in revenue. The Journal, and its weekly cousin Barron's, have 820,000 subscribers, an increase of 12 percent over the previous year. PaidContent.org quoted a Dow Jones executive commenting on the numbers:
"We are, as we said before, very focused on efficiently monetizing the traffic that we have."
Don't get me wrong. There is no point in charging for generic news. There is no point in charging for classifieds in some markets. There is almost no point in charging for the paper itself (as we are seeing with start-up papers like the Examiners in San Francisco, Washington and Baltimore). But content that is unique - either because of its "judgment, insight and experience," or because of its quality or creativity or expertise is worth something. As working journalists - note the emphasis on "work" -- we should ask those who want our product to pay for it.
Glaser is right that "movement in the online world (is) toward open conversations and open discussion." Community is free. Conversation is free. The unprecedented connective power of the Internet is free (except, of course, for your monthly ISP bill). For that matter, anyone can read Maureen Dowd or David Brooks for free on the Internet because their columns are reposted in numerous blogs. Here's Dowd. Here's Brooks. No TimesSelect required.
Journalism - and that includes good opinion journalism - is not free, though. A reporter on any newspaper, from the New York Times to the Vacaville Reporter, in print or online, deserves to be paid. I want to be paid. Glaser wants to be paid. And for any of that to happen we have to ask those people who think we have value to foot the bill.
Mark Glaser and Mathew Ingram point out in the comments that I inflate the revenue number from TimesSelect> Mark adds that TimesSelect is counter to the "Internet's current open movement" and Mathew suggests the Times is risking losing the "long-term value of having those columnists be part of the online conversation and argue that openness of information."
Here is my response:
Mark, Mathew ... No doubt you're right on the amount of revenue the Times is generating off of TimesSelect. I didn't take into account discounting when the did back of envelope math. It's likely, though, as Mathew says, that even at the lesser rate, TimesSelect is a profitable venture.
The real point, of course, as you both mention, is whether installing a tollgate in front of the Times' most popular content is the best strategy for it -- or presumably any other newspaper trying to survive in a digital age.
First, we need to separate the Times (and the Wall Street Journal) from the realm of "other papers." Beyond USA Today, there are no newspapers of comparable reach or unique reputation (for better or worse) in the United States. The Times, and its columnists, have a singular, national value that may allow it to traverse business obstacles that would stymie other papers. Mark, I take your citation of the Boston Herald's retreat from paid readership as evidence of that. The columnists from the two papers simply don't have the same "value" to audience.
Next, I believe those columnists are still part of the national conversation to which Mathew refers. It is why, as Stephen Baker of the Business Week’s Blogspotting points out, their names routinely top the Technorati search queries.
Finally, as much as I and others enjoy the informational and connective benefits of the “Internet's current open movement” cited by Mark, I don’t believe openness negates the costs of production or necessarily devalues products or activities upon which some people bestow value. In other words, if some people are willing to pay and others aren't, then that's a business decision. In fact, I see TimesSelect as a part of an increasing model of tiered of Internet and media use -- a free baseline for all topped by a narrowing, pricier pyramid of options for those who want them.
Here are some personal examples of what I mean:
I joined Flickr for free, but I wanted more storage space so I paid an annual fee.
I can search the S.F. Chronicle’s archives for free, but if I want to research several Bay Area newspapers at once (including those that charge for archive retrieval) I pay Lexis-Nexis a fee.
I listen to music on my laptop for free, but I pay Apple to download an I-Tune.
I can read my old newspaper, the San Francisco Examiner, for free, but if I want some good journalism delivered to my house I pay the Chronicle and the Times a fee.
What we do agree on is this: The future of newspaper-based journalism is mighty uncertain. What we disagree on is whether TimesSelect is a useful experiment to find out what might work. I think it is.
Bob Niles' interview at Online Journalism Review with Adrian Holovaty, the bright young programmer-journalist hired by the Washington Post, has been well linked, especially for his good ideas about journalism education (get technical) and information use (extend your reporting through structure), but I want to concentrate one something else he said: Hiring and innovation.
Here's the question from Niles:
"What ought news organizations do to encourage tech innovation from their staffs?"
And Holovaty's answer (emphasis added):
"Hire programmers! It all starts with the people, really. If you want innovation, hire people who are capable of it. Hire people who know what's possible. And once you hire the programmers, give them an environment in which they can be creative. Treat them as bona fide members of the journalism team -- not as IT robots who just do what you tell them to do."
What Holovaty said is so important it bears repetition: "If you want innovation, hire people who are capable of it. Hire people who know what's possible." Holovaty is talking about programmers, but you can substitute the words editors, reporters or photographers and apply the same idea. Hire for possibility, hire for innovation, hire for the future.
Of course, this is easier said than done. If you've ever hired an absolute dog of an employee, especially after you thought he'd been vetted more than a White House appointee, then you know those decisions nag you and your newsroom sometimes years to come. And, these days, with newsroom budgets so tight that every hire is critical, how can you increase your chances of bringing in somebody who not just do a good job of maintaining the status quo, but will actually contribute to moving the paper forward?
Newspapers could learn some lessons in this department form Google. Listen to this interview with Eric Schmidt and Google founder Larry Page. Here's a summary from Stanford's Technology Ventures Program:
"The first aspect Google considers when hiring is evaluating the applicant's capability of simply doing the job. Next, they look for people who can think outside the box, but still work within Google culture. Third, communication skills are critical for any employee, even engineers. Overall, Larry and Eric have found that if someone is exceptional at something, it is usually a good indicator that they are exceptional at everything."
Let's pick at those points a bit.
Can the person do the job? For newspapers, this question must be answered with another question: What do you want the job to be? Every hire opportunity is also an opportunity to re-evaluate the role of that position. If the education reporter leaves, it's time to examine that beat with the intent of redefining it to meet the continually changing needs of the newspaper and the community. Don't just hire someone who can cover the education beat as well as the last reporter; hire an ed writer for the future.
Can the person think outside the box? Yeah, the phrase is a cliché, but the point is you want to hire people who are mentally agile, who can drive or adapt to change, who nimbleness under pressure to find new ways of conceiving news and of telling and presenting stories. Look for proof, apply your reporting skills to the candidate? Can he or she really do what they say they can do? Find out.
Can the person communicate? For editor and manager candidates, look for a history of collaboration, especially in managing long-term, undefined projects. For reporters, look for people who develop and keep sources - that means they can make and maintain a human connection. Again, report on them. Talk to their former managers, staffers, colleagues and sources.
Is the person exceptional at something? For me, this is the most important quality. Look for people who excel, on the job and in their personal life. That is typically a sign of passion - and passion is the lifeblood of a newspaper.
Finally, is the person a risk-taker? Wayne Rosing, Google's VP for engineering, told Fast Company:
"We look for smart. Smart as in, do they do something weird outside of work, something off the beaten path? That translates into people who have no fear of trying difficult projects and going outside the bounds of what they know."
Newspapers are about news, about communication and about community. But more than anything else they are about people, and in order to get with the tough task of reinvention they need the right people in place - people who can envision a different future and have the will to build it.
Follow the money - online: Web advertising for newspapers grew 35 percent in the first quarter of this year, while print ad revenue was up only 0.3 percent, says NAA. Colby Atwood of Borrell Associates supplies the obvious quote: ""Increasing amounts of revenue and focus should be on the online properties. This is a transition that's taking place over several years here."
Follow the people - online: "Web media is the dominant at-work media and No. 2 in the home," says Cnet, reporting on a study done for the Online Publishers Association. And, web users spend more on retail than TV views: $26,450 a year for the webbies, $21,401 for the couch potatoes.
Follow the advertising - locally: Dotconnect Media, a Lee Enterprises venture, thinks it can build a national network of newspapers to sell local advertising. "Everyone from Procter to GM wants to get local, because that's where the sales take place," the company's president tells Ad Age. Sounds good, but I wonder what Craig thinks.
Follow the curiousity - of readers about journalists: "Should a newspaper post bio pages for all its reporters?" someone asked Mike Needs, the public editor for the Akron Beacon Journal. "Yes, there is more to gain than there is to lose by doing that." (Via Jarvis.)
Dean Singleton, the physically diminutive but ambitiously gigantic CEO of MediaNews Group - owner of the Denver Post and more than 50 other newspapers, including the a quartet of refugees from the Knight Ridder-McClatchy deal, is the mouse that roared of the newspaper industry.
This Columbia Journalism Review profile of Singleton cast him as the son of the Texas oilfield roustabout who rose up from less-than-humble beginnings to create the nation's fourth-biggest newspaper company. CJR writes (emphasis added):
"For much of his youth, he lived in a ramshackle four-room house on Pecan Street, in a grim section of Graham. The house is still there - an extremely modest place, five hundred square feet, with chickens and roosters galloping in the backyard. It has a bathroom now, but when Singleton lived here the toilet was outside. The day we arrive, the house has a terrible stench: it is being fumigated for rats and mice. Singleton doesn't mind; he lurches through the living room, his face a mask of joy and wonder. Forty years have passed since he's been inside."
Fast forward a few years to this New York Times profile of Singleton, written just after MediaNews spent nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars to two San Francisco Bay Area dailies McClatchy had acquired from Knight Ridder (San Jose and Contra Costa). The Times kept the western theme, but honed in on one of Singleton's signature business characteristics - his partnerships (emphasis added):
"Mr. Singleton, 54, a bantam figure with flinty blue eyes, is indeed thought of as something of a magician in the newspaper world - having transformed himself from the son of a ranch hand in a tiny town in Texas to a media baron who now controls a newspaper empire that sprawls from coast to coast. He has, in a manner of speaking, sawed many of his competitors in half, only to have them hop off the table and become his partners."
Singleton's partner in the Bay Area newspaper deal was Hearst, which already owned the money-losing San Francisco Chronicle. Hearst bought two other of the McClatchy castoffs - the Monterey Herald and the St. Paul Pioneer Press for $263.2 million and agreed to sell them to Singleton for an undisclosed stake in Media News.
The deal was puzzling to some press watchers because Singleton's purchase of the San Jose and Contra Costa papers meant he now surrounded Hearst's Chronicle in the Bay Area market and critics wondered why Hearst would aid a competitor.
Some were concerned about anti-trust issues and some speculated that Singleton was positioning himself to one day get control of the Chronicle.
Alan Mutter, a former Chronicle editor, who now writes Reflections of a Newsosaur, asked (emphasis added):
"(snip) the once-formidable Chronicle has turned into exactly the sort of troubled newspaper that JOAs were designed to save. Unlike some publishers who shun JOA relationships, Dean Singleton has embraced them - and seems to be making them work - in places like Denver and Detroit. Is the San Francisco Chronicle next on his list?"
And, Charles Layton, a senior writer for the American Journalism Review, wrote (emphasis added):
"(snip) in the San Francisco Bay Area, a cluster of suburban papers is rising up to challenge, and perhaps one day overshadow, the San Francisco Chronicle."
No doubt consolidation of traditional news media will continue in the Bay Area - as it will most metropolitan areas - but perhaps the critics of the Singleton-Hearst deal were worried about the wrong private company. Maybe it's Hearst that will end up with the market it was waited for and spent so lavishly on these past decades.
The New York Times today published a takeout on the Hearst Corp. to mark the completion of its opulent new midtown office tower. In a section of the story reporting on the Hearst's business strategy of investing in (successfully) and partnering with other companies (Disney, ESPN, and now Media News), Hearst CEO Victor Ganzi all but said he has his eyes on a larger goal - a greater stake in Media News.
Singleton's partner in Media News is Richard Scudder, a New Jersey newsprint-maker. Ganzi points out - in what might be seen as a morbid observation were this not simply business - that Scudder is 93. The Times wrote (emphasis added):
"Typical of the inscrutable Hearst style, both of these recent deals make the company appear to be a passive, patient investor in a larger entity. But Mr. Ganzi revealed in an interview that both arrangements carry rights of refusal and other provisions that would allow Hearst to increase its stake in Fitch and MediaNews (excluding a group of California newspapers it owns) and potentially acquire control of both businesses down the road.
"'We are comfortable with our minority stake in all these cases and if it never changes we are comfortable with that,' Mr. Ganzi said. In the case of MediaNews, Mr. Singleton, 54, and another investor, Richard Scudder, who is 93, each currently own 45 percent of the group of 55 daily newspapers. 'Ultimately, I think there will be opportunities,' Mr. Ganzi said."
Ganzi could be suggesting that it covets more equity in Media News, perhaps in a deal that swaps the S.F. Chronicle for a fistful of other Media News properties, but I'm not so sure I see Hearst walking away from the William Randolph Hearst's original market. It's more likely Ganzi is sticking with the newspaper strategy that has served the company well - be patient, control costs and one day own the market. For evidence see Houston, San Antonio and, I suspect, Seattle. As Ganzi said to the Times in talking about the what the new office tower says about the company (emphasis added):
"I'm less concerned about a statement to the world. I'm more concerned about a statement to my colleagues. It's a statement about our future as well as, I think, a statement and commitment to our past."
Hearst's past began in San Francisco. Look for it there in the future.
An interview with the publisher of the Wall Street Journal about the newspaper's upcoming redesign contains lessons for any newspaper seeking to maintain the relevance of print journalism in a digital age.
Here are some bullets from an Advertising Age article about the Journal's makeover, due to debut next year:
The Page 1 news summary, What's News, will spawn offspring in other sections.
More articles on "what it means" vs. "what happened."
More forward-looking reporting.
More themed content.
Smaller size web, making the Journal the same width as the N.Y. Times or Washington Post.
None of these ideas is revolutionary. News summaries, topical sections and contextual reporting have been on the newspaper menu for decades. In the Journal's case, though, print redesign decisions are being driven by the usage habits of the paper's 761,000 online readers. Publisher L. Gorden Crovitz tells Ad Age (emphasis added):
"Navigation and being able to benefit from content in context are very much themes of the digital age. There is a great opportunity for the newspaper to help us overcome information overload by helping us, once a day, put the content in context."
In a word, the Journal redesign is addressing the most powerful determinant of readership habits: Expectations.
The proliferation of digital media has changed what people - especially young people - expect from media use. They expect quick information. They expect relational content (including advertising). They expect interactivity. They expect personality. They expect specificity of purpose.
In other words, they expect an "experience" - thank you, Readership Institute - that is different from that delivered by a traditional newspaper. Print 3.0 (borrowing from the Journal's name for its redesign) is going to be all about reader experience.
Mario Garcia is leading the Journal's redesign. He helped colorize the Journal a couple of years ago and converted the paper's international editions last year to a "compact" format - i.e., tabloid. He talked with Eric Deggans of the St. Pete Times about the Journal project (emphasis added):
"It's basically a rethinking . . . (according to) how people receive information today. Everything is on the table. How many sections? How much fusion with the Internet? Page-by-page, section-by-section, we are doing an absolute autopsy of the newspaper."
Another core lesson: Think big. Don't tinker. Put all of the newspaper on the table and ask: Why do we do it this way? What if we didn't. This is a basic lesson of reporting: Question assumptions. Let's apply that reasoning to the end product of our journalistic work, the newspaper.
In the same St. Pete
Ad Age piece, Bill Gaspard, a deputy managing editor at the Las Vegas Sun and former president of the Society for News Design, talks about the need to rethink the newspaper format design so it reflects the expectations of modern readers (emphasis added):
"The design is fine at most newspapers. (But) no one is acknowledging yet that people spend 20 to 30 minutes a day with them, and we're still editing and designing this stuff as if people are spending two or three hours a day with it. Newspapers have largely been produced for the satisfaction of other journalists, and the jig is up now."
Of course, not all papers, especially smaller ones, can spend whatever the Journal is laying out for Garcia and a parade of focus groups on a redesign, but all papers can take an unflinching look at their story forms, their design and their content mix with the purposing of asking the question: Is this serving the needs, desires and expectations of today's web-conditioned readers?
There is, at last, a growing sense of urgency in the newspaper industry that change is inevitable not only to maintain social relevance but to preserve financial viability. Well-heeled papers like the Journal may lead the way on some sorts of change (although much of the most creative innovation is being done at smaller papers), but every newspaper now has the chance, and the excuse, for unlimited reinvention.
As Garcia put it in commenting on content changes at the Journal(emphasis added):
"Hard financial times lead to opportunity. Younger readers want to read about fashion. They want to know which suit to buy. And if the Wall Street Journal doesn't give them that, somebody else will. . . . So let's take the opportunity to really do it well."