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Should nonprofit news operations pay development officers on commission?

Thursday, January 19th, 2012

marianne woodruffThere’s a fine line between philanthropy and sales.

But why?

Several times at tonight’s terrific kickoff of Portland’s new Online News Association chapter, guest speaker Mark Briggs quoted a variation on the line: "nonprofit isn’t a business model; it’s a tax status."

If that’s not a cliché yet, let’s hope it will be soon. It’s certainly true.

Nonprofit news companies are just businesses with a little extra flexibility over here and a little less over there. But as Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Toni Tabora-Roberts said after Briggs’ talk, the country’s most successful models of nonprofit local news – NPR, PBS and their affiliates – consider it unethical to compensate their "development" staff based on the size of the sponsorships they bring in.

I know bupkis about fundraising, let alone public broadcasting. But I know an assumption worth questioning when I see one.

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Why I don’t care about pageviews

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2011

eyeballPageviews don’t make money. Brands make money.

I’ve been doing my own thing for exactly 11 months. This does not make me a moneymaking expert. But I’m as certain as I get that I’m right on this one.

First, two points of information:

  1. Yes, pageviews and uniques matter to advertisers. I’m saying they’re not the main decision driver.
  2. Yes, a few people make money on traffic alone, or something close to it. I’m saying that for those of us at content companies, as opposed to technology companies — which includes almost everybody here at the local level — traffic for traffic’s sake is a sucker’s game.

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In which hog fuel demonstrates that paid content has potential

Friday, May 1st, 2009

Here’s the best case against paid news content. It’s two sentences long:

We tried that. It didn’t work.

But there’s a powerful rebuttal to that case, one that grizzled online-news veterans (like my man Steve Yelvington, linked above) miss: The economics have changed since last time.

No, consumer desires haven’t changed since 1996. Sorry, Al, they wouldn’t pay for traditional newspaper content online then, and they won’t now. But local media incentives have changed since 1996.

The real question: whether those incentives have changed enough to force newspapers to make the crucial shift that could keep them alive — a shift to niche products.

If you want to understand how newspaper incentives have changed, you need to understand the following short story from the great Northwest.

It’s a story about hog fuel.

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Dept. of mythbusting: Money can indeed be exchanged for goods and services

Thursday, April 16th, 2009

Is an iTunes for news possible? The cool kids all say no.

They’re wrong.

A year ago — three months ago! — I would have been the last person to make a case for paid content. But I’ve been coming around, and not for the reasons you think.

It’s not because I think newspapers can ever turn back the clock or put the news genie back in the bottle. They can’t. From now on, most content will always cost $0.00.

But not all content will be free, because money is not the only cost consumers must pay to read content. Gathering information — even free information — requires time, effort and knowledge: time to find it, effort to determine whether content is reliable, and knowledge of what content does or doesn’t exist.

If a product can save its readers enough time, effort or knowledge, they’ll pay money for it.

This isn’t to say that newspaper Web sites in their current form can save people enough time, effort or knowledge to be worth money.

My point is: the problem here isn’t the price.

It’s the product.

(photo courtesy Flickr user Roby72)

Sun Tzu says: social networks before A/V

Wednesday, May 17th, 2006

A chorus of my peers yesterday afternoon failed to overturn a pet iconoclasm of mine: unless they’re affiliated with radio or TV stations, most local newspapers should not be dumping lots of money into audio and video. It doesn’t dovetail with our current work, and it dovetails perfectly with the work of our biggest news competitors’ — local radio and TV stations.

Video is more compelling than print, no question. And newspapers have the dominant local Web sites. (I desperately hope we retain them.) So why shouldn’t we introduce video in order to serve and retain our visitors?

Because, in short, it’s not our specialty. We’ve got newsrooms of word reporters. We can find a bunch of great ways to reorganize those words for the Web. We can arrange data in nifty graphics and tables — numbers are a lot like words, really. We cannot, without a lot of training and capital investment, put up a short video of reasonable quality.

If video, like interactive graphics, were a new medium, that’d be different. Nobody has yet institutionalized the delivery of infographics for profit. But video and audio are hugely profitable and masterfully done by very close competitors.

And yet — those competitors aren’t simply better than us. They’re better at different things. The customizable print experience (more on that soon) has given us a newsgathering depth that broadcasters can’t match. We should build on our strengths, not push to provide redundant video services that local broadcasters could do better if they merely lifted a finger on the Web.

I’m not saying that no newspapers should be experimenting with this stuff. But smaller local papers, working with smaller scale economies, have higher priorities, like catching up on search, organizing data into parcels and improving social network functions.

One powerful counterargument that wasn’t quite enough to bring me around to video: our competition here isn’t really local TV; it’s the rest of the non-local-news media landscape.

There are surely times when video, especially, is so compelling that it demands to be included. But we should remember that we can’t, as they say, deliver all things to all people. We should pick our battles.

Walling off the local news garden: A-OK

Sunday, February 5th, 2006

Unlike national news outlets, local papers have good reason to be tempted by last week’s talk about withholding news content from search engines.

The story stirred up a predictable tizzy among futurists. Newspapers’ job is “to inform the public to what’s going on,” wrote Chris Tolles in an intelligent but presumptuous post (not pegged to the search engine story, but quite applicable). Search engines, wrote one Techdirt contributor, are merely “making that content more valuable by making it easier to find.”

Alas, these generalizations don’t fit small markets.

What Tolles describes is the job he thinks newspapers should do . . . in the future. But don’t mistake his prediction for a sustainable business model. Today, newspapers do much more than provide news content: they sort, prioritize and distribute it; they pair advertisers with content that fits their needs; and in small markets they even design the damn ads.

Someday, maybe, a model will arise to support pure newsgathering operations of decent quality. But until then, mere reporting simply doesn’t pay for itself, especially at the local level, where there aren’t enough rich people to support philanthropic drives like NPR’s or enough outlets to support economies of scale like the AP’s.

Moreover, whatever Techdirt may assume, local newspapers have a very different relationship with Google News than Agence France Presse does. Unlike national outlets, local newspapers have little use for non-local traffic. Non-local readers who stumble in from national aggregators don’t fit a local newspaper’s niche; visitors won’t be buying locally, so they only dilute the value of the paper’s pageviews.

As I wrote yesterday, local papers need to become the dominant information-and-connection brand within their communities. They won’t do that with news alone, and they certainly won’t do it with news outside their niche.

So what’s the harm in opening local news content to search engines and news aggregators? Don’t laugh: competition. Unlike national outlets, local papers retain near-monopolies on original reporting within their niche. This eliminates a major value aggregators and search engines provide consumers: diversity. Until local papers no longer have the dominant local news brand, small papers who hand their headlines to a local aggregator are asking people to start turning to another brand for the news.

As Carl Howe argues, newspapers provide the increasingly valuable service of cutting through all the crap. (Several of these links, by the way, come courtesy of Howe’s own post on this subject.) Newspapers judge what’s important to their audiences, and arrange it accessibly. This is as important as newsgathering itself. But aggregators like Newsvine aim to do the same thing better and cheaper. If they succeed, they’ll use that advantage to demolish the brands of local papers. And when that happens, Newsvine won’t be paying for the level of newsgathering that newspapers now do.

If, however, local papers can quickly co-opt the innovations of aggregators and search engines and tweak that technology for local use, they have a fighting chance at remaining the dominant local information brands. That should be their goal.