Friday, April 18, 2014
What's New in the New West
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The collapse of the traditional metro newspaper business has been foreseeable - indeed, foreseen - for quite some time, but it's still a shock to see venerable institutions like the Rocky Mountain News and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer close their doors. What's equally shocking, though, is the widespread assumption that serious journalism will disappear along with newspapers, and that preventing the disappearance of journalism requires either a massive philanthropic effort, a coordinated effort by news organizations to force a return to paid subscriptions, technological breakthroughs with electronic news reader devices, new business models that have yet to be invented, or some combination of all of the above. As a four-year veteran of a journalism-driven local online media start-up, I believe there's a very viable business formula that's actually quite simple, and here today: take advantage of new tools and techniques to cover the news creatively and efficiently; sell sophisticated digital advertising in a sophisticated fashion; keep the Web content free, and charge a high price for content and interaction that are delivered in-person via conferences and events. And don't expect instant results. I'm not saying this model will be a "replacement" for newspapers, or provide stable, high-paying jobs for all the journalists who once worked at newspapers. Nor do I claim that it will, by itself, support all the forms of journalism that we want and need. But I do think the potential of this approach has been radically underestimated. Some variation of it is already well-established in the trade and specialty press - Paid Content, TechCrunch,The Business Insider, Talking Points Memo, and many of the Federated Media and Gawker Media sites are all good examples - and though it's perhaps harder in local general-interest media, it can work there too. As evidence of that, I'll immodestly suggest a look at our experience of NewWest.Net.

A Simple Model for Online Journalism

The collapse of the traditional metro newspaper business has been foreseeable – indeed, foreseen – for quite some time, but it’s still a shock to see venerable institutions like the Rocky Mountain News and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer close their doors. What’s equally shocking, though, is the widespread assumption that serious journalism will disappear along with newspapers, and that preventing the disappearance of journalism requires either a massive philanthropic effort, a coordinated effort by news organizations to force a return to paid subscriptions, technological breakthroughs with electronic news reader devices, new business models that have yet to be invented, or some combination of all of the above.

As a four-year veteran of a journalism-driven local online media start-up, I believe there’s a very viable business formula that’s actually quite simple, and here today: take advantage of new tools and techniques to cover the news creatively and efficiently; sell sophisticated digital advertising in a sophisticated fashion; keep the Web content free, and charge a high price for content and interaction that are delivered in-person via conferences and events. And don’t expect instant results.

I’m not saying this model will be a “replacement” for newspapers, or provide stable, high-paying jobs for all the journalists who once worked at newspapers. Nor do I claim that it will, by itself, support all the forms of journalism that we want and need. But I do think the potential of this approach has been radically underestimated. Some variation of it is already well-established in the trade and specialty press – Paid Content, TechCrunch,The Business Insider, Talking Points Memo, and many of the Federated Media and Gawker Media sites are all good examples – and though it’s perhaps harder in local general-interest media, it can work there too. As evidence of that, I’ll immodestly suggest a look at our experience of NewWest.Net.

We started this company in 2005 partly on the premise that the news business would be changing in profound ways, and that would create opportunities. We were also very interested in what we considered a very big story – the dramatic transformation of the Rocky Mountain West from an under-populated, resource-dependent region to a dynamic, fast-growing hub of the emerging “amenity” and technology economies. We thought the story was regional in scope, but at the same time we were very conscious of the fact that people relate most closely to what’s most local, so we established NewWest.Net as a regional online magazine with local sites in key markets.

The editorial model relies on a combination of professional journalism (currently two full-time and four part-time professionals, as well as a number of freelancers); what we think of as semi-professional journalism (talented writers or subject-matter experts who do something else for their day job); and citizen journalism (bloggers and others who contribute on specific topics, sometimes for small sums of money). We don’t have copy editors, but rather copyedit each others’ stuff. We’re direct and conversational in our style, which is actually easier and quicker once you get used to it, and more appealing to readers than old-style newspaper formulas.

We have a very active photo group on Flickr, and get great feature photography from that. We mostly use Google for fact-checking – not fool-proof, but it works. We use Twitter and Facebook and RSS to push our stories out into the world. We do great video-driven stories when we can, and happily link to others’ videos. In fact, we happily link to a lot of stuff, sometimes in combination with our own reporting and sometimes not. We have lively comment threads, which we manage with as light a hand as we can and which are often additive to the stories in addition to being entertaining. We have very active event calendars in our local markets – separate from our main sites but well-integrated, and with a dedicated editor. We’re experimenting with a new social media site in Missoula, and we’ll see where that goes.

Our coverage is far from comprehensive, and we rarely write about sports or TV or movies (except when the big documentary film festival is in town). Big investigative projects are few and far between. We’re not a “paper of record,” and we’re not (or at least not yet) a replacement for local newspapers. Still, if you ask people around here where they go for smart coverage of growth and development, land-use issues, local food, regional politics, and community culture, a lot of people would say NewWest.Net. On some big stories, such as the boom and bust of the regional real estate market and the bankruptcy of the Yellowstone Club and other high-end resorts, we have been way ahead of the pack.

On the business side, we’ve found that the conventional wisdom about plunging display ad rates is simply wrong. If you have a quality site, with good editorial that drives meaningful traffic, and you work closely with advertisers and offer them flash ads, video ads, good stats reporting, and the opportunity to help understand a new medium, they will pay a premium. A critical thing we have learned is that selling online advertising is more different from selling print or broadcast than mostly people think. I’d suggest that the difficulties traditional media outlets have in getting good prices for online advertising have to do not with the medium itself, but with the learning curve involved in figuring out how to sell it properly. It took us a couple of years, and we didn’t have any legacy issues to deal with.

Everything on the Website is free, but we have about 1,000 people who pay $150 or $300 or $500 a year for their NewWest experience. This experience comes through conferences and events, which have been a major revenue source and an excellent promotional vehicle for our site. The conferences are content-driven – programming a conference is in many ways very similar to editing a magazine – and thus we see it as part-and-parcel of the journalistic mission, not a distracting commercial add-on. If anything, people like conferences even more when they spend so much time interacting via a computer screen. Conference attendees are our loyal subscribers, and they pay a lot for our content.

Newspapers had market power because they were the only ones that could deliver information to people’s doorsteps every day. That’s why things like classifieds were attached to newspapers. Online media organizations don’t have that leverage, obviously. But what they do have is the ability to get people to come to their sites by providing great editorial. We have always found that strong, original stories are far and away the best way to drive traffic. Over time, if you’re close to your community and story-driven, rather than being a generic platform of some kind, you can build a journalism brand that means something, and can be monetized.

NewWest.Net isn’t making money yet, but we’re not losing money either. We had start-up capital to get us to this stage, but that was gone as of about six months ago. Even in the worst economy any of us have every experienced, we’re making it – not with donations and not with new inventions, but simply by being creative with the tools we have and working our butts off. I wouldn’t underestimate that last bit, and sometimes I do think I’m a masochist for not riding the corporate media gravy train until it completely ran out of steam. But the world doesn’t owe any of us a living, and in the long run I firmly believe that NewWest.Net and things like it will feed the families of plenty of great reporters and editors.

About Jonathan Weber

Comments

  1. Alan Jacobson says:

    On March 21, the undersigned will gather in Washington, DC to start creating the new revenue models everyone agrees are needed, but no one has yet delivered. We call this effort RevenueTwoPointZero.

    ut unlike recent confabs of executives, editors and academics, we are hands-on professionals charged with delivering media solutions every day. And because we’re hands-on, we know how build to prototypes to demonstrate our ideas to the newspaper industry. We aim to do that by the end of the day on March 21st.

    We reject the belief that media companies should pursue models based on pay-for-content plans or philanthropy. The latest report from Pew concurs. Instead, we believe the best hope for media companies to make money is the old-fashioned way — by earning it from advertising.

    We will begin with these tasks:

    Build an effective advertising model for news content delivered on smart phones, such as Apple’s iPhone.
    Create a better CraigsList.
    Show newspaper-centric companies how they can better meet the advertising needs of small- and medium-sized businesses.
    Re-imagine the homepage and display advertising.

    Despite the fact that most of us come from editorial, we pledge to focus 100 percent of our energy on March 21 to developing advertising models. Our commitment is such that we are paying our own way. We are employed at the following places, but we are not representing them in this endeavor.

    Vernon Loeb, The Philadelphia Inquirer
    Eric Seidman, AARP
    Jay Small, Scripps Interactive Newspapers Group and Small Initiatives, Inc.
    Mary Specht, Gannett
    Yuri Victor, Gannett
    Jon Wile, The Washington Post
    Chrys Wu, Washington Post Digital
    Chris Amico, PBS NewsHour Online
    Patrick Cooper, USA Today
    Kristen Novak, USAToday.com
    William Couch, USAToday.com
    Wesley Lindamood, USAToday.com
    John Kondis, National Geographic Digital Media
    Kris Viesselman, National Geographic
    Kaitlin Yarnell, National Geographic
    Chris Courtney, Tribune Interactive
    Ernie Smith, Express and ShortFormBlog
    David Kordalski, Cleveland Plain Dealer
    Steve Dorsey, Detroit Free Press and SND Secretary/Treasurer
    Matt Mansfield, SND President and Medill
    Alan Jacobson, Brass Tacks Design

  2. concerned says:

    Jon,
    The problem is that the success of your sites like yours take ad revenue away from the big daily papers like the Missoulian, which you directly or indirectly get a lot of your content from (either by linking to AP stories, or reading articles that their paid journalists write and then providing your own take or following up on them).
    Now, when a local daily fails or lays off reporters, then you can no longer piggyback on them, or as you call it, “happily link to to a lot of stuff, sometimes in combination with our own reporting and sometimes not.”
    Let’s be honest, you have two reporters. Without the daily in town, two reporters wouldn’t be able to cover a chili-feed. But as it is, you can scan the paper each day to have an idea of which issues are at the forefront of the collective awareness of the community, and you can pick and choose which to follow up on.
    It works great for you, but lost in all this is how time-consuming it is for the reporters to dig news up in the first place. For example, how many hits on your site came from the AP article about the man found along with his wife’s dead body in a remote mountain cabin a few weeks ago? There was no journalism on your part, but you benefited from the AP’s reporting, (meaning reporters on payroll).
    When the daily papers die, sites like yours will be left empty-handed, with nothing to “happily link to”.

  3. Steve McCann says:

    Jonathan, great article and very timely. What strikes me as odd about the hand wringing surrounding the fate of the P-I, and of newspapers in general, is that it’s interpreted as the death of journalism. I don’t believe it is even though it may be the death knell of a certain form: newspaper journalism. If the Missoulian were to disappear tomorrow I would mourn the loss of employment for local journalists, but I’m not convinced that my local civic awareness and engagement would be greatly affected over the long run. There’s a surprising number of information sources out there, and they are continually improving. Take, for example, the twitter coverage of both the Bozeman explosion and the Grace trial. [
    http://hashtags.org/tag/bozexplod and http://twitter.com/UMGraceCase ]

    I have to disagree with Concerned that new media operations like New West take advantage of local journalists. If the Missoulian were not around, it would be easy and compelling to do a round up of blog, twitter, and flickr postings about any potential chili feed. All that a newspaper really is, is hand-driven version of an aggregator like Memeorandum.com. The content is out there, on all possible subjects, it just needs to be organized and presented. Newspapers are good at making those types of editorial decisions. Why are they not taking advantage of community driven content?

  4. Just Observing says:

    Wow, “concerned” sounds more like a bitter competitor of New West rather than another concerned citizen to me, but hey, I’m just observing.

    Now, I don’t know much about media but haven’t the Newspapers had a pretty solid monopoly on the news small towns like Missoula receive, and er, if I’m not mistaken doesn’t Lee Enterprises kinda own most of the papers in Montana, and er, well, isn’t a informed public the goal in America? Is “concerned” really suggesting that New West is going to be responsible for putting the Missoulian and AP journalists out of business?

    The story about the man and woman from OK. was interesting, but it hardly effects my life, (Except in my assertion that natural selection is alive and well.) Upon re-reading the Yellowstone articles it sure seemed like a lot of original reporting to me…

    Yeah a small business isn’t going to be able to be a comprehensive news site. Just a smart one…

    “The time they are a changing”.

  5. Jill Kuraitis says:

    ::::waving from Boise:::: Let us remember that NewWest.Net does plenty of original reporting mixed in with the other ways we deliver the news. We have broken some impressive stories in three years and won major awards. One of our original Idaho stories was turned into a two-hour documentary with Bill Moyers. Our original reporting is regularly picked up and distributed on other sites, including the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Denver Post, and many other news outlets. We have people who know the Rocky Mountain West, which is unique for now. We also have, for example, a part time reporter in the Idaho statehouse who files daily original reports on what’s happening there, among other things. I have written hundreds of original stories for NewWest.Net, as have we all here.

    The reality is that paying journalists – especially enough journalists – right now is almost prohibitive, given the business climate. We’d love to do all-original reporting, and hope to, someday. In the meantime, sites like NewWest.Net deserve credit for getting ahead of the curve and trying like hell to deliver revealing and professional journalism. We don’t make claims to perfection, but we claim at least a noble effort.

  6. Patia says:

    Let us also remember that the Missoulian and other newspapers certainly monitor New West and other competitors for news leads. Nor are newspapers entitled to a certain share of the advertising pie — last time I checked, this was still a free market.

    The fact is, the times they are a’changin’, and most newspapers have been painfully slow to adapt. New media has stepped in to fill the gap. Can you really blame them?

    I DON’T want to see newspapers die — I, for one, place a high value on copy editors — but I do want to see them evolve.

  7. Chris says:

    As the newspaper death spiral quickens I think it important to remember something that was mentioned earlier – journalism is not dying – traditional print publishing is. Our publishing industry hasn’t seen a revolution of this level since Guttenburg, and newspapers are at their heart in the publishing business. So the pre-revolution-newspaper-driven model of journalism, which whether people want to admit it or not, supplies nearly all of our online news and blog material, will be replaced by something. Maybe it will be something like NewWest.Net, more than likely it will be something(s) we haven’t already though of. You can read all about this idea at Clay Shirkey’s absolute must read blog post about this topic.

    http://www.shirky.com/weblog/2009/03/newspapers-and-thinking-the-unthinkable/

    Thanks for the post.

    Chris
    Photojournalist and Multimedia Producer for a probably soon to be gone newspaper

  8. Angus says:

    Both this and Shirky’s posts are must-reads. After reading Shirky’s, I thought, man, this is going to take years to figure out. After reading this one, I’m ready to get back to work on it.

    Great post, and thanks for the optimism it engenders.

  9. rscott says:

    Jonathan provides some good context. I don’t much care about the revenue side of things, but certainly am concerned about quality reporting and writing. There is a place for objectivity and editing. One has to be very discerning in reading NewWest articles, to separate the facts from the opinion; sometimes the line is quite blurred. Let’s hope that NewWest does not become a FOX “News!” Sometimes the same can be said for print media, as I see headlines that are totally skewed from the article content.