Photos: NY Farm Bureau Foundation, Food and Farm Experience 2015

This past weekend I participated in the Food and Farm Experience, hosted by the NY Farm Bureau Foundation for Agricultural Education. The two-day seminar was a chance for members of the media to learn more about agriculture and some of the myths perpetuated in popular culture today about issues such as GMOs, chicken, beef and milk production and the impact those myths have on farmers, which means working families since 95 percent of all farms in the US are family owned.

Most, if not all, of the journalists participating either cover ag or come from a publication surrounded by a business community dominated by farmers and those industries dependent on or supporting farmers.

For me, in general terms, nothing I heard surprised me or contradicted what I already know to be true, but I do think the experience will help me be a better ag reporter when I come across stories involving some of these issues.

The Batavian’s basic rules for scanner reporting

Once again, scanner reporting is controversial.

The Batavian does a lot of scanner reporting. It works for us.

It’s not hard to find people in our coverage area who say they love The Batavian, that they’re addicted to it, that they check it multiple times a day or at least first thing every morning or last thing at night. The number one reason people give is that we’re right on top of things. We have more news faster. People like knowing why the fire trucks just went down Main Street or why all of the police cars are gathered at the end of their block.

The Web makes it possible to report real-time news that simply didn’t exist in paper or broadcast eras and readers simply expect real-time news these days and will reward it with their attention the sites that give it to them.

We have the largest audience in Genesee County and our audience is four to five times larger than a newspaper Web site in any other similar-sized market (that’s the subject of a future report).

As I said, scanner reporting works for us. It isn’t all we do, and we do go to scenes and do other kinds of reporting, but the foundation of The Batavian‘s success comes from how we’ve been able to use the scanner to keep the community informed.

Here are our rules for scanner reporting:

Do not report a possible crime in a way that might identify an individual unless a description is necessary to help identify a fleeing suspect.
Discussion: To report a group of people fighting in Austin Park will not reveal any identifying information about people involved. If a person is injured in the fight and a fleeing suspect description is given, publicizing the description might help police locate or identify that individual. In some cases, the name might be transmitted. We never use names transmitted over the scanner.

Do not report information that will jeopardize officer safety or thwart their ability to apprehend a suspect.
Discussion: If a tan sedan is fleeing down Warboys Road, you want people in the area to be on the lookout for a tan sedan, but you don’t want to give away the position or pursuit tactics of law enforcement (on the off chance a suspect is carrying a smartphone and knows to check The Batavian for updates).

When we had an incident a couple of years ago where a warrant suspect high tailed it in the city and officers from multiple agencies were called along with a K-9 unit and a helicopter, people wanted to know what’s going on.  We reported the location of the suspect, but we didn’t report the location of responding units or the nature of the response.

When a neighbor spotted two men going to into a house on Shepard Road and State Police thought the two men might still be inside when they arrived on scene, we waited hours to report anything (with the massive police action, if it had been in a more densely populated area, we wouldn’t have waited).   We didn’t provide details on the police response.  By the time we reported anything, we figured if they were still inside they had to be well aware of the dozens of police vehicles outside the house (full follow up report here).

Maintain a level of skepticism about information provided by dispatchers to first responders.

Discussion: In the initial minutes of any call, the only information a dispatcher has is what is provided by a caller about an event. Witnesses may misunderstand or be emotionally involved in a way that causes them to relay incorrect information. Further, the nature of communication is such that dispatchers may misunderstand or not correctly repeat information given to them. Sometimes the dispatcher informing first responders is not the dispatcher who spoke with the initial caller. This isn’t to say never report what the dispatcher says, but the more specific and sensational the information coming from the dispatcher, the healthier a reporter’s skepticism should be.

Basic dispatch information is generally safe.
Discussion: “Possible structure fire; callers report heavy smoke from a basement window of a residence on Ross Street,” is likely to be correct information. We nearly always wait to post a possible fire when there’s only one caller and there’s no report of flames showing. In that situation, we wait for a fire chief to get on scene and relay back “we have a working structure fire,” then report it.

It’s generally safe to trust the statements of first responders.
Discussion: The transmissions from a scene are by people who are there and reporting what they’re seeing and hearing. They are rarely wrong.

Never give details of medical condition of victims.
Discussion: Nobody needs to know the pulse rate of an accident victim. We had an accident victim recently where a medic reported the victim was not breathing on his own and bleeding from his mouth and ears. Those are unnecessary details that will upset family members. We confine a report in such a situation to “victim is unconscious.” We can convey a lot of the seriousness of the situation by reporting that Mercy Flight is responding.

Never use names off the scanner.
Discussion: I mentioned this earlier, but it’s true whether it’s a medical situation or a criminal situation, never use names. In medical situations, we want to give officials as much opportunity as possible to make proper family notifications. For that reason, we also never use vehicle descriptions. In criminal situations, you don’t want to risk misidentifying a suspect. We don’t want to use the name of a suspect until it’s released in person, on scene, by a police supervisor or through an official release. (Above, I link to a search in the city and in that story, you’ll see we name the suspect; that name was confirmed in person with a on-scene supervisor.)

Never report a fatality off the scanner.
Discussion: Verify it in person, on scene. This can be difficult, because situations where Mercy Flight is cancelled and the Crash Management Team dispatched (a sign the victim is dead or first responders believe the victim could likely die) are indications of a fatality and significant events in the course of the incident.

Never make assumptions.
Discussion: This is one of the hardest rules to learn because your mind wants to connect dots, and sometimes, in reality, there’s no connection. I wish off the top of my head, I could remember some of our mistakes we made in the early days of The Batavian by making assumptions, but we learned quickly any time we make an assumption, we’re usually wrong. It’s important to discipline yourself to stick just to the data transmitted and not go beyond it with information not specifically contained in a transmission.

There was an incident not long ago where I broke the rule on not being more skeptical about what dispatchers were transmitting and I made an assumption. A woman fell on a baby at a local business and the baby was unconscious and not breathing. CPR was being performed. It was a location where twice in the previous week police had been called to investigate either harassment allegations or an alleged violation of an order of protection. The dispatchers reported the woman had been assaulted. I reported all of this. It turned out, there was no crime. The woman fainted from a medical condition. That isn’t one of my proudest moments.

It’s good to be fast; it’s also good to wait.
Discussion: There are times when it’s obvious a call coming over the scanner is something that’s real and worth reporting. Multiple calls on a head-on collision reporting possible serious injury is a good indication the information is accurate.

There are also times when it’s best to wait for a first responder to get on scene.  We never report “automatic alarm of fire.”  There’s never been an actual fire. Someday, there will be, but so far an “automatic alarm of fire” has never turned out to be anything other than a false alarm.  More than once we’ve heard fire departments being sent out based on one caller reporting smoke in the area and it’s turned out to be a legal controlled burn (we report illegal controlled burns in April and May).

Being fast helps grow and retain readership, but when the information seems sketchy, it’s better to wait and see if the information in the initial dispatch is true (and the more you listen to the scanner, the better you are at recognizing sketchy calls).

We do not report non-accident, non-crime medical calls.
There are two issues with medical calls. First is privacy. If somebody on Morton Avenue is having stomach pains, who’s business is it? Not mine.  While accidents and crimes are public issues that have broader implications, that can’t be said for medical calls. The second reason is also a practical matter. On a routine day, there are a couple of dozen medical calls on the scanner. Who can keep up?

There is a triage sort of process on deciding what to report. Broadly defined, there are four types of calls on the scanner: Crime, fire, accident, medical (including overdoses and mental health).  While not every crime, fire or accident in our coverage area will result in follow up coverage, any initial call of a crime, fire or accident could blossom into a bigger story.  We believe in starting with the initial report, as a general rule, and it doesn’t become something that warrants a follow up, at least people know what the initial call was about.  We’ve had calls that started out sounding like not much turn into big deals and we were glad we captured those initial details.

Triage for crime: If weapons are involved, we’re more likely to report it. If a suspect is on the loose and being pursued, we’re more likely to report it. If there is a large law enforcement response, we’re more likely to report it. If it involves a high-speed chase, we’re more likely to report it.  If it involves a large group of people in a populated area, we’re more likely to report it.

Triage for fires: There needs to be a clear indication that it is a working structure fire to really get our attention.  An automatic alarm of fire or smell of smoke in the residence might encourage us to listen for what the first responding chief finds, but will not be reported until there is confirmation of a working structure fire.  Field fires only get reported during the n0-burn season in April and May, unless a first responder reports its out of control or threatening a structure.

Triage on accidents: Obviously, any accident that initial reports indicate could be a fatal will get an initial scanner report (without mentioning the fatality until we’re on scene) and then I’ll go to the accident. If Mercy Flight is responding or it is otherwise reported as serious injury, we report it.  If it’s minor injury, but blocking well traveled road, we report it.  If it’s in the city and blocking, whether injury or not, we report it.  If it’s in the city, not blocking and non-injury (property damage only), we ignore it.

Public suicides and public mental health issues are always tricky.  They can necessitate a substantial law enforcement and fire response, which makes them a public issue.  There are few clear-cut guidelines on these calls because each one can be so different.

The trivial can be entertaining
Discussion: Unlike a newspaper or a broadcast outlet, we have an unlimited news hole.  We report items off the scanner sometimes just purely for their interesting or entertainment value.  Once in a while, a post on our Facebook feed will result in a poster asking, “why is this news?”  My standard response is, “we never ask, is this news?” The word “newsworthy” is not part of our vocabulary.  We ask, is it interesting?  If it’s interesting and we have time to post it, we post it.

Examples:

As I said earlier, we’ve built a large local audience because of our reputation of being on top of the local news. We couldn’t do it without a scanner.

We’ve made some mistakes and we’ve upset some people, but we’ve also been praised by people with connections to tragic incidents.

A landlord who was out of town learned that one of his apartments was on fire because of The Batavian and knew to hurry back to town.

A woman whose husband died in a car accident thanked us the following spring for our timely and complete reports because it saved her from answering a lot of questions.

One of the unexpected surprises about our approach to scanner reports is the praise it gets from first responders. Police officers check the home page of The Batavian at the start of every shift because it helps them know what’s happened since their previous shift. Volunteer firefighters love it because it helps inform the community about their calls.

Our scanner reporting has also led to us breaking news that other news organizations missed. When a 26-year-old woman hit a Walmart cashier on Christmas Eve 2011, it was only because we were listening to the scanner that the event ever became news, and it became national news. When a father threw his son to the floor of Walmart, a state trooper called on The Batavian, and nobody else, to help get the news out quickly, knowing our real-time news reputation had built up our audience. The concern was that the boy was injured and needed medical attention, so time was of the essence (turned out, he wasn’t hurt).

The scanner is just another news reporting tool, and like any tool, it can be misused and abused, but for Web journalism in the era of real-time news, it’s an invaluable tool when used well.

I think we’ve gotten better at scanner reporting the longer we’ve done it.  Rather than fight how technology changes journalism, reporters and editors need to learn how to harness it and use it to benefit the communities they serve.

A collection of YouTube sales training videos for aspiring local online news publishers

Some time ago I thought it would be interesting to see if I could put together a sales training course for beginners, thinking primarily of journalists, using just YouTube videos.  I’m posting what I’ve come up with so far to supplement my presentation today at ONA in San Francisco.

Here are the sales training videos:

The number one rule of sales is be sold yourself. If you don’t believe in what you’re offering is what your customers need, you will find it difficult to close the sale.

If you’re a local publisher, this part should be easy for you.  If you don’t believe that your publication is what your community needs, should have and wants, and that it’s the right place for local businesses to connect to local consumers, then you shouldn’t even be publishing.

We’ll talk about sales techniques, but related to a belief in your product, is the need for passion about what you’re selling.

If you’re a local publisher, you need to be passionate about your business.  If you have passion, sales will be much easier. Passion will also help you stay in business when you feel like quitting. After the Harvey Cohen video below is a video with Steve Jobs. The Jobs video isn’t about sales, but it emphasizes why passion is so important for the entrepreneur.

To help demystify the key aspects of selling, the video below (featuring Tom Hopkins, one of the biggest names in sales training) lays out seven fundamentals of selling.  If you can grasp that sales is a process and not some magical charm that only a select few possess, you will do much better in sales. The fundamentals are prospecting, original contact, qualifying, presentation, handling objections, closing and then getting referrals.

One of the key tools for sales is the telephone.  I’m a big believer that when you’re launching your site, actually walking right into a small business and introducing yourself to the owner, but since the key to all sales is numbers (the more people you contact, the more you will sell), the phone speeds up the process of getting appointments with people you can actually sell.  If you make a sale, get an appointment and have a product you believe in, you will almost certainly make the sale. (Below, pay especial attention to Brian Tracy’s instruction on the fact you’re making a sale to get an appointment, not selling your product).

One thing that worked really well for me when meeting with small business owners was to tell them a story. I told them the story of me and my wife and why we were doing The Batavian, which helped communicate that we were fellow small business owners, committed to the community and had a vision for promoting local business.  The three videos below are about sales and storytelling. Every journalist knows how to tell stories, right?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zeicK19Nreg

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mHz0z1vqPWw

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qzV-CWkJAYs

I said before there is no magic in sales. Further, the skills in sales are not terribly hard to learn, but I suspect many journalists believe the techniques of sales are opaque and hard to grasp. Beyond belief and passion, some basic fundamentals and being able to tell a story, it’s important to understand the words you use have impact (journalists get that, right?).  Perhaps the hardest thing about sales is developing the habits of good word choice.  I’m not necessarily good at it, but good enough.  The more you practice and master word choice skills in sales, the better you do.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wfbH3r-A7mw

In sales, you’re going to hear no a lot, or people will hesitate making a decision.  You and I both know that what your selling is something your customer really needs and really needs to buy, so learning how to turn doubts into yes is a key sales skill.  Like good word choice, this is a skill that takes some practice to develop.

Here’s Harvey Cohen, a master of negotiating, on dealing with objections.

Once you’ve realized you have a great product to sell, you’ve found potential customers, you’ve made the appointment, pitched the product, over come objections, it’s time to close.  Of course, as they say in sales, ABC (always be closing) — at any point in the sales process you should recognize a chance to close and take it.  Here is a video (there isn’t much on YouTube on this topic, unfortunately) on closing.  One of the keys to closing, especially from an ABC standpoint, is to recognize “buy” questions.  For example, if a small business owner asked you, “can you link to my web site?” It’s time to start closing.

Finally, great sales people are passionate, but they’re also persistent.  To be successful in sales, as in business, you can’t give up in the face of difficulties.

You’re not in the railroad business, you’re in the news business

Countless times in the past 15 years I’ve heard online news gurus exhort newspaper executives to “get” the digital media future with admonition: “Railroads thought they were in the railroad business. They didn’t realize they were in the transportation business.”

The lessons were were supposed to learn from this MBA-style wisdom is that

  • Newspapers needed to realize they were in some other business than the news business — communications, perhaps, or community, but certainly not news on paper.
  • Newspaper executives needed to focus on customers not product.

But what if this bit of sage advice isn’t so sage after all? What if it’s just plain wrong in every respect?

My current iPad book is Bully Boy, by Jim Powell. It’s about the disastrous consequences of just about every policy initiative Theodore Roosevelt under took throughout his political career.

Besides being a racist, imperialist warmonger, Roosevelt fashioned himself as a trust buster — along with other progressives of the era — with a chief target of his wrath following on the railroad industry.

Consider:

  • Every publicly subsidized railroad company of the 19th Century went bankrupt and were rescued out of receivership by railroad owners who prided themselves on building their companies without the aid of taxpayer money, such as James J. Hill, Edward Harriman and J.P. Morgan. Hill, especially, built his business by investing in quality and keeping prices low — hardly the practice of an anti-consumer monopolist.
  • When Harriman, Hill and Morgan decided to consolidate rail operations, Roosevelt initiated a lawsuit under the fairly recent Sherman Anti-Trust Act and successfully broke up their holding company, Northern Securities.
  • Roosevelt’s next anti-trust target was John D. Rockafeller‘s Standard Oil, which was accused of monopolistic practices because it used its superior technology, assets, economies of scale and frugal business practices to secure lower shipping rates on rail lines compared to smaller and regional competitors.
  • From the 1870s or so until the government began controlling rates, passenger and shipping rates across rail lines continued to fall as more lines were built and technology improved (rail also still competed with water transportation, which helped push prices down).
  • The reason rail companies were portrayed as evil in news reports and populace myth were that even as prices fell, they fell faster for big shippers (benefiting from economies of scale), and farmers, small meat packers, small fuel producers, resented paying higher rates.
  • The main competitive pressure for farmers, however, wasn’t rail prices, it was other farmers.  Many Civil War vets, after the war, went into farming. In 1850, there were 1.4 million farms in the U.S.  By 1900, there were 5.7 million. The number of acres of land in production rose from 293.5 million acres to 841.2 acres.  Still, farmers, blamed rail “monopolies” for their woes.
  • Feb. 4, 1887, Congress passes the Act to Regulate Commerce, which creates the Interstate Commerce Commission, which begins to regulate railroads, including setting long-haul rates.  This process intensified after Roosevelt became  president when he increased the number of board members from five to seven so he could appoint two people more aligned with his policies on railroads.
  • In 1903, Congress passed the Elkins Act, which outlawed rebates on railroad shipping.
  • In increasing the power (greatly limiting the ability of railroads to appeal rate decisions) and size of the ICC in 1905, Roosevelt declared, “The government must in increasing degree supervise and regulate the workings of the railways …”
  • Starting after the turn of the century, the rise of labor unions in the rail industry further increased costs and depressed profits.
  • Railroad investment in its own infrastructure peaked in 1907 — decades before interstate highways.
  • During World War I, the federal government nationalized the rail system, leading to $900 million in loses for railroad companies.
  • In 1971, historian Albro Martin estimated that more than $5 billion in investment capital that might have helped upgrade the rail system before World War I went to other financial opportunities. Martin wrote, “Developmenst like the diesel locomotive were delayed twenty years even though the steam locomotive had passed its peak by 1914.”

Railroads did not fail to invest in better passenger service because of lack of focus on customers, but because government control constrained investment, dried up profits and made it impracticable to add air conditioning or other comfort improvements, let along invest in new and faster engines.

Whether you agree with progressive trust busting or not, certainly, knowing these facts, it’s hard to make the argument that railroad executives were the authors of their own demise.

What are the implication for newspapers?

Perhaps publishers need to do a better job of remembering their in the news business after all.  Yes, focus on customers, not the product, but one thing that I’ve relearned numerous times over the past four years is the product customers most want is news.  Embrace the fact: You’re in the news business, not the communication business.

It’s time to move legal notices online

There are important reform bills in California and New York, and perhaps elsewhere, that would allow online-only publication of legal notices.

Newspaper publishers are predictably fighting the bills, one of the last reliable revenue streams for print newspapers.

But what they’re really arguing for is a right to maintain a monopoly on what has essentially become a government subsidy of their operations.

It’s a position that is hostile to taxpayers and consumers by blocking free market competition and potentially saving governments money.

Below is an FAQ I’ve prepared as a handout for local government officials in my coverage area and I would encourage my fellow New York online publishers to use it or something like it too build local agency support for the New York bills that are currently hung up in the Government Organizational Committee.  To get these bills moving forward, it will take the support of local government officials, who are always looking for relief from unfunded mandates.

Information supporting Assembly Bill 6058 by Assemblyman Steve Hawley and Assembly Bill 8075 by Assemblyman Kevin Cahill.

Q. How will this change the current law.?

A. Currently, government agencies can only place legal notices in printed newspapers to satisfy various public notice requirements.  These bills would allow agencies to place notices in qualified local online news publications.

Q. Would agencies be required to post notices online?

A. No. The agency could choose whether to publish its notices with a qualified newspaper or a qualified online news source, or both, or with a local news organization that provides both print and online publication.

Q. What is the purpose of these bills?

A.  These bills will end what is essentially unfunded mandate.  Currently, print newspapers have a monopoly legal notice publications. In the vast majority of jurisdictions in New York agencies have only one or two qualified publications available for legal notices. This bill would allow for competition in the market place leading to lower prices and cost savings for taxpayers.

Q. What do these bills change?

A. There are dozens and dozens of laws on the books that govern the publication legal notices.  Generally, the definition of what constitutes a newspaper is taken from the language of the general construction law. These bills add to the definition of what constitutes statutory publication to include general online news publications that cover a defined geographic region and have been in continuous operation for at least one year and publish news on a daily basis.

Q. Won’t this bill hurt the profitability newspapers?

A. That’s up to newspapers.  It’s up to publishers to manage their businesses better in a more competitive environment rather than rely on what has become a government subsidy of their operations.  For many newspapers, these bills will actually add to the profitability of the newspapers because those newspapers will be able to retain much of the current legal publication business at current rates but save money on ink and paper by publishing the notices online only.

Q. How will citizens benefit from online legal notices?

A. Online publication opens up a wealth of opportunities for legal notice enhancements, from maps, links to related data, searching, greater and wider distribution (think Google), and continuous archives.

Q. But not everybody has access to a computer or the Internet. Won’t this deny those people an opportunity to view legal notices?

A. The flip answer is, not everybody reads a newspaper. The truth is, neither paper nor online have a monopoly on readership. Just as anybody can borrow a neighbor’s paper or go to the library to read a paper, every body has a friend or relative with online access and the library offers free online access.  For people with a real interest in online notice publication, such publication is equally accessible both online and in print.  The online advantage, if any in this regard, is that the notice is still easily available days later if you happen to throw out your newspaper before seeing an important notice.

Q. Government agencies all have their own online sites now. Why should agencies pay a third-party for publication?

A. Third-party publication is essential to maintaining accountability and transparency.  The third-party publisher is responsible for ensuring the notice, once published, is not altered in anyway and provides a barrier to those who might tamper with a legal notice.

Q. Won’t hackers be able to alter or damage a legal notice published online?

A. First, professional news organizations provide a high degree of security for their sites. It’s a vital and essential part of their businesses. This makes any computer break-in necessarily sophisticated.  The people with motivation to alter public notices are not usually the people with the tools and knowledge necessary to hack into a web site; and typically public notices are not the kinds of online information that hackers target.

Q. I’ve heard of some government agencies running into difficulty with the local papers that have reduced publication cycle making it hard to get notices published in a timely manner.

A. It’s true. In New York, some government agencies have found that as formerly daily newspapers drop publication days, they have to plan ahead to get notices published within the legally proscribed time line.  This bill will allow those newspapers to move their legal notices entirely online and better meet the needs of the government agencies within their coverage areas.  These bills also prepare for the inevitable day when newspapers no longer publish a printed product on any day of the week.

To support these bills send a letter to Assemblyman Steve Englebright, chairman of the Governmental Operations Committee, LOB 621, Albany, NY 12248.

Why Patch will never be profitable

Patch faces to huge obstacles on its path to profitability: The first is expenses; the second is revenue.

Expenses: Tim Armstrong is absolutely right that a great deal of the expense of a print publication can be wrung out of local news coverage. Not only do you get rid of industrial age presses and trucks along with paper and ink, it also takes a lot less staff — because of the efficiencies of online publishing — to cover a community.

Reportedly, AOL is spending $160 million a year on Patch. That’s a lot of money, and I don’t just mean because that’s more money than a lot of us will ever see in a lifetime. I mean, it’s a lot of money because the Patch content model shouldn’t be that expensive.  That means Patch is spending about $190,000 per each of its reportedly 864 sites.

In the one-reporter-per-community model, expenses should be $140,000 or less per site. (I’m also including in that some expense for sales and support.)

Of course, Patch isn’t spending $190,000 per site. It’s spending less than that, and the remainder of its $160 million annual expenditure is going to overhead.  Some of that is legitimate, such as infrastructure, programmers and technical support. By legitimate, I mean, there is some level of expense on technology for every local news site.

But some of that money is part of the unsustainable expense of running a large chain news organization.  For Patch, it’s regional editors, regional sales managers, supervisors for the regions, executives over them,  HR departments and legal and regulatory departments (necessary for a publicly traded company).

These are all expenses that the local independent site doesn’t face and raises the bar much higher for Patch overall to become profitable.

It’s a major factor of expense that advocates of “scale” in local news often overlook.  News isn’t a widget. It isn’t a washing machine or box of software. It isn’t an industrial product. In industry, scale is vital because the largest part of the expense of making the product is just turning the machine on.  In news, each new piece of product (a news story, say) costs essentially the same amount of money as the previous piece of product. There is no expense savings in producing more product, there is only more expense.

The same analogy applies to each individual news org you create (each of the 864 Patch sites).  In trying to scale a national news organization, you’re not saving money by scale. You’re scaling up your expenses, both in local staff and then in the national and regional staff (as pointed out above) to run the company.

Expense is the Catch-22 of trying to scale local news.

This expense was masked in the newspaper industry because every newspaper that is now part of a national chain was a HUGELY profitable, family owned newspaper at the time it was absorbed into a chain.  That profit helped feed the beast of corporate overhead, thereby masking the real expense of creating the chain.

In fact, the problem for newspapers today isn’t so much that individual newspapers lose money; it’s the fact they’re still saddled with the expense of being chain owned.

Revenue: According to Ken Doctor, Patch executives claim 1/4 of its 864 sites is making at least $2,000 per month, and Doctor is somewhat rhapsodic over the figure. He sees this bit of revenue growth as a “rocket launch.”  In reality, $2,000 is nothing.

With The Batavian, we went from practically no revenue in March 2009 to more than $4,000 a month four months later.  And that’s with one person covering the news and selling the ads, and in a market that is far more economically challenging than any Patch has launched in.

The successful independent sites I know are all doing at a minimum $10,000 per month.

Clearly, Patch is struggling to sell local ads, which should be the bread-and-butter of its strategy.

If somehow, every one of the 864 sites managed even just $10K per month, that’s still only $106 million a year in revenue, far short of the $160 million in expenses weighing down the chain.

To achieve break even, each Patch site needs to do more than $16,000 per month in total sales. That is a very achievable number with the right business and sales model (which I don’t believe Patch has, but that’s another topic).

So the problem Patch faces is burdensome and unnecessary corporate overhead expenses and a failure, so far, to generate any meaningful amount of revenue.  Patch should be much further along on the revenue side than it is and that spells trouble for investor patience.

CLARIFICATION: Shortly after posting, I should add.  I think each of Patch’s 864 markets is capable of generating at a minimum of $500,000 in annual revenue. I just think time will run out on Patch before the chain breaks even.  Also, as Patch generates more sales, expenses will increase.  That will further delay the break-even point.  If Patch were to survive, fix its business and sales model, achieve maximum velocity, we’re probably looking at a company with $250 million in annual expense and $500 million in annual sales (at the current size of the company).  I assume investors would be happy with that performance.  I just don’t see how they sustain the losses to get there.

Paywalls create opportunities for local news entrepreneurs

It seems like paywalls are popping up all over the place these days.  In recent months Lee, GateHouse and Gannett, for example, have all announced or are implementing paid subscriptions for digital content.

Nobody is rooting for these newspapers to fail as they try to prop up flagging business models, but as a matter of business reality, when an incumbent business moves deeper into sustaining innovation it opens up opportunities for disruptors.

In every market where a newspaper puts up a paywall, an opportunity is created for an entrepreneur to start a local online news business.

Here’s an outline of three possible approaches (and depending on  conditions in each local market, there may be other models or variations — the key is for an entrepreneur take a close look at his or her market, and his or own strengths and weaknesses, and figure out the best bet for success).

The important thing to remember is that history has shown — including quite recently — that consumers will flee to a free alternative content sources when available.

A key rule of disruption is to target the customers undervalued by incumbents. Clearly, any news site that puts up a paywall is telling the community, “there’s a lot of people in this town we don’t value.”  That creates pure opportunity for the disruptive entrepreneur.

In small markets: Start a local news site.  Concentrate on breaking news, some enterprise and feature content, lots of what’s deemed “hyperlocal” news. Successful examples, of course, would include The Batavian (my own business, for those who don’t know).  This can easily be done as a two-person operation.

In suburbs: Perhaps the entrepreneur lives in a suburb and doesn’t want to tackle the larger metro area. The effort here is more hyperlocal (typically, a suburb is undercovered by definition, even if it has a good print weekly). Overlapping emergency jurisdictions and jurisdictions that take in much larger areas can make breaking news harder to cover, but not impossible, but just being embedded in the community and showing great passion for it is a huge competitive edge. Successful examples would include West Seattle Blog (which also shows how to do breaking news in a suburb) and Baristanet. (Authentically Local is another great resource for finding examples of successful, independently owned local news sites. You’ll also find other successful sites that do variations on the quick outline of approaches posted here.)

In Metro Markets:  A metro presents a decision fork for the entrepreneur, with the question being, “do you have money in the bank or not?”  It becomes much harder to bootstrap an original reporting site the bigger the market.  There is simply so much more to cover in a metro, and if you can’t give readers a sense of having a good handle on the community, they won’t find your effort appealing.  With that in mind, below are alternatives for an effort that is funded and one that isn’t.

Boostrap in a metro: Pure, or nearly pure, aggregation.  Not to pick on my friends at the Democrat and Chronicle, but if I lived in Rochester, I would be taking a serious look at how to take advantage of Gannett’s plan to wall off the D&C, so I’ll use Rochester as an example.  Rochester is blessed with some fine TV news stations. There is also local radio news and local bloggers who do various forms of reporting and aggregation. In other words, it’s a news rich environment.  A good aggregator could bring all of this coverage into a home page for the community sort of site and give people who don’t want to pay for the D&C an convenient place to go for as much if not more local news than they could get from the D&C’s web site. A good example of a local aggregator is Newzjunky.com in Watertown, N.Y. While this is a smaller market, it shows the potential. In fact, NJ’s successful eventually forced the Watertown Daily Times to take down its paywall in 2008, which should serve as a cautionary tale for publishers putting up paywalls now.

Bootstrap in a metro II: Aggregation could be supplemented by original reporting.  If you’re a one or two person team, you won’t have time to cover the whole metro, but why not cover a portion of it?  If it were me, I’d get a scanner and concentrate on breaking news, even going out to the scene of bigger events.  A reporter with a strong background in city government might concentrate on City Hall as a specialty, or an education reporter might spend a lot of time on schools and the school board.  Or maybe the reporter would do only a couple of big enterprise stories pure month. Aggregation supplemented by original reporting would create a stronger draw for readers.

Funded in a metro:  No advice here on how to get money to hire staff, but if I were an entrepreneur with some backing, I would start a series of local news sites, each with their own area of coverage. There would be a blog for crime and courts, a site for breaking news, a site for city hall, a site for education, a site for environment and infrastructure, a site for business, etc.  Each editor would be a co-owner in their own site, giving them a greater stake in its success.  A series of separate sites, instead of one big one, would open more revenue opportunities and diversify the risk (some sites might work, while others wouldn’t, giving the group publisher greater flexibility in how to adjust during the start-up phase).  There would also be an umbrella site that would act as an aggregator of not just my own group of sites, but the other free news outlets in the market.

In all of the bootstrap models briefly outlined here, there are examples of independent publishers finding at least enough success to support themselves (and maybe a staff member or two).  Nobody yet has shown that these independent sites can grow into larger operations, but I believe that growth is only a matter of time and inevitable.  The point is, whether you’re an entrepreneur who would just be happy with a ma-and-pop operation, plenty of successful examples already exist.  If you have bigger ambitions, there’s no reason not to believe those ambitions can’t be realized. The money is there to be made if you want to make it.

Newspapers are turning to paywalls not because they’re great business models, but because lack of vision and lack of execution over the past decade and a half has left them in a desperate bind to just try and survive. Being in business for yourself is a great lifestyle if you can stomach the hard work and unavoidable frustrations.  As newspapers crumble, there should be entrepreneurs ready to pick up the pieces, if for no other reason than our communities deserve good local news coverage. And a little (more) competition is always good in any market.

Advocates of pay walls should consider the fate of the New York World

At the time it was built (1890), the New York World skyscraper was the tallest building in the world.

First, let me remind you of a post November, 2009, in which I quote Walter Lippmann:

We expect the newspaper to serve us with truth however unprofitable the truth may be. For this difficult and often dangerous service, which we recognize as fundamental, we expected to pay until recently the smallest coin turned out by the mint. … Nobody thinks for a moment that he ought to pay for his newspaper.

Second, a summary of the situation faced by the New York World in the 1920s:

So by every measure the acolytes of the Church of Journalism might apply to the sanctity of a newspaper, the World met the standards of absolute divinity.

So what killed the World?

It wasn’t bad journalism. It wasn’t cuts to the editorial staff. It wasn’t competition from the New York Times (the death of the World created a vacuum for the Times to fill). It wasn’t a change in the public taste.  It wasn’t new technology (radio news was just barely invented when the World closed in 1931).

According to The Golden Age of the Newspaper, by George H. Douglas, in 1925, Joseph Pulitzer II made a fatal mistake.  He raised the price of the paper from two cents to three.

No other New York newspaper followed suit and circulation plummeted. In  1931, Roy Howard bought the World and laid off its remaining 3,000 employees.

People may pay for home delivery. They may pay for a nice package of reporting, entertainment and advertising. But history has shown time and again: They won’t pay for news.

Ten things journalists can do to reinvent journalism, the new list

For no particular reason, I found myself looking at Google Analytics and decided to open the calendar all the way back to 2007.

I discovered that the most popular post I’ve written in that time (and probably since I started blogging in 2002) is “Ten Things Journalists Can Do to Reinvent Journalism,” published Feb. 16, 2008. It’s been viewed more than 40,000 times.  If I go back month-by-month since 2008, it is consistently among the top 10 posts for each month.

So, I just re-read it, and I found, not surprising, given nearly four more years of experience, I don’t agree with everything it says.

The first two points could be summed up as “don’t treat journalism as an ego feed.” Setting aside for a moment that I’m the last one who should lecture anybody on ego, that overall point is something I still agree with.  The reader needs to come before your own journalistic pride.  The point I would dispute is the importance of being first with a story. I used to think readers didn’t care about who is first with a story. Since starting The Batavian, I’ve learned that readers very much pay attention to consistently is first with stories and they award points to news organizations that get the scoops.  When I was a print reporter, no readers ever seemed to care about such matters, but for online news, it’s a critical bonus.

There are some points, of course, I still agree with, and there are items that I would state differently, which leads to  a new list of “Ten Things Journalists Can Do to Reinvent Journalism.”

  1. Start your own online news site. You’re not going to make dent in the universe working for a newspaper company, or any chain news organization. Get out now. Pursue your own passion and your own dream, stick to it, and you will accomplish something that matters.
  2. Connect to the community you serve, whether it’s geographic or focused around an interest. Be passionate about that community and do your best to meet all of its informational needs. Make sure your site is indisputably essential to the community you serve. Readers trust news organizations that look out for their interests.  Be that kind of news organization.
  3. Cover the big and the small. Focus on people, not government actions and process (though, obviously, this can’t be ignored).  A continuous stream of news will include stories about dead deer, city council hi jinx, cows in the roadway, misappropriation of funds, great-grandma’s 100th birthday, etc. Focus on people more than politics.
  4. Be a real person. Your byline matters. You will be a more trusted source if people have some sense of who you are. You don’t need to open up every aspect of your life to public disclosure, but sharing selective details helps people connect with you and makes them more interested in what you report.
  5. Publish what you know when you know it and let stories unfold incrementally. This also brings your readers into the process, adding information, providing new tips, correcting errors.
  6. Be absolutely ethical in how you handle information.  Be as truthful and accurate as humanly possible. Part of the new information ethics, however, is also about correcting others errors where you find them.  Don’t let misinformation spread, because it spreads too quickly these days.
  7. Be transparent. Be transparent about who you are and what you believe. Be transparent about your news process. Truth is transparent. Always be truthful.
  8. Forget old-school objectivity. For readers to connect with you, they need to see your passion. Let readers in on what you care about.  It’s impossible to report and write a truly objective story anyway, so be transparent about your point of view.
  9. Give the readers what they want. Feedback is very important. Seek it out and pay attention to it and provide the kind of coverage readers seem to enjoy.
  10. Don’t give the readers what they want. Sometimes, you need to give them a little castor oil along with the candy and ice cream. At the end of the day, you’re not truly carrying about the community if you’re not also providing the kind of truthful coverage that might make some people uncomfortable.

A prescriptive look at the news business

The clip above came to mind while scrolling through comments on Dean Starkman’s CJR piece, Confidence Game: The limited vision of the news gurus.

As Starkman points out, there’s two camps in the game of predicting where the news game is going and how it will survive.  There’s the Future of News Crowd, a group of academics and business elite who proclaim everything is changing, the world is falling apart and the old models will not work in the fully digital future.  The other camp is the Journalism for Democracy gang (Starkman’s phrase).  This is the group that us digital types have often dismissed as “printies,” dinosaurs who decry the changes in media markets and demand, “somebody must pay.”

I believe in, more than ever, the middle ground.

There will be no radical shift in the news business (though, I myself, fretted about it in my newspaper company executive days).  There is an evolution going on, not revolution.  Newspapers may die (and maybe they won’t), but the news business, and journalism, will survive.

The main thing both the FON and JFD groups miss is a sense of history, hence the Bogart clip.

Since early in the 19th Century, the news business has been constantly evolving, and each step of the way, there has been somebody to mourn the passing of an era, from the six-penny publishers losing out to the penny newspapers, from the muckrakers being superseded by the professional journalists, and then you had the advent of radio and TV and the death of evening newspapers, and finally, the digital age.

Each step of the way, the old school reacted with fear and loathing.

But somehow, each step of the way, new and better forms of journalism emerged.

Some of the greatest work in newspaper history came after broadcasters began competing for listener and viewer attention and local advertising dollars.

If you study the charts on newspaper readership and circulation declines, newspapers have suffered more from the changing demographics of America and changes in their own business structure than the rise of new technology.

Newspapers have been hurt by three things:

  • World Wars.  Both the first and second big wars caused great migrations around the country, mostly toward the west, as workers went to factories to find wartime jobs and military personnel found new ports of call on the coasts.  This created a less rooted society, which hurt local newspapers as people felt less connected to their communities, and therefore less interested in what the local daily or weekly had to offer.
  • Professionalization.  The rise of journalism schools and the sense that all reporters and editors needed to be “professional journalists” turned newspapers away from being interwoven in the fabric of their communities toward disconnected observers that need not be troubled with the consequences of what is covered, or not; and, more so, gave a sense of entitlement to reporters that they need not bother with the trifles of community life.
  • Chains and IPOs. Once a newspaper (or radio or television station) becomes part of a chain, it’s profits are no longer its own.  A certain layer of revenue gets sent back to corporate HQ to cover corporate expenses (corporate HQs are by definition incapable of generating revenue to support their own operations) and the local profits must be shared with corporate overlords. This means money that once stayed in the community to reinvest in journalism is now ripped away from the place where it could do most good for the health of the community and the news organization.  The introduction of publicly traded newspaper companies in the 1970s brought a whole next level of evil in the chain ownership structure.  With shareholders to please, insane profit margins needed to be maintained.  The news business — and it is a business — is not of sufficient structure to make rapid enough change or introduce new quickly commoditized products (the way a traditional manufacturer can) to maintain those profit margins.  The best newspapers can do are invest in themselves to improve and maintain quality.  In the publicly traded world, that’s not possible.

The news business was in decline before the Web came along.  Like the proverbial frog in hot water, nobody noticed how these structural changes to the news business were leading to irreversible long-term declines.  In fact, it looked like things such as chain structure (so bean counters could create “efficiencies of scale”) and a more professional work force (which also made reporters more like factory workers, more interchangeable), were in some ways beneficial (professional reporting is better, after all, than gossip mongering).

If my thesis is true — and obviously, I believe that it is — then digital represents more of an opportunity than a threat.

And the opportunity lies with those businesses that are addressing the structural flaws in the American media landscape.

  1. Local ownership.  Only local owners can address two of root causes of the news business decline. First is a connection to the community and a commitment to the community. Second is that revenue is not frittered away on support of a wasteful corporate infrastructure.  So called “scale” has no place in the news business. Local news operations by their most eloquent definition can’t scale.  Regionalism is one thing, national scale is a pipe dream.
  2. Start ups.  A start up doesn’t have the baggage that goes with legacy.  A start up can come out as a pure digital play and build a business around realistic cost and revenue projections. Digital is a different medium from paper or air. It calls for a different approach to news and business. The start up owner has the flexibility to experiment and fashion a structure that better fits the environment.
  3. Reinvent journalism. The independent editor has the freedom to change the rules of the game, re-evaluate all of the sacred cows that have been erected in the high church of journalism and decide what makes sense and what doesn’t.  The reinvented journalist can once again be a booster for his or her community, can care about the health of the local business community, can more effectively point out the rights and the wrongs in the civic sphere, and can engage his or her community in ways that are meaningful and hopefully attract more people into a new engagement with the very places they live and work.

There’s a lot of talk in the pundit class about the “sustainability” of local online journalism.  To me, it’s a ridiculous topic to theorize about.  Of course, local online journalism will be sustainable.  Each stage of journalism, from the penny press to the arrival of television, local journalism has remained sustainable.  Those who navel gaze lack a sense of history.

Think back to the original penny press publishers — they had no concept of professional journalism and certainly couldn’t imagine paying for it with classified ads, especially with big profitable verticals in jobs, cars and real estate, nor could they imagine full page spreads from department stores, nor did they think much about special sections and Sunday morning inserts — all of the things that went into making modern newspapers powerhouses of revenue and investigative, watchdog journalism were not invented for decades after the penny press was born.

We don’t know how online journalism will evolve, but it will evolve.  It will find ways to make more and more money to pay for more and more journalism.  The audience is there for it, local businesses will always want to connect with that audience, and entrepreneurial minded people will find ways to put the pieces together.

Recommended reading (books that influenced the thinking behind this post)

Payment made for photos used by the UK Daily Mail

In June 2010, when my photos of Suzanne Corona showed up on the UK Daily Mail’s web site, I tried calling editors at the Daily Mail to complain, but couldn’t get past voice mail.  I also tried e-mail.

James Straub

James Straub

I hadn’t given permission for use of the photos and hadn’t been compensated.

Frustrated, I let the matter drop.

Then, this summer I took a very tabloidly photo of a man who had been arrested after allegedly driving a golf cart while intoxicated.  What made the story was that the initial report was that a man in a clown suit had stolen the golf cart.

A couple of news outlets called and asked permission — and offered compensation — to use the photo.

But it wasn’t long before the photo appeared on the Daily Mail’s site.

Again, without a request for permission nor compensation.

I tweeted about it, posted messages on the Daily Mail’s Facebook Wall and tried sending e-mails to the Daily Mail. My tweet got picked up by Steve Myers on Romenesko+.

Then an item popped up Romenesko about Bradford Noble, the New York photo editor for the Daily Mail online.

I found Bradford’s profile on Facebook and sent him a message.

I got a phone call from him the next day.  He was very kind and apologetic.  He passed my information onto the photo editor in London, who called me a couple of days later and agreed to pay me twice the normal freelance rate for each of the three photos used.

After some issues working out the logistics of getting the money into my checking account, I received that money transfer on Friday.

I figured since I’d made a public stink about use of the photos, I should publicly acknowledge and thank the people at the Daily Mail for coming through with compensation for the photos.

It’s good to know that once I was actually able to make contact with a real, live person at the Daily Mail, they were quite conscientious about making payment for the photos.  And a special thank you to Bradford for taking the issue seriously and getting right on it once it was brought to his attention.

The photo has shown up other places without compensation, such as WTSP, MSN, CBS12, Hot97 and Barstool Sports.  I guess I need to send some letters to these publishers next.