Howard Owens is a digital media pioneer. He started publishing local news online in 1995 when very few local news outlets had web sites. The header image on the site depicts the film camera he used early in his career and the press pass from his year on the staff of the Carlsbad Journal. For more on Howard's professional background, read his LinkedIn profile.
HowardOwens.com is the personal web site of Howard Owens and covers his range of interests -- political localism and libertarianism, music and personal interests, as well as his professional interests.
Howard is currently publisher of The Batavian and lives in Batavia, N.Y.
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Tag Archives: Business
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 … Continue reading
This is something I’ve been hoping would happen for the past year or more — glad to see a first formal step forward: On September 30, 2011, during the Block by Block conference at Loyola University Chicago, 21 local, independent … Continue reading
In response to some of the feedback I’ve gotten about my post on Patch editors working too hard, here are some thoughts on what you can do to launch your own local news site in 10 not-necessarily-easy steps. Pick your … Continue reading
1. Keep it simple, stupid. The typical small business owner now knows the web is important and is even excited to get involved in web marketing, but he or she hasn’t had time to really understand the web. If you start talking with them about banner rotations, click-throughs and impressions, they will tune you out. You need to sell advertising in terms they understand, which means a flat rate for a given period of time (such as monthly). Most of your advertisers are used to buying ads from the local shopper (such as the PennySaver). That is a good model for how you should price and position your ads. I see a lot of start up sites using page designs modeled after newspaper sites, which means there is a limited number of ad positions and ad rotation. The typical small business owner hates rotation. When they hit your site, they want to see their own ad — every time. If they have to keep reloading the page to see their ads, they get frustrated. They start to question the effectiveness of their advertising on your site ("nobody ever sees my ad, because I never see it). You need to remember, you’re a start up. The business owner doesn’t know you, doesn’t know your business, doesn’t know if it will work. The lack of visibility caused by rotation only reinforces these doubts. Your page design needs to accommodate an unlimited number of ads so that every ad you sells appears on every page view.
2. It’s the relationship, stupid. There is a certain magical thinking I come across on the web that self-service ads will solve all of our problems. Selling and servicing individual advertisers is time consuming. Depending on your selling style, you might need to call on each advertiser multiple times to get a signed contract, and then you’ve got to build the ad and monitor its metrics. You also need to maintain regular (at least monthly) contact with the advertiser. It seems obvious: Self-service would be so much less time consuming. But, go back and look at rule 1: keep it simple, stupid. No matter how simple you might think your self-service web application is, it’s not simple enough for the busy small business owner who has neither the time nor the inclination to learn the web as well as you know it. Don’t think self-service will be your savior. It will be your doom. While selling and maintaining ads is time consuming, it’s also a chance for you to get to know your advertisers, and them to get to know you. You’re not really selling banner impressions. You’re selling yourself and your vision. Small business owners naturally tend to root for other small business owners. The small business owners in your community can be your early converts and your early fans. They’re the most networked people in your community. When they become your fans, it starts to create the impression that "everybody" in town is reading your news. That may not be the truth at first, but pursue this strategy and it soon will be.
3. It’s all about market share. The first thing you should do when planning your ad sales campaign is figure out who advertises the most across multiple platforms. Try to discern who has the best grasp of marketing. You also need to know who are the local business leaders — the local business owners other business owners respect the most. These are your HOTs (high opportunity targets). Go after these businesses first. There’s an old rule of brand building — associate your brand with other brands that people trust. You want to know what the best brands in your community are, and then make sure they become your first advertisers. If you have to discount your rate card by 75 percent to sign a HOT, do it. Sign the HOTs and at any and all cost until you’ve got five to ten of these advertisers on your site. The business owners who would otherwise sit on the sidelines will now be easier to sell. Also, the HOTs competitors will be more likely to want to not be left out. Further, having a lot of ads on your site doesn’t just help you sell more ads, it helps you build credibility with readers. If a new reader logs on and sees several local ads, he or she is going to know you run a site that is popular locally, and they’re going to feel more compelled to return. You should start selling ads the first day you’re in business, because selling ads isn’t just about making money; it’s also about building audience.
4. If you’re local, be local. If you believe in hyperlocal news, you should also believe in hyperlocal advertising. I think everybody who talks about hyperlocal news talks about it in terms of local-only news, no national news (readers can get it too easily elsewhere); rather, local means a keen focus on the defined local community. So, why, then, would a hyperlocal site put a national ad network ads on its pages? It’s beyond stupid. One of the great ways you can build a relationship with local advertisers is talk about how you are there to promote the local business community. If you’re simultaneously taking ad network ads (or admit a willingness to accept chain advertising), you’re undercutting your local-only message. Trust me, there’s more revenue to be made in hyperlocal advertising than diminishing that opportunity by displaying non-local advertising (local being defined as a locally or regionally owned business, not a national company and not a chain).
5. Don’t overprice your ads. There is a tendency to think that just because the local newspaper site is getting $15 to $75 CPM, your site should also get $15 or more CPM. You need to remember, yours is a disruptive business. You need to deliver more value at a lower price, especially in the start up phase when you’re trying to win trust. Your flat rate ad should be priced low enough that its a pretty easy decision for a small business owner to go, "What the heck, I’ll give it a try." (Of course, the price needs to be still high enough that when you sell out your target number of ads, you’re profitable.)
6. Don’t be afraid of metrics. if you follow the model of putting every ad on every page, you’re going to deliver to your advertisers a significant number of ad impressions. That number will be impressive in itself. But more importantly, for most of your advertisers, you’re going to send their sites more traffic than just about any other web site (save Google or Facebook). It’s simple math: a .03 percent click-through rate on 400,000 impressions gives an advertiser more visits to his or her site than 100,000 impressions (delivered in rotation — also rotation ads get local click-through rates) These are numbers that will demonstrate to most advertisers that their ads on your site are delivering sufficient results for the price you’re charging. Share these metrics with your advertisers. Even when the click-through rate is less than 1 percent, you’re still bringing more attention to their business than pretty much any other online marketing they might try (if your site is getting a good amount of traffic for your market), and you will have an especial advantage over any newspaper site competitor you might have (which is doing rotation, probably). This is one of the key benefits of the "unlimited inventory" model (as opposed to the "limited inventory" model most newspapers sell).
1. Be prepared for long hours. If you’re not prepared to work 14 to 16 hours per day, seven days a week, you’re not ready to start your own small business. You might not be able to put in that level of time commitment because you’re recently married, or working another job, or have kids, or just have too many other interests you want to pursue. I’ve known a lot of small business owners in my life, and most of them put in long hours even years after setting up shop, but all of them put in these kinds of hours when their businesses started. It’s not something that is unique to doing a local news start up.
2. Plan to keep your expenses to a minimum. Clayton Christensen, the world’s foremost authority on disruptive business strategies, says, "Be impatient for profits and patient for growth." The more expenses you take on, the harder it will be to obtain profitability. It should be your goal to achieve profitability within three to six months. The more people on your payroll — meaning the more partners you have, usually — the more revenue you need to generate. If you’re local start up consists of more than you and a partner, you’re probably over staffed. A spouse makes the best partner because then you really need to pay out only one salary.
3. Be prepared to be a jack of all trades. The skills needed to run a local news start up include, but not limited to, reporting, writing and editing news (plus photos and video), ad sales, ad graphics, marketing, community engagement (online and off), bookkeeping, some level of tech knowledge related to servers and content management systems,* the legal issues surrounding content publishing and business strategy and tactics. If you don’t personally have the skills, you need a partner who does. The skill sets of partners should complement each other so all bases are covered. It might be possible — if you have all these skills — to start a local news business as a solo operation, but as you begin to have success, you won’t be able to keep pace with the work demands. Finally, be a learner. You might have most of these skills, but you won’t have mastered them all. When I took over The Batavian, I realized that while I had some PhotoShop skills, there was a lot I didn’t know, so I bought books. I also studied advertising and revisited some of my sales training. I never assume I know all I need to know about what it takes to run my business.
4. Be able to think and plan strategically. Starting a local news business isn’t something you do just because you need a way to make a living, or just want to find a way to stay/be in journalism. If your goals are purely commercial, the crassness will show through and you will fail at finding opportunities to differentiate your business from your competitors. And no matter what your market, you will have competitors. You need to understand both the concept of competitive advantage and disruptive innovation. You need to know what advantages your business has over your competitors and how you are disrupting their tried-and-true business models. You need to understand why readers and advertisers will or do gravitate toward what you do.
5. Be prepared to have fun. To be successful, you must love what you’re doing. Running a start up business is hard, frustrating even some times depressing work. The news business is unique is that you will have hundreds of critics (which is also another reason why you need a clear vision about what you’re doing and why, so you can be confident of your course in the face of criticism). Your mistakes will be public. Your failures will be public. There will be times when readers publicly denounce you; and, for any of 100 different reasons that have nothing to do with your business, advertisers will quit you. There will also be days when you wish you didn’t have to work all day. You’ll miss your loved ones. You won’t be able to keep up with the latest movies, TV shows or music. You may not be able to go out of town for a friend’s wedding or a brother’s birthday. Starting a business is and must be the whole of your life. But you know what, running your own business is much better than working for The Man. And if you do it right, you will be treated in your community far better, with greater appreciation and adulation, than you ever received as a newspaper reporter, or any other salaried job. If you do it right, you will feel deep in your heart that you’re doing something meaningful and important, and that will carry you through any dark hours.
(Credit where credit’s due: Brad Flora’s post got me thinking along these lines).
If you asked me, what’s the one thing you do well, I would say: Hire people.
Not every hire I’ve ever made has worked out (I can think of two that haven’t out of about 15 I’ve made), but I’ve learned from my mistakes. Today, I’m quite confident that I have the best people in the business working for me. If I can be allowed to brag: I’ve hired very well over the past two years.
What’s my secret? It’s a book: First, Break All the Rules.
It taught me an important lesson: Ask interview questions designed to elicit specific answers, and design your questions to uncover the talents needed for the job you need to fill.
The key word there is talents. Hire for talents, not for skills. Skills can be taught, but talent is something either a person has on day one of a new job, or they don’t. You can’t hope that a new hire will at some later date develop the talent you want. People can improve in any number of ways, but there’s no guarantee, so don’t bet the future of your company on the hope that somebody will develop some hidden talent.
This post is not an endorsement of Barack Obama, but in watching CBS evening news tonight, I noticed that Barack Obama and John McCain answered a question from Katie Couric very differently. The answers illustrate perfectly the difference between answering a question with specificity versus answering with wiggle words designed to hide the fact the person being interviewed really doesn’t have a good answer to the question.
People with the talent related to the question can readily offer up specifics, while people who are trying to bull shit you retreat to broad, general language.
The question Katie asked was simple and maybe not a great political interview question, but it’s also the kind of question that can elicit very revealing answers. Katie asked, “When is the last time you cried?”
From a job interview perspective, it’s a great question (merely, I mean in construction; I’m not suggesting you use this specific question in a job interview … not in the least!), because an honest answer can lead to only a single, specific answer, and anybody who can’t give a specific answer really doesn’t have an answer.
Here’s the start of Obama’s answer:
Barack Obama: This one is actually easy. It was Malia, my 10-year-old daughter’s, birthday party.
We were in Montana. And you know, she’s a Fourth of July baby. So often times, during this campaign, we’d be traveling during birthdays. And so we were in this small hotel, I think a Holiday Inn, and we had this big public thing.
The staff organized for a smaller family party. And we were in this little, non-descript conference room, with Malia and Sasha, Michelle, me, my sister, my brother-in-law and my niece.
Read the rest, but take note of the clear memory, the specificity. Obama is talking about a clear event that answers the question exactly as asked. It tells a lot about his values.
Here’s McCain’s answer:
John McCain: I cry regularly.
Couric: You do?
McCain: Aw, yeah. You know, I’m very sentimental. When I see these young people who are serving. I met a woman at a town hall meeting the other day who had lost her son in Iraq. And, I was so touched, because she talked about how proud she was of his service.
And what a fine young person he was. And whenever you have that experience, obviously you think, how could I ever – how could I cope with such a tragedy, you know? And so you know, when I say cry, I get – my eyes well up, as they are right now thinking about these brave Americans and their families who have sacrificed so much for their country, especially recently.
Notice how McCain buys time with a very non-specific proclamation he believes is what the interviewer wants to hear, and then offers up an example that is neither all that specific and certainly not specific to him, but could be any body’s experience. He is telling you what he wants you to believe he values, not necessarily what he really values.
If you put this in “talent” terms, the talent Couric’s question would likely uncover would be related to emotional capacity. If that was a talent you needed for a job — maybe you’re hiring a sob-sister reporter — then this would be a good question to ask. It’s well constructed for that purpose because it asks a questioned with only one correct answer: An answer that offers a specific and very real example.
I’m not so sure “emotional capacity” is a required talent for president of the United States — it could be a good thing or bad thing, depending on your view point. At least, the question was designed to elicit an explicit, revealing answer.
Again, I’m not endorsing Obama (I’m most likely to vote third party, if you must know), but if this were a job interview, with more questions to come, Obama would still be in the running and I’d be looking for a polite way to wrap up my meeting with McCain because there is no way I would hire him after that answer. Continue reading
I’ve set up my work phone to forward to my iPhone. I never touch my desk phone except for conference calls.
Unfortunately, if a call forwards to my iPhone, if I don’t get it by the third ring, for some odd reason, the call reverts to my desk phone. This leads to either A) people calling me twice (second time to my mobile number) or B) people leaving me a voice mail I probably won’t listen to for weeks.
I felt guilt about that until I read this TechCrunch post.
But now an increasing number of people are just plain avoiding voicemail (for my impromptu and unscientific survey, see the comments here, which are predominantly anti-voicemail). It takes much longer to listen to a message than read it. And voicemail is usually outside of our typical workflow, making it hard to forward or reply to easily.
“Outside the work flow …” That pretty much sums it up.
Now with iPhone’s visual voicemail, it’s a little easier to handle, but it’s still not as good as e-mail. An e-mail in my inbox can be saved as a tickler to remind me to respond at at a time better suited to my work flow. And I’ll usually respond via e-mail so as not to interrupt your work flow.
For any vendors reading this: Please e-mail me, don’t call. I would rather get an unsolicited e-mail from a vendor than an unsolicited phone call. Then, if I’m interested, we can arrange a time to talk. And if I’m not interested, I’ll tell you, and please believe me. (Of course, my “vendor” friends whom we do business with, that’s something different altogether, but then, you already have my mobile number).
When I get into the office Monday, after reading the TechCrunch post, I think I’ll take my phone off call forwarding, and set up a voice mail suggesting “send me an e-mail, please.”
Now here’s the journalism question for reporters: Would you rather have sources call or e-mail? Continue reading
The issues facing journalism today are not a technology problem, but an audience problem.
Declining readership did not begin in 1994, when the web began to take hold.
Household penetration began to drop in the 1930s. Serious readership declines accelerated in the 1970s.
There is no one reason why newspaper dominance of media started its decline 7o years ago. There was the advent of broadcast media, and changes in society (more working women, depressions and wars, new societal attitudes, changing class structures and commute patterns), but during that same time, literacy and education levels rose, women entered professional and educated life, the leisure time available for citizens to get involved with their communities increased, and soaring revenue for newspaper publishers allowed them to greatly expand staffs during most of the 20th Century (it’s one of the paradoxes of newspaper publishing that while readership declined, ad rates and linage went up).
In other words, one could reasonably conclude that newspapers should have benefited from circulation increases during the very time they were losing market share (for most of the 20th Century, actual subscriber numbers increased, while household penetration decreased at a faster pace).
From the 1970s through the close of the century, there were more newspaper journalists employed at all levels, and because of the explosion of journalism schools in the later half of the century, they were better trained than ever. And because of the likes of Woodward and Berntein, they were substantially motivated and inspired to do great, important work.
Yet, real readership declined.
Could it be, that journalism itself is at fault?
In the 1930s that the likes of of Walter Lippman began to agitate for a more professional journalism class, and journalism schools began to proliferate. Up until journalism became a profession rather than a trade, entrepreneurial publishers determined the tone and style of the journalism they published. Publishers paid attention to readers needs and wants, and hired and trained editors and reporters accordingly; whereas the professional journalist hues to a higher standard of story selection and presentation with considerations far removed from what readers might prefer.
We could debate which model is “better” in the academic sense, but my only real concern here is what’s better in the business, real-world sense. Being academically correct when it comes to marketplace competition doesn’t put food on the table. All of the high-minded ideals in the world don’t mean a thing if nobody reads your stories.
Previously, I said the issue for newspaper journalism is not a technology problem, but an audience problem.
Technology does play a role, however. It is the accelerator, the starter fluid that is putting both heat and light on the short comings of present-day journalism.
Consider again that while readership declined, newspaper revenue growth could only be slowed by recessions. Every decline or stagnation of revenue growth was merely a cyclical nuisance, not a harbinger of death. But up until the start of the current recession, newspaper revenue in recent years, especially in classified categories, was under constant downward pressure, while the overall economy continued to grow. That was a historical first.
The only way to save journalism, then, is to figure out how to spark audience growth.
My humble proposal, then, is that individual journalists start paying attention to what readers want. That was the point behind my reader satisfaction post. The goal is to find some meaningful measure of reader satisfaction and fashion a new journalism that meets reader needs.
I’m not saying I have the answer, just saying — we need to find measurements that help us discover a path forward.
A point to stress, however: This is not a puppie dogs vs. Iraq debate (see video of Sam Zell in Orlando), or a Britney Spears vs. election coverage argument (see Jim O’Shea’s farewell address). The focus on specific content subjects misses the larger point. The straw man of such supposed pandering evades the key issue.
The issue is, the current way important news is gathered, reported and written isn’t working. It hasn’t been working for several decades. It’s only now becoming a crisis, thanks to the likes of Craig Newmark, Realtor.com, AutoTrader.com and Monster.com.
As we examine what journalism should look like in the 21st Century, we should also look hard at just how professional supposed professional journalism is. Today I heard a CEO of a large insurance firm talk about the day his company eliminated 200 jobs — 200 out of 40,000. He talked about how he prepared his employees for the media onslaught he knew was coming, with anchors bellowing and headlines screaming about the downturn of the company’s fortunes. These weren’t even layoffs, but merely the elimination of unfilled positions.
There is something wrong with a journalism that can’t honestly put the context of events in an accurate light, but must play up the most sensational angle. We all know the CEO’s story is not an isolated incident, and it isn’t merely a TV-journalism condition, but something endemic to present-day journalism, print and broadcast.
If our readers so easily recognize that what we do isn’t trustworthy for its accuracy both in fact and spirit, then how can we expect to retain them as readers?
Something needs to change.
Discovering a journalism that does what journalism should do — match the needs of society rather than dictate to society what people should want from journalism — will be real hard work, and it will challenge assumptions and afflict comfortable mind sets.
I would like to think that journalists who entered this career with high minded ideals are up to the challenge.
Remember back in the 1990s when Microsoft seemed unbeatable? That was a time when worries about anti-trust violations began to surface and most pundits figured Apple Computer would soon be out of business. Windows ruled the world.
Remember circa 2001 when just about every newspaper company in the world was trying to figure out how to turn its web site into a portal? The goal was to be the one web site anybody ever really needed. We talked about being sticky and keeping people on our site as long as possible. Where did the idea, and the buzzword, come from? We all wanted to be the local Yahoo!
This week, Microsoft, battered by declining market share and slowing profit growth decided that its best bet to survive was to buy Yahoo! — but not the Yahoo! of 2001, which was worth an estimated $90 billion back then, but a Yahoo! whose fortunes have sunk so deeply, its market cap was about a quarter that price (Microsoft is offering a 62 percent premium on Friday’s share price).
In a little more than a single decade, what happened to these two once seemingly invulnerable companies?
Change happened. Markets shifted. New competitors arose. New ways of doing business and making money were invented.
The names and business models of the competitors doesn’t really matter, because competitive turbulence is inevitable for any business.
Except, of course, newspapers.
No, wait. Newspapers are in trouble now, too.
Twelve years ago, who could blame a newspaper publisher for looking back on nearly 300 years of newspaper industry dominance in the media and think, “we will live forever.”
When you haven’t seen any real change in your lifetime, or whatever change came along (radio and TV, say), made only a marginal difference (“hey, we’re still running at 35 percent profit margins!), why worry?
We now realize, of course, that the same laws of business that change markets and make ensured survival impossible, can kill newspapers, too.
I’ve just finished a great book: The Halo Effect.
It’s a good book to cause a little further reflection on what business survival means.
The Halo Effect, by Phil Rosenzweig, makes a great case that following the management principles in those books is really like chasing unicorns.
For example, the research in Good to Great is faulty and incomplete. Jim Collins and his team failed to account for, among other things, the Halo Effect, which is what you get when you measure performance by post hoc evaluations. Because the performance was good, than the management must have been good, and if the management was good, then the leader must have been good, and if the leader was good, then he created a good work culture, etc. Those attributes add up to a cascade of halos.
Collins also failed to look for companies that did all the things his “good to great” companies did but still failed.
In other words, the book lacked scientific rigor.
The fact of the matter is, the real research, the boring research (not the good story weaved by Collins) is that all of the management rules in the world, if well implemented, can at best only achieve a 10 percent improvement in performance (or so cites Rosenzweig). At best.
And none of that matters if market forces change and the company does nothing to respond. That’s when sticking to what you know best becomes a liability rather than a good business practice.
What’s more important than “having the right people on the bus” and “level five leadership”? How about strategy and understanding competitive advantage, not to mention simply getting the job done once you know what to do?
Of course, When your business is essentially a monopoly, as newspapers were for many, many decades, who needs to worry about strategy?
Our industry hasn’t (collectively) done strategy well, and the worst part is, strategy is scary stuff.
The problem: You never really know if a strategy is going to work. If you know a business plan will work, it isn’t really strategy. Then, it’s merely tactics. Strategy is about taking risk and trying the untried.
We all know how willing newspapers have been to try new things.
That habit is changing, but there is still a big tendency among some industry managers to buy into the “Good to Great” hedgehog theory (which Rosenzeig notes Collins got completely wrong both in mythology and application).
Newspapers can’t simply just “stick to the core business,” as a Collins-like hedgehog would do. Newspaper managers must be more fox like — more nimble, more willing to seek and seize opportunities.
Which, I suppose, raises the question of whether we have the right people on the bus?
Probably at some companies and not at others.
It’s a hopeful sign that many managers have been willing to explore, if not embrace, the API NewspaperNext initiative, which at least attempts to get newspaper executives to dive deep into strategic thinking.
My question is: Are newsrooms willing to learn the lessons of business history and allow the news/journalism industry to evolve. Or will they insist that nothing at all needs changed. That seems to have been Jim O’Shea’s answer, and the journalism world applauded his “principled stand.”
I’m not sure, however, that taking a stand constitutes a well conceived business strategy. Continue reading