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: newspapers
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.” … Continue reading
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 … Continue reading
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 … Continue reading
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 … Continue reading
Harvest market position. This is the “take-the-money-and-run” plan. Because newspaper customers are such creatures of habit, it could be quite seductive. It means raising prices, reducing quality, and taking as much money of the firm as possible. I know of … Continue reading
I’d like to see somebody do a study of what newspaper pass-along rates really are — and not a study sponsored by the newspaper industry.
I’ve heard numbers over the years ranging from 2.5-1 to 3.5-1.
At one time, those numbers might have been true.
I suspect the pass along rate is closer to 1-1 these days.
Anecdotally, my observation is that there’s a growing percentage of people who keep the habit of subscribing to a newspaper, but rarely take it out of its wrapper. Most papers go to the curb weeks after delivery wrapped and yellowing.
Also, in households and offices were people have more options for obtaining news, the idea of EVERYBODY who might have access to picking up the available newspaper seems like an incredibly quaint idea.
Among the younger members of secondary readers, the numbers of readers must surely have dropped significantly as more young people turn to online as their primary news source.
Is there any credible and current information out there to suggest that a newspaper pass-along rate as anything other than 1-1?
The newspaper in the town of my birth, San Diego, has launched a redesign.
The redesign features fewer stories on the front page, more space for graphics and the name plate has been changed to the snappier "U-T" rather than the apparently more cumbersome "Union-Tribune." The amount of actual news on the front page has been greatly reduced (and if you compare it to a San Diego Union or Evening Tribune front page of 1971, tremendously reduced).
While the redesign story says the U-T is recommitting to watchdog journalism and more in-depth coverage, everything else screams "we want to be the web in print."
The trend of snappier, more graphic printed newspapers began decades ago, but I continue to maintain that it’s no coincidence that as newspapers have moved toward trying to be more like magazines, or now, the web, readership has declined.
There is lot of reasons for readership declines, but what I don’t get is: Why did newspapers stopped trying to be a newspaper.
A newspaper is about black and white first and foremost: headlines and words.
Newsprint is a writer’s medium, punctuated and enhanced by exceptional black and white photography.
The effort to move newspapers toward color and fewer words has been destructive to the greatest value proposition of a newspaper: To be a product that thoughtful people spend time with. The endless chasing of "time-starved readers" has done nothing more than alienate core subscribers. And I also believe created a product that is even less interesting to younger generation of readers.
This remains one of my pet peeves.
I love the web. I think it has great, great strengths as a news delivery platform, and news organizations need to figure out how to more effectively deliver news online, but at the same time, publishers need to stop investing in splashy redesigns and instead invest in good, quality print journalism.
The way to fight print circulation declines isn’t to move away from good print journalism, but to embrace what makes print a great platform for great journalism.
My advice to publishers: Embrace the web as the web; celebrate print as print. Don’t try to transfer one mindset on the other.
Alan Mutter started it. He said the newspapers "Original Sin" was not charging for online content from the beginning.
He was wrong, of course — many newspapers tried and failed at paid content online in the early days, and even the ones who stuck with it never generated enough revenue to make up for their declines in advertising revenue.
But Mutter’s "Original Sin" meme started a trend toward "Original Sin" guess work about just where and when newspapers went wrong with their online strategies.
Steve Buttry hits on one possible answer with his "Original Sin" post. His answer: The bundling of online ads with print ads. Bundling devalued online ads and taught advertisers online could be viewed as an add-on, just something extra.
There’s merit to the assertion, but it misses why newspapers bundled ads in the first place.
Simply put, they couldn’t sell online advertising in the early days.
In most cases, publishers relied on their existing print sales staffs.
That seemed logical, I suppose, but in an era when selling print advertising was more like order taking and less like selling, why would a fat-and-happy print sales rep go out and actually SELL a low-margin online banner? That was too much like work.
Steve makes the point that bundling taught advertisers to see online as nothing but an add-on, but the flip side is that back in the day, local advertisers barely even knew online existed, let alone how it might benefit their businesses.
Publishers who needed to justify the salaries of their online staffs needed to ensure online operations contributed to the bottom line. The only way to do that was through bundling.
And bundling was easy. Advertisers who might not get online, at least understood that online audiences were growing agreed it made sense to put their ads online with an established local brand at a low cost. Advertisers simply didn’t object to bundled pricing.
Besides bundling, publishers also tried hiring online-only sales reps. The problem, however, is they were rarely really online-only. They weren’t allowed to sell against the print reps, and had to consult with print reps on mutual clients, were encouraged to go out with print reps on "four-legged calls" and easily fell into thinking the only clients worth calling on where the ones already buying newspaper advertising.
Throughout the history of newspapers online, there has simply been a lot of thinking that there isn’t much different between the Web and print.
It’s understandable. The Web, especially in the early days, is a text-dominated medium. The natural response is to think editors could simply move print stories into pixels and be done with it. From the very beginning we called this "shovelware" and "the daily dump," but the practice has persisted.
If publishers thought the Web was no different for content, how could they possibly be expected to see online sales were different, too?
And this leads to my theory of the "Original Sin."
The Original Sin was? Failure to create separate business units for online.
And I’ll plead guilty to a share of this sin.
As director of new media in Ventura and VP of interactive in Bakersfield, I certainly had some grasp that online wasn’t print. I did push such innovations (at least for the time) as comments on stories, video, web-first publishing, locally focused home pages, user profiles/social networking. But looking back, I see now that I still had a lot of newspaper-think in my outlook.
In both Ventura and Bakersfield, I saw it as my job to figure out how to make enough money online to pay for the newsrooms as constructed at the time.
That seemed impossible without being tethered to the mother ship, mooching of established customers and existing sales, and hoping some day, some how, we could convert that bundled revenue into pure online revenue.
It wasn’t until late 2007 that a switch tripped in my head and I realized I needed to flip the expense/revenue picture upside down. Instead of thinking about how to generate more cash, I needed to figure out how to create a news operation that could exist profitably based on a reasonable expectation for local online revenue.
In a market where the newspaper newsroom might cost $10 million, I knew how to make $1 million online, or even $2 million, but I didn’t know — and still don’t — how to make $10 million.
So if I can make a million online, why do I need operate a $10 million newsroom, especially given the greater efficiencies of online publishing?
It was that realization that lead to planning The Batavian (not that The Batavian will ever make anything close to $1 million, just illustrating with round numbers).
Here’s what a separate online business unit would look like:
- Minimally staffed on both the sales and content side.
- Both staffs would operate in a building far away from the newspaper office.
- No newspaper content would feed the web site, and the online staff wouldn’t consult or work with the newspaper staff on stories. There would be a total wall of separation.
- There would also be a total wall of separation between sales staffs.
- The separate business unit would be competitive with the newspaper, not complimentary.
It’s a little surprising to me that after all my study of Clayton Christensen and other thinkers on disruptive innovation that I didn’t see more clearly sooner the imperative of a separate operation, but it is what we should have been doing.
The thing about this approach is that by starting small, starting with the lowest cost possible, in the disruptive innovation model, you have your best chance to grow a $10,000 business into a $10 million business. In a disruptive world — which online is by its very nature — if you start out with a $10 million expectation you’re only going to end up making the kind of mistakes that eventually lead to failure. By starting smaller, you can adjust more quickly to a turbulent environment.
So, if the "Original Sin" had’n’t been committed, if newspapers had created more totally separate business units, would newspapers be "saved" today?
I don’t know.
The strategy could have hastened their demise, but I think you can also make the case that by letting newspapers be newspapers, and keeping online far away, you would have had fewer readers dropping subscriptions in favor of free online content. Maybe. Maybe the online competitor would have been seen by readers as just another media outlet, not a replacement for the newspaper.
It might not have saved newspapers, but it would have been the right thing to do, because it would have led to greater innovation. It also would have helped publishers retain a foothold in communities they served should the newspaper ever fail.
And it may not be too late for this approach, but newspapers are pretty hemmed in now with their existing newspaper.com operations — making too much money to put at risk, but not enough to make a difference in the current model.
There are those in our industry who seem to assume that newspapers emerged in 1835 in full flower, that many of the elements of the newspaper world that were until recently taken for granted were all part of world of James Gordon Bennett and Horace Greeley.
An example of such thinking might be found in this post by Bill Doskoch.
The assumption, in my perception, is pervasive, and it colors the view of today’s journalist toward development of online news; in fact, the assumption may have blinded many executives (including online executives, including myself for a time) in their expectations how to build an online news business.
For more than a decade, we expected to build online news organizations that could support a super structure of the modern newspaper newsroom — with the all the reporters and editors and big story packages (look at all the emphasis we put on big Flash multimedia productions) and that we could keep doing journalism just the way we always did it.
While we bemoaned shovelware (taking the same exact print story and repurposing it for the Web), we took little time to really examine what might might be different about online publishing that should change the way news is gathered and presented.
That’s why we were slow to embrace blogging, slow to recognize the power of social networking, and why, even today, most newspapers treat reader interaction (re: comments on stories) as a nuisance rather than an essential part of the business.
Look at the typical newspaper.com home page design — the level of sophistication and attractiveness may have improved from five or six years ago, but these sites are still trying to recreate the newspaper experience, the packaged-goods experience, shoving everything possible into a single, wholistic collection of pixels.
From the in-the-trenches newspaper journalist perspective, today’s surviving reporters and editors keep looking to paid content as some sort of savior, ill-equipment mentally to understand why it simply won’t work, and unwilling to accept any online news model that looks different from the print world they’ve loved.
The seeming fact that no online news model has yet emerged to support their paradigm of journalism — the large staffs, the watchdog journalism (at least to the level they expect), and the comfortable 9-to-5 work shifts — is proof to them that online can’t or won’t work they way they expect.
Any experiment in online journalism that doesn’t fit their paradigm is just folly.
These reporters and editors need to go back to J-school, and one that offers some history of newspapers rather than priestly pronouncements on religious tenants in the High Church of Journalism. Or at least reflect on what history they did learn.
James Gordon Bennett, Horace Greeley, E.W. Scripps and Joseph Pulitzer were not just earlier versions of Woodward and Bernstein. They were entrepreneurs, visionaries and risk takers who experimented and explored the capabilities of new technologies with a goal of meeting readers needs and growing audience.
They put ads on their front pages. They ran straight murder trial transcripts. They sent row boats out in the harbor to meet incoming ships so they might be the first with the news Europe. They produced multiple editions in the race to build reader loyalty. With the penny press, they disrupted the incumbent six-penny newspapers. They pushed partisan positions. They crusaded, some times to the point of unjustly influencing the course of events.
These entrepreneurs competed fiercely, which led to an intense circulation war between Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. This war became so pitched, that both papers embarked on a short era of sensationalistic reporting that we now know as "yellow journalism."
Pulitzer, who also ushered in graphics and color comics, so regretted later his participation in this low-brow craft that he endowed the Columbia School of Journalism.
The early giants of journalism got much wrong and got much right, but little that they did would resemble journalism of the past 60 or 70 years.
They didn’t, for example, do much in the way of investigative journalism. Nelly Bly worked for the New York World, but even her greatest public service reporting — locking herself in an insane asylum — isn’t what many of today’s newsroom pundits mean by high-cost investigative journalism. it was a stunt, just like her most expensive adventure, going around the world in 80 days. That really brought down a president, didn’t it?
Most of the other muckrakers who set the stage for investigative journalism didn’t even work for newspapers. They wrote for magazines and published books.
It took a long time for newspapers to build the cash flow to afford big time, expensive investigative journalism, and for publishers to recognize its value (and some of them still aren’t convinced) in helping to retain readers.
So if it took newspapers more than 100 years to build the business and content models that we all now cherish, why do we expect a fully formed online model to emerge in just 10 years?
There are a number of worthy experiments in online publishing going on out there. Maybe rather than scoff, some of these skeptics should stop yapping and try an experiment or two of their own. Maybe one of them will find the model that will one day employ a legion of highly paid investigators, at least until the next disruption comes along.
- The professionalization and creation of "objective" journalism in the 1920s
- Movies, 1920s
- Radio, 1930
- Mass migrations caused by Great Depression and World War II, dislocating communities and families
- Television, 1950s
- Birth of suburbs, automobile, decline of mass transit, 1950s
- Shoppers, i.e. PennySaver, (not sure when they started, but let’s put them in the 1960s)
- Unrest of 1960s, distrust of mainstream institutions, rise of alternative press
- Wal-Mart and other Big Box retailers in the 1980 and 1990s, putting out of business traditional newspaper advertisers (at higher margins than pre-prints from Big Boxes), often with help of government subsidies.
- Cable television, and not just more news, but more choices.
- Digital media and all that comes with it — more choices, greater competition for attention, craigslist, more competition for advertising dollars, etc.
If you fail to look at the decline of newspapers in context of the historical arch of events, and you fail to see that the same forces driving down circulation are the same forces decreasing community involvement and civic engagement, then you’ll never have a clue how to solve the problem. If you don’t see the whole picture, you’ll look for quick fixes like government aid or legislation, grants and annuities, paid content or just whine about "society can’t function without us."
The solution lies in figuring out why increasingly society is deciding it doesn’t need us and fixing that problem, not in hair-brained schemes that attempt to force journalism on the masses.