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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- Joel Osserman on NewzJunky.com is a warning shot for all newspaper publishers
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Tag Archives: Strategy
John Wilpers is taking aim and taking names … he goes hunting for the top newspapers in the industry and asks if they’re really doing a good job at being the center of the local mediasphere.
And notice, I didn’t say “blogosphere,” because even though he concentrates on blogs in his post, the question really is — are you directing traffic for ALL of the media in your coverage area. Blogs are a big part of it, and you need to really get John’s point if you want to get modern media, but we really need to think beyond blogs.
You should have policies, strategies and procedures in place to ensure you’re linking to all of the local media … TV, Radio, Blogs, wiki sites, craigslist … why should a reader need to go to any of those other sites FIRST to get news or information. Should you be directing traffic?
How good of a job is your web site doing at being the center of the mediasphere? Continue reading
I always figured some day I would get a chance to make history. It looks like it’s happening tonight. For the first time ever, the NPPA Northern Short Course is going to webcast a session live.
It starts at 6 p.m. EDT. It’s me and Chuck Fadely talking about video strategy. Notice I didn’t say argue or debate. I’m going to try real hard to be nice.
There’s been a great conversation on Poynter’s Online-News list about the value and relevance of local news.
What follows is what I posted to the list
Local news is a niche. It’s a vertical.
This is good news for local newspapers, because one of the things the web does best is help you create verticals.
Your local vertical won’t ever achieve 100 percent DMA penetration. That isn’t the goal of any vertical strategy. Being vertical means you reach the people who are passionate about that subject and make them loyalists; and you provide all of the hooks to keep infrequent users coming back often enough. If you do a really good job, you help engender some passion in formerly infrequent users.
To any local news site manager who has spent any serious time analyzing his or her traffic metrics, he knows there is a core group of loyalists who hit his site frequently. This is good news, because it gives us a place to start and gives us hope that local has some value still.
The goal behind a good local vertical strategy is to increase the size of your core audience, because for most local sites the current core audience size is too small for significant revenue opportunities.
Good verticals require great ownership. By that I mean, when you own a vertical, you should be the master of that subject area.
For a local vertical, you should have all the news (the most complete, comprehensive, up-to-the-moment source). You should host all the conversations. You should have lots of video. You should have all the related databases. You should have all the related links, even links to the cross-town rivals formerly known as your competitors (turn them into contributors by linking to their stories and videos) You should have all the advertising related to that niche, and nobody should want to advertising anyplace else because you so own your vertical.
I see too many local news operators coming to the web from a newspaper perspective, and treating their local sites as they treat their newspapers. Newspapers are appropriately and should remain horizontal packages, containing national and world news, crosswords, Dear Abby, etc. A good vertical has nothing it it that isn’t related to that vertical. For a local news site, for example, most of what you get from AP is not only useless, it’s harmful to the vertical brand. And you sure as hell don’t need Dear Abby on your local site. Now, if you can find the local Dear Abby ….
Because you own your vertical, everything you do should be distributable across the web. This gets to Mark Choate’s issue about being part of multiple communities. We can’t guess at all the communities an individual belongs to, so we should help our users customize their own web experience by disaggregating our own content. We should atomize everything we do so it is mixable and mashable.
Distribution helps drive traffic back to your vertical (thereby increasing the odds of finding and converting more loyalists).
Your stuff is going to get distributed anyway, so you might as well control as much as possible the methods and terms of distribution.
There is no reason that distribution can’t carry advertising with it.
Because local is a niche, the local media company formerly known as the newspaper can no longer rely just on local as its core competency, if it wants to significantly grow revenue. It must expand into other vertical areas, thinking well beyond just news, but getting to the interests of people in their community and attracting audience from people who may not care about news, but they really care about high school sports, or NASCAR or growing roses.
And the great thing is — because you’ve made your own content distributable, you can distribute content that fits into more than one vertical across all appropriate verticals, achieving the benefits of scale. Continue reading
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
In a piece about data portability, John Battelle shifts into a discussion about the difference between a business that competes on price vs. a business that competes on service. He says:
An example. My local market charges far more for a good bottle of wine than many shops that are nearby. But there’s a wine guy who works at that market who knows wine cold, and who I trust. Also, the market is close to my home, and I have a personal relationship with the fellow (OK, here’s the reference to the book I’m working on – I have a “conversation” going with this merchant). Those factors, combined with a certain ambiance at the store that I really like, all lead to one result: I buy my wine at the more expensive store. Why? Because the store competes on more than price.
Ironically, I just found a booze store near my house that not only has great prices, but also great service — an owner who knows his booze (not just wine) cold. But that’s beside the point.
Battelle is absolutely right. He’s talking about differentiation. He’s talking about competitive advantage.
The newspaper industry is awash in talk about disruption and innovation. I do it, too. It’s important. We’ve had API do NewspaperNext. But there’s more to saving this industry than coming up with new ideas. I want to know when API is going to do NewspaperBetter.
All of the evidence suggest that ever since the Woodstein era began, readership and circulation have been in decline. Now, there are lots of reasons for that (subject of a future post), but there’s also little doubt that there is something about American newspaper journalism since the 1970s that is turning people off.
We’re not even winning the content battle on the web, so it isn’t just about delivery, convenience or changing lifestyles. It’s also about something that we’re doing or not doing.
Through all of the debates we’ve had about video, there is a “quality crowd” that seems to think the only thing I care about is slapping up a bunch of crappy videos just to make video.
That totally misses the point.
The point is about reinventing newspaper journalism, and I believe video is going to be a big part of newspaper journalism from here on out, and reinvention is all about doing it better.
The quality crowd doesn’t seem to understand, or doesn’t seem to care, that quality isn’t about the camera you carry, the software you use or how much time you spend in an editing bay (if you’re using an editing bay, by the way, you’re in overkill mode). Quality is about the skill, knowledge, experience, understanding, talent and intuition that helps you get bits of interesting stuff — the stuff people really care about, want to read about, or want to see and hear.
It’s the content, not the presentation, that matters most.
Again, I point you to Ira Glass on getting good.
Getting good at any creative endeavor is hard work. It takes time. I don’t care how smart you are, it takes time. Getting good isn’t about equipment. It’s about heart and soul.
So the best thing to do to get good is to do it. Get started. Explore and discover and feel free to fail. You must make yourself create things and not be afraid of some of the crap you will create along the way.
That’s also what my posts encouraging journalists to dive deep into the online social life and conversation are all about.
To be a great modern journalist, you MUST be a wired journalist. You must GET online. That doesn’t mean you just know how to do a Google search, read a few blogs and send a few e-mails. It means you get the culture, the attitudes and the expectations of the online crowd.
Until you do it, you’ll never understand that there is a difference. That’s why I don’t take very seriously the critics who say this call to action is a lot of bunk. They haven’t done it. They don’t know what they’re talking about, or what we’re talking about.
During one of the football games I watched last week, the announcer referred to an interview he did that week with a first-year NFL coach. When asked what was different about the NFL than he expected, the coach said that what he expected to find in the NFL was a group of professional football players, and he was shocked to find just how few professionals there were in the league. Very few players in the NFL, he said, are professionals. They don’t go about their jobs and their routines the way a professional would.
I submit that if you’re a professional journalist, you’ve already done most of what I put in my suggested MBO plan. And if you don’t think you need to do those things, than I question whether you’re really a professional.
It is time for newspaper journalists to set up and start creating the competitive advantage that will help us win. Current newspaper journalism is pretty much a commodity. When what you produce becomes a commodity, you can no longer win on price (and some journalists think we should be charging a fee for what people are already telling us doesn’t much interest them). You can only win on a competitive advantage. For journalists that should be doing a better job of story selection, presentation and interaction with the people in their communities.
I’m reading an interesting book right now called Glut: Mastering Information Through the Ages.
How we label and categorize things is important to how we understand our environment.
Nearly a year ago, Andy Dickinson did a post labeling three types of newspaper video: Disruptive, channel and multimedia. At the time, I suggested “attached video” was a better label than “disruptive,” being that disruption is a strategy not a category.
That post influenced a slide in my internal video training presentation. My three categories of video have been: Attached, story, and webcast.
Attached is that short video meant to embed on a story page. Story video is the full story, no text needed, and webcast is that sort of thing that usually has an anchor/host and covers more than one topic.
A couple of weeks ago, Victor DeRubeis left a comment on a post highlighting a couple of GateHouse Media videos.
Nice raw video, yes. But where’s the journalism? Where’s the editing? Where’s the context?
And somewhere, though I can’t find the comment now, somebody said of one of our videos that it was nothing more than a moving photo illustration.
That’s the comment that stuck in my head. It’s a V8-moment! The proper term is not “attached video.” It is a “video illustration.”
To me, these comments intended to be criticism are actually high praise. This is exactly what we’re after with quick-production, point-and-shoot video.
Story video may have its time and place, but unlike some, I don’t believe that is the sum and whole of what online video can or should be.
The point of quick-production, reporter-shot video should be to illustrate in a way that words alone cannot. Raw is good. Heavy editing is a waste of time. Context is a distraction. The point is not to capture the whole story. It is to illustrate a story.
That’s not to say that we’re doing all that well at that goal yet, but it’s still a style of newspaper video I believe in passionately. I believe we will learn. I believe we will get better. I’ve seen enough glimpses of how well this can work to believe that as quality and understanding (reporters developing the appropriate sense of when and how to use this type of video), it will prove a very useful tool both journalisticly and strategically.
Here’s four reasons why newspaper can beat televison stations in online video.
- More feet on the street: In large markets, newspapers can equip more reporters with video-capable cameras, and you don’t need expensive cameras to produce good online video; in small markets, TV isn’t going to cover many local stories;
- TV can’t cover a story without sending out a “crew,” which means they cover only stories that they’ve pre-screened as being video worthy, worthy of the time to send a crew out to a location, which means they miss a lot of good stuff that “print” reporters will naturally stumble across — quantity means more choices for online video watchers, which is a distinct and huge advantage;
- For newspaper reporters, there is no pre-conceived idea of perfect TV video, so any experiment goes;
- Newspaper reporter shooters can give sources a chance to speak for themselves, making the video more personal and more meaningful than what TV will do with the same material.
Or maybe this isn’t about newspapers beating television, but why newspapers should be confident about video, because in the age of disruption, newspapers can approach video with a mindset that the natural competitors won’t see as a threat, and we’ve got to press our advantages where we can get them.
Any television people who read this post and don’t get the point — you’re just proving my point. Continue reading
The drive for users to control their personal media experience is relentless.
Consider the iPhone — despite Apple’s every efforts to control user experience, people are hacking it and customizing it. Here’s a good video from David Pogue on how to hack your iPhone.
Apple is fighting back, unfortunately, with software updates, and as TechCrunch points out, Steve Jobs needs to take his own advice and “think different” rather than aspire to a telecomm command and control model.
Because, as he has so elegantly demonstrated with the iPhone, these devices are finally becoming little computers. So it shouldnâ€™t be a surprise that consumers will expect them to act like computers. They will want to modify them to their exact, quirky predilections. They will want to use them any way they want, as a general-purpose device.
… You donâ€™t ask Apple permission to download software off the Web for your Mac. And you would never agree to buy a laptop that only worked with only one broadband provider. Why should the iPhone be any different?
As this NYT blog post points out, Apple is fighting a losing battle against customization.
Since the iPhone is a very sleek, capable handheld computer, people are going to want to run programs on it. They are going to want to hack and see what they can build. Itâ€™s a law of nature. And Apple might as well be fighting gravity.
Apple essentially has two choices. Either it exposes most of the iPhoneâ€™s capabilities to developers. Or it will have to gird for an ever escalating war in which it will have to send ever more electronic brick-bombs to its best customers who donâ€™t follow its strict rules.
It is foolish for any company to think that command and control is a long-term winning strategy.
And what does this have to do with the newspaper.com world? Go back to my posts on personal journalism and campfire media. All of the power now resides with the end user. The sooner newspaper organizations accept that fact, the quicker we will be successful.
We need to be organizing our news gathering and dissemination operations around the power of the end user, not the old command and control model of the editor. The modern news operation is participatory and open. People talk with people, not at them. Digital devices have created if not the expectation of a personal experience with media, at least end result that a personal experience resonates at a higher frequency with users. Continue reading
Steve Safran, writing about the predictable demise of TimesSelect, has this to say about news brands:
But hereâ€™s another conclusion: we think our brands are bigger than they really are.
This is a harder one to accept. But I have to tell you that nearly every news outlet believes they are the brand in their area for news. And they canâ€™t all be. Or maybe they are â€” and itâ€™s not news that people are looking for online. Does it matter if youâ€™re the brand for news when Iâ€™m searching for reliable restaurant listings?
Times Select believed that people would pay for its writers because it is â€œThe Times.â€? CNN believed people would subscribe to its video service because itâ€™s â€œCNN.â€? This is no different from stations and newspapers believing that people will visit their sites because they are â€œthe news channelâ€? or they have â€œthe brandâ€? for trust. The fact is that the information rules.
This is something I’ve been spending a little time thinking about recently, but in a different way.
I’m starting to think that the success of brands such as Google, Amazon and Ebay really mask the weakness of online brands.
These sites are successful not only because they have cool names and cool domains, that are also exceptionally useful. In the end, the webÂ is all about utility. People will come to your site if it suits their needs. If not, another site is a mere click away.
If a competitor ever really did manage to build a truly better search engine or a better ecommerce site, I wouldn’t be surprised if Google and Amazon started losing market share precipitously. Either of those giants getting beat at their own game is highly unlikely, but it’s a mistake to think that it is brand that sustains their advantage.
Look at how quickly AOL and Yahoo collapsed. Both in their day seemed like strong unbeatable brands. They were undone by better functionality from competitors.
On the web, it’s a mistake, I think, to rely on brand. Brand, in fact, may be absolutely meaningless.Â What is more important is A) utility; B) an easy to remember and type domain name. Get those things right and success is much easier to obtain.
Unfortunately for most MSM sites, they still don’t have the utility part down right. Continue reading
Back in the day, I remember Eric Meyer on the Online-News e-mail discussion list predicting doom for newspapers online. OK, maybe he wasn’t that dramatic, but he said we had a big problem to over come.
The problem was push vs. pull.
Newspapers are largely push. You get people to subscribe, and you deliver it to them, or you put it out on a street corner where it is easy to pick up. You’re not making people come to you.
The web is entirely pull.
The only way you get a visitor to your site is if you give them a reason to visit. They have to remember there is a reason to visit. There is no “newspaper on the door step” reminder.
RSS and e-mail help, but for a large segment of the audience, people have to remember.
That’s one reason it is so hard to develop a large segment of a newspaper.com audience who are daily or more frequent visitors.
But I believe that is where the money is. When we can get 12 to 15 percent of our DMA adults hitting our site at a least daily basis, we’ll be a long way toward making enough money to pay for quality journalism, regardless of how healthy, or not, the print partner is.
So, if the web is pull, how do we do a better job at pulling?
As a thought exercise, here are my “Seven Be’s of Pull.”
- Be relevant
- For most newspapers, that means, be local, even hyperlocal.
- Be frequent
- The daily dump doesn’t cut it. You need a steady flow of news and information from roughly 6 a.m. to midnight. People need to be rewarded for stopping by often. That happens when there is new stuff every time they visit.
- Be complete
- It isn’t just about the headlines. It’s also about school lunch menus, crime stats, real estate sales, deans’ lists and dead fish.
- Be diverse
- Get beyond the City Council and crime reports, because people have other interests, and some of those interests are as local as they are national, such as gardening, chess clubs and child rearing. Let 1,000 niches bloom.
- Be easy
- Make search good and effective; make sure your navigation is smart and obvious; don’t clutter your home page, but make it easy for people to find stuff.
- Be friendly
- It’s not just your site. It’s your community’s site, too. Let them participate in it. Let them make friends with you and their neighbors.
- Be reliable
- Don’t forget the traditional journalistic values of fairness, honesty, diligence and looking out for the interests of everybody in the community. One of the key findings of the Readership Institute is that people want to know their news source “looks out for my interests.” These things are a big part of your brand, and brand is a big part of pull.
I should add that one reason paid content won’t work for general circulation newspapers online is the pull nature of the web. Until people know a site is something the are going to remember to visit everyday, they are reluctant to pay for it. That’s a corollary to my contention that people pay for delivery, not for content. Continue reading