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Archive for October, 2002

Reporting from inside the Iraqi news machine

by henrycopeland
Thursday, October 17th, 2002

“CNN shares the building with the BBC, Associated Press, Reuters, and the handful of other news organizations that have a permanent presence in Baghdad. But there’s an uncomfortable fact about this building to which these tenants don’t often call attention: It’s the Iraqi Ministry of Information.” (Via Andrew Sullivan.)

Commissioning weblog journalism

by henrycopeland
Wednesday, October 16th, 2002

Glenn Reyonlds suggests that Traditional Media’s “news analysis” centurians will be overrun by hordes of barbarian pundits slinging their views for free. But, he adds, reporting news “is still mostly the province of professional journalism, and that’s less likely to change.”

I’m more pessimistic for traditional media’s news gathering functions and, surprise, more optimistic for news entrepreneurs. OK, so I thought this six years ago too. But times are changing fast.

First, thin media’s competitive advantages — low overheads, deep commitment to the beat and personal rapport with readers — are finally being unleashed by fissioning weblog networks. The distribution dam has broken; news can flood anywhere gravity takes it.

Second, margins in traditional media’s core businesses are collapsing. Subscriptions aren’t being cannibalized by the web, but gravy-slathered classified ad revenues are, as these two posts document.

Third, squeezed media margins mean that large swathes of news demand increasingly go unserved. Think of the dozen or more tech publications that have disappeared in the last six months; this isn’t because technology is less important today or people are less transfixed by the subject matter … it’s just that their ad revenue wasn’t big enough to support big staffs and printing and distribution.

All this invites, no instead let’s say demands, news entrepreneurs. What is to be done? Obviously, I’m betting news entrepreneurs can make money selling ads, since that is the market we support with Blogads. Sure it will take a while for people to develop the lingo and metrics to fire weblog advertisers’ imaginations. But the convergence of high-audience commitment and low overheads make Blogad ignition inevitable.

Other pieces may be needed to complete the ecosystem. For example, the Blogging Network postulates that audiences will subscribe to access weblog content. But padlocking content seems to toss grit into networking, thin media’s essential engine for propagation.

There may be another way to fund news entrepreneurs without killing the free-for-all, though. Matt Welch pushed forward a great idea today, and I’ll try to nudge it further. He suggests that bloggers solicit funding for specific projects. “If you actually put a set price on something that would guarantee to produce sweet & relevant content for readers, well, wouldn’t that be interesting?”

If you’ve ever wondered why writers at the New Yorker or the Atlantic or the New York Times can churn out amazing reporting, analysis and prose, it’s partly because they get paid darn well for doing it and don’t have to worry about much else. What’s the going rate? Must be $2 or $3 a word for mags and a little less for newspapers. You can do a lot of fine thinking for that price.

Yes, just as editors commission articles, groups of bloggers might commission freelance thinkers to spend a few days or a month focused on a project… without having to sweat bills or rent. Let’s raise $4750 to send Matt to Baghdad or Tehran for two weeks, paying him half up front and half when he delivers five 2000-word articles on specified subjects. Send Andrew Sullivan to North Korea to blog from another evil axis angle. Or pay Ken Layne $200 for attending some school board meetings in LA and turning in a 1000-word ramble. Commission David Gallagher to dig out the daily user tally for major news sites. Or buy Tony Pierce a plane ticket to Washington for a photo-essay on the sniper(s). Or pay Amy Langfield $375 to badger some congressmen about the health insurance options for the self-employed and report on what she hears. Send to interview Bill O’Reilly’s first girl-friend. Pay [url=http://80211b.weblogger.com/]Glenn Fleishman $750 to write the definitive layman’s guide to WiFi. Pay Bill Quick $1000 to report on a few nights in a San Francisco homeless shelter. Pay Emmaneulle Richard to ask French expats why they love LA. Pay Olivier Travers to spend two days in Paris interviewing his compatriots about the coming war on Iraq. Let Megan McArdle pop the housing bubble (or its myth) once and for all. Put Eric Olsen on the road with the Stones or Dylan.

Of course, the second component of great journalism is outstanding editing. Editors assign gently, question persistently, cut confidently, clarify murky prose and disentangle biases. But perhaps the instant feedback from readers and peers can compensate for the editorless blog’s weaknesses. We’ll see.

(10/17/02: I’ve come across some fun anti-blogonomics posts this morning. For example a) “No money in blogging. Yes, I’m biased. I like to point to articles that support my opinions.” b) “Sponsorship of content inevitably ends in tears, because it requires the content producer to be incorruptible.” c) “I don’t think I would mind a grant to fund my blogging, provided it wasn’t dictated to me what I could and couldn’t write. I might even be willing to accept sponsorship from , say, the Audobon Society, since I already write about birds and the AS isn’t really selling anything.” I wonder: why the religiously fervent belief that writers can’t profit online? Don’t miss this fine spoof of some anti-blogonomics rhetoric: “There is absolutely no way that I would violate the trust of my readers by blogging for money. My readers know that I’ll always be honest with them, and would never sell out for filthy lucre. (By the way, while we’re on the subject of readers, I would like to recommend to you the ultimate in RSS feeds — the Userland RSS feed. It dices, it slices, it purée, why it can even clean Windows.”)

Sullivan bemoans his powerful e-poverty

by henrycopeland
Wednesday, October 16th, 2002

Thinking about blogonomics, Andrew Sullivan writes: “I wonder if there’s ever been a technological innovation that has combined such extraordinary new power with such dramatically poor financial rewards.” (Via Nick Denton.)

Hang in there Andrew. There were only 160 years between the invention of the movable type printing press and the genesis of the newspaper. Actually, our early experience suggests www.andrewsullivan.com should make $500-1500 a month selling Blogads.

Sullivan notes that the NYTimes.com’s readership has leapfrogged over print circulation and credits this interview. (I’ll confess that this is my first appearance in The Sunday Times of London.)

It is interesting to note that even with the NYTimes.com traffic factoid’s appearance in the Sunday Times, the information still doesn’t show up in Noogle. OK, another search suggests that the Sunday Times is not indexed in Noogle.

Airlines sell 20% online

by henrycopeland
Wednesday, October 16th, 2002

“During the just-completed third quarter, airline revenue from Internet bookings probably will top 20% for the first time,” reports the WSJ. Unfortunately, what airlines thought was a tool for reducing costs has turned out to be exactly that… for consumers.

2.3 cents a tousled head…

by henrycopeland
Monday, October 14th, 2002

“Eighteen to thirty-four: for decades, conventional advertising wisdom has attached the adjective ‘coveted’ to this slice of the viewing audience. According to an analysis by the former NBC News president Lawrence K. Grossman, advertisers pay an average of $23.54 to reach 1,000 viewers in that age bracket, versus $9.57 per 1,000 over the age of 35.”

Microsoft PR zeros in on blogs; some don’t disclose gratuities

by henrycopeland
Monday, October 14th, 2002

Nick Denton writes: “we launched Gizmodo in August as an experiment in commercial blogging. Within three weeks, Microsoft had Gizmodo down on their list of online influencers, pinged Pete, and invited him over to Redmond. Whatever your thoughts on Microsoft’s software, the company’s marketing machine is extremely impressive. Of course, Pete now feels he has to be a little rude about Microsoft, just to show he can’t be bought.” Mitch Ratcliffe notes Gizmodo’s disclosure that travel expenses were covered by Microsoft and kvetches that another four bloggers invited to the event made no such disclosure.

Yes, it’s healthy for bloggers to disclosing their biases. As I’ve argued before, well-marked advertising serves to unambiguously articulate the relationship between the writer and the sponsor. Yep, that’s what we’re trying to do with Blogads. “Establishing a clear space and format for advertising will clarify what is flogging and what is blogging.”

This can work to all everyone’s advantage: readers get full disclosure, the blogger gets a clean consciousness and some cash, the advertiser gets face-time with readers and some loyalty-ruboff.

To provide some context: although few people realize it, plenty of journalism is fueled by gratuities and complimentary relationships with advertisers. Often this means that good news gets highlighted and bad news gets ignored. The practice is rarely reported: newspapers don’t like to wash each other’s dirty laundry in public and reporters like to keep their jobs. Here’s one instance, as recorded in The New York Times. Dean Singleton, who runs 46 daily newspapers and 81 nondaily newspapers in the US, once “upheld the firing of a reporter who had failed to file a news story consisting of an advertiser’s news release verbatim, and instead added accurate details that wound up making the advertiser look bad.”

In Europe, many newspapers and magazines publish articles as a quid pro quo for advertisements. As editor of the Budapest Business Journal, I once spent six months in Hungarian court after we documented the willingness of a half-dozen leading local publications to publish articles for cash. It turns out no one was bothered by our accusations; the practice was common knowledge among professionals, and the cynical public assumed the press was rotten anyway. We heard later that what landed us in court wasn’t our report; it was that we failed to catch one of the biggest offenders and therefore appeared to be participating in some obscure political vendetta.

(Update: Nick Denton offers additional color in this new post.)

Scuppering the commish skimmers

by henrycopeland
Saturday, October 12th, 2002

Olivier Travers, editor of Scifan, is tired of losing affiliate commissions to skimmers. “This weekend I’m going to experiment with, and most probably implement, those scripts that lock out infected users. I’m not going to sit there idly when thieves rob us out of our commissions while Sophie and I bust our asses building the best database about SF/F books out there.”

NYTimes.com marketing notes

by henrycopeland
Friday, October 11th, 2002

Here are outtakes from my Wednesday interview with Craig Calder, NYTimes.com marketing VP.

Calder offered up the new data and a generous dollop of context. As someone who has spent six years badgering newspaper folk to embrace the web, I enjoyed his story.

As I noted yesterday, the site generated 85,000 new home delivery starts in 2001, up from 25,000 in 2000. Through September 30 this year, they’ve generated another 58,000. (My calculator annualizes that to 77,000.)

‘We were their most cost-effective and efficient means of acquiring subscribers,’ said Calder. Since online subscriptions are charged to a credit cards, people aren’t canceling, he notes.

‘We work very closely with the circulation department,’ he said. ‘Even if you are not ready to subscribe today, when you do get to that point, you have a great affinity for the brand and product.’

I asked Calder to rate the relative importance of different strategies within the total marketing effort. He said NYTimes.com’s e-mail newsletters accounts for 30% of marketing return, headline distribution deals are 40%, keyword targeting with Overture and Google is 10%, and search engine optimization is 10%. The last 10% is miscellaneous experiments.

E-mail newsletters The site now sends out 3.5 million ‘Today’s Headlines’ e-mails, up from 1 million in January 2001. Niche newsletters range from 85,000 for ‘In Advertising’ to 290,000 for “Book Digest.” Eight of 12 newsletters have 150,000+ subscribers.

NYTimes.com launched the ‘Sophisticated Shopper,’ a compendium of ‘special offers’ this summer and already has 101,000 users. These users were acquired through in-house promotions like banners and notes to the 2 million people who accept e-mail updates from the site. All NYTimes.com e-mail technology is managed in-house, he said.

Headline distribution The site recently negotiated a deal to run headlines on AOL for free. In addition, NYTimes.com pays Altavista, Yahoo, MSN and Netzero between 1 and 3 cents per click for visitors referred by headlines posted on those sites.

Nothing conveys the brand more succinctly than a headline, he said. ‘This is much more effective than two years ago when we were paying 25 cents a click for banners,’ Calder said.

Search engines NYTimes.com has devoted attention to its appearance in search engines, but the site’s performance is constrained by registration and padlocked archives. Calder did not have figures on the initial impact of News.Google.

After achieving operating profit for each quarter since Q2 2001, NYTimes Digital is on track to achieve an operating profit for the year in 2002. Combined with the staff of Boston.com, NYTimes Digital has 220 staff, with 15 of those involved in marketing. Calder said the site does not release figures for what it spends on online marketing.

Love clicks

by henrycopeland
Friday, October 11th, 2002

A new study shows that: “High-affinity audiences are more valuable to advertisers. They demonstrate brand loyalty and a willingness to pay more for products they perceive to be of higher quality.”

The joys of recycling

by henrycopeland
Friday, October 11th, 2002

When you next hear a journalist smear webloggers, ezinists and other thin media moguls as news recyclers, recall this article.

The nut: “in the past four months, three major articles and numerous broadcast stories have covered collegiate sex writers, portraying their work as controversial, buzz-worthy and part of a growing campus trend.” The college sex columns are moldy news. The buzzing torrent of coverage seems to have been triggered by a June article in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The point, however, is not that these news services are doing something bad. It is that they are excelling, and we should study their strategy.

First, recycling a story makes economic sense: it conserves publishing resources.

Second, news is relative. If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, it ain’t news. Conversely, information is “news” as it reaches each new audiences. The end of WWII was still news to Japanese soldier Hiroo Onada when he emerged from the Phillipine jungle in 1974.

Third, publishers can only aim to serve some of the people most of the time. Good editors realize that each story only hits 2-20% of their readership. Even within a tight demographic, passions and interests just aren’t that congruent. So a publication is only doing a bad job if a) most of its readers have already heard a story and b) those people are sick of it.

Finally, most of us don’t really absorb what we read. For example, how many of your relatives have seen 10 articles about blogs but today still claim never to have encountered the word?

So part of a publisher’s duty is to make sure his/her audience members miss nothing they, as a pseudo collective, care about. And this means lots of recycling.

The same goes for the weblogger’s responsibility to her audience. In fact, because we blatantly link to sources, webloggers are more credible and useful than institutional peers. (Confession: I’m only guessing that the articles mentioned above did not site The Chronicle of Higher Education or recognize that college sex columns are years old.)

Yes, it may be silly to be the 98th person to blog Daypop’s top link. But if your audience cares about the topic, you should do it. And at least you’ll know you aren’t dumber than thick media.

The article I cite above was blogged first by Jim Romenesko.

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