Newspapers: don’t FARK yourselves to death

Collage by Doug Millison of NonHuman Communications

In 2006 the now-defunct magazine Business 2.0 effused over the profit-potential of blogging with a story based on a handful of money-making sites. After an instructive anecdote about BoingBoing (which took about 15 years to become an overnight sensation) the article fawned over, a web site founded in 1999 by 35-year-old Drew Curtis, the self-style personification of Joe Sixpack (his Facebook page calls beer his religion). The article describes as “a collection of reader-submitted links to amusing videos, jokes, and curiosities from all over the Web.” In short, all things sophomoric. Business 2.0 dwelt on its success as measured in eyeballs (then 40 million pageviews per month) and clicks (advertising revenues were supposedly on track to hit $600,000). The article quoted Web 2.0 darling John Battelle as predicting that would become the first independent blog to earn a million a year in profit.

As I fret over the increasingly sensational drift of mainstream media it strikes me that news industry executives have taken the wrong message from the popularity of and other lowest-common-denominator sites. And not surprisingly so because it’s been more than 15 years since the newspaper industry knew how to compete for circulation or revenues. That may sound harsh but consider these two facts from the Newspaper Association of America website. Paid circulation peaked and started down in the early 1990s, before the Internet. We wallpapered over the problem because, until recently, we had few meaningful competitors for display and classified advertising (see first column — revenues rise as audience drops).

So I would suggest that the New Yorker’s Malcolm Gladwell got the verb tense wrong when he blogged about 15 months ago that:

“We are dismantling the institution of newspaper journalism precisely at the moment when it seems to be of greatest social value.” (emphasis added)

We were dismantling our own industry by resting on our laurels. Now we are misinterpreting the medium — the Internet — and its message — think niche.

I think the 21st Century newspaper business model is a nutritious blend of FARKish snacks (aimed at the 9-5 browser who needs brief workday diversions) and the New Yorkerish fare (to fulfill the quality and public service expectations of our brand). We will create this blend by using staff-written blogs to drill down into our audiences (as I outlined Monday) and by empowering our rank-and-file to become mini-publishers (as I argue in “The Pyramid and the Cloud“).

Today I will outline the business model to support this scheme but first let me briefly say why I think it would be suicidal for newspapers to race Joe Sixpack to the bottom. and similar sites have first-mover advantage. They’ve cornered the dumb and dumber market at costs newspaper could not approximate even if they “rationalized” their organizations the same way that Hercules cleansed the Augean stables.

Business 2.0 said Drew Curtis ran with two part-timer programmers; he avoided web hosting costs (upwards of $10,000 a month?); he avoids labor costs by getting users to generate his crap. Is that where the news industry want to go? Even if media corporations could get so FARKin’ lean as to be profitable at the low end, they would find few memo or meeting opportunities in a 3-person shop.

So let me suggest that we aim newspapers and other mass media at higher value markets as was initially suggested to me by UC Berkeley professor Hal Varian, who is also chief economist to Google.

Now in all honesty, Hal Varian didn’t tell me in just so many words what I’m about to tell you. After all he’s got a better clientele these days. But let me take you back to late 1994 when I heard Varian, then a professor at the University of Michigan, speak at the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute in Berkeley. The incident sticks in my mind after all these years because it was one of the first assignments I drew after returning from a 12-day strike.

Over and above being happy to still have a job, I knew that the assignment had been “suggested” by Will Hearst, then publisher of the San Francisco Examiner and, more importantly, the person who had interviewed me by phone in 1992 when I told him the little white lie that landed me a temporary job as a science writer (thanks, Keay Davidson, for taking leave to iron out those “Wrinkles in Time“).

I had prepared for that interview by networking with science writers David Perlman, Charles Petit and Jane Ellen Stevens. From them I learned that Will was a devotee of abstract math. I was not. But when he asked me during our long-distance interview what sorts of science I liked to cover, I told him earth science, climate change, health and biology — and then added added math. As I recall we spent the rest of the conversation talking about how difficult it was to get math stories into the paper. When then-Deputy Managing Editor Tim Porter called two days later to hire me (thanks for “top Guild minimum,” dude) the fix was in.

So all of this was in the back of my mind as I wandered that conference beautiful minds — all of whom were taking way over my head. The only lecture that made any sense was this Hal Varian guy saying something to the effect that business of all kinds would have to learn how to charge different prices for the same thing. He cited the airline industry as an example, noting that two passengers sitting side-by-side routinely pay different fares depending on factors like when they purchased the ticket. I blogged about this once before but I searched Nexis yesterday without finding a daily, so I’m guessing my then-business editor Katie Rabin let me off the hook for writing a daily.

So this idea must have been rattling around, uselessly, in my head for about 14 years, until it was catalyzed a few months back by a discussion I had with a trade press publisher. I will keep that name private but I learned how this particular trade press grouo was preparing to harvest high-value, pay-per-click ads by getting a few items of registration data — e-mail address, age, gender and zip code.

Of course the problem with such an approach is how to get even such modest registration data from browsers who refuse to register for much of anything. The answer must be to create something new that they cannot get without this new “payment”. Let’s create what Hollywood would call “extended footage” on DVDs and I think we could call “reporter’s notebooks.”

Here’s what I mean. Say you’re a newspaper reporter who would like to write about how femtosecond lasers could spawn a new industry. Your first problem may be that you are unable to explain the story to an editor and the story may never get done. But in the blog-centered approach I suggest, the beat reporter, who would spend about 20 percent of his or her time publishing unedited topics on the beat, would write a post on the laser that would be read by whom: engineers and science buffs? Just the sort of people that headhunting firms like Heidrick & Struggles or Korn Ferry or Nosal Partners would pay what-per-click for? I’m not sure exactly since we have not yet created nor sold these reporter’s notebooks, but my trade press source suggested it would be 100 times more than the per-click revenue that might come from another FARKin story about Spitzer’s whore.

Here’s the metaphor that describes what I’m suggesting, and this idea comes from my Navy buddy, Lee Clements of Panama City, who used to skipper a ship running supplies out to the Oil Patch in the Gulf of Mexico. Anywhere you put a derrick or a ship or any stationary object, he told me, barnacles and other sea critters start to adhere. Other critters latch on to them and soon you have a little feeding ground (I think of this as ecosystemics).

I think this ecosystem works for non-technical beats as well. Every lobbyist, PR person and interest group in creation will have to log onto our political and policy blogs, and these individuals should have a demographic profile to support something more than run-of-the-mill clicks. (By the way, let me suggest that if anybody tries this, pre-enroll all your paid subscribers in some way because if they are already paying you money for the dead-tree edition, this new product is theirs, thank you very much.)

This idea for monetizing blogs was partially inspired by a conversation I had with Kourosh Karimkhany, General Manager of Wired News, who suggested I pay attention to a concept called radical transparency which basically strikes me as this — you want to bare it all to your audience because what they want is honesty and what you want is their time, or what marketers call engagement.

So if newspapers let it all hang out, if their reporters’ notebooks are public, all those “hidden agenda” arguments evaporate — and we get better click revenues.

I’ll tell you one other thing I’ve discovered — many of my readers know a lot more than about the subjects I cover than me. I recently got some of this expert-reader help in advance of covering a development on my tech beat. As a result my story had more depth than other versions written by seasoned reporters who didn’t have this help. (My Chronicle story says the software approach in question “could tilt the balance of power in personal computing away from the industry’s reigning co-rulers, Intel and Microsoft” — which seems noteworthy and yet is absent from this newspaper account and this online news story .)

So better journalism and new revenue sources. Or we FARK ourselves. Whaddya say?

Friday: Follow the audience into the 21st Century