How are you going to make money? By changing your relationship with your community

I get the same question again and again as I explain our innovation efforts at Gazette Communications: How are you going to make money doing that?

When I explained our plans to separate content from product, people could see that we were moving to an organization built for the future rather than the past. But they still asked: How do you monetize that? (Yes, even journalists have started using the M-word.)

I answer in my Blueprint for the Complete Community Connection, published this week on my blog: We need to move beyond advertising.

Harvard Business Professor Clayton Christensen, the foremost authority on disruptive innovation, says established businesses take two approaches when faced with disruptive technology: They ignore it or they try to cram their existing model into the new opportunity. The newspaper industry did both. When we realized we couldn’t ignore the Internet any longer, we tried to cram our newspapers into our websites.

On the content side, we are finally getting beyond that, producing videos and interactive databases and Flash graphics exclusively for digital audiences. We are liveblogging events, Twittering and posting breaking news as soon as we verify facts, rather than holding back in fear of “scooping ourselves.”

On the revenue side, though, most news sites remain stuck in the print ages. We still live on display ads, priced by how many eyes will see them. Beyond the disparity between print and online ad rates, this places us in a vulnerable position with the business customers who provide the money that supports our watchdog journalism.

In our advertising model, we are a big expense line in the budgets of our business customers. We bring shoppers through the door, but the business actually makes the sale. In tough times (and these are tough, you might have noticed), our business customers do the same thing we do: They look for places to cut expenses. That advertising budget line looms huge – the merchant cuts the ad budget and the newsroom cuts its staff. But advertising works, so fewer people will come into the store. Instead of blaming the steepening decline on the cut in advertising, the business blames the economy and cuts advertising some more. And the newsroom cuts again, or maybe furloughs this time.

We need to change the fundamental relationship with our business customers. What if we sell tickets on our sports and entertainment sites, offer gift registries with engagement announcements and sell gift certificates and make reservations in our dining guides? The customer takes out the debit card and makes the transaction right from our news site and we collect the money. That changes us from an expense line in the customers’ budgets to a revenue line (actually, we want to be both). Our fee is like withholding tax – our customer never had the money so it doesn’t sting as much and it’s not something the business can cut from its budget. In fact, the merchants want to grow that revenue line, so in tough times, they’ll want to do more business with us.

This is what the Blueprint for the Complete Community Connection seeks to do: Change the relationship that media companies have with our communities. We become more than just a source of news, crossword puzzles and sales ads to our consumers. We become their connection to community life: news, information, shopping, social life. And for businesses, we become an essential connection to customers.

An example of how we change both the content and revenue approach is the blueprint’s proposal for a new driving vertical. For years, newspapers’ automotive content has been focused on a single purpose: buying and selling cars. Ads focused on new and used cars for sale. Editorial content was sparse but often included reviews of new cars. An advice column used as filler might provide a little help in the actual operation of a car. Because we ignored the possibilities of the Internet too long, others beat newspapers in developing digital platforms for buying and selling cars, and our automotive vertical is faring about as well as Detroit right now, taking a 29 percent hit last year.

Buying a car, though, is actually a rare task for most people. I did it last summer for the first time in more than five years and hope it’s that long before I buy again. But I drive daily. What if we developed a vertical for the everyday tasks of driving? This would provide a traffic map, gas-price map, pothole map, databases of bridge inspections, parking meter citations and gas-pump inspections. We would provide discussion groups for classic-car fans, parents of teen drivers and other automotive interests. We’d offer a place for sharing photos of souped-up cars and stories about first cars. We’d provide text alerts about traffic problems and road closures. (Many newspaper sites already provide some of these services, but not grouped together. The auto-focused databases are grouped with other databases, as though we want to appeal to some imaginary broad segment of the population interested in data.)

The revenue opportunities of a driving vertical are vast: Places that service cars and sell tires, parts and insurance, most of them not big newspaper advertisers, would love to reach this audience. We could offer an emergency-service option, where drivers in need of immediate repairs text or email their need and we alert business customers and make the appointment with someone who can squeeze the driver in today. If we develop a place where drivers come frequently for help, where do you think they will turn when they’re ready to buy? That’s where the car dealers will want to advertise.

Initial reaction to the C3 blueprint has been encouraging. Mark Potts quoted it extensively in a blog post, saying, “the Gazette’s plan feels like a much-needed revolution.” Mark Briggs and Michele McLellan praised it as ambitious. Robert Ivan called it a “must read for all news media professionals.” Jay Rosen praised it as “today’s future-of-news key read.”

Praise feels good but doesn’t get the job done. You could find far more voices claiming that our solutions lie in charging for content, which I view as a waste of time and energy. I don’t claim that the C3 blueprint has all the answers to that persistent money-making question. But we have a plan and we are pursuing it. Now my Gazette Communications colleagues and I need to deliver.

Journalists need to engage in that discussion. I hope you have (and share) some better ideas.

News businesses must think about content, not just products, to ensure their survival

I work for a 126-year-old start-up company.

Since our founding in 1883, Gazette Communications has revolved around the newspaper that gave the company its name. As time went on, the company added a television station and various other products, but our focus was always on the products, especially that venerable core print product.

We developed a pretty good staff to provide content for the products, but their work always revolved around the products. Editors would meet daily in a conference room and talk about the stories that would be in the next day’s paper, writing slugs and story lengths on a whiteboard. The story lengths were not based on the amount of relevant content a reporter might develop. They were based on the interests and attention span of a mythical average newspaper reader and on the price of newsprint.

After two newspapers that were older than ours, the Rocky Mountain News and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, folded within the past month, it’s clearer than ever that a proud past doesn’t ensure a prosperous future. We are feeling the same pressures as all newspaper companies. In fact, beyond the national economic problems and the industry turmoil, our community is reeling from a historic disaster. Our company is cutting its staff from about 600 before the flood to about 500. I had to tell 14 journalists last month that their jobs were eliminated. But whatever turmoil our products face, the demand for content is stronger than ever.

So Gazette Communications is unhitching our content generation from product management.

If you just thought, “Huh?” you’re not alone. Our staff and some of our leaders are still working on understanding this concept. Content and product are so closely entwined in newsroom organizations and in the minds and hearts of journalists that “untangling” would probably be a more accurate verb for the paragraph above than “unhitching.”

A Mark Briggs blog entry in January quoted Tom Peters, summarizing the mental and cultural challenge we face: “Visa founder Dee Hock said it best: ‘The problem is never how to get new, innovative thoughts into your mind, but how to get the old ones out.’ … Every enterprise (and every individual) needs a formal … Forgetting Strategy. We must be as forceful and systematic about identifying and then dumping yesterday’s baggage as we are about acquiring new baggage.”

So I spelled out the forgetting strategy for our staff, listing some time-honored terms and concepts in any newsroom (starting with the word “newsroom”): reporters, editors, photographers, columnists, deadlines, story lengths, space, gatekeeper, story selection …
This had to start with me forgetting and forgoing my title of editor, which, of course, I had been thrilled to accept last May. Gazette CEO Chuck Peters had suggested Information Content Creator or Moderator in his blog, but I didn’t like either of those. I countered by suggesting conductor. I liked three different meanings of the word: musical (orchestrating creative people), railroad (helping people get where they want to go) and electrical (carrying energy). Most important, it says we’re doing something different, forgetting something precious.

As conductor, I lead a start-up organization, which we are calling Content Creation & Collaboration. We will have about 30 entrepreneurial journalists whose sole job is creating content, some in topical areas, some providing enterprise or covering breaking news. Other staff members will lead the group or provide training and support. We will publish unedited content digitally in a multitude of forms: stories, yes, but also bulletins, updates, tweets, liveblogs, photographs, videos, multimedia, graphics, source documents, databases, links and whatever other form is appropriate.

We will sell our content to The Gazette and other products our company owns and they will edit the content to meet the needs of the packaged products. We also will sell content to external customers such as other media outlets and will seek ways to sell enhanced content (such as photo reprints or customized products) directly to the public.

Our start-up will collect revenue for advertising sold to accompany these streams of unedited content, though the journalists producing the content won’t handle the advertising sales ourselves. Gazette Communications’ sales staff will sell advertising, but we also can use Google or other third-party ad sales. We also hope to develop some direct-sales opportunities for business customers, though that responsibility will rest with our colleagues responsible for transforming our approach to commercial content.

We’re in the transition right now, making staff assignments, working out the details of workflow and communication and deciding which functions rest with the content staff and which are product-focused. We answer many questions by saying, “We don’t know yet.”

But here’s an example of how it will work: In the print-only days, a reporter covering a trial spent all day in the courtroom, then wrote a story for the morning newspaper that summarized the day’s action and presented a few highlights. That story might be 12-15 inches, more than many readers cared about but not nearly enough for people with strong interest in the case. Now that reporter will liveblog from the courtroom, writing perhaps 4,000 to 5,000 words and interacting with the audience. In a throwback to the days of “Sweetheart, get me rewrite,” a product editor will cut, paste and edit a story for the morning Gazette from the liveblog (probably not the 12-15 inches of days gone by, because our newshole is tighter). If the judge makes a key ruling, the reporter would file a bulletin to our breaking news blog, informing people who aren’t watching the case as closely and linking to the liveblog.

Because building audience will be part of our journalists’ responsibility, the journalist would also tweet news developments in a Twitter feed, linking to the liveblog. And the journalist would link to relevant external contact as well as to archived stories about the case that would provide context.

The basics of journalism remain unchanged, even strengthened: We’ll answer who, what, when, where, why and how in greater depth, free from the limits of products.