It's time to retire newspaper circulation data in favor of Web analytics – But which ones?

This is part one in a two-part series on Web analytics and the future of news

Newspaper circulation numbers are taken as report cards for survival. When worse than expected for too long, these numbers forewarn of future layoffs and corporate restructuring – and at the very worst, the death of a newspaper.

But we’re putting our emphasis, energy, and nostalgia in the wrong place. The future is in Web analytics, but this extends beyond just knowing about page views, unique users, and visits.

“If newspapers have any chance of making it in an online and social media world with an ad based model, we’ve got to see much more living and dying by analytics,” said Dana Chinn, a lecturer at the USC Annenberg School of Communication.

Nonetheless, a print mentality dominates our current understanding of the media landscape.

Consider, as an example of the formidable significance circulation numbers have in our industry, a June 15, 2009 AP story about the troubles facing the Boston Globe:

“In the most recent report from the Audit Bureau of Circulations, the Globe’s average weekday circulation dropped nearly 14 percent to 302,638 from the previous year. Sunday circulation was down more than 11 percent at 466,665.”

Or, for instance, the February 27, 2009 LA Times article about the death of the Rocky Mountain News, “The paper’s weekday circulation was 210,000; as recently as 2000, it boasted a circulation of 446,000.” Reporter Nicolas Riccardi used the figures like we all seem to do: as a grim snapshot of decline.

The State of the News Media 2009 report gives this grim picture:

“Losses continued and, in fact, accelerated to 4.6% daily and 4.8% Sunday, in the six months ending September 30, 2008, compared to the same period a year earlier…. More papers plan to retreat geographically and put less money into selling new subscriptions in 2009. 

“The industry also continues to struggle to find a metric for total print and online readership that will be meaningful to advertisers.  The online standard – unique monthly visitors – does not compare in frequency or intensity of attention to average daily print circulation.”

But there is an increasing recognition even among the advertising side of the industry that circulation is just a number among many other numbers.

“There are a lot of new measures. It’s not anymore just circulation, it’s not just readership,” said Roberta Garfinkle, the director of print strategy at Target Cast tcm, which offers strategic communication advice for brands. “It’s really who is seeing my ad when are they seeing it and what are they doing about it.”

The State of the News Media’s suggestion that there is an industry “online standard” for measurements is deeply flawed and underscores how much the news industry has to gain from Web analytics. But analytics are not simple and are different for each paper.

Unlike with circulation, there is no way to accurately measure markets against each other or newspapers against each other online. There are two problems: the fuzziness of the Web numbers themselves and the unique variations and development on each website that make it important to customize analytics to that particular newspaper.

“In a print mode, circulation was a good apples to apples comparison. In an online world, you can use uniques, which is a bad number, visits, which is an ok number, page views, [which] can be gamed. It really depends on your end goal,” said Alan Segal, the Atlanta Journal Constitution’s Director of Audience Development.

Depending on the combination of blogs, video, audio, shovelware and other forms of content on a news site, newspapers need to realize that each Web metric they generate is highly contextual to the product they’ve created. And they need to leverage that information with advertisers.

As Alex Langshur, president of the Web Analytics Association, explained, “It’s likely that each outlet will become more differentiated from the others based on the resources that it applies, which then creates different measures for success.”

But as I will explain in the next article on this topic, understanding metrics is incredibly difficult and contingent for each news organization.

We’ll parse through what some of these terms: page views, unique visitors, visits actually mean – and we’ll look at why the numbers from the major auditing companies from comScore to Nielsen to Google Analytics need to be taken with careful consideration. Finally, we’ll look at how news businesses actually can marshal this complicated mess into something that can be used to their advantage.

Skills training is not enough for the digital journalist

As an academic, I’ve been given a front row seat to the unraveling of the news industry without having to worry about my job. But if I were a journalist, the first thing I would be thinking about is what kind of skills I might need in order to retool for the digital age.

However, my 500-foot view from the ivory towers urges caution: it’s not the skills that you get that will save your job, or repurpose you for the future, it’s whether you can learn how to think like a journalist in the Web 2.0, or what some are even calling the Web 3.0 world.

I make this observation after working with newsrooms who have tried to implement broad training initiatives, as well as after interviews with many journalists who have attempted to gain new skills themselves. Here I get to take some license in that the journalists I’ve worked with cannot be named, as they are given anonymity for human subjects research protocol by the university.

But I can say that one of my major discoveries has been that training – learning to take a digital photo, the writing for the Web, the digital audio and video editing, the flash, and the social media, to name a few – is not for everyone, nor should it be the answer for everyone.

I don’t mean to disparage the excellent training that is occurring. Not to toot our own horn, but the Knight Digital Media Center’s Berkeley outfit has become somewhat of a standard bearer in multimedia training for journalists. Poynter’s News U offers courses in online and multimedia training. In November 2008, in addition to its News U offerings, Poynter nobly piloted Standing Up for Journalism workshop to retool and reenergize laid off journalists.

The skills, though, aren’t the answer. As one news executive said, “We need to take staff to Web 2.0 and beyond – to make learning more nimble and flexible.” This executive, after putting staff through training pilots, realized that multimedia literacy and a basic understanding of what it meant to work in a Web environment was what people needed – before they could go about learning the hardware.

What is this multimedia thinking that should be happening in these training sessions? Here are a few suggestions for journalists and their news organizations.

  1. Journalists need to understand how the Web and multimedia goals will work within their own organizations. News organizations need to clearly communicate how these Web goals will influence the work production cycle.
  2. Journalists at all levels of the news organization should believe that they can contribute to the multimedia vision of their organization. The future of the newsroom is also in your hands, and thinking like this forces journalists to think multi-dimensionally.
  3. Journalists are not alone in the newsroom. Even if journalists themselves cannot think about how to make their work relevant to multiplatform content, someone else in the news organization can. Most of your organizations have people on staff that can help you brainstorm, even if you can’t. Multimedia training is also about making new connections across your organization.
  4. Silos, departmental rivalries, and departments that don’t communicate with each other cannot exist if multimedia initiatives are to succeed.
  5. Journalists no longer control the distribution of the content they produce. This is a very scary thought for many journalists, but the reality is that once something is published (usually on Web sites), it belongs to the audience of readers and becomes part of a conversation about the news.
  6. Journalists need to rethink and reposition themselves the leader of this new conversation, which includes everyone from the traditional water cooler chat to bloggers.

Of all of these ways to think about multimedia in news organizations, perhaps the most important point to emphasize is that Web journalism means a journalism of conversation. London School of Economics professor and former broadcast journalist Charlie Beckett has come up with the term “networked journalist” or “networked journalism,” and explains the idea in his new book, Supermedia: Saving Journalism So it Can Save the World.

The idea is to take the best parts of the civic journalism and public journalism movements and sync these up with the possibilities of the Web. Through networked journalism, Beckett urges legacy journalists to think of themselves as participating in somewhat of a pro-am kind of relationship, where mainstream journalists share the process of production with everyday citizens.

Multimedia training doesn’t need to incorporate new skills if journalists can find ways to think about including in their work opportunities for conversation through citizen journalism, crowd-sourcing, interactivity, wikis, blogging, and social network, as Beckett points out, “not as ad-ons, but as an essential part of news production and distribution.”

Journalists don’t have to learn how to take photos, though maybe they should, but they need to think about new ways to connect to an audience that is increasingly connected to them.

The truth is that most skills boot camps don’t turn the majority of the journalists who attend them into professional quality video editors or graphic designers; in fact, many of the projects they turn out in training sessions would not be fit for the Web.

But the value of these training sessions is that they do help journalists learn to see the potential of what these new tools can bring to the work they do – so instead of making multimedia experts, journalists can learn how to think like them. But we ought to reconsider the goals of these training sessions and align them to change thinking to change practice, rather than use them to change practice and hope it will change thinking.

New business models for news are not that new

With online ad revenue down for the second quarter in a row and newspaper industry indicators suggesting that 2008 is going be the worst year yet, the frenzy continues for a new business model for news publishing that will magically boost revenue and stop the financial bloodletting.

But innovation is sorely lacking in the new business models proposed; the truth is that many of them have been around since the early 1900s.

In 1923, historian James Melvin Lee outlined in his History of American Journalism alternative business models that newspapers had tried to remove themselves from dependence on advertisers and circulation growth and that now seem strangely prescient: the endowment model, the municipal news model, an adless newspaper, religious news, and what can only be called the “bazooka gum” approach to circulation.

Even before Pro-Publica could be imagined, our predecessors were strategizing how to create an endowment-supported newspaper. Hamilton Holt, editor of the New York City Independent outlined what such a model would look like to other newsmen at the first National Newspaper Conference at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1912.

The endowment model immediately had its critics – with much the same response we hear today. James Kelley of the Chicago Herald argued that an endowment newspaper was an “impossibility” for only the “people” could truly endow journalism without it being disinterested. In other words, whoever provided the cash was likely to have the dominant influence.

Lee worried that the endowment model was championed by academics and was unlikely to work because no one was willing to front the cash. He wrote, “The nearest that the endowed newspaper has come to a realization in America was a promise of Andrew Carnegie to be one of 10 men to finance such a venture. It would take just about ten men of Mr. Carnegie’s wealth to establish successfully an endowed daily newspaper.” Looking around in today’s news environment, the St. Petersburg Times stands alone as an independent, endowed print newspaper.

Lee mentions another curious model that seems strangely reminiscent of the turn toward hyperlocal blogging: the municipal newspaper model.

Los Angeles in 1912 had evening and daily newspapers, but it also had the first, and possibly only Municipal News. Financed by the city of Los Angeles, 60,000 copies were distributed by newsboys and to homes. It was under the control of a municipal newspaper commission, composed of three citizens who served without pay and who were appointed by the mayor. They were to hold office for four years and were subject to recall and removal by referendum.

The mayor, the city council, and political party that had more than 3% of the vote were guaranteed column space. Financial support came from an appropriation of $36,000 set aside by the city of LA. Ad revenue was a second stream of income, but the newspaper did not support any major department store ads. Civic minded, it had a special student section.

The Municipal News was truly hyperlocal – it didn’t truly compete with any LA papers because it didn’t cover national or state news or carry wires. Lee is unclear on how long it actually lasted, but was voted down by the city council due to cost.

Some newspapers in the early 20th century tried to do without ads entirely. On September 28, 1911 the Day Book, an adless daily newspaper appeared in Chicago. It began with only 200 copies and sent personal agents of the paper to subscribers to generate revenue. Eventually, circulation got up to 22,938, but when the price was raised from one to two cents and the cost of paper increased due to World War I, it died a few short months later. A major downfall – the lack of department store ads failed to attract women readers.

Still, Lee suggested that people ought to be willing to pay for quality and that adless papers could be a reality: “The adless newspaper may possibly be a part of the journalism of to-morrow, if fifty thousand people will be willing to pay ten cents per copy for their daily paper and will agree not to cancel their subscription orders even through displeased with the presentation of the news or offended at the editorial policy adopted by the editors.”

One form of news that was increasingly popular was a turn toward news financed by religious organizations. Lee dismisses most of these for being too narrowly focused on spreading religion to attract a broad audience, with one exception – the Christian Science Monitor, which kept its religious news to the back and even then was noted for its international outlook. Other religious newspapers are still running strong: The Desert News, affiliated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, acts as a competitor to the Salt Lake Tribune. And the Washington Times‘ conservative stance pursues its agenda from the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church.

The Christian Science Monitor is reinventing itself as we speak as one of the first major dailies to switch from print first to an online daily with a print weekly. Lee’s refinement of religious newspapers as a distinct model may be reflected in the Monitor’s bravado: perhaps religious newspapers are hotbeds of innovation.

The final model Lee proposes and dismisses is what can only be called the Bazooka Gum Model and reeks of the gimmicks and cereal box circulation efforts ad departments have tried for years to boost revenue.

For Lee, these efforts were a lost cause. He told the sorry tale of the 1905 United States Daily of Detroit, which offered people little trading stamps that they could exchange for things like bicycles if they collected enough. Coupons failed to bring in enough circulation – and the newspaper died after 68 days.

A return to our history books provides a useful warning and reminder: we don’t have the answers yet. We didn’t have them in the 1920s, and we’re still searching for them now.

But even without answers, news innovators of times past were willing to experiment. We should take our cues from the past, and consider new business models as opportunities for our industry rather than signs of its failure.