Friday, July 31, 2009

When No News is Bad News: The Atlantic Monthly on why we need serious journalism

According to the introduction to an article by James Warren, "When No News Is Bad News,"is an look by a former managing editor of The Chicago Tribune into "the collapse of the newspaper industry" in which Warren "tries, mostly in vain, to find hope for the future of journalism."

With an introduction like that, you basically know what Warren, a contributor to the Huffington Post, will say. After all, the article is based on a speech he made, “Democracy, the decline of Mainistream Media and Rise of the Internet” at the University of Chicago, Harris School of Public Policy.

So here's his point: good democracies require good journalism.

Or in his words:

The question is, how much light can you have if you aren’t willing to pay to look into military hospitals in Washington, into those on Death Row in Illinois, into whether those wooden Thomas the Tank Engine toys made in China are safe, into the safety of school lunch programs, into whether people needlessly die on airplanes, or even just into whether there are obvious conflicts of interest on the local zoning board?

And lastly, we have to be brutally honest with a final, crucial question: Even in our democracy, are there enough people out there who care whether the light of serious journalism is allowed to fail?

I don't have an answer to that. I know demand for journalism continues even as traditional newspapers are collapsing. There are now nonprofits working in several markets trying to offer serious journalism, trying to serve as a monitor to their municipal governments.

The question for them: can they sustain their operations? Will they be able to find readers?

Ultimately, there's a question of the marketplace: Will people pay to support good journalism?

Thursday, July 30, 2009

AP Continues to Innovate...but is it enough?

Battered by the downward spiral of the print newspaper sector, the Associated Press, the member-funded nonprofit news agency, is looking at new ways to provide value.

Some ideas seem like they will be difficult to succeed. For example, trying to clamp down on non-member sites that use all or part of an AP article. It makes sense in a pre-social media world.

But in a social media world, you actually want others to post information and cite about you, and to provide links back to your site.

Plus compliance will be difficult to maintain.

On the other hand, AP has started a six-month experiment to provide articles by the Center for Public Integrity, the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University, the Center for Investigative Reporting, and ProPublica. According to the New York Times, these new sources can help newspapers " fill the gap left by their own shrinking resources."

That's the kind of innovation that should help AP demonstrate its value to its 1,500 US newspaper members.

For more details, check out the Times article, "A.P. in Deal to Deliver Nonprofits’ Journalism."

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

What Are You Offering Reporters These Days?

Too many PR functions may be thinking in the past.

They're thinking about press releases that haven't changed much over the past decade.

They're thinking about print.

What they need to think about -- and we're taking steps to make sure we do each time out -- is think beyond the press release.

First, let me say I think press releases are still part of the PR toolkit. Social media hasn't eliminated the press release -- they haven't gone the way of the buggy whip.

In fact, we saw that a client quote in a recent press release was picked up in its entirety in a reputable top-tier trade outlet.

But PR functions need to think in a multimedia, interactive world. And we need to guide our internal clients to adapt that mindset.

We need to think about audio and video that can be available with the press release.

We need a website that features audio and video -- and they need to push out that audio, video and other interactive content beyond their website.

We need to offer online photo galleries and make it easier for newspapers -- yes, newspapers -- to feature video. In fact, yesterday a client asked about video for an upcoming launch to see if we thought it would help us secure broadcast coverage; and after that meeting, we realized the answer we should have given (and will, today) is that video is important today for any news organization's website.

We need to provide suggestions of other information, sites, etc. that newspaper websites can link to.

We need to consider online chats we can conduct with reporters for their websites.

Some of this isn't exactly new; I realize that. But there are a lot of organizations are not taking advantage of multimedia. They may consider it expensive, unnecessary, complicated, that they don't have the skill sets or budgets. It's becoming increasingly easy to bring multimedia to your organization or clients. We've been talking with reporters from various media outlets, and they're recognizing the shift. PR functions need to make sure our clients shift, too.

Monday, July 27, 2009

What is a Gateway Economy -- and why you should know about it

According to George F. Colony, CEO, Forrester Research, we're in a gateway economy -- "a portal connecting two very different eras."

In an article on the Huffington Post, "Beyond the Gateway Recession: What CEOs Will Face Next," Colony argues that "Those who can speak digital will thrive, and those who cannot will finally get the message and retire."

For PR functions, here are some of the highlights of Colony's thesis:
  • Digital will be mandatory, not a choice. I think we can all agree about that. After all, there's very little left that comes into the home that's not digital. Probably water is the only thing not digital other than our food.
  • Brand loyalty will be limited. This is because customers will have the ability to easily change their purchase decisions (because, in part, of digital delivery).
  • You will sell differently. Just as social media has changed the way people interact online, it has already changed they way companies sell and compete. Colony expects this to continue, and he's right. Though I do wonder that at some point this may change because of a bottom-line need to hard sell. As it is, clients who are interested in social media are also wondering what benefits they'll receive if they start to engage via social media. The soft sell is harder to quantify.
  • The way you innovated is dead.I thought this was one of the more interesting points Colony made.
Check out the full article, and let me know what you think about Colony's predictions.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Can This Business Model be Saved? Thoughts on BusinessWeek & the 5 Percent Problem

The news that McGraw-Hill has put BusinessWeek, the prestigious magazine it has owned for 80 years and that has a paid circulation of 900,000 that has held steady over the past few years, is a sign that we still have a way to go before a recovery.

But the news has also generated an interesting look by Stephen Baker, a 22-year BW veteran, to ponder, "How to remake BusinessWeek."

In trying to figure out "how to turn a business news operation built primarily as a weekly magazine into a profitable franchise for the age of near ubiquitous and real-time information," Baker refers to the "the last 5%."

According to Baker, "It involves a large team of professionals engaged in tweaking, polishing, compressing and dressing articles--hopefully giving them the gleam, smarts and clarity of a top-rate product...This last 5% consumes a sizeable effort and expense. The question the next (or current) owner of BusinessWeek is going to have to grapple with is whether such attention to detail is worth it, or, alternatively, whether there's another way to achieve the same goal."

From Baker's perspective, "the last 5%" is a significant problem. Yet the work that gets done during "the last 5%" is also what separates BusinessWeek from commodity journalism.

Having worked as an editor in newspapers and book publishing, and in PR, I know that there's a lot of effort to get the final product to be right, paying attention to commas, hyphens and other grammatical minutiae that most people will overlook as they scan the page. There's a pride of ownership in a final document and a sense of responsibility to get it right.

Baker suggests that may no longer be necessary in a real-time, social media space. After all, as noted before in this blog, there are a lot of people who consider speed to publish is more important than accuracy. That would include, but is not limited to, grammatical accuracy, too.

I think Baker's right that "the last 5%" consumes more energy than the reader may value. But I don't think that's the only problem facing the traditional print business model. The problem also can be attributed to a lack of accountability in how newspapers and magazine spent their money.

In another blog post, "After the Madison Avenue bubble," Baker wrote about how BusinessWeek overspent when he first joined the magazine: requesting and paying for an additional apartment in Mexico City so the magazine could claim to have a bureau office there, along with a secretary -- when Baker could have just worked at his own (subsidized-by-BW apartment). How he lived well in Paris (in another expensive, subsidized-by-BW apartment), sent his kids to subsidized-by-BW private school, etc.

From my perspective, people still want news, still want content that requires the effort of "the last 5%" -- that demand for news has nothing to do with the actual business model. The real problem is the debt many built up and now can't service. Bankruptcy may help some publishers restart their business, by reducing their debt loads.

But it may be too late to stem the tide, to save print media from itself.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Not Surprised Boston Globe Union Supports New Concessions -- They didn't have much choice

In an unsurprising development, the Boston Globe's largest union voted to accept a similar package that they rejected six weeks ago. They didn't have much choice.

It was accept these concessions or the Globe would go out of business.

So the union has staved off the Globe's demise.

For now.

The New York Times is still trying to sell the Globe and its sister paper, the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.

Getting the union to accept the offer makes it easier for the Times to sell the paper -- a new owner would not have to worry about having to negotiate a new union contract.

Which is not to say that a new owner might not push for new concessions.

The question is: what additional changes does the Globe still have to make. Even with the concessions, the paper is still not profitable -- it's not even close. Last year, the Globe racked up more than $1M in losses per week, about $81M annually. The new concessions slice off about $20M, leaving the Globe still negative $1M per week.

That's not sustainable. Not for the Times. And not for new owners.

There will have to be more changes and cuts.

If I were a betting man, I'd bet we'll hear more about those changes soon, by Labor Day. It's not as if the Times and Globe don't know they need to make more cuts. They just needed to focus on contracts first.

I'd also bet that the Times will continue to work to selling the Globe rather than keeping the property for itself.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

A Voice or Two Grows in San Diego

Let's be clear: lots of newspapers are encountering significant problems due to the Great Recession. That's been a theme I've been covering in this blog. Major market papers have closed or shifted to online-only, laid off or offered buy-outs to employees, shifted publication schedules, etc.

Lots of publications have been put quietly or quite loudly on the market -- with no takers, and deadlines for bids extended again and again.

It's been ugly.

But one point I've tried to make is that the problem print newspapers have been encountering does not have anything to do with circulation or readership demand.

In fact, it's clear that the public still wants and craves news.

They just may not be as attached to the actual paper it's been printed on.

The industry's problems are more financial than readership.

As we shifted from 8-track tape to CDs, we're now at an inflection point with delivery mechanisms of news.

The current Forbes offers a story about two news startups in San Diego, "San Diego News Shoot-Out: As a newspaper monopoly crumbles, unorthodox upstarts storm the marketplace. Welcome to the future of journalism." What it shows is that people are still interested in covering and delivering news -- just as there continues to be demand to read the news.

The challenges include:
  1. How to make the new news credible.
  2. How to make delivering the news -- in whatever format -- profitable or at at least sustainable.

It's worth checking out both startups profiled in the Forbes article.

The challenge for us in PR is to find ways to work with the new news -- and to provide context to our clients and bosses that these new outlets are indeed worthwhile to pursue.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

What The Selling of BusinessWeek Tells Us about the Economy -- That BusinessWeek Hasn't Told Us

The news that McGraw-Hill is trying to sell BusinessWeek, "McGraw-Hill Is Said to Be Seeking a Buyer for BusinessWeek," tells us something imporant about the media business -- something that you won't find inside the pages (hardcopy or otherwise) of BusinessWeek itself.

It's that the Great Recession has not started rebounding.

Circulation for BusinessWeek is holding steady at about 900,000, but advertising is declining.

BusinessWeek is a great publication, does a terrific job covering news and trends. And its website and BusinessWeek Exchange community are very popular.

Doesn't matter, though, because advertising pages has dropped 40% since 2004.

Here's what Peter F. Appert, an analyst at the Piper Jaffray Companies, said to the New York Tmes about the potential sale: “It certainly makes all the sense in the world for them to sell it, even though in my view there is likely to be minimal proceeds, if any. There could be buyers, if the definition of a buyer is someone who’s willing to take it off their hands.”

That last part of his statement is worth repeating: "There could be buyers, if the definition of a buyer is someone who’s willing to take it off their hands.”

What that tells us, unfortunately, is that BusinessWeek is in trouble. That a high profile, important business publication will be spun out, its future uncertain under new owners looking for a bargain.

It means, if McGraw-Hill feels it makes sense to ditch BusinessWeek now, that we're far from being out of the woods, that a recovery is not just around the corner.

Meanwhile the list of failed magazines continues. Former Mets (and Phillies) Lenny Dykstra had filed bankruptcy, and shut down his finance magazine, according to Forbes. "Dykstra Done In By Debts: Ex-ballplayer goes bust, owes millions after failed investment in glossy finance magazine for pro athletes."

In the short-term, we should expect further belt-tightening at the BusinessWeek and other major publications -- that layoffs and offers for buy-outs will continue, that print will continue to look for ways to shrink their publications to save money, continue to look at ways to increase revenues (the problem with a recent Washington Post pay-for-access salons), and that more publications will shift to an online-only business model.

What that also means for PR functions is that the competition for ink will continue to be tough since the number of organizations trying to get into a publicaiton seems to be holding steady while the number of actual pages is shrinking.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Killer App for Online Content: Getting Consumers to Pay for Content

The killer app and Holy Grail of web content is not for people to access content but to get them to pay for that access.

It may have been true, as Samuel Johnson is oft quoted as saying, that "No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money."

But there are a lot of us blockheads out there, writing for reasons other than making money.

BusinessWeek's Jon Fine discusses the latest attempts to monetize content in the current issue,
"Charging for Online Content Gets Closer, Two startups, Journalism Online and ViewPass, aim to help battered publishers find ways to get paid for their Web offerings."

ViewPass and Journalism Online are making valiant efforts, but their approaches are still problematic.

Either way, what seems likely is that the business model known as "freemium" will win out. Freemium is a mix of free and premium access.

Free access is better for internal PR functions and their agencies, because it means a wider potential audience for content, and free content is searchable while paid content is often behind a wall so fewer people will access it and the content remains hidden from search engines.

Not much that internal PR functions or their agencies can do right now, but watch and make suggestions how to best understand how to work with whatever the outcome.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

As Technology Converges, What Should the Strategy be for Point Technology like GPS?

Convergence has been a hot technology topic for a long time. Today's New York Times takes a look at the downside of convergence for GPS manufacturers, in "Sending GPS Devices the Way of the Tape Deck?"

Smartphones, especially that particular one that promotes itself by saying "there's an app for that," is where so much technology is converging. (It hasn't been easy finding a simple cellphone that only makes calls for several years.)

And while that's good news for users by reducing the number of devices we must carry, that's not the case for some of the technology providers.

GPS, for example, is now included in many smartphones, decreases sales of dedicated GPS units. No doubt the dedicated GPS units do some things much better than the GPS on your iPhone such route planning , identifying points of interests, remembering key addresses, and working when outside of cell coverage. Dedicated GPS units can also be much faster than GPS-enabled phones. Plus, you can carry on a conversation while also looking at your map, which you can't do with a smartphone and directions.

Still, it seems inevitable that sales of GPS devices will decrease -- that is GPS for driving. Specialized GPS devices for hiking/offroad and boating will continue as a niche play.

The challenge for TomTom and Garmin, two of the best known GPS manufacturers, is how to survive.

While I prefer Garmin's Nuvi line, I'd have to say that Tom-Tom's strategy appears to be superior to Garmin's.

According to the Times, "
TomTom, based in Amsterdam, recently announced that it would introduce a portable navigation application for the iPhone this summer that would feature turn-by-turn directions and audio prompts. Unlike existing GPS apps for the iPhone, TomTom intends to charge a one-time flat fee rather than require users to pay a monthly subscription fee.'It’s the manifestation of our strategy to make TomTom available across different platforms, including the smartphone,' said Tom Murray, the company’s vice president for market development. "

According to the Times, Garmin "is taking a different approach...(and) plans to release a combination navigational device and cellphone called the Nuviphone later this year." The problem: "The company’s bet — that it can beat established smartphone makers like R.I.M., Apple, Palm and HTC at their own game — is a risky one at best, said Julien Blin, principal analyst at JBB Research, who follows the industry."

I totally agree with Julien Blin -- Garmin knows how to make cool devices, but smartphones are difficult, and require additional skillsets than what Garmin has shown previously. It's going to be a tough sell.

We see more technology companies developing technology components to make their apps available cross-platform. Our client, Avistar, recently announced a new videoconferencing solution, the C3 Media Engine, that does just that -- allows developers to embed videoconferencing capability into their applications. Spreadsheets, word processing documents, presentations all can easily have a button that enables you to communicate and collaborate with clients, colleagues, etc. from within the app. No switching back and forth from one app to another to the videoscreen.

I don't usually mention clients in this blog, but I think that smart companies are adapting now to imminent convergence. I think TomTom is making the right bet, and so are companies like Avistar.

What do you think smartphone convergence will look like?

Monday, July 6, 2009

Scenario Planning: WSJ profiles JDS Uniphase for its annual planning session -- Is annually enough?

Today's Wall St. Journal included an article about scenario planning: "Pendulum Is Swinging Back on 'Scenario Planning' JDS Uniphase Prepares Responses for a Range of Business Situations, Helping Company React Quickly to Change."

Here's how the article defined "scenario planning": it's "preparing responses to imagined changes in conditions." However, "'It's not about predicting the future,' says Peter Schwartz, a partner at Monitor Group, a Cambridge, Mass., consulting firm. 'Scenario planning is a tool for learning' and making better decisions."

My question: is scenario planning on an annual basis the right timetable to really enable a company to "react quickly to change?"

Given current conditions, I think annual planning isn't enough because conditions are so fluid, often in negative ways -- a reason to never take clients for granted.

On the other hand, we picked up a new client earlier this year, and our work for them has enabled us to pitch other, non-competitive companies in that sector, one which I would not have identified as a sweet spot six months ago. (We had the relevant experience, just had not seen much activity in that area for us.) The result: we're packaging our very current results and experience and placing a bigger bet on that sector.

We hold scenario sessions twice a year, and even that may not be enough. Some questions we consider include:
  • What are current media trends? We compile these trends each year in Dec. for the following year.
  • How might these trends impact our business, including our ability to generate media coverage? We then regularly brief our clients on our thoughts and recommendations.
  • What trends are we seeing with our clients? We ask this on an individual client basis as well as on a macro level that includes prospects.
  • What are clients asking us for -- and in what ways does this represent a change?
  • What do we need to have in place to take advantage of potential changes?
Some of the results of our internal planning sessions have helped us enter new markets, develop expertise in new areas, etc. But we find that once a year planning isn't enough.