Dispatches from the living amongst journalism's walking dead

Month: August 2009 Page 1 of 2

Business models, social media and cool interweb tips

Best Things I’ve Read This Week

The always awesome Paid Content has an excellent analysis by Nic Brisbourne on his version of the future of news. At it’s core – it isn’t anything you haven’t heard before: Better quality writing, investigative journalism and in-depth analysis are a commodity we in the professional news world have going for us, even as news itself is an abundance.

He suggests we should leverage this to reinforce our place in the market – and do so with less cost and without charging for access to the news. He notes the examples of TechCrunch, Pitchfork and Huffington Post leveraging their trusted brands into things they can charge for – and doing so with a low enough overhead to make it with decent online ad rates. It isn’t earth-shattering – but it is at least the most plausible plan I’ve ever heard.

On the flip side – there’s the privately-funded investigative model of journalism that’s still wearing it’s fledgling feathers – but it’s really rocking out. If you haven’t seen it yet, check out  “Strained by Katrina, a Hospital Faced Deadly Choices” in the NY Times Magazine. The long-form investigative narrative is the sort of journalism we all wish we were doing – and it wasn’t done by the New York Times, for once. The work on this piece was funded by a grant through ProPublica – who worked with the NY Times to get it into print. Could agreements like this be a part of the future for in-depth reporting? If work like this is what comes out of it, I’m sold.

News on News

  • Ok, I get it, so maybe you want a more technology-oriented solution? How’s about an iPhone App that Automatically Picks the News You’ll Like ?An RSS reader that builds a custom news network for you based on your reading habits? That sounds like something we should be working with. Even if the reader doesn’t “pick us” to be in an individual’s mix, something like this makes news accessible to those who don’t have the time to find new news sources. Maybe that new source can be you?
  • Every online news source has either considered or tried free classifieds, with varying levels of success (mostly bad). Boing Boing asserts that Newspapers can’t make themselves as simple as craigslist – a well-deserved slam on the classified pages of most newspaper sites. There’s a reason why Craigslist works and we may have missed the point in trying (pathetically) to duplicate their effort.
  • Did you know The Guardian is the most bookmarked newspaper on delicious? I don’t really know what that says about them, but they must have a lot of news their readers find to be useful – or else they wouldn’t be bookmarking it. Check it out.
  • First it was the bloggers, now it’s the tweeters getting into the press boxes. One twittering fan has gotten courtside press credentials at St. John’s – the first of his kind (and probably not the last).

Social Media News

  • Breaking News: Social Media Is for Narcissists! To some people (i.e. my parents), it may seem like a no-brainer that my generation (Y, Why?) is full of narcissists in regards to social media. What is interesting is the surveyed groups of (much younger) Gen-Yers understanding that that might not be such a bad thing to really sell yourself in such a competitive world – not only in business, but in life.
  • In related news, all that news about teens not being into Twitter may not be right. It isn’t so much that the proportion of teens on Twitter are low, but that the majority of social media users are older simply because the social web is growing up. Twitter – unlike many of the others – actually started with an older group and they’ve had a longer time to adopt it.
  • Pat Thornton writes on Poynter about different newspapers’ approach to Twitter use – and how there doesn’t seem to be one right answer for getting a good ROI out of it. Automated accounts sometimes work, personal accounts sometimes don’t – so perhaps variety is the answer? (At Cincinnati.Com, we have both)
  • As you know, not everyone is sold on social media’s value – not even all of those marketers and brands out there. As much as some old-school companies might be fighting, the stats say Social Media Resistance Is Fading Fast and adoption rates are soaring.

Cool Tips!!

  • If you’re the sort of journo is is doing (or desperately trying) multimedia and online work in several software suites, you might find this collection of software cheat sheets from 10,000 Words helpful. It outlines helpful hints for all sorts of video, audio and web programs.
  • And while most of these little hints apply to marketing and advertising types,it might be good to know these Eight Twitter Habits That May Get You Unfollowed or Semi-Followed so you don’t look like a tool on the Internets.

No winners in online comment debate

From the time newspapers took a cue from blogs and added comments to online stories, we’ve been embroiled in debate.

I’ve been in the thick of it at Cincinnati.Com, where a big part of my job is in monitoring our site’s comments, maintaining our moderation policy and fielding lots of angry correspondence from staff and readers regarding those comments.

Everyone wants to debate whether the comments have any value (they do to those who comment), who’s responsible for their content (the law says the commenter is responsible, not the institution, but that doesn’t stop people from insisting otherwise). They question if removing comments is stifling discussion on a topic – and if that’s such a bad thing.

Online comments are a gigantic albatross for our sites, but I believe we need them. While the amount of racist remarks, predictable political attacks and name calling on our stories could fill a book – they are worth it for the ones that really reflect a community’s mindset.

Newspapers are supposed to be a community hub – and we can’t fill that role without giving our readers a way to respond to the news the same way they do other places online.

At Cincinnati.Com, we do after-the-fact moderation (where users can report comments) on our 10,000+ comments each week in accordance with discussion guidelines we set up in May 2008. It’s an imperfect system – stuff stays on the site that shouldn’t because it isn’t found or reported – but people get to have their say.

When the comments really start flying off-base, sometimes we have to make the choice to remove them altogether. WaPo Ombudsman Andrew Alexander recently wrote about that paper’s recent struggle with such a choice. They use the same system as the Enquirer and it failed on them when a subject of their story was vilified by his family in the comments….

Do we miss the point of “hyperlocal”?

I think every medium and metro-sized newspaper has had this conversation in the past few years:

Editor #1: People aren’t going to our website to read state and national stories. It’s all the fault of that darn CNN and such.

Editor #2: Well, maybe so, but we’ve still got Community X.  They don’t do news there.

Editor #1: Maybe we’ll build a whole website just based on news from Community X! It’ll be awesome! Yeah, we’ll get, what do they call it?

Editor #2: Hyperlocal.

Editor #1: Right.

And so the hyperlocal news sites were born across the country. Some featured original reporting by staff, others were built on the work of citizen journalists. Some have already failed as others have taken on a life of their own.

When the Washington Post – the giant of the newspaper web world – decided to create a “hyperlocal” site based on Loudon County, Va., it was a big deal. Of course, their idea of hyperlocal was a group of loosely-connected communities instead of the communities themselves – but they’re the WaPo, if they want to call it hyperlocal, they can. Two years later, the  WaPo announces its closure of LoudounExtra. Sure, the post says, they’ll still COVER the area, but it won’t have its own website anymore.

About a year ago, the Wall Street Journal saw this coming, charging that the WaPo didn’t understand what it meant to be hyperlocal in the first place. I’m inclined to agree. What I see from a lot of big news outlets is a page collecting their stories on the area and little more – that isn’t hyperlocal coverage – it’s a hyperlocal aggregate feed.

What makes a good hyperlocal site isn’t just collecting a bunch of stuff about that area and throwing it up on a web page – it’s about understanding the community on a ground level. It helps to live there, but merely getting out there and getting to know people is a start. From what the WSJ post said, the staff at LoudonExtra wasn’t very invested in the area:

To penetrate those communities requires a more dedicated effort than the LoudounExtra.com team was putting forth. [The manager of the project] acknowledged he spent too much time talking to other newspaper publishers about the hyperlocal strategy and too little time introducing his team and the site to Loudoun County.

Whether that is ultimately why the site didn’t get enough traction to remain independent is a leap I won’t take – but it certainly would make sense. The WaPo, while it does serve a local audience in addition to its wide national base, may not be the experts at knowing what’s going on in Middleburg, Va. Who does? People on the ground in Middleburg, that’s who.

The best local-local writers are invested at a micro level. For instance, Mission Local, a neighborhood news site created through a hyperlocal news project out of UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. Their site has news important to those living in the area – stories of all sorts, a police blotter, maps. If you check out their About page, you see that the publication is based in the Mission District and many of the writers are residents there.

Another great example, the West Seattle Blog, is a husband-and-wife team focused on a very specific part of a larger city in which they live. I had the opportunity to meet them and hear about their operation when I was a fellow at the Knight Digital Media Center in March. They both have backgrounds in journalism and took that expertise to cover their own neighborhood. As a result – they regularly publish what’s going on before their local metro.

Their crime page keeps a running tally from scanners and crime reports from residents. They have community-level announcements that come in from submissions. In addition to their own writing and reporting, they also have a selection of news and opinion from other bloggers in their area. All in all, they have a lot of content – all local (or hyperlocal!).

Even if there isn’t a person physically on the ground in the neighborhood, it takes knowing what people want to see from their area and how specific they may want it to be. “Drilled down” news can be done at a larger level – and it has value, if this week’s purchase of  “microlocal” network EveryBlock by MSNBC is any indication.

As Paid Content  said about the sale, EveryBlock had more value than LoudonExtra simply because of its focus on microcosms of communities – not just clumping a whole county together and calling it a community. The Dupont Circle page in EveryBlock is a great example. It has crime report maps, police calls, blog posts and more from a very specific area – pretty useful stuff if you live there – and most of it available from public information.

So the moral of the story is – don’t judge the future of “hyperlocal” news from the WaPo’s failed experiment. There’s gold in them there hills – but we have to actually work at making it accessible and useful.

* Eds Note: For the sake of disclosure, my current paper has a couple incarnations of these products. Cincinnati.Com has more than 100 community-level aggregate sites, including a few with their own discussion forums (and all featuring some pretty nifty maps if you ever want to check them out).

Roundup: Social media innovations and business models

Check it -it’s a rundown of news and notes on social media innovations, more pay model plans and why you shouldn’t look silly on the internets.

Take Note

  • According to the internets, More Employers Use Facebook To Vet New Hires Than LinkedIn, hence why I keep stressing why you should A. Be on these networks and B. Be doing it well enough to not look dumb.
  • And not that it should be news to anyone here, but Twitter is The New Way Mainstream Media Breaks News. I can’t preach it enough around my paper – let’s break news on Twitter first, then worry about the links. We do this at my paper every day – and sometimes I won’t even bother tweeting a headline if we aren’t first in our market or it isn’t original. The traffic from Twitter isn’t much anyway – so it’s better to be first than first with a link. Of course, we still want to be factual, too (that one’s for you, Bruce).

Keeping News Alive

  • The Online Journalism blog asks if the (UK) Times’ Culture subscriptions is a potential model for charging for online newspapers. Why? It’s more than just a newspaper subscription – it’s a membership with incentives like ticket deals, exclusive access and more. It’s just one way to make a pay wall worth it if this kind of model would move to the web.
  • Speaking of paying for news, a CUNY project sought to find New business models for journalism to answer, “What happens to journalism in a top-25 metro market if a newspaper fades away. Can journalism be sustained? And how?” There are four total – some of which have been panned and a couple of others that have real legs (though none are really earth-shattering).

Innovations in Social Media

  • Mashable reports that our friends at TweetMeme are working on Retweetable Comments. Huh? You’ve seen on several blogs and articles where you can tweet article from a button, but this would allow people to tweet individual comments on those blogs. A very cool way to get comments to go viral (and encourage commenting in the first place).
  • Speaking of Twitter, Patrick Thornton has been hard at work at Bringing engagement to an old, one-way medium. His marketing plan for a new novel is exactly what social media marketing should be – fun, creative and original. While his exact approach doesn’t exactly work for a news entities’ needs, using social media as a customer service platform is a must. Why else even be on Twitter if you can’t answer questions?
  • If you haven’t checked it out yet, the Huffington Post has embraced the  age of “My” news with a new Facebook Connect hookup that allows interaction between Facebook profiles and user activity on their sites.  The sync is  a no-brainer for an operation of their kind – and a lot to live up to. Something like this takes a lot of work, but it would be great to see more news orgs (and yes, smaller ones) jumping into a forward-thinking arrangement like this.

Ideas on the future of news?

A couple of weeks ago at a social media open mic night, of sorts, I had a brainstorm about doing our own open mic night with one theme: The future of news.

I may have had a few too many Manhattans at that time, but by the next day, I was still dead serious. Why not pull together the best theories and ideas from people inside and outside the industry into one (brief) night of fun?

And so the News 2.0 Forum was born.

We’ll be taking submissions up until Aug. 28 for five-minute presentations on how news will/should be reported, produced, published, read or paid for in the future. We’ll be selecting the 10 or 12 best for our forum (based loosely on the Ignite model) on September 9 at my paper, the Cincinnati Enquirer.

Here’s more details.

So, who out there has an idea for a presentation? Obviously it’d be best if you could be in Cincinnati that day, but if someone had a dynamite presentation on video or live stream, we’d certainly consider it.

Recommended reading this week

The Big Must-Reads
  • You have to read Five Key Reasons Why Newspapers Are Failing from Bill Wyman at Splice Today. It’s an excellent analysis of How We Got Here from someone with perspective both inside and outside the news business. A lot of it we newspaper types know already – but a lot of it we don’t want to acknowledge is part of the problem.
  • Part Two: On how the monopolistic mindset, terrible web design and a rejection of new technology contributed to the fall.
  • Newspaper war raises a question: Who keeps the tweeps? – Once a reporter builds a base in social media – who owns that base? If a newspaper gets claim to/responsibility for a reporters’ tweets (which seems to be the case), do they also own those followers? In this case, at least, I say yes. but not always. Likely not the last we’ll see from this debate.

How-Tos and Ideas:

More Social Media News

“Paid content” myth sprouts more pay wall ideas

I don’t know if I would say the talk amongst journalist and journalism theorists regarding paid content is at a “fever pitch” (which was almost my headline), but it certainly seems to be on everyone’s mind of late.

A lot of that has to do with one of the big dogs of mainstream media, Rupert Murdoch, deciding to take the plunge and charge for content online. Whether it will work or not is anyone’s guess – but I’ll bet it will for the likes of News Corp.’s wsj.com. Why them and not the other News Corp. properties? Simple – they offer a utility (in-depth financial content) that isn’t available anywhere else. It also helps that the WSJ has a pretty affluent reader base with expense accounts for this sort of thing. Sorry, I don’t see the same love for the content of the New York Post.

Millionaire/Online Gadfly Mark Cuban agrees, suggesting Murdoch offer a combined online subscription plan for all of the News Corp. properties. It’d be bold – and it would package in access to news content to those looking for sports, political or entertainment content online.Of course, it’s also completely mental.

Aside from the highly specialized content from the WSJ (which would still need speed and delivery improvements to be worth a subscription), who would pay for this entertainment or sports content? Fox Sports is kind of a joke compared to ESPN – and if this study is any indication, online consumers of the future don’t want to pay for access to entertainment media – they want to own it.

This University of Hertfordshire (UK) study of 14 to 24-year-olds found:

  • 89 percent still want to “own” music in the form of MP3s to share and copy how they wish.
  • 85 percent of those using illegal peer-to-peer downloaders would pay for an unlimited MP3 download service
  • 78 percent do not want to pay for a streaming music service

Sure, that’s about music – but it very well could be indicative of an overall attitude about online content one is paying for.  Put in “news content” for “music” and “aggregators” for “peer-to-peer” – and it makes sense. Is it ridiculous to theorize that readers may want to be able to fully use (copy, paste, share, re-publish) content they pay for – or will they be OK just reading it under a subscription plan? It’s something to think about.

Cuban also suggests Murdoch’s sites block access to their content from aggregators with this pay wall. What he doesn’t seem to take into account is that A. It would also be blocking interested readers from possibly even knowing their content exists and B. Who’s to stop a more aggressive aggregator from subscribing to News Corp.  and simply copying and pasting stories in full from those sites? He says the aggregators would then have to rely on the AP and Reuters for all their news – I say it just challenges them to be bolder in how they steal content. (You say tomato, yada yada…)

And it isn’t like Murdoch has the best relationship with news aggregators anyway – he’s threatening to sue Google and Yahoo for quoting and linking to his News Corp. sites’ content. While that’s all based in the somewhat off-kilter media laws of the UK and not the U.S. that regard linking a bit differently, it still shows a lack of interest in actually working with those who can bring in readers.

If only the likes of Murdoch, Cuban, Marburger, Schultz, the AP and everyone else arguing for paid content would just read this simple post from another KDMC fellow, Chris O’Brien.

He breaks down discusses the prevailing myth that readers once paid for news content. It’s something only journalists and idealists really believe. In actuality, readers’ subscriptions were paying for a product that provided a lot more than just news content – it gave them access to ads, comics and a sense of community we have yet to really tap into online.  He, like me, suggests we all move past that idea of “paid content” to really get to the business of saving news with new innovations and simply doing a better job at giving readers something useful.

Editors Note: Big thanks to Steve Buttry for pointing out my mistake. For some unfathomable reason, I kept insisting it was Media News and not News Corp. that is owned by Rupert Murdoch. Sigh. Don’t write blog posts in the early morning hours, kids.

New AP plan: Taking web traffic from members?

The Nieman Lab blog obtained a copy of the AP’s latest plan to preserve it’s aging business model. The name  – “Protect, Point, Pay — An Associated Press Plan for Reclaiming News Content Online” – sort of says it all (for better or for worse).

The plan is to withhold some of it’s content from it’s wire and other means of distribution, instead forcing member sites to link to the content on an AP site. So…the AP is seeking to compete with its member sites for online traffic? Wha?

The AP plan differentiates between “utility” content and “unique” content when deciding what to keep on this centralized site and what to distribute for member use. The AP’s lawyer seemed to define “utility” content as the AP’s usual offerings of traditional news feeds. The “unique” content, I’d think, would be their supplemental interactive graphics, galleries and non-daily news features from AP staff.

While I can appreciate that the AP is at least thinking 21st century on this latest scheme, it begs the question: What exactly are AP members paying for, anyway? Member-owners subscribe to the AP precisely because we want to use this content on our sites specifically to get page views and sell our own ads around it. If AP members have to send that traffic off site – why even pay the huge AP membership fees in the first place? We can give traffic away for free.

In addition to that obvious question, the plan prompts many more alarm bells.

Steve Buttry says the AP seems to be off on the wrong foot from the get-go with this name about the name:

[It] uses two words that reflect the dangerous thinking that plagues way too much of our industry today: The focus on protection of a declining model rather than development of a new, prosperous model and the stubborn denial of all evidence that paid content is not the path to a prosperous model.

Secondly, on this business of unique vs utility content, Buttry and others ask how this distinction will be made and if member-contributed content will be “protected” too. After all, so much of the AP’s state and local feeds seem to be from member papers’ reporting, not that of local AP staffers.

Thirdly – a Nieman commenter asks how will all of this work in terms of search engine optimization? The AP seems to be hoping these outside links will provide all the SEO they’ll need – but these stories aren’t on all the various member sites themselves – how much will the AP content fall in SEO rankings?

I’m sure there’ll be a lot more info out about this in the coming days and weeks and maybe I’ll feel better about it. Right now, despite what their people may say, the AP seems to be looking for a fight with it couldn’t possibly win.

What’s the reasoning behind a pay wall, anyway?

Besides all of the questions we should be asking ourselves before we put up a pay wall, it’s worth a look to examine the underlying reason for it. This morning, I stumbled across a comment on a blog that perfectly underscores the very questions I have been asking about the push for pay walls.

As UK blogger Adam Westbrook cheered on Rupert Murdoch’s decision to enact pay walls on his sites, commenter Dani Bora said what’s largely been missing from the debate (unless you read here, which, obviously, you do):

…we’ll need to gauge what are the media orgs’ motives to charge for their content: is it to actually make journalism better — more journos, more pro imagery, new delivery options, etc…— or is it only to prop up ailing print operations and shrinking profits?

That’s the real question, isn’t it? Judging from the people who are always banging the drum for pay walls, I think I know the answer. I don’t believe the proposals are made to prop up print, per se, but rather to prop up an old ideal that all journalism has monetary value to somebody because, darnit, it does to us.

We don’t want to have to consider that maybe our online content just isn’t worth as much as we think it should be to our readers. I know from experience that the last people you want to talk to about charging for online content are the reporters and editors who put in the work to get it there. To many, it isn’t even a matter of ‘if” when it comes to charging for online content – it’s “when”.

I suggest a quick read over this excellent post from the Knight Digital Media Center about the sort of questions a news org should consider before charging for content. While all of the questions are important, two of the five are potentially quite difficult for a journalist to stomach: “Do I have content worth paying for?” and “What are my readers willing to pay for my work?”

Only after you get out and talk to the readers in your market can you really determine if a pay model is the right answer – or if you’re doing it for the right reasons in the first place.

Recommended links in brief

Do Newspapers Owe Google “Fair Share” Fees For Researching Stories? – Daggle has been on the case with the AP for months now. He examines the irrational fear of the likes of Google – and questions what their resources are worth if they were to start charging us for their services.

How the Old, the Young and Everyone in Between Uses Social Networks – eMarketer – Great stats on who’s using social media tools by age group. We’ve seen these before, but the numbers seem to change so fast…

WaPo v. Gawker: Battle in the Blogs

This week, for some reason, Gawker is suddenly Public Enemy #1 to the online media world. It seems to be because they’re doing pretty well when it comes to online revenue and they do it largely by blogging about the news researched by other sources.

The reason it’s suddenly a big deal is that a writer at the Washington Post, Ian Shapira, finally decided to throw a (well-written) snit about Gawker blogging about one of their pieces. Shapira charges that Gawker infringed on the copyright of his work because so much of their post was derived from his story.

Gawker’s post quoted heavily from the source’s quotes in the Post story  in fact, slightly more than half of their very short post was from the WaPo story. The Nieman Journalism Lab took a look at what was used and asked it’s readers if they thought Gawker violated Fair Use or fell well within its guidelines.  The comments are well worth a full read, as they really put the heart of the debate right out there:

1. The Gawker post clearly qualifies as Fair Use. Commenter Justin reminds us that the code states that content use “for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright.” Comment and criticism – what else is Gawker if not that?

2. Despite Shapira’s claims to the contrary, the Post did get credit. Sure, Gawker could have said it came from the post before the end – but they gave them something far more valuable. They linked to the original story – several times in fact. As commenter (and excellent young blogger) Cody Brown says, in the online world, that’s the best credit you can get.

3. Was the Post damaged by it? Hardly. Shapira noted that Gawker was the #2 referrer on the web to his story and likely contributed quite a few new readers to an otherwise mundane story that may not have had a lot of legs online otherwise.

4. Who owns the quotes from the source anyway? If Gawker should cut the post a check for quoting their piece and selling ads around it (which the WaPo writer suggests in jest), what does the Post owe their original source for selling ads around her quotes? (And furthermore, does reporting count as aggregation, too?)

5. Would the Post be complaining if it wasn’t Gawker? That’s debatable. As the commenter notes (and I say all of the time) other newspapers, broadcast and wire services do this quite a bit too – why isn’t there any more outrage about that?

I really question why Shapira’s editor even let him write that follow-up charging that Gawker stole from his work. Does Shapira really have a background that makes him knowledgeable enough about these sticky issues of fair use and media law that he can make claims that even experienced media lawyers aren’t altogether clear on? Also, how many of the Post’s online readers even care about this issue? You know who cares to hear about how much work Shapira put into this everyday story only to have it “ripped off” by big, bad blogs? Journalists. That’s about it.

How much of this whole debate – not just the WaPo v. Gawker, but the whole blogs/aggregators vs. old media – is based in old-fashioned jealousy? Chris Krewson, editor of the Philadelphia Enquirer, said this to me on Twitter: “Aren’t we at least a little annoyed that Gawker and the aggies are faring well, ad-wise?”

Yes, I think we are. Gawker’s media sales have shot up this year. Ad revenues are up 45% year-over-year for the first six months of 2009 – and their production costs fall way below that of a newspaper. But isn’t that just good competition?

Maybe we just need to be better.

Here are more related posts about the whole Gawker debate you may find interesting:

  • Journalism’s Problem Isn’t Gawker. It’s Advertising. – The Atlantic Politics Channel – Atlantic’s followup analysis to the Nieman Lab post. Gawker isn’t the issue here, they insist, online advertising is the real issue – so maybe all of these people wringing their hands about Gawker and the like should focus on the task at hand. (amen)
  • Gawker’s Link Etiquette (or Lack Thereof) : CJR – An interesting look at Gawker’s linking habits. As the CJR notes, what they do falls within existing Fair Use guidelines and they DO link to the original piece – just way, way down in the story. I don’t agree with the practice, but I also don’t think we need a law that makes Gawker link to the original higher in the story.

The myth of the “free ride”

David Marburger took his show on the road this week with a much-emailed guest editorial in the LA Times titled “The free ride that’s killing the news business” (again with the hostile wording). Of course, I got this emailed to be from no less than 20 fellow journalists, all of whom seemed to not understand the online news business at large. He’s preaching to the choir of the same “stay the course” news people who got us here in the first place – and they love it.

Marburger tells and retells the story of the Little Red Hen in all of his appearances. Have you read it yet?

Remember the Little Red Hen? She’s the one in the folk tale who asks the other barnyard animals if they will help her cut the wheat, grind it into flour and bake the bread. They refuse. But when the warm bread emerges from the oven, they are eager to help the hen eat it.

Now let’s suppose the story continues, with the Little Red Hen opening a roadside stand to sell her bread. Instead of merely eating it themselves, the cow, the pig and the dog each take some of her loaves and open competing roadside stands. Vying for sales, they undercut her price and each others’. Because the Little Red Hen bore all the costs to produce the bread, and the other animals bore none, she can’t afford to match their prices, and they drive her out of business.

Newspaper sites are supposed to be the hen. He likens aggregator sites like Newser.com to the other animals.

To anyone that isn’t in the news business, this sounds pretty acceptable. After all, isn’t the point of competition in a free market supposed to mean that you try to undersell your competition by having a lower overhead? It’s called good business. Too bad for the Little Red Hen – maybe she should become a manufacturer or wholesaler instead of a shop owner.

To whose that aren’t familiar, Newser.com is a worldwide wholesaler of other people’s news, in a sense. They summarize stories from many news sources in a paragraph or so and link back to the original story. As you can see here, they state on each summary where the source is and link to it. Sure, it could stand to be more prominent, but it’s better than what TV does every day. (It should also be pointed out that site looks dreadful and isn’t very user-friendly)

Marburger claims that sites like Newser are “free riding” on newspapers and it should be illegal. From the poll on the editorial, which asks “Should websites be allowed to use excerpts from daily news sites?” the populace doesn’t agree (it’s 68% against the Marburger plan, 32% for it as I write).

The basis for the Marburger argument is that sites like Newser are driving down online advertising rates because they aggregate content and surround it with low-priced ads. He calls them “competitors”. He says they are “direct substitutes for newspapers”.

First of all, if your story can be summarized in a paragraph and that’s honestly enough for a casual reader to know about it – it probably isn’t worth fighting about. Secondly, Newser isn’t a competitor with the newspaper websites it links to. A quick look at Alexa shows how their traffic compares to the likes of the two Times, Tribune and Guardian:

Newser ranks way, way below the big news sites in terms of the golden stat of pageviews.

Newser ranks way, way below the big news sites in terms of page views.

While I agree that advertising is the issue – it isn’t the fault of aggregators. It’s that the entire business model for online advertising is broken. As Bill Grueskin said last month in an excellent paidContent analysis, “Aggregators are more a distraction from the real crisis than the cause of it” because even if they are siphoning off users (of course, they also refer users), it isn’t really hurting the bottom line.

Online ad rates have been artificially low for years. We’re partly to blame – after all, most newspaper have been online since the 90s and we never charged for online ads what they are worth. Furthermore, the online audience doesn’t like and doesn’t see value in online ads. They block them, they don’t click on them, they HATE them.

CPMs are so low that thousands upon thousands of views to our site today won’t even buy lunch for our newsroom, let alone sustain the industry. Grueskin says what a lot of us in online news have been whispering for years – why are we measuring our worth in page views anyway? We should be using metrics like page views per user or time on site rather than by the  number of people visiting the site, “many of whom may not assign any value to the journalists who generated the content”.

In other words, better understand the audience, seek out what it wants, determine what we can provide – possibly in terms of a premium service – and find a way to monetize that outside of online ads. That’s something an operation like Newser could never do and it actually provides a sustainable plan for future growth. Crazy, I know.

So why do we have to keep giving face time to David Marburger and his ilk of “stay the course” followers who want to legislate their way out of an adaptation of the business model. Let’s get to the task at hand…

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