Story location: http://archive.pressthink.org/2005/02/23/abt_ltrs.html


February 23, 2005

Two Letters in Reply to "A Little Detail in the Sale of About.com"

Mike Phillips, editorial development director at Scripps-Howard: "Many of our own newsrooms are in the early stages of the transformation. And at the New York Times? It's never gonna happen. They know it, too." Plus: Daily Peg Doubts About's Worth.

My recent post about the New York Times acquisition of About.com brought these two replies. One is from the offices of a traditional news provider, the Scripps-Howard chain. The second is from an upstart born on the Web, The Daily Peg: “I’m a Google junkie and I almost never land on an About site.”

Background: A Little Detail in the Sale of About.com to the New York Times.

Letter One from Mike Phillips, editorial development director for Scripps-Howard Newspapers, a division of the E.W. Scripps Company. Phillips oversees 21 newsrooms in the chain, which includes the Cincinnati Post, the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, the Memphis Commercial-Appeal.

Scripps also owns the Ventura Country Star in California, where podcasting and blogging are just part of normal practice. See Mark on Media, Ventura Does It, for a good introduction to what they do already in “Webcentric” delivery. Phillips writes:

Some of us at Scripps have been talking today about PressThink’s Feb. 20 post about the New York Times and About.com.

The conversation started with “This sounds right, so should we rethink our archival policies?” and moved to “This sounds right for a national newspaper, but what about our newspapers, which are intensely local?”

That does change some things, but not everything. Intensely local newspapers operate outside the MSM as most media commentators think of it. Yet, they are being driven by many of the same forces driving the New York Times:

So, to continue the online revenue growth rate and get it up to a third or a half of total ad revenues as rapidly as possible, the newspaper must grow web traffic as rapidly as possible. It’s the only way to make pay-by-the-click pay off.

That means shovelware needs some new friends.

So, is permalinking as much a no-brainer for intensely local newspapers as it is for the New York Times?

Well, maybe— in a limited way.

We don’t need to spider out and draw the search engines to us. That’s not how most people needing local information come to local newspaper web sites. They already live in the community and already know about the site. What will get them to use the site more, and tell their neighbors about it, is a better site.

Permalinking makes the site better, but a blanket permalinking policy would be wasteful.

As we talked about this, our online general manager, Bob Benz, said a lot of an intensely local newspaper’s content has no tail potential - that is, nobody’s ever going to want to access it again after the usual seven-day expiration date.

I counter proposed with what I dubbed the Phillips-Benz Continuum. At the right end of the continuum is obits— surely the example of local content with the longest tail. At the left end is a story about a proposed sewer project moving from one level of administrative review to another— surely a story with no tail at all. All the other content is in between. After a bit of rigorous measurement and discussion, surely a newspaper could calculate where on the continuum, on the average day, permalinking should start.

On the typical day at the typical newspaper, I’d say that point would indicate permalinks for no more than 15 percent of the content.

There are many implications to that guess, and yes, they all say something about the state of newspaper content.

And that’s where the conversation is today: “Why get excited about permalinking when so much of the content doesn’t deserve it?”

And so, though I started my day with a flutter of excitement about permalinks, I head into the afternoon back where I was last week:

That’s not easy, but intensely local newspapers can pull it off. They are influenced by the MSM, but they aren’t full members. They aren’t as bogged down by all that tradition and all that arrogance. Many of our own newsrooms are in the early stages of the transformation.

And at the New York Times? It’s never gonna happen. They know it, too. Must be why they had to buy a no-brainer.

— Mike Phillips

Letter Two is from the publisher of the Daily Peg, who also heads Pegasus News, a Web-based, hyper-local news company that plans to launch a beta version in Dallas some time this year, in direct competition with the major news providers there. The “for-now-anonymous” founder of Pegasus News has a day job in the industry; and at his request I have not used his name. But he can be reached here.

In my mind, the pearl in your post is: “Times journalism, like the content of other Big Media firms, is created primarily for offline use, and then re-purposed on the Web. (When that cycle is reversed, the Web era in journalism truly begins.)”

I think that one shift in mindset will be what really turns things around. Sometimes I fear I’m counting on it too much — but in our early days, I think this will be our most noticeable differentiator.

As far as our model, we intend to be fully searchable, but think that there is a middle ground between freely available and walled off. We’re still working it out, but our thought is that you can Google us and read any story you want for free and without registering, but you’re limited to x number of stories a day at that level (“x” being something greater than one and less than the whole site.)

The idea is that registration, and maybe even subscription is crucial to our ad model. But, the ads are primarily local — and its locals that will primarily use us every day multiple times per day. (We hope!) So why should I hassle you in New York with registration in order to monetize serving up an ad for a Chinese restaurant in East Dallas that does neither you nor the restaurateur any good. I can’t imagine a lot of folks out of market wanting to read more than a couple things a day on our site — and if they do, that’s another business altogether.

Of course, the New York Times is in a different business than we are— they are a “national” site. We’re all local, all the time.

Another reason to let anyone read a few stories a day without playing the registration game is so that we can be “part of the conversation” on blogs etc.

A key, we think, to registration is really delivering a reward for registering, something that most sites don’t do. At the NYT, registration doesn’t enhance the site— it’s just a ticket to the fair. If you register with us, we’ll customize your homepage with both implicit and explicit preferences based on where you live and what you like to read. And, if you shop at our advertisers who are in our pay-for-performance program, you’ll get cash rebates. (Real, effortless rebates — not the silly shopper programs a lot of papers are trying.)

To the original question. I don’t think the About purchase was a great
deal. Two things I’ve come to realize from my close watching of this world the past year are that:

1.) Previously sci-fi technology is now insanely commoditized and cheap. My original budget to build our site? $3 million. (Admittedly guessing high.) Now, it’s less than $100k for stuff that, as one of my compatriots says, is “just barely distinguishable from magic.”

2.) A really great idea can now build critical mass in a frighteningly short time. See Bloglines. See podcasting.

The upshot? The New York Times, if it had really wanted to, and would break free from bureaucracy, could have built something way cooler and more trafficked than About in ninety days.

One ancillary thought on why I question the About deal. Search engine
placement is primarily in the hands of the people who make search engines. If Google changes its algorithm tomorrow, that whole rationalization for the purchase is moot. And anecdotally, I don’t buy that they get such great placement. I’m a Google junkie and I almost never land on an About site.

— Daily Peg

From the Daily Peg: Core Principles.



After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…

My NYU colleague Adam Pennenberg in Wired News takes on the Wall Street Journal’s online edition with its subscriber fees and closed archive:

The Journal should take the bold step of jettisoning its subscriber model and open up its archive to the public. In the end, it would make up the loss of subscriber revenue with money from advertising, which has been growing briskly. Sure, it might take a while — perhaps many years — but this is the only way for it to ensure its long-term survival.

A radical move like this would also send shivers down the spines of competitors like Forbes.com, which doesn’t charge for content and got rid of registration requirements when it discovered they drove away traffic. One reason Forbes.com was able to get off the ground was that it offered free content while the Journal made people pay. If the Journal hadn’t done that, Forbes.com might not have become the online power it is.

Wanna know what citizen journalism looks like as it unfolds on the Web? Click here. “Contributing reader” hits it dead on. The name explains the idea. Via Ed Cone.

Lex Alexander announces it at his News & Record blog: Citizen journalism is here.

Told you yesterday I hoped to have some Public Square-related news to report today, and I do.

The News & Record’s YourNews has gone live. You can now write and submit your own news stories for publication on our site.

John Robinson, the blogging editor, says the path chosen by the News & Record is greater transparency, more interaction with the community and further dissolution of the barrier between the producers and consumers of news. (Commenting on Tim Porter’s advice.)

Lex Alexander has his own site, Blog on the Run. See his Political-blogging burnout … or something else? I found a lot to think about in that one.

Paul Maidment at Forbes.com, Stop the Presses:

Publishers have long gained from the economic inefficiency of the advertising market. As Lord Leverhulme, the soap baron, is reputed to have said, “I know half the money I spend on advertising is wasted. I just don’t know which half.”

Not so on the Internet. Advertisers can be sure every ad they buy is seen and track its effectiveness. The measurability of Internet advertising keeps money firmly in the pockets of advertisers that in the past went to publishers and supported shareholder profits or good journalism.

For newspapers unable to adapt to this world, the only business model available is to grow by acquisition and cost-cut to profitability.

Steve Outing at Editor and Publisher, whose column is called Stop the Presses: “Too many people at leadership positions of major news organizations are in a defensive posture when it comes to citizen or participatory journalism. They’re in denial— and that spells trouble for their organizations.”

Writers, bloggers: send me your interesting About.com related links. Anyone who works there have something… you know, challenging and original to say? Reply to something you heard. E-mail PressThink.

My favorite photo of The Gates in Central Park.

Terry Heaton, The Devaluation of Information, on the overturned hierachies strewn about.

The Internet with its Postmodern, deconstructionist architechture makes it seem that all knowledge is “public” knowledge and all information is “public” information. It was built without a centralized command and control mechanism, and, therefore, the ability to tap unlimited databases is available to everybody. This is what makes Google so powerful. Absent any top-down structure, Google (anybody) is able to search and retrieve from those databases at any level, which, among other things, renders the portal Website concept irrelevant.

Forbes on the About deal: “The New York Times Co. just bought the world’s biggest blog.”

OK, About.com isn’t technically a blog, but it is a massive collection of content produced by non-journalist experts. For a small salary, 500 About.com guides produce myriad Web pages that the company turns into cash by selling ads. Together the guides have amassed 1 million pages covering 55,000 topics, from fly-fishing to cross-stitching.

Richard MacManus, Blog Branding: About.com and Kottke. “As a writer whose goal is to (very soon) earn a decent living via blogging, I wonder how viable the ‘work for peanuts’ approach of About.com is nowadays.”

“Isn’t that what blogs resurrect: the cacophony of the town square?” Jeff Jarvis, media man and blogger, and Bill Keller, editor of the New York Times, continue their exchange of letters.

If you’re not reading Memeorandum you’re missing an interesting cut on the news and the weblogger’s ways with it. Good for sampling the pulses and waves that cross the blog world.


Posted by Jay Rosen at February 23, 2005 12:13 PM