American pie: Web chickens cross road

Oct 05, 2008 at 09:51 pm by Staff

Suppose your website drove the newspaper, instead of the other way around? Social networking, information and even trivia have become key content for two US publishers who took time to listen to what their audience was talking about online. One is Morris Communications, whose activities include multimedia development as well as 13 daily newspapers – mostly in midwest and southern USA – while another is the privately-owned ‘Bakersfield Californian’ in the carrot-producing city a couple of hours from LA. At Ifra’s Publish Asia conference in Macau in April, Morris DigitalWorks senior strategist Steve Yelvington told how his company had turned common practice upside-down three years ago by launching a newspaper in South Carolina which was complementary to its website. Now the ‘Bluffton Today’ format is delivering 70 per cent penetration and the highest readership in the group. Its focus is geographic, and members of staff get involved in the conversations which take place on the website. One result has been the discovery of prime areas of interest such as pets: “People really like dogs,” he says. And animals generally, it seems, with a recent ‘best of the web’ spread devoted to ‘why did the chicken cross the road’. Website traffic is competitive, even though it does not rely on newspaper content and reader-participants, “fiercely loyal,” he says. And now, some elements of the website model are being adopted by other Morris newspapers. Further north in Bakersfield – known for its oil-producing and country music connections (and the carrots it produces, apparently) a 140-year-old private newspaper company has been learning similar lessons from the expansion of its portfolio of activities which began in earnest five years ago. Audience development vice president Mary Lou Fulton told delegates in Macau how the business had grown from its 59,000-circulation daily with the launch of eight new websites (making nine), six new telephone books (making seven), three biweeklies and three magazines. Three new subsidiaries have been formed and non-core products now account for almost an eighth of revenue. A former journalist, she joined the new media division of the ‘Washington Post’ and was managing editor of Fulton warns that it takes more than great ideas to build a successful business, but says the change to a ‘portfolio approach’ has seen a more focussed and customised approach using multiple media and platforms, with collaborative and networked publishing replacing newsroom-driven content. Free or low-cost circulation has generally replaced paid-sale, revenue now comes from many smaller advertisers (many of them self-serve) rather than depending on large, demanding advertisers. And the revenue model is more performance-related and less tied to the old “trust us, your ad will work” approach. Fulton says success required market research and a clear strategy, resources and structures to experiment and develop new products, and patience ... “but not too much”. It takes time to build a new brand, and many publishers “want businesses to become profitable in 45 seconds,” she says. Her advice is to watch for steady growth in consumer use and revenue, and if both are not growing, “pull the plug and make space for something else,” she says. New products have helped the ‘Californian’ regain its reach from six to eight per cent, and social media – such as profiles, blogs and citizen journalism – now drives more than a quarter of local web traffic. A focus on market share has seen two full-time analysts and outside research measuring reach among consumers and advertisers. They’ve found that not everyone – and notably younger people, young mothers and ethnic minorities – find the flagship newspaper compelling ... and that it didn’t reach 78 per cent of local advertisers because it was seen as too expensive or not targetted enough. Fulton says US newspapers tend to avoid technology, but the Bakersfield operation builds its own social media software – licensing it to other newspapers through a subsidiary called Particpata – helps evaluate third-party solutions, plays and experiments with technology ... and “we spam colleagues with cool new stuff”. It’s not always popular: Not everyone likes new ideas, but she says they try to be “the voice of the elephant in the room”. Subsidiaries make the new developments easier, addressing the problems of managers not having time or being reluctant to experiment. Initiatives include niche publisher Mercado Nuevo and Valley Direct, which publishes the weekly ‘Tehachapi News’ and seven telephone books. They have independent editorial, sales and marketing staff, and buy other services internally or outside. With very active in the local music scene, 200 bands have uploaded more than 500 songs, with a compilation CD among outcomes. And Hispanic magazine ‘Más’ complementing the ‘quinceañera’ tradition for 15-year-old latinas with expo and fashion shows, web profiles and a magazine special. Morris’s Yelvington is an old hand in the online world: “It’s been 14 years since I left print behind and started working exclusively on digital products,” he says. “People are talking that there may be no newspapers in ten years. We’ve made it beyond that, but problems recently have raised the sense of urgency.” And he agrees that the successful newspaper of the future will not just be a newspaper, but a portfolio of products. One issue for online publishing had appeared to be the shortage of inventory to sell – “the internet is not like broadcasting,” he says – but every market is full of untapped opportunities. Online news is a niche product and reach is becoming the issue, he says. And Yelvington doubts whether using a newspaper’s established branding – and its association with “yesterday’s news delivered today” – can be an advantage. “It’s like swimming with a boat anchor tied to your feet,” he says. He suggests that rather than trading on “the myth of credibility”, newspapers risk a backlash through resentment of the power they wield. “Other people pay us to market their product,” he says. Morris had been surprised by the potential to serve groups of women, who need friends, and practical and emotional support. Social networks could help with “jobs to be done” in these and other areas – whether it’s “finding my tribe” or getting a plumber you can trust. Yelvington says it’s ‘platform thinking’ – a basis for other people to build your business ... “and how Bill Gates got insanely rich”.
Sections: Columns & opinion


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