Cracking the Code of Local News

In his opening remarks, Rich Jaroslovsky, VP for Content and Chief Journalist at SmartNews, said that Local News is something that everyone has tried but, “nobody has fully cracked the code.” Backfence, Topix, Patch, and countless other valiant efforts have taken a run at it but failed to sustain. “Local News is still a huge opportunity because of the intensity for what people want,” Rich continued. Sharing a datapoint from SmartNews, we see almost double the CTRs on our local channels (the SmartNews app has 23 existing with several more in development).

With this context, SmartNews and Pocket hosted the first New News meetup. The founding principal is to discuss the evolution or tell the story about a particular aspect of the News business. The inaugural meetup held last week was about Local News, its opportunities and challenges.

the new news meetup

Sponsors from Say Bubble and Townsquared generously supplied the food and drinks. The panel of guests included:

the new news local news pannel
From left, Lila LaHood of SF Public Press, Jess McCuan of SF Chronicle, Sunil Rajamaran (speaking) of The Bold Italic, and Eric Eldon of Hoodline

Each panelist presented a distinct business model for local news.

After writing for the tech press (VentureBeat, TechCrunch) Eric joined Hoodline where he is the Editor-in-Chief. Hoodline has built their own CMS and is using this technology to differentiate themselves. They have soft-launched an events listing service and will be using hyper-focused local reporting (i.e. Change is afoot at Rising Star Laundromat) to draw attention to those listings.

Sunil found out from a Facebook comment thread that The Bold Italic was abruptly shutting down last April. Someone from TBL reached out to him and within 8 weeks he made an offer that was accepted by the previous owners, Gannett. Sunil, a co-founder of, a freelance writer marketplace, took on The Bold Italic as  new project. The challenge is to maintain high quality content at “1/25th the budget” which he aims to do by focusing on “evergreen” pieces (i.e. An Open Letter to Anyone Moving to San Francisco for a Tech Job) and leaving the resource-heavy “news” stories to other sites. Sunil comes across as very business-savy and he has brought the site back up to a half-million pageviews/month with just 3 editors on staff. If he can source writers from his freelance community at a price that makes economic sense, he could come up with a model that can be replicated in other metro areas.

Jess stated clearly that the 150-year old SF Chronicle, “is not a start-up” but with it’s deep archive and extensive resources plays to its strengths. Jess’ team of 10 reporters, 2 editors and dedicated copy-editors & designers cover tech in the Bay Area and balance the spark and flash of the beat with the sober need to inform the public. Not many people know that SF Gate and SF Chronicle are not only two different sites but also two different organizations with different missions. “If you want to read about Justin Bieber’s butt, come to SF Gate, it’s the candy.” SF Chronicle is the premium content site, “the medicine” where they feature high-quality journalism about money, politics, tech, and other important forces changing the landscape of the Bay Area.

Lila describes the non-profit SF Public Press as an online & print version of NPR. They sell memberships to their quarterly newspaper but also raise funding from grants and donors. They are admittedly “slow news” and focus on big investigative reports which take many weeks to put together pulling data from FOIA document requests, interviews, and data analysis to create meaty articles featuring beautiful visualizations and maps (i.e. Building on the Bay, Sea Level Rise Threatens Waterfront Development). As a non-profit they need to work with like-minded organizations such as the local public radio stations, Mother Jones magazine, Bay Nature, Earth Island Institute, and the Center for Investigative Reporting to amplify their stories and get the word out about their stories.

the new news meetup - local news

Geography defining communities

A member of the audience wanted to know how each site covered issues which cut across geographic boundaries. Hoodline has a “density formula” to determine which neighborhoods to cover but Eric was quick to note that when it came to certain issues such as gentrification it was important to maintain objectivity to build trust.

Sunil noted the monetary challenge of local which limits The Bold Italic’s attractiveness to national advertisers. Jess touted the Chronicle’s deep archive of coverage of big national stories such as the LGBT community which helped them put together an impressive package of historical pieces for their Marriage Equality Act issue which went on to become one of their best-selling issues.

The focus on a pieces that resonate with a local audience but tell a good story about an important national trend is what makes Jess most proud. The Chronicle has ambitions to be a national paper and she is aware that, in many aspects, the world is paying disproportionate attention to the Bay Area as a leading indicator of national trends that are impacting the rest of the United States. Tech touches on important issues regarding privacy, security, First Amendment rights, and the sharing economy. Many of the global players are here.

When a new batch of census data came out showing the rise in median income from 2009 to 2014 there were numerous local angles to the story. The piece that struck home was a piece by local reporter Joaquin Palomino about a local bakery in the Mission that had been selling the local community empanadas but recently switched to vegan carrot cake and organic coffee in order to stay in business.

Events or No?

Because media companies are in the business of aggregating audiences and connecting them with their sponsors, events are a logical way to bring together their audience in real life. Events were an important part of The Bold Italic’s previous business model and were the #1 source of revenue. In reality, Sunil admitted, the margins were “razor thin” so, going forward, events will not be part of “the new iteration” of TBL.

Eric from Hoodline also has experience with events in his previous life at VentureBeat and TechCrunch where large events such as The Crunchies and Disrupt were important but ultimately a “distraction” from the reporting and building product.

Jess stated emphatically that the SF Chronicle, “is not in the events business” but did share a preview of an upcoming documentary film they are producing about men living with HIV that will have a opening night event at the Castro Theatre.

By contrast, the SF Public Press looks at events as an important fundraising activity and has the occasional open house and has hosted hackathons such as the recent Hack the Housing Crisis conference to engage with the local community to address a specific concern.

Is Local Profitable?

To everyone’s surprise the local papers are turning a profit. The Bay Area News Group, with 14 daily and 32 weekly newspapers, is an important targeting vehicle for local business.

Showing that he’s well aware of what he’s getting into with reviving The Bold Italic, Sunil said that you need to build a site that is profitable from the first pageview. “ADD is the challenge,” you cannot rely on your readers for that elusive second click and certainly should not predict revenues based on that. Social platforms such as Pinterest have added “buy” buttons in attempts to monetize the attention they are getting but with mixed results as their audiences have not yet migrated their intentions when they visit the site from browsing to buying. The big ticket acquisitions of Bleacher Report and HuffPo from the last up cycle show that there is an appetite for media acquisitions but he is patient to wait out this current downturn and is prepared to patiently build up a sustainable business for the long term.

The SF Public Press is having fun with experimentation. Because they have less to lose, they have a larger appetite for risk. “Constraints inspire creativity but more resources would be better!”

The SF Chronicle knows they will always be outgunned by the national tech press in sheer resources but celebrate their victories which effect real change. Jess shared the story of “soft-spoken Wendy Lee” who worked on a story about bus drivers for Apple, eBay, and Genetech who were forced to sleep in their minivans because they didn’t earn enough to live in the Bay Area. The front page story was a wake up call to the PR departments of the high tech giants “scared to death” of it becoming a national story and quickly turned things around and gave their drivers raises.

Strong local stories draw attention and the paper is cashing in on its readership. Poytner recently reported that the San Francisco Chronicle is profitable thanks to an in-house ad agency that provides, “Madison Avenue-type marketing consultancy and advertising agency services at a palatable price for a large regional brand.”

the new news meetup crowd

Who else is doing good work?

Each of the panelists shared other companies and organizations doing good work.

  • DNA Info for New York and Chicago local news.
  • Corner Media Group for their coverage of  Brooklyn.
  • Institute for Non-profit News for their support of investigative reporting.
  • LION (Local Independent Online News publishers) is a great resource for local news providers to meet each other.
  • ONA (Online News Association) is another organization with many local chapters.
  • The Atlantic was highlighted for their top notch journalism and Quartz was mentioned as having mobile particularly well done.
  • ProPublic is also doing great investigative journalism.
  • Sunil pointed to Mic as brilliantly designed to draw you deeper into the site and view more pages. He went on to note that while Buzzfeed does great with its viral content, it’s news vertical is not getting traction.

Other Coverage:

Flipboard’s Layout Algorithm

Casey pointed me to a fascinating post from the Flipboard Engineering blog that gives a peek into that company’s layout engine, Duplo.

We start with a set of page layouts created by human designers. Then, our layout engine figures out how to best fit your content into these layouts—considering things like page density, pacing, rhythm, image crop and scale.

The marriage of a layout engine with designer-crafted templates allows Flipboard to rapidly build each magazine, render and compress it for Flipboard readers. What’s most interesting to me is the algorithm that then varies the layouts of each magazine’s pages to provide enough variety to keep things interesting and looking less, templatized. “A designer’s guidelines for page balance and harmony can be nuanced” says the Flipboard blog post, so they use a variation of the Perlin noise algorithm to calculate the variation in layout formats to, “approximate how an editor might pace elements through magazine pages.”

Encoding the Ghost in the Machine.

Online Advertising is just TV?

Here’s the plan: Publishers, take every banner ad off of your site. Not just the ones you stuffed at the bottom on the page that nobody sees anyway. Remove each and every single one. Replace those small, ugly boxes with a full-screen, 30-second video interstitial to be displayed on every third page viewed per customer session. Sell the value of that video ad to marketers based on the quality of your content and the strength of your audience. Now, repeat after me: The ads do not need to have a click through to the advertiser’s website. The ad can be skipped by your reader/viewer after 10 seconds of play time.

Here’s how to fix digital advertising

Is it really that simple? Doesn’t this just make every website into a triple digit, late-night cable TV channel?

Flaming Lips makes the upsell into an art form

I’ve written about the innovative use of the premium upsell as something instructive for anyone selling premium content. I just learned about the Flaming Lips Gummy Bear skull which they released earlier this year which has turned the whole premium upsell thing into an art form. I love it!

Embedded inside a 7-pound gummy bear skull is a USB stick with a unique set of songs from the Lips. The catch is you need to eat your way into the skull to “extract the music. As front man Wayne Coyne says, “You’re gonna eat it, you’re going get a stomach ache…but you’re gonna love it!”

And here is a clip showing Wayne dropping off the first five to buy the Gummy Bear Skull at a record store in Oklahoma near Wayne’s house.

Textbook 2.0

I’ve written a few times about the future of publishing. Once to highlight concepts by Bonnier, another time to highlight a talk given by Steven Berlin-Johnson. I now work at a publisher, GigaOM produces reporting on the tech industry and GigaOM Pro produces long-form research reports. The long-form research reports are an interesting challenge. Because they are research, they do not lend themselves to all the digital portability that comes with a blog post coming out of a modern CMS. While it’s pretty easy to get a good discussion around a timely blog post, either on the site or across the social web, it’s harder to do so around a longer piece such as a research report.

Which is what makes the video below of a GigaOM reporter Colleen Taylor getting a demo of Inkling’s new 2.0 version of their digital textbook product.

Not only are the interactive features interesting, the social hooks are also impressive. This really is the book re-invented.

More info and links on Colleen’s post, Hands-on with Inkling 2.0, the iPad textbook.

Back to Base

Today is my last day at Nokia. The great mobile adventure is over. More accurately, the need to define a mobile web as something other than the internet at large has mostly vanished.

I left Yahoo for Nokia with a vision of building services to connect the social web to phones that knew more about you and the world around you than a desktop PC could ever hope to know. I built a few prototypes and white-boarded many more. The potential is rich and the rush of apps and services that are “location aware” is only the beginning of what we will see in the years to come. In many ways it feels like 1995 all over again and we’re all re-discovering developing for the web browser. All that’s missing is a “View Source” to bring in the masses.

It’s been an amazing experience highlighted by a two year assignment to Helsinki which gave me, my wife, two kids, and our little dog Mimi an experience of a lifetime. Nokia is a global brand and the multitude of languages and cultures that you bump into day-to-day in the hallways and canteen is mind-boggling. Helsinki is a global hub with many families moving in and out of Finland exposing us to a broad group of people from all over who became our friends. We hope to continue to keep in touch with as they move around the world. My Finnish colleagues too were gracious in taking in this relatively bombastic Californian, tolerating my bubbly “Good Morning!” greetings and gently instructing me in gentler, more subtle methods of salutation.

But now we’re back in California. While the new Nokia offices in Sunnyvale are beautiful, the commute is not. While I learned heaps from Nokia about the mobile phone business, particulars in mobile UI (design for the one-handed strap-hanger in Bangalore), as well as unique aspects of localization (make room for long German place names, right-to-left Arabic script, and currencies in Europe use a comma, not a decimal), the excitement for me is further up the stack with the applications.

I’ll take a few days off then start anew at GigaOm on Monday where I have accepted their invitation to be Product Manager of their premium subscription product, In many ways this is a return to my roots when I was a PM for – another premium news subscription service. Coming full circle from a time when content was screaming to be free, we are entering an age of content factories where well-edited media and curated content will be something worth paying for. Anyone can sit and read everything coming through on ReadWriteWeb, TechCrunch, and yes, GigaOm and branch out to regional tech sites such as Arctic Startup and Asiajin that do an excellent job of covering their region but who has the time to read it all? Algorithms are getting better (check out Summify) but social networks that mix up family, friends, and professional contacts are getting muddy as filters and we all run the risk of building filter bubbles around ourselves.

There is a market for summaries and curation and I want to build a platform that enables that. The internet has made infinite distribution available at little to no cost. The challenge (and opportunity) is for publishers to maximize revenues by offering ever greater premium upsells to their True Fans on a steep value curve so that everyone wins. The folks I’ve met at GigaOm totally get this and I’m psyched to get cracking on building out  features to meet the demand. This is going to be fun!

Back to Blogging?

Paul CarrThnks Fr Th Mmrs: The Rise Of Microblogging, The Death Of Posterity

by constantly micro-broadcasting everything, we’ve ended up macro-remembering almost nothing.

Leo LaporteBuzz Kill

I was shouting into a vast echo chamber where no one could hear me because they were too busy shouting themselves. All this time I’ve been pumping content into the void like some chatterbox Onan. How humiliating. How demoralizing.

Seth GodinMoving On

It took a year or so, but I finally figured out that my customer wasn’t the reader or the book buyer, it was the publisher. If the editor didn’t buy my book, it didn’t get published.

Paul Carr has pulled back on all social media outlets except his twitter feed. He writes for a living and wants to maximize the value of his writing and own a more complete, thoughtful record of his life.  Leo Laporte realized as that despite early indications that social media amplifiers such as Twitter or Google Buzz are great for building awareness, it’s not so great when everybody is too busy shouting their own message to listen to yours. And Seth Godin is giving up on traditional book publishing and will now use his blog to directly communicate his ideas.

People are re-examining the blog as a place to record your thoughts and communicate directly with an audience. In the case of Paul and Leo, the failed filter is a transient third party social network feed and the associated black box algorithm of Re-Tweets, Likes, or Favorites. In Seth’s case, failed filter is the “fundamentally broken”  architecture of the publishing industry.

Are we seeing a trend back towards the digital “long form” blog post as the happy medium (pun intended)?

The Premium Upsell

Todd Sampson has a great take on publisher’s reaction to the text-to-speech feature on the new Amazon Kindle. Rather than view this feature as a threat to their existing Books on Tape business line, they should look at Amazon’s electronic distribution of their text as a potential channel for an upsell.

The quality of the voice is crappy.  It’s bearable, and a major improvement, but it’s still crappy.  It simply can’t compete with the quality of a professionally recorded audio book.

Ever the optimist, Todd challenges the book industry to charge extra to sell electronic versions of their books bundled with higher quality audio versions of their books as an alternative to the robot voice. Be confident of the quality of your goods and your true fans will support you. More simply, hold your chin up and stop whining if you want to run with the cool crowd.

Nine Inch Nails Ultra Deluxe Set

The band Phish has mastered the premium upsell on their site, In the tradition of all jambands, Phish allows their fans to tape their live concerts. They sell specially marked tickets for the tapers (as they are quaintly called) giving them access to a special section set up for them behind the soundboard where the sound is best. Despite the existence of high-quality audience recordings that are traded in a vibrant online trading ecosystem, Phish make available soundboard quality, non-DRM recordings of their concerts on their website as well.

The band is confident that their hardcore fans will spend extra to download high-quality FLAC recordings that come complete with pdf files of cover artwork formated to fit within the standard CD case. At a certain age, the $12.95 per show is easily worth it, especially if you went to that concert and want a memento of the evening. The Phish backoffice gets that too and now that they are back on tour, your online ticket purchase comes with a link to pre-purchase a recording of the show at a 15% discount. It’s like a futures bet on the quality of your evening.

Nine Inch Nails also understands the premium upsell. They are sold out of their $300 Ultra Deluxe Limited Edition version of their album Ghosts, an album that was available free for the download.

Then there’s Josh Freese who has taken the premium upsell and turned it into an artform for his album, Since 1972

$75,000 (limited edition of 1)
* Signed CD/DVD and digital download
* T-shirt
* Go on tour with Josh for a few days
* Have Josh write, record and release a 5-song EP
about you and your life story
* Take home any of his drum sets (only one, but
you can choose which one)
* Take shrooms and cruise Hollywood in Danny from
Tool’s Lamborghini OR play quarters and then hop on
the Ouija board for a while
* Josh will join your band for a month … play shows,
record, party with groupies, etc.
* If you don’t have a band he’ll be your personal
assistant for a month (4-day work weeks, 10 am to 4 pm)
* Take a limo down to Tijuana and he’ll show you how
it’s done (what that means exactly we can’t legally
get into here)
* If you don’t live in Southern California (but are a
U.S. resident) he’ll come to you and be your personal
assistant/cabana boy for 2 weeks
* Take a flying trapeze lesson with Josh and Robin
from NIN, go back to Robins place afterwards and his
wife will make you raw lasagna

For a more detailed and way more informed view into the premium upsell (complete with graphs!) check out Strauss on Crystal Ball for Studio Execs or WWJD?

Andrew Keen as Linkbait?

Unusually passionate post on the YPN Blog about Andrew Keen’s book, “The Cult of the Amateur,” which represents the latest backlash against the internet and social media in particular.

Today’s internet is certainly changing our culture. But killing it? Hardly. In fact, I’d argue that the Gutenberg press, which ushered in a new era of print media in the 15th century, was far more disruptive. Then, more efficient printing led to a more rapid dissemination of information that in turn spawned revolutions (social, religious, scientific) that we’re still feeling the effects of half a millennium later.

Killing it from the perspective of someone who is stuck with a fixed definition of culture. To me, culture is dynamic and evolving, not something you can hold up and compare as if you had some kind of cultural slide rule against which to compare everything.

Lawrene Lessig skewers Keen’s arguments with an excellent post which holds up Keen as, “our generation’s greatest self-parodist.”

the real argument of Keen’s book is that traditional media and publishing is just as bad as the worst of the Internet. Here’s a book — Keen’s — that has passed through all the rigor of modern American publishing, yet which is perhaps as reliable as your average blog post: No doubt interesting, sometimes well written, lots of times ridiculously over the top — but also riddled with errors. Keen’s obvious point is to show those with a blind faith in the traditional system that it can be just as bad as the worst of the Internet. Indeed, one might say even worse, since the Internet doesn’t primp itself with the pretense that its words are promised to be true.

I have to confess, I missed Keen when he spoke most recently at Yahoo. He also spoke to a room of skeptical engineers at Google. I further confess that I have not read his book so I am only looking at the ongoing debate as a bemused spectator.

What do you think – is the internet killing our culture or is Keen just stirring the pot to get some airtime?