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How to Conduct a Great Interview, Part 2

April 14, 2010 by  
Filed under Newsletter

Last week I talked about the art of the interview, an essential skill in creating content that generates traffic and visibility. (Be sure to read the advice of others who contributed comments to the blog entry). The first part of this two-part entry talked about preparing for an interview. Now let’s look at what to do when you sit down with your subject or begin the phone call.

Be Conscious Of Time – I almost always ask interview subjects how much time they have. This helps me plan the pace of the questions and also makes sure that I get to the critical ones. If you’re expecting an hour and your subject has only 15 minutes, you need to adjust quickly. If you need extra time, ask for it up front. If the subject turns you down, ask again later in the interview when he or she is hopefully more invigorated about the conversation.

Ask About the Subject’s Background – People like to talk about themselves, so indulge them with a question that they are happy to answer. I’ve found that the simple question, “Tell me about yourself” is a great conversation-starter.

Avoid Yes/No Answers – Instead of asking, “Are you satisfied with your progress this year?” use “Tell me how your progress this year compares to your expectations.” Avoid questions beginning with “do,” “will,” “are,” “and “should,” and instead use questions beginning with “what,” “how,” “why” and “describe.” Asking someone to “Tell me about…” gives them no choice but to share an experience.

Invite Stories – I once heard former Wall Street Journal feature writer Bill Blundell give advice I’ll never forget: “Write in pictures.” In other words, tell stories that readers can visualize in their minds. Storytelling is the most powerful form of human expression. Stories turn abstract ideas into useful examples. Ask the subject to make the topic real by citing examples or personal experiences.

Don’t Be Afraid To Ask The Same Question Twice – This is particularly true in an interview that concerns a controversial subject. Executives are media-trained to answer the questions they want to answer rather than the questions they’re asked. If your subject is evasive, ask the same question a different way. Sometimes you can coax someone into answering a difficult question by feigning ignorance: “I’m sorry, I didn’t follow that. Can you dumb it down a bit for someone like me?”

Control the Interview– You need to dictate the pace and topic of the interview. If the subject rambles or goes off course, cut her off gently whenever you can get a word in. Even if you back off a bit to let her finish the thought, you’ve sent a subtle message that it’s time to move on.

Be Empathetic – Chances are your subject is pretty passionate about the topic you’re discussing. Let your behavior reflect that interest. Smile when she smiles and shake your head when she relates a tale of woe. This isn’t misleading; it’s simply reflecting back a person’s feelings in a way that helps to draw them out. People like to talk to responsive listeners.

Ask For Closing Thoughts – The longer people talk, the more comfortable they are. This is why the best quotes often come at the end of the interview. When you finish your questions, give your subject a chance to summarize her thoughts or restate an important point. One good tactic is simply to ask, “Is there anything I missed?”

Here are thoughts on a few common questions:

Should You Use A Tape Recorder? These days, the answer is increasingly yes because you want the latitude to publish the interview as a video or audio podcast. That said, recording devices can put a damper on a conversation. Once you start recording, put the gadget aside and don’t look at it. You want your subject to forget about it as quickly as possible. Also, most states require that a person audibly consent to be recorded. Be sure you get that permission on tape.

Should You Go Off the Record? This question is complicated by the fact that “off the record” means different things to different people. Technically, “off the record” means the information can’t be used under any circumstances, which makes it of little value to you. However, people often use this term when they really mean “not for attribution.” I rarely agree to off-the-record terms but I will go on background if the information is important. It often turns out that you can negotiate the use of background comments if you paraphrase them appropriately.

Should You Grant Approvals? Many people ask to approve an article before it’s published. I let the context be my guide. Very often, both interviewer and subject have the common goal of making the speaker look good. In that case, I see no problem with letting someone review their comments for accuracy. However, if the topic is controversial or if the speaker is a celebrity or public official, no way. Those people know the rules. In any circumstance, I advise against giving full editing access. Confine the subject’s revisions to statements of fact.

Those are some of my best practices. What are yours?

A Couple of Great Giveaways for You

I’ve got a couple of new giveaway promotions to entice you to take my survey on multiplatform social media practices:

Entrepreneurship guru Evan Carmichael has created collectible trading cards featuring prominent entrepreneurs. There are 33 business greats featured in the series and Carmichael is donating all the profits to Kiva, an organization that loans small amounts of money to business owners in Third World countries.

But you don’t have to pay to get a prize; simply take the survey and get a limited edition Steve Jobs or Steve Wozniak card in a Lucite case. Only 1,000 copies of each of these cards will be made, so they might be valuable one day. And even if they aren’t, they’ll still impress the Mac out of the Apple fanatics in your life.

Or you can get a free copy of How to Win Friends and Influence People, the landmark book by Dale Carnegie that has sold more than 15 million copies worldwide. This is being offered in connection with a promotion for a new application for the iPhone and iPod touch.

The rules are the same for both promotions: You must be a marketer or business owner and must fill out my survey on multiplatform social media practices. The survey takes about 10 minutes to complete and the results will be used in a research report about best practices in multiplatform deployment. Participants will also get an early copy of the results.

By way of full disclosure, I’m not receiving any financial compensation for either of these promotions. My only reward is survey responses and being included in an influencer relations campaign. I’m a big fan of that concept.

Recently Published

Paul & Dana Gillin interviewed on the Geocaching Podcast, Apr 13, 2010

Putting the ‘social’ in social media – BtoB magazine, Apr 12, 2010

B-to-b firmly in social media – BtoB magazine, Apr 12, 2010

5 tips for b-to-b social media marketing – BtoB magazine, Apr 12, 2010

We Got Social… With Paul Gillin – JSH&A Living Room, Apr 9, 2010

Paul Gillin on Communities – InMagic, Apr 8, 2010

“Cloud Chasers” Radio pilot from Novell, hosted by Paul Gillin, Apr 1, 2010

Five Rules of Brand Ambassadorship – PRSA Comprehension, Mar 22, 2010

Just For Fun: The Lying Down Game

This is one of the more ridiculous flash mobs I’ve ever seen, but I have to admit it’s weirdly amusing. The Lying Down Game challenges players to find the oddest place to have their pictures taken lying down. There are only two rules: hands must be flat against the sides and toes must be pointing at the ground. Like any simple idea that catches on, people have brought some wonderful innovation to the task. The game has more than 90,000 fans on Facebook.

What J&J Could Have Done

November 21, 2008 by  
Filed under Newsletter

It wasn’t exactly a repeat of the 1982 poisoned Tylenol disaster, but Johnson & Johnson was struggling with a minor crisis this week after some vocal critics derided an edgy ad that implied that new moms could suffer back pain from carrying their infants. What can we learn from this episode and was J&J’s rapid apology really the best response?

The video had actually been online for more than six weeks before a few vocal moms on Twitter began trashing it this past weekend. The ad suggests, with tongue in cheek, that new moms who bond with their babies by carrying them in slings and chest packs may be inadvertently giving themselves back pain. The message wasn’t that moms shouldn’t bond with their children but that they should be ready for the consequences.

Seems innocuous enough, but a few vocal mommy bloggers didn’t see it that way. They thought the ad was insulting to mothers and they Twittered their criticism, calling for a boycott of Motrin. Bloggers picked up on the controversy and posted more than 100 opinions about the ad, J&J’s reaction and the media frenzy that surrounded it. There were even parody ads making fun of the whole affair. Forrester’s Josh Bernoff has a good account of the controversy with links to background material.

A chastened J&J pulled the ad off its website and issued an apology on its corporate blog. The promotion “was meant to engender sympathy and appreciation for all that parents do for their kids, but did so through an attempt at humor that missed the mark and many moms found offensive,” wrote Kathy Widmer, Vice President of Marketing at McNeil Consumer Healthcare.

J&J probably had no choice but to withdraw the ad, since the criticism was threatening to swamp any benefit the company had hoped to receive. But you also have to wonder if the company hurt itself by buckling to political correctness due to pressure from a minority of critics. After all, the ad hadn’t seemed to offend anyone in particular during the first six weeks it was posted. It was only after a few outraged mommy bloggers began drawing attention to it that the criticism spiraled out of control. At that point, it was too late for J&J to explain its motives. Its critics had taken control of the conversation and anything the company did would look defensive and stubborn.

The incident quickly created a lot of soul-searching on both sides. A backlash against #motrinmoms developed, with some people criticizing the critics for practicing mob rule. Even one of the most vocal motrinmoms, Jessica Gottlieb, suggested that J&J overreacted in pulling down the ad. In fact most of the recent blogger activity has focused more on untangling what happened than debating whether J&J was right or wrong.

Here’s my take. J&J’s choice of language in the ad was arrogant and dismissive. The ad talked down to mothers and was begging for a backlash. However, that wasn’t necessarily a reason not to run it. J&J could have mitigated the criticism, or even turned it to its advantage, by using social media channels more effectively:

  • The company could have invited a select group of mommy bloggers to preview the campaign privately and offer feedback. Even if the company had elected to go ahead without making changes, it would have been able to argue that it had sought guidance from its target group. And if the moms had blessed the video, it would have been the ultimate defense for J&J.
  • The ad could have been presented in a humorous context on the Motrin site. A message like, “We know your babies aren’t a fashion accessory, but since this is International Baby-Wearing Week, we thought you’d appreciate this good-natured parody,” would have gone a long way toward heading off criticism.
  • J&J could have listened. When a blogger tracked down the head of corporate communications for J&J’s ad agency for a comment on the firestorm on Sunday afternoon, the woman professed to know nothing about the controversy. This is despite the fact that more than 2,000 Twitter messages had already been posted. Take note: the blogosphere doesn’t take weekends off.
  • The company could have jumped into the Twitterstream and engaged. It didn’t, preferring to post a rather brief statement on the blog and issue a press release. Kathy Widmer should have responded on the critics’ own turf. Her message was constructive, but a little too disconnected.
  • J&J could have been more profuse in its apologies. A big donation to Babywearing International would have been a start. Or it could have taken Jessica Gottlieb’s advice and distributed baby slings in maternity awards around the country. I’m not sure I agree that branding them with the Motrin logo would have been such a good idea.

In today’s networked world, there is no excuse for a corporation to be surprised by negative response to a controversial message. Social networks and the blogosphere offer a cheap and speedy way to anticipate criticism. Ironically, J&J is one of only two pharmaceutical companies to host a corporate blog (Glaxo’s alliConnect is the only other one I’m familiar with). This company gets new media more than most of its peers, which makes this online ambush particularly ironic.

What You Probably Don’t Know About Links

October 9, 2008 by  
Filed under Newsletter

I got a press release today from a PR pro whose client has an interesting story to tell. The company makes a security product that combines cellular and global positioning technologies to alert people when valuable items have moved beyond a specified location. This particular pitch told about a customer who had recovered an expensive motorcycle just 20 minutes after it was stolen, thanks to the clever technology.

I have several blogs, including one that deals with location-awareness, and I thought this would be a nice item to mention. I searched for the headline on Google, but came up empty. So I contacted the PR person directly. He responded that the press release actually wasn’t posted online anywhere. “It’s a media alert that I distribute to generate press,” he said. “I was definitely not trying to get blog coverage.”

There are a few questionable assumptions in that statement, including the fact that 95 of the top 100 newspapers in America now have blogs. For the purposes of this newsletter, though, I want to address the importance of having a Web copy of anything you send out for media consumption.

The reason I searched for an online version of the press release was because Web publishing differs from print publishing in some fundamental ways. Look at prolific bloggers and you’ll see that their entries are full of hyperlinks. This practice may look strange to someone who doesn’t write principally for online consumption. Is the blogger being lazy by linking to source material instead of summarizing it?

Actually, quite the opposite is true. The comment-and-link approach leverages the strength of online media to minimize wasted time for the reader while making the blogger more productive.

To understand this phenomenon, look at the way we used to publish. In the print world, journalists typically have to excerpt or summarize any material they reference because they have no choice. The only way to convey information is to include it in the story. This makes articles longer and creates more work for the reporter, who has to guess what source information is relevant. It also means that good information is more likely to be left on the cutting room floor.

Online, the dynamic is very different. By linking to source material, the writer minimizes the amount of background information that has to be summarized. If the reader wants that information, he or she can click through to the source document. There’s less time spent creating extraneous content and less time spent reading it.

This tactic is a core reason why some bloggers appear to be so prolific. Instead of wasting time reinventing the wheel, they can focus on the most relevant information. You need to understand this practice if you want to play fully in the online publishing world.

I maintain four personal blogs — paulgillin.com, geocachesecrets.com, mediablather.com and newspaperdeathwatch.com — and manage to post to all of them frequently. I use comment-and-link combined with some clever online tools to keep the content up-to-date. For example, if I see something interesting online, I can easily bookmark it, type a brief summary or comment and save everything online. My bookmark service knows to gather up these entries every day and post them to my blog automatically (here’s an example of the result). My time expenditure is minimal and I focus only on the material that I think is most important. For audio or video content, there’s practically no other way to do this.

Marketers who want to incorporate online journalists into their communication plans need to understand this tactic and build it into their strategy. Link-and-comment isn’t a copout or a shortcut. It’s a tactic for minimizing waste. By posting every press release online, you not only make it easier for bloggers to reference the information, but you also make sure it’s you who tells the story and not some third party. Why would you have it any other way?

As for the press release I received earlier today, that company is out of luck. Had the press release been available online, I would have linked to it and recommended it to my readers. But reprint the whole thing? That’s just too much trouble.

Envisioning the Future of Journalism

October 9, 2008 by  
Filed under Newsletter

The rapid implosion of the newspaper industry (advertising sales by U.S. newspapers fell a record 14% in the first quarter) has created a storm of debate in the media industry about what journalism will look like when information is free and everyone is a publisher. Here’s my take on the future of journalism.

The current debate centers upon assumptions that are based in a time when information was scarce and publishing was expensive. Traditionalists see the role of the journalist changing and mourn the loss of the role of reporter as a scribe of history with pen in hand and a deadline to meet.

In order to envision the future, you have to discard assumptions. Many of the practices and conventions of journalism today were actually invented to cope with an age when timely information was difficult and expensive to gather and deliver. Basically, we do what we do in large part because we’ve historically had to deal with plates and presses and trucks and news stands, all of which added time and cost. We don’t have to worry about that stuff any more. This should cause us to completely rethink our approach to the craft.

Here are the new realities:

  • Today, everyone is potentially a journalist, even if only for a few minutes;
  • Technology has made it possible for news to be reported in near real-time. People will come to expect this;
  • The cost of reporting and publishing news is now effectively zero;
  • Publishing is now a beginning, not an end. Once a “story” goes online, an update and refinement begins that may last for years or decades;
  • Any person or institution with an interest in a story has the capacity to publish facts, commentary and updates without seeking anyone’s permission. Responsible journalists need to incorporate that information into their work as appropriate.

All of these realities revise rules that have existed for thousands of years. This is why we need to rethink everything. Nearly everything has changed. But some things haven’t. People still want trusted sources of information. They want clear distinctions between fact and conjecture. Institutions need to be monitored. We need to know whom to trust. These needs won’t change if newspapers go away, so someone will need to fill the void.

Traditional Reporting is Obsolete

How does journalism need to evolve? Let’s start with the role of the reporter, because that function is likely to change the most.

The traditional function of reporter no longer makes sense. Every day, hundreds of thousands of people in cities around the world put their faith in the hands of a small number of people to gather and deliver the news. For the most part, these people aren’t experts in their topics they cover. In fact, reporters get shifted to new beats all the time. Reporters are resourceful, however. Most of them are pretty good at learning on the fly, figuring out what’s important and presenting that information clearly and succinctly. These are important skills and they’ll be needed for a long time to come.

There’s an awful lot of waste in reporting, though. Most of what a reporter learns in the process of working a story is discarded. Even more waste occurs when a story is cut for space. In the end, a task that requires hours of information-gathering may be boiled down to a couple of hundred words on a page. This was necessary in a time- and space-limited world, but it isn’t necessary any more.

The traditional limitations of print and broadcast media have required reporters to constantly make value judgments about what readers may know. An hour-long interview may result in a single sentence of published information or a three-second sound bite. This decision is entirely in the hands of one person. Reporters do a pretty good job of upholding the trust that readers put in them, but the rules are all different now. No one should be denied access to information just because there isn’t enough space. Space is now infinite.

New Journalism is Transparent

Today, nearly every relevant fact about a story may be captured and shared with anyone who’s interested. This service may be provided by the reporter, participants, observers and commentators. This information doesn’t have to be part of the story that the reporter submits for publication, but it should be available to those who want to know.

The reporter’s role expands to include not only making judgments about what information to include but also about where to link for more information. The “story” becomes an entry point to an archive of relevant content that may be of interest to different people. The ability to make these associations becomes a core journalism skill. The choice of where to link and what background to provide becomes part of editorial voice.

This new reality should be liberating for readers and journalists alike. No longer do journalists have to make difficult choices about what readers may know. No longer do readers have to regard media institutions with suspicion. Everyone is free to contribute, correct and weigh in on the story. Whatever the media entity chooses not to cite in its published account can be discovered through search. Journalists will be more accountable and readers will be more confident that they can trust the information they receive.

A lot of media veterans are uncomfortable with this idea, though. Their profession has long been shrouded in mystery. Editors are accountable only to a small group of higher-ups who share the same priorities as they do. A self-policing strategy rarely works. Very few readers understand what goes on in a newsroom, and this makes them suspicious. One of the reasons so few people trust the media is that so few people understand how the media works.

Bonds of Trust

We’re going to start opening that up. When readers and viewers have access to the source material for a reporter’s story, they feel more confident that the account is accurate, even if they never consult that background. Ironically, I believe we will see less accuracy in reporting in the future, but that’s a topic for a future newsletter.

The basic point is that the reporters will increasingly become aggregators and topic stewards. They will be obliged to present a variety of inputs and opinions because those opinion-makers will publish whether the reporter wants them to or not. Reporters will also come to write not only the first draft of history, but subsequent drafts as well. A story will evolve the same way that an entry in Wikipedia begins as a one-sentence stub and evolves into a comprehensive account representing multiple sources and points of view. In a few cases, the public will participate in this process. Mostly, they will observe, but they will have confidence that the process by which the truth is reported is transparent and accessible if they so wish.

These trends will create a new, enlightened and very different form of journalism. In the future, journalists won’t screen information from view but organize it for convenient access. We will no longer be denied information because space wasn’t available. We’ll learn to search for it in different ways. Journalists will be very important to this process. They just won’t make nearly as many decisions about what we can and cannot know

Publishing is Now a Beginning, Not an End

October 8, 2008 by  
Filed under Newsletter

The shift from print to online media requires us to change a lot of our assumptions about marketing and publishing, but perhaps no transformation is more powerful than this: In the online world, publishing information is merely a starting point, not an endpoint. If you grew up with mainstream media, this is a difficult concept to internalize. In the print world, publishers carefully assemble and verify information, submit it to a rigorous editing process and then commit it to posterity on paper. Once it’s published, it’s permanent. The opportunities to redistribute and evolve the information are severely limited.

Online media flips this equation. Today, published information is infinitely changeable. A story or message may morph and expand as times change and readers contribute their own perspectives. Look at Wikipedia as a shining example of this. A story on Wikipedia begins as a “stub.” Over time, additions, enhancements and corrections may develop that story into a work of vast scope and depth. All of this is performed in full public view. People with differing perspectives debate the facts and arbiters harmonize conflicting views. The true story may not be known for months or even years. That’s okay, though. As details emerge, the living document is revised to reflect the latest information. The original publication is just the first stage of a process.

Online publishing also transforms our assumptions about distribution. In the print world, publishers and marketers are limited to disseminating information through the media they have at their disposal. Circulation and mailing lists guarantee a certain readership, but there’s little upside beyond that. Aside from the occasional reprint, the potential reach of information is limited.

The online process is very different. Information is published first and then disseminated through a network of partners, third-party commentators and search engines. Content never dies online. A document may find new relevance for a buyer who discovers it on Google a year later.

So how does this relate to marketing? For one thing, messages aren’t one-way anymore. Your audience expects to contribute actively to the development of whatever content you produce. You’re no longer under the gun to be the definitive source of information. You can reach out to your readers for help in enhancing and commenting upon whatever you publish. Your customers appreciate that. Involving them in a conversation is the best way to build a lasting bond.

You should also look at your customers, business partners and the community of bloggers and online publishers as potential distributors. By making your content available through RSS feeds, you open up new channels that may enable you to reach an audience that’s orders of magnitude beyond what you originally intended. Why not contact some influencers in your market and ask them to publish your RSS feed? Many of them are hungry for information to stoke the daily demands of their blogs or websites.

The idea that information may not be fully baked when it reaches the public is difficult for many people to accept. But attitudes are changing. Today, the public beta test is an accepted model. The same principle applies to publishing. Speed and discussion can be just as important as fit and polish. Use this to your advantage by engaging in conversations that make your marketing messages a collaborative effort.

How New Influencers are Reinventing Journalism

October 8, 2008 by  
Filed under Newsletter

Ben PopkenMeet Ben Popken. You’ve probably never heard of him, but I recommend you learn what he’s all about. He and others like him are rewriting the rules of journalism and, with it, the practice of media relations.

Ben sits atop the editorial pyramid at the blog The Consumerist. In conventional media terms, that pyramid isn’t very big – only seven people – but Consumerist’s reach far outweighs its small staff. The site gets 15 million unique visitors per month, a number that has roughly doubled in the past year. Perhaps more importantly, it’s closely watched by mainstream media outlets. For example, The New York Times has referenced Consumerist 381 times, The Wall Street Journal 114 times and BusinessWeek 37 times. Consumerist gets picked up on the popular social bookmarking site Digg.com constantly — 34,000 citations and counting. Popken was recently featured in a cover story in BusinessWeek and just wrote a 2,300-word article for Reader’s Digest. All without a day of formal journalism training.

That’s right, no journalism background; at least not as that concept is traditionally defined. Prior to joining Consumerist two years ago, Popken’s professional career had consisted of a variety of entrepreneurial sales ventures and odd jobs. He worked as a delivery man not long before joining Consumerist. He only got the job because the previous editor’s mother read his blog.

What’s even more interesting than his background is the way his staff reports the news. Consumerist gets about 100 e-mails a day from consumers talking about their horrible encounters with businesses of all kinds. Big box retailers, banks, cell phone providers, cable companies and airlines are popular targets. Editors read and respond to each and every e-mail and write up about 30 of those submissions each day for the site. They also monitor a variety of news services looking for important stories that affect consumers.

The New Journalism?
Consumerist editors do little fact-checking. They don’t have time with the volume of material they process. If something is wrong, they expect readers to quickly correct it. This direct reader input is the heart and soul of the Consumerist model, which Popken describes as “to empower consumers by informing and entertaining them about the top consumer issues of the day. We give them a voice by directly publishing their tips and e-mails and then following up on them as warranted.

A lot of journalists shudder when they read words like these. No editorial oversight? No verification of facts? It sounds like an invitation to disaster. But so far it’s worked. Consumerist gets the occasional legal threat, but it’s never amounted to much. And its laser focus on reader interests has won it a fanatical following. Have you ever sent a letter to a newspaper about a story you read and failed to get a response? At The Consumerist, you are the story.

With his site having already passed the venerable Consumer Reports in traffic, by some accounts, you’d think marketers would be beating down the door trying to get Popken’s opinion. Yet surprisingly, he told me he gets few invitations to speak or consult. Some companies that the blog has repeatedly spotlighted have taken proactive measures. Sprint, for example, set up a dedicated support line for Consumerist readers, but only after the site published direct phone numbers for many of its executives.

With no formal journalism training, no editorial oversight and none of the trappings of conventional media, Ben Popken is becoming one of the most powerful voices in consumer journalism. And what’s funny is that if you ask him about the secret of Consumerist’s success, he uses the same words that any good editor uses: “The secret is to be reader-centric in a fundamental way. The content is driven by the readers and reacted to by the readers. We’re really just a curator of consumer-generated content.”

Get used to this. It’s the online journalism model of the future.

How the Coming Newspaper Industry Collapse Will Reinvent Journalism

June 6, 2006 by  
Filed under Newsletter

The near-total collapse of the American newspaper industry as we know it is inevitable. Anything newspapers could have done to stop it should have been done years ago. (Slate recently wrote that newspapers saw this coming in the mid-’70s.) All the social, demographic and economic trends are lined up against the industry. Over the next decade, there will be agonizing rounds of layoffs, consolidation and bankruptcies. It will be painful to watch, but it will be a necessary process for the industry to reinvent itself.

Download this article (PDF)

In this essay, I’ll outline the reasons I believe this and propose a new and very different model of publishing and journalism that will take hold as this cycle plays out. This will be a very exciting evolution, but it will be very painful, too.

A broken business model
First, some background and assumptions. The business model of metropolitan daily newspapers was developed over 150 years ago to support a delivery method that is becoming irrelevant. Huge staffs of people were needed to create content, turn it into type, print it on paper and distribute it on a timely basis. It was very expensive, but it was necessary because there was no alternative way to deliver information on a daily basis.

Large editorial staffs were needed to create proprietary content. A few alternate sources of content were available, such as news wires, but there was almost nothing at the local level. In any case, running wire copy didn’t differentiate a newspaper from its competition, so staffs of salaried reporters were needed to turn up original news. At some newspapers, these staffs could run to several hundred people.

Newspapers had to maintain large circulation operations and massive subscriber lists in order to justify their ad rates. Circulation is expensive. While renewal rates for daily papers have always been high, it’s costly to acquire new subscribers through advertising and direct mail. For most papers, the cost of circulation didn’t come close to matching the small revenue it generated. Circulation revenue at newspapers has also been falling in recent years due to price cuts and competition, further squeezing margins.

Capital costs inherent in buildings, presses, paper, ink and people to run all those machines were astronomical. Labor unions added to those costs. In some cases, the unions have succeeded in preserving jobs that were automated out of existence years ago. People go to work and literally have nothing to do.
Add it all up and a metropolitan daily newspaper must employ several hundred people to produce the product. Newspaper advertising is very expensive because of the large fixed costs. The Chicago Tribune, for example, charges $755 per column inch in the daily paper ($1,135 on Sunday). That business works as long as advertisers are willing to pay for it and for many years they have. That’s because newspapers were one of the most effective means for businesses to reach consumers in certain geographies.

The upside, though, is that newspaper model has traditionally been profitable and predictable. Once a newspaper achieved dominance in its market, it was practically unassailable. As consolidation reduced the total number of daily newspapers (there are about 1,500 in the U.S. today), competitive pressure eased and the winning papers were able to drive their ad rates higher. Until the mid-1990s, this was a pretty nice state of affairs. Even the Internet didn’t put much pressure on newspapers, at least during its first decade.

That is all about to come to an end. The business model of metropolitan daily newspapers is poised for a collapse that will be stunning in its speed and scope. The cause is Web 2.0 and the vastly superior economics of that emerging business.

A new approach
A recent story in Business 2.0 magazine revealed the income of some popular bloggers. Read this article if you want to understand the emerging economics of blogosphere. This new medium is far more cost-efficient than the ones it will replace.

“Blogs today benefit from what might be termed uneconomies of scale,” the Business 2.0 article says. “They are so cheap to create and operate that a lone blogger or a small team can, with the ever-expanding reach of the Internet, amass vast audiences and generate levels of profit on a per-employee basis that traditional media companies can only fantasize about.”

Take the Fark.com example. The site generates 40 million page views a month with a staff of one full-time person and two contractors. Its only real operating costs are bandwidth charges. It produces almost no original content and has no capital costs. Members contribute their own content, so no editors are needed. The site almost runs itself. Yet this could approach $10 million in revenue before long.

Another example is Craigslist.org. It’s is the fifth most popular site on the Internet, with global reach and an estimated four billion page views a month. It is absolutely killing the newspaper classified ad business. One study report estimated that Craigslist costs San Francisco newspapers $50 million in revenue each year. The entire staff is 23 people, all part-time. Google Blogoscoped, which is the best independent source of information about Google, is run by one person in his spare time. It’s averaging four million page views a month. Gizmodo grew to become one of the top five blogs on the Internet with only a single contributor. Digg.com, which is barely two years old, is already among the top 25 sites on the Web. Its traffic outstrips all the largest media sites. It has a staff of 15. <!–[if !vml]–>

Outsourcing everything
None of these sites is making piles of money yet, but that’s only a matter of time. Michael Arrington is pulling in $60,000 a month writing TechCrunch. BoingBoing.net is on target to gross more than $1 million. Fark.com founder Drew Curtis says he’s on track to soon log sales of $600,000 to $800,000 per month.

Companies like John Battelle’s Federated Media and Nick Denton’s Gawker Media are figuring out the business side. And it’s not like these blogs have to make a lot of money to keep going. Adrants.com generates over $100,000 a year in advertising and that’s plenty to keep Steve Hall plugging away at his one-man operation. He’s got almost no costs and he’s getting paid to do something he’s passionate about.

How do these keep their overhead so low? They outsource everything.

  • Editorial content is outsourced to an army of individual enthusiasts and bloggers who find interesting information on the Web and feed it to the site operators. Editorial expenses, which account for about a third of the operating costs of a daily newspaper, are practically zero.
  • Circulation is outsourced to Google and links from other sites. In fact, there really is no concept of circulation in these new media because there’s no way to “own” the reader. This is a very different model from conventional publishing, which relies heavily on subscriber lists to validate advertising rates. The Web approach is much less controllable but also much cheaper.

  • Production is outsourced to Typepad, Blogger or any number of other hosted services at minimal cost. There’s no need for designers because everything is templated. Some sites practically run themselves. Bandwidth costs can be steep for popular properties, but that’s true for newspaper Web sites as well.
  • Sales is outsourced to Google Adwords, Federated Media or other sales agents. This may change in time, but for now, most Web 2.0 companies can’t be bothered with a captive sales force.

Marketing and promotion aren’t even done. In the new Web, your marketing is your content. People either link to you or they don’t. This creates a lot of pressure on the site operators to be fresh and innovative, but that’s not a bad thing.

This model is so compelling that it will almost completely upend the existing mainstream media model.
Newspaper death spiral
New competition from Web 2.0 companies along with continuing demographic shifts are about to send metropolitan daily newspapers into a spiral of decline from which few will emerge intact. Why now? People have been wrongly forecasting the death of newspapers for years. Why is this time different?
The first decade of the consumer Internet was very different from that which we’re now entering. Web 1.0 was the display Internet. It was a decade when organizations put their brochures online and users got comfortable with the idea of a global network. Search tools were rudimentary, Web content was difficult to create and interactivity was limited. The brands that dominated the pre-Web days were able to extend their brands online. While a few important new sources of information did emerge, media giants like CNN, The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Associated Press continued to dominate online media. There was little threat to their underlying businesses.

That’s all changed. It’s now easy for individuals to create Web content. Computing power, storage and bandwidth costs are declining rapidly. The open-source software movement has dropped the price of software to near zero. Search engines have become a more effective marketing channel than e-mail. Google AdSense and affiliate marketing networks can generate income for Web site operators, even at low traffic levels. Today, a small group of people with a few thousand dollars and a good idea can build a self-sustaining Web franchise in a matter of months. You couldn’t have done that five years ago.

Layered on top of that is a demographic shift that is about to move a large new group of Web-savvy consumers into the economic mainstream. This new generation simply doesn’t have the loyalty to established media that their parents do. And they don’t read newspapers at all.

The spiral begins

So here’s where the spiral begins. Newspapers’ profitable classified advertising business will be all but gone in 10 years, a victim of the vastly superior results and economics of search-driven online advertising. Display advertising will be under intense pressure from alternative media, including not just Web sites but an emerging class of small print publications and supermarket advertisers that serve local audiences (print publishing is getting cheaper, too). The department stores and cell phone companies that sustain newspapers’ display advertising business will apply intense pressure on papers to bring down their prices

Newspapers will be forced to lay off staff in order to maintain margins. Cuts in services will lead to cuts in editorial coverage, making papers less relevant to subscribers. As circulation declines, advertising rates will have to come down to remain competitive. This will put more pressure on margins, leading to more layoffs, more cost cuts, more circulation declines and more pressure on margins. Once this spiral begins, it will accelerate with breathtaking speed. And it has already begun.

Experience has shown us again and again that business models based on vertically integrated, proprietary products quickly collapse when confronted with competition that is open, standardized and much less expensive. It’s happened in consumer electronics, telecommunications, computers and household appliances and there’s no reason it won’t happen in media. Advertisers will rebel at having to pay newspapers’ high fixed costs when they can get the same audience through other channels at a fraction of the cost.

History has also demonstrated that business models based on scarcity collapse in the face of abundance. The whole newspaper model is predicated on the idea that timely, local information is hard to come by. Newspapers built very expensive infrastructures to deliver that information in the days of print. But information is now cheap and abundant. As the body of information grows and people become more comfortable with the tools to access it, the newspaper value proposition withers away.

The sole advantage that newspapers still have is their reach in local markets. Small businesses that sell aluminum siding, flowers and cleaning services have few alternatives to newspapers for their ad dollars. But that, too, is changing. The declining cost of electronic composition and offset printing is leading to a resurgence of local newspapers, and Web 2.0 technology is making it cheap for citizens to launch their own community Web sites. Search engine makers are figuring out how to provide value in local search. These forces are converging to attack newspapers’ last refuge.

In 10 years, probably a third of metropolitan daily print newspapers will be gone. Some will go entirely online, while others will merge with regional competitors. What will replace them? And what will the new journalism look like?

Rebirth

What emerges from the rubble of the newspaper industry will be a fresh, vibrant and very different kind of journalism. It will make a lot of traditionalists uncomfortable. It will force us to re-examine our assumptions about everything from readership to libel law. But it will ultimately be an evolution of the profession into something that is richer, more inclusive and much more dynamic than anything we have ever known.
Print newspapers are modeled on assumptions that were defined by physical constraints, but which are outmoded and irrelevant online. Basically, information is scarce and publishing is archival. In most metropolitan areas, the newspaper has been the principal or only source of news for many years. This required editors and publishers to take a very serious view of everything they set into type. Layout, headline selection, story lengths, story placement and design were critical considerations in a space-constrained world. The importance of a story was reflected by its location in the paper or on a page, the weight of the headline and the number of column inches dedicated to it.
Once a story was in print, it was permanent. This necessitated an almost obsessive attention to detail and fact-checking. All facts had to be assembled before the story was written. Often, multiple editors were assigned to review and challenge information in the article. If information wasn’t verified, it wasn’t published.
Structure was critical. Because stories were cut from the bottom, newspapers invented the “inverted pyramid” style of writing, in which more important information was placed higher in the story. Good information was omitted because there wasn’t enough space.

Online publishing changes all the rules
Of course, all that is irrelevant online, and the new journalism will be based on an entirely different set of assumptions. Any report may be quickly and easily updated and corrected. Search engine results and referral links are the principal drivers of readership. Layout is almost irrelevant to a Web site. Blogs have no hierarchy at all. Stories can be as long or as short as they need to be, or can even be composed of many links to other content. Stories may appear in many places at once and even in many forms, depending on how they are tagged. Readers are able to comment upon and contribute to articles. Graphics, audio and video illustrations are easily linked to text. If something is wrong, you can always go back and correct it.

In short, the online world challenges nearly every assumption of conventional newspapering. It will dictate a very different approach to journalism.

For one thing, the craft of journalism will evolve to include far more aggregation and organization than it has in the past. Editors will assemble their reports from a vast library of resources located across the Internet. Some information will come from paid staff writers, others from freelancers and still more from reports and opinions published by independent third parties and even competitors. Editors will still have a critical role, but their value will increasingly be in assembling and organizing information for readers who don’t have the time to sort through the vast Web.

The craft of reporting will become faster and more iterative. Rumor, speculation and incomplete information will be published far more readily, on the assumption that errors can be corrected. Stories will, in essence, be built in real time and in full public view. Reporters will file copy directly to the Web, often without a review by an editor. Readers will be a central part of the process, correcting and commenting upon articles as they are taking shape. Reporting will become, in effect, a community process.

This new model will be very disruptive and very controversial. The idea that a news organization would publish information it did not know to be true flies in the face of all of our expectations. The concept of actively involving readers — who have no formal relationship with the news organization –- in the reporting process will be too much for some editors to accept. There will be hand-wringing over fears of libel suits and other litigation. It is going to be an unholy brawl.

But this is where journalism will go, and it is happening now, every day, on blogs and community media sites across the world. There, authors knowingly publish information that is unverified and unreliable. They do so with the expectation that their readers will set them straight and that the truth will be arrived at through a process of publishing and correction. More than half a million blog posts are logged every day, yet there has not been a single successful libel suit resulting from any of them. Libel law, after all, is based on the expectation of archival permanence. Nothing is permanent online.

The future is taking shape

New models are already being tested at community-journalism sites like Backfence, iBrattleboro.com, Northwest Voice and Korea’s OhMyNews.com. The Washington Post recently reported on a Gannett experiment to reinvent news journalism in Fort Myers, Fla. More will follow. Many more.

Journalism will become much more local. As the cost of publishing falls to near zero and citizens become more comfortable with the tools of publishing, thousands of mini “newspapers” will form around different geographies and topics. Aggregation sites will emerge to sift through and organize the reports and conversations going on in these small communities. Many of these sites will involve human editors who understand the needs of their audience and monitor online activity on their behalf.

This will be nothing less than a complete rebirth of journalism around the concept that information is plentiful and cheap. Instead of 1,500 print newspapers, there will be perhaps five to 10 national “super-papers” and many thousands of regional and special interest community news sites. The process of getting there will be wrenching and controversial, but the new model will create a more dynamic and diverse information landscape than we have ever known. It will be incredibly exciting. I hope to be around for the ride.