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Want to profit from internet journalism? Here are three golden rules

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In Practice by Tim Dawson.

For the past six months, I have been teaching a course entitled Making Internet Journalism Pay.  After the last session that I delivered, I received some of the most complimentary notes of thanks of my professional career – and they came from over half the people taking the course.  It makes me think that I must have got something right.

It is a full day’s course, of practical instruction and looking at successful self-publishing examples in some detail.  There are, however, a few simple principles that I thought might be worth sharing here.  So, for the benefit of those of you who are unable to spend a day in a training suite in central London, here are my three top tips.

If you are relying on advertising for revenue, then there must be a close fit between content and purchasing decisions.

As many people know, it is childishly simple to add Google ads, or other affiliate advertising to a website.  However, unless readers are either drawn to the website in spectacular numbers, or there is a close connection between what you are writing about and imminent outlays of cash – the publisher will make almost nothing.

Sites that cover tech developments, for example, are generally read by people who like to buy tech.  If the stories are surrounded by attractive retail propositions, then at least some are likely to respond. 

By contrast, a website devoted to the history of medieval churches in Suffolk might be a work of brilliant scholarship that introduces a whole new world to knapped flintwork and the perpendicular tradition.  It is unlikely, however to make a bean from advertising, unless the publisher can think of some common buying interests shared by their readership.

Devoted as most journalists are to the brilliance of their stories, unless they give a little consideration to the web audience that they are able to deliver to advertisers, they will be giving their expertise away for free.

For a web site to fulfil its potential, at least as much time and resources must be devoted to promotion as to the editorial package

This is a nostrum that is as true today, as it was in the days when the press was king.  Journalists, by professional inclination, love the product but hate acting as salespeople.  Deep within them lies the belief that a brilliant product will sell itself. 

There is no better demonstration of this that Beehive City.  The media site bumped along, being read by friends and those who accidentally alighted upon their stories – until they adopted a programme of highly active promotion.  They have spilled the beans about just how they did it here.

If you want to make a living from self-published internet journalism, you need to develop a brand that can deliver multiple income streams

Advertising and subscriptions are grand – but both are vulnerable to factors wholly beyond your control.  The more ways that you can exploit your content and the brand that it creates, the more secure you will be. 

Those streams might be enormously diverse, from Guido Fawkes selling his best stories to the tabloids, to Indus Delta organising conferences for which readers pay to attend.  Some sites sell merchandise, others package premium content into pay-for products. Unless you are willing sweat your work for all that its worth, your sweat will be worth very little.

There endeth my moment as Samuel Smiles.  Suffice to say, if I were much good at taking my own advice, I would have retired to the Bahamas years ago.

Written by Tim Dawson

April 18th, 2011 at 1:37 am

Old model for new journalism – weekly paper proves sustainable

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Case study by Alex Klaushofer.

You could call it the new traditionalism. The Cleethorpes Chronicle is a rare beast – a weekly local newspaper, a start-up bucking the trend of the decline of print, launched in the teeth of recession and funded by advertising.

The paper was founded in March 2008 by editor Nigel Lowther and managing director Mark Webb on the strength of personal investment plus bank loans. Both men had substantial experience in the area’s regional press – the former was deputy editor of the Grimsby Telegraph, while Webb had been managing director at Grimsby and Scunthorpe newspapers. They had done no formal market research to establish the paper’s viability, but had a ‘strong gut feeling’ that the town, which had never had its own paper, could support one.

Three years on, it seems they were right. The paper has a weekly circulation of 10,000 and is available at around 90 local outlets from newsagents to supermarkets. Firmly in profit, and with a total staff of 13, it draws most of its revenue from advertising, while a small proportion comes from the paper’s cover price of 45p.

In marked contrast to the regional press, where expectations of profit can hit 30%, the proprietors of the Cleethorpes Chronicle say they will be content with profits of 5%.

It’s an aspiration, says Lowther, very much in keeping with the climate that traditionally nurtured local journalism. ‘We’re coming full circle,’ he says. ‘A hundred years ago, local newspapers were owned by local businesses who wanted to promote their message and make a contribution to the community. That’s exactly what we’re doing.’

Being at the heart of the community, he says, is key to developing the clear editorial vision central to the paper’s success. Despite their higher cost, it was decided from the outset to have offices in the town centre so that paper and community could communicate freely. The result is the classic local paper blend of stories and listings about what’s going on in the town’s schools and WIs – what Lowther calls ‘below-radar community journalism’.

Surprisingly, this is achieved with only one full-time reporter, supported by part-time staff who come in to produce the paper on a short press cycle. ‘Editorially, we are a lean, mean team,’ says Lowther. ‘If you’ve got a good team, they know what they’ve got to do, and it’s very focused.’

To avoid spreading the limited resources too thinly, the Chronicle has no news website, maintaining an online presence solely through a static, showcase-style site. And, if and when an online news operation is launched, the proprietors have already made some clear decisions about the business model.

‘We’ve always said we will never put our content online free of charge,’ says Lowther. ‘No other business does it, so we don’t see why newspapers should.’

Written by Alex

April 4th, 2011 at 4:34 am

Hyperlocalism – the next landgrab?

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Comment by Alex Klaushofer.
foto.bulle (Flickr) If the rhetoric is to be believed, hyperlocalism is the most promising trend the digital age has brought journalism. There are now hundreds of websites around the country, bringing local communities unprecedented levels of news gathered by newly-empowered citizen journalists. With their scrutiny of the local and celebration of the particular, it’s tempting to see hyperlocals as a new form of democratic journalism driven by a synergy between readers and writers.

For media-watchers looking for an answer to journalism’s money troubles, hyperlocalism may provide the beginnings of some reasons to be cheerful. It shows, at least, that there is still an appetite for local news, prompting the hope that where there is demand, money must follow.

But a bit dig deeper, and a different story emerges. Most hyperlocals are run by volunteers and activists – a feature which, according to evangelists like William Perrin and Networked Neighbourhoods, is part of their beauty. But it’s not a recipe for sustainability. The husband-and-wife-team behind the award-winning Ventnor Blog admit to ‘constantly wondering how they’re living’ despite running a site that’s become central to life on the Isle of Wight since it started five years ago.

Meanwhile, Tony Walley, the founder of Pits n Pots, the hyperlocal known for its hard-hitting coverage of Stoke-on-Trent, says the site’s development has run aground on the problem of monetisation. Even possible counter example start-up Preston, which has been notably successful in securing grant funding from NESTA, is hardly a model that could be widely replicated by others.

The common thread running through all these cases suggests an unpalatable possibility: it could it be that what we’re seeing is a movement with a limited life-span rather than the emergence of a new form of grassroots journalism.

The developing relationship between the grassroots hyperlocals and their bigger counterparts provides an indication of the direction things could take. Last summer, Trinity Mirror announced the launch of a network of hyperlocals working ‘in partnership’ with established sites like the Lichfield blog. In exchange for allowing Trinity Mirror sites to feature their material on their sites, contributing hyperlocals get to showcase their work and be properly credited.

The deal is symptomatic of the way the big media organisations are responding to the hyperlocal conundrum, reluctant to let such a promising new media trend pass them by, but unwilling to invest much in something that isn’t profitable. Northcliffe, Trinity Mirror and the Guardian all have modest hyperlocal operations, and it’s likely to be a while before they get any return for their investment. ‘It’s going to take a long time. Whether they’ll have the patience, I don’t know,’ says Sean Kelly, founder-director of NeighbourNet, the UK’s only fully commerical hyperlocal operation.

It’s hard, with the row about the Huffington Post profiting out of unpaid bloggers and aggregated content rumbling on, not to see an element of parasitism in the big media companies’ relationship with community-based hyperlocals. Neither Trinity Mirror nor Guardian Local, which shares a similar model, are thieving copy, as publishers have to sign up for the deal. (There are examples of outright theft in hyperlocal land: earlier this year MyVillage.com had to take down content it had posted without permission, while Pits n Pots’ Walley claims his stories are frequently used, without attribution, by mainstream media organisations.) But it’s possible, further down the line, to see weary community publishers selling to big players seeking aggregation.

While everyone eagerly awaits hyperlocalism’s moment at the bank, it’s worth keeping an eye on the States, which is ahead of the UK in the new-models-for-journalism-game. Last week it emerged that Twitter co-founder Biz Stone is to join Huffington Post to develop a platform for community journalism, fuelling suspicions of a new media strategy based on free content now, profit later. The chief exec of local news aggregator Topix recently observed that – with a resurgence in local advertising now taking digital form – a land-grab is underway in hyperlocal media. So – to transplant the western analogy here – if the big media companies are the cowboys and the grassroots hyperlocals the Indians, what will happen when the landgrab comes here?

This article was first published on the New Statesman’s website, where it has generated a lively debate.

Written by Alex

March 21st, 2011 at 5:16 am

US hyperlocal fails to monetise

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By Alex Klaushofer. Leading US hyperlocal TBD is downsizing, slashing its staff and dumping its news coverage in favour of local entertainment and lifestyle content.

The decision by the Washington-based site will come as a disappointment to watchers of the hyperlocal model. Launched last summer as a pioneering model for local newsgathering, the site quickly gained impressive viewing stats – 1.5 million unique visitors – but has failed to translate the numbers into $$$.

Links to the some of the wave of comment inspired by the news can be found at Poynter.

Written by Alex

February 28th, 2011 at 6:01 am

Sheridan Trial Blog is a ratings hit for court reporting

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The trial and jailing of the former leader of the Scottish Socialist Party for perjury has provided some of the most dramatic legal scenes in recent history. It has also spawned a new form of journalism that has generated an unprecedented level of interest for a short-lived publishing phenomenon.

Started by former SSP activist, James Doleman, The Sheridan Trial Blog averaged 13,000 unique visits a day, and generating around 250 comments every 24 hours – a level of interest for which many newspaper websites would kill.

At the start of the trial, court staff tried to prevent Doleman from taking notes ‘because he was ‘not a real journalist’.  By the time Sheridan was found guilty, the blog’s author was being invited onto TV news panel-discussions of the case.

It was the quality and comprehensiveness of Doleman’s output that elevated his blog. And while Doleman made no secret of his political sympathies, he reported proceedings reliably and without inflection. The traditional press afforded just a few inches to the case each day, focusing on the wealth of salacious details – The Sheridan Trial Blog was a close as you could get to watching the case without actually being in the public gallery.

Doleman, who had neither journalistic nor legal training, describes his motivations and experiences of running the blog here.  The blog has now come to an end, but will remain available to view for archival purposes.

Trials involving a heady brew of sex, politics, big media businesses and a newspaper editor agreeing to strip to his pants to watch a video might be few and far between.  But Doleman has shown that, in the right circumstances, a significant audience can be attracted to a kind of factual reporting that is becoming increasingly rare.  Pollok’s proletariat may have lost its messianic militant, but civic duty and sound reporting have found a new champion.

Written by Tim Dawson

February 15th, 2011 at 11:01 am

Posted in Blogging,News

Jury out on Twitter- consultation about court reporting launched

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A consultation on the use of Twitter in court reporting has been launched this week.

The consultation is primarily concerned with the risk of prejudice to a case posed by live reporting from court.

‘The use of live, text‐based communications from court may fuel the potential for jurors, whether accidentally or otherwise, to encounter prejudicial or inaccurate material online,’ writes the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales. ‘Live, text‐based communications from court may be used by witnesses to find out what has been said in court before they give evidence themselves.’

As www.journalism.co.uk points out, the consultation also raises questions about the definition of a journalist which could result in bloggers and other non-accredited reporters being prevented from using social media in court.

Legal commentator Joshua Rozenberg is firmly on the side of Twitter in court.

The deadline for responses is 4th May.

Written by Alex

February 10th, 2011 at 4:59 am

Has the Huffington Post hit the big time?

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Is the surprise sale of the Huffington Post to AOL a sign that blogs can make the big time? Or is it more a case that comely newcomer of modest means hopes that getting hitched to a struggling media tycoon will help her to face an uncertain digital future?

Following the money leads to no clear conclusions. On the one hand, the $315 million deal – the highest price paid to date for a blog-based website – is a tidy sum for a pet project started by Arianna Huffington and Kenneth Lerer just five years ago. At first sight, it seems to be a sign of a trend that everyone wants to see: where innovative journalism leads, the finance will follow.

Yet, with each party struggling in different ways, the union is clearly a gamble for both sides. Despite having 25 million monthly visitors, the HuffPo only went into profit last year, while AOL has been struggling to maintain its revenues and credibility for some time. It remains to be seen whether combining HuffPo’s reach with AOL’s corporate infrastructure will translate into a digital media model that is sustainable in the long term – and one that doesn’t compromise the liberal, internationalist stance that has made the HuffPo what it is.

Highlighting the implications for quality journalism in the Los Angeles Times, Tim Rutten thinks not.

And, with the HuffPo’s reputation built on the labour of unpaid bloggers and a controversial practice of linking freely to outside content, some of the contributors to its success may be quietly wondering when they will get their share in this new media universe. One unpaid contributor declares his hand here. And this prolific New Yorker is positively revolting.

Written by Alex

February 7th, 2011 at 6:30 am

Murdoch’s Daily doesn’t cross the pond

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Much as we would love to bring you a review of Rupert Murdoch’s iPad newspaper The Daily, we cannot.  It is not available in the UK app store, nor is there any indication that it will be.  There is a cheat to get hold of a copy – detailed here, but we are not going to admit to such chicanery.

There has been a relatively enthusiastic response from those who have seen it – thenextweb.com note that the news is a shade lightweight and it more closely resembles a magazine than a newspaper.  Ian Beteridge, in The Guardian opines that at less than $1 a week, he would subscribe.  And, Neiman Journalism Lab thinks that its success will depend on how well it meets its readers’ desire to interact with stories.

Written by Tim Dawson

February 3rd, 2011 at 3:09 am

Posted in iPad apps,News,US

First iPad newspaper launches in New York

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Today, Murdoch bets an estimated $30 million on his hunch that a new generation of iPad users will pay for an online newspaper.

The Daily, a digital newspaper made exclusively for iPad by News Corp, is available to readers prepared to pay 62 p a week for a daily dose of US-focused news and entertainment. With around a hundred journalists producing original content that will be updated once a day only, the innovation is in the delivery rather than the journalism.

Meanwhile, a bunch of New York digirati are producing their version of an iPad news app, reports TechCrunch. News.me is where social media meets news aggregation – an app that filters news from your Twitter account to produce a kind of personalised news stream.

Written by Alex

February 2nd, 2011 at 6:19 am

Not on my Patch

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A detailed long-term analysis of AOL’s Patch local news sites appears today at the Reynolds Journalism Institute.  It tracks the company’s attempt to create a national network of hyperlocal news sites, via a $50m investment that has now spawned 700 sites across the USA.  In an encounter with Patch editor in chief,  author Robert Hernandez goes so far as to demands of AOL’s CEO Tim Armstrong ‘Is Patch Evil’.

It is one of a number of hard questions put to senior Patch managers – however their predictably Pollyannerish answers are reported without challenge of analysis.  Perhaps this will come in the articles promised second instalment.

Meanwhile, in Scotland, STV Local has now opened its north east sites – bringing to 16 the number of communities it is covering.

Written by Tim Dawson

February 2nd, 2011 at 4:28 am