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Dominic Ponsford – the future of the media

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How are we going to make journalism pay? By saying to advertisers that we can help them reach a mass audience online, an elite audience in print, and, get to interact with readers at events

  • Despite the recession, the media has remained profitable, and is now poised to bounce back
  • There are opportunities for micro publishing, some examples of which are already making money
  • There are signs that even traditional local newspapers are bouncing back

A year ago, the media seemed to be facing an apocalypse.  Johnston Press’s shares went down to about 12p and Trinity Mirror’s to 15p – that from companies that used to have share prices in the region of £5.  To those who invested in journalism, it seemed like the end.  There were big redundancies and closures of papers. Looking today, media share prices are nowhere near where they were – the share price of the above companies is now above £1.  That means that the worst of the crisis is over and people are starting to launch new products.

Press Gazette (PG) has gone into administration once, closed twice and gone from weekly to monthly – so we are not a shining example of a media brand that has triumphed.  We have survived, however, when everyone had written us off – and there are some lessons in how we did it.

Like most B2B magazines, the bulk of our income used to come from jobs ads.  The internet did for that, as did holdthefrontpage.com, which is jointly owned by Johnston Press, Trinity Mirror and Northcliffe –  all banned their editors from using PG.

Last April, Progressive Media bought PG and relaunched us in monthly format.  We are now continuing with our strategy – a premium magazine, and breaking news online.  Subs are £90 a year – the student rate is £40 a year.

The strength of PG is its brand – that may be the only reason we survive.  To keep the PG brand alive we have worked hard to be part of the online community.  When I joined, we had a gated website, but progressively we came to seem less and less relevant. All our stories were broken by free-to-view competitors.  Not having a serious web site is not an option, because you become irrelevant.  We attract about 100,000 unique users to our website, which is not enough to generate much from advertising, but they do keep the brand strong.  The future for us will be leveraging the brand in new ways, with things like events, conferences, awards, even maybe contract publishing.  Paywalls may work for premium features.

On the churnalism debate, the Nick Davies book is great.  But, it is a history book.  To rage against churnalism is like raging against the weather.  I am not scared to say that most of what I do is churnalism.  Journalists are outnumbered by press officers, bombarding us with stuff.  A news organisation has to be part of that conversation. You have to be a canny churnalist, though.  Use blogs to point readers to information, take information from press officers, but use your skills to sort the wheat from the chaff.  Add value by your insight and link to other information.  Use blogging tools.

Don’t waste time rewriting stories – just link to people who have done a story well.  If you can do all that, and be a new modern journalist, you can still make the time to do the real stories, and keep up with everything else.

How are we going to make journalism pay? By saying to advertisers, that we can help them reach a mass audience online, an elite audience in print, and interact with readers at events. We promise advertisers that we will push their brands into our reader’s computers with our daily email.  Email is going to be a really important way of pushing news.  Readers are either time-poor or lazy.

I am optimistic about the future of journalism, but I don’t think that we will ever get back to the staffing levels of yesterday.  Why? Because there are now a lot more journalists covering our beat – on holdthefrontpage, journalism.co.uk, Media Guardian, not to mention bloggers.  PG won’t dominate, but we can take a leading role.

What of ‘the PLC bloodsuckers thesis’?  Trinity Mirror and Johnston Press have hastened the decline of local papers by seeking unrealistic profit margins.  But, that does not explain everything.  The last regional ABCs showed that even the best publishers, like Cumberland Newspapers – an enlightened family-run newspaper group – had lost 9% of their sales. There is something wider going on.

There are a lot of positive small niche publishers.  London-se1.co.uk, and chiswickw4.com, for example.  They are one-man bands that show you can have a sustainable future, doing ultra-local publishing.  Figures from the USA show that if you have a community of 40,000 people, with one journalist, they reckon you can make a business with a turnover of $100,000 pa – more than most journalists make.  And most of these business haven’t even begun to monetise what they do, because don’t generally have much commercial experience.

 It’s worth remembering too, that hardly any paid-for local papers have closed.  The Long Eaton Advertiser is about the only one.  The UK has not lost a national newspaper since Today and Sunday Business.  And every big regional newspaper and B2B publisher has stayed in profit, unlike the banks or the car industry.

Once the economy starts to bounce back, we will find that the structural change has not been that bad.  Here is an upbeat story this week, for example.  Champion media group in Merseyside, this week launched Crosby and Lytham Advertiser with a circulation of 30,000.  Last year they launched the Aintree Champion.  Free papers have suffered in the recession, but people are still opening them.

Finally, the Burton Trader, was closed a year ago by Trinity Mirror.  It was relauched this year by Chris Clarke, who runs a kitchen sales business in the town.  When the paper closed, he lost one third of the footfall through his shop.  The free weekly was very effective for him.  When it closed, he decided to reopen it.

 

Dominic Ponsford has been editor of Press Gazette for three years. He began his journalism career in the regional press working as district reporter for the Battle Observer and then as senior reporter/feature writer for the Evening Advertiser in Swindon. He is also journalist in residence at Kingston University

Written by Tim Dawson

March 28th, 2010 at 12:39 pm

Angie Sammons – www.liverpoolconfidential.com

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Liverpool Confidential editor: Angie Sammons

Liverpool and Manchester Confidential reach 85,000 readers a week via an email with a mix of news, reviews and competitions

  • Revenue comes from advertisers who buy into packages that include: a micro-site; competitions; and, advertorial
  • The Manchester site has recently gone behind a paywall
  • Their success is partially because the traditional local media has given up on journalism

Three years ago I was in print journalism.  I was made redundant by the North West Enquirer, and, by accident, I came across Manchester Confidential.  I emailed the editor and said, if he ever wanted to do something in Liverpool, I would give him my details.

Within about three minutes, he asked me to come and see him.  I found this very lively online magazine.  We produce a magazine that is only available on line. It’s very cheeky, a bit like Private Eye with restaurant reviews.  The editor asked me if I wanted to start up a Liverpool version.

I thought, at least I am getting paid and I will probably only do it for six months.  I saw it as a bit of a comedown, especially as the Manchester editor was only 23 and it was her first job. Then we started to build our email list.  We did not advertise the site, growth was viral.

We publish new stories every day – restaurant reviews, music reviews or news stories.  We also have a lot of competitions. We gather all the stuff up twice a week and send it out in an email. It is very competitions and offers-led.  When I joined, the editorial was pretty incidental – save for the odd bit of mischief – because the company had been set up by businessmen not journalists.

I was what they called ‘a proper journalist’, and I think that I was the first one that they had ever met.  So, around the time that I joined, they got in a new Manchester editor, and we started to take ourselves a bit more seriously. We took on columnists, for example.  Graham Stringer MP wrote a column in which he said there was ‘no such thing as dyslexia, just stupidity’.  That got us a lot of great publicity.

We have advertisers, but we are not interested in selling banners.  We sell advertisers a package.  It usually includes a micro site for them, within our site, which links to their offers.  We organise competitions with them, and produce advertorial.  Sometimes we do a stand-alone email if an offer is very good.

We do a lot of wacky competitions, like ‘take your office out to lunch’. Or, ‘take your entire office ice-skating’.  Then, we email unsuccessful entrants and offer them the same thing at a 25% discount on the usual price.  It is all about getting inside people’s heads and creating a buzz.

Last November my boss, Mark Garner (his restaurant reviews appear under the name ‘Gordo’), announced that ‘the five-year trial is over’.  He decided to make the readers pay.  Because, he said, ‘I want to present our news without fear of favour’. So, they have introduced a paywall.  The deadline was last night, but it is live now.

Statistics: Manchester Confidential is accessed by 123,000 unique IP addresses a month, and the email goes to 70,000 accounts.  They have 260,000 readers a month. Liverpool Confidential has 22,000 unique users and 48,000 readers.  The email goes to 15,000 accounts.  An awful lot of those readers are not much use, of course.  We are always keen to know what people’s ‘open rates’ are.  Only a fraction of the people to whom we send emails are going to be sufficiently interested to open them. Our publisher is now taking a gamble, that there are 100,000 readers that he does not care about, and he is banking on the rest to pay.

What revenue we do make will be ploughed back into the company – we don’t plan to buy a big yacht.  We want to do more great stories and use really good writers.  Local newspapers have destroyed things for themselves because they fill their pages with PR handouts. Local media would not been in the mess that they are if they had not locked journalists in the office and got rid of all the potentially valuable mentors once they get past 40.

There are still as many journalists as ever, but they all work in PR.  Perhaps a way to break the cycle would be a few more people setting up sites like Liverpool and Manchester Confidential.

Angie Sammons is editor of liverpool confidential.com an online only news and entertainment magazine for the city. It is updated daily and goes out in an email to 17,000 subscribers twice a week. It is produced by a team of freelance journalists with in-house technical support. It has sister sites in Manchester and Leeds and attracts on average 20,000 hits per week. Angie was formerly chief sub at the Sunday Express Magazine, deputy features editor at the Liverpool Daily Post and arts editor at the North West Enquirer.

 

Written by Tim Dawson

March 26th, 2010 at 8:15 am

Daniel Johnston – www.indusdelta.co.uk

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News about welfare to work: Danial Johnston

I spent two years building up readers and reputation at Indus Delta and making no money, but it is now profitable and I employ a second person to do some of the work

  • It takes time for people to get used to online news
  • Today, about 8,000 people a month read the site – which is enough to make us attractive to advertisers
  • My next move is to try running events and awards ceremonies

I started as a one-man-band outfit.  I have been going two years. I operate in the welfare-to-work industry – it’s a micro niche.  There are a few thousand people who know about the industry, and the long-term unemployed.  The industry is made up of companies, charities and other organisations that receive money from the government to help people get off long-term unemployment.

Having worked in the industry since 2001, I noticed that there was no trade journal.  As a result, people in the industry did not know what was going on. No one knew the industry’s history. What information there was, tended to come from the top.  People in the industry believed what the government told them, and the unemployed themselves had no voice, nor means to work out what was going on.

The obvious way to change this seemed to be to set something up.  Indusdelta.co.uk is not a pure news site.  It also carries analysis, community, feedback from readers, and a database of government contracts.  There are a range of different things of use to people in the niche.  News is part of that.  People in the industry think of me as a journalist – but I am not sure that I am, given that I do so much.

I launched the site in 2007.  I figured on a year of building up readers and reputation.  From late 2007 to early 2009 I made no profit on the site – so I self-funded from savings.  At that point I had enough readers that I started to gain value.

Most of the stuff on the site is of interest to managers in the industry.  Those people have a value to advertisers because there is no other way to reach them.  Once I had reached them, I started to get recruitment advertisers, then industry suppliers.  Since then, the advertising alone has been enough to produce a small profit.  It has produced enough money to take on someone to help with administration and ad sales.  The site is sustainable.

There have been quite a few issues – it has been a struggle, as a one-man band. A big issue for me was setting up a site by myself, instead of using a proper company. I was not that good at site development, advertising sales, handling technical issues or keeping the server up.  All of those would be a problem for others.  I can’t find anywhere that offers a full package of that kind of support.

It takes a long time for people to get used to a concept.  People in the welfare-to-work industry took time to get on board with an online publication.

I guess that I have proven what I wanted to – a micro niche can work and generate money.  Also, a free site can work.  There is no registration wall.  I can track users because there is a weekly email – that gives me a proxy for the people who read the site, which is about 8,000 each month.

That gives me enough information to get advertising, and advertisers give you information about what works.

The business is sustainable, but to generate more money I will have to try events, like awards ceremonies.  Companies like Haymarket, which produces lots of trade publications, primarily make money from products other than print publications.

You can’t compete with free. There are others who have thought about competing with me, but they can’t work out a way to take me on – so I have a monopoly on welfare-to-work, which is nice.

Daniel Johnston is the founder of Indus Delta. Set up in 2007, indusdelta.co.uk is a niche news, analysis and community website for the welfare to work industry. It has since become the primary source of information for people working in or finding out about the industry, and sustains itself through advertising sales.

Written by Tim Dawson

March 26th, 2010 at 8:10 am

thebusinessdesk.com – David Parkin

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Business Desk founder: David Parkin

 

In 2007 I left my job as business editor of the Yorkshire Post to launch www.thebusinessdesk.com, with £300,000 start-up capital.  We have now expanded into the north-west, and are in the black

I am a regional newspaper journalist – I was business editor of the Yorkshire Post until 2007.  But, after 14 years in the trade, I got this feeling that I was working in a dying industry, and that was very depressing. I worried that my career would end up on the scrapheap.  But, I started to think that there was a different way to deliver news, not least because news happens not daily, but hourly, or more frequently.

I started looking at other models, and decided that the web would be best approach.  It seemed possible, to me, to build a community that would be attractive to advertisers.

It took two years to raise the money for the launch. We worked out that it would cost £300,000.  That might sound like a lot of money, but the model we created was based on having to attract the right audience.  We had to be credible and had to build a brand.

In summer of 2007 we raised the money from some wealthy individuals in Yorkshire and, a bank loan.  I had thought about what skills I had as a journalist, and what value could I add. And, news-writing skills aside, contacts seemed to me to be my main asset.  I had a good network, and I thought those people would give me a chance, if I sent them news every day.

We launched, in September 2007, and were ignored by the newspapers.  We put up posters in the business district, gave away a lot of mugs and beer mats in restaurants and bars, we used bus-shelter posters and so on.  We made a lot of noise for a small organisation.  But to get advertising from world brands, then we needed to build our brand quickly.

I recruited two colleagues from the Yorkshire Post business desk, a graduate to help with administration, and took an office in the centre of Leeds.  We had a database of contacts, and we emailed them on the first morning, with our email news. We send out an email alert at 8.30 in the morning, under the catchphrase, ‘tomorrow’s news today’. We emailed those people, but then they had to sign up with us on the website.  You can only read a paragraph or two before you have to sign up.  It is free to use, and always will be.

We don’t have the costs of a newspaper, so we don’t need paywalls.  We deliver the news to people every day – and its available on all devices like Blackberrys and PDAs.

We now have four banner ads.  We have started to cover property and to run awards and other events.

Losing money could not go on for too long, of course.  We had 18 months to get into the black.  We also used seminars, and other events to bring in revenue.

The next market we looked at was the north west (of England), where we recruited Chris Barry, who had been working for Manchester Evening News. We launched in the north-west in 2008, and we are now making a profit from both sections.

Advertisers were reasonably easy to tempt from elsewhere because we could promise measurabiltiy, and a clear return from click-through advertising.  The Yorkshire Post could not offer anything similar from their website.

We now have 28,000 registered users and send out daily emails to 18,000 people.  The quality of those people is far more important to advertisers than the quantity – our readers have an average income of £100,000.

At the time that we launched, Jaguar was launching a new car.  I had a contact in the company, and they took a punt on us.  They liked it, and came back to us.  Now the big four accountancy firms, the banks and an airline advertise on our site.  In terms of what we charge, to have a banner on our daily email for two weeks, we charge £2,500 – it’s a lot cheaper than a newspaper.

Where do we go from here?  Once we had that niche audience, we thought we could sell other things to them. If they trust you and they trust your journalism – if you are not sensationalist – readers will spend time with you.  Our audience spends about 3 minutes on our website every day.  That sounds like not long, but our advertisers recognise that it is pretty good.

Lifestyle will form a new section of the site. We have covered cars, executive gadgets and so on.  We want to do travel – mainly because I have not been offered a freebie since I left the Yorkshire Post.  Funnily, the PR agencies are very stuck in their ways.  It has taken 18 months to persuade some to deal with us. But, if you break good stories, people pay attention.

We list commercial property, for which agents pay.  There will be the potential to advertise high-end residential property. Jobs worth £50,000 a year and above are also listed.

It is about building an audience, building a community and getting them to trust you.

We now employ the equivalent of 10 full-time staff; five journalists, four advertising people, and two admin staff.

Some other ideas; we did a mail-out, sponsored by an accountancy firm, immediately after the pre-budget report.  We videoed their experts and got a key-points briefing out within 15 minutes of the Chancellor sitting down, and a more detailed analysis shortly afterwards.

We also organise round-table events, which we video and put on the site.  People will watch an excerpt for two or three minutes, if they are well made.  We post them on YouTube and embed them in our site.

Being valuable, and useful to your audience, is the key.  We are very close to our readers and an I am not ashamed to say that we are a cheerleader for business within Yorkshire and the north-west. If the business community is successful, then we will be successful.

A year ago, people were saying to me, don’t be gloomy and pessimistic like that idiot Robert Peston – so we ran a good-news campaign.  We don’t ignore bad news, but we went out to positively find good news, which was quite a positive experience in itself – finding news, rather than waiting for a press release.

It has been a very interesting two years.  This model could work elsewhere, so we are looking at expansion.

I did make a mistake recruiting advertising staff from newspapers, who always sell negatively.  All our sales staff now are from recruitment industry.  They sell positively, not against the opposition.  We are seen as positive.

 

David Parkin, former Yorkshire Post business editor, launched thebusinessdesk.com in November 2007 backed by a group of professional investors and entrepreneurs. Bringing the highest standards of regional business information to the internet and mobile devices, it is the only website dedicated to Yorkshire business news. It launched in the north-west in September 2008

Written by Tim Dawson

March 26th, 2010 at 8:08 am