Sunday, June 17, 2007

W(h)ither the Globe?

Another dangerous post, in that I am commenting on someone else's industry, but we all have an interest in the topic. It is no secret that the Boston Globe has been facing financial problems not atypical of many newspapers in the major markets. A steady fall in advertising revenues has resulted in a steady shrinkage in bureaus, reporters, and local coverage and more and more reliance on wire service stories. The decline of the "newspaper of record" function means that very important civic events and local stories go without sufficient coverage. Those of us involved in important local non-profit and business activities, community boards, and civic affairs fear that the participation of an informed and knowledgeable public will be diminished as the Globe itself is diminished.

The paper has responded by publishing an on-line version, but it does not generate the revenue of the old newsprint editions. They, like others, are searching mightily for the financial model that might work. There has to be substantial pressure from the owners, the New York Times, for improvement in results. This is ironic, in that the Times is a competitor, too. Indeed, as the Globe reduces its coverage of significant stories, the Times is viewed by many as the replacement paper to read.

Dan Kennedy, one of our wise media analysts, wrote an article in the Spring 2007 edition of Commonwealth magazine suggesting that a new ownership model, based on nonprofit ownership, might help ensure survival of daily newspapers like the Globe. Could be. As always, a very thoughtful analysis by Dan. But I do not see that happening soon, and even if it did, much of the underlying problem would still exist.

I certainly don't have a full answer, but let me set forth a theme: community engagement. Whether in the print or online version, the local newspaper has to be considered sufficiently relevant to people's lives that they look at it at least once a day and preferably more often. Beyond these "eyes", though, they need "clicks". Advertisers, who will continue to be the main source of revenue, have now been trained to be able to measure the precise value of their advertising investments by looking at click and purchase decisions resulting from specific ad placements.

How to do it. First, upgrade the server! As I have learned on this blog, unless people have the opportunity to comment an online forum, they will not become engaged and return to your site. It is not that they always submit a comment -- it is that they have the opportunity to do so. If the Globe's online columns and blogs do not permit comments because they do not have the technical capacity for doing so, and if you can't change the server in the next month, lease one from someone else and move your online version over there.

Second, take chances. The Wall Street Journal's blogs are self-moderating. You mean no one edits the submissions before they are posted? Right. Why? Because it means that my comments are exposed to the world immediately. The readers get immediate gratification and are stimulated to participate more. (Bad behavior is reported to the editor and then cleaned away.)

Third, work around the clock. The blogosphere does not follow a 9-to-5 Monday-to-Friday work day in Boston. Bostonians travel and live around the world and check their computers in the middle of the night and on the weekends. So, provide new content at all times to keep your sites fresh and interesting.

Integrate reader participation into your print edition. BostonNow had a concept for doing this, which is more or less successful. But it could work for the Globe like no one else. I'll explain in a minute, but first we have to recognize that it would mean reader participation in the hallowed halls of edited journalism. I am talking a significant expansion beyond letters to the editor and op-ed columns (not quite a wiki, but that is a topic for another day.)

So, let's say that one or more pages of the Globe daily edition (and of course, the online version, too) were devoted to excerpts from blogs of people who had given permission to be excerpted. Let's say that the Globe paid those people a nominal fee every time an excerpt was used. (Uh oh, I hear the reporter's union raising objections! But hold on, folks, I am trying to save your jobs.)

Now, let's say that people would be paid in scrip -- let's call it "GlobeCash" -- that could be used for on-line purchasers with advertisers who had either advertised on the online or paper version of the newspaper. Or, let's say people could donate their payment to a charity of their choice. Or maybe advertisers announce that a portion of the proceeds received through GlobeCash will be donated to the Boys and Girls club or -- better yet, to the charity of your choice in your neighborhood. Maybe they announce, too, that any purchase made through their link on the Globe site will likewise produce a donation to the charity of your choice. Maybe we keep running totals of the thousands of dollars generated for local causes by traffic on the Globe's site. Maybe the Globe Foundation announces that, each calendar quarter, it will match the contributions made by its readers to the favorite causes as compiled through this mechanism.

As we all acknowledge, bloggers are narcissistic. Imagine the flow of bloggers who would vie to be seen by several hundred thousand viewers every day. Only the Globe has the potential to offer this exposure. Imagine the buzz when you pick my blog excerpt today. What do I do? I immediately post the fact that I have been excerpted, and I direct even more traffic to the Globe. Other bloggers try to write more and more interesting stuff so they can be chosen. An intensely powerful set of positive feedback loops is created. As a blogger, I'm happy. Readers are happy because they are getting the latest news and commentary from a variety of sources. Advertisers are happy because they are getting eyes, clicks, and feel-good PR because of their charitable contributions.

The managing editor is now getting nervous. "How do I ensure the quality and accuracy of the blog excerpts I have chosen?" "What if we get sued for libel?" So, yes, you need to assign an editor to this feature, just as you do for your letters and op-eds. Yes, that person would use judgment. Yes, you would post a disclaimer saying that these excerpts are not the product of trained reporters etc, etc. Please, just get over it. (If you let the lawyers run the newspaper, it will look like Lawyers Weekly. How many readers do they have?)

But what is really happening here? All of sudden, regardless of actual ownership, this is now our newspaper. You have given me a reason to check in, to participate, to feel pride, and to feel a sense that you are relevant to our community in a variety of ways.

This is just one set of ideas from a person on the street. I am not saying these are the be-all and end-all. There are certainly people with more expertise and better ideas out there. I am just saying that the Globe needs to give people a reason to be read -- so that advertisers believe that they can't afford not to be there. If people believe it is their paper they will read it. Use the forces and opportunities of technology to make it happen so your excellent reporters and columnists can earn a salary and work on the really important functions envisioned in the Constitution.

20 comments:

GoldsteinGoneWild said...

1. Nope.
Good try, though.
Of course Globe can improve its product.
But the $ print model is so fully broken that there will be ad revenue shrinkage every quarter as far as the eye can see -- not just every newspaper, but TV, radio, all MSM. Just wait til the Google ads you click on now become video ads. Even a 25% improvement to product would barely dent the $ trend.
Dan K has the right idea.

P.S. What are the "really important functions envisioned in the Constitution"? I don't think Constitution names any; only mention of press is that Gov't shouldn't abridge....

2. Love all the stuff you're doing with metrics and transparency. Just stellar. I think you should pull together your essays into a "Hospital Moneyball" type book.

Also, you constantly strive to make the Beth Israel - Sox mktg partnership overcome the obvious Dana Farber/Mass General relationship.

Idea: The one area where you're leading the league is in your work on using numbers to get better outcomes. That's Theo! That's the new Red Sox. That's you, too...

Do some events where you compare the transformation of the Sox with the transformation of Beth Israel into a data-driven institution.

Classic example -- they fired popular hitting coach Papa Jack b/c he hates stats, he's old school. Must be some B.I. analogy of people who have to move on in order to realize vision of true improvement and transparency...

(Off topic, apologies. Enjoy reading the blog and had a few minutes to comment).

Paul Levy said...

Thanks. In re: 'What are the "really important functions envisioned in the Constitution"? I don't think Constitution names any; only mention of press is that Gov't shouldn't abridge.'

Yes, but they put that in the Constitution in the hope that an active and free press would help keep the public informed about its government. If the press goes out of business, who will do that?

Anonymous said...

Uh, Paul? Sounds like you're looking for a new challenge. Sure you don't want to move over there and straighten them out?!
Just teasing. I happen to agree with you. I read my local paper for local events/news (and the comics) and HATE trying to read it online; very inefficient. But I agree that a sense of ownership and participation is key these days. You should see the # of comments the columns on "what's wrong with the Redskins" generate - puts most blogs to shame!!!!

Steve Garfield said...

Great post! I've been telling the Globe to do these things for YEARS. They might be closer now that they are working with noted community blogger Lisa Williams.

The first thing they need to do is allow commenting on Globe blogs. PLEASE! Next, comments on articles.

One thing you say I disagree with. You say, "As we all acknowledge, bloggers are narcissistic."

We all do not acknowledge this. A narcissist would only be interested in her own posts. Bloggers want other people to see their posts.

Anonymous said...

terrific post! Hope you are sending it to the Globe!

Anonymous said...

Of course one reason that I dumped the Globe and went to the internet is that I can't take the constant editorialization that appears in most articles. If they would just print the news and leave their left wing politics to the editorial page, I might start reading it again.

Harry said...

Paul,
You idea is a good one and might work…might. But it represents a pretty high level of risk requirings a kind of experimental environment more like that of a startup than of a highly traditional organization like the Globe. The effective monopolies that papers like the Globe have enjoyed for years in local advertising have atrophied the business acumen of the organization. They have a reasonable degree of professionalism and pride in craft. None the less, I sensed in a visit to the Globe more than a year ago that the Internet was largely viewed as frightening competition for their more established and traditional product.

Bruce Gellerman said...

Blogs aren't the answer because they don't address the problem: people don't read the newspaper because 1. the way we live our lives and consume our news has changed, 2. most newspapers aren't particularly good and getting worse as revenues decline.
The idea of paying script for contributions is fine but it's no substitution for real journalism. I'm not saying the general public can't make significant contributions only that there is something called journalism, it's based upon experience, skills,shared values and relationships. I'm more concerned that journalism is dying. Anybody try to get a job as a reporter lately?
The issue is: how to create a forum that's more than opinion, that people want to access on a regular basis and pay for the service. It's clear that newspapers, as we now know them, are not long for this world, The distribution and consumption models are historical artifacts. Multi-media content distributed by the web defines the present and future.
Raise your hand if you want to buy a daily newspaper for the local content? They can't even give away BostonNow or the Metro---just see how many FREE newspapers remain at the end of the day. No, the Globe is done. The new Globe should be a richer, smarter, better on-line paper that's merged into the New York Times and other news sources. But even then would I pay for it.....would you?

Rhea said...

You're right about the Globe blogs. I used to read them, but when they insisted on banning comments (unlike most other online major media), I gave up. But I am a longtime journalist and fan of newspapers. I have not given up on the Globe. I hope they can figure out how to make it work.

Anonymous said...

According to http://www.boston.com/mediakit/bgm/audience.htm , the boston.com web site has 4 million unique visitors a month. According to http://nytco.com/investors/financials/boston_globe-circulation.html the Boston Globe has an average daily circulation of 382,503 and Sunday circulation of 562,273. (most of those half million being subscribers, so to put them in terms of the web traffic they would be one unique visitor a month.)

So from this rough calculation, the web site already has about eight times the readership as the paper does, but only brings in a small portion of the revenue. It seems that advertisers just don't put the same value on web advertising as it does for print.

Readership growth for their web product is something I'm sure they want and work for, but would more blogs and blog comments really bring the order of magnitude increase in the web readership needed to make up for the newspaper?

Tim Allik said...

Greetings, all. This is a good discussion.

To Bruce's point, BostonNow and Metro don't have much local content. They publish watered down rewrites of AP stories, which are typically rewritten Globe and Herald stories. There is no enterprise reporting to speak of in the free dailies.

I still get the Globe for one reason, the local coverage. The Boston region would be at a serious loss without the Globe (and the Herald for that matter). These dailies still break local stories and they still stir things up.

Say you are a crooked politican with something to hide and a reporter stops by your office. "I'm from the Metro," he says. Are you nervous going into that interview? Now say the reporter is from The Boston Globe. What does that do to your blood pressure?

I agree with Bruce that there are a set of skills that add up to journalism. I don't believe, however, that journalists who work for mainstream media outlets have a monopoly on those skills.

I think that there is a model for an online-only news outlet in Boston that leverages blogs along with professional beat reporters. Print production and distribution do not fit with this model - the costs are too high and the payoffs are too low.

I would submit that the most efficient and fair means of rewarding the best bloggers is to give the community of readers the opportunity to rate bloggers whenever something is posted to the site.

Bloggers who generate positive feedback would receive a higher rating and subsequently more prominence and visibility on the website.

Those who generate negative feedback would drop down in visibility. If their quality level falls below a given threshold, their content would drop off the website completely.

eBay has been doing this for years with great success. It's the single most important reason eBay works, in my opinion.

If a blogger or journalist blows it, this model holds them accountable. It is self-regulating, and that's why it works so well.

Far from being a threat to good journalism, the blogosphere is a powerful antidote to the problem of concentrated media ownership that results in the “hall of mirrors” worldview that bombards us all on a daily basis.

Anonymous said...

As far as I know, Mass. Lawyer's Weekly makes money. By your own standard, they are a success. Ha.

Seriously, I enjoy a few blogs, yours included, but I wouldn't pay a dollar to read most of them, especially the comments. Nada. Zip. The Globe, for all its faults, is better than 98% of all blogs. Sorry.

Paul Levy said...

Good point on LW! More seriously, one point of view is that focused, subscription services like that are the future. Ditto for a business service like Bloomberg. I am hoping not. It would leave the societal question of who is going to pay for the kind of general reporting that covers in-depth coverage that is essential to maintaining accountability in government and the like.

I agree about paying for blogs. As noted, I'm not suggesting that. I'm suggesting that advertisers would pay for their broader exposure, something we see every day on the web.

Thanks for your comment and the others received.

Paul Levy said...

I realize, from another forum, that I left a perception that the Globe doesn't have 24/7 coverage. Of course it does, on boston.com, and it is very good on that front. I wrote that sentence poorly -- I should have been clear that I was referring to a lack of off-hours updates on the blogs. My apologies.

Anonymous said...

A return to Journalism 101 would be helpful. Those taking such a course are taught to be objective in their reporting, to tell both sides of the story. Unfortunately, The Globe and many mainstream news outlets only give us the part of the story they want us to read/hear. They have taken on The Times motto of "All the news we see fit to print".
They would be more successful (in print and/or electronically) if they would give the readers all of the facts so that the reader can form their own opinions rather than forcing their own opinions upon the reader

Jim Caralis said...

Blogs are not killing the Globe and newspapers in general. What has been killing them are sharply declining classified revenue due to the likes of monster.com, dice.com, craigslist etc… and a declining subscription base.

The WSJ is a unique situation because commenters are paying a monthly fee to access the site and they know exactly who is commenting (they have your credit info).


If the Globe wants to be adventurous they can offer free classified (print and online) ads to print subscribers. They could also offer print subscribers the ability to voice their opinion in print and online (this may be similar to the op-ed opinion expansion you mentioned). This would I believe drive up subscription rates and therefore advertising rates.

If they want to be really bold they could provide free classifieds and support them on print and online side with ads.

Rob said...

This is great. But.

Reporting is a skill, and art, and a craft. It's not just writing what comes into one's head. A blog is, well, a blog. It's not journalism.

Journalism is an act to inform the public. It is done in the public's interest, not as a reason to editorialize.

So. The real question is whether people even want to be informed anymore, or just told what to think? I suspect THAT'S at the core of the fall.

Doesn't matter what it's printed on - newsprint or electrons - so long as it does the consitutional job it's supposed to. When you let business intrude into content, you lose the battle. Good papers know to keep the news and business sides completely apart.

Just like, oh, say, healthcare. The process of PAYING for healthcare interferes now with the PRACTICE of healthcare. Sound familiar?

Paul Levy said...

I'm not sure what people really want, but I agree with you that good journalism is something special and worth preserving, just like good medicine. My suggestions were meant to help provide revenue that could help make that possible. There are already many parts of any paper that provide entertainment and community connnections, which help bring in ad revenue. I was just thinking that this might be another.

Paul Levy said...

Jim Caralis,

Just a short reply. At least some of the WSJ blogs are free and open to the public. Check out the one I have linked to on the right, for example.

Jim Caralis said...

You are right on the blogs. I stand corrected.