Saturday, February 13, 2010

Week in Review

Short reads on a Saturday morning:

•  Another week, another company filing for bankruptcy protection. This time it was Penton Media. While much of the talk, when these things are announced, is about the decline of print media, the reality is that the real culprit is usually the large debt loads dumped on these firms by the PE firms that buy them. If it sounds like a racket you've been paying attention.

•  Of course, just because a newspaper or magazine company is not in debt doesn't mean it won't close anyway -- witness The Daily Planet. In this case, the problem appears to be that the paper reflects its liberal readership . . . and not the advertising community that is needed to support it. Berkeley is a far more complex place than many understand. It has America's best wine shop, its best bakery, and one of the best caf├ęs all within ten feet of each other.

•  The San Diego Union-Tribune has tapped the Orange County Register's V.P. of Interactive to be its top editor, Jeff Light.  Union-Tribune publisher Ed Moss said they were "looking for someone who brought more than a traditional newspaper background to the position. I wanted to have someone that really understood the electronic end of the business.”
Image and video hosting by TinyPic
•  Already a big player on the iPhone, Panelfly is ready to take on the iPad and tablet publishing.  This is a great example of how to grab a leadership position in publishing through first to the post positioning. Panelfly's iPhone app is rated fairly highly which gives them a good chance to be adopted by iPad buyers immediately.  On the iPhone, and I assume on the iPad, the app itself is free and gives readers access to a mobile store, organize and then share their views on the comics they purchase.

•  In the area of crazy speculation, there is this story, speculating about the possibility of Google buying T-Mobile. It's probably nonsense. But . . . what would this do to the mobile market? The same thing this company seems to want to do to couponing, bring the price down to zero and play by different rules.  It's a lesson that still needs to be learned by all old media pros, even those who are in total denial: what if the price of the products you offer goes down to $0?  Think Craig's List and classified; think Realtor.com and real estate.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Photoblogging Friday - 6

It's Friday, and that means the sixth edition of Photoblogging Friday.

For many years I used to live in the San Francisco Bay Area, still my favorite place in American. While I could not afford to live in the city (after all, how many newspaper people can live in The City) I was lucky enough to eventually work there (thank you McGraw-Hill).
Image and video hosting by TinyPic
When I was recruited to Chicago to publish a transportation construction magazine, one of the last things I did was to visit numerous poster and photography shops to find myself a nice picture of old San Francisco to take back east.  I had seen a great old photograph of kids sledding down California Street in the old city a few years earlier and wanted that shot. It must have been taken sometime between 1882 and 1887 because three times during those years the city received measurable (and sled-able) snow falls. Sadly, on the day I wanted to buy the photograph I could not find it.  Even today, using a Google search, I can not find that shot.

Newspapers: if you're going to die the least you can do is tell a joke; have we forgetten how to entertain?

I used to drive my B2B magazines crazy by telling them I wanted our magazine to be entertaining. It may have been something they agreed with in theory -- but in practice it seemed to them an impossible task. How do you make road construction entertaining? How is landscaping hilarious?


Ambrose Bierce, who defined "Representative" as "a member of the Lower House in this world, and without discernible hope of promotion in the next."


The answer, of course, wasn't in writing funny asphalt paving stories, but in finding people who had a sense of humor and letting them have at it.  I always told my editors that I wanted, as a goal, for our magazine to be something someone in our industry took on the plane with them. I had noticed that business people generally took magazines from outside their field: general business magazines, or magazines that they found entertaining. Rarely did I ever find someone sitting next to me heading to the same convention as I reading Roads & Bridges -- and when I did I always shook their hands and told them I was the publisher -- then drilled them for the rest of the flight with questions about how they felt about the book, and their industry. Poor chaps.

I bring this up because newspapers seem to have lost their sense of humor. It is even worse online. Remember the attempts of the Washington Post with Mouthpiece Theater?

Humorists have a long history in the newspaper business.  Mark Twain had it right when he said “Get your facts first, then you can distort them as you please.”  Ambrose Bierce defined a reporter as "A writer who guesses his way to the truth and dispels it with a tempest of words."

In my lifetime we've had Art Buchward (“If you attack the establishment long enough and hard enough, they will make you a member of it.”), and Herb Caen (“One day if I do go to heaven...
I'll look around and say, 'It ain't bad, but it ain't San Francisco!”)

So, here is my suggestion: don't force your reporters to make funny videos. Find someone who is already humorous and let then have at it. Another suggestion: buy out or hire these guys in a hurry.

Outside.in signs deals with newspaper publishers to help aggregate and format hyperlocal news

Outside.in announced that it has formed partnerships with some a number of newspaper publishers to supply hyperlocal news services. The company said they have signed deals with The Miami Herald, Dow Jones Local Media Group, New York Post, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and properties of the Tribune Company, including Chicago Tribune, Chicago Breaking News, ChicagoNow, and the Baltimore Sun.

Publishers using the Outside.in Publishers platform "can create customized and curated hyperlocal news sections, add tagged news maps, and curate the aggregated news feeds to fit their editorial guidelines," according to the company's release.

The company's release explains that they have managed to get over 4,000 bloggers to be part of the network. I tested their site by searching for local news and found news from a number of newspaper sites, though I do not know whether these sites have "opted-in" or are simply having their news aggregated. This will be interesting to follow since aggregating with a third party could lead to competitors feeding each other content -- something that I have no objection to, though I know a lot of newspaper people who would still feel queasy about seeing their competitors content show up on their own hyperlocal news pages. 

Thursday, February 11, 2010

First Questex Integrated VAC reports emerge; show decreases in circ levels, first year direct requests

Verified Audit Circulation (VAC) announced this morning the release of the first integrated audits produced for Questex Media Group LLC.  Questex, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in October of last year, had previously announced they were moving their audits to VAC from BPA.

The integrated audit promoted by VAC for Questex's Hotel & Motel Management shows a sharp decline in print circulation: from 49,789 printed copies as shown in its last BPA audit of June 2008, to 42,120 printed copies for the audit period covered by the new VAC audit of April to September 2009.  Unpaid digital subscriptions increased from 4,486 to 5,901 during the same period.  Direct requests dropped dramatically with only 23,574 readers now directly requesting the print magazine versus 39,655 on the last BPA statement.

The new VAC audit for Hotel & Motel Management includes a page for web traffic, listing unique users and page views.

Trade publishers have, for the past few years, been questioning the value of their circulation audits in the wake of dramatic ad page declines and the move towards a greater emphasis on web readership. While Questex announced that they were dropping BPA as their audit bureau of choice, other publishers such as Pennwell and United Business also dropped BPA audits on select titles around the same time. Within the hotels category, Penton's Lodging Hospitality has resigned its BPA, while Reed's Hotels, and ICD's Hotel Business continue to be BPA audited.

All's well that ends well for Kirkus Reviews: finds new ownership under long time reader; editors to stay

The New York Times is reporting that Kirkus Reviews, closed down by the Nielsen Company late last year, will be reborn under the new ownership of a loyal reader -- Herb Simon, owner of the Indiana Pacers, and chairman emeritus of Simon Property Group, a shopping mall developer.  Simon will go into the venture with partner Marc Winkelman, chief executive of Calendar Holdings.

Simon and Winkelman are co-owners of a bookstore, Tecolote Books, in Montecito, Calif.  Winkelman formerly worked for the Barnes & Nobel book chain.

Simon has been a longtime subscriber of Kirkus Reviews. “With the growth of e-books and e-reading devices, no one can really see the future of publishing. But turmoil like this creates opportunities. At a time when even the definition of a book is changing, my love of books makes me want to be part of the solution for the book publishing industry," Simon said in a statement.

For editors Elaine Szewczyk and Eric Liebetrau this may be a dream come true: new ownership that loves the product and is not buying the property for its cash returns -- kind of like owning a local bookstore, no?  Best of luck to the editors and new owners.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Mobile couponing: lowering the cost to $0 for merchants and consumers; new companies try to achieve scale

You can't compete with free -- ask any newspaper classified ad manager.  No matter what your paper's circulation and penetration, if Craig's List is free, your paper has lost the business. Keep this in mind as we explore the next phase in online coupons -- mobile couponing.

A search of the iTunes store for "coupons" turns up dozens of apps that allow the consumer to receive coupons right on their mobile phone.  Most of the apps are free to the consumer and many use the iPhone's ability to triangulate the user's exact position in order to offer coupons for merchants close by.  Some of the names your find are familiar: Coupons.com, ValPak, and the like.  Others have sprung up recently such as Yowza!! and have received good Internet word of mouth as consumers have discovered that they can get discounts right on their phones.


MobileCoupon.com's new app for the iPhone.

Some mobile couponers, such as Cellfire Mobile Coupons (iTunes link), are taking a fairly traditional approach: giving consumers access to the coupons free, while charging merchants for the right to appear on the device.

MobiQpons, however, offers merchants a subscription based approach to couponing. A merchant, whether a brand or retail outlet, registers with MobiQpons, and for a subscription price of $400 a year, the client can submit coupons to the service for delivering through the app.

The issue here is scale, though. Most of the coupon apps appearing in iTunes are very poorly rated. For instance, MobiQpons has received 4,568 ratings as of today for its app. Of these, 505 are five star ratings (the highest), but 2,195 are one star ratings -- the lowest rating allowed.  Ratings are just as bad for such couponers as Coupon.com and Coupon Cabin.  In contrast, the New York Times app, one of the most popular on the iPhone, has received 20,117 ratings for its most recent version -- of which 9,406 were five star ratings, and only 2,365 were one star (who were these people?).

Online couponing finally takes off as recession drives up coupon usage; mobile coupons the logical next step

Coupons are back in a big way. Over $3.5 billion dollars in coupons were redeemed by U.S. consumers last year, a 27 percent increase, the first increase in coupon usage in 17 years, according to Inmar, a division of NewsAmerica Marketing.

Although the rate of newspaper coupons insertions rose last year, online coupons grew at an even faster pace.  "For the first time in almost two decades the use of coupons increased in 2009, in part due to the growth of digital coupons as more consumers made them part of their shopping routine and more brands tapped them to engage with their consumers,” said Steven Boal, CEO of Coupons.com.

Coupons.com claims that online couponing grew ten times faster than printed coupons in 2009. "We expect the adoption of digital coupons will continue to accelerate in 2010 as consumers and brands alike increasingly adopt them, and as we continue to enable companies to engage with their consumers with coupons in innovative ways, including mobile and social media initiatives,” said Boal.

Sunday inserts have been one of the areas of revenue rarely discussed by journalists as they discuss the future of their profession. When combined with classified advertising, the non-display advertising in newspapers used to account for over 50 percent of all advertising revenue, and even more when circulation revenue was added in.  Newspapers, hit hard by the rapid decline is classified advertising, have seen their coupon inserts fall as well -- making last year's increase especially welcome.

Yet online, the emphasis often remains on banners and buttons, rather than non-display and non-endemic categories of advertising. As a results, newspapers (and magazines) have opened themselves up, yet again, to be poached by the new companies entering the marketplace.

Later this afternoon I'll look at mobile couponing companies such as Yowza!! and MobileCoupons.com. These companies offer smart phone users a way to retrieve local coupons while they are out and about.

Will CanWest be gobbled up by financiers?

The Globe and Mail is reporting that two groups have been formed to submit bids in the largest auction of media assets ever in Canada: the sale of CanWest Global Communications.

One group, backed by U.S. private equity firm Hicks Muse Tate & Furst, includes Paul Godfrey, the president of CanWest’s National Post newspaper, plus six other CanWest executives.  The second bidder is expected to be Glacier Media Inc., a community newspaper business run by former investment banker Jon Kennedy.

The Globe and Mail is also reporting that two family members, David and Gail Asper, the son and daughter of CanWest founder Izzy Asper, have resigned from the media company's board which will shrink the board's size.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Google Buzz Mobile : Wave-like social networking, combined with location features creates interesting tool

The impact some technology developments will have are apparent at launch. Some, like Twitter, seem not so obvious. (Honestly, did you think so many people would use the service when you first heard of it?)

Google announced the release of Google Buzz. "Today, we're launching Google Buzz, a new way to start conversations about the things you find interesting and share updates, photos, videos and more," Google stated on its Gmail blog.

Google Buzz combines some Google Wave like features with its popular e-mail service. It's mobile version, though, is already a hit, if my experience is any indication.

Using my iPhone, I went to the Google Buzz web page and signed into my account. Instantly I was reading other people's messages about the massive snowstorm we are experiencing today. I posted a question about the road conditions and within minutes someone nearby replied with a report.

Sergey Brin, Google's co-founder, mentioned during the press conference today, that he used Google Buzz while writing an op-ed for the New York Times. Brin wrote his piece and then shared it through Google Buzz to get opinions about his piece. Unlike Google Wave, you can not collaborate in real time, but in other respects Google Buzz is a mini version of Wave.  Additionally, the mobile version allows you to pinpoint your location via maps, or select a nearby location. This interesting use of Google Maps is yet one more sign that location based communication and advertising will make an impact this year.

Short update after the jump.

Penton files for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection

"Penton is not going out of business." Cheery.

Penton Media announced today that they had reached an agreement with its lenders to restructure its debt. According to the company, the deal with eliminate $270 million of company debt, give the company additional capitol, and extent the maturity date of Penton's senior secured credit facility through 2014.  

The entire Penton press release is after the jump.

Are some B2B mags hanging on in hopes of recovery? or so they can be sold off? An argument in favor of launches

Every January is fascinating in the trade magazine industry. Just as many newspaper people almost feel sorry for non-newspaper people (they just don't understand the rush of newspaper publishing, they think) I sometimes feel the same way about trade publishing . . . in January and February.

This is the time of the year where everyone sizes each other up based on the first couple issues of the year. Because so much business is sold and confirmed with that first deadline, many publishers pretty much know what kind of year it will be by now. From what I have seen so far, 2010 won't be worse than last year, in general, and for some it may actually be significantly better.


☜  Radio & Records, closed by Nielsen in '09


But January 2010 has produced a large number of thin and anemic issues so far -- enough that one has to wonder "can this publisher continue this magazine for another year?"

So why aren't more magazines being folded? According to MediaFinder, there were actually less magazines folded last year than in 2008 or 2007 -- an astonishing fact considering the ad pages lost last year. Not surprisingly, there were also few launches.

Monday, February 8, 2010

"The Mark" gets funded; will it be Canada's version of "Demand Media"? Gives writers "voice", but no pay

The Mark, a Toronto based online news site, announced today they had received first round funding from a group of investors led by Innovation Grade Capitol. David Ceolin, the lead investor, is quoted as stating that "The Mark is building a portfolio of content-based services that have scalable, sustainable revenue potential and don't rely on advertising or subscription."

So what is this mystery business model that has attracted investment?

The Mark may be compared (in a way) to the U.S.'s Demand Media, a firm getting much attention for their low pay to freelancers. The Mark seems to go one step further -- they don't pay at all.  "What we do shouldn't be confused with exercises in citizen journalism, for the lack of a better descriptor," Ali Rahnema told The Canadian Journalism Project's Tim Currie late last year . "We're doing, to use other jargon, opinion aggregation."

According to their press release "The Mark publishes multimedia news commentary written by and featuring a hand-picked community of more than 600 great Canadian thinkers and doers working around the world in politics, business, science, technology, sports and the arts. Media observers have described The Mark as a smarter, Canadian version of the Huffington Post." 

Writers for The Mark are "invited" to contribute material, have has the material appear online unedited. "We provide the platform for them to do that. So far, it's proven to be far more valuable to them than the $50, $100 they would get from publishing it in another platform."  While writers maintain ownership of their work, The Mark gets the right to distribute it.  Essentially, The Mark avoids the upfront costs of both reporting and editing and concentrates on marketing and distribution. 

(I contacted The Mark to discuss their business model but received no reply.)

Using simple web tools to launch your local news site: a look at the Ann Arbor Chronicle's use of WordPress

This has been cross posted from CitizenPublishing.net. This overview of using easy, out-of-the-box publishing solutions is not meant to insult the intelligence of the technologically savvy, but to assist journalists and local news publishers not familiar with how a simple blogging tool can be transformed into a robust publishing platform.

Stories of laid off journalists starting their own online news sites seem to be an every day occurrence. Combined with local residents tired of the lack of local news in their metro papers, this trend is accelerating. At the same time, new media firms such as AOL owned Patch and US Local News Network are rapidly creating local competitors to major metro newspapers -- or sometimes partnering with those papers in order to sell ads or increase content.

For individuals and small organizations who want to start up a news site, either to serve a very specific niche such as a high school sports booster club or to replace a closed print newspaper, there are options that will enable new publishers to get online quickly and relatively easily.

New small online publishers have at least three basic choices: create a new site using site building software or a platform such as OpenPublish (Drupal), use a third party vendor, or use an out-of-the-box publishing tool such as Google's Blogger, WordPress or TypePad.  The go-it-alone approach might be attractive for developers and more experienced web publishers, but it is clearly the worst choice for writers who do not want the hassle of writing code or learning html. The vendor solution is the easiest -- news site vendors like TownNews have been serving local newspapers for years, but are also the costliest solution.
Image and video hosting by TinyPic
For journalists like Mary Morgan and Dave Askins, publishers of the Ann Arbor Chronicle, the answer to quickly launching and maintaining their news web site was to use a system like WordPress. WordPress is an open source publishing application that can be downloaded from WordPress.org for use on the publisher's own server, or can be hosted free through WordPress.com. Many hosting services now offer WordPress as a site design alternative, as well.

The key to using any software package that is generally known as a blogger tool is getting familiar with the copy input interface, and customizing the template. The vast majority of bloggers simply choose a template offered by WordPress or Blogger, or by independent sites, and begin -- no wonder so many sites look alike, especially blogs.



I spoke to Laura Fisher who worked with Morgan and Askins to launch the Ann Arbor Chronicle site. Fisher met Morgan and Askins through Workantile Exchange, a membership-funded coworking community in Ann Arbor. " I met Dave and then Mary -- and they were leaving the Ann Arbor News as it closed down last summer. But they launched this well before the (web version) of the News started up," Fisher told me.  "Mary had been a writer and editor there, at the Ann Arbor News, and she retired from there and went off with Dave and started the (online) newspaper."


☜  Laura Fisher at the Workantile Exchange.


Morgan and Askin explain the motivation for the Ann Arbor Chronicle on their news site: "We launched The Ann Arbor Chronicle to fill a void – to create a daily news site that reflects and embraces the energy, oddities, and character of our community . . . The Chronicle is an online-only venture, but it’s not a blog. It’s personal – we hope not in a navel-gazing way, but in that we’re invested in the place where we live, and with the people who’ve lived here all along, who pass through here briefly, or those who choose to stay. Those are the readers we’re writing for."

Where the money is: VCs target app developers; In-Stat predicts 50 million tablets within four years

While Reed's In-Stat group predicts a rapidly growing market for tablet readers, VCs are beginning to put money behind the new devices by funding application developers.

In-Stat, a Reed Business Information group, predicts that the tablet reader market will grow to 50 million units by 2014. Their report, "The Rise Of The Internet Tablet: The Keys To Success" (paid report), states that "the opportunity in tablets is complementary to other mobile devices, particularly smartphones and netbooks."

Meanwhile, a new investment fund, AppFund, is putting real dollars behind application development for the iPad and other devices. Launched by Kevin Wendle, co-founder of CNet, and Daniel Klaus, co-founder of Music Nation, AppFund is promising to invest $5,000 to $500,000 in each developer (I assume the developer that promises to deliver the next flashlight app would get the smaller amount, while someone who can come up with an app that can transform your tablet into a time machine might get the larger amount).

According to their web site AppFund knows what it wants:

We are looking for Apps that will become utilities in everyday life and Apps that will help business grow. So priority will be given to ideas that:
    •    Target early adopters and urban dwellers
    •    Target users 16-39 with higher incomes
    •    Incorporate video, audio, interactivity, and other capabilities unique to the iPad
    •    Have a long shelf life
    •    Have the potential to become "hits"