Friday, February 1, 2013

On the eve of Super Bowl XLVII, TNM's rambling reflections on newspapers, digital media & 49ers Insider

The last time the San Francisco 49ers were in the Super Bowl was January 29, 1995 and I was still a publisher with McGraw-Hill in The City, and loving it. The City, that is; McGraw-Hill not so much.

The NYC-based media and financial services giant had recently brought in a new president for the Construction Information Group and the ideology of the day was "reengineering" – basically a hollow philosophy based on the idea that all one needs to do to grow profits is layoff as many people as possible. It was, in other words, the "austerity" of its day. By the time 1995 was over the division was a shambles and soon much of the talent was to leave – then later that new president was gone, as well. As you can see, I see a bit of a pattern here: managers that have to promote some latest fade philosophy in order to appear up-to-date.

Today, it is "digital first": the philosophy that holds that to succeed one needs to layoff as many staffers as possible while outsourcing whatever minor digital efforts are initiated. I'm quite sure that the same people who promoted "reengineering" now love "digital first". It's all "austerity" to me. (Frankly, if they all moved to the UK and joined the Tories we'd all be better off.)

So what does any of this have to do with the Super Bowl? Well, a lot has happened in the newspaper and magazine world since 1995, hasn't it? In 1995 the San Francisco Chronicle was not owned by Hearst Newspapers, which still owned the smaller Examiner. AOL was what most people thought of when they thought of the Internet. The Baltimore Ravens did not exist as Art Modell still owned the Cleveland Browns. In 1995 the Baltimore Sun was still part of Times-Mirror, the company behind the Los Angeles Times. Oh, and newspaper profits were still soaring. (Also, McGraw-Hill still published Businessweek.)
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Today the Chronicle is in Hearst's hands, and while their main news website and apps are no great shakes, their tablet magazine for the 49ers is pretty sweet. Launched fortuitously last fall, 49ers Insider has appeared twice a week since the start of the season. Built with the Mag+ platform, the newspaper can today produce a digital Super Bowl preview issue without having to launch a new app – and I'm sure fans love it.

"This is the most beautiful magazine on newsstand," one reader writes of the digital magazine inside the App Store. "This is how all magazines should be designed, and at a dollar a year, what a steal. This is a 49er's fans bible!" Not bad for a user review, especially one not written by a relative of one of the editors.

The Baltimore Sun is now owned by the Tribune Company, following the sale of the media properties by Times-Mirror. The Sun's website is a touch better than the Chronicle's – certainly more recently redesigned – but its apps are typical of what many newspapers are producing: reformatted versions of the website.
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Tribune Interactive long ago released a mobile app for the Sun's coverage of the Baltimore Ravens. But Baltimore Football is pricey at $9.99, and hasn't been updated since June of 2011.

Tribune Interactive, which produces the apps for the company's newspaper properties, this fall also launched a digital magazine for a football team – in this case, BearDownload, for The Chicago Tribune's coverage of the Chicago Bears. But the Bears had a bad season, fired their coach, and now Tribune Interactive has pulled BearDownload – whether it will return in the fall is anyone's guess.

But Tribune Interactive did not launch a similar product for the Ravens in Baltimore. Who knows whether that was a good idea or not, as no one really knows if these digital magazines have legs – that is, can be profitable in the long term. But it has always been a common practice for the local metro paper to embrace its major sports franchises and produce special sections for the start of the season, then again if they reach or win the championship. If it was good newspapering 1995 to do this, then doing it in digital form must be considered good newspapering in 2013, right?

AdobeSystems's Animals about the wisdom of online advertising.

As a San Francisco sports fan these are pretty heady days. The Giants have won two of the last three World Series championships, Stanford won the Rose Bowl, and the 49ers are now in the Super Bowl. (And lest I forget, the Sharks are undefeated this season, though everyone knows what happens to the team in the playoffs.

I'm not sure the 49ers are up to the task of beating the Ravens, but the team's fans are winning the digital media wars with their own digital magazine. But unlike the football season, the media season will go on after Sunday. We'll see what the spring brings from media companies committed to the tablet and mobile platforms. But if the 49ers win on Sunday I'd be shocked if we didn't see some new tablet product from the team at Hearst in San Francisco - though covering a baseball team in a digital magazine would have to involve some creative thinking about its design. (I'd suggest throwing out the idea of "issues" and publish continuously.)