New Media Models to Shore up the Publishing Industry

At the Stanford GSB's Future of Media conference, entrepreneurs discuss subscription models, speed, and the wall between advertising and editorial.

February 22, 2012

| by Michele Chandler


Declining readership and vanishing advertising dollars have left many mature news organizations reeling. But breaking down the “walls” that have historically separated publications’ news and advertising operations can help restore the industry’s financial success, according to several experts who spoke at the Future of Media Conference held at Stanford GSB on Feb. 15.

Four panelists representing magazines, newspapers, and the online-only media world discussed numerous innovative approaches being used to inform readers while shoring up the industry during the “New Business of the News Business” panel.

Despite statistics chronicling how newspaper advertising dollars have steadily fallen since 2006, TechCrunch reporter Josh Constine said his San Francisco-based website is healthy, thanks to its finely tuned combination of short, quickly delivered technology news items, longer in-depth stories, and weekend pieces from guest contributors. “If you focus on a specific area and become the expert on that, you will attract an audience,” he said.

Speedy reporting is the site’s hallmark, Constine said, pointing to a recent story about a lawsuit filed against several Silicon Valley tech firms charged with conspiring not to poach each other’s employees. Reporters from Bloomberg and other wire services were in the courtroom along with him that day, Constine recalled, but “they were all writing in paper notepads. I had my laptop and was literally live-blogging as it happened. So, we were able to beat these very established, very well-run, and organized newsrooms by hours.”

Other approaches help fill out the organization’s finances, he said, including reporters writing “premium” content stories sold only by subscription, augmenting the site’s free content. Selling tickets to industry conferences that they sponsor also brings in revenue. But content drives it all, Constine said: “What we really like to bring to the table is a very different perspective. We’re going to write about what we think is unique.”

The Washington Post is exploring ways to bridge the divide that traditionally separates editorial operations from the newspaper’s business side, said Justin Ferrell, the newspaper’s director of digital, mobile and new product design, who is a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University.

This long-standing division between the news and business sides was designed to keep news coverage uninhibited from potential meddling by advertisers. However, says Ferrell, there’s room for business efforts that don’t compromise the newspaper’s ethics. “There’s a space between editorial and business that needs to be occupied by people who understand both sides,” he explained.

As a Knight Fellow, Ferrell said he is trying to develop new initiatives: “The quicker we can get to having those conversations, the quicker we can figure out how to produce new revenue that is going to be a win-win for both.”

Good magazine, which publishes a daily magazine on the web and a quarterly print publication, is already “playing in the space” between editorial and business, said executive editor Ann Friedman, another panelist. One team at her magazine produces informational graphics for its corporate clients, she said, while representatives from the organization’s sales, product development, and editorial sides all contributed to the recent launch of a new mobile site.

“It’s really interesting because it’s just second nature,” Friedman said. “It is the way we make money, it is the way we make journalism” and has contributed to the magazine’s profitability.

Another media group, Patch, started in 2007 to offer community journalism online, also follows the niche media approach by aiming to fill the void in local news coverage left as daily newspapers have lost revenue and cut reporting staff.

Purchased by AOL three years ago, the company now operates in 22 states and the District of Columbia. Its sites offer staff-produced and community-contributed material. Last year, AOL spent about $160 million building out the network, which has not yet reached profitability. The organization has launched Spanish-language Patch Latino sites, opened operations in underserved communities including Newark, New Jersey and has 14,000 bloggers, said panelist Warren Webster, president of AOL Patch.

While largely covering breaking news and feature stories to quickly post online, staffers also write longer investigative pieces. Next month, the Hercules Patch in California will receive a prestigious James Madison Award from the Society of Professional Journalists for coverage of questionable financial management practices in the East Bay city of Hercules. The series produced more than 13 investigative and 100 daily stories, according to the company.

Patch remains focused on its community reporting roots, even with that high-profile investigative accomplishment. Webster said: “We’re going to do that, but we’re also going to do which hamster won the hamster competition in the sixth grade class. It’s always going to be a mix of the local. We love both.”

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