North Korea to Free Journos, May Return to U.S. With Clinton

ling_kim_1369100cThis is great news. The New York Times is reporting that North Korea has agreed to free Current TV journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee, and that the two may return to the U.S. with Bill Clinton this evening.

According to Reuters, North Korea’s official news agency, KCNA, reported that Kim Jong-il, the country’s leader, has granted two American journalists a “special pardon,” on Tuesday, which releases them from detention, following a meeting with former President Bill Clinton in Pyongyang. Reuters reports that KCNA issued the following statement: “Kim Jong-il issued an order of the chairman of the DPRK National Defense Commission on granting a special pardon to the two American journalists who had been sentenced to hard labor in accordance with Article 103 of the Socialist Constitution and releasing them.”

Well that was a successful 12 hours! Bill Clinton to the rescue! The back story on all this is sure to be good. Apart from rescuing Ling and Lee, there is bound to be a great deal of speculation that Clinton was also there to smooth the way towards initiating some sort of nuclear talks with North Korea. Also, whose idea was it to send Clinton? Hillary? Obama? Rahm? It was a bit of a genius solution when you think about it: the North Koreans wanted a high profile emissary, the States didn’t want to look like their government was kowtowing to Kim Jong-il. If George W. wants a lesson to image rehab he need look no further than Clinton’s last 24 hours.

The White House continues to assert that this was a “private mission” — which obviously it is anything but. Mark Knoller is suggesting the outcome was in the bag before Clinton even took off: “It’s a good bet the fix was in in advance. If Clinton comes, asks nicely, shows respect to “dear leader,” he can leave w- the journalists.” We shall see, a number of cablers have been speculating that the White House just wants to avoid commenting until Clinton, and now the journos, are back in U.S. air space, which could be sometime later tonight.

Catherine Mathis Departs Brave New Media World of NYT PR

timesDid the new media world do Catherine Mathis in? The long-time, “soft-spoken” NYT Co. PR chief resigned yesterday to take up a post at the ratings agency Standards & Poor’s. Should this come as a surprise, or is Mathis just an early casualty of this new media world? It’s no secret the Times has been suffering a barrage of bad press this year, mostly to do with its finances. Said Times Co. CEO Janet Robinson in her memo announcing the departure: “[Mathis] has served as the chief communications strategist and spokesperson through some of the most challenging chapters in our history.”

No kidding. It got so bad that according the Observer the staff took questioning whether anything was being done to counter it. And what was being done to counter it? This from the Observer back in May:

[Mathis] comforted the staff by saying that she had gone on a “charm offensive” with members of the press, according to a person present. She said she had reached out to Michael Wolff; she said that trying to combat the Post’s negative coverage wasn’t worth the candle; and she said that after much wrangling, she even got a correction from The Observer.

We reached out to the relentlessly over-the-top Times critic Michael Wolff to get an idea of what the charm offensive looked like.

“If it’s a charm offensive, it is the most minor charm offensive, so minor that I didn’t notice it,” said Mr. Wolff.

Snap! It’s a new PR world out there, particularly when dealing with the blogosphere. It’s one that requires equal parts transparency, and individual attention, and an understanding of how communication online works; namely you have to get in there (something NYT social media editor Jen Preston seems to slowly be getting the hang of lately). “Dutifully posted” letters to editor, while nice fodder for blogs, don’t generally cut it any more. Noted PR giant Ken Sunshine in the same NYO piece: “The Gray Lady needs to adapt to a drastically changed media environment…They’re doing some of it probably grudgingly, and they need to do more of it and to get a little more street sense.”

So maybe Mathis wasn’t interested in the hassle, and who could blame her. It’s not easy to drastically change your practices after 12 years in the same job, especially after years of working for the top dog. That said, with the kind of press the ratings agencies have been getting of late, one wonders if she hasn’t just exited the frying pan into the fire. In the meantime, perhaps the Times should consider hiring someone from the Fox PR dept — they have no qualms about getting down and dirty.

Vid-Biz: Iger, Real, Shark Week

Iger Talks Authentication; during Disney earnings call CEO expressed concern over TV Everywhere ideas that deliver content at no extra cost to subscribers. (paidContent)

RealDVD Lawsuit Drags Down Real Earnings; company spent $4.3 million on litigation in the second quarter defending the controversial DVD ripping software; Real’s revenue dropped 11 percent to $135.7 million. (Video Business)

Shark Week Sinks Teeth into Mobile; the 22-year-old franchise from Discovery will get its own channel on Qualcomm’s FLO TV service from Aug. 1 – 14. (Multichannel News)

12Seconds Launches iPhone App; record 12 seconds of videos and immediately post it to the micro-blogging platform. (12Seconds)

New York Times Ramps Up Video Obituaries; news pub has 30 videos done and 10 in production (including one for a former president). (Editor & Publisher)

Reed Elsevier Plans to Sell Multichannel News, Broadcasting & Cable; industry pubs on the block because of the harsh advertising environment. (MediaWeek)

Web and TV Projects on Equal Footing at ITVFest; programs created for the web will go head-to-head with projects geared towards TV at the Independent TV Festival. (Variety)


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The New York Times to sell access to unfinished stories?

Gawker got hold of a survey being run on NYTimes.com testing a scenario in which the newspaper charges for premium content. As Gawker points out, this isn’t a far cry from another Times experiment: TimesSelect.

But buried within the piece is a nugget called “FirstLook” which would give paid users a peak at stories before they’re even finished. It reminds me somewhat of TotalFark, the premium account you can pay for at Fark.com that allows you to see submissions before they’ve been green lit for the front page.

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New York Times shows a slight profit

Times Company Turns a Profit

The New York Times Company on Thursday reported second-quarter net income of $39.1 million, up from $21.1 million in the period a year earlier, as another steep drop in advertising revenue was largely offset by aggressive cost-cutting.

A favorable tax adjustment inflated the earnings in the most recent quarter. But even discounting that factor, Thursday’s results marked a return to profitability — albeit slight — after a first-quarter loss of $74.5 million.

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News Innovators on the Frontline: The Alternative Press

The publisher of The Alternative Press, Michael Shapiro, left his position as a litigator at a law firm in New York City to launch the site in October 2008. A longtime blogger, he started The Alternative Press (the online-only alternative to printed papers in the area) in just his hometown of New Providence, NJ. But the coverage area expanded quickly and now includes 10 surrounding communities. He says life has improved since trading in his legal eagle wings for community news, even though he’s still pulling 20-hour days.

The Alternative Press, founded by Michael ShapiroNotably, Shapiro’s territory includes Millburn and Westfield, where he rubs shoulders with some big-time media players–Patch (recently bought by AOL) and The New York Times’ The Local (in Millburn)–experimenting in hyperlocal.

How has the launch of Patch and The New York Times’ The Local blog affected your business?
It’s interesting; I’ve been pleasantly surprised so far with how it’s affected our business. Before they got there, I wondered how it was going to impact us. I thought the lure of a big company, with lots of money, would cause a problem. But, we’ve not only held our own, we’ve attracted a lot of their users and one of their reporters came over to us.

The only place its hurt us is in the area of publicity. Believe it or not, despite what we’re doing and the success we’ve had, not a single media outlet has covered us at all. They’ve done all of these stories about Patch, The New York Times, and BaristaNet and here we are, I created the site from scratch, we’re bringing in money, we’re bringing in more in revenues than any of those sites with the possible exception of BaristaNet, which has been around for years, and nobody has covered it. [Editor's Note: The NYT launched a self-service advertising vehicle for The Local on Wednesday.]

It’s kind of frustrating because it’s like, “this is newsworthy!” Here’s a local guy, with all local people competing with them in the same market and we’re never mentioned. If it was something were we weren’t getting traffic or we had no advertisers, I well could understand it. But at this point, we have more advertising than both of them combined. That’s incredible to me.

Have you done marketing to get the word out?
We’ve done PRNewswire and other things to get publicity but nobody picks it up. Otherwise we have grassroots pr. We’re at the Summit street fair and we’re doing email marketing. But, that kind of limits us at this point. Our traffic keeps going up, but if we could get mentioned in a major publication, even in the stories they’re doing about Patch or the Times, our users would go through the roof.

Talk about how you’ve been able to ramp up so quickly. Your staff has grown right along with your coverage area, how have you been able to manage it?
We now have over 100 paid freelance reporters, over 20 columnists and a 3-member sales team, all built up since October.

On the sales and business side, one avenue has been bringing on people like realtors or people with sales experience who are looking for part-time gigs. Like moms whose kids are gone in the morning until three, so they have that chunk of the day and then they’re back to being moms.

The Alternative Press coverage area.Basically, we’re always looking for sales people. We are struggling to handle the volume, we cannot handle the number of calls coming into us. Just in our 10 towns alone, there are approximately 20,000 businesses, so we need more bodies reaching out to the businesses that are not calling us.

What do you see as the potential for growth on your sites?
We have almost unlimited space for advertising, even if we hit the space we can start rotating ads. If we do a back of the envelope, it’s literally millions in revenue. We say to people you can advertise on our site for as little as $99 up to google.

We have a free business directory. For $99 you get an annual premium directory listing, which includes a logo or photo, a link to their website and it comes up first in the directory.
The same goes for real estate listing, which runs $15 to post your house for 3 months, as well as the community calendar. Inventory for those is basically unlimited, but our sales people aren’t even selling them right now.

As far as growing the number of towns, we could be in 100 towns tomorrow, but my feeling is you do it right. Before we launch, we go to do outreach to leaders, build a local advisory board, and put some reporters on the ground.

We’re probably going to continue a gradual expansion to more town in our area. I don’t know if we’ll grow at the pace we went in the first year because 10 towns is a lot to cover.