Hyperdistribution

The newspaper industry should be sobered by Martin Langeveld’s calculations, based on the Newspaper Association of America’s misplaced bragging about Nielsen internet data, that only about a half one one percent of time spent online is spent on newspaper sites.

It is clear that if journalists want to be supported – let alone have impact and influence and find their days worthwhile – they need more people to spend more time with news. I believe they should be doing the opposite of what is being suggested in many quarters: clamping down controls to try to fight aggregators and search engines, threatening to build pay walls, consolidating content into destinations they’d have to work harder to get people to visit.

Right now, news organizations should be trying to reach more people and engage with them more deeply. They should seek hyperdistribution.

Since when did it become OK for media people to shrink their audiences? Since they gave up on the ad model, that’s when. But I am not ready to surrender to the idea that advertising, which has supported mass media since its creation, is over. Yes, ad rates are lower; welcome to competition. That’s all the more reason why publishers must attract larger audiences publics – make it up on volume – as well as more targeted and valuable communities.

In my presentation at the Aspen Institute on CUNY’s New Business Models for News Project, I listed some of these opportunities, even though we didn’t build them into our first models because we wanted a conservative base case. Next we are building blow-out models incorporating these means, many built on the principles of the link economy:

* Reverse-syndication. We suggest that the new news organization (NNO) we envision in our ecosystem can create highly targeted content that can be distributed on the sites of other members of the network. So, for example, a new news org could create voting guides for every state assembly member and all the hyperlocal bloggers in the state could offer them to their readers. This content could carry both metro and hyperlocal advertising sold by and benefiting both sites. It is in the NNO’s interest to help these bloggers succeed. Thus they should collaborate on creating and distributing everything from news to calendars to functionality.

In the link economy, value is created by he who creates content and she who delivers audience. So in this networked ecosystem, large players and small will find ways to mutually create and share in more value.

* The embeddable paper. Once you embrace hyperdistribution, then you’ll find new and simple ways to get readers to become distributors. In this post I suggested that we should enable any content to be placed in YouTube-like players that carry brand, advertising, states, and links.

Lo and behold, Silicon Alley Insider just made it possible to embed its stories on this blog or anywhere. In fact, you don’t need to follow that link above; you can read the story below (and I imagine it won’t be long before there’s an ad there, along with the Insider’s branding, links, and data collection).

* API The New York Times has an API (application programming interface) enabling developers to incorporate its headlines, driving traffic to NYTimes.com. NPR and the BBC have APIs that enable others to use more content; as public broadcasters, their goal is simply broader distribution. The Guardian’s API offers full content but requires developers to join its ad network. Thus the Guardian wants to get its journalism into the fabric of the web, as they put it, and support it at the same time. Fingers crossed that it works.

* Specialization. One-size-fits-all news was a product of our means of production and distribution and a very small number of topics aside, that just won’t cut it anymore. Whether by geography, interest, or community, news must become far more specialized. In the link economy, this is how content rises in search to be discovered and it is how value is added with advertising.

Specialization sounds like a way to decrease, not increase audience but with the efficiencies specialization enables, many more publics can be served more deeply and each is bound to be more engaged. In our New Business Models for News projections, we ended up – to our surprise – with an equivalent number of journalists working in our hypothetical ecosystem when compared with the legacy newsroom, but these journalists were all covering much more specialized topics in much greater depth, creating more journalism for more communities than before. Specialization becomes a way to grow.

* Social engagement. In our NewBizNews models, we projected 12 page views per user per month because this is in line with existing news sites and thus, a conservative assumption. But it’s also a shameful assumption.

Local news networks that are truly a part of communities – owned and operated by their communities – will surely have much higher engagement. The fact that Facebook – which brings communities elegant organization, just as newspapers endeavor to do – gets hundreds of pageviews per month per user should be a lesson and model for news networks.

If news organizations – pardon me – asked what Google, Facebook, Twitter, and craigslist would do, they would define themselves as platforms more than content creators and controllers. They would act as networks rather than destinations. Once again, this gives them not only distribution and engagement but efficiency.

I have stood in and before no end of conferences when I or someone else recalls what that student said in The New York Times said a year ago: “If the news is that important, it will find me.” Waiting for her to come to our site won’t work – and it especially won’t work if, once a peer links her to our site, she finds a wall. No, we have to take news to her.

At Aspen, Google’s Marissa Mayer told the assembled news machers that they have to find ways to insinuate their content and value into our own hyperpersonal news streams. In other words: This ain’t about getting people to come to your home pages anymore.

You can bet if Mayer is thinking this way, so is Google and so it will find ways to consolidate information about sources across these new means of distribution. It’s still in Google’s interest to tap the tree for Googlejuice. So I say we cannot waste a moment finding more ways to get more people to distribute and engage with news.

Three nails, one coffin

Line by line, newspapers’ businesses are falling apart as they shrink and become less efficient for advertisers against the competition and reach of online. Consider:

* Coupon giant Valassis abandons newspaper distribution for the postal service in three more markets. Says Crains: “The move represents the acknowledgement that newspaper circulation is on the decline and advertising clients want to continue to reach as many people they can in markets with shrinking newspaper coverage.”

This is significant for two reasons: First, consider that a primary reason papers are reducing frequency but maintaining print editions a few days a week is that they can still make money by distributing coupons and circulars. Second, readers value those coupons. I’ve told the story before of my time as Sunday editor of the NY Daily News when we regained coupons after a strike and circulation jumped more than 100,000 – that is, those readers were buying ads, not news. So this becomes a vicious cycle: the more papers shrink, the more value they lose and the more value they lose the more they shrink.

Coupons and circulars are media and they merely use newspapers as distribution vehicles. When they can be distributed online, for free, then the distribution business will fade away.

* Next, newspapers are starting to lose movie listing ads. That advertising used to be content with value – like, say, home and job ads – but now that value can be delivered online, for free – next to a ticket sales opportunity – online. There go a few more dollars and a bit more value.

* Newspapers were smart to start an online company to serve their ghoulish but lucrative line of business in death notices, Legacy.com. But now it has a competitor in Tributes.com. And I wonder how long either of them can continue to convince people that they need an obit service when any web page will do.

None of these, in and of itself, is a killing blow to papers. Just three more dull blows to the kidney.