News Leadership 3.0

Posts tagged with: Business

December 22, 2009

Civic topic pages: Boost local traffic, democracy

In most communities, getting up to speed on—and involved in—local civic issues is more work than it should be. In a guest post, Amy Gahran offers one strategy that will enable news organizations to help communities, democracy and their own bottom line by making local civic info easier to find, understand, and use.

(This is the third in a series of guest posts about how news organizations and other institutions can implement the findings of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, This joint project of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Aspen Institute Communications and Society program produced the report, “Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age”. Read more articles in this series.)

By Amy Gahran

Right now, how do people in your community get a quick overview of current local civic issues, and how to get involved?

Chances are they’ll have to spend time searching for and reading back through the right section of one or more poorly designed/written local government web sites. Plus, they might search Google and local blogs and news sites for local transit coverage—probably with scattershot results. image

That’s a lot of work—enough work that most people would probably find it far more appealing to remain mostly uninformed and disengaged.

Strengthening local community and democracy can be good for the news business—if you do both in a way that plays nice with search engines. Topic pages are an effective strategy for attracting search engine traffic (which is why Wikipedia ends up at the top of search results for almost any topic).

What if local news sites published local civic topic pages? These would be not just about big or ongoing news stories, but about local civic organizations and processes, or perennial issues (such a local elections or municipal budgets).

Over time, this strategy might attract more local traffic via search engines. This could help news organizations better serve local communities, local advertisers, and their own bottom line.

A topic page is, in part, a more structured approach to providing information. Kevin Sablan explains that a topic page “typically contains a brief textual and visual synopsis of one topic (e.g. a person, issue or company) along with links to other articles, blog posts, pictures, video. etc.” More from Steve Yelvington on the value of topic pages for news sites.

Several national news outlets have introduced topic pages as a strategy to draw search traffic—including the New York Times, Huffington Post, and USAtoday. Even the Associated Press is hatching a topic page strategy (despite that earlier this year they complained loudly about search engines and news aggregators).

This year there’s been considerable saber rattling in the online news biz over the role of search engines and news aggregators. Steve Yelvington argues that nonlocal, search-driven traffic may not really help the bottom line of sites that publish community news. He may have a point, but: Topic pages on local civic topics (not just big local news that might also attract national attention) could attract more local traffic through search engines—the kind of traffic local advertisers value most.

According to the Knight Commission report, communities need easy access to civic and social information: “People need to know their rights and how to exercise them. They need to know how well public officials and institutions function. They need the underlying facts and informed analysis about the social, economic, political, and cultural factors that shape the community’s challenges and opportunities. They need news.”

Several regional or local news outlets already aggregate headlines, background, and context on their big or ongoing stories into landing pages like this factory closing page from InsideBayArea.com. Staff web producers create these pages manually, but new relevant stories get added automatically when they include appropriate keywords or tags.

If your news org is already doing something similar, here’s how you could experiment with applying this approach to a civic institution (such as city council or public health department) or a civic process (such as local elections or long-term municipal planning).

ACTION STEPS

Start with the low-hanging fruit. Consider which civic institutions or processes your news org already covers regularly. City council, the police department, and school board are likely candidates—as are local elections and economic development programs. Also, ask local reference librarians at the public library which local civic issues people ask about most.

From this, select your initial target topic. For instance, if property taxes are a perennial topic of local debate and confusion, you might create a topic page on the County Assessor.

Write a brief synopsis, just 1-3 paragraphs. Cover the bare basics of what the target institution or process does, and its community significance. Include a bullet list of key current or past issues or controversies involving your target (such as corruption scandals, major initiatives, etc.)

If a local grassroots civic wiki exists, contact its operators and ask whether you can republish some of their content on your topic page—with credit and a link.

Search optimization. Make sure your page title and synopsis includes terms that local people might actually search for. For instance, a civic topic page about the Alameda County Assessor’s Office might bear the title: Oakland Property Taxes: Alameda County Assessor.

Enable engagement. Include a resource list of names, titles, and contact info for key relevant officials. Also link to relevant web sites, to encourage direct engagement. (Not just to the home page, but to specifics such as event calendars, instructions or FAQs, etc.) You might also link to relevant associated organizations, such as community or watchdog groups.

Configure your content management system to syndicate to the civic topic page recent headlines that mention or are relevant to your target instituion or process. It’s best to trigger this off of an internal taxonomy such as story tags, but it could be based on keyword searches of the content.

Monitor traffic to the page. Topic pages tend to attract more traffic—and better search ranking—over time. So set up a local civic topic page or two as an experiment, let it run over a few months, and watch what happens. See which search terms bring people to the page, and how much of that traffic is local. Periodically conduct Google searches to see how your page is ranking for desired search terms.

Make someone responsible for updating civic topic pages. For instance, if the local board of education announces plans to renovate several schools, that might warrant a mention in the topic page synopsis. Similarly, a school board election would require an update to the contact list.

Make sure your reporters, editors, and producers know how to tag stories so they show up on relevant topic pages.

Assess your experiment. After about six months, assess whether and how this strategy is working for you. How does your topic page’s search ranking for desired search terms compare to, say, local blogs, organizations, or official sites? How much local v. nonlocal traffic are those pages attracting? Do they get more traffic when there’s relevant breaking news?

Expand, as simply as possible. The more you can template the format of your civic topic pages, simplify their updating, and automate syndication of current news to them, the easier it will be to create more of them. Over time you’ll hone your approach. You’ll also compile a valuable community resource that supports civic engagment while driving the kind of traffic that could help you earn more revenue from local advertisers.

Previously:

Community info building blocks: What do you already have?

Teamwork: Collaborating to build a community dashboard

April 29, 2010

Government data: People love it, say Pew, Texas Tribune

If you want to increase traffic to your news or community site, stories aren’t enough—put up a searchable government database. That appears to be a key lesson from a new Pew report, and from the Texas Tribune’s recent experience…

This week the Pew Internet and American Life Project published Government Online, a report exploring in depth how Americans are interacting with federal, state, and local government online. In a Future Tense interview, Pew researcher and report author Aaron Smith told American Public Media’s Jon Gordon that researchers were especially surprised to find that 40% of US internet users have gone online for data about the business of government.

By Amy Gahran

“Americans are very interested in engaging with government,” Smith told Gordon. “They’re exploring data about government activities: government spending, tracking the Recovery Act, reading legislation. None of us were expecting that figure to be so large.”

Smith continued, “I think people are just interested in information about things like the stimulus bill, the healthcare bill. But if you can’t access that information easily, it’s hard to get involved. Government is now doing a better job of putting their data online—and more importantly, doing that in ways that lets other organizations take that data and put it together in new and interesting ways.”

One news venue that’s seeing direct benefits from repackaging and publishing government databases is the fledgling Texas Tribune. At a journalism event last weekend in Austin, Texas Tribune to editor Evan Smith mentioned that traffic to their site’s data pages is “about two and a half times the traffic of our narrative journalism pages.” (That’s for all of their narrative journalism, not just selected stories.)

In an e-mail interview yesterday, Smith elaborated: “We’ve put up more than 30 searchable databases on our site thus far (more than one a week), about everything from campaign spending and contributions to government employee salaries; from school rankings to red light camera data. We just added one today featuring all kinds of information on more than 160,000 Texas prison inmates. It’s perhaps our most ambitious database yet. Coming soon: everyone who’s been murdered in Juarez in recent years.

...On a personal note, I was especially intrigued by Pew’s finding that so many people are already exploring online government data, and by the Texas Tribune’s traffic experience, because among my many projects I work with Oakland Local—a community news/views site serving Oakland, CA. In a discussion about the City of Oakland’s general dearth of online transparency (which Oakland Local editor and publisher Susan Mernit has dubbed “Government 0.0”), I mentioned how Oakland Local could push for greater local government transparency. A couple of longtime residents told me not to bother, because “Most people here just aren’t interested in that.” Others disagreed, and said that if local government info was available more easily (or at all), many Oaklanders probably would find it interesting and useful.

In light of those conversations, I asked Smith whether he thought the Texas Tribune’s database traffic might indicate a previously underestimated pent-up public demand for exploring government data.

“If you build it, they will come,” Smith replied. “Most people didn’t know this data was accessible, didn’t know where to get it, didn’t know what to do with it. We did the heavy lifting—and now everyone’s addicted.”

Looking at the bigger picture for the news business, I asked Smith whether he believes their database vs. narrative news traffic statistics might indicates a strong business rationale for news orgs to publish more databases—and perhaps to encourage their readers to lobby more actively for increased access to government data.

“Yes and yes,” said Smith. “This is perhaps the best argument I can think of for more use of (and access to) more data. Data is journalism; journalism is data. It’s truly a brave new world.”

To me, this strongly illustrates why journalism must keep breaking out of the “story box.” Too often, journalists focus almost exclusively on storytelling. However, making it easier for people to access and explore information, to discover their own paths to relevance, often can be more engaging. Also, databases tend to drive more traffic over time than traditional narrative news stories—which helps any news business model.

Finally, databases are experienced more as a service, than as “content”—something to consider when it’s becoming increasingly hard to build a business mainly around publishing content.

June 10, 2010

Teach yourself web tech basics: Lisa Williams’ plan, part 2

“I’ll just hire someone to handle all the technical stuff.” That’s a common refrain from many would-be news entrepreneurs. But according to Placeblogger founder Lisa Williams, outsourcing technology you don’t understand “leaves the door open to waste, fraud, and other avoidable pitfalls that can cripple your venture.”

The answer? Educate yourself about the basics of web technology, so you can handle some of it yourself or oursource wisely. Williams recommends a self-education plan that takes four hours per month over 12 months. (See part 1, covering months 1-3.)

In months 4-6, you’ll teach yourself the basics of UNIX file commands, web server software, and databases…

Month 4: UNIX file commands

What happens when your web site crashes? What if you can’t log in to your site through your browser like you normally do? You can talk to your web site at any layer of the stack (the layer cake of technologies that support your site, which you studied in month 3).

The most powerful and dangerous way of interacting with your web site is at the bottom (operating system, or OS) layer of the stack. At that level, you could delete your whole site if you wanted to. Or you could delete your whole site by accident. The only way you’ll learn how not to make deadly errors like that is to understand UNIX file commands. UNIX is the operating system that forms the foundation of most web sites

Knowing basic commands to restart your server—or to move, copy, or delete files on your web server—are invaluable when your site is not working.

This month, spend some time learning basic UNIX file commands. Then practice using them. You’ll use your computer’s command line interface to access your “sandbox” web hosting account (which you set up to practice using FTP in month 2).

Check with your web host to make sure shell access is enabled for your account. (It may be enabled by default—but if not, you can ask them to enable it for you.) Also, confirm with your web host the login information you’ll need to access your web server via your command interface.

Then use the UNIX SSH command to access your server. From there, experiment with using various UNIX file commands to create, move, and delete files. Simply enter each command and hit enter/return, and watch the results.

Month 5: Web server software


As mentioned in our discussion of the stack, every web site needs web server software that delivers web pages to a visitor’s browser when they type in URLs or click links that lead to your site. The most common web server software is APACHE (most web hosts use this).

Williams says, “The most important thing you’ll need to learn about web server software is how to restart it. That’s useful when your site is slow and you don’t know why.”

Increase your general knowledge by reading a tutorial about what web server software does and how it works, so you can understand what really happens when users click links on your site, or type in a URL to get to your site. Then continue with Devshed.com’s guide to getting started with APACHE.

Many web hosts offer CPanel as a default tool to access your web server. This is good for a start (and free, if your web host already offers it). However, Williams thinks Plesk software (not free) is more intuitive than Cpanel.

Month 6: Databases


If you run a web site based on any modern content management system, or a custom-built site where people are blogging or commenting or registering user accounts, you have a dynamic database-driven site. Most likely, it’s a MySQL database.

Says Williams: “A huge variety of things that can go wrong on a site are the database’s fault. It’s one of the most fragile components of your system. If a new feature is slow, the common reason is the query your site sends to the database is inefficient.”

This month, learn how to log into your site’s database, browse the tables for your site, and learn how to back up and restore your site. Resources: MySQL basics tutorial (and in pictures).

NEXT: Part 3: Modules/plugins, CSS, programming language...

February 02, 2011

Got an iPhone/iPad app? Don’t count on browser-jumping for extra revenue

Today in New York, Rupert Murdoch unveiled The Daily, the first-ever iPad-only newspaper. It’s available via a new one-click iPad subscription mechanism for 99 cents/week, or $39/year. And it displays paid ads. Many in the news business are watching eagerly to see whether this approach provides a viable revenue stream.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the Appleverse, a controversy is brewing that should concern any publisher who offers content-focused, revenue-producing apps for Apple mobile devices…

By Amy Gahran

On Feb. 1, the New York Times reported on why Apple rejected Sony’s new e-reader app from its app store, which jumped users out of the app and into Sony’s web-based Reader Store to purchase new e-books.

This is the same strategy Amazon has used since the launch of its popular Kindle app to skirt the hefty 30% cut Apple takes from all in-app purchases. In fact, CNN Money wonders whether Apple might crack down on the Kindle app next.

Many iOS app providers view Apple’s move as a bait and switch. For instance, A note on the Sony Reader app page says, in part: “Unfortunately, with little notice, Apple changed the way it enforces its rules and this will prevent the current version of the Reader for iPhone from being available in the app store.”

Here’s Apple’s response, via The Times:

“We have not changed our developer terms or guidelines,” Trudy Muller, an Apple spokeswoman, said Tuesday. “We are now requiring that if an app offers customers the ability to purchase books outside of the app, that the same option is also available to customers from within the app with in-app purchase.”

...So Apple might not be issuing an outright ban on app-jumping, browser-based content purchases (yet). But if you want to offer this feature, your app must also support in-app purchases.

This situation presents a significant issues for content producers, including news organizations with iPhone or iPad apps. For instance:

  • Would publishers have to charge more for in-app purchases, to cover Apple’s cut? If so, consumers probably would just use the cheaper browser option.
  • Might Apple require equal pricing for in-app and browser purchases? This could drastically skew the economics of a publisher’s mobile business model.

The Times indicated why news orgs should care:

This requirement may signal a shift for Apple. The company has made more money selling hardware than music, e-books or apps. If people could have access to more content from more sources on their iPhones and iPads, the thinking went, then they would buy more devices.

The move is also surprising, as Apple has indicated recently that it would be more collaborative, not less, with magazine publishers and other content producers that want more control over how to distribute content on the iPad.

Right now, most news organizations’ mobile apps (for iOS and other platforms) generate revenue from straightforward ad serving and, sometimes, access to premium content—although usually premium content is not actually sold through the app, but merely accessed via an existing subscriber account.

But what if more news organizations wanted to start selling book-like content, and initiating this purchase process via a “buy” button from within an iOS app? The booming popularity of e-book readers means that the e-book market now represents a huge consumer market for news organizations to repackage and sell their content.

For instance, the New York Times recently published Open Secrets, “the definitive chronicle of the WikiLeaks documents’ release and the controversy that ensued.” It’s now sold via all major e-book retailers. But what if the Times decided to also sell it directly in a non-proprietary e-book format (such as .mobi) via a buy button in its iPhone or iPad apps? And what if that buy button jumps users out of the app and into a browser-based shopping cart?

Or what if the news app simply jumped buyers to existing e-bookstores on the web? (Using the publisher’s own affiliate codes to earn a little extra money on the transaction, of course.)

There’s more to this flap. It’s not just about selling content via mobile devices, but also about using apps to access to previously purchased content. Wired explained why (emphasis added):

Apple also allegedly told Sony that the app couldn’t access content purchased on other Sony Reader devices, which is where most of the outrage was focused. ...Apple’s statement indicates that this is indeed the case—sort of. If an app lets users access content that they purchased via Amazon’s website, for example, then that same app must also let users buy the same book via Apple’s own in-app purchase system. If the app developer doesn’t want to use Apple’s in-app purchases to sell content, then the app can’t access content purchased elsewhere either.

News Corp has invested lavishly in The Daily—reportedly spending $30 million, including paying for a staff of 120 and prime office space in downtown Manhattan. Personally, I think this was a mistake for several reasons, including that putting all of The Daily’s eggs in Apple’s basket significantly reduces business flexibility and thus increases risk.

At The Daily’s launch today, Murdoch confirmed that the iPad will probably be only provider for The Daily for this year and next year. Eventually News Corp will develop editions for all tablet platforms, he said. But for now, this is effectively an iPad exclusive.

And while it seems The Daily’s only initial revenue streams are subscriptions (of which Apple is probably taking a cut) and advertising, who’s to say they weren’t also eyeing potential sales of additional content products to help meet their sizeable payroll over the long term?

If Apple is willing to pull a major bait-and-switch for app-related revenue options, it jeopardizes the economics of any venture rooted in iOS apps.

News Corp. might want to accelerate its Android development schedule for The Daily. And other publishers might want to think twice about committing too heavily to a platform which, while popular, also has a track record for suddenly changing its rules for doing business.

The News Leadership 3.0 blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

March 24, 2011

Wireless duopoly coming: What news organizations have at stake

AT&T’s recent bid to buy T-Mobile could radically transform the US mobile landscape by creating a virtual duopoly. This means the mostly-mobile future of digital media would be primarily in the hands of Verizon and AT&T.

This situation, coupled with gaping loopholes in FCC regulations that largely exempt wireless carriers from net neutrality requirements, offers potential good news and bad news for the news business…

By Amy Gahran

There’s ample debate about whether the FCC or Dept. of Justice will eventually approve this particular merger. But in the long run the wireless industry will almost certainly consolidate further. Ultimately, a duopoly of some kind is the most likely outcome, since that would provide at least a pretense of competition.

Here’s why that might be good news for the media/news business:

High-speed wireless broadband rollouts would probably accelerate. In order to continue to meet booming consumer demand for data-intensive mobile services (such as streaming video to cell phones and tablets), carriers need to upgrade their networks to faster “4G” technologies (LTE, Wimax, HSPA+, etc.).

This is a costly undertaking, but it’s likely to happen faster and more comprehensively if carriers can leverage economies of scale. Bigger carriers with more customers are in the best position to get this job done.

US carriers have no choice but to massively upgrade their networks. Their existing systems are already creaking under the weight of current demand—and that situation will only get worse. Overburdened wireless networks hurt the quality and speed of service for all mobile customers, not just the data hogs. So it’s good news for consumers if 4G networks can be rolled out more quickly across the US.

This, in turn, is good news for organizations (including news organizations) that provide content and services to mobile users. Serving your mobile audience is becoming paramount, since in the next few years most US web access is expected to happen from mobile devices, according to Gartner. Ultimately, media is only as good as its delivery. If wireless networks can manage to keep pace with consumer demand, that opens more markets and opportunities for media companies and advertisers.

Then, there’s the bad news…

Wireless carriers effectively can control what your mobile audience can access. The FCC’s Open Internet Order passed last December exempted wireless broadband providers from most net neutrality requirements.

The rules prohibit “paid prioritization” (carriers requiring content providers to pay a fee to ensure that their content gets delivered at an acceptable speed). But the rules do leave the door open for carriers to charge their customers (mobile users) to receive acceptable network speed—either for all content, or perhaps to access specific types of services, or for specific sites.

Which means that if your news organization is offering a rich digital media experience, carrier decisions could effectively render your content unappealing, or even unusable.

This wouldn’t even necessarily just affect smartphones and tablets. Over the coming years, as next-generation wireless broadband technology gets rolled out, it’s possible that many consumers might decide to ditch their wired cable modem and DSL home broadband connections with all-wireless service. So a company like AT&T could, and probably will, be streaming movies over the air that people will watch on their TVs, not just on their iPads. And increasingly wireless carriers will also be providing internet/web access to laptop computers. (They already are, via Mifi devices, USB sticks, and tethering plans.)

Think it can’t happen? Look at what’s been happening to landline phones.

If consumers could save money by going with one wireless provider, rather than a wireless phone service plus a wired broadband connection, they’d probably do it—if the service was reliable and good enough, and if today’s TV channels morph into tomorrow’s wireless channels, which seems likely.

Furthermore, Verizon is already suing the FCC to get the new “net neutrality lite” rules overturned in court. So it’s possible that the current scant requirements for wireless carriers—including the ban on paid prioritization—might evaporate.

In this case, carriers would almost certainly implement new fees to content providers. And, based on how hard AT&T was pushing for paid prioritization last summer, they’d probably be leading that charge.

These issues are all moving targets, but it’s important for news organizations to follow the interplay between wireless industry consolidation, 4G network rollouts, and the effects of net neutrality rules.

Like it or not, wireless carriers wield increasing power over the media business. Knowledge of that shifting landscape should inform your strategy for what kinds of content and experiences you offer in the coming years.

The News Leadership 3.0 blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

February 10, 2012

From news publisher to convener: Making the shift to build community in Iowa

By Amy Gahran

A regional economic development initiative in Iowa has captured the imagination of Chuck Peters, longtime head of the Cedar Rapids Gazette. Getting directly involved meant facing a quandary: How could a news organization consistently support this initiative without becoming a crusader for it? The answer: become a convener of the public discussion…

A stretch of East-Central Iowa (around Iowa City and Cedar Rapids) has long been home to a unique convergence of business, technology, higher education, science, and the arts. All these forces recently banded together under the Iowa’s Creative Corridor initiative to work to enhance the region’s collective competitiveness.

Chuck Peters, president and CEO of The Gazette Co. (which publishes the daily Cedar Rapids Gazette and runs the local ABC TV affiliate station KCRG), decided to get his company involved. For about two decades he’d been discussing “systems thinking” and community development with Les Garner, former president of Cornell College and current president of the Greater Cedar Rapids Community Foundation. And he’d also been working with John Lohman of the local Corridor Business Journal.

“Then we had that big flood here. Everybody was focused on cleaning up their own mess. John and I said we seemed to be the primary ones who cared about future of the region as a region. So we decided to join forces and try to promote the region.”

So the two media companies began a quasi-formal relationship with the Corridor Business Alliance, and formed Corridor2020—highlighting the alliance of 13 local economic development groups. Peters and Lohman began attending meetings and providing some money and in-kind support for the alliance’s efforts. Peters also summarized a major report advising the region on branding and development opportunities, and wrote an internal guidance document for Source Media Group (the trade name for the combined news and sales operations of the Gazette and KCRG). Lohman wrote an FAQ about the ICC initiative.

...Those are a lot of dense, weighty documents flying around, mostly talking about how to brand the region. But branding is no trivial matter.

“I’ve spent most of the last week explaining to people, if you think of branding as meaning a logo and advertising, that won’t help us much,” said Peters. “In the big picture, we actually need to develop regional capabilities for being collaborative and innovative. We can’t accomplish that without a shared vision of what that means.”

Defining what role a news company could or should play in moving the ICC initiative forward was a challenge. “How could we actively work to foster regional collaboration and innovation? As opposed to what we had been doing, which was to be a coconspirator in a culture of passivity,” said Peters.

“We had to change some basic things about the way we do our work. We’ve always been distanced observers lobbing articles into the community, often framing issues as contention of horserace. That just discourages people from engaging.”

The Gazette Co. decided to become a convener of public discussion around topics related to regional collaboration and development. This means planning and participating in public forums and other events, and producing new kinds of content.

“The news industry is so locked into the format of articles and video clips, but those are such incredibly ineffective tools when you’re trying to help a community understand an issue and come to consensus,” he said.

The newspaper and TV station are beginning to experiment with techniques used by the Khan Academy, such as using mindmaps as a way to illuminate connections between various issues and perspectives—and also to probe not just what people in the region want, but why they want it.

“It’s amazing to have these conversations with our community,” said Peters. “Like if we’re discussing education: Someone will say ‘we must have great schools.’ OK, why? What do we want great schools to do for us? Unfold the potential of each child. Again, why? Is it because it’s morally correct, or because we want to have a kick-ass competitive economy? Well, we want both—but now that we’re clear on why we want great schools, that makes it easier to think creatively about how to achieve that goal.”

The thinking of Peters and others involved in the ICC initiative was spurred in part by Collaborate: Leading Regional Innovation Clusters, a 2010 report by the U.S. Council on Competitiveness. While this report says little about the role of media organizations in regional development, there is a clear business motive for media companies to get involved. The report observes that “broadcast and media markets rely on a regional marketplace.”

The News Leadership 3.0 blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

The Knight Digital Media Center at USC is a partnership with the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism. The Center is funded by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

March 22, 2012

Lessons in entrepreneurship: It’s the connection, stupid

By Julia Scott
As bargainbabe.com has developed, I have fundamentally changed the way I see myself in business. Once an online content creator and filter, I now view myself as a vital connector of brands and people.

Three years ago I quit my reporting gig to blog, and now my value as a writer pales in comparison to my value as a connector.

The realization hit me while planning the third annual Frugal Festival, a one-day gathering of savvy spenders in Los Angeles. The idea for the event was spawned at KDMC’s News Entrepreneur Boot Camp when Robert Niles asked me to dream up a “big hairy” idea that would take my nascent company to the next level.

At the most recent Festival, A-list brands like Albertsons, Yelp, AOL’s Shortcuts, Chicago Cutlery, and Pryex participated. So did some 350 Angelenos looking to save money on the most fundamental expense of all, food. The annual event is popular with media and is one of the most profitable elements of my money-saving brand, BargainBabe.com.

Perhaps more importantly, working with top brands has fundamentally changed the way I see myself in business. Once an online content creator and filter, I now view myself as a vital connector of brands and people.

What changed?

The success of the event was one piece. (Attendees began lining up before volunteers arrived.) Another was that so many brands were willing - no, eager - to work with me. A little ol’ blogger.

Clearly, my view of my brand was outdated. BargainBabe.com has zero paid subscribers and a fraction of the readers of the mid-size newspaper where I last collected a paycheck. But it has something else.

A connection. And Frugal Festival, the offline extension of the brand, was valuable to attendees and sponsors. Guests liked that I offered them ways to save money. Free food and goodie bags didn’t hurt, either. Brands liked access to savvy customers who were likely to share deals that they found.

Both sides wanted access. I found a way to provide it.

Along the way I realized my brand’s value is not reflected in old media’s measure of success, readership.

So how did I go from deadline devotee to marketplace matchmaker?

I built loyalty among my readers by consistently delivering top notch content five days a week. I solicited feedback and posted their tips, always making room for a reader’s idea. I personalized saving money with my own experiences and those of readers.

When brands reached out to me, I tried to find a way to work with them that met BargainBabe.com’s ethical guidelines. (All paid content is marked.) I proposed new ideas. If it didn’t work out, I kept the lines of communication open. Instead of a blunt “I would never cover this completely un-newsworthy scrap,” I opted for “This isn’t a good match for BargainBabe.com right now.”

I tapped my existing relationships with brands, often through PR contacts, to gauge interest in Frugal Festival. Instead of a hard pitch, I told them the truth. I was creating an event to help people save money on food and wanted to know what would make it worthwhile for them to participate.

Taking a step back, I conceptualized the event by asking myself two questions.

What would make people come?

What would make brands get involved?

Answer those questions for yourself and you are on your way to capitalizing on your value as a connector.

Julia Scott is a journalist by training, a cheapskate by nature, an entrepreneur by design, and an alumna of Knight Digital Media Center’s News Entrepreneur Boot Camp. Reach Julia, aka The Bargain Babe, at julia at bargainbabe dot com.

The News Leadership 3.0 blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

July 25, 2012

The “Evening Edition” approach to community news curation

By Amy Gahran

Last week some web designers and an editor joined forces to revive the “evening edition” approach to news—long a staple of the newspaper business, which catered to news consumers’ availability and willingness to catch up on the news during evening hours.

The new Evening Edition website demonstrates a curation strategy that community and niche news publishers could emulate and expand upon in order to more effectively engage their readers, especially via mobile devices…

The idea for Evening Edition sprang from a July 9 tweet from former NYTimes.com design director Khoi Vinh: iPad suggests ‘evening newspaper’ habits; tablet owners consumer more news than those who don’t own tablets.”

The web designers at Mule Design took that idea and ran with it. Just one week later Evening Edition launched—with Paz on board as editor, and sponsorship from Mother Jones. And no ads.

Evening Edition is devastatingly simple: An experienced editor, Anna Rascouët-Paz, sorts through the day’s news and assembles a single page of news: six or so important stories spanning a wide range of topics, published on the web every day at 5 p.m. The design is clean, easy on the eyes, and loads quickly and well on a tablet or cell phone browser—no need to download an app, no sifting through voluminous bundles of stories under section heads. Links to the original stories are included, so readers who want more can get more easily.

This is truly a curation effort, not mere aggregation. ReadWriteWeb noted that Paz “often combines several sources into a concise summary. It draws on other people’s reporting, like just about all of what passes as news these days—but Evening Edition performs a critical journalistic function that often falls by the wayside online: It elevates the significant information above the noise.”

And that’s a significant bonus, since (as GigaOm’s Mathew Ingram observed):

“Sifting through vast quantities of information in order to show people the important stuff is what newspapers are supposed to do, but many newspaper websites and even mobile apps still shovel an enormous amount of content at users with very little filtering. ...Why do they do this? Because they have hundreds of reporters and editors whose job it is to pump out thousands of articles a day for the print edition, and the website gets all of that and more.

“It’s a supply-oriented approach to information, rather than a demand-oriented one. In effect, a newspaper website says to a reader: ‘Here’s all the things we came up with today, which you may or may not be interested in.’ Something like Evening Edition, however, says: ‘We know that you are busy, and overwhelmed with information, and we want to help you—here’s what you need to know.’”

This is a great idea, and the best part about it is this is not rocket science.

Any news publisher or editor could emulate this approach to launch a curated and highly relevant digital news product. In fact, community and niche news publishers might be in an especially good position to use this strategy to add value to readers and engage audiences daily via mobile devices.

Consider this: Community news editors constantly peruse a variety of news and information, and glean from that relevance to the communities they serve. They also have a strong sense of what matters or is most important to their communities—and often they also have a strong historical perspective on their community.

A community news site could launch its own “evening edition”—which might be a separate website, or a section of its current site. The design would be clean and spare, emulating Mule Design’s Evening Edition. The handful (three to six?) stories curated there could be a mix of the publisher’s own top stories, as well as top stories from other news venues (say, the nearest metro daily paper or network TV news affiliate) or other resources (state or local governments, local school systems or institutions, blogs, nonprofits, etc.). The editor could also add insight and context, highlighting the direct relevance to the community.

For instance, a community site in California might mention and link to the Oakland Tribune’s coverage of Pacific Gas & Electric’s new solar plans—and relate it to nearby solar projects. The community news publisher’s main site might not have a specific story on this—and might not even run one—but by putting this issue on the community radar, that publisher is offering a service based on context and convenience.

Who’s going to pay for this? I think Evening Edition is on the right track that ads would be a bad mix for this aesthetically spare service—but sponsorship might be an option. It’s a discrete project that could gain prime-time local popularity, and thus might be an attractive sponsorship offering for local businesses, foundations, or other organizations.

Since this publishing strategy relies on the web, rather than apps, to deliver a good mobile experience, that makes is less costly and technically simpler to implement. It could also be supplemented with an e-mail edition that would be pushed out at the same time the web edition goes live.

It’ll be interesting to see Evening Edition evolve. But for now, it’s an interesting option not just for the national and global news of the day, but for smaller more focused news audiences.

The News Leadership 3.0 blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

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Exploring innovation, transformation and leadership in a new ecosystem of news, by journalist and change advocate Michele McLellan.

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