Monday, February 11, 2008

The Art of Link Letters

In which, like nearly everyone else, I point to others and say "Good idea!" or "Bad idea!" or "Good idea but I can do you one better!"

WHO ARE THOSE GUYS?: This chart from the Newspaper Association of America on Web readership is hard for me to interpret -- press putthroughs and copies per household I can do -- but what it appears to show to me is:
1. Two levels of readership, the 58-mil audience and the 62-mil audience. More is more and more is good, but why are there these two discrete levels? Why does the number of page views not fluctuate in a line basically reflecting the audience? There may be easy answers and this is an aggregate, but I know magazines can say exactly what cover sold what issue. Is this political, sports, what? In any event, an uptick in the last three months of 2007 (which might reflect politics and might reflect football) allows crowing about a figure that the year does not show.
2. Second, what I really want to know is, in essence, which are single copy, which are home delivery -- of this unique visits per month, how many are people who come every day and spend time with the paper, as opposed to those coming from other sites once in the month for a particular link? Sure, you can sell an ad with anything, but the latter is not going to produce too much revenue.

The main reason I want to know is that we had a presentation last week on search engine optimization and it indicated the same problem that every piece of Web statistics has: The numbers are squishy, they're not really very good, and no one really knows what they mean other than in the most vague sort of manner. Their main uses seem to be 1) "it's in the millions!" and 2) "it's more than it used to be!" This is not to say that newspaper circulation numbers have ever been exact or particularly truthful.

For example, the canard -- "visits averaging 44 minutes a month," often used to say "this means your typical user visits for 1.5 minutes per day." Well, yeah, except we all know it doesn't really mean that. But what does it mean? Some people are spending two hours a day and most people are spending 30 seconds? What is the mean, not the average? Since the Internet is largely a five-day medium, should we figure it based on Monday-Friday use only? What are the figures for daily users? Most important for the advertisers whom newspapers deal with, how many of these users are local? (What is often repeated is that about half are not, but how is that determined? Seems to me an IP address can be anywhere.)

It's not that any of this is wrong. It's just the uncritical adulation thrown at it, which brings to mind Sam Jaffe saying to Michael Rennie in "The Day the Earth Stood Still": "Such power exists?"

WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT?: A couple of posters here (thanks!) and a number of posters elsewhere keep making the point: The subscription fee just pays for the cost of home delivery and the news is otherwise free (ad-subsidized), so, if the method of delivery changes, why should I pay for the news? To which many journalists have unwisely answered, well, surely people would pay for the wonderfulness we produce.

The Watertown Daily Times operates in an isolated market -- almost an hour north of Syracuse and hours away from anywhere else. Watertown, like most of outstate New York, has had hard times, but the Times as still managed to keep (in 2007 Year Book) a daily circulation near 29,000, down from 37,000 10 years ago -- not as hard a decline as a lot of papers, but still in the 2o-to-25-percentish range.

The Daily Times, being a family owned newspaper and thus having neither stock analysts nor corporate overseers, decided to put the Web content behind a wall. Last week it threw up its hands and dropped the wall. Victory for the Web!

In a way. The Times subscription Web site had 1,000 paid subscribers. Which means 29,000 households took the print paper and 1,000 took the Web site, meaning -- 7,000 of the circulation loss was people who simply had no use for paying for the Watertown Daily Times in any form.

Now, this doesn't show people stopped reading local news. It shows people stopped paying for local news. There are TV stations in Watertown, and then there is NewZjunky. NewZjunky has very little information about itself, but it appears to be a sort of anti-Times... a Drudge for Watertown, with links to public records, TV sites, and obits from every funeral home, along with school closings, etc. In other words, the sort of local-local stuff that is supposed to save the newspaper.

NewZjunky covers traffic crashes. I suspect NewZjunky covers city council meetings. Other than that NewZjunky links to everything EXCEPT the Times: The Syracuse papers, the TV stations, the Fort Drum PAO. Outside the area, NewZjunky links to everything by every other Web site it can find.

What NewZjunky has lots of is local ads. Lots of them. How it does this is beyond me at the moment, since its "Advertizing" link takes one to how to post photos.

My suspicion -- although I welcome more information from NewZjunky him or herself -- is that NewZjunky generates enough money to employ NewZjunky and an ad salesperson.

I wonder how many people the Watertown Daily Times employs to cover the news.

What does this all mean? I don't really know. Here are some thoughts:

1. Almost no one is willing to pay for news on the Web if they can get it free. Almost no one is willing to pay for parking if they can get it free. If you ask them, they will say they want it free. They don't care what your problems are.
2. If you don't post news on the Web, someone else will. If you do, someone else will anyhow. TV stations, local entrepreneurs, L.A. Observed. All you're doing is doing it with a higher cost structure. Unless you get your cost structure down to their level, you can't compete on the Web in the long run. If you get it down to their cost structure...
3. The definition of what free news can be economically supported by itself on the Web is pretty thin. Car crashes, obits, and quick hits. TV should have taught us this, and it's got a legal oligopoly.
4, NewZjunky's audience seems to be mostly satisfied with the "just the facts, ma'm" -- at least for now. There is an audience that wants more.
5. As NewZjunky admits, it was started for people who had moved from Watertown and wanted to keep up with local news back home -- free.
6. Even with NewZjunky, even with local television, even with everything else, 29,000 people/families in Watertown are still paying to have the Watertown Daily Times delivered to their home.

Why? What do they want? How can the newspaper business provide them with a product that meets their needs and supports an actual reporting staff that doesn't simply say, well, here's a news release from Fort Drum, let's run it verbatim? Cause if all they want is "free obits online..." Just online, just free, is not a viable long-term business model for newspapers because without a barrier to competition, you can't afford to do what they do.

More to come...

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

I'm a little familiar with the situation in Watertown.

Newzjunky is a one-man operation, run by a guy who used to work at the Watertown Times (one reason why there are no links to the WDT - much bad blood. The Times has written some pretty angry and naive stuff about Newzjunky).

Like Drudge, the vast majority of Newzjunky's effort is to find interesting stuff elsewhere and link to it. (Unlike Drudge, there's no particular political point of view.)

He's doing some original stuff these days, mostly high-profile spot news. He also gets obits and "news of record" stuff like court calendars.

But he depends on the content of others to create an irresistible website. So in that way, Newzjunky's not a web journalism site. It is closer to a portal, a trusted guide. That is its great value.

Anonymous said...

I pasted my opinion here from the Howard Owens site I hope that is ok with every one.
Eagle-Fox-Pup Says:
February 19th, 2008 at 1:35 pm
Greetings. Let us not forget that WDT owns the Carthage and Lowville weeklys. Any body ever read thess papers? Carthage has fine content for the local people. It is well done. Lowville has content that well, what happened to the rest of the story when you go to that page it says it is supposed to be there, and spelling?. The (timelyness)of events is really a know brainer because you would probably be late to that event. Does that tell you about the people behind the opperation! As for obits most do their home work but I have to agree with y’all that family’s tend to pontificate!
I hate to admit it but we do get the WDT and also Sports Ill.and News Week. And a few other mags. We also like Newz because it is an alternative for our busy life styles. The US of A is what capitalism is all about. How the new guy can make it, and how the old guy steps up the plate or strikes out.
Eagle-Fox-Pup Says:
February 19th, 2008 at 1:49 pm
ps; The Newz site is vast. It took along time to set it up. Now it still takes time but the template is all done. Editing , adding & deleteing still takes time but not as much. It is a thing of love! I speak so because I ran two web sites and it is not easy!

Anonymous said...

As a former reporter for the WDT, I hated and respected the guy behind Newzjunky. Like Drudge, he gave prominence to every story heralding the death of newspapers while relying on their content for 99 percent of his content. Just a bit disingenuous.

When I worked there, nothing killed me more than when I'd file an exclusive story, then see it linked to on Newzjunky via the AP (which had run it verbatim but scrubbed of any reference to the WDT). It always made me wonder about the inequity of AP's fee system, which charges newspapers an arm and a leg for content that sites like Newzjunky and Drudge profit from handsomely--without spending a dime.


The "trusted guide" metaphor above is spot on. Like Drudge, the guy who runs Newzjunky (and other similar sites) tapped into a vein of discontent with the traditional sources of information. Strong news (sorry, newz) judgment, a keen awareness of his audience's interests and a willingness to huff it up to a single-vehicle accident in BFE at 3 a.m. helped him gain a strong and loyal audience.

If the WDT had adapted more quickly to the Internet and put out a stronger product, Newzjunky probably would have been just a flash in the pan.