Tag Archives: Publishing

The new economic reality: business model first, build traffic second

Farhad Manjoo at Slate offers a timely reminder of one of the underlying realities of online business:

“Everyone knows that print newspapers are our generation’s horse-and-buggy; in the most wired cities, they’ve been pummeled by competition from the Web. But it might surprise you to learn that one of the largest and most-celebrated new-media ventures is burning through cash at a rate that makes newspapers look like wise investments. It’s called YouTube.”

I’ve said before in various conversations that one of the factors that big online publishers need to consider is the value of the traffic they are getting, and YouTube is a perfect, if extreme, example. Without a real method of turning traffic into money, every visitor represents a cost to your business. Bandwidth, server maintenance, development, and infrastructure might have a low cost on a per-user basis, but they’re not free, and the more users you have, the bigger than sum is going to be.

Saying, as some commentators do, that you should build traffic before having at least the outline of a plan to turn that traffic into money is simply unsustainable in the current economic climate. It was actually unsustainable in the old economic climate too, but the flood of cheap credit based ultimately on overvalued assets and Chinese savings disguised that fact. It made it seem like the era when VCs would endless fund business with no business model (and big companies would buy them) would go on forever – and that’s sadly not the case.

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The passion of publishing, or why some bloggers are journalists

There’s a very simple joke that sums up the difference between a blogger and a professional journalist, and it goes like this.

Q: What’s the difference between a blogger and a reporter?

A: About £25,000 per year.

Employing people as “bloggers” for a professional outfit is often a great way of making sure you pay the absolute minimum. But, in the world of small-scale specialised publications, it was ever thus.

One of the great mistakes of the “mainstream media versus new media” debate is to treat print media as monolithic, when in fact there have always been lots of different kinds of print publishing. The ethos, values and workflow of something like MacUser, for example, aren’t really anything like that of The New York Times. We never had vast salaries, legions of fact checkers, or mistrust of online (I was MacUser’s first dedicated online editor in 1997 or 98, and the magazine had been online for a couple of years before that).

In fact, the ethos of a magazine like MacUser was almost exactly the same as that of one of today’s high-end blogs. We recruited not from the ranks of professionally-trained journalists but from the massive pool of Mac enthusiasts, people who were passionate about what they were going to be working on.

When then-editor Stuart Price recruited me, I had no journalistic experience and absolutely no desire to be a journalist. What I had was a passion for the Mac, and plenty of personality – and if you’re looking for exclusives and stories, having the kind of personality which lets you relate to people matters a lot.

And that was how we recruited. During my time there, I think I was involved in recruiting maybe five or six people at entry-level positions. The vast majority – great people like Kenny Hemphill and Chris Phin – had no journalistic training. What they had, in spades, was passion for the Mac.

The craft of putting together a story, a feature, a review or even a whole magazine can all be taught on the job. I learned vast amounts on MacUser about writing and publishing, and I’m still learning from people now – Juliet Warkentin, my former editorial director at Redwood, taught me a lot about the black art of flatplanning.

But what you can’t teach is enthusiasm, and that comes from being engaged with the subject you’re writing about. A good reporter can write about anything, but the best people are passionate about the thing they’re writing about. Being passionate about writing itself isn’t enough to make you really good.

And that’s what our kind of publishing has in common with the world of blogging. Arnold Kim, who founded MacRumors.com and made enough of a go of it to be able to give up his medical career and go full time, puts it thus:

“I think a site like MacRumors succeeded because it was started by someone who was a genuine enthusiast of the topic and not just going for a paycheck.”

Arnold is right: MacRumors’ success happened because of the passion he had for the Mac, because it wasn’t just a job for him. However, I don’t really think he’s got this bit right:

“Especially then, there was no incentive for a traditional journalist to stay up late at night to report on the latest news and rumors. Those stories, if deemed news-worthy, would be published the following day.”

That’s something I don’t recognise – I’ve never met a “traditional” journalist who hadn’t spent a lot of late nights working on getting the story done. Back when I was news editor on MacUser, I worked every other weekend because the deadline for news was Monday 10am, and I wanted to ensure it was as fresh as possible – if I’d have completed it Friday afternoon, instead of (often very late) Sunday night, I’d have missed some stories.

Publishing, in any medium, is at its best when it combines the craft of reporting (researching, digging, writing) with passion about the subject. If you’re passionate about writing, be a writer: if you’re passionate about a topic now, you don’t have to wait for a magazine like MacUser to have a vacancy – start a blog, and have fun!

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Goodbye Maxim

This week Maxim shut, neatly closing a chapter of publishing that I was there to witness at the start. When Maxim first launched, I was at Dennis Publishing on the MacUser team, and I remember the small gathering the company held for the new magazine in the boardroom, next door to our office space. There was a couple of crates of beer – no models, alas.

In some sense Maxim was a me-too product, based on the hugely-successful lad’s mag formula which the brilliant James Brown had created at Loaded. The difference, according to the press packs sent to potential advertisers, was that Maxim was going to be more upmarket, aimed at the ABC1 readership that advertisers adore.

It didn’t quite turn out like that, of course, and squaring the circle between the matey feel of lads mags and the high-end values of ABC1’s proved to be beyond everyone.

But Maxim made the ineffable and brilliant Felix Dennis vast amounts of money when Felix put his balls on the line – and a lot of the cash from his UK company – and launched Maxim in the US. When it was sold in 2007, it was for between $250 and $270 million, which adds up to a decent pay day for Felix. He won’t have to sell the mansion in Mustique just yet.

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The Jeff Jarvis conundrum

I have a certain amount of sympathy for Ron Rosenbaum's post about Jeff Jarvis. Like Ron, I used to be an avid reader of Jeff's blog, and liked it a lot. And, like Ron, I've become disillusioned by Jeff and his arguments over the past year.

Let's make this clear from the start: a lot of what Jeff says is right.I have absolutely no need for Jeff to "save" me. I have no idea how long exactly Jeff has been involved in online publishing, but I doubt that he could describe me as a print zealot. I first worked as an online-only journalist around 1998 (when I was first dedicated online editor for MacUser) and although I've moved back to print a couple of times (follow the money!) since then, I'm currently, again, only working day-to-day online.

However, as Ron says, somewhere over the past year Jeff has become increasing reluctant to accept criticism, instead concentrating on smearing anyone who criticises him. Arguments which are still in play are dismissed out of hand as "old hat", and anyone who raises them as a "curmudgeon".

I think that one of the commentors on Jeff's supposed-rebuttal, "Chris", puts the way I feel about it best:

"It is possible to simultaneously believe …

1) That Jeff always has a lot of sharp insights and has kept coming up with them for many years;

2) That Jeff has become progressively more infatuated with his
stature and that his opinion of his own brilliance and deep
significance just keeps growing;

3) That print journalists need to hear the tough insights Jeff offers; and

4) That Jeff hasn’t come close to a coherent answer to the question
of where revenue is going to be found to sustain anything close to the
level of journalistic thoroughness to which we’ve grown accustomed.

I live in California, a megastate with an extremely poorly run state
government that has grown steadily more dysfunctional. Nevertheless,
over the past five years, the print journalists covering Sacramento
have been cut by at least half. At important hearings on things like
overcrowded prisons or failing schools, hearings where the future of
the state is being shaped, sometimes there are no journos in sight.
Before long, the Sacramento Bee, the L.A. Times and AP may be the only
ones with regularly staffed bureaus in the capital of the nation’s
largest, richest state.

This is not healthy. For all Jeff’s smarts, I’ve never seen him
offer a single insight into how this sort of common journalistic
decline will be addressed — or at least a single insight that I thought
had a practical chance of success."

Chris is completely right – and unfortunately, Jeff has spent a lot of time not answering this question, and accusing anyone who raises it of being "a curmudgeon". While Jeff has been happy to dish out the rhetoric, it appears that when someone uses the same tools against him, he gets more than a little thin skinned.

Print is dying, right? Not so fast

Don’t expect this story to get coverage from those who always seem to be claiming that print media is dying. The Economist, the venerable newspaper (which looks like a magazine) has seen revenues, profits and print circulation all rise:

"The Economist Group’s chief executive, Helen Alexander, has signed off from her 11-year leadership of the publisher by unveiling a 16pc rise in American print advertising for its flagship title and a 23pc increase in operating profit.

The Economist’s double-digit growth comes at a time when US news media have been under pressure. Time magazine, the market leader with 3.3m readers, saw sales fall away sharply last year as prices were increased to make up for falling advertising revenues… The Economist’s circulation has doubled in a decade, including a 9pc spurt last year to 1.3m copies a week."

Of course, some of those healthy profits have to do with The Economist’s web site. But even here, it bucks the trend: rather than make everything available for free, its archives are only available to subscribers or readers who have to sit through an irritating Flash ad.

Of course, The Economist’s print strategy is simple: steal a bigger slice of the smaller pie. Rather than just run to a growing market (online advertising), it has decided to also concentrate on getting a bigger share of print advertising, too.

How does it do it? Simple: By producing content that’s better quality, better-researched, and better written than anyone else. No blogs, no Twitter, just better (and harder) work.

Will the success story of The Economist be taught in journalism schools? I doubt it. The new, shiny and cool tends to be more exciting to those in college than dull stuff like writing to a tight style, making lots of phone calls and nurturing contacts.

But hey, that’s enough of this curmudgeonliness – let’s concentrate on things like Twitter, which has a bigger user-base (1.9 million) and has never made a single cent from any of them. Now that’s a success story that the young ought to emulate…