In Preperation for Wednesday’s meeting — Pt. 2

At a 4 p.m. meeting  today (Wednesday, Oct. 29, 2008) Jim Willse will give those in the editorial department a “first cut at how we’ll be planning for transition” from the old to the new Star-Ledger and then allow “discussion of same.”

Rather than wait, I would like to toss out some ideas that might be good to consider as The Star-Ledger moves into this period of planning for transition to an editorial department and newspaper that has cut staffing by more than 40 percent and may soon be experiencing revenue and circulation reductions of near 20 percent.

To be clear, though, these thoughts aren’t necessarily mine (though I am in agreement with them). Most come from some of our own editors and others with whom they recently met to discuss ways to help revive or preserve journalism in the digital age.

A few days ago Jim Willse and John Hassell (who departs today for a position at Advance Internet) participated in the New Business Models for News Summit at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. Find a full list of participants here.

The event was called to bring together “a diverse group of editorial and business executives, entrepreneurs, and academics” for presentations and discussions on how to develop new business models for the news industry. Willse acted as leader for a discussion on News Organizations while Hassell served as rapporteur for the Newsroom Efficiencies group.

The most radical thoughts came from Hassell’s group. Charged with finding new newsroom efficiencies they came up with a few things our newspaper might want to discontinue. Among them: staff coverage of national sports, national entertainment and national/international news. They also recommended dropping the editorial page.

Summit moderator Jeff Jarvis often puts it this way: Focus on what you do best and link to the rest. I would simply say that if we can’t do it better than everyone else (e.g. ESPN, Rotten Tomatoes and The WaPost/NY Times, respectively), we shouldn’t do it with our dwindling staff.

Hassell’s group “decided to focus on a market like Philadelphia or Dallas and, rather than tweaking the existing daily newspaper model, to start fresh with an online-only news organization.”

They imagined a staff of 35 consisting of:
-Content creators who do blogging/photography/video/curation of beats: 20
-Community managers who do outreach, mediation, social media evangelism: 3
-Programmers/developers: 2
-Designers/graphics artists: 2
-Producers who do site management, etc.: 5
-Editors: 3

Staff levels were a product of revenue calculations: “A website with 800 million page views/year at $5 rpm, [would generate] total revenue of $4 million. We set aside $2.1 million of that revenue to pay an editorial staff of 35 FTEs $60,000/year.”

While such a staff seems ridiculously small for an operation such as The Star-Ledger, which attempts to cover the entire state of New Jersey, it does offer an interesting concept for our organization.

What if The Ledger / NJ.com formed a number of such groups (some even smaller than this model) that are tightly focused on specific coverage where there is a sure audience and at least the opportunity for making a clear advertising connection? Examples would be high school and college sports with built-in alumni audiences and/or geographic locales; state government; and local communities.

Each would have independent web sites (i.e. not part of a confusing, monolithic structure that attempts to aggregate everything about everything — not that there is anything wrong with that) and print products that are direct reverse publishing of the content (generated by professional and citizen journalists, as well as commenters). The reverse published print products could be inserted into the more traditional newspapers or sold as stand-alone periodicals in order to tap whatever revenue remains for news on paper advertising.

Perhaps we could experiment with an idea like this in Trenton given that the recent buyouts have almost completely eliminated the editorial staff at The Times.

In Willse’s group, his announcement of the staff cuts at our newspaper led to a questions about advertising, production costs and why “newspapers [are] firing journalists to deal with losses from the industrial side, when it is content that … is ultimately valuable, content that is the future, and printing presses are what is leading to lost [sic].”

Group participant Bob Garfield from On The Media, put it this way: “What the hell are we doing laying off the journalists when we should be laying off the presses?”

Group members were asked if newspapers could survive in a web-only world and the consensus was that remains impossible — at least for publicly held newspapers. However, they also agreed that newspapers are letting revenue opportunities slip away.

What those opportunities are is not mentioned specifically in the recap. But there are many that have not been grasped at The Star-Ledger / NJ.com due largely to a one-dimensional and confusing web presence that appears to lack an effective advertising sales strategy.

One revenue idea was out-sourced ad sales. That concept may be a necessity for hyper-local sales, but the lower costs will be offset by a smaller split of revenue for the news organization.

Another was public support via direct contributions. The model sounds almost like creating an E-bay for projects where story ideas will need a minimum audience bid before they can be pursued. While interesting and potentially useful in a number of ways (e.g. direct response to audience desires, a method for gaining audience participation even at the story-concept stage), this is a pretty scary way to cover news.

Ultimately, the groups didn’t come to many conclusions on almost anything. In fact, much of it isn’t even new. Some concepts close to these were floated about three years ago during the re-envisioning The Ledger meetings.

The real issue isn’t ideas. There are smart people at The Ledger who have spent a lot of time considering new and different ways the paper could do business in the future (of course, many of them have left or will be leaving in the next couple of months).

The question isn’t really whether there is material for The Star-Ledger to begin planning for an inevitable transition. Discussions have been ongoing for years and the staff-reduction process began three months ago.

The bottom line is whether anything different will be done. Will transition mean real change or trying to continue business as usual on both the print and internet side with far less people? Maybe we can start the discussion there.

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2 Responses to “In Preperation for Wednesday’s meeting — Pt. 2”

  1. jerseygull Says:

    Yeah, and if we drop national coverage why does anyone even bother with us anymore? Why not buy the Chatham Courier or the Two River Times or the local Gannett paper?

  2. If people only buy us for our national coverage we are done anyway. Ours is the same as theirs — all AP unless we decide to quit that organization. Is that why people buy The Star-Ledger, for our national or international coverage?

    Me, I get my national/international from The New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, BBC, Jerusalem Post, etc., etc., etc. Guess how many of those are delivered to my home or that I tune into on a regular basis?

    None. I get them online. Always fresh, never wet.

    So, if we have the same AP stories as the Chatham Courier, Two River Times or local flavor of Gannett — why would I buy any of those papers for national/international? I would only buy any of them if they had something I couldn’t find anywhere else.

    What does The Star-Ledger have the can’t be found anywhere else? Our future will depend more on the answer to that question — as well as whether we can effectively promote and monetize that content — then whether we have stories and pictures that can be found everywhere else.

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