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The Newsonomics of less-is-more, more or less

[Each week, our friend Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of the news business for the Lab.]

It is a head-turner, which seems to be, at first, an only-in-Utah story. The Deseret Morning News, KSL TV, and KSL Radio, all owned by one company, the Deseret Management Co., a for-profit arm of the Church of Latter-Day Saints, are combining operations.

One headline: “Salt Lake City paper axes 43% of its staff”.

Another: “Deseret News a model of growth and innovation for the entire industry”.

One’s a fact; the other is aspirational.

Remove the religious subtext, for a moment, and I believe we see a model that will appear ordinary in many American cities, within a few years. Think about it. If we as readers, viewers and listeners want words, photographs, videos, and audio, and expect it to be served up in an easy-to-use, relevant-to-me way, then why would the companies that produce news in those various forms be separate?

They’re separate, of course, because those words/picture/audio used to be called newspapers/magazines, network and cable TV and radio broadcasters. Those words, though, describe the old world, those packages the content came wrapped in. In our digital world, we’re seeing delivery blur through the Internet. And, that inevitably, and now more quickly, means that single companies will produce words, pictures and sound — and they’ll find ways to do it more cheaply and efficiently.

If you own the Salt Lake properties, or if you’re Tribune and own the Chicago Tribune, WGN-TV and WGN radio, you practically have a fiduciary responsibility to rearrange assets that will make the company more efficient. If you own a broadcast station or a newspaper, you can more easily see the rationale in buying or combining with the other, to meet customer (reader/viewer and advertiser) demands of the coming age.

So the Salt Lake Experiment joins TBD’s (“The Newsonomics of TBD“) in putting together the text and video pieces. They are the next generation in this attempt to make convergence work. Call it News Convergence 2.0, with Tampa’s Tribune/WFLA experiment the best poster child for 1.0. How well the Deseret operation (or TBD) executes is, of course, the key. Journalism isn’t about white-board theories, in any era; it’s about getting the news gathered, analyzed, and distributed to readers, and doing it better than the competition.

Let’s look at the newsonomics of the Deseret decision, though. The numbers in play are curious ones, as Deseret News President and CEO Clark Gilbert lays out a “less is more” theme in the major restructuring of his company. In fact, let’s use the more and less theme to gauge the moving pieces of the new business model.

  • Less is More: Take that “43%” headline. The legacy news staff of the Deseret News has indeed been cut 43 percent — 85 jobs, including those of the editor and publisher of the paper. That number includes both full-time and part-time positions. So we’d expect a lot less coverage, right? With a bit of frustration in his voice, Deseret News President and CEO Clark Gilbert tells me bluntly “That’s an Old Media world view. We have access to more journalists, hyperlocal contributors, national sports figures than ever before.” His point, and his plan: The combined operations of the remaining Deseret News staff and the sister news staffs at KSL TV and radio will operate smarter and more efficiently.

    “Say there’s a story on Capitol Hill [in Salt Lake City]. Right now, the paper sends a reporter and a photographer and KSL sends a reporter and videographer. That’s four people, and that story may end up on B3,” says Gilbert. “Now we’ll send one.”

    So, step one: “Reduce duplication.”

    So the news math changes dramatically. The new staff of something more than 200 (Gilbert is being cagey about the number) will be expected to multitask, with remaining staffers increasingly cross-trained and “new employees expected to have those skills.” Do the math. If it took four people to do a story and now it takes only one, you can afford to jettison one of those positions and get more productivity out of the other two.

    Step two: “Deepen coverage,” meaning the re-allocating of resources to cover issues most important to the readers. Gilbert says that about half of the remaining news staffers will serve in the “integrated newsroom,” with the remainder staying in more traditional journalistic roles. In that integrated newsroom of roughly a hundred, a third will serve as first responders/rewrite and two-thirds as field reporters. “You’re sandwiching the reporters between first responders [getting to news and getting it out quickly] and rewrite [those taking the reporters work and purposing it for various platforms],” explains Gilbert. Those who first-respond also do rewrite — so that’s going to be a busy staff.

    The journalistic question: How do the new stories compare to the old ones?

  • More Costs Less: Borrowing basic notions of getting cheap and free content from the Huffington Post and Demand Media, Gilbert is putting into action what he has long preached in academic and consulting circles. I’ve called this emerging time the Age of Cheap Content. That principle means that the new Deseret operation will leverage bigger-name writers (especially those consistent with its Mormon roots and values, like former BYU football star and current Philadelphia sports anchor Vai Sikahema) for little financial compensation. That’s the HuffPo model. And they’ll leverage Salt Lake and Utah reporters to address both topical and hyperlocal coverage, through the new Deseret Connect. That’s the Demand side of the idea, bringing together a large database of qualified writers — “not random bloggers,” says Gilbert — and keeping their payments low or non-existent. “Some of the best don’t write for money.”

    Deseret Connect already has received more than 100 applications, and Gilbert says he can see it scaling to a thousand or more contributors within the year, using management system techniques developed outside the news industry for BYU/Idaho faculty.

    Gilbert says the non-pros will work on a path from generalists to columnists to doing editorial features, with pay increasing along that continuum — though he’s clear to point out that people doing the writing won’t be looking to the company “as their main source of income.”

    So, looking at cost per content unit — a Demand-like analytic — the new company will be able to house lots more content under its brand, at a far lower cost point.

  • More Beats Less: The Deseret play aims to bring together text stories and blogs, video, and audio. That supposes that readers want all kinds of coverage brought together for them. It’s a bet that products that converge video and stories for readers will beat the competition, competition like MediaNews’ Salt Lake Tribune, the biggest non-church-owned news presence in the state. One big question here: How will the customer experience be converged? In Washington, two ongoing TV stations folded their websites into the new TBD at launch. How separate and how unified will the DeseretNews.com and KSL.com sites be?
  • More is More: The new Deseret operation doesn’t just focus on geography — Utah’s more than 700,000 households. It’s taking a twin approach to being a general interest news site — and a new worldwide voice for the Mormon faithful of 13 million or so worldwide. In the company’s strategy, that’s described as a values-oriented approach, and you can already read that six-point values mantra widely. The six: “the family, financial responsibility, excellence in education, care for the needy, values in the media, faith in the community.” They make for a strong philosophy, but in marketing, that’s quite a straddle — one that may be difficult to pull off, especially as Salt Lake City itself has become majority non-Mormon.

The economics of it are clear, though. Pay (or don’t) to get a story written or a video shot once, and then distribute it many times over. It’s basic Internet economics, with a nichy, religious angle, one of many variations we’ll soon be seeing on these increasingly popular themes.

                                   
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Justin Ellis    July 18, 2014
With $3.5 million in grant funding and an eye for collaboration, the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX aim to bring deep investigations to radio and podcasting.
  • http://www.borrellassociates.com Gordon Borrell

    Great analysis, Ken. I think this operation bears close watching, if only for Clark Gilbert’s extremely clear vision on how media companies should be organizing themselves for the future. I’m very eager to hear Clark’s fuller explanation at our conference later this month in Dallas. He’s a brilliant guy, and I’m glad he’s finally moved from the academic world to put some of what we’ve been preaching into practice. As you know, it’s a helluva lot easier to be a consultant and leave at the end of the day than it is to stay behind and actually implement things.

  • Joe

    Good analysis Ken, but cheap content just isn’t going to work for people like me – college educated, employed adult. If that sounds snobbish or out of touch, sorry, but I know a lot of people feel like me. We’re not going to give our time or money to “Patch”-style journalism, where one harried, low-paid “journalist” covers a city of 100,000 or so.
    If people want cheap stuff with no nutritious value, we have McDonalds for that. I refuse to get my news at McDonalds.

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  • http://www.verticalacuity.com Gregg Freishtat

    Great analysis. The news industry must understand that “sites” are not what they used to be nor with they ever be again. Technology now facilitates easy movement or “routing” of content by and between folks that have never thought of sharing before. I call it syndonomics and have built a little business around it. http://www.verticalacuity.com

    cheers. Gregg Freishtat