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May 15, 2013, 8:20 a.m.
newsright-wide

The newsonomics of where NewsRight went wrong

It was promoted as a way for the newspaper industry to protect its content and generate a new revenue stream. What does NewsRight’s quiet death tell us about the state of the business?

newsright-wide

Quietly, very quietly, NewsRight — once touted as the American newspaper industry’s bid to protect its content and make more money from it — has closed its doors.

Yesterday, it conducted a concluding board meeting, aimed at tying up loose ends. That meeting follows the issuing of a put-your-best-face-on-it press release two weeks ago. Though the news has been out there, hardly a whimper was heard.

Why?

Chalk it up, first, to how few people are really still covering the $38.6 billion U.S. newspaper industry. Then add in the fact that the world is changing rapidly. Piracy protection has declined as a top publisher concern. Google’s snippetization of the news universe is bothersome, but less of a central issue. The declining relative value of the desktop web — where NewsRight was primarily aimed — in the mobile age played a part. Non-industry-owned players like NewsCred (“The newsonomics of recycling journalism”) have been born, offering publishers revenue streams similar to those that NewsRight itself was intended to create.

Further, new ways to value news content — through all-access subscriptions and app-based delivery, content marketing, marketing services, innovative niching and more — have all emerged in the last couple of years.

Put a positive spin on it, and the U.S. newspaper industry is looking forward, rather than backward, as it seeks to find new ways to grow reader and ad revenues.

That’s all true. But it’s also instructive to consider the failure of NewsRight.

It’s easy to deride it as NewsWrong. It’s one of those enterprises that may just have been born under a bad sign. Instead of the stars converging, they collided.

NewsRight emerged as an Associated Press incubator project. If you recall the old AP News Registry and its “beacon,” NewsRight became its next iteration. It was intended to track news content as it traversed the web, detecting piracy along the way (“Remember the beacon”). It was an ambitious databasing project, at its peak taking in feeds from more than 900 news sites. The idea: create the largest database of current news content in the country, both categorized by topic and increasingly trackable as it was used (or misused) on the web.

AP initially incentivized member newspapers to contribute to the News Registry by discounting some of their annual fees. Then a bigger initiative emerged, first called the News Licensing Group (NLG). The strategy: harness the power of the growing registry to better monetize newspaper content through smart licensing.

NLG grew into a separate company, with AP contributing the registry’s intellectual property and becoming one of 29 partners. The other 28: U.S. daily newspaper companies and the leading European newspaper and magazine publisher Axel Springer. Those partners collectively committed more than $20 million — though they ended up spending only something more than half of that before locking up the premises.

Renamed NewsRight, it was an industry consortium, and here a truism applies: It’s tougher for a consortium — as much aimed at defense than offense — to innovate and adjust quickly. Or, to put it in vaudevillian terms: Dying is easy — making decisions among 29 newspaper companies can be torture.

It formally launched just more than a year ago, in January 2012 (“NewsRight’s potential: New content packages, niche audiences, and revenue”), and the issues surfaced immediately. Let’s count the top three:

  • Its strategy was muddled. Was it primarily a content-protection play, bent on challenging piracy and misuse? Or was it a way to license one of the largest collections of categorized news content? Which way did it want to go? Instead of deciding between the two, it straddled both.
  • In May 2011, seven months before the launch, the board had picked TV veteran David Westin as its first CEO. Formerly head of ABC News, he seemed an odd fit from the beginning. A TV guy in a text world. An analog guy in a digital world. Then friction between Westin and those who had hired him — including then-AP CEO Tom Curley — only complicated the strategic indecision. Westin was let go in July, which I noted then, was the beginning of the end.
  • Publishers’ own interests were too tough to balance with the common good. Though both The New York Times Company and AP were owners, it was problematic to include feeds of the Times and AP in the main NewsRight “catalog.” The partners tried to find prices suitable for the high-value national content (including the Times and AP) and the somewhat lesser-valued regional content, but that exercise proved difficult, the difficulty of execution exacerbated by anti-trust laws. Potential customers, of course, wanted the Times and AP as part of any deal, so dealmaking was hampered.

Further, all publishers take in steady revenue streams — collectively in the tens of millions — from enterprise licensors, like LexisNexis, Factiva, and Thomson Reuters, as well as education and copyright markets. NewsRight’s owners (the newspaper companies) didn’t want NewsRight to get in the way of those revenue streams — and those were the only licensing streams that had proven lucrative over time.

Long story short, NewsRight was hobbled from the beginning, and in its brief life, was able to announce only two significant customer, Moreover and Cision, and several smaller ones.

How could it have been so difficult?

It’s understandable on one level. Publishers have seethed with rage as they’ve seen their substantial investment in newsrooms harvested — for nothing — by many aggregators from Google to the tens of thousands of websites that actually steal full-text content. Those sites all monetize the content with advertising, and, save a few licensing agreements (notably with AP itself), they share little in the way of ad revenue.

But rage — whether seething or public — isn’t a business model.

Anti-piracy, itself, has also proven not to be much of a business model. Witness the tribulations of Attributor, an AP-invested-in content-tracking service that used some pretty good technology to track pirated content. It couldn’t get the big ad providers to act on piracy, though. Last year, after pointing its business in the direction of book industry digital rights management, it was sold for a meager $5.6 million to Digimarc.

So if anti-piracy couldn’t wasn’t much of a business model, then the question turned to who would pay to license NewsRight’s feed of all that content, or subsets of it?

Given that owner-publishers wanted to protect their existing licensing streams, NewsRight turned its sights to an area that had not well-monetized: media monitoring.

Media monitoring is a storied field. When I did content syndication for Knight Ridder at the turn of the century, I was lucky enough to visit Burrelles (now BurrellesLuce) in Livingston, New Jersey. In addition to a great auto tour of Tony Soprano country, I got to visit the company in the midst of transition.

In one office, older men with actual green eyeshades meticulously clipped periodicals (with scissors), monitoring company mentions in the press. The company then took the clips and mailed them. That’s a business that sustained many a press agent for many a decade: “Look, see the press we got ya!”

In Burrelles’ back rooms, the new digital monitoring of press mention was beginning to take form. Today, media monitoring is a good, if mature, industry segment, dominated by companies like Cision, BurrellesLuce, and Vocus, as social media monitoring and sentiment analysis both widen and complicate the field. Figure there are more than a hundred media monitoring companies of note.

Yet even within the relatively slim segment of the media monitoring space, NewsRight couldn’t get enough traction fast enough. Its ability to grow revenues there — and then to pivot into newer areas like mobile aggregation and content marketing — ran into the frustrations of the owner-newspapers. So they pulled the plug, spending less than they had actually committed. They decided to cut their losses, and move on.

Moving on meant making NewsRight’s last deal. The company — which has let go its fewer than 10 employees — announced that it had “joined forces” with BurrellesLuce and Moreover. It’s a face-saver — and maybe more.

Those two companies will try to extend media monitoring contracts for newspaper companies. BurrellesLuce (handling licensing and aggregation) and Moreover (handling billing and tracking) will make content available under the NewsRight name. The partnership’s new CAP (Compliant Article Program) seeks to further contracting for digital media monitoring rights, a murky legal area. If CAP works, publishers, Moreover, and BurrellesLuce will share in the new revenue.

What about NewsRight’s anti-piracy mandate? That advocacy position transitions over to the Newspaper Association of America.

NAA is itself in the process of being restyled into a new industry hub (with its merger and more) under new CEO Caroline Little. “As both guardian and evangelist for the newspaper industry, the NAA feels a tremendous responsibility to protect original content generated by its members,” noted Little in the NewsRight release.

What about the 1,000-title content database, the former AP registry that had formed the nucleus of NewsRight? It’s in limbo, and isn’t part of the BurrellesLuce/Moreover turnover. Its categorization technology has had stumbles and overall the system needs an upgrade.

There’s a big irony here.

In 2013, we’re seeing more innovative use of news content than we have in a long time. From NewsCred’s innovative aggregation model to Flipboard’s DIY news magazines, from new content marketing initiatives at The New York Times, Washington Post, Buzzfeed, and Forbes to regional agency businesses like The Dallas Morning News’ Speakeasy, there are many new ways news content is being monetized.

We’re really in the midst of a new content re-evaluation. No one makes the mistake this time around of calling news content king, but its value is being reproven amid these fledgling strategies.

Maybe the advent of a NewsCred — which plainly better understood and better built technology to value a new kind of content aggregation — makes NewsRight redundant. That’s in a sense what the partners decided: let the staffs of BurrellesLuce and Moreover and smarts of the NewsCreds make sense of whatever newer licensing markets are out there. Let them give the would-be buyers what they want: a licensing process to be as simple as it can be. One-stop, one-click, or as close as you can manage to that. While the disbanding of NewsRight seems to take the news industry in the opposite, more atomized, direction, in one way, it may be the third-party players who succeed here.

So is it that NewsRight is ending with a whimper, or maybe a sigh of relief? Both, plainly. It’s telling that no one at NewsRight was either willing or able to talk about the shutdown.

Thumbs down to content consortia. Thumbs up to letting the freer market of entrepreneurs make sense of the content landscape, with publishers getting paid something for what the companies still know how to do: produce highly valued content.

POSTED     May 15, 2013, 8:20 a.m.
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