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Feb. 5, 2015, 10 a.m.
Business Models

The newsonomics of mixing old and new

News on digital platforms may feel like a revolution, but a lot of the underlying behaviors — by readers and by publishers — date back to an earlier era.

Each morning, 135,000 people get Wall Street Journal editor Gerry Baker’s The 10 Point, his one-year-old touts email on the best of the Journal that day. Around the same hour, 600,000 people get The Daily Beast’s Cheat Sheet, up from just 182,000 a year ago. About 110,000 get Quartz’s The Brief and 83,000 get the millennials-centric Mic Check.

Newsletters and briefings are flying across the globe, growing exponentially. They fill our email inboxes and flash across our smartphones; even when the screen is locked, notifications push right through the blank screen into our enervated consciousness.

Such free newsletters spur lots of direct traffic back to the news sites — and they help build loyalty, that elusive habit of news fidelity, in an era awash in news promiscuity. Publishers tell me they drive the most important readers back to the site, bolster new sponsorships and represent one of the easiest, cheapest ways to goose valuable traffic. Mic’s news director Jared Keller points out a near-universal truth: “Visitors referred from the newsletter spend more time on the site and visit more pages per session than the average reader who may come in from, say, Google or Facebook.”

Quite an invention, right? The funny thing about these newsletters is that they mimic a medium or three you may well have heard of — the daily newspaper, the top-of-the-hour radio news report, and the evening TV news.

“We are rediscovering that the daily rhythm is meaningful to people,” says Gideon Lichfield, a senior editor at Quartz. “When there is so much coming at people all the time on the Internet, people like something that comes at a particular time at a predictable length.”

Exactly. It’s kind of funny that editors are rediscovering the value of editions, of predictability, of habit, here in 2015. The digital age, we’ve been told variously and intensely, is a revolution unlike any seen in any generation of publishing, perhaps since Gutenberg’s. As we’ve all lived through it, as publishers, journalists, and readers, that’s hard to contest. But at the same time, so much that is new is old. What’s increasingly clear is that the task of those producing the news is to make sense of what’s really new — immediacy, multimedia, mobile access points, and more — and what’s bedrock old. Then they must mix and match the two smartly. It’s not an easy recipe; there are no cookbooks.

Let’s think about the old and the new in media. The new newsletter binge is a small part of the reconnection of circadian rhythm to the circuits of possibility all the new technologies offer. It’s as if the web has created a kind of content jet lag for a lot of people, and new remedies are just being trotted out, twenty years in. We can name a number of them:

Building boundaries in native advertising

The Condé Nast flap in which the company pledged, Reagan-like, to take down edit/ad wall is one of the newfangled ideas that paralyzes too many people. It’s no surprise that marketers would like better “access to editors”; they’ve long craved it and will take all the access they can get. In the old world, less honorable newspapers and magazines made the “ADVERTISING SECTION” label as tiny as possible, or used the same fonts as they did for news. In digital native advertising, the possibilities for blurring are much greater, and more alluring, given the revenue travails of news companies.

Nothing, though has really changed. The smart companies will give editorial access — to help with commercial storytelling — to brands, at a fair price, and insure that the same people who write and edit directly for the readers don’t do the same for advertisers. Even Jonah Peretti, the avatar of the new at BuzzFeed, groks the old perfectly well. BuzzFeed’s policy: “Completely separate. We have our in house creative services and branded video teams making content for brand customers and our BuzzFeed editorial team. The two are physically separated by a wall and there’s no overlap.”

E-commerce

Where are the lines in what a publisher should sell directly to its readers, and how does that selling mix with its editorial? As publishers seek third streams of revenue to bolster faltering ads and circulation, they eye e-commerce. It’s new and shiny again. There’s the Thrillists of the era, Ben Lerer’s “leading men’s digital lifestyle brand,” in which the separation of edit and ads is razor-thin and shamelessly so. Is that a new media threat to shopping securely? No — this new digital thing is just an updated version of cable’s QVC, founded in 1986.

Regulation

Remember that word? It’s a dirty one in some quarters, so anathema that anything “digital” seems to own its own libertarian-like rights. In the old world, the FCC did an uneven job of promoting the diversity that federal law mandated in broadcasting, but it had its impact, enabling somewhat more voices. As Comcast and Time Warner have eaten the competition in cable, becoming semi-monopolies in most of the country, and Google and Facebook have become a developing duopoly in digital advertising, regulators and politicians feared to touch the regulation rail in American politicians. Why? Smart, well-funded lobbying, for one — but secondly the sense that the new of the digital world is just different than the old of the analog world.

Well, it is and it isn’t. Consider this data from Ars Technica: “Though a majority of Americans can purchase broadband of at least 100Mbps, [FCC chairman Tom] Wheeler has focused on the lack of competition at higher Internet speeds. While 75 percent of American homes have at least two options for wired broadband of 4Mbps/1Mbps, only 25 percent have a choice of at least two providers at the 25Mbps/3Mbps threshold.”

So the issues in the new world are different than the old. It’s not like regulating Ma Bell or Con Edison, where generally you either have service or you don’t. In this world, it’s the kind of service we have — and what we pay for it. Though Wheeler is saying his plans to regulate broadband as a utility won’t include pricing, the issue is vital. Americans pay twice or more as much as Europeans and some East Asians and get half or less the speed of access. Here we have an age-old industrial problem — market-dominating bigness — first tackled a century ago by Teddy Roosevelt. Even though the digital economy may seem like something completely different, what’s old is new, and in 2015, it looks like we may be beginning to understand the appropriate regulation of market dominance.

Paywalls 2.0 products

Ah, the struggle. Will digital readers ever pay for something other than a whole subscription to a whole publication? (Remembering that five years ago, the conventional wisdom was that readers wouldn’t pay, in any form, for digital news.) The New York Times’ commercial struggles with NYT Now have been quite public, but an old model — the paper newsletter, turned digital — is going well for Politico Pro, as I wrote about last week.

We could go on and on. The Podcast 2.0 revolution, with shows like CIR’s innovative Reveal, offers lots of hosts doing lots of endorsements for companies like Squarespace and Stamps.com. Brand new? Crossing lines? Think back to Paul Harvey on old-time radio. Subscription sales? In the old days, we used to give out free toasters to new newspaper subscribers in St. Paul. Today, The Times of London (and soon others) package a free year of Spotify with digital subs. Everyone has always loved — and loves — a bargain. Is there a movie revolution? No, we’ve always loved movies, but Netflix came along and managed to figure out how to use tech to feed our ardor.

We could go further on, but let’s not. Suffice it to say, it isn’t the majestic algorithms of the day that change everything. It’s our understanding of fairly unchanging human habit that comes first — with the new algorithms then smartly applied.

Essential, here: What’s old can be new, but only if we understand what kind of new overlap the times require.

If that morning news briefing habit is unquenchable, then, the form of it has changed profoundly so quickly. We feel it, and we see it in newspaper circulation stats. Quartz’s Gideon Lichfield can put his finger on even more specific data, owing to a study Quartz conducted about top corporate execs.

  • 60 percent of executives are most focused on news in the morning, particularly upon waking.
  • 60 percent of executives read an email newsletter as one of their first three news sources they check daily — more than twice as high as news apps.
  • 61 percent of executives primarily use mobile devices to consume news; only 5 percent report reading a newspaper or turning on the TV first.

Maybe that’s an early adopter habit. At a minimum, it’s one of huge importance to a business publication. Twelve times as many corporate execs turn to their phone than either a newspaper or morning TV to get their news briefing. Although only about half of Quartz’s overall traffic is mobile, about 65 percent open their briefings on smartphones and tablets.

The study data here fine-tunes the execution. Of Quartz’s 110,000 subscribers, about 50 percent of subscribers are senior executives. Every publisher should know their own readers’ habits.

Quartz (“The newsonomics of Quartz, 19 months in”) has figured out it needs to sweat the bigger data and the smaller touches. It figured out that its signup required too many steps, so it upgraded (free tips here) its subscription flows and added a note about signing up to the bottom of many articles. Small things make big differences: Signups doubled, and it can claim at open rate — how many subscribers actually open the email or notification of 40 to 50 percent, compared to an industry average of 23 percent.

Understanding isn’t only about studies. It’s now driven best by the modern marriage of old habit and new testing. Analytics (“The newsonomics of ‘Little Data,’ data scientists, and conversion specialists”) provides the link.

The Financial Times, long a leader in testing editor and marketer hunches with data, proved out the link with its launch of the standalone FT Weekend app last July. The FT sensed, of course, that weekend reading tended more to culture and lifestyle than the daily business drill — but the data told it how profound that difference was. Importantly, much of it was consumed not only on weekends, but also on tablets and smartphones. Data told it about the importance of giving readers the weekend content on the platforms they wanted (good quick Q&A with Lisa MacLeod, head of operations for FT.com, at WAN-IFRA). Further, it was the FT’s paying subscribers — those core paying customers to whom all publishers should pay top priority — that particularly embraced the move.

All of that led to the development of the old-is-new paid FT Weekend mobile app. That’s connecting old habit with the best of new tech and timely delivery. Old subscribers — and new ones — have responded well.

Photo of old and new buildings in downtown Chicago by Serge used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Feb. 5, 2015, 10 a.m.
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