Searching for the Moon

Shannon Clark's rambles and conversations on food, geeks, San Francisco and occasionally economics

Archive for October, 2008

Reinventing Newspapers – ideas for Knight Foundation News Challenge

Posted by shannonclark on October 30, 2008

UPDATE – I did not end up submitting this but am interested in pursuing these ideas further with anyone who is interested, leave a comment or contact me directly

I grew up reading multiple newspapers nearly every day of my life. In our home in Oak Park, IL the two papers we subscribed to were the local Chicago Tribune and the national Wall Street Journal. Even as a young child I would read both papers, scanning some sections, reading nearly every article of others and following certain favorite collumns. In particular I loved the irreverence of the center collumn of the Wall Street Journal front page (which is a feature they did away with, to the paper’s detriment I think, many years ago). I also read the opinion pages of the journal avidly – if rarely with much agreement. 

In our household however old papers piled up, my dad would generally read the papers first (though when he wasn’t home – i.e. away on a business trip my mom would usually get to the paper first) but neither paper left the house to be recycled until both my parents (and often my sister and I) had had a chance to at least skim every section. 

When i left home for college and then was living on my own in Chicago (and then a few years ago here in San Francisco) I have occasionally subscribed to a newspaper, but at the moment i do not. Just a few months ago I did have a subscription to the Wall Street Journal but I was finding myself with weeks of papers piled up and little if any interest in reading them. The news, even the business news, I usually had already seen online hours or sometimes days before and the opinion sections (which has grown to be three pages if you don’t count the rest of the paper which is increasingly highly partisan as well) while longer seem of a lowered quality and of less impact – more partisan, less thoughtful. 

And in place of the once a day random but usually well written collumn the WSJ now has a weekend section and an occasional magazine which do cover cultural issues (and the weekend edition is actually pretty well written) but in isolation they seem less interesting – and fewer stories are just well written stories about a curiousity, instead they cover the same set of movies, shows etc as so many others cover. (the great wine collumn being perhaps a rare exception)

In Chicago as well I for years had a weekly habit (which my now ex-girlfriend occasionally accused me of taking a bit too seriously) of reading the Chicago Reader every single week. Mostly for the long form, often investigative articles which made up the front page main story. I also read it for the other, shorter stories in most issues, the great weekly collumnists, and the actually useful classifieds, movie listings (this was pre-iPhone) and occasionally the other sections. Most weeks I would also read the New City Journal which was Chicago’s other free weekly, a bit of a smaller paper but one which also ran great and serious journalism, though was a bit smaller and had much less useful classifieds. 

On moving to the Bay Area I tried to find a local equivelent for the Chicago Reader but have been immensely disappointed with the many local free weekly papers – all of which seem to have horrible writing, terrible reviewers, have insane and highly partisan politics (indeed I find myself looking at the Gaurdian’s endorsements and usually voting against them). Online or offline they local papers are pretty awful (and the San Francisco Chronicle in terms of the “serious” papers – or the SF Examiner are also both pretty bad). 

So why all of this background?

I am thinking about local news and hybrid models a great deal at the moment and have, I think, come up with a business model and approach which I think could address many of the issues facing local newspapers (both dailies and weeklies), be scaleable – so could be started small and grow, and could work for the microlocal and then relatively large geogrphic region (perhaps even on a national or international level but that would require some modifications). Importantly my ideas are based on some major changes from “how things are done” online and offline today.

I am posting here to solicit feedback – first from a group of people who have been invited to comment – and then shortly (and when this post is made public) from anyone. I may end up working on this idea somewhere myself – but I am also looking to share these ideas widely and I hope inspire many people to adopt these ideas, modify them a bit, and launch many great sites and papers. 

  1. Pay writers professional rates – but also demand serious work. I’m looking for exact figures but for the majority of writers for this project I plan on paying them at a rate a writer’s union would deem professional. But also asking that they incorporate multiple mediums into their work – original photographs often, audio recordings of interviews, video of events or interviews when possible, and scans or copies of sources they refer to in the course of an article. The articles themselves will be serious writing – whether opinion pieces such as reviews or long form investigative journalism and see below, will include working with editors. 
  2. Post edited copy only – which means nothing is posted as an article that has not been reviewed. We may have a side collection of blogs for posts about inprogress work and likely will have some comments from readers (or perhaps more likely an active set of letters to the editors). And feedback well could come in via many means – including video and audio comments. But the emphasis here is quality over quanity or speed
  3. As a general rule nothing which would be available via a wire service will be posted on the site. That is, nothing which is a rewriting of a press release or a rehash of a wire story. The one possible exception might be a story which the site writes and then syndicates out to the wire services. 
  4. Though the project will start from the web and will be highly webbased, there will be a print component as well. Depending on the community served this may be a monthly, glossy publication (think Monocle magazine but focused tightly on a given geopgraphic area), a weekly magazine (with some color) or a weekly or even more frequent newsprint edition – probably of a quality that could handle some color at least on some pages. Initially however this print component may only be available via subscription, expanding slowly to local businessses and newstands. 
  5. Topics will be chosen in large part by the passion of writers and the emphsis will be in quality storytelling and documentation over dry, non-partisan reporting. Though initially this may be a bit chaotic my expectation that the passions of the writers and the readers will converge with regular contributers covering a wide range of local issues and local topics, ideally from a variety of perspectives and points of view. The projects I would hope to be personally involved in would accept contributions from across a wide range of political opinions and I would seek to encourage a diversity of views.
  6. Advertising and commercial content would be a 1st level type of content – always fully and clearly disclosed, likely also clearly of a different type, but distributed in much the same manner as any other content. Online this means that ads (more on what these would look like below) would show up as objects in RSS feeds right after and between other articles. Offline this means that some pages or some parts of many pages (depending on the type of print) would include what are clearly commercial content. A likely majority of the advertising would be locally based and focused but national ads would also be accepted. Political ads or messages might not be accepted and ads with an adult target would be up to the publishers and their local community’s interests (here in San Francisco for example ads from a local business such as Good vibrations would probably not be particularly scandlous). The advertisers would NOT have a choice about whether or not an ad runs online or in the print editions – if they buy one, they buy the other and the ads would run in both and would be a part of the permanent record of that edition (which should make the online ads a very good value – though perhaps the links of the ads themselves would only persist for a limited duration the copy itself would be part of the archive). The logistics of this would be addressed with an eye to keeping in good standing with the online community and businesses such as Google – and the paid ads would have to me highly vetted – as would the destination of where they link to for the duration of there being an active link. Ideally where the ad links to would also be archived and part of the records of the publication. 
  7. Curration and editing is the primary focus, based on starting from working with great writers but building on them and enforcing a ethos of it is better to make fewer but higher quality recommendations over many but lower quality. So while the emphasis may be mostly on articles, to the degree that the publication also has event listings or reviews whether of local businesses, artists, or items of national interest such as books or movies the focus would be on being selective (and yes opinionated) instead of being comprehensive.

This last point emphasizing currating over being comprehensive is one key area where my vision is highly different from many other approaches I see online. Instead of focusing on the infinite space of the web, on the ability to have something for everyone (but all to often not attracting anyone) my vision is to be opinionated, to be focused, and to have a point of view (or points of view). Combined with a high degree of basic quality of writing (grammar, structure and form etc) as well as a good design and look and feel my thinking is that being focused ADDS value today. As a reader I have many sources online for looking up everything – all the movies ever made, all the music, all the books, but opinions I can test and grow to trust are rare and valuable. And in turn that value is translated into attention and also value to the sponsors that bring to me as a reader the content I value.

A bit more about the types of ads I would see running. In many local weeklies (and daily newspapers as well) a large and useful category of ads are ads from local venues promoting upcoming events and shows. Some of these are purchased by individual venues, others by local promoters, others by national promoters, and still others by national brands (i.e. a beer company presents the following shows…). This type of content rich commercial message is exactly the type of content I think would make a lot of sense for this type of project – on the web and off the web. 

And there are many other types of local advertisers whose content would resonate with a locally focused set of content – and my goal would be to focus highly on a local base of advertisers supplemented by the occasional national brand or advertiser (movies or books for example, national car brands etc). The focus, however, would NOT be on hypertargeting – the messages would not vary from reader to reader – instead they would be deeply integrated into the flow and design of the site itself – as content not as something isolated (and thus blocked) – but also always clearly disclosed (likely visually colored differently online). Probably pricing would be set initially at local free weekly rates and might approach local daily paper rates as distribution and reach grows.

That is the idea in a nutshell – lots of details to be worked out – from the technical to the rate settings but the above are the highlights. 

In terms of technology much of what i envision could be done via wordpress (or perhapd though I’m less of a fan via Drupal) with careful use of tags, categories, multiple authors, multimedia posts and a very clean design set of choices. A given batch of posts and content would then be collected and formatted for the print edition (perhaps rendered also as a PDF file for the archives as well). 

From a business standpoint the content producers (writers who might also create photos or video or photographers and/or videographers) would initially mostly likely be freelancers but paid at a fair and professional rate. A limited amount of expenses would also be covered (limited in part due to the geogrpahic focus – one reason this model might not work as well on a national or international scale) and ideally most writers would be covered by some group benefits and given press creditials (in both cases probably after meeting some writer’s union type set of requirements in those areas with writer’s unions). The editor(s) would probably be saleried and full time and would work with a range of writers – initially there might only be one editor – but as the range of topics and volume of content expands there would rapidly need to be multiple editors. A separate set of editors and salespeople would handle the commercial content and sales relationshiops. And likely there would be a small set of technical staff (some of whom might be on a contact basis to start) to handle the initial and ongoing web configuration as well as the preprint production work. 

My thinking also is that with the emphasis on telling great stories (non-fiction mostly though fiction stories would be a natural addition to this type of publication) some number of pieces written initially for this publication could have an additional life in other publications – via syndication or reprint/repurposing (This American Life for example). My initial thought would be that the writers would retain these rights (though the publication would have the right to keep the works online, probably freely available – though in some cases perhaps only for subscribers) and when the publication is the source of the additional sale (for example via syndication agreements) a portion of the syndication fees might flow back to the publication (though this would be based on the publication’s needs and the numbers involved – with the overall emphssis being on cultivating and supporting great writers and journalists. 

So what questions do I have / what I am seeking from readers who make it this far?

  1. What are professional rates for writers? (per article or per word, for reviews vs. for long form articles)
  2. What are fair rates for photography/video work? (note the goal here is not to use stock photography but to use photos which add to the story and are original to the author – see Monocle or FiveThirtyEight for two great examples)
  3. What would be likely sunk costs for such a venture (laptops, very very small office space, other fixed yearly costs)?
  4. What would be likely print costs per print run for each type of publication (Glossy color magazine, lower quality magazine sized publication, color newsprint publication) and at what printrun sizes do the per unit costs decrease? (i.e. what are the fixed and what are the variable and when do the lower considerably)
  5. What would be the likely distribution costs (mostly local mail, local non-mail distribution to individuals, mostly local distribution to businesses)
  6. Initially I’m thinking about this as a local (i.e. San Francisco/Bay Area venture) but am happy to see it in other cities and countries – what specific CA/Bay Area complications should I anticipate? (local Unions – though I want to be friendly to unions etc)
  7. What are some examples of magazines or newspapers which are adopting something akin to this already (especially in terms of good online integration of offline ads and an emphasis on long form, quality writing over quantity of writing via including pool/wire stories)

It should also be noted that what I am proposing is NOT a blog or indeed not very bloglike. Though it might use blog software as an underpinning, the idea here is to tell great stories – some of which may be very “small” others of which might be very pressing and important (investigative journalism) – but to do so with an emphasis on the quality of the writing vs the timeliness of posts.

Also and perhaps a more subtle point my thinking is that these publications would trade one tool of today’s journalists away (anonymous sources) in favor of only using deeply documented sources and providing those documents for public review and oversight. And yes, this means these publications might not be able to tell some stories initially (though via tools such as Freedom of Information Act requests and careful use of public spaces and rapid documentation this could be assuaged to a degree) I think the reliance on providing the sources directly would result in overall a very high quality of articles – and many attempts to say misquote someone would be addressed and resolved quickly.

I would also suggest that the publications be quick to address serious (or even relatively minor) complaints – such as about misquoting – and if articles are published online before they are published in a print edition (which would depend on the timing of the print edition – which would likely be weekly or monthly so articles likely would be published online first) major errors should be corrected before they are put in print. Using a wikilike publishing platform might make it very easy to show the history of any such changes (wikilike in that past editions would be viewable – but not wikilike in that people would not be able to edit posts)

So that is the idea – I welcome feedback and suggestions and I’m planning on pulling this into a formal proposal for the Knight Foundation by the Nov 1st deadline and perhaps also into a short business summary/pitch to select investors. I think some of these ideas could work for a new, greenfield publication OR could work for an existing publication looking to revamp.

Posted in advertising, digital bedouin, geeks, internet, networks, reading, reviews, San Francisco, web2.0 | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Mixing online & offline advertising – seeking examples

Posted by shannonclark on October 27, 2008

I have been following the move online of offline publications for over a decade (I’ve been on the Internet since 1991, went to my first websites via Gopher search) but something I have been wondering about since the mid-90’s and still almost never see is why so many publications who have offline publications (magazines or newspapers of any frequency) do not include their print advertisers as 1st level content in their online presenses.

And, in many cases have entirely different advertisers online vs. offline with little overlap and very limited even acknowledgement in the online presense of the offline advertisers at all.

Now there are 1000’s of publications around the world and I only read a few of them offline or online, so perhaps there are some great examples I have missed – please leave comments w/links to examples, especially those that do it very well.

And sure, I know there are objections from some that “ads” are not content (I’d argue that they most certainly are content) or that people would just ignore them online (though I’d ask if they have ever really be tested). To address the content question – there are entire magazines offline which are almost entirely based around the “content” of ads (the many highly profitable Vogue magazines for example) and other magazines such as The New Yorker where the ads make up a key part of the look and feel of the magazine (especially the small format ads) but in both cases the offline advertisers seem to have no part at all of the online presense.

I have been thinking about this as I have been looking at magazine and newspaper websites in preparation for thinking about a submission to the Knight Foundation’s $5M News Challenge (deadline is Nov 1st). Now I am at a slight disadvantage as many of the judges are friends of mine (so will have to recuse themselves while evaluating me) but I hope that the idea I have, whether I implement it or not may inspire many people to copy it in the future (it is geographically specific so I’m happy to see many people copy it in cities around the world – and even in the same cities as I think there is plenty of room for many).

But one part of my idea (among many) is to build relationships that extend from the online world to the offline aspects of my idea (which is not only online – it includes a print publication – working out the exact details) and not just the articles, reviews, calendar listings etc but also the content from the advertisers.

So as part of my research I’m looking for counterexamples, publications which are doing a good job of including their financial supporters (sponsors as well as more traditional advertisers) into all aspects of the publication – online and offline.

Posted in advertising, economics, geeks, networks, web2.0 | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Tips for surviving the downturn or how to live (well) like a grad student

Posted by shannonclark on October 12, 2008

I quit a very well paying job to start my first company in the early winter of 2000 just a month of two before the first (i.e. Web 1.0) bubble burst. Initially I was able to pay myself a reasonable (if lower than I had been earning previously) salary, but having not raised further rounds I cut then nearly eliminated my own salary. While I have earned money in the years since, it has not be large sums. Instead I have adapted a range of techniques to keep my cost of living quite low – and thus allow my resources to be mostly focused on developing my businesses. Many, perhaps all, of these suggestions may help you during the coming downturn.

Basic suggestions for living (well) like a grad student

  1. Eliminate as many regular monthly expenses as possible, especially those that also create stress. In my case the biggest monthly net gain came when in 2004 I sold my car and did not replace it. Immediately I dropped from my monthly budget nearly $1000 in monthly costs (car payment, cost of a monthly parking space, gas back when it was still <$2/gallon, oil changes, occasional parking tickets, car repairs, new tires etc). I reduced stress by avoiding having to find parking spaces, dealing with rush hour traffic etc. To make this work I did have the advantage of choosing an office (when I had one) which was in walking distance of my home. I also added to my monthly budget a monthly public transit pass, took taxis as needed and occasionally rented a car or used a carshare service. When I moved to San Francisco a few years ago, I did not move my TV, which meant that I also do not have a monthly cable or satellite bill. Again, instead I buy the occasional series via iTunes, watch other series online (with minimal ads), or occasionaly rent a DVD (Netflix might be another option)
  2. Do use services which save you considerable time for a reasonable price. Two main services I would not give up are a business mailbox which is a few blocks from my home and which means I never have to be home to pick up packages (giving me flexibility and security, for $100/year it is money very well spent). And the second is I let the cleaners across the street from me do my laundry – for $1/lb they wash, sort and fold my laundry and I can pick it up usually the next day. The cost is not much more than it would be for me to use a laundromat (which since my apartment does not have a laundry machine would be my only option). Even if I did have a laundry machine, this way all my laundry gets done at once – instead of me having to waste many, many hours on sorting, loads one after the other, drying and then folding, not to mention the energy costs plus the costs of the laundry machine itself.
  3. Cook at home. I am a serious cook and foodie, so I do like to eat out (a bit more on how I make that work on a budget below) but I also cook an increasing number of my meals at home. One very valuable thing I suggest it make sure you always have enough food options at home that in a pinch you could feed yourself for at least a week, ideally a few weeks, without needing to do much if any shopping. A few boxes of instant oatmeal, pasta, sauces, tortillas and beans etc all mean you have the comfort of knowing you have, in a pinch, food to eat (and then either drink water or make tea). But most weeks I shop for fresh foods, usually from local farmers markets.So how do I make that work on a budget?First, I shop for quality over quantity and focus on a few, highly seasonal items. What is most seasonal is usually also what is in the greatest abundance (and thus usually even at a higher end farmers market reasonably priced).

    Second, I look for bargains and usually shop without a specific menu in mind. At the Ferry Building here in San Francisco, for example, one of the amazing local, organic, free range butchers often has some specials. Recently I bought nearly 2lbs of amazing free range steaks, each vacuum sealed, for <$10, more than enough for two great meals. When I get to the farmers market towards closing the farmers often offer deep discounts to sell produce that would otherwise go unused, if I expect to be able to cook it, I try to take them up on the offers.

    Third, something I don’t do much currently but could let you get even better deals (and more on this point below) is to shop with others and share your purchases. Frog Hollow Farms is a phenomenal local organic orchard, all of their fruit is usually $4/lb (so pricey but very tasty), however they will sell a 10+lb case for a flat rate that is much lower (I think $25/case) if you can share that case with even one or two friends, it is a great bargain. Many local farms also have CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) which offers a wide selection of seasonal produce, often delivered right to your door (i.e. to your mailbox where someone will sign for it for you) every week or every other week. For a single person however this can be a bit much, but shared with a few others it could be a great deal.

    But the key is to be flexible in what you eat and cook as well as to emphasize vegetables and relatively limited amounts of protein. I’m an omnivore but I try to eat a diet rich in vegetables and fruits, in turn this is both cheaper and healthier.

    A final food tip, splurge on spices and oils, great spices and olive oils will make a huge difference in the quality of your food and the cost of amazing spices is actually not much more than the random and poor spices found in most stores. I buy nearly all of my spices from The Spice House which delivers anywhere in the country.

  4. Share. Living with others will be cheaper per person than living alone (I live alone, having a girlfriend who shared my space would cut my costs by a lot). Instead of every unit in your apartment building having a wifi connnection, consider pooling resources with your neighbors, buying a single very fast connection and splitting the costs (assuming the wifi will reach everyone). Of course this has some risk – you have to trust your neighbors won’t abuse the network. Go in with some friends on getting a CostCo (or Sams Club if you prefer, though I think CostCo is the supperior company) and then take advantage of bulk purchases of staples – split amongst your friends. Better still, avoid as much as you can the purchase of new non-perishables (electronics, furniture, even clothing) and instead by from resale shops, local merchants, off Craigslist etc. But you will need toilet paper and why not buy it in bulk, take only one car trip, and share the time & expenses with others.
  5. Do not cut corners on the tools you need for your job or what you truly need for your own sanity. For me this means that I have a serious laptop and decent desktop computer and an iPhone – without both I would be severely restricting my ability to do my job (and if you have been reading my blog for long, or my twitter feeds, even having spent a lot of money on my laptop doesn’t mean it is ideal for the job, I anticipate replacing it in the next year). For my own sanity I do indulge my interest in books. I have and buy a lot of books – mostly used, but new books from authors I really like (or as is more often the case these days also know personally). For me reading (and reading widely) keeps me sane and focused. For others this indulgance might be your favorite music (though think seriously about a nearly “all you can eat” plan such as Rhapsody in that case) and/or live concerts. For others it might be your gym membership etc. Don’t go overboard, do look for bargains when you can find them (and when taking them doesn’t negate your values). For me, though I do like to save money when I can, I don’t mind paying nearly full price for books from my favorite bookstore by the authors I really love and support. However I do buy many other books from used bookstores (and do buy used copies from my favorite bookstore when they have one of a book I’m looking for) when I care more about the content of the book than supporting that author (i.e. business books not by friends of mine).

Underlying all of my suggestions is an assumption that you have a good general grasp of everything which you spend money on each year, each month, and most weeks. People may disagree with my final suggestion and there are certainly valid arguments against it, for example if you are in the rare category of people who take good advantage of credit card points programs, but I suggest living a mostly cash based life. To do this I withdraw cash from an ATM only a few times each month and then use that cash for almost all of my costs of living (other than rent, phone, etc). My food, transportation, personal purchases, cleaning, entertainment etc all for the most part come out of the cash I withdraw. This allows me to have a lot of personal flexibility but also emphasizes relatively low cost but high impact rewards to myself – great coffee or a good book – but makes me slower to spend lots on a meal or larger purchases. Lots of small credit card purchases can very rapidly add up, incur interest charges, but more critically inure you from the full impact of your choices by delaying that impact until the next billing cycle.

A mostly cash lifestyle, in contrast, gives you simple measures of how rapidly you are spending money. Your wallet shrinks and you find yourself seeking out your bank’s ATMs with greater frequency.

I always use my own bank’s ATM. Not just because I hate on principle the idea of paying any fees to get my own money but because by forcing myself to make that extra effort I raise the pain threshold for getting out cash. I also generally always withdraw the same amount of money with each visit, this allows me to have a rough gauge of how much I am spending in a month by thinking back to how often I went to ATMs or looking at the receipts in my wallet. I try to visit the ATM fewer times a month than there are weeks in that month, the weeks when I have to visit the ATM once during the week and again over the weekend are generally times I am spending more money than I really should be spending.

I hope these tips help you, please add other suggestions in the comments.

Posted in banking, economics, personal, working | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »