Posted on May 23rd, 2012 No comments
One of the great things about being an entrepreneur is its inherent unpredictability. While nerve-racking at times, the very fact that you don’t know exactly how things will unfold is precisely what makes it interesting and exciting. Every day is a new discovery.
Today is one of those moments as I announce something that is a direct result of over 18 years of digital innovation and entrepreneurship, but which I never saw coming. I’ve been offered the Chair in Journalism Innovation at the S.I. Newhouse school at Syracuse University — one of the top 10 journalism schools in the country — and I just accepted.
In this role, which is endowed by Newhouse alum and newspaper owner Peter A. Horvitz, I will teach new courses that “explore the intersection of journalism and technology” and “work collaboratively to develop new content models and new forms of storytelling” (from the original job posting).
I will also be a professor of practice, a unique designation at S.U. that allows professionals with unique practical experience to bring that into the university without all of the traditional requirements of academic professors. The assumption for a professor of practice is that your experience is tangential to that of a Masters or Ph.D., while still allowing you to work alongside and learn from colleagues who focus more on research. The two types of professors work closely with each other at Newhouse, which is partly what attracted me to the school compared to other universities that offer only academic paths.
Another thing that’s unique about this position is that just as with Google employees, it gives me 20% time to work on other projects in the field. In this capacity I will continue to run my BookBrewer startup, which I’m happy to say is gaining traction with journalists and news organizations, so it’s a good fit for my new role at Newhouse. I will talk more at a later date about how BookBrewer will change, but in a nutshell you can expect it to focus even more on news and information.
I’m deeply honored to accept this job and can’t wait to start teaching my first course in August. I hope to help aspiring young journalists get a leg up on the disruptive “digital now” long before they graduate, and in so doing bring about a new golden age for journalism.
When I look back on my college education I know I would have been able to run even faster after graduation if I’d had some hands-on experience with digital tools — most of which didn’t exist then. But when you look at the pace of change today, where a company like Facebook can take over our lives in the space of 5 years, you can expect everything to change in the blink of an eye — especially in media and journalism. Teaching students how to innovate will be essential to their survival.
I also see this as an opportunity to help students understand and hopefully avoid what Clayton Christensen called The Innovator’s Dilemma. I’ve lived it, and it’s not fun!
Let me explain. Nearly 18 years ago I started my career as a journalist right as the consumer Internet was born through what eventually became the Netscape Web browser. After just one year of serving as a feature writer at The Denver Post, I found myself leaving print behind forever to embrace a bold new future for journalism on the launch team of Digital Ink, which we quickly relaunched as Washingtonpost.com.
A few years later I left the Post for America Online along with a band of others feeling confident in the bright digital future for journalism, feeling we’d gotten it off to a good start. And then something terribly sad happened, or rather didn’t happen. The Post, along with most newspaper companies, failed to innovate in the most important area of all: its core business model. Everything was and still is based on print advertising even as print subscribership plummeted, and the result is a shrinking workforce and weakened brand.
I then learned that disruption was about more than just replacing print with ones and zeroes. I saw it happen again after six years at the purely-digital AOL, which went from being Wall Street’s Internet darling to it pariah. The reason was the same: failure of the organization to innovate and adapt to change as people moved from dial-up to broadband Internet. I can tell you as an insider that this was not from lack of trying. Rather, it was because AOL’s bread and butter business model held the organization back from making hard decisions.
When I saw it happen a third time with The Bakersfield Californian, I started to see this as an inevitable pattern of creative destruction that plagues all industries. During an intense 6-year period, I and a small group of people on a New Products team pushed the envelope of how a local newspaper could serve its audience and advertisers online, bringing all kinds of new ideas like social networking and citizen journalism into the newspaper industry. In that time our social networks and associated print products increased the total audience the Californian reached by 100,000 new people, all in a town of just 300,000. But despite our success in growing new audiences, many of these initiatives ceased or were pared back when the real estate collapse of 2007 and subsequent global recession robbed the paper of revenues it had set aside for innovation.
Lest you think this post is about blaming past employers (it’s not — I respect all of those places), I can also point squarely at myself. Even after getting an $837,000 Knight News Challenge grant to build Printcasting, a new way of creating local print publications, I and my team were unable to innovate around that particular model after our funding ended. We didn’t stop, and instead used our own funds to morph the product into the BookBrewer eBook service. After two years BookBrewer is showing promise with journalists and news organizations such as The Denver Post and Atlanta Journal-Constitution, who are using it to sell collections of stories as eBooks.
I will be the first to say that my resumé looks frenetic or, as one hiring manager once said, that I’ve taken my own path. But from another perspective, if you look at my story you can see the common threads that are independent of any one company or initiative. This is true of every innovator I’ve had the privilege of meeting over the years. The ability to embrace constant change as the norm — even when it means completely shutting something down and launching something else that’s better thanks to past mistakes — is the key to innovation. This is what I most hope to impart to Newhouse students.
But don’t be fooled. Innovation and entrepreneurship are hard, and the odds are stacked against you.
When put that way, you may be tempted to think “to hell with innovation – it’s too risky!” And that’s true about the risk. But what I have also learned is that you never know where your innovation ends and someone else’s begins. It’s the tapestry of innovation that is most important, and we need to see more of that in the journalism field.
I received my biggest lesson around this in 2007 when I was invited to talk about innovation at a Grupo de Diarios América (GDA) summit in San Jose, Costa Rica. During my presentation I talked about Bakotopia.com, the youth-centric social network and brand I started for The Bakersfield Californian, which I’m happy to say is still running strong. This was one of the first social networking experiments at a newspaper. Launched in 2004, it even predated the modern Facebook, which was still only accessible to college students at that time.
After I finished a big-eyed Brazilian journalist rushed up to me and said, “Oh my God, I can’t believe you’re the Bakotopia guy! We love Bakotopia!” He then explained how his newspaper, Zero Hora, in Porto Alegre, Brazil had been so inspired by Bakotopia that it created its own version focused on youth soccer. The idea that one little experiment in the central valley of California could inspire a parallel product on another continent was amazing to me.
This happened again a year later when the publisher of El Nuevo Día in Puerto Rico approached me at a conference saying that The Bakersfield Californian’s new products had been an inspiration for them. This was particularly gratifying because my grandmother read that paper every day from her home in Puerto Nuevo, Puerto Rico.
I continue to encounter people like this who were inspired by something innovative that I did in the past, and I know that the path doesn’t end with me. Their inspiring projects also serve as the models for others. In this way, every journalism innovator – or Journovator as I call them – serves as something like a neuron in what my old colleague Tim Repsher calls “a dreaming brain” that is constantly reimagining the future of journalism.
But if I could change one thing for future journalism innovators, it would be to lower the risk of failure, which can only happen through practice and experience.
Effective innovation is now a matter of survival, and that’s more true in journalism than in any other field. In 2010 alone more than 1,000 journalists lost their jobs, according to Pew. At the same time, enrollment in journalism schools across the country has been higher than ever. This is a good thing, but not if those students are getting trained for industries that are dying or dead. Just like any digital startup, they need to be trained to think outside the box with content and revenue, and to understand not just how their products will inform communities of interest, but how they will pay for themselves.
So how do you teach the skills needed to be an innovator? I don’t have a pat answer to that, and to be honest I think the approach itself will require constant experimentation and innovation before we know how. But I do know how I learned it: by doing it. The process of trying, failing, trying again, getting some things right, getting other things wrong, failing and getting back up is the real-life school of innovation. There’s no better time to start that process than in college, when the stakes are far lower than when you have a house, possibly a spouse, kids and a dog.
I’ve taught a lot of seminars over the years, including some with “journalism innovation” in the title, but I know this will be a new role for me. I’m looking forward to learning how to teach. Most of all, I’m looking forward to shepherding a new class of journalism innovators who will teach me by all the cool stuff they will dream up.
Posted on February 25th, 2012 1 comment
I’ve been invited to participate in the latest Carnival of Journalism, a monthly blogfest in which journalists are invited to post about the same topic. This month’s question, posed by Steve Outing’s Digital News Test Kitchen, is:
“What emerging technology or digital trend do you think will have a significant impact on journalism in the year or two ahead? And how do you see it playing out in terms of application by journalists, and impact?”
Anyone who follows my user-contributed content experiments can guess my answer, but they may not guess the entire answer.
The most obvious first answer is my mind is “eBooks!” For the last year and a half I’ve run a startup called BookBrewer that makes it easy for anyone to create and publish eBooks. The eBook market has been growing at a 300% annual rate for several years now, and it’s only destined to keep up that rate if not exceed it.
The last study of sales from the International Digital Publishing Forum and Association of American Publishers showed eBook sales generating $120 million a quarter. That was 18 months ago, and since tablet ownership doubled from December 2011 and January 2012, it’s safe to assume that quarterly eBook sales are at least in the $300 million range.
I’ve been urging journalists to hop on this trend since November of 2010 (see my original post about that on this blog). I suggested a few topics that would work well as books, including multipart investigative series, stories about major events, “news you can use” and collections of columns by popular columnists.
But now thanks to Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow, I have an even better suggestion. Leverage the intense interest of your local sports fans to create not just sports eBooks, but full-color Print on Demand commemorative editions. And make those available as Print on Demand titles.
Here’s the story of the Post’s Tim Tebow book. If you think about how this could be done at dozens, if not hundreds of other newspapers around the country, the amount of revenue generated could be significant. It may even save a few journalists from getting laid off.
In January, we kicked off a relationship with The Denver Post that allows them to use our services to publish eBooks and Print on Demand. They said they wanted to do something about Tim Tebow, but weren’t sure how the book would end since the Broncos’ season was still underway.
In a previous era they would have waited until the the Broncos season was over (read: the Broncos had lost their last game), and then spent a few weeks editing a book of stories about the season. They’d make a deal with a local printer to print up thousands of copies on offset presses at an average of $30,000 for the run. They’d get a bunch of boxes of books that they’d then have to sell — usually for $30 or more — and when the interest waned, they’d need to lower the price and sell the remainders at a loss.
We told them that all of that goes away with Print on Demand. We gave the Post a URL that allowed them to take money up front as a preorder. This allowed the Post editors to finish writing and editing the story, and creating a nice print layout. Their online teams promoted a splash page about the book from their web site and social media channels.
And boy, did the sales ever start to come in! The actual figures are confidential, but I’m allowed to say that the total sales now are over 2,500 — most of that for the printed book — and the Post will be getting a first check in the high thousands. Unlike in the past when the Post had to put money down which they then scurried to make up, this time they put nothing down and generated a profit from the outset.
You can see how the sales followed the remaining Broncos game schedule here:
In early February, the final PDF came over from the Post, and the first copies were shipped to customers. For those print geeks out there, they were printed on a state of the art HP T300 variable digital printer run by our print partner Frederic Printing (a division of Consolidated Graphics) at a cost to the post of a little more than $15 per copy (or around $4 profit per copy to the Post, given the $19.99 consumer price). Because the orders are printed and shipped as each order comes in, there’s no need to use more expensive offset printers that require thousands to be printed up front. That leads to a lot of cost savings, less hassle and higher overall profits.
From this experiment we’ve learned that the keys to success are:
- A topic that the newspaper knows its audience is interested in.
- Good content, either original or curated into chapters, that reads well in book form.
- Good cover design and visuals.
- High level promotion from the newspapers’ web sites and social media channels.
When all of those stars align, you end up with a great information product that makes readers happy, and also makes money.
And here’s an interesting note on the so-called “eBook revolution.” We also converted the PDFs into eBooks and distributed them to all the major eBook retailers. But for at least this book, the print sales have consistently outpaced the eBook sales by a 3 to one ratio.
Thus, the second trend is one that I never expected. Print is far from dead — it’s just going through a wardrobe change. You never know if someone will prefer an eBook or print book, but the common denominator between them both is on-demand publishing.
Posted on June 11th, 2009 2 comments
Former Rocky Mountain News publisher John Temple has a great post about a recent depressing meeting of newspaper leaders, and their strategy for future success. The trouble is that most of their suggestions maybe made sense maybe 10 years ago, but now they just look out of touch. This quote nicely sums up his key points:
“The first mantra of the newspaper business, according to API, seems to be, ‘By god, the users will pay, because we say what we have to offer is valuable.’ The second seems to be, ‘If anybody messes with our stuff, we’ll force them to pay.’ And the third might be: ‘Businesses that are paying us should pay us more.’ ”
Here’s my take after five years of innovation from the ground floor at what is considered a very good, forward-looking newspaper. Their suggestions are depressing because they’re too little too late to save what once was. The last chance to start any of this was five years ago at best, which is not surprising since even the best newspapers have been operating under 10 to 30-year-old assumptions.
But I haven’t completely given up. Putting my optimist’s hat on for a second, I do think there is lots of opportunity for local journalism and media. It has nothing to do with technology, and all about branding, distribution and marketing.
In my opinion, the worst assumption of all has been that people prefer one big brand to meet all their information needs. This takes the root of current newspaper problems beyond a simple “print vs. online” issue, and straight to the core value of the product (or for those who have them, products) you offer.
It’s not that different from the geocentric view of the universe that Galileo correctly identified as false, but the Catholic Church fought until the bitter end. Likewise, newspapers, and many large media companies, still assume that they are at the center of the local universe, when in fact they’re really planets spinning around suns which orbit galaxies. They still have an important role, but until they realize that they’re one part of a larger system they’re operating out of an illusion.
Ask your friends and family where they go first for news, and you’ll learn that it’s usually via a portal like Yahoo, through search, or through a news search aggregator like Google News. And after that, blogs and “microblogs” like Twitter. In most cases, the news on those sites is really links, often deep into sites to read just one story. After they read a story on one site, they hit the Home button on their browser to go back to the portal, search engine or blog of their choice.
This to me indicates that people prefer choice to a “walled garden,” which is also why I think the thick client-based AOL and MSN services ultimately failed and were repositioned or shut down. Thus, whether your medium is in print or Web or mobile or magazine stands (and these days it needs to be in all of those and more), you need to have your brands out there where your audience is.
In this context, keeping everything walled inside your single daily newspaper, or even your newspaper Web site, is futile. The only winning content strategy with a future is niche publishing, and if you’re lucky a network of niche audiences that you can advertise to across all media. To continue the scientific analogy, you need to make your content readily available and desirable on every planet in your solar system.
This of course means that the big daily newspaper brand as we think of it today is gone in most peoples’ minds. In its place is a very large, but increasingly focused, niche product. That’s what newspapers, news organizations and companies that own them need to be thinking most about. Everything else is ancillary.
Posted on March 9th, 2009 No comments
Printcasting is mentioned in a Business Week story about “online experiments that could help newspapers”. And the story leads with Bakotopia.com, the social networking site I started for The Bakersfield Californian back in 2005. This is fitting, as Bakotopia’s later success with a printed magazine helped inspired the Printcasting concept.
The story also cites other good examples of things newspaper companies are doing to change with the times, including collaboration with Outside.in and Yahoo and the upcoming Plastic Logic e-reader.
This is great timing for us, as we recently opened our beta site to the public and are putting the final pieces in place to publicly launch in Bakersfield later this month. Here are some excerpts worth mentioning:
“… the independent, family-owned Californian is preparing to take the idea of Web-created niche magazines national. Using an $837,000 grant from the Knight News Challenge and about $200,000 of its own money, it’s launching a site called Printcasting.com later in March. The site will allow individuals, schools, homeowners’ associations, wine clubs, and the like to create their own digital magazines. ‘If we see a magazine that really has potential, we’ll print it, place additional ads in there, and distribute it, [first in Bakersfield, then in five other cities as early as this summer],’ Pacheco says. The Californian will get a cut of ad sales while spending little on the product itself. ‘This is cheap and targeted,’ Pacheco explains. ‘Even though there’s an ad recession, it doesn’t mean there’re no more ads.’ ”
And later on …
“This reinvention is taking publishers such as Bakersfield Californian away from selling ads just for their own news content. ‘Our future may be very different from how we started, in newspapers,’ Pacheco says. ‘[Going forward], we are the network that allows people to communicate among themselves.’”
That accurately sums up what we’re trying to do with Printcasting. Thanks to senior writer Olga Kharif for good reporting.
Of course the real story will begin once we launch later this month and are able to point to how regular old people are using Printcasting to make their own magazines and newsletters. Our local outreach is already starting in beta, and I can tell that what people do with these tools will ultimately be far more interesting than the tools themselves. The same has been true of Bakotopia and other social-media initiatives — connecting with people and allowing them to connect with each other is what the user-generated content space is really about.