It’s Been a Long Slog, but Digital News Publishers Are Beginning to Innovate

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News publishers get beat up regularly for not making a successful journalistic transition from their palmy print days to the hotly competitive digital era. And they certainly deserve it. But I think Neal Mann’s recent full-metal-jacket attack on them in Medium was way over the top.

Mann, himself a journalist who is currently consulting with the Wall Street Journal on advertising content strategy, says in his piece:

“Strategic innovation has been difficult for journalism in the past because, unlike almost any other industry, it has been driven by exceptionally short term goals. The focus has been on daily editorial deadlines driven by the news cycle and advertising sales targets, all of which often designed around historic processes and platforms. This has meant all innovation inevitably had to be short term, to show immediate benefits and was often forced through by individuals in various areas of news organizations who understood the need to reach consumers on new platforms and in new ways. Too often resources have been focused on basic upgrades — wall papering over the cracks, often represented by the industry wide focus on homepage redesign.

As the pace of technological advancement only increases we can no longer continue with this approach.”

Many news publishers are, as Mann says, “papering over the cracks.” But they are also starting to tear down walls instead of just papering over the cracks. These walls have been barriers that have prevented the publishers from fully engaging with digital audiences who have so many new choices in news.

Contrary to what Mann contends, innovation is happening in digital news publishing.

I see it regularly in the New York Times’ Upshot section, where data is brought to life in compelling visualizations that show the big picture of American society and how it’s changing, and then let you effortlessly zoom in on the changes in your own community. I still regularly go to the Upshot’s package of 2015 articles on the “Best and Worst Places to Grow Up in America,” done with trail-blazing university researchers Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren. The series tracked how the odds of poor people, especially minorities, succeeding in many communities are so much higher, largely because of their fewer educational opportunities.

I saw it in the Houston Chronicle’s “The One Million” series on migration that was producing a metro Houston where one resident in four in sprawling Harris County is foreign born, and what this means for the culture and economy of America’s fifth-largest urban region.

I saw it in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel’s “Deadly Delays” series on how laggard screenings at hospitals put newborns at risk for disability and death.

What all these series had in common is how they marshaled huge amounts of sometimes complex data and served them up in visually appealing, and compelling, ways that would have been impossible to do so thoroughly just a few years ago. They all aggressively pushed the tech envelope. This is innovation.

Shifting to the tighter lens of hyperlocal, I see successful innovation in how independent entrepreneurs are building mini-networks of news sites in urban regions, including ones that were once “owned” by daily newspapers.

Kelly Gilfillan’s independent Home Page Media Group launched in 2011 in the affluent Nashville suburb of Brentwood after Gannett’s the Tennesseean made deep editorial and other staffing and operational cuts that included closing its suburban print weeklies. Today Home Page Media has five digital publications, including a lifestyle magazine, that are closing in on $1 million annual revenue. For a novice publisher to do this  against a multi-billion-dollar media corporation, that’s pretty innovative.

In metro Washington, D.C., Scott Brodbeck, who came out of TV news, has put together the four-site “indie” network Local News Now that is doing quite well in highly competitive markets by offering restless readers a mix of tightly reported police and other “duty” cover and deeply reported government and trend stories, and offering businesses wide ad choices, including sponsored content that will connect with those impatient readers. If Brodbeck wasn’t plowing his returns back into investments in technology and sales, he’d be profitable. And all this is happening in the backyard of the Washington Post and where national hyperlocal network Patch has multiple sites.

A larger pure-play news network, Daily Voice, was, up to the spring of 2013, perhaps the perfect example of Mann’s papering-over-the-cracks hyperlocal news model. CEO Carll Tucker operated its sites almost exactly the way he did his old print  weeklies: Put at least one reporter in every community and have him or her listen to police reports, chase after fire engines and go to public hearings that could last until midnight.

But this carry-over model from print took Tucker and his Daily Voices to the edge of a financial cliff where the company was burning through cash at the rate of $500,000 a month. Tucker closed the weakest-performing sites (in Central Massachusetts) and scrapped the one-reporter-per-community model at his sites in suburban Connecticut and Westchester County in New York. Commodity news, like police and fire reports, was aggregated through a digital communications system that plugged Daily Voice into a hundred and more news sources.

At the Local Media Consortium, more than 60 newspaper publishers and broadcasters now have access to the expertise of Google and its Double-Click ad-management subsidiary and a raft of other tech-centered companies that are transplanting the “legacies” from their old-media roots into the digital world where they can connect marketers more closely to the “customer journeys” of their users. Programmatic CPMs are trending higher, and McClatchy and other legacies in the LMC are seeing double-digit increases in quarterly digital ad revenue.

For me, the most important innovation in news publishing is still a glimmer on the horizon. It’s what Bill Densmore at the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri School of Journalism and a wide-ranging group of experts in news media — everybody from editors to technologists — are doing to create a new framework for monetizing digital news while also protecting the privacy of its consumers. Achieving these goals is perhaps the most daunting challenge in digital journalism, and, like any true innovative undertaking, it includes numerous false starts, with no clear signpost to success. I’ll be providing an update soon on what looks like a promising new step in the long, slow, sometimes exasperating development of this Information Trust Exchange.

Ron Blevins, Vice President, Digital Strategy at Novus Media, Inc., part of the Omnicom Media Group, told me: “National,  international and digital-only publishers understand that to maintain and grow their audiences, innovating is paramount. I work with many publishers who dedicate resources to product development without any expectation of return; the idea is that a few products will stick and that’s what will differentiate them in this highly competitive marketplace.”

This may not satisfy the impatient Neal Mann. But innovation means many more failures than successes. It’s more about the slogging than than the dramatic arrivals at the mountaintop. A lot like life.

Tom GrubisichTom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) writes “The New News” column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of hyperlocal news network Local America, and is also working on a book about the history, present, and future of Charleston, S.C.