Different direction for media organizations?

With all the predictions of the death of the mainstream media, it’s amazing to think it’s still around. Blogging and Twitter, apparently, will replace mainstream media, or so some would have you believe.

I’ve been a member of the mainstream media and I’m now a blogger. I’m on Twitter. The lines between media and social media are occasionally blurred.

I don’t buy into the hype saying that blogging and Twitter will replace the mainstream media.

We still have radio, books, magazines, newspapers, television, etc. Nothing replaced them. New forms of media have simply changed them. They all still have their place in the media landscape.

Mainstream media is changing

In the summer of 2009 I heard an interview with David Black, CEO of B.C.-based Black Press; apparently it’s Canada’s largest newspaper chain with more than 150 newspapers. He’s still expanding his newspaper empire. Puzzling, considering how many are claiming the media is dying.

What does he know that the pundits don’t? He knows is that the media is not dying, but is changing. Technology has driven the change and the recession has accelerated it.

Small local papers will be around for a long time and some lessons can be taken from them. The biggest advantage they have is that they have a local focus and I believe this will be the primary advantage of successful newspapers in the future. Citizens want to know what is happening in their community and local media still is one of the best ways to do so.

Today the media landscape is littered with wire copy. It’s cheap and easy filler. It has its place and is important in finding out what is happening around the world. On a daily basis, local news tends to be most important to readers. So what’s the best way to get that local news?

The future of newspapers: new form of media organization

The first step would be to form a co-op and everyone in the company is going to earn the same amount. Everyone’s going to be equal, have the same vote and be an equal partner in the organization.

Co-ops aren’t exactly new, but it’s not a common model for media organizations. Journalists typically aren’t a particularly entrepreneurial lot. CHEK TV on Vancouver Island is a fairly recent example of an employee owned station. I believe it’s a corporation, but it’s a similar idea.

Maryland allows social or benefit corporations with California and Vermont possibly following their lead. It essentially allows a corporation to have social goals as one of their primary goals, and not just profits. It could possibly allow a corporation to survive a hostile takeover by a larger, richer media organization seeking to reduce competition. I wouldn’t mind seeing something like this in Canada.

Second, the newspaper would be entirely online. Traditional newspaper and broadcast media are increasingly finding life online, but it’s different, and not as lucrative (yet). By not having a paper version, operational costs are kept much, much lower. One of Black Press’ key advantages is its ownership of presses. It’s expensive and creates many difficulties. While traditional newspapers will still be around, online publications will be the key to the media’s future.

Third, it would be ad free and would be completely subscriber-based. Yes, the dreaded paywall. The idea is to have the newspaper be strictly focused on journalism and not on advertising. The logic is it would be a publication free of any perceived advertiser bias. Those who aren’t subscribers would be allowed some limited views of stories. Partial views of stories would also be allowed in Google News.

I think that people would be willing to subscribe to a quality newspaper free of any perceived bias from advertising. You might not cover the entire market, but could find a sufficient number of subscribers interested in quality journalism that could make the online newspaper a go.

Details: using Edmonton as an example

I’m based in Edmonton, and here’s how I can see it working. According to 2001 census figures, Edmonton has 265,000 households. Now, and including the surrounding area (Spruce Grove, St. Albert, Sherwood Park, Leduc, etc), let’s roughly estimate that at 400,000.

Let’s give journalists a healthy wage of $50,000 each. Using the Edmonton Journal as an example, there’s approximately 90 people in its newsroom and production (estimated).

With an all-online edition, 40 people for an online only, daily publication, to start would be reasonable.

The total payroll would be $2 million. Allowing an extra 50 per cent for overhead such as office space, libel insurance and other costs, you would be looking at an annual budget requirement of $3 million. Seems like a lot, but without ads, how do you do it?

Well, how much would a subscriber be willing to pay? Getting the Journal every day costs $256 per year. Not bad, but would someone be willing to pay $100 per year to get ad-free news delivered to their inbox, online, iPad and to their smart phone? I think they would. With GST that would be $8.75 per month for daily news, or 29 cents a day. (Seattle Post Intelligencer is all-online now and I’m curious how well they’re surviving.)

With a $3 million budget and $100 per subscriber needed you only need 30,000 subscribers. That’s only 7.5 per cent of the households in the Edmonton metro area.

As of March 31, the Edmonton Journal had a paid circulation of 125,589. Readership is estimated at 268,900 to 458,000. The assumption with readership is that there are multiple people reading the same paper.

So, what happens if there are 60,000 subscribers? This would mean revenue of $6 million per year. There are a couple possibilities here. It would be wise to create a reserve of working capital for the operation, but then what? The excess earnings could be distributed to those in the co-op as a dividend. It could be donated to charities.

More importantly the newspaper could expand its coverage and team. It could begin to invest more in investigative journalism. These days the trend is to cut newsrooms, not expand them. Investigative journalism has suffered at a time when North American citizens need it most.

Should there be ads?

It’s certainly possible to produce a quality newspaper, online or otherwise, without ads. I’m sure there’s a large chunk of the newspaper audience that hates the ads. I think it would be a big selling feature for a lot of people. If readers know they’re getting a quality product with honest reporting, that’s also a big selling feature. That’s not to say that just because you have ads you can’t trust the reporting.

People do read the ads in newspapers, no question. Some people pick up newspapers for the ads. Many small community papers seem to be little more than something to hold all the flyers that get delivered.

If an ad-free online newspaper were to be started, it would certainly leave room in the marketplace for competing newspapers to offer space for ads. What would the potential audience think? Good question. Before a venture like this got started, it would certainly be wise to do a great deal of market research to confirm that there would be demand for it. Or maybe an “if you build it, they will come” approach could be in order.

Beyond one city

This model can easily be expanded to more than one city. I can see something like this spreading across Canada and elsewhere. With a common look and content management system for the web, you could brand the network and pull in news from everywhere into that network. It could function as its own wire service.

Ad-free news from across the country, and maybe the world? I would definitely subscribe to that. Surplus funds from larger locations could be used to help new “bureaus” get started in other locations and bring them into the co-op. Once one location was successful, the goal would be to self-fund the entire organization.

If you were an unemployed journalist, would you rather sit at home on EI, or get back to work? If a group of journalists were suddenly laid off at a major paper and got a settlement package, why not pool those resources and start a publication like this? Take a risk! I think it would be more than fair to repay those who funded the organization with surplus funds the organization generated.

Would it work?

I believe that this is a realistic model for future newspapers and helps to solve the problem of shrinking the newsroom as a way of increasing profits. I think that employees would be even more committed to the success of the organization because they share in its successes. It works for companies like Lincoln Electric and Westjet.

I would like to hear your thoughts on whether you’d be interested in investing in something like this, would subscribe to it or why you think it may or may not work.

Christmas, travelling & photos of Mt. Robson

mount-robson-bird-cloudThe last week has been a whirlwind of activity, both positive and negative. The two bad days I had earlier last week have given way to better days. There were no problems with school attendance after that. That was good.

I was able to pack a lot of work in at the end of the week, but I have much more! Saturday was spent preparing for “Christmas” on Sunday. I also did some last minute Christmas shopping and, with the help of the kids, got the house cleaned up and ready for company. My wife had to work Saturday, so we had to get it done. I’m sure she’s not complaining. : )

My Friday was interesting. I attended a Canadian Public Relations Society luncheon where Walter of fusedlogic was speaking about social media and avoiding public relations disasters. I was posting items and pictures on Twitter while Mack Male was live blogging the event. I know Walter was under the weather but it was one of the best speeches I’ve heard him give.

After that I attended the ProTraining open-house. It was a fun party and it was nice to chat with so many people I know and I met a few new ones too. It was almost like a Tweetup!

Early Christmas for the kids

We decided to have a Christmas celebration for the kids before they went back to B.C. to spend the holidays with their mom. The joys of divorce. Nobody in this house has had a “normal” Christmas in years.

Because we’re having relatives on Christmas day and will be having the usual turkey dinner, we decided to give the kids a choice: turkey or sushi. They, of course, took the sushi option. With the help of my parents we prepared several platters of sushi composed of crab, tuna and salmon in various forms.

The sushi was really good. It may not have been as fancy as you find in a sushi restaurant, but it was still good.

The kids were the only ones opening presents, except for my wife and I opening gifts from the kids. They were pretty happy with their gifts, and while I intended to spend a little less than average this year, I am pretty sure I spent more.

I have seen figures that the average spent per person on Christmas in Canada is in the $850-900 range. Per person! I think our whole family spends less than $1,000 together! It’s not like we’re just buying at Wal-Mart either. We get nice gifts but not too much and though I do feel like we’re extravagant at times, I guess we’re not.

Trip West: to B.C.

Yesterday we drove the kids “half way” from Edmonton to McBride. My ex-wife lives in Quesnel now. She was running late so I decided to tour McBride. I used to live there a while back with my ex-wife. My daughter was two at the time.

For me, the most interesting part of the tour was driving down the long country road to the old mill I used to work at. We couldn’t get in because the road was choked with snow. I could see there was no longer a gate, so there’s obviously nothing left back there. It was a neat old mill where they produced cedar post and rail fencing. There was also a sawmill with a planer.

We drove back down the road and I stopped at a small property halfway back to town. I stopped in to see if the people I knew were still there, and by chance, they were! The fellow I knew was now working out of town and unfortunately (for me) was going to be home today. I talked with his wife at the door for a while and got his email address. Everyone in the car had a laugh as the goat tried to butt its way inside the door I had cracked open slightly.

I hadn’t been through McBride much over the years and never really had time to stop. I’m glad I did this time. After 14 years in can be kind of awkward, but it always passes quickly. I would have regretted it if I’d driven right past and never stopped.

We found a local restaurant to relax at and eventually got the kids on their way to Christmas in Quesnel. We’ll miss them, as we always do. Hopefully they have a good Christmas there.

Mt. Robson

On the way to McBride we had stopped and taken some pictures of Mt. Robson, which was crystal clear that day. Anyone who gets to see that spectacular mountain on a regular basis is blessed. It’s definitely one of the most picturesque mountains in the world. My photos don’t do it justice.

We actually stopped there on the way back too. It was in early sunset, and looked nice still. I wish we had the time to wait because the sunset later offered the most amazing salmon pink cast. Now that would have made an even better photo. We have to go back that way again soon, so you never know.

After snapping off a few dozen photos, getting some video and some frostbite, we were on our way again. The rest of the trip was less eventful. We stopped in Jasper, one of our favourite towns, for supper. We often stop at the Earl’s there and did again this time. It’s perched up above the quaint streets and it offers a beautiful view of the surrounding mountains.

Snow tires are a good thing, studded tires are better

We arrived safely back home. I say safely because the way people were driving, it’s a good thing. I can’t believe the way people drive on icy roads and the roads lately have been icier than usual. They keep their all-season tires on and drive like it’s summer. We had studded tires on all four tires. It was so icy in places that even with our tires I could feel the car losing a bit of grip.

I think that investing in a second set of rims, and either snow tires or studded tires, is a sensible investment in a vehicle you plan to keep. Once they’re mounted, you can do the tire changes yourself, which saves around $50 twice per year. It also extends the life of your current tires because they are being driven on half the time. At the very least if you could have one vehicle in your family that was equipped like this, that would be good.

That’s the economic side of the argument. If you value your family’s and your own lives, it’s worth it no matter what the cost. If you’re “lucky” enough to have an accident with no injuries, I am curious how much that might cost you. How much do your premiums go up if you just go off the road and total your car? I am curious because I’ve never had it happen. I assume you’re found to be at fault. Interesting thought though.

If I don’t manage to make it back to my blog before Christmas, I hope that you and your family have a very merry, happy and safe Christmas!

Comments:

  1. Paul Says: I agree 100% about the tires. I’ll be shopping for a new vehicle soon, so it’s not worth the investment on this car, but wow…what a difference good tires make. Takes a lot of the stress out of driving.Great pics, also!
  2. Alain Saffel Says: Paul, thanks for the comment. It’s surprising how many people don’t drive on the right tires. It endangers everyone. Quebec had the right idea about making snow tires mandatory.I hate driving in vehicles without the right snow tires. My truck is like that, which is why it tends to sit in the winter. Right now I can’t afford to buy the rims and tires for it either.Thanks for the compliments on the pictures. You can check out my Flickr account too. I’ve got the widget on the page here for my Flickr account. :)