February 2009

closing-of-the-rocky-mountain-newsThe death of American newspapers is now occurring at an almost predictable pace.  Every day it seems we hear about another major newspaper closing its doors or declaring bankruptcy.  Today it was Denver’s venerable  Rocky Mountain News.  The phenomenon has become so epidemic there is even a website called Newspaper Death Watch, which, as its tag line says is “chronicling the decline of newspapers and the rebirth of journalism.”  Even in my own home town of Seattle, we will almost certainly lose one of our major dailies, and many predict both within a year or so.  Are we witnessing the end of American journalism and news reporting?

Rocky Mountain News Closing After Friday Edition

In an ironic twist, staffers at the Rocky Mountain Newslive blogged the meeting where the closure was announced.  In a sense, it is symbolic of both the forces at work that are undermining print journalism and the future of journalism.  Newspaper are desperately trying to bridge the gap between print and online.  The 2008 Bivings Report on the use of the Internet by America’s largest newspapers reported the following:

  • Newspapers are experimenting with user generated content. The study found that 58 percent of newspapers allowed for user generated photos, while 18 percent accepted video and 15 percent articles. Overall, 58 percent of newspapers offered some form of user generated content in 2008 compared to 24 percent in 2007.
  • Research shows that the number of newspaper websites allowing users to comment on articles has more than doubled in the last year. Seventy five percent of newspapers now accept article comments in some form, compared to 33 percent in 2007.
  • Ten percent of newspapers had social networking tools, such as user profiles and the ability to “friend” other users, built into their sites in 2008. This compares to five percent of sites that included this feature in 2007. It is surprising that this number isn’t higher.
  • Seventy six percent of newspapers offered a Most Popular view of content in some form (Most Emailed, Most Blogged, Most Commented, etc.). This compares to 51 percent in 2007 and 33 percent in 2006.
  • Integration with external social bookmarking sites like Digg and del.icio.us has increased dramatically the last few years. Ninety-two percent of newspapers now include this option compared to only seven percent in 2006.

Still, the newspaper industry has many apparently intractable issues of:

  • Competition from a variety of media that report the news more quickly if not always in more depth and with greater accuracy
  • Physical overhead that comes with printing and delivering newspapers
  • Collapse of print advertising as advertisers move to lower cost, more measurable ads on the Internet
  • Mismanagement and gutting of jreporting / editorial staff by corporate media parents intetn on meeting unrealistic quarterly earnings targets even if it degrades the end product

ny-times-onlineThough its format may change, journalism, I am confident, won’t disappear.  According to Technorati, many of the largest media properties (by audience size) in the US are now blogs.  The blogosphere, as a medium, is beginning to mature as it grows, and as it gains influence, will no doubt adopt the habits, practices and editorial checks and balances that evolved in newspapers over time.   Many blogs, like the Huffinton Post, have evolved into very successful online newspapers.  The “HuffPo” completed a $15 million financing in November, 2008 which will allow it to do more investigative reporting, as well news commentary.  It’s low overhead and large audience, built in just over 3 years, may reveal why news-blogs are the new newspaper.

The news-blog will, by its nature, be a dialog with its readers – a co-creation of journalists / bloggers and their readers.  Every aspect of the news-blog will be measurable and “tweak-able” which will be good for improving the product and attracting advertisers who will foot the costs.  Just as the birth of modern newspapers took journalism to new heights, so too will the birth of the news-blog.



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google book search logoSearch is the primary way most of us navigate the Web.  Google has continually looked for new ways to improve the results of searches and today it’s index of websites is the most comprehensive in the world.  Yet the largest body of human knowledge has resided outside the domain of the Web – stored in books.  So, in late 2004, Google created Google Book Searchbegan scanning books into a vast digital database and allowing users to search their contents.  Today, there are over 7 million books in the database.  In that same year, the Authors Guild and the American Association of Publishers (AAP) brought a suit on behalf of authors and publishers to stop Google from scanning books without copy right owners’ permission.

Lawrence Lessig – Is Google Book Search “Fair Use”?

At the end of October, 2008, a settlement between the litigating parties was announced.  An article by Jonathan Kirsch in the IBPA Independent, “What the Google Settlement Means for Authors and Publishers,” outlines the key provisions of the Google Reader settlement including: 

  • Rights holder control the use of their works by Google – Rights holders can opt out of the Book Search program, although now that the settlement appears likely to be approved, that might put them at a sales and marketing disadvantage relative to those who belong to the program.
  • Rights will be administered through a new organization called the Book Rights Registry – The registry will represent authors and publishers, and be a clearinghouse for rights related issues.  Google contributes $34.5 million to set up the registry; thereafter the registry’s operational costs are paid out of the 10-20 percent administrative fees charged against the money it collects on behalf of authors and publishers.
  • Google will share revenues with rights holders – Any book sales, subscription and advertisement revenue generated by the Google Book Search will be divvied up by the Book Rights Registry, which will give Google 37 percent and rights holders 63 percent.
  • Google will pay for past use of copyrighted works – in fact, a website has been set up where rights holders can review the settlement in detail and file claims online.
  • Out-of-print books will be made available unless the rights holder objects – This will extend the “long tail” life for such titles and could mean additional revenues for rights holders that might not have been feasible otherwise.

There has been plenty of reaction to the settlement, both positive and negative – for example, check out some of the comment on O’Reilly’s Tools of Change blog.   Many suggestions for improving the settlement have been made by organizations on different sides of digital rights issue.  The Electronic Freedom Foundation, for example, has called for greater transparency in the operation of the Registry and on the part of Google to ensure all parties, including consumers are protected and that public goods are made as widely available as possible.

google-book-search-goes-mobileSo what does this mean for authors and publishers?  The impact is still difficult to appreciate fully.  But clearly it means greater exposure for niche titles and works that for cost reasons may no longer be viable in print.   In terms of revenue to the author or publisher, the discount (portion paid by Google less the administrative fee) is comparable to a retail venue – without the physical headaches and costs associated with printing and distribution.  So, at this point,  it seems an attractive way to increase exposure for a work and get some incremental sales.  Recently, Google announced that Book Search for mobile phones.  This creates a potentially much larger audience for titles included in Book Search. 

library-in-alexandriaThe Library in Alexandria, represented an attempt by the ancients to create a store of all human knowledge and thinking up to that point.  Today, Google’s Book Search database could realize their dream.  Of course, Google stands to benefit hugely from the settlement.  Its index will become far more comprehensive; and the book database created will be a “store” in the commercial sense that will pump billions of dollars of revenue into the company.  Google could certainly become the world’s largest librarian and bookseller.

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The Business Blook as Beta Publishingtape-measure-2One of the benefits of living in a digital world is that it gets easier to measure everything.   For example, if we have an online store, we can measure the traffic that comes to our websites and the behavior of visitors once they are there.  We can count conversions – e.g. sign-ups, downloads and / or sales.  With this information, we can optimize different aspects of the website to deliver a satisfying experience for both the customer and the website owner.  So why not optimize the books we sell to deliver a better reading experience?  The term “book” now glows with an electronic aura.  E-books are showing impressive growth, though still a small percentage of overall book sales, and there are many new sales channels opening up for books in electronic form.  It seems conceivable that soon we may see some form of content testing for books in electronic format. 

Google’s free Website Optimizer tool

Publishers could offer variations of sample content on a website or blog to see which drives more interest before making the commitment to an expensive print version.  Certainly authors who develop their content through the medium of a blog already have a good start on this process if they let the blog metrics guide their choice of content for their title.  Publisher could also offer different beta versions of a book title through electronic channels – e.g. serialized content online, to e-book readers or mobile phones – to  see which results in better customer reviews, sales, etc.  In this way a book could be optimized toward a finished product that customers really want. 

In addition to content, other elements of a book could be tested, including:  book title, cover design, cover text, testimonials, even chapter titles.  The tests might even provide greater predictability for future print book sales.   Tools are already available to make such testing easy, inexpensive and statistically significant.  Publisher intuition about what works would serve as a starting hypothesis; testing would be the objective final arbiter of what actually works. 


Which version would you buy?

Will publishers explore “book optimization?”  Perhaps not right away.  But the ease and cost effectiveness of measurement in the digital realm, and the high cost of failure in the analog (read “print”) world could certainly make it a more attractive option in the future.



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