Saturday, September 17, 2011

Start-up Journal: Where Do Hits Come From?

I attended an event at WHYY the other day where they discussed their new operation, Newsworks. It's a collaborative effort that brings together around 20 different regional journalistic outlets under one umbrella.

Over the first year of operation, they say they've had many successes and failures. The one thing that stood out to me most was that only 13 percent of their audience found content on Newsworks by going through the home page. The rest of the hits came from people who were led to the site via facebook, twitter, search engines and other links.

I just went through our numbers from JUMP. Since the March launch, we have 34,586 total hits. Only 10,655 went through the home page. That means the actual website draws only about 31 percent of the audience. We've had 7,767 hits (22 percent of our total hits) through facebook. Our twitter hits are only at 973.

What are the ramifications of this?

• Well, it makes me realize that I probably don't need to worry about updating the website every day. Two-thirds of our audience aren't even seeing the home page.
• This makes me think that I should be taking advantage of all our online content, not just the newest stuff. I should post and re-post all the old stories all over the place (especially on facebook), as the website really is just a marketing tool for the print magazine.
Twitter blows as an audience generator. It's fine for getting our name out there, so we'll continue with it. But twitter followers don't seem that interested in info beyond 140 characters.

• Most importantly, all of this makes me realize that the web is not a content-generator friendly medium. It is fantastic for users - they can find whatever info they want, whenever they want. But the content-producers are working in a void (and not making money online).

• This reaffirms my commitment to print. The Internet, I think, actually devalues content by nature of requiring so much of it. Print is permanent (or at least lasting) and therefore valuable.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Start-up Journal: The Mission of Journalists.

When buyouts were announced by the company that owns the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News, a City Paper reporter contacted me for insight. This is what I told him:

This scares the shit out of me. Losing more journalists hurts the city. Really. As more and more reporters disappear, less and less gets covered. That means the bulk of journalists in the city wind up reacting to events like fires, murders and other tragedies.

That means the reputation of the city, which is very much influenced by the news media, will be as a place where people get killed on the streets constantly, our sports fans are disgusting people who barf on little kids and our politicians are all corrupt. Some of that is true but there is so much more in Philadelphia that 95 percent of the viewing/ listening/ reading audiences will never know about.

Fewer and fewer journalists have the time to go in depth into stories, or even be proactive about stuff. We don't have a lot of professional reporters roaming the streets, learning about folks in neighborhoods.

There are people here in Philadelphia doing amazing things, who never get any coverage because there aren't enough reporters with audiences finding those people.

The Internet has been great for developing grassroots info systems. But those operations reach small audiences, and they are usually under-funded. They can only do so much.

Our large, mainstream media rely upon celebrities, tragedies/ controversies and sports to draw audiences. And it's only going to get worse now.

He wrote back and asked about the future of the local media landscape. I said:

The two newspapers are at the bone now. They've been losing staff for a long time (I took the buyout from the DN in December 2005). Their ability to be anything near comprehensive has been compromised for more than a decade. Probably a lot longer.

Regional newspapers are in tough spots. They try to speak in a familiar voice to a wide range of people - from the Jersey shore to the western suburbs, in the Inquirer's case. But the Inquirer can't cover that much range in a satisfactory way.

So there is a disconnect between the audience and the journalists.

These days, people want information that directly impacts them.

The future of the local media landscape? Honestly, I think the Inquirer and DN will continue to drop in circulation and ad revenue. I think local TV will continue with coverage of reactionary stuff, with emphasis on sports, crime and weather (ugh). And audiences will continue to drift away.

They'll find info online, or in random publications. But they'll have to seek it on their own. And that means many people will never learn about important issues that could have a direct impact on their lives.

The William Penn/ Temple deal
is tasked with helping journalists dig for that "important" journalism. I'm not involved with the process anymore but think about it - they first threw out their intentions with the program nearly two years ago. They could do great things with all that money but it could take a year before that operation is functional. Probably more.

He then asked whether the Daily News (where I worked for nearly 12 years; the image above was my last front page story for the paper, I think) was in better shape than the Inquirer. I said:

I think the DN covers a more specific region and has a more loyal readership (largely because of their sports coverage). I think that leaves the DN in better shape than the Inky.

When Amanda Bennett arrived at the Inquirer a while back, she said that she wanted to make the Inquirer the best regional newspaper in the country. She said she wanted the paper to back off national and international stories in favor of covering local stuff, developing news that people couldn't find anywhere else.

But the Inquirer was only a decade removed from their Pulitzer era, and conceding stuff to the wire services felt like defeat.

The future of journalism, for better or worse, is small and personal to the audience. There will always be a handful of national/ international operations - the NYTimes, Wash Post, etc. The Internet will continue to fragment audiences. And local newspapers, like the Inquirer, will need to figure out what their niche is in this demassified world.

This all connects to our magazine efforts, I think. We are building a financially sustainable journalistic product, one that informs as well as entertains. We are flashy enough to get attention but deep enough to be smart advocates for the city.

Even when we begin paying staff next year (fingers crossed), we won't be muckrakers. We don't have the time nor inclination to do that kind of work. Rather than document corporate or governmental malfeasance, we're doing a public service by highlighting local talent. We're trying to change the reputation of this great place: rather than make people think the city is a shithole where people are raped, killed and robbed constantly, we are showing that there is hope and talent in the city.

I'm not saying we are the future of journalism. But we are a part of it. Our mission is noble, our business is responsible and our product is solid.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Start-up Journal: Follow Your Passion.

The latest issue of JUMP hit the streets last week and I think we have made a world of progress. The design is cleaner and more interesting, the stories are tighter and more random, and we have reader service stuff that makes the mag valuable.

In my publisher's note, I suggested everyone "start a fucking band." Since we started the magazine, I've had numerous people tell me they were in bands during high school or college. And now, they have crappy jobs. In an era when money is tight, jobs are scarce and Philadelphia has few jobs where people actually produce anything, the arts, I think, may be the only hope for the future of the city.

That sounds awful but it's meant to be a positive. We have an awesome and burgeoning music scene. Rather than be known as a place with high crime or political corruption or crappy schools or shitty sports fans, we should be known as a music town.

My young friend Kevin Brosky took issue with my suggestion that everyone start a band. He says that I make it sound so easy, when it's really not. Of course, he is right. But I can't help wonder whether he was troubled by my suggestion because he knows that he's working a job that isn't where his passion rests.

I hope I pissed off a lot of people in a similar fashion. I want people to recognize that as the country deepens into the financial shithole we're digging, we really should be retreating to what makes us most happy (for me, it's baseball, Mookie and music). Quit focusing on the miserable stuff you have to do to pay the bills. Focus your energy on your passions.

Anyway ... here are a few things I learned during the production of this issue:

• Selling ads during the summer is dreadful. When businesses are slow, the last thing anyone wants to talk about is spending money (even while they know that they want to be a part of the fall issue, as it will reach a large audience).
• I need to sell ads for multiple issues well before summer.
• Free labor is unreliable labor. We had a lot of stories fall through for this issue and many of them were for random reasons. We need to get to the point when people are paid for their work. I'm hoping to begin paying for content creation starting in 2012.

• When people look through the magazine, they are impressed. But we still have a branding issue. Some people still don't know what we are.
• We are getting there, though. Today I spoke to a club owner who, eight months ago, told me that he wouldn't advertise in print anymore. But today, he said he liked the mag (he didn't say he'd advertise but I think it's coming).
• I've spoken about the mag at various events and afterward, I'm flooded by people interested in the project. Clearly, we are tapping into something.

• I'm unbelievably proud of the product we've created. Our content in this issue ranges from stories about popular bands to urban bonfires, from black radio to Internet radio, from hip hop and jazz to choral music and chamber music.
• Our web hits have been going crazy. Even on days we don't post, we get 300 or 400 hits. That seems to be people reading the recent issue's content (most likely directed to us via facebook).
• The cover story about Patty Crash has received the most hits. Number two was a surprise: a story about the 150th anniversary of the University of Pennsylvania Glee Club.
• We wrote about Joe Hardcore in the summer issue. When his annual hardcore festival happened in August, the page hits skyrocketed (679 hits on that story on one day alone). It's the most viewed story on the website. I'm not sure how to capitalize on that.

There are days when I don't want to do the magazine anymore. The work is labor intensive. Editing stories eats my life. Doing design is fun but a challenge. Selling ads is awful. Distributing magazines takes forever. And I'm never sure how the magazine is being received.

But the rewards are awesome. Last night, for instance, I ran into a kid who said, "Oh, you're the JUMP guy?" Then he told me how much he loved the latest issue. I went to the opening of a new music venue the other day and people knew the mag, and they liked it. I've hand-delivered mags to advertisers and they are pleased.

What makes me most happy is that we are covering stuff that no one else does. We are educating the region on the awesomeness of the Philly music scene. And we are doing it without selling our souls (no sponsored stories, no concessions to advertisers, etc).

We are still short of our financial goals. For this issue, I put in around $1,500 of my own money into the project (plus countless hours). But I look at this as my contribution to the local arts scene. I have no musical talents. But I can organize a crew and put together a magazine.

I'm not starting a band (not now, at least). But I'll write about you if you do.

This is my passion, my distraction from the bullshit of the world.