Sunday, October 25, 2009


Many journalists pursuing new online initiatives are learning that good intentions are not enough for providing news.

The latest group to do so is former Rocky Mountain News reporters who started this past summer using a membership payment and advertising model. The effort collapsed Oct. 4 with them telling readers, “We put everything into producing content and supporting our independent partners, but we can no longer afford to produce enough content to justify the membership.”

There problem is hardly unique. The conundrum facing many journalists is whether to pursue the noble work of journalism as unpaid charitable work or to become engaged as journalistic entrepreneurs with a serious attitude toward its business issues—something many despised in their former employers.

If journalists want pay for their work, if they want to provide for their families, and if they want to pay mortgages, they need to spend more time figuring out how to provide value that will extract payments from readers and advertisers. To do that they have to construct organizational structures and activities that support the journalism; they will have to ensure that startups have sufficient capital; and they will have to engage staffs in marketing and advertising activities, not merely news provision.

One of the most difficult issue for these new journalism providers—as well as existing print and broadcast providers—is that journalists tend to overestimate the value of news for the public. What the public actually wants is less, not more, news.

It is not that the public doesn’t want to be informed, however. It is just that journalists spend so much time, space, and effort conveying commodity news that provides little new and helpful information for readers and cannot generate sufficient financial support. By commodity news I mean the simplistic who, what, and where stories about what happened yesterday. Those kinds of stories are readily available from many sources and provides readers little for which they will pay.

Instead, in a world of ubiquitous commodity journalism, successful journalists need to be spending time exploring the how and why of events and issues and helping readers understand and cope with what is expected next. Effective journalism in the new environment needs to focus more on today and tomorrow than on yesterday.

Success in the contemporary journalism environment it is not merely about providing news, but about providing helpful and advisory news explanation based on solid values and identity to which readers can relate. It must be part of entrepreneurial journalism or new ventures will fail.

To get there, however, journalists starting up new enterprises will need to develop resources and entrepreneurial motivation to sustain their efforts more than a few months. Most new commercial and noncommercial enterprises require 18 to 36 months of operation before they develop a loyal audience and achieve a stable financial situation. Unless journalists are willing to work for free during that time, they will have to raise capital to survive; and if they want their new organizations to thrive and develop they will have to provide a different kind of news than most are used to creating. It will need to be unique and better than what is already available.

Saturday, October 24, 2009


As publishers move more and more content to the Internet, mobile services, and e-readers, these digital activities change the structures and processes of underlying business operations. Many publishers, however, pay insufficient attention to the implications of these changes and thus miss out on many benefits possible with digital operations.

This occurs because publishers become focused on issues of content delivery and uncritically accept the fundamental elements of the processes involving platforms and intermediaries. In order to gain the fullest future benefits from the digital environment, however, publishers needs to strategically consider and direct activities involving the users, advertisers, prices, and purposes of their new platforms.

In creating business arrangements with platform and service providers and intermediaries, 4 fundamental strategic principles should guide your actions:

1. Control your customer lists. The most important thing you do as a publisher is to create relationships with and experiences for your customers. It is crucial to ensure that your content distribution and retail systems do not separate you from those who read, view, or listen to your content. If you do not operate your distribution or pay systems, or don’t have strong influence over their operations, this important part of the customer experience falls outside your control and— worse—you never establish direct relationships with customers that allow you to get to know them better, to create stronger bonds, to use them to improve your products, or to up-sell services. If you must use intermediaries, ensure that you have full access and rights to use e-mail, mobile, and other addresses for all your content customers and that you have some influence over the look, feel, and content of the contacts that your service providers have with your customers.

2. Control advertising in your digital space. Users see advertising placed on your website, your mobile messages, and your e-reader content as part of your product and it affects the experience you deliver to them. It is not enough to control the size and placement of ads; you also need to control the dynamic functionality, types, and content of ads. The experience your product delivers is of little interest to outside providers of digitally delivered advertising, but it must be to you. You should control your own advertising inventory and maintain approval rights and—as with audiences—you should have the ability to make direct contact with advertising customers so you can add value by working with them to achieve greater effectiveness and provide better benefits across your content platforms.

3. Control your own pricing. Do not put yourself in the position of merely accepting the ad suppliers’ price and payment for advertising appearing in your digital product. The digital space and audience contact that you provide is the product and service being purchased and some contact is more valuable than others. Know how your value compares to that of competitors and set your prices according. Don’t be a price taker, be a price maker. Digital advertising will not grow to become an important part of your business if you let the most important decision of the revenue model reside in someone who does not care about your business.

4. Drive customers to platforms most beneficial to you. Digital media give you the opportunities to serve customers where and when they want to be served, but you need to use those opportunities to drive them to your financially most important product. Internet sites, e-readers, mobile applications, and social media are highly useful for contact and interaction, but not yet very effective for revenue generation. The best effects typically result from increasing use of your offline product or driving traffic to your most finally effective digital location. Make sure that all the distribution platforms you use are configured for easy movement to other digital platforms that benefit you most, even if they don’t directly benefit your service provider.

Digital publishing can only become successful if you get the business fundamentals correct by controlling the most important commercial aspects of the operation. The value configuration created by customer interfaces and partner networks must be arranged to work in your favor and strategic thinking needs to guide how you organize and direct those activities.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Oct 14th Re-Cap

It was a veritable barn-burner of a show on October 14th at The Business! That is not to be confused with a barn-raiser, which connotes a successfully comedy show in the Amish community. Instead of churning butter, the audience churned with laughter. Instead of scorning technology, we used microphones to provide amplified sound. And instead of a bunch of guys with beards standing around and talking, our show had performances from Alex Koll and guest star Kyle Kinnane.

Sean Keane began the show discussing his childhood speech impediment, his illustrious career as a teenage musical theater performer, obscene phone calls, writing fake letters to the newspaper, and finally, how his dad started kissing him hello and goodbye at age 51. Truly a moving and unsettling set. Alex Koll followed, delivering a preview of his hosting gig the next night at the SF Weekly Music Awards. ("7:30 - Arrive. 8:05 - Introduce yourself. 'Hello. How's it going?'") He also explained the similarities between Charles Manson's parole board testimony and the menu at a really good Chinese restaurant. Chris Garcia followed with an extended impression of a ex-Live 105 employee turned alcoholic vagrant. Though thrown off by audience member W. Kamau Bell's repeated suggestion of "Fishbone" as a 90's alternative act, Garcia-as-hobo delighted the crowd.

Before the show, audience members were asked to fill out index cards listing something they were afraid of. The night's next performer, Bucky Sinister, opened his set by reading the cards and riffing off of each of the frightening topics. Perfect for October and the impending Halloween season! Bucky also explained to the crowd why it might be useful to have a tattoo, of your own hand, on your chest, flipping the bird. (Because when the cops arrest you, and your hands are cuffed behind your back, you can still flip them off.)

Guest performer Kyle Kinnane was delayed by an overturned Safeway truck on the Bay Bridge, but his set didn't suffer in the least. He did express dismay that the horrible traffic snarl was caused by something so uncool as spilled produce. We also learned some entertaining and, again, somewhat disturbing information, about what it is like to use a bar bathroom in a really bad part of Chicago.

Finally, headliner Hari Kondabolu continued the night's informal theme of hilariously unsettling personal confessions and finished with Kondabolu Klassics about Vitamin Water and gentrification.. It was perhaps the greatest show The Business has had, in terms of quality, variety, audience, and, of course, penis references.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009


This is not trick question and it is being increasingly asked as public broadcasters grow larger, offer multiple channels, move into cross-media operations, and increasingly commercialize their operations.

The Federal Communications Commission will have to consider that question shortly when it considers the effort of WGBH Education Foundation—operator of WGBH-TV, the highly successful Boston-based public service broadcaster—to purchase the commercial radio station WCRB-FM.

WGBH is the top ranked member of the Public Broadcasting Service in the New England and produces about one third of PBS’ programming. It operates a second Boston television station, WGBX-TV, and WGBY in Springfield, Massachusetts. In addition it operates FM radio stations WGBH (Boston), WCAI (Woods Hole), WZAI (Brewster), and WNAN (Nantucket) and is a member of National Public Radio and Public Radio International. It operates two commercial subsidiaries involved in music rights and motion picture production.

This month it announced it was planning to purchase WCRB-FM, a classical music station that serves the Boston area. The purchase would allow it to alter its WGBH-FM format to compete more directly with WBUR-FM, the leading public radio station in Boston that is operated by Boston University.

WGBH Educational Foundation is an enterprise with $580 million in assets and revenues of $280 million annually. It has more than 600 employees who are paid more than $50,000 annually and has 5 paid more than $225,000. Its president and CEO is paid about $340,000 and 2 vice presidents about $250,000 annually. This is not a small, poor charitable enterprise.

Were WGBH a commercial broadcaster, those who hate big media would be howling in protest, arguing that it puts far too much control of the airwave in the hands of one organization and that the concentration will create market power that harms competition. But they are strangely silent.

However, in deciding whether to permit the purchase, the FCC will have to consider whether the expansion of the public broadcaster harms competitors and plurality and diversity.

Similar questions are being asked elsewhere as well. Across the pond, the British Broadcasting Corp. has recently been the target of a good deal of criticism because of its increasingly commercialized operations and because its expansion of public service operations in TV, Radio, and Internet at the local, national, and international level are seen as affecting commercial firms and competition.

The BBC is one of the largest broadcasting companies in the world, operating on revenues of £4.7 billon ($7.4 billion) and it has assets of £1.5 billion ($2.4 billion).

Many commercial broadcasters and publishers in the U.K. have criticized the growth of the BBC operations and the debate became especially heated recently when James Murdoch, the News Corp. head in Europe and Asia, made a public speech charging the BBC was engaging in a “land grab” and that its ambitions were “chilling.”

“The expansion of state-sponsored journalism is a threat to the plurality and independence of news provision, which are so important for our democracy," Murdoch told the Edinburgh International Television Festival. Whether you agree with him or not, you have to give him credit for co-opting the language of critics of big commercial media.

News Corp. and the other commercial firms competing with the BBC obviously have self interests at heart, and some commercial firms have certainly behaved in ways that harmed public interests in the past, but their arguments should not be casually dismissed.

If competition among commercial firms, between commercial and non-commercial firms, and among non-commercial firms is good for pluralism and diversity, cannot concentration and reductions in sources of news and entertainment due to acts of large not-for-profit firms also harm competition, pluralism and diversity?

Monday, October 12, 2009

Hari's Back...

Wed October 14th marks the return of our most frequent guest, Hari Kondabolu! Officially known as the "Fifth Businessman", Hari never fails to deliver the word-goods on the stage-place. Get your tickets here:

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Should we stop saying that the market is efficient?

No, we should not stop saying that the market is efficient. We should stop saying that, because the market is efficient, the most efficient firms prevail. Because they do not. And that is because there are always multiple markets going on at the same time.

Take a firm in any market of your choice, and then consider this firm’s internal labor market. It often is a very competitive race who is going to be the CEO of the company. Yet, the characteristics that make a person more likely to win this race do not necessarily make him or her a good person to lead the company. Let me explain.

An interesting line of research in social anthropology analyzed what type of person is more likely to rise through the ranks to become the headman of a tribe. Often, this would be the most fierce, ambitious and aggressive warrior, who would be willing to take on all his opponents in the quest for leadership. Yet, interestingly, although characteristics such as fierceness and ambition would be helpful in becoming tribe leader, these characteristics were not necessarily positive for the future of the settlement, since these type of leaders were prone to take the tribe to war. This would ultimately take its toll on the size, strength and survival chances of the tribe. Thus, the same characteristics that would make people more likely to become the headman were likely to get the tribe in to trouble.

CEOs might not be all that different. Those people who are ambitious, risk-seeking and aggressive enough to be able to rise to the ultimate spot of CEO, just might be the same people who, once they’re there, take their firm on a conquest. Take acquisitions. They often offer the thrill of the chase. You select a target, mobilize resources and lead the attack. Sometimes there are others eyeing your prey but skilful maneuvering and a fierce battle will make you come out victorious again. And another victory means pictures in the newspapers, popping champagne, and a larger tribe to rule and command.

Yet, we have seen many firms going on an acquisition spree, inspired by their ambitious new CEO, who not for long went down in a blaze without much glory. The aggressiveness, boldness, and risk-taking behavior of the person at the helm had brought him or her to that position, but it didn’t translate well into a sensible corporate strategy.

Markets are in some form or another efficient, whether they are internal labor markets or markets for corporate control. But they may not be aligned, and victory in one may very well lead to defeat in another.