How free market concept of ‘open platform’ could revitalize our paper

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Liberating the creative people on its second-floor newsroom could give the Times Free Press new vibrancy as the newspaper industry is menaced by the empowering media freedom of the Internet.

                                   January 10, 2012, newsroom

Jason Taylor, President, Chattanooga Publishing Co.

Dear Jason,

The arguments for transforming Chattanooga Publishing Co.’s newsroom into a media platform are being readily — even warmly — received downstairs. I have sounded out many colleagues about the idea of broadening our publishing platform as I discussed in my Nov. 16 letter. In this concept, our company supports a wide variety of ad-supported websites run by entrepreneurs, some drawn from staff.

City desk editors Shawn Ryan and Dan Woods say they’d be interested in blogging on their own sites as clients of the company. Shawn is a longtime music reviewer who knows all the bands and has distinct views. Dan would like to write about family and church life and the outdoors. Judy Walton is a policy wonk who writes part time and serves as consultant to young reporters; she’ll think about it. Among the staff, reporter Chris Carroll would be keen on running political news online to expand his work coverage — and his career. Clint Cooper would like to pursue religious content in his own Web niche for news, trends and opinion. Ellis Smith is keen to explore business and free markets.

These journalists are open to the possibility of being more valuable than they are perceived to be under the controlling newsroom paradigm. In the model of journalism we practice, all of us are wage serfs. We put in our 40 hours; space is limited, formulas pinch. We have few ways of obtaining feedback (other than the occasional phone call or Web comment) and are not in a position to care for the big picture insofar as our business is concerned. As you suggested in an interview, we have no sense of what really “sells” as an idea, argument, theme or claim. Our journalists’ professional life gives them little room for growth in areas that may be their personal genius.

They seem to like the phalanx proposal because it esteems them and gives them a real-life stake in themselves as professionals. The platform scheme lets them take a risk — a chance — on their own gifts. It tells them: “We in the company are confident in your skills, your contacts, your perspective and your interests and passions. Follow your dreams, and we will help you. You just get out there and write; we’ll fuss over tech stuff and handle your ad stack.”

Our company should make this compelling argument among the best writers it can find. It should start a search in the city’s most popular hangouts for scribes — our newsroom. Then it should look farther afield for additional partners to run profit-seeking news/op websites and blogs deliverable on handhelds, notepads and PCs. An example of an “outside” client would be Josh Davis of Chattanooga, a writer who visits one new church a week and writes a review of it at churchsurfer.org. We recently did a story on him. With these sites we draw eyeballs to our advertisers and our city. Our company should offer itself as a service to journalists of many kinds, sell itself as a utility.

Making a living by being a utility

The TFP’s consideration for these services? A percentage of ad revenue.

I initially suggested a 60 percent-40 percent split in favor of the blogger, but that is naive. An 80-20 division of revenue might still be too rich for the middleman, and not alluring enough for the writer who eventually becomes aware of the free market available to him outside his relationship with our company. I’m not sure what baseline percentages should be.

The company needs to generate lots of these new revenue streams because any one of them is likely to be thin, especially in the first year. The pressure against the company’s ratio comes from the likes of Bradley County resident John Kozlowski, a computer programmer who has devised a local and not-quite-yet automated ad placement system in which the advertiser’s price is determined by bidding through a funded account, not by contract. He intends to serve small publishers seeking local ads with a protocol that keeps prices low, constantly reflective of market conditions on the floor. Intending to keep money in the local economy, Kozlowski wants to bring a platform into play to defy big boys such as Google and AOL. Unlike their demand for a hefty cut, he asks a placement fee of $3 per ad. For a long-running plug, that could be to be 0.1 percent of revenue or less. I don’t know if he could help us. ‡

The disruption potential of such programming should not be underestimated. A staffer who runs a website as a TFP client might easily be led away by better terms. “Why share 20 percent with the Times Free Press,” the partner muses, “when I can get 98 percent of the revenue cutting the TFP out entirely? For that amount I might consider handling my own tech and SEO issues and let Kozlowski run ad placement for me.”

The company will have to make its service pricing attractive to TFP staffers and other elements of its client base to justify its percentage. Our company needs to interest itself in the likes of such programmers, whom we have to blame (or to thank) for destroying our so-called media monopoly and breathing into our industry the exciting oxygen of competition. The existence of such contract-free bid-based programs, even without behavioral placement, will arm all comers and could swamp Chattanooga Publishing Co. I wonder why this attack against our position hasn’t been more vigorous.

Mother platform for other Internet platforms

The phalanx scheme makes us a nexus for local Web advertisers. The company’s main client, the Times Free Press, will draw only some of these small advertisers. But we have 100 other clients. As a broker, we advise the advertiser as to which sites in our stable he can get the most bang for his buck.

But let’s get back to site operator Shawn Ryan. As an assistant city editor, he’s on the clock 40 hours a week. He’s also a valued client with his music review site. Our company has two relationships with Shawn. The more profitable in dollar terms is that in which he is a customer for our services, bringing eyeballs to his music pieces, his Saturday afternoon webcasts — and to ads for bands, labels and taverns. The profit accrues to him, and to the company in an hourly reconciliation of accounts. His guest writers receive a percentage of revenue for work appearing on Shawn’s site. Shawn gets a percentage for every one of his texts that is opened, and a second percentage as publisher. As owner and chief, Shawn decides how much to pay contributors. The company fronted him no capital for this venture; Shawn has borne all its risk. Pursuit of his passion finally attains profitability and standing before the public.

So you see what I am saying about our needing to esteem our writers and care for them. A free market exists to which they might flee. Do we want such talent to abandon us? Or do we want them to prosper with us as fellow publishers? I suggested to Chris Vass that my scheme makes management very personnel oriented, giving writers every advantage, seeing to it that they are winners. Bosses become intensely focused on newsroom staff retention — which is an indirect form of client retention. The phalanx scheme is an ideal way of encouraging people such as Shawn Ryan, pleasing them and giving them credit as passionate, opinionated experts.

In the platform perspective, our media company has a problem that would be cause double-takes in an industry whose woes touch on whom to pinkslip or how long to delay filing for Chapter 11. Our problem, rather, is how do we keep writers on staff to help get the paper out? This trouble is a much more delightful trial to endure than that faced by legacy publishers. Theoretically, in three years time we will be having a hard time keeping on payroll certain top journalists who know the print newspaper business. I won’t make any predictions about how long Shawn would want to toil as a city desk employee, but would offer that he’s not a newspaper editor just for the money. Ink is in his blood; he loves the newsroom, the work, pleasant colleagues and appreciates the benefits. If we treat Shawn right as employee and as partner/client, he’s in the River City for life — and on our side. But my scheme opens terrific possibilities for our payroll budget.

If our newsroom labor costs tumble because profitable phalanx clients are slashing employment hours, we should hire the best investigative writers in the country — fired from bankrupt dailies — to come live in our lovely city, keep officialdom straight and help us protect the interests of the ordinary citizen. In decentralizing the news operation, the platform scheme lets us selectively centralize aspects of it that serve the common good and public trust, allowing us to pay double for muckrakers such as Dan Whisenhunt, who once was on our staff but quit because his wife couldn’t find a job.

Dealing with objectivity, credibility doubts

Staff writers find my proposal exciting. But editors raise two objections. How to control what staff people write on their phalanx sites? And will the public perceive TFP reporter Chris Carroll in print as unreliable once they start following Chris Carroll as an independent and opinionated blogger? Let me at least begin dealing with such doubts, as I have in my gab sessions, by bringing up an idea that undergirds the free market: Harmony of interests.

If Chris is an employee and a customer, he and cityside editors are really partners all the time, even when Chris is off the clock and scouting his sources for his own posts. The harmony of interests idea sees that Chris will take feedback and criticisms of his independent blog as constructive criticism, not as an attack and not as orders. If he develops a story on his own, the newspaper will make a deal for its use in print or on the TFP website. Whether checks are cut or promotion deals are made between equals, the expose is broken in a coordinated fashion for the public good and for mutual support. Tough conferences with newsroom superiors are a way to satisfy his two sets of readers and build his reputation as a journalist. Yes, he serves two masters (there’s no reason he couldn’t serve five). The paper’s readers are its property and Chris must serve faithfully his master, the company, in stewarding and enhancing that capital asset by being a pro in all his dealings. The readers of his private website, Noogapolitics.com (let’s pretend), are Chris’ property, and he must be accountable to them. In these two instances there really is just one master, the interested and reading public, though the audiences are arguably distinct. So there is no control. Chris’ two interests are not in conflict, but in harmony. Each refines, informs and regulates the other in an atmosphere of liberty and respect for the public weal. If he’s good, readers will follow him wherever he writes.

A second objection to my proposal touches on newsroom ethics regulations that keep reporters and editors inside the newspaper “silo” to avoid the appearance of bias or conflict of interest. These rules are appropriate for a publisher that monopolizes the persons and skills of its staff and locks them out of the wider marketplace of ideas. They are reasonable if we want to keep up the charade that only we are “objective” because we have daily news columns, and everybody else is biased, and that if a writer wants to be perceived as “objective” he must be muzzled in every other creative adventure he otherwise would undertake. My scheme requires treating staff as responsible grownups, with more confidence than its members are now allotted.

Limits of pyramidical operating structure

These observations bring me finally to ask: Which do you prefer as a business paradigm, the pyramid or the family parlor? Employment, in the pyramid, is a master-servant relationship, as Corpus Juris Secundum or any other authority of law will tell you. Employment is vertical, up and down. My platform proposal seeks to fundamentally alter relationships among the people in news operations and flatten them. If the wage-serf system withers, the cooperative impulse, which is horizontal, is strengthened. That’s the parlor. In tough chats with Alison Gerber or Alex Chambliss about mistakes, indiscretions or plain old differences of opinion, Chris Carroll or fellow staffer Holly Leber are dealt with as colleagues and equals, not simply as subordinates. Their success in any endeavor is the company’s. Their improvement secures their readership, bolsters their reputations, elevates them in their callings, and makes the company’s revenue streams a deeper shade of green. Such individuals the company wants to keep; such people have potential for being considered future management material — or, more importantly, veterans, advisers, experts with local depth of knowledge. Seeing writers as profit centers brings the best into the newsroom and lets the marketplace, the public, rank the rest and reward them accordingly.

The inversion I propose rightly suggests a desacralization.

A decentralized order is messy, disorganized and very human. It requires a lot of listening and forbearance. It works if we consider others better than ourselves, if we think that someone else may just be right. Decentralization is not part of the command economy in which we have grown up. It’s not tidy in the way that our newspaper forbears and J-school professors liked things. But it’s exhilarating.

I bring my ideas to your attention, Jason, not because you care about what are mere details of newsroom management. But these concepts suggest a new angle in client acquisition and the marketing of our company at which you are so successful. Nothing keeps our current newsroom operation standing but inertia and an agonized solicitude by defenders of the status quo seeking to shield it from external impact. I am not sure there are too many such defenders, and they may hold their position simply because they haven’t thought into the alternative.

So I pursue this discussion because its fruits would revive the intellects and spirits of people on the second floor and bring to our publishing enterprise new blood. At the last town hall meeting you said our biggest financial gains are in commercial printing. We make every effort to broaden our printing platform as a publisher serving publishers with paper and ink, not dreaming to control what they write. Likewise, we should extend our platform-widening ideas to include the people in news operations. My arguments could bring new prosperity to WEHCO Media, which I believe you would find very encouraging.

See also:

➤ Why the Web won’t make my local newspaper go extinct

➤  As U.S. falters, paper can prosper by refocusing on local economy

 

‡ Mr. Kozlowski is creating a content management system and a local ad technology that Nooganomics will help develop as a publishing and marketing system to be given away to entrepreneurial journalists, bloggers and others in keeping with decentralizing local economy principles. The project was recently put on hold.