Review: ‘The Story So Far — What We Know About the Business of Digital Journalism’

Whenever one writes about the future of newspapers and other news organizations, a voice in the back of his or her head says: “They’ve tried that already and it didn’t work.” Fifteen years into the digital revolution, that’s the dilemma confronting the news industry as it once again revisits possible solutions. Thankfully, no one is giving up.

Paywalls. Video. Search. Hyperlocal. Mobile. All these things are extensively discussed in “The Story So Far: What We Know About the Business of Digital Journalism,” a new Columbia Journalism School report from Bill Grueskin, Ava Seave and Lucas Graves. The news-centric report doesn’t deal very much with our favorite subject — the transformation of the local marketplace, and the newspapers’ potential role in it. But there is plenty on the plate here.

While there are no ready answers — if we knew the answers, we would have provided them a long time ago — there are strong overviews on each subject. The real focus here is reconnecting to the real “fans” and “regulars” who may engage with a news product 50 times more than the “occasionals” and “fly-bys” who make up the bulk of unique visitors. “When people talk about the size of an audience, that’s a sham,” the report quotes Scout Analytics’ Matt Shanahan.

One goal stressed in the report is building a direct relationship with fans to help push contextual advertising. “By producing relevant journalism, deploying data intelligently and relying on social media — not just search engines — to drive traffic, (publishers) can gather a more devoted and involved readership, one that advertisers will also prefer,” note the authors.

Examiner.com, for instance, does very well when it encourages writes to match their output to social media, search…and advertising. Pet writers did very well last year matching coverage of dog adoption and pet shelters, pushing CPMs from $3-$5 to $11 for P&G’s Iams pet food, a key Examiner sponsor.

In theory, other passion subjects do well too. High school sports especially stands out. The Dallas Morning News’ High School Game Time registers 14 pages a month compared with entertainment (2.5 pages), news (2.78 pages), weather (4.83 pages) and sports (7.71 pages). It also grosses $700,000 a year of new ad dollars, in partnership with local cable coverage. This year, it is launching a $1.99 iPhone app, which represents new circulation revenues, along with heavy user paywalls, such as the one recently enacted by The New York Times.

That’s important. Like others, I’ve actually come to conclusion that the news organizations that have the market power to erect such paywalls are the ones that ultimately survive. For The Times, which has boosted per copy costs to $2 a day, circulation dollars have inched up to $683.4 million a year, just behind display advertising, which has fallen from $1.27 billion to $780.4 million. Next year, it doesn’t seem out of the question that circulation will surpass display.

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