The next miracle (v11.1): Owen Youngman

Knight Professor of Digital Media Strategy, Medill / Northwestern

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These 11 Amazing Sound Bites about the Trib and Sun-Times Will Turn You into a Chicago Media Expert

Last Thursday, people in the Chicago media business had some news to make them sit up straight, if not stand up and run screaming from the room.

Michael Ferro, whose investment group Wrapports took control of the Sun-Times in 2011, closed a deal to become the largest shareholder in Tribune Publishing, owner of the Los Angeles Times, San Diego Union-Tribune, and many other titles.

Including, not incidentally, the Chicago Tribune. If the city’s downtown dailies were keeping their relationship status up to date on Facebook, they’d both have switched to “It’s complicated.” (And they would start seeing different ads in their Facebook timelines’ right-hand rails.)

So, what’s up with all this?, Chicago journalists wanted to know. Some of the wondering reporters found their way to my inbox and my voicemail – no surprise given the 37 years I spent at the Tribune before coming to Medill in 2009. The markets didn’t seem happy, but that seemed mostly to be about Tribune Publishing’s eliminating its dividend. And I did give a few interviews — to Crain’s, to the Daily Herald, to WBEZ (no link), and to WLS (starts at 39:28 of the audio stream of the 2/7 edition of “Connected to Chicago”).

But for now, here are a handful of comments you can make when your Uncle Fred from Orland Park calls you up for an explanation, once he gets last Friday’s paper out of the bushes next to his driveway. All you need are the numbered points, but I’ll give you some backup too.

  1. Despite what people have been asking me, the Tribune and the Sun-Times do not have “the same owner.”

Ferro’s $44.4 million investment gives him 16.6% of Tribune Publishing and he cannot acquire more than 25%, at least for a while. That makes him the biggest shareholder and entitles him to the job of “nonexecutive chairman,” but he’s not yet The Owner in the Rupert Murdoch/Sam Zell/Citizen Kane sense. Or even the Robert R. McCormick/Marshall Field sense.

  1. The long-term future of the Sun-Times has not changed since last Wednesday.

There is still little perceptible long-term future for the smaller paper in any of America’s dwindling number of multiple-newspaper cities. The future of the larger paper in these towns is hardly assured, but its Doomsday Clock is not yet at 23:57, despite what new chairman Bruce Sagan told the Sun-Times newsroom. (Okay, perhaps there is now a new version of a consolidation option that was less obvious before the deal, but that never has been off the table given items 5 and 6 below.)

  1. The medium-term future of the Tribune still depends on a consumer digital-revenue strategy.

Some of America’s most visible news startups actually are treating their Web sites as “legacy media” whose best days are behind them, so fast is the shift to mobile devices. (One of them was on campus last week and said so.) In order to support the number of journalists necessary to cover Chicago (or L.A.), a viable consumer revenue strategy is needed online as well as off, and this cash infusion from Ferro may buy the company a somewhat longer runway as it implements the metered paywall plan it announced in November.

  1. If either paper does absorb the other, Chicago will not be a “one-newspaper town.”

The list is shorter than it was 40, 30, or 20 years ago, but Chicagoland still is home to the Daily Herald, the Northwest Herald (no relation), the Kane County Chronicle (5 days in print and a Monday e-edition), and the many suburban titles owned by the Tribune or formerly owned by the Sun-Times; also see item 6.

  1. It may have been a bigger deal when the Tribune started to deliver the Sun-Times in 2007, and print it in 2011.

Why? In large part because the extra revenue at the Tribune — once estimated at $70 million a year, down to $30 million last year according to the SEC filing about Ferro’s ownership stake — and the reduced expense at the Sun-Times helped provide the cash to sustain many more jobs in both shops than could otherwise have happened, though also see No. 6. (Which is not to say this is any consolation to the printers, pressmen, and drivers who lost their jobs while some journalists retained theirs.)

  1. It may have been a bigger deal when the Tribune bought the Sun-Times’ 38 suburban dailies and weeklies in 2014.

First off, the fact that these properties changed hands without too much regulatory pushback – with the price, $23.5 million, far below the Hart-Scott-Rodino antitrust thresholds – is an indication that a mere investment that values all of Tribune Publishing, not just Chicago, at $265 million, is unlikely to raise significant eyebrows. (A week later, TribPub’s market capitalization is down to $150 million, by the way.)

And second, the rebalancing of expense and revenue in the printing-and-distribution agreements, mentioned above, figures to have helped both parties get to today in something like their current forms.

  1. It’s may be just as big a deal that the Sun-Times and Daily Herald have been sharing content since last fall.

Daily Herald high school sports content, a strength, has been appearing in the Sun-Times since August. Sun-Times pro sports content, a necessity, has been appearing in the Herald since September. Reporters and readers may tend to romanticize the world of the “The Front Page,” where reporters hid under desks and inside garbage cans to steal one another’s scoops (and where, somewhat less romantically, circulation wars actually involved “guns, blackjacks, and brass knuckles,” as the Tribune put it in a retrospective during its 150th anniversary year in 1997) – but today’s reality is one where, in order to do good work in one area, a publisher may choose not to compete in another.

  1. The best way to understand Michael Ferro’s past role at the Sun-Times is to read Bryan Smith’s piece in Chicago Magazine from 2013.

It’s fascinating, it’s long, and it might not leave you feeling cheerful, but it’s must reading. Here is the link: http://www.chicagomag.com/Chicago-Magazine/November-2013/michael-ferro/

  1. You want to keep either print newspaper alive for a while? The first thing you should do is subscribe.

Since I left the Tribune, a week never goes by when I’m not asked a version of this question. (Yes, I know the Sun-Times is primarily a street sales newspaper, so go ahead and buy it at Starbucks or Jewel every day if you want.) Newspapers need their readers to help them make a bigger dent in the declines they’re seeing in ad revenue. But you should know that even this strategy will not guarantee that a daily newspaper will remain a 7-days-a-week “daily” for an indefinite period (cf. Cleveland, Portland, Detroit, New Orleans . . .)

  1. The second thing you should do is not cancel when the rate goes up.

And yes, the rate will go up, including at the newsstand. The days when newspapers (and magazines, to some degree) kept their circulation prices down in order to maximize the raw number of subscribers are long over, especially given that Google has proven that millions of audiences of one are more valuable to advertisers than one audience of millions. Newspapers will need their readers to pay in proportion to the value they place on them.

  1. The third thing you should do is clip and use the coupons.

You actually can help to control one of printdom’s two most reliable remaining revenue streams (the other one being death notices): Clip a few coupons. Consumer-products advertisers have been looking for a digital path to the 50 million people they reach weekly with newspaper inserts for two decades now, but until they find one, they are providing the patient with some much-needed oxygen several days a week.

Got it? If so, I’ll start routing my calls your way.

The world – – well, the Web – – #throughglass

The Glass Chronicles, I: Land of Stares and Data

Owen Youngman at Google New York to pick up Google Glass

Glass, meet Owen. Owen, meet Glass.

Wednesday, June 19 — my grades turned in, and commencement yet to come — I headed to Google’s Chelsea Market space in New York City, across the street from the massive New York headquarters building the company bought for $1.9 billion in 2010 (check out Andrew Blum’s book “Tubes” to learn an interesting reason the location is important).  I had a 2 p.m. appointment, you see, with a product I had just purchased:

Google Glass.

I don’t actually know if the implied drama of that two-word paragraph is justified, but then again I didn’t want to bury the lede in this first consideration of a highly anticipated, yet highly controversial, piece of consumer technology.

Mark Skala of Northwestern, who is directing the videos of my lectures for my upcoming Coursera MOOC, had come along, too, looking for some images and some B-roll. And so it was, after refueling at the Starbucks in the main Google building, that we made our way to the world of Glass.

The first question my longtime colleague, digital-advertising visionary Kurt Fliegel, asked when he saw what I was up to on Facebook was straightforward enough:

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Life at the confluence

The prototypical confluence

The prototypical confluence

It was a regular, and solemn, invocation for Monday Night Football in the years when the Pittsburgh Steelers turned up there as often as ABC and the NFL could manage it: Howard Cosell, in his fullest declamatory splendor, telling America that he and we would spend the next several hours “at the confluence of the Al-le-ghe-ny and Mo-non-ga-he-la Rivers” – the origin of the Ohio River, and therefore the very eponym of Three Rivers Stadium.

There are a couple of football games this weekend that don’t include the Steelers, but we are spending the end of January at a confluence nonetheless.  Two mighty rivers of ink are flowing together, inexorably, even as we speak: that which has been spilled in anticipation of the Apple tablet, and that which has been spilled in anticipation of the emergence of a coherent strategy for paid news content on the World Wide Web. For a handy list o’ links that should satisfy your need to drown in either river, visit the Nieman Journalism Lab for Mark Coddington’s week in review.

Perhaps it was when Bill Keller, editor of the NYT, talked about an “impending Apple tablet” to his staff in October that the stories became inevitably linked.  But, once the Times sketchily sketched out the state of its sketchy plans on Wednesday morning, we had to wait less than 24 hours for the heartwarming Wall St. Journal headline, “Apple Sees New Money in Old Media.”

In between – actually, just a few minutes after the Times announcement on Wednesday – I was in front of a class of first-quarter Medill graduate students, introducing them to some of the ideas that I flesh out further in my current class, “How 21st Century Media Work.” The Q&A centered not on the Times, but on the larger question of finding the money to support the journalism they feel called to do.

As a matter of fact, my answers dipped a toe into each of the merging rivers.

  • I do expect to see models for paid content emerging, and this year; some will be for-profit (GlobalPost), some low-profit (Chicago News Cooperative), some nonprofit and intentionally so (Texas Tribune).  They will have in common a focus on what their users find valuable, not their managers.
  • I do expect that many new devices will carry with them ways to extract revenue in exchange for the convenience or other value they bring; the media’s battle for desktop revenue will be miserable, but the chance for different models to flourish in the palm of your hand seem high.

Meanwhile, it’s back to waiting – till 2011 for the debut of the Times pay wall; till next Wednesday for whatever it is that Apple wants to tell us. Hey, Vladimir!  Hey, Estragon! Can I wait alongside you?

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Looking for business models? Mind the gaps

I suppose that every day is a good day to talk about how and whether the journalistic enterprise will remain commercially viable as the world turns in these days of our lives, or indeed whether all my children can recover from their financial ailments, be released from the General Hospital, and find a guiding light to lead them to the promised land of free cash flow. Progress on “new business models,” however, seems to move along at about the same pace as a soap opera plot – even though hardly a day passes without an announcement that someone is going to try something new, or someone else is going to essay something old in a new way.

Indeed it was thus on Thursday, a day when I opened the New York Times to read about the plans by the folks behind Politico to compete online with the Washington Post on local news. And I was actually in a good spot to keep thinking about their admission that they didn’t know how the Web economics might work; since the dean of Medill, John Lavine, had another commitment, I was at Harvard, sitting in at an “executive session” on, ahem, news business models.

Entitled “How to Make Money in News: New Business Models for the 21st Century,” the event gathered an intentionally small group at the Charles Hotel in Cambridge: about 20 panelists for the day’s three discussions, and about 30 additional participants on hand both to listen and to take part. Alex Jones, director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy, and author most recently of Losing the News: The Future of the News that Feeds Democracy, was the convener.

As it turned out, the three panels were so packed with speakers with something to say  that many of us other participants – who sat in chairs ringing a central square of tables where the panelists faced one other – got in our licks à la mode du 21ème siècle: 140 characters at a time.

Now, granted, this may not have been optimal.  In her prepared remarks, MIT’s legendary Sherry Turkle – generously not calling attention to anyone seated behind her or on the flanks – pointed to the substantial body of research that shows “your ability for any single task goes down when you multitask. No matter how much we want to jump on the bandwagon, multitasking degrades performance.”

I therefore must cop to the fact that none of my listening, note-taking, or tweeting were as good as they might have been. On the other hand, I must also say that those of us who were intermittently posting and reading got a window in what an additional 10 people were thinking, were piecing together, or were valuing as interesting (or, in some cases, not thinking, not piecing, not valuing). If you’re interested, you can recreate the moment by searching Twitter for the hashtags #Shorenstein and #newsmoney, with far more at the former; I certainly won’t get to all the sound bites here. My own tweetstream is at twitter.com/YoungOwen.

Multitasking, Harvard Square style: in-mirror televison

Multitasking, Harvard Square style: in-mirror televison

(Oh, while we’re on the subject of multitasking, staying at the Charles Hotel provided me with a new model.  I guess they’ve been around since 2006 or so, but the Charles’ bathrooms feature “in-mirror TV’s” from a company called Séura, whose web site explains, “Enhanced color correcting technology allows the LCD picture to appear when on, while flawlessly concealing the screen behind a bright reflection when off.” Turkle, I am sure, would rightly caution us that there is a risk of degrading the quality of one’s ablutions in the process.)

Turkle’s actual multitasking point, by the way, was centered on how journalists should choose their methods and channels of communicating. “Newspaper reading creates a ‘reading space’ that journalism occupies,” she said. “The teenagers I study leave us with a profound question: Will we be able to have journalism when we don’t have newspapers to appear in? Reading on the Web, if it is all you do, does not favor complex lines of thought. So the implication for news is to stay with narratives that need to be read with all one’s attention.”

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