The Buffalo News, Rebooted

8 Jun

The Buffalo News is fumbling towards enlightenment as it pertains to the new media ecosystem.  I was going to break this into a series of posts, but I think I’ll slam them all into one post and see what happens…

Let’s start by laying out the business problem facing the Berkshire-Hathaway owned local newspaper, The Buffalo News.

  • A declining subscription base that continues to skew older with each passing year
  • A shrinking local economy with fewer and fewer companies able to afford print advertising
  • An even smaller subset of companies who are able or willing to advertise to the aging and shrinking newspaper reading demographic
  • A legacy cost structure of high salary union contracts in editorial, design, production and delivery of the daily print edition
  • Continually escalating costs for materials
  • A younger populace that receives their daily news from global outlets in near real-time and who also consumes local content in real time on radio, TV, and local internet sites
  • A declining interest in high margin classified advertising as online outlets like Craigslist, E-Bay and dozens of others have taken a controlling share in the market space.  This is after niche weeklies and monthlies had eaten away at the fringes of this business for years by offering specialized audiences and lower prices

As discussed on this site last month, Margaret Sullivan, Editor-In-Chief of The Buffalo News is either disavowing knowledge of these realities or is playing them down for the benefit of her audience.  Her statement:

  • We’re making a profit. The decline in advertising revenue is significant—and likely to get worse— but we’re still in the black and planning to stay that way.
  • We have none of the crippling debt that many newspaper owners are carrying. Many of those debt-heavy papers would be making money if it weren’t for their debt load.
  • We have extraordinarily high acceptance among local residents. The News, as a print newspaper, has the highest “market penetration” among the 50 or so largest metropolitan dailies in the United States.
  • Our Web site is the leading local media Web site, by far, in Western New York. When you combine the Web site and the newspaper, we’re reaching 80 percent of Western New Yorkers on a regular basis.

While Sullivan is correct in stating that The Buffalo News has succeeded in keeping debt to a minimum, the fundamental problem still remains, how do they manage the declining relevance and profitability of the print product while expanding their online revenue by growing their audience?

Will they see the light and realize that a newspaper is a product, not journalism?

The first step to solving a business problem is to admit you have one.  The second step is to identify a goal or endpoint against which you will plan.  The third step is to lay out a strategic roadmap with measurable goals along the way.  The fourth step is to define the tactical steps you will undertake on a daily basis to reach those strategic goals.

If I may be so bold, let me suggest an endpoint for The Buffalo News:

A multimedia, multi-sourced product which features a daily online record of newsworthy events and a small footprint print product that is released 3-4 times per week with converged, in-depth news coverage from multiple outlets and investigative journalism.

Is that something you might be interested in?  I’ll gladly contribute to a conversation about the strategy and tactics involved in accomplishing such a vision, if asked.  Why?  Because journalism is important.  It and the medium to which it is currently attached are irretrievably broken and we need to fix it.

The Buffalo News could leverage the near-term security (such as it is) of its existing circulation and market position to truly create a new model for journalism.  To reach out to the community and involve them in participatory reporting and crowdsourc research. on long form investigative and feature articles.  They could take reporting assignments from the community while working cooperatively with niche publications and citizen journalism websites to meet deadlines.  The Buffalo News should expand their use of video while incorporating podcasts and distributed reporting channels like Flickr, Twitter, and YouTube to make a new, relevant, timely and indispensable product.  Finally, they should utilize existing social networks like Facebook to draw constant feedback from their audience and insert it directly into the live news gathering process.

Author, Journalist, Professor and new media scion Jeff Jarvis likes to use a chart that demonstrates the “new” news process.  It’ll come as a shock to those buried in the existing model of product journalism in which the editors are the gatekeepers.

mediachartprocess

You see, we are all empowered as reporters.  In the “new” news process, we would be using The Buffalo News as a distribution point for journalism that reflects the community, writ large.  We will create a product that is less about agenda and is richer in content than what is offered today.  And that is journalism in the new media ecosystem.

When Margaret Sullivan and her team are done “Reinventing The Newsroom” without direct involvement from their audience, do you think the final product will resemble anything similar to what I’ve described?

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5 Responses to “The Buffalo News, Rebooted”

  1. Patrick Klinck June 9, 2009 at 7:59 am #

    Here’s everything you need to know about the decline and fall of the once-mighty Buffalo Evening News:

    “An economic franchise arises from a product or service that: (1) is needed or desired; (2) is thought by its customers to have no close substitute and; (3) is not subject to price regulation. The existence of all three conditions will be demonstrated by a company’s ability to regularly price its product or service aggressively and thereby to earn high rates of return on capital. Moreover, franchises can tolerate mis-management. Inept managers may diminish a franchise’s profitability, but they cannot inflict mortal damage.”

    Berkshire Hathaway Chairman of the Board Warren E. Buffett
    Letter to shareholders, Feb. 28, 1992

    In his Feb. 28, 1985 shareholders letter, Buffett maintained that dominant newspapers would continue to churn out excellent profits whether their contents were first-class or third-class:

    “That is not true of most businesses: inferior quality generally produces inferior economics. But even a poor newspaper is a bargain to most citizens simply because of its ‘bulletin board’ value.”

    These quotations are lifted from http://www.slate.com/id/2217014/. The article did not state the obvious moral of the story: It was hubris killed the beast! Nothing will save The News while the current management remains ensconced in its dream fortress. The publisher is way past his expiration date and is surrounded by a cadre of yes-men and women whose disinclination to object to bad decision-making is what got them to their high positions in the first place. There is no way to get the message through that the emperor is nude, and the Wizard of Omaha behind his curtain doesn’t give two shits anyway. Suck it, stupid Buffalonians! You’ll take what I give you and that’s good enough! Bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha!!!

  2. Prodigal-Son June 9, 2009 at 8:54 am #

    Buffet was right, in 1985 and 1992, before the proliferation of teh internets.

    If he said that now, he’d be wrong. Has he said that recently? If memory serves, he and Bill Gates sounded like Sullivan: without debt, and with union concessions, we can still do this.

    My two cents:

    1) I like Geek’s model because it focuses on the parts of the paper I actually read, and where their greatest value added is: in-depth coverage. No other medium, nationally, currently provides timely in-depth reporting like the local newspaper. I don’t want my paper to be the Atlantic Monthly, where I have to wait 30 days for 6 pages. I’d rather wait 2 days for 2 pages.

    2) I think the News should “embrace” social media very tentatively. If they use Facebook to learn there is a buzz about the Ice Creamcycle guy, then good. But if they use it as a crutch for “man-on-street” whining, then I say bad. We already have too much “I’m mad they want to build a Wegman’s 100 feet from my house” and “I used to drink beer in this tavern but now all the auto workers are gone” bleeding heart crap as it is. If the empowered voice of the people is a whiner, they should pass.

    3) What do you think of Newsweek’s example? As perhaps the sole remaining subscriber of the print edition of that magazine, I have watched it morph into (recently), to use Geek’s phrase, a weekly for smart people. They now ignore the news of the week, and just write 3 pages on stuff they think is interesting. I don’t want the Buff News to be this – isn’t there a certain “paper of record” responsibility a newspaper has, that other media doesn’t? Should another medium fill the “town historian” role, because new media feels no obligation to cover everything, just what they feel like?

  3. Derek J. Punaro June 9, 2009 at 9:08 am #

    Geek, you know as well as I do from working in a large corporation that overhauls like what you’re proposing will never come from within. There’s too much precedent, too much history, too much baggage, and too much fear to make anything other than the incremental changes like mybuffalo.com. They’ll sit around, flailing until some new startup figures out the right formula to keep things going.

    We know that the need in web journalism is for quality, deep, accurate, reliable, and trustworthy reporting. What the News has going for them is that they already have the reputation and wouldn’t need to establish themselves like a new site would. But the crux is monetization, and getting people to pay for that quality content. Nobody seems to have the answer for that yet.

  4. Patrick Klinck June 9, 2009 at 2:40 pm #

    P.S. Should have said “gilded dream fortress.” As a disgruntled former employee watching them try to offshore our jobs to India, I feel I should know.

  5. Kevin June 24, 2009 at 8:40 pm #

    Mr. Geek,
    The need to read the book “The New Rules of Marketing and PR” before it is too late. It will be a sad day for Buffalo to loose the Buffalo News, I hope they snap out of their 70′s haze and pay attention.

    It is the content that matters, not just rewriting stories from the AP.
    It is about getting the buffalonews.com site into a web 1 version (wab 2.0 maybe out of their reach) where consumers can comment on the stories, and news can be expanded upon by the WNY community.
    The fact that they are trying to sell older stories is silly. I digg.com’d a story about a Broadway Market vender leaving a legacy behind after his death. The article got 200 diggs, then died because they archived it for sale. How silly is that.
    I have relatives and friends that have worked for the news and have shared this info with them, they say things like “I know, I Know. No one is actually listening”
    As you can tell by my email address, I work for a gigantic company with more than a thousand employees, that could be as old school as it gets, but chooses to keep up. Our president quotes this quote to us all the time. “When the rate of change on the outside exceeds the rate of change on the inside, the end is in sight.” Putting your head in the sand in a world that is moving at the speed of light is a mistake. I hope the Buffalo News and other major and time honored newspapers get this concept soon, because I would hate to have my kids grow up not knowing about them, like crank windows.
    Kevin

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