Monday, December 2, 2019

Future of Newspapers: Less Print, More Digital, Alternative Forms of Funding

What do the mainstream media and Christian denominations have in common? Great histories and uncertain futures.

That’s the view of Bob Cox, publisher of the Winnipeg Free Press and chair of News Media Canada, an umbrella group for newspapers and radio and TV stations in Canada.

At the same time, they share another important thing: “We have a mission that we feel is crucial to the communities we live in,” he stated.

Cox shared that perspective on November 20 during a webinar with members of the Canadian Christian Communicators Association (CCCA).

He went on to say while newspapers like the Free Press are facing severe challenges, “demand for what we produce, news and information, has not gone away.”

According to the most recent data from Vividata, the Free Press reaches 64% of adults in Winnipeg, and 74% of Winnipeggers say they read a newspaper in some form, he noted.

Nationally, things are similar, he said, with 79% of Montrealers, 68% of people in Toronto, 76% of people in Victoria accessing newspapers.

“Basically, about three out of every four Canadian adults get news from newspapers every week,” he said.

Good news: People still reading newspapers, but new ways of consuming news

But if people aren’t abandoning newspapers, it’s also true they aren’t consuming them the way they used to.

That same data from Vividata shows many newspapers in Canada have digital audiences larger than, or the same size as, their print audiences, he said.

This includes the Globe and Mail, the National Post, the Toronto Star, Le Devoir, the Ottawa Citizen, the Calgary Herald and the Windsor Star.

All of these “papers” are “actually majority digital media or close to it,” he stated.

“We’re fast approaching the tipping point where all daily newspapers will have primarily digital audiences.”

Bad news: Falling advertising revenues

While its good news that people are reading newspapers, the bad news is financial support for them as fallen dramatically.

“In many ways this is like a lot of churches that have widespread community support but empty pews so they don’t have enough donations to keep their doors open,” he shared.

A chief reason for the financial drop is how local businesses, which used to support newspapers with advertising, spend more and more of their advertising dollars on Facebook and Google.

Those ad dollars, which used to support local journalism, now “leave the community,” he stated.

Nationally, Cox said, ad revenues in newspapers have fallen by half in the past five years to about $1.5 billion from $3 billion, and that $3 billion is half again of what existed a decade ago.

More bad news: Drop in circulation

Added to that is the change in consumer habits, as readers who used to buy subscriptions go online expecting to get news for free.

The result is a significant drop in circulation. Cox said the Free Press sold about 250,000 copies on Saturdays in 1984; today that figure is 73,000.

Nationally, the number of printed papers sold is half what it was a decade ago, he noted.

And yet, surveys show people still really value local news, he said. “They see it as a public good that is vital to the democratic health of their communities. They just don’t want to pay for it.”

According to Cox, only about 20% of Canadians are financially supporting news, either through subscriptions or donations.

The result: Media in a precarious state

This isn’t just a problem for newspapers, he added.

“Most people are unaware of the precarious state of local news, the fact that all local TV stations lose money on news,” he said.

The result for all media is less money for local news gathering, print, TV or radio.

“In many communities there remains the appearance of news sources, since newspapers still publish, but there is not the reality of local news, as very little money is put into news gathering,” he said.

“They call these ghost newspapers.”

So if readers are moving to digital, is that were newspapers should be placing their bets? Yes, said Cox, but it isn’t easy.

“Most of the newspaper industry is not positioned to survive the switch to digital,” he said. 

“The majority of their revenues are related to the sale of printed copies and the sale of advertising in those printed copies.”

Digital revenues not filling the gap

At the same time, digital advertising isn’t filling the gap left by the decline in print advertising.

The Free Press, he said, has digital revenues of about $5 million a year and expenses of $45 million—nowhere near enough to help keep it going.

Some bigger newspapers, like the New York Times, have made great strides, he said, and may soon earn enough from digital to cover the costs of its journalism.

But the Times has 3.2 million digital subscribers and a national audience, he observed. “Most of us are not in this game.”

What are the solutions?

If those are all the challenges, what are some solutions? Cox had a couple ideas if newspapers are to survive.

The first is to give up the printed newspaper—if digital revenues aren’t keeping up with expenses, the only thing left to do is reduce expenses, Cox said.

That means cutting print.

“Most of the $45 million in annual expenses at the Free Press is related to the cost of producing a manufactured good every day,” he said—things like buying paper, paying press operators, delivering the paper.

The newsroom budget, on the other hand, is only about 15% of total expenses.

“Strip away all the manufacturing and you have expenses of about $12 million to produce and present digitally all of that journalism,” he stated.

If that’s the case, $5 million of digital revenues “looks a lot more promising,” he stated.

And if only 20% of Winnipeggers subscribed to the Free Press digitally, he would be able to meet that budget, he stated.

“It is only when we embrace this future, and put our best efforts into achieving it, that we will really have our heads around keeping the newspaper alive,” he added.

The second idea is to find alternative, non-traditional sources of revenue to support journalism.

This includes things like what the Free Press is doing with faith coverage—soliciting support from faith groups to produce more articles about religion.

It also involves government support.

This includes funding for journalists to cover so-called news deserts—communities where there is little or no local news reporting anymore.

It also includes a refundable tax credit for employing journalists; a tax credit to encourage people to take out digital news subscriptions; and allowing news organizations that operate as not-for-profits and receive donations.

Although the federal government has spoken affirmatively about these ideas, Cox said, nothing has actually been done yet.

For him, this is a problem.

“Time is of the essence. I first went to Ottawa in January of 2016 to talk to bureaucrats and politicians about the crisis in newspapers and we’re still waiting. Government simply has not moved fast enough.”

Important to be honest and engage public more

The media also needs to engage the public more and make them aware of the dangers facing local news, he said.

“The general public is only vaguely aware of the threat,” he said, noting after a Quebec newspaper declared bankruptcy people in the local business community pledged more than $1 million to the newspaper.

“The problem is that we all don’t want to have to declare bankruptcy to find out if our communities will support us.”

Surveys have shown educating the public on the benefits of local news, and the fact that it is in trouble, increase the likelihood of support.

“My advice to people in newspapers at all levels is to tell readers about what is going on,” Cox said.

“Don’t cover up financial troubles, explain them. Give people the information that will allow them to act before it is too late.”

At the end of the day, “public support is the only hope we have,” he stated. 

“It always has been.”

Friday, November 22, 2019

Frustrated by your non-Communication Colleagues? Think of Them as Toddlers

Over my 36 years of doing communications for non-profits, I have come to respect and admire my colleagues who manage and implement various programs.

They are smart and amazing people who find creative solutions to challenging issues such as poverty, hunger and the effects of natural disasters.

And yet, they often drove me crazy.

No matter how many times I’d tell some of them, they would still forget to let me know when they needed help with communications—a press release, poster, graphics, website change or whatever.

More than once someone would rush in apologetically to say they meant to let me know sooner, but they need it tomorrow. Could we bail them out?

(Sometimes they never told us at all; we’d find out about it after the program was launched, sometimes through the media.)

Some of my communications staff became really annoyed and aggravated by their repeated shortcomings. But it never got me down.

The secret? I learned to think of my program colleagues as toddlers.

That sounds disrespectful. I don’t mean it to be.

What I mean is like toddlers, my program colleagues couldn't help themselves. 

They promise to let you know in plenty of time about their communication needs, but they just can't remember.

Like toddlers, they were self-centred.

Not in a bad way; their world simply revolved around the important task occupying their attention. It's was hard for them to think about other things, like communications and fundraising.

Like toddlers, they lived in the moment.

They couldn't help it; they were so busy sometimes they could barely breathe.

Like toddlers, they weren't malicious.

They didn't intend to make my life miserable. Stuff just happened. Time got away on them. Plus, they are really, really sorry.

By thinking of them as toddlers, I could avoid becoming angry and frustrated.

It provided a calming effect: They really couldn't help themselves! That’s just the way toddlers are.

I’m not knocking people who work in other departments at non-profits. They do amazing things in their areas of specialization. I was in awe of their abilities.

But they weren't trained to think like communicators or fundraisers. That wasn't their skill or interest.

And it didn't apply to everyone. Some followed guidelines about timelines and deadlines scrupulously.

They did everything correctly when it came to getting the support they needed from communications and fundraising staff.

Those people were special, angels sent from above, and we did everything on heaven and earth to assist them—even if they occasionally forgot.

But the others? Toddlers. Cute as a button sometimes, but still prone to disappoint us.

So the next time a colleague forgets to give you enough lead time for a press release; or fails to invite you in early for conversations about a new program or project so you can set up a good communications and marketing plan; or applies for a large grant that requires matching funding but forgets to tell you so you can budget and plan for it; don’t think of them as fully functioning adults.

Smile, and think of them as toddlers.

From what I can tell, it’s the only way to have a long career in communications, marketing and fundraising.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

When it Comes to News, What's Really on Your Phone?

For decades, pollsters have known people lie when self-reporting about how they pay attention to news. That’s why it’s so hard to trust those kinds of surveys.

When asked what they watch on TV, for example, people might say documentaries about the state of the planetbecause they know they should. 

In fact, what they mostly watch are comedies and other forms of escapism.

Nothing wrong with that. It's just that you don't get accurate information about what people are really reading, watching and listening to.

That’s why counting clicks online has become the media’s best friend.  

It's not the best form of measurement, of course. But through what people click on publishers can tell what people actually like—not what they say they like on self-reported surveys.

The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism took this to heart it wanted to know how much people under the age of 35 in Great Britain and the U.S. were actually reading news.

They started by asking them what news apps they had installed on their phones—something that shows interest and even intent.

It was simple, really. They asked participants in the study to give them their phones so they could check battery usage for their apps.

As anyone who has checked knows, the apps you use most take the most power.

And the results?  

Although the participants had downloaded news apps, the battery usage reports showed they actually spent very little time on them.

According to the study, no news app was in the top 25 apps used by participants.

In other words, while they may have intended to follow the news, in real life that didn’t happen.

But if you only asked them what news apps they had on their phones, you might mistakenly believe they were avid news junkies.

Admittedly, the researchers had a small sample size; just 20 people between the ages of 18 and 35, half in the U.S. and half in the UK. So we need to be careful about drawing too many conclusions.

But the results once again reveal the truth as explained by Derek Thompson in an article in Atlantic Online in 2015: "Ask readers what they want to eat, and they'll tell you vegetables. Watch them quietly, and they'll mostly eat candy."

What’s on your phone?

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Hey, Media; If You Want to Engage More People, Don't Bum Them Out

Surprise! People don’t like news that bums them out.

That’s the conclusion of a new study reported by Nieman Lab about why people avoid news that makes them feel depressed.

You know, like almost all the news out there these days.

In the article, it was reported that almost a third of people surveyed worldwide for the Reuters Digital News Report said they “often or sometimes” avoid the news.

And why is that? The leading cause was because “it can have a negative effect on my mood” (48 percent).

Twenty-eight percent (the third leading cause) said it was because it made them feel helpless.

Now, some things that happen in the world just can’t be sugar-coated: War, crime, poverty, natural disasters, mass shootings (in the U.S.), starvation.

People need to know about those things if they are to be informed and engaged world citizens.

But that’s not all they need to know. 

They also need to know what, if anything, they can do about it, or what others are doing about it to make things better.

And that is called Solutions Journalism, which I have written about before on this blog. (Here, here and here.)

With Solutions Journalism, people are presented with a problem, but also with ways to respond.

For example, they could be being given links to aid groups when there is a natural disaster in the developing world.

Like this article, in the Winnipeg Free Press, about how to respond to Hurricane Dorian in the Bahamas.

Or it could be interviews with people who are working on fixing the problem—neighbours, social service organizations, faith groups, NGOs, etc.

Something that shows somebody is doing something; it's not all hopeless.

Of course, that requires more time, and likely also follow-up, instead of just drive-by reporting.

It means reporters coming back to the story in a month or more to see if things are improving—along with things learned that could be useful next time around.

And not only that; people who feel empowered by journalism come back for more.

Research by Caroline Murray and Talia Stroud at the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas confirms this.

They found when people don't feel bummed out by a report they have a higher perception of the quality of the article, a greater sense of personal positivity, an increased intention to become engaged, and a desire to read more articles about the issue.

“When it comes to solutions journalism, the more information you can provide readers, the better. Adding additional components beyond the problem and the solution (i.e. implementation, results, and insights) can bolster positive responses to your work,” they say. 

This is a change from past practice. .

In the past, reporters were content to see their role as describing problems, then letting others figure out how to fix them.

But that is changing as the media finds itself on the ropes and needing to engage news consumers more.

By working with people to fix problems, the media can be seen not just as a watchdog—an important function—but also as a good neighbour who helps out. 

Someone who doesn’t bum us out all the time, in other words.

Photo at top from the Rescue Time blog.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Shit Non-Profits Say

“Our board chair encouraged us to be nimble, so we created a subcommittee on nimbleness staffed by a rep from each department to draft a Plan For Nimbleness. We are currently on Version 16 of this iterative process.”

That is an example of a Tweet from Shit Non-profits Say, a Twitter account that shares, well, the shit that gets said in non-profits.

The account, which is dedicated to “capturing the aesthetic beauty of non-profit organizational expression (all we need now is a facilitator),” has over 5,700 followers from the non-profit world (including me).

To date, there have been over 600 Tweets that share some of the weird, frustrating, eye-rolling, crazy and absurd—yet earnest and well-meaning—things that get said by people in non-profit organizations.

Things like this:

“Our executive director has asked to review all tweets in advance.”

“We don’t just have ideas, we have visions. And not just any visions, we have bold visions.”

“Why can’t you understand that capacity building is you giving me a multi-year grant?”

“After a three-hour facilitated discussion, the board concluded that our target audience is the general public.”

And so on.

As someone who spent most of my career in non-profits, the things found at Shit Non-Profits Say comes pretty close to some of the conversations I’ve heard over the decades. 

Whether it's NGO-speak or insider code words, these are comments that make people exchange puzzled glances in meetings: Did that person really just say what I just heard him or her say?

Although nobody's name is attached to Shit Non-Profits Say, I get the sense it is run by an insider—someone who respects and loves non-profit work, and appreciates the pressure non-profit staff are under, yet at the same time is driven crazy by the shit that sometimes get said.  

While the comments poke fun at life in the non-profit world, they also expose some uncomfortable truths about life for people who work there.

These are things like lack of resources, poor work-life balance, low pay, impossible fundraising targets, over-reliance on grants, impenetrable prose, interminable process, boards that meddle, and meetings—so many meetings!

At the same time, some of the things that are shared are really funny. And who couldn’t use a good laugh now and then? (Or even just a knowing smile.)

One thing that isn't clear is whether these comments come from the account owner's own experience, if they are submitted, or just made up. 

In one respect, it doesn't matter. The comments sound true, no matter their origin. All of us have heard variations at one time or another (or lived through that same kind of lengthy and unproductive meeting.)

Anyway, here are a few more gems from Shit Non-Profits Say. Any of these sound familiar?

Person 1: “I need your feedback on the content of this presentation. Just the content.” Person 2: “This isn’t our current Power Point template.”  Person 3: “I’d like to make an argument for two spaces after periods.” Person 4: “You should capitalize the word program.”

“This one-page memo has eleven authors.”

“We are totally committed to spending $800 in staff time to investigate your documentation for the $2.14 coffee that you want reimbursed.”

“Can we somehow make process our goal? Because we’re exceptionally good at that.”

Person 1: “I just found 10,000 copies of an out-of-date brochure in the storeroom.” Person 2: “Hang on to those. We may need them someday.”

“We don’t have answers, we have SOLUTIONS. And we don’t just have solutions, we have INNOVATIVE solutions.”

“Our strategy in this space is to leverage dynamic change resources to launch utilization of transitional scaling agencies and community supports.”

And especially for people who work in communications and marketing, these two gems:

“If we just do good work, the media will take notice and money will begin flowing in our direction.”

“There was a mean article about us in a newspaper six months ago. We have been internally editing a letter-to-the-editor ever since.”

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

A Heart Attack & Two Strokes Away From Insolvency: A Lesson from the Closing of Pacific Standard Magazine

A heart attack and two strokes away from insolvency.

That’s the way the precarious financial situation of a charity was once described to me.

That charity was so dependent on the generosity of a few people that if they were suddenly unable to donate, the work of the organization would be over.

Thoughts about that charity came to mind when I learned that the magazine PacificStandard was shutting down after ten years due to its main funder pulling out.

The magazine, which reported about social justice and environmental issues, was dependent on a foundation for the majority of its $3.5 million annual budget.

The reason given was the foundation was no longer in a position to fund the magazine, or any of the other charities it supported.

The loss of the publication, and the jobs that were lost, is lamentable. Yet it proves once again the danger of being overly-reliant on one source of funding—be that individuals, foundations or governments.

Over my career, I’ve seen the good and the bad of large gifts.

On the plus side, they make so much important work possible. On the negative side, they can lead organizations to become lazy in actively seeking new donors to make sure they don’t end up like Pacific Standard.

As anyone who does fundraising knows, you forget the donor pyramid at your peril: Lots of smaller givers on the bottom supporting the fewer larger donors on the top.

The idea behind the pyramid is that the larger and steady base should allow an organization to weather the loss of a large donor or two near the top—even if the loss really hurts.

Ten thousand people giving $100 is better than one person giving $1 million, in other words.

Especially if that large donor might soon have a heart attack or stroke.

Monday, March 18, 2019

A Simple & Effective Way to do a Video Interview (Also, No White Saviours)

No White Saviours is the name of a new Instagram account about how white people from the west can stop trying to save Africa—or other countries in the developing world.

According to the founders, “we never said 'no white people.' We just know you shouldn’t be the hero of the story.”

That’s an important message to hear. But that’s not why I am sharing it on this blog.

The reason I’m sharing it is because of the simple but neat way the BBC chose to interview the two women behind the campaign.

All the BBC did was a basic Q & A, posing the questions in text and then letting the women answer them in video.

There are no amazing graphics or photos; just two women talking.

Of course, the clip is edited for effect and length. But that happens in print or video.

Take a look. And if you are looking for simple and effective way to interview volunteers, recipients, staff, board members or others, consider giving this a try.

Read more about No White Saviours on Medium.

Read more about ways the BBC is trying to improve the online information and news experience.