Growing in a Competitive News Ecosystem
“This has been hugely, hugely paradigm-changing for our newsroom, and for me individually… This whole notion that we would feature someone else’s content on our website and drive traffic off the site, that was such an alien notion at the time we took the leap on this.”
– David Boardman | Executive Editor, The Seattle Times
The idea of trying to connect with local blogs was already on The Seattle Times’ radar when the Net-J funding came along and kickstarted the effort into high gear. It has stayed in high gear for more than three years.
It is the only Net-J project that actually developed a print product based on partner content. In April 2012, The Times launched a page in its Sunday paper that reported – in USAToday state round-up fashion – a capsule of the week’s top stories from members of its News Partner Network, with Times’ copy editors writing the summaries.
Another hallmark: Seattle was the only Net-J site that made a full-blown effort to develop a regional advertising network with its partners.
But, first, it built the news network. Starting with five, it has grown to 54 partners, including 35 news sites, 17 lifestyle blogs and 2 ethnic news outlets.
Recruiting indie news partners in Seattle was no small feat. In no other metro area in the country is the news ecosystem as sophisticated and as competitive as Seattle’s, which has scores of neighborhood and topic sites. Here, collaboration is the new competition. “It’s brutal,” said editor David Boardman.
Three other legacy media players were building their own news partner networks: KOMO-TV has been working on an $11 million initiative to develop community news sites for more than 40 neighborhoods and aggregate news from other bloggers with ads sold by Datasphere. Seattlepi.com, the digital successor to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, has recruited its own corps of partners, who generally contribute full stories. AOL’s Patch has a network of some 20 community news sites in the suburbs.
“Our approach to this can be summed up by the adage: If you can’t beat them, join them,” said Bob Payne, The Times’ editor of partnerships and audience engagement, who has spearheaded the network from the beginning with the help of a part-time coordinator, Nina Pardo.
Motivating The Times, in part, was the observation that quality was improving at many of the city’s neighborhood blogs even as the newspaper’s neighborhood coverage was declining, Payne said.
“We at least had the insight to see that the blogosphere was emerging here organically and was both healthy and impressive,” Boardman said. “We felt a little bit threatened by it.”
Boardman said he saw three choices: The Times could try to compete head-on. It could “co-opt” the emerging sites by getting them to provide content. Or it could “embrace them, and that’s what we tried,” Boardman said.
Goals for the bloggers were a bit different than for The Times. “Their No. 1 interest was figuring out how we could help them generate more revenue,” Payne said. “While ours was in making the news site more complete.”
The Net-J project was announced on Aug. 17, 2009. Within a month, The Times had recruited its first five partners, all with substantial track records. They were West Seattle Blog, a successful hyperlocal site launched by journalist Tracy Record; My Ballard, launched by MSNBC exec Cory Bergman and his wife Kate as part of their Next Door Media network of sites; Rainier Valley Post, operated by Amber Campbell to cover a mostly minority area; Capitol Hill Seattle, founded by Justin Carder to cover the Capitol Hill neighborhood, and Seattle Local Health Guide, operated by a medical doctor, Michael McCarthy.
In addition to longevity, The Times sought sites that had built strong interactions with their readers, supported such basic journalism standards as fairness and source verification and were respected by their peers. Indeed, when The Times announced the partners, the blogging community reacted positively; commenters “saw it as a recognition of their hard work,” Payne said.
Here was the deal: The partners would get links to their stories on the News Partners landing page and the opportunity for their headlines to appear on the seattletimes.com home page. They could also ask to use Times photos. The Times promised to publish only links to partner stories to help drive traffic back to their site. The Times also said it would never partner with sites that were direct competitors with any of its partners. In return, The Times asked for responsible content and to be given the first heads up on breaking news.
What emerged was a loose confederation with a one-page Memorandum of Understanding that set out some expectations and a Code of Ethics. Nothing needed to be signed. Payne said all he needed was an email saying, “We can live with that.”
“It’s so low-key it’s easy to forget sometimes that it’s really a thing,” said West Seattle Blog’s Tracy Record.
The Times itself was competitive; it would not partner with blogs that were publishing full stories on seattlepi.com. “I can’t see linking, or touting, or sharing story tips with our prime competitor. So we didn’t partner with them,” said Payne, although he says there are some [blogs] he’d like to have in The Times’ network.
Initially, Payne and Pardo were manually moderating all partner RSS feeds and posting five headlines twice a day into Community News Partner box on the home page. Eventually, they developed a way to customize the feed they wanted to ingest into The Times’ content management system and onto the partner page.
In addition to sharing headlines, the News Partner Network also delivered some journalism firsts: In two instances, partners planned synchronized, enterprise coverage of two regional issues – graffiti and homelessness. The Aug. 3, 2011 report on homelessness, for example, involved seven sites, 10 stories, six videos and 75 photos. The Times launched a three-day series with a Sunday takeout that featured key stories and a photo essay.
The May 2010 graffiti project took a first-place award in Online Innovation at the SPJ NW Excellence in Journalism contest. The News Partner Network won the 2010 APME Innovator of the Year award.
By fall of 2012, The Times was sending well over 100,000 referrals a month to its partner sites, Payne said.
Tracy Record welcomes the traffic bump and says the partnership also brings some cachet: “I can tell people: ‘Just so you know, this was on The Seattle Times’ homepage.’ ”
She credits The Times with respecting the partners’ autonomy, and making efforts to link to and credit partner content. “I’ve been consulted even though there’s no monetary or contractual relationship. I really appreciate that.”
Matt Rosenberg, founder of partner Public Data Ferret said the biggest traffic increases derive from home-page links rather than partner-page links. “You’re either in the box or not in the box,” he said. “If you’re in the box, you get a lot of traffic.”
One downside to that traffic, though, says Carder, of Capitol Hill Seattle, is that it “introduces a lot of trolls” and he has to go in and clean up their comments.
Attempting an Ad Network
While the content part of the project has been deemed “a solid success,” Payne said the revenue part failed.
For the advertising sales people at The Times, the project was always a headscratcher that might pull in, at best, digital pennies instead of dollars.
In late 2010, The Times and KING5-TV announced the launch of beLocal. The idea was to use the digital-advertising sales forces from both organizations to sell advertising into a local ad network consisting of local blogs and other niche online publications.
“It was hoped that the Belo Corp. station and the newspaper, with the two largest local ad sales staffs in the market, would be able to at least cover the costs of the ad-serving platform that the companies had licensed to handle the ad-serving technology,” said Mark Briggs, KING’s director of digital media. “Unfortunately that did not happen.”
“If we already had the platform and didn’t have to pay extra for it every month, we could have made it work,” Briggs said. “The slices of the pie were just too small when you start with a vendor then split between [KING] and the Times and then share with the local blogger/publisher.”
The beLocal initiative ended on Nov. 5, 2011 with a memo from Alan Fisco, The Times’ executive vice president of revenue and new products. “Over the past nine months we have not seen the marketplace embrace the beLocal product to the degree necessary to sustain the product,” he said.
Justin Carder wasn’t surprised. Ad people never showed up at partner meetings, he said. He tells the story of the scorpion hitching a ride across the river on the back of a frog. “Both were the scorpions,” he said. “The Times and KING had no intention of carrying one another to the other side.”
By early 2012, The Times began developing some new workflows that involved “pushing evolution out into the newsroom,” Payne said. This was needed, in part, because coordinator Nina Pardo left The Times.
Now the newsroom has the responsibility for selecting the five partner headlines that go on the home page. “Our whole philosophy: If our editors and reporters are shaping the news, shouldn’t they be the ones who see the RSS feeds?” said Payne.
Newsrooms are driven by revenue imperatives these days and Payne knows he has to champion the project as “something we have to do for our future.”
Still, said Boardman, “The impact of this project opened our minds in a variety of ways in what we do and how we do them.”
“I do feel compelled to say, I think this program – and I’m not blowing smoke at you – has been hugely, hugely paradigm-changing for our newsroom and for me, individually.”
“This whole notion that we would feature someone else’s content on our website and drive traffic off the site, that was such an alien notion at the time we took the leap on this, and drive traffic to their websites and trust other people to get it right and not hurt our brand. We’ve never done it in such a visible way as this.”
“And the fact that we accepted the money – we had an obligation to do this right and kept it a priority amid cost cutting because we had an obligation.”