Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Journalism's just another word for nothing left to lose

The slow sinking and senescence of the Australian mainstream media continues apace, with Fairfax farewelling another lifeboat filled with grizzled old veterans over the last week or two (above). When they have let Leaping Larry L go, you know they're cutting muscle not fat, or maybe by now it's bone.
Something I used to bang on about in this blog (when I was posting regularly) was how these ex-MSM journos now have a golden opportunity to reinvent themselves by starting up new Web sites, rescuing their careers in journalism by applying a bit of entrepreneurial spirit. It is an indictment on the sort of people employed by Fairfax and News that so few of them have explored this challenge, notwithstanding how difficult it would be. It doesn't take much to launch a blog these days. Maybe the main problem has been that they didn't want to bite the slowly withering hand that used to feed them, but as the blood drains out of the corpse of Fairfax in particular, that should seem less and less of a deterrent.

Ah, it's all very well for me to say these things, but what business model would work in this crappy economy, what models can use, what examples can I give of strategies that have worked? Much of Australian industry is a copy of what has been tried overseas, particularly in America, and online journalism is no different. The moderate but nonetheless steady success of Allure Media is testament to how taking foreign templates and repurposing them for Australia is a relatively low-risk method to create a local business from scratch.

In sports journalism, however, there has been precious little of this, and I don't quite know why. Back Page Lead rose and fell using a more generic and ultimately unsatisfying formula, with Charles Happell trying to do what I was exhorting others to do but never managing to align the business towards generating enough traffic and revenue to stay afloat. The Roar continues on but seems from the outside to have settled into a groove not unlike Crikey, where it will remain viable but is long past the point of being able to break out to garner mass audiences (I guess you could pigeonhole my sites with that observation too).

If one or a group of these ex-MSM journos were to try an Allure-style mode of attack without actually paying for the brand of overseas examples of successful sites, which would be the most likely candidate? (Yes, the above is just preamble for this list.)

Bleacher Report
What it is: Sportscenter in blog form, focusing on game video highlights, match preview/reports, breaking news in short form and content that is trending on social media, plus some multimedia features using animation. Mobile app focuses on TeamStream curated news links and image slideshows. No liveblog match coverage (links to other sites).
How it works: Their early success came from shockingly exploitative clickbait and low-to-unpaid work, incentivising budding journos to boost page views by lowering standards they may not have started with in the first place. This would be anathema to most ex-MSM journos, especially those who have just escaped Fairfax and News whose online vehicles have been just as guilty of publishing clickbait crap in recent times. BR's focus on quantitative analytics over qualitative subjective assessment - the Moneyball-esque theory of editorial direction via spreadsheet - would also be deeply unfamiliar to those whose careers were groomed in traditional newsrooms. Their pivot to quality post-acquisition by Turner is irrelevant to this discussion.
Verdict: The Roar took half of this model - the financial part of building a pathway for unpaid amateurs to become professionals which meant a heap of cheap content - without also enforcing a ruthless editorial focus on increasing traffic. BR are top of the dunghill in the US no matter how many people bag their quality, and you can't argue with numbers in business. It would be a rare bird indeed who had the guts to implement all of this template. I certainly couldn't stomach it, personally, and if I can't then prominent, established journos who have a reputation to protect probably won't either.

SB Nation
What it is: A federation of 300+ team-specific blogs staffed by paid writers with backgrounds ranging from amateur (mostly) to semi-pro to former MSM pro (rarely). A content core of reviews and reports plus highlights, as with all such sites, but more feature-focused. Includes UGC contributions called Fanshots. No slideshows, but some video highlights. No liveblog match coverage apart from straight scoreboards.
How it works:  Linked by a shared CMS called Chorus with cloned structures and a consistent design across the network. Innovated its own method of linking articles on the same event by grouping them in Storystreams, leading to increased stickiness. Sells the vast majority of its advertising inventory direct at premium rates
Verdict: The team-specific model has already been tried and failed here: BigFooty had a lash several years ago, and there are long-running single-team blogs like 1Eyed Eel, but their attempts to expand into a network many years ago also came to nowt. Part of the problem is that teams in US sports are almost all in one-team towns, or two at most in massive markets big enough to justify them. Major Australian sporting teams, apart from maybe the Brisbane Broncos and Lions, are competing in the same geographical area as one or as many as nine other teams of varying sizes. It's hard to make the economics of a North Melbourne or Cronulla team blog work. The Chorus advantage is probably less important in 2016 where any decent Wordpress theme can produce the same effect with a bit of customisation - I have done it myself with Gameday on FanFooty et al. Melbourne startup has built a Chorus-like platform for FansUnite but I don't see any startups using it; not that it's not a killer app (I've seen it in action), it's just that it's bloody hard yakka to get someone interested in paying for blogging software these days. Finally, The Roar do an excellent job at direct sales but it's an even harder row to hoe, especially in Australia with its smaller market. For the purposes of a startup, though, no one has really given this basic model a decent shake in this country, and there may be more scope for it once the MSM organs shrivel and the likes of AFL Media take over primary reportage, leaving a hole for unofficial openly biased commentary.

What it is: A federation of 150+ team-specific blogs staffed by paid writers with backgrounds ranging... hey wait a minute, this is an SB Nation clone! But it also expanded horizontally into lifestyle categories, which is more of a VICE thing to do (or Vox Media, of course). The difference with SB Nation is that it is more focused on social, to the point where they include tweets and vines as lead stories. Rant doesn't focus on straight previews and reports, sticking to a more opinion-based model (thus "Rant") supplanted with viral video and tweets. As with all of these sites, Rant started focused on desktops and are only slowly figuring out how to deal with the consumer shift to mobile. No live coverage.
How it works: Growth in the early days was straight out bought from Outbrain and Taboola, sources which are notorious for bringing low-value readers and not producing repeat visits. Rant worked with those companies to refine their techniques for converting those clicks into organic traffic (i.e. repeat visits that cost you nothing because they come directly). Like BR, they have gradually tried to pivot away from cheese and towards fine wine, but they have always been undervalued by the market due to their lingering cheesy aromas, which meant that when billionaire media mogul Robert Sillerman bought them recently he paid a lot less per user than he would have had to for a lot of Rant's competitors. Nevertheless, Rant's investors and founders secured an excellent exit.
Verdict: No, I'd never heard of them either before researching this blog post. If you're an old school journo looking at all of these models and shaking your head at the unscrupulous methodology to manufacture gold out of scraps and garbage, Rant would be more unpalatable than most. Has all the drawbacks of SB Nation and none of the job satisfaction that a true journo craves - unless all you care about is bottom lines.

What it is: At its best an independent voice holding sports to account, at its worst a dirtbag snark blog posting pics of drunk athletes. Or both at the same time. Focused on opinions and human interest features, with a contrary attitude as befits its membership of the Gawker network. Its comment sections, as with all Gawker sites which use its proprietary methodology for promoting quality, is sometimes better than the articles. No live coverage.
How it works: Day to day it may not be the most compelling read, but every now and then they will break a story through investigative journalism work that will blow up way beyond normal levels of virality. These periodic boosts have lifted the baseline daily traffic over time.
Verdict: I won't spend much time dissecting Deadspin's business model because no self-respecting ex-MSM journo would touch it with a 40-foot barge pole. They wouldn't be let in to the Quills or welcomed at regular journo bar haunts, because part of the model is attacking the MSM outlets and embarrassing prominent media personalities with thinly-sourced gossip. Australia's libel laws would probably put paid to this concept locally, not to mention our more carebear kind of community. You'd have to have the skin of a rhino to try this in Australia, ad good luck to you if you do.

What it is: Another SB Nation clone at its core (albeit launching at around the same time so it's more great minds thinking alike), growing from a single Kansas City Chiefs blog in 2011, but like Rant it has since expanded into horizontal lifestyle areas to broaden its targeted demographic appeal towards young men. Based on opinions from unaccredited amateurs, which has led them to turn their unofficial outsider reputation into a status symbol of independence, taking the fans' side in every debate.
How it works: You may be wondering how this is different to several aforementioned sites, and fair enough, but their story highlights another aspect of sports blog startups that it's crucial to get right: partnerships with larger sites. There are a few other blogs I haven't included in this list due to their relationships with larger sites in the early days being too close to call them a truly independent startup: ThePostGame with Yahoo!, for example, and Scout with Fox Sports. FanSided has never taken funding of any kind, and this meant it couldn't sink VC dollars into buying traffic from a network like Rant did with Outbrain and Taboola. Perhaps out of necessity, the founding team of two brothers dabbled with partnerships with Fox Sports, CBS and to try to kickstart their traffic inflow, before settling on a successful 2013 deal with Sports Illustrated which led two years later to an acquisition. This is a strategy that it will be tempting for ex-MSM journos to explore, especially with the company they recently left. It is a tried and tested entrepreneurial formula for escapees from a big company to strike out for new territory only to be peacefully subsumed back into the mothership a few years later, having effectively acted as the team leaders of an outsourced R&D skunkworks for the BigCo by taking almost all of the risk (apart from a little inoculatory seed capital injection). I don't have experience in how to make such things work but it's not a surefire strategy, as can be seen by the Moneyball/Fairfax affiliation which mysteriously petered out several months ago after a blaze of publicity. Securing financial or practical support for a startup with no reputation is a massive pain in the arse no matter where you get it, so ex-MSM journos should leave no stone unturned, even if they left their previous employer in some degree of dudgeon.

I have many more thoughts on this subject swirling around my head at the moment, so maybe I'll put them in a follow-up blog post some time soon.


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