Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Our ride on The Long Tail

"If you can tell me where this is going you're worth a zillion dollars. I've never felt the need for a crystal ball as much as I have now," Twist and Shout owner Paul Epstein says. "Things are changing at such a breakneck rate. It's not just the technology. It's the financial underpinnings of that technology."

– From a Rocky Mountain News
story on declining music CD sales

Songs, movies, network TV shows – they’re all on the same slope, with “blockbuster” hits selling ever-fewer copies per capita, even though total consumption of media continues to rise. But as Chris Anderson notes in his continuing analysis of how growing consumer choice affects media production, “It’s not that people aren’t watching films and listening to music, it’s that they are watching different films and different music.”

Different, yes. More accurately, he would say “more varied.” His thesis – called “The Long Tail” – stipulates that once consumers can reach down into the back catalog and select books/movies/songs of their choosing for consumption on their own schedule, they will frequently make those selections at the expense of the mega-hit of the moment. He describes the theory like this:

The theory of the Long Tail is that our culture and economy is increasingly shifting away from a focus on a relatively small number of "hits" (mainstream products and markets) at the head of the demand curve and toward a huge number of niches in the tail. As the costs of production and distribution fall, especially online, there is now less need to lump products and consumers into one-size-fits-all containers. In an era without the constraints of physical shelf space and other bottlenecks of distribution, narrowly-target goods and services can be as economically attractive as mainstream fare.

Does this mean anything to us? I’d guess, yes. The question is, what?

We have profited from fragmentation in other mass media. As three omnipotent broadcast networks morph into hundreds of narrow-interest cable channels, thereby subdividing the audience into ever-smaller slices, our mass reach is amplified. Even as we decline, our lead over number two grows bigger; we’re declining, they’re in free-fall.

I think this makes our traditional role in providing the common vocabulary for the community’s civic conversation more important than ever. That’s the good news.

The challenge is that hanging onto that (relatively) mass audience is harder all the time. You’re competing not only with CBS and USA Today, but also the History Channel, Howard Stern on Sirius satellite radio and the latest PlayStation game. The proliferation of catalog that defines the Long Tail adds even more choices for busy people who were already too distracted to pay much attention to the newspaper.

Hence our continued insistence on making content more compelling. It’s competing against much stiffer competition and won’t win with one hand tied behind its back.

  • How interesting was the most compelling story on your front page?
  • How many days per week is the front page truly compelling?

The same imperative likewise explains our efforts at extending into continuous, multiplatform operations. We need every tool at our disposal.

  • How often was your website updated with breaking local stories today?
  • If a staffer wants to try something new, how hard would it be to get started?

The good news is that we're working with powerful tools. Add Star Tribune penetration to the unduplicated reach of startribune.com and you’ve touched 62.2% of the adults in the Twin Cities. In Sacramento, the Bee newspaper and its three affiliated websites combine for 67.6%. Any other media company would kill for those numbers.

So, what's the single best thing you're doing that some of your cousins could easily steal?


  1. Tri-City Herald is doing a lot of video, which is scaring the crap out of the local TV news.

    Example: The day before new year's eve, we taped a popular Texas band, Vocal Trash, which was performing for our local First Night celebration. We posted a half-dozen video clips on the Web site. The local NBC affilliate was so steamed that it told the First Night folks that it would not bother to cover Vocal Trash because "it's already gotten enough coverage from the Tri-City Herald Online."

    Spite, meet nose.

    We also give extensive coverage to high school sports. We will post anywhere from 15 to 25 highlights from football and basketball games. This differs from TV:

    -- It's on demand. The reader can choose what to watch, when to watch it and how often to watch it.

    -- It's deeper. We're used to giving richer coverage that broadcast. Local TV will offer one or two highlights of the high school game at most. We provide depth, breadth and perspective. We treat a high school game the same way ESPN treats an NBA game. Extensive video highlights, stories, photos and blogs.

    We are diving into spaces nobody else has bothered with. For example, we have launched a weekly video feature on wine. It's a companion to our popular wine magazine, Web site and ezine. Here's the beauty: 70% of our readership for this is outside the Tri-City Herald's market. And 90% of the advertising is new dollars because it's coming from Seattle and Portland, areas that McClatchy typically is getting few ad dollars from.

    For good or bad, we tend to create verticals. For example, we have a separately branded sports Web site (sportstricities.com). It's like Nando's old SportsServer but with all of our local coverage layered upon hundreds of daily wire stories. Should we have wrapped this into our main news Web site? Perhaps, but I think we're reaching more sports fans this way. It's a bit like ABC owning ESPN, Disney, Hallmark channel, etc.

    Is it fragmentation if you own most of the pieces? I don't know.

  2. Photo galleries have been fairly easy to do and are steadily gaining traction. Sports galleries especially are popular; but we also saw that in our top 5 for January were a Home section gallery on our "Home of the Month" contest and a new monthly "Our favorite photos" gallery.

  3. * How interesting was the most compelling story on your front page?

    Interesting for who?

    * How many days per week is the front page truly compelling?

    Compelling to who?

    Is fragmentation just telling us we need to build a network instead of a single site? I tend to think it is. And the increasing need to give users/readers more control over their experience makes that option more and more attractive.

    Build as many sites as we have audience fragments, but build them all into a single network and connect that network to everything else.

    One of those nodes, it seems to me, needs to be a "my" node, a personal space that allows users to pick and choose content and functionality from all the other nodes. It could also be the node where registration and personalization and other "my" functions take place for all the network nodes.

    We're allowing users to personalize the headline stack at the bottom of our home page. That's a toe in the water. Next, we'll allow users to include RSS feeds in that personalized stack (want to include Pioneer Press headlines on your StarTribune.com home page? feel free). Then, we'll allow users to set personal parameters for other aspects of the site. But I don't think we'll ever be comfortable pushing StarTribune.com to be a true 'my' site. So that needs to take place elsewhere on the network.

  4. In Merced and Modesto we're working on a ‘My Page’ through our community sites powered by Drupal.

    This will allow our readers to create a customized page from provided web feeds (our sites and others), forums, hosted blogs and off-site community blogs, recipes, and other Drupal categories. The user-defined page creates a custom web feed usable in the visitor’s preferred web feed reader.

    I’m still working through some of the hiccups, but will have it launched on sunspot.mercedsunstar.com soon.

  5. Imagine a news Web site built like Amazon.com. The more you read, the more it understands what you want to read and it puts those stories in front of you. Like hockey? Then hockey stories are going to bubble up to your home page. Is it the Canucks? Then that will be at the top of the list.

    Norm Cloutier at McClatchy Interactive was playing with this idea a few years ago and had a company lined up that was making this work. It was massively cool. I think they burst with the rest of the dotcom bubble, but the technology should still be out there.

    Combining our efforts into a network would be brilliant. I'm certain we have Seahawks fans in our market, and no doubt there are fans of the Vikings and Carolina Panthers. Or Nascar. Or wine. Or golf. We all can provide this content and make it customizable on our own sites.

    Add in our community publishing and we have some very rich, very targeted content.

    This keeps the readers where we want them (and our advertisers in front of them).

  6. These are ideas a small group is working with here in envisioning the next-generation online approach for our site(s) that draws on our strengths and mission but breaks away from simply being the electronic version of the newspaper model. One embedded question is whether we should all be building different solutions to the same challenges (customization, podcasting, forums), or if there's opportunity for much more sharing.

  7. To (mis)quote Spock in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan: The needs of the few can benefit the needs of the many.

    The resources our larger properties (McClatchy Interactive, Star-Trib, Sac Bee) provide can greatly benefit those of us at the other end of the food chain. Publishing systems, servers, programmers and wire feeds are great examples.

    The question then is: What can we provide in return? Useful content? Expertise in other areas? The Tri-City Herald is unlikely to be able to bring million dollar ideas to the table that Raleigh hasn't already thought of. But there may well be something we have to offer. It's most likely to be niche content.

  8. Andy -- I think the thing everybody can bring to the table is creativity and innovation. In this market, we need to figure out how we really take advantage of the energy and audience potential around prep sports. But I'd be more than happy to have you solve that first so I can copy.

    We need to be taking risks and letting each other know what's working and what's falling flat. This blog (right Howard??) can be a terrific forum for that. Finally, McClatchy Interactive can, I hope, be a clearing house for much of what we individually come up with.

    Clearly, a certain amount of what we do must be deeply local in focus. But that shouldn't mean that the underlying approach or even the functionality need be proprietary. The headline personalization code we've developed could be totally portable. Same with the Calendar tool we're developing with MI. Same with election tracking tools.

    A few easy (publishing system integration issues aside) targets:

    Recipes -- Why not combine all the recipes from all our papers into a single database that can be searched from every site?

    Movie reviews -- One thing that rotten tomatoes and a host of other movie sits should tell us is that movie people prefer more opinion, not less. So let's give them every review we have available to us.

    Gaming -- Can't we find some way to have a decent flow of gaming reviews? No reason that needs to originate or reside with one of the larger properties.

    Talk -- Why do we all have individual discussion sections? Sure, there needs to be some distinction (Vikings here, Seahawks in WA, etc). But national news? World news? I'd be wililng to bet that if we all listed our individual areas of interest, we'd find a huge amount of overlap.

    What seems to be lacking, to date, is a means for sharing all that.

  9. Hi all, just joining the fray here,

    Until six months ago, I was in print sports here at SacBee, and now I'm running SacTicket. One of the things I notice is that in both print and online, we don't really share our resources well. As much as I dislike Gannett, they're if-one-Gannett-paper-writes-it-we-all-write -it mentality does have some merit for online content.

    We're doing regular music and movie podcasts here, and in most cases, there's no reason we can't repackage an Aerosmith podcast or a Grammys podcast to fit a national audience -- or at least be usable by all other McClatchy properties. Sure, we all do local-local stuff, but why can't we also think about the Web as a whole as our audience?

    Sports is a perfect place for all of us to better share. And Tri-City has a wine video offering. Packaged properly, there could be a shared version of that that could have value at other properties.

    Anyway, just jumping in here, so sorry if I'm rambling...