Vibe Check with Ken Doctor

The Nieman Lab columnist and Newsonomics analyst asks the new industry where it hurts.

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Good morning, Lytes in the darkness, and congratulations on making it to the end of another workweek in the Sunken Place. Traditionally, in the Days Before, our ancestors celebrated this milestone, then called “Friday,” by partaking in social activities such as happy hours, trips to the movies and other multi-person revelries, but that’s a story for another time.

For this week’s interview, I had the good fortune of speaking with Ken Doctor, one of the preeminent voices in media journalism. When I first started thinking about going to grad school to study media innovation in journalism, Ken’s writing for Nieman Labs was one of my main inspirations. If you want to find a jumping-off point for understanding what it is that ails the news media industry, there’s no better place than his column.

Also, I discovered during our conversation that Ken is laying the groundwork to launch his own media company, called Lookout Local, that incorporates everything he’s learned and taught over the last few decades. So keep an eye out for that project, which is a distinctly positive note in a week that was otherwise pretty horrific for the industry.


Whomst: Ken Doctor, media analyst



Disclaimer: This interview has been edited for clarity.

You are a media analyst, consultant and speaker, who writes the Newsonomics column for Harvard’s Nieman Lab. You’re also the author of “Newsonomics: Twelve New Trends That Will Shape the News You Get” and the proprietor of Did I miss anything?

No, that would be it!

Would it be inaccurate to call you a freelance media reporter?

Freelance technically implies that I’m writing for for someone else, whereas I’m actually working for myself. So maybe “independent media reporter” would be more accurate.

I’m guessing I know the answer to this, but in your mind, what’s the biggest story in the media world right now?

Covid, without a question. But prior to Covid, it was the rapid consolidation of the newspaper chains, which I’ve written about extensively for Nieman Lab. Before the epidemic, the big chains were already engaged in a pretty intricate dance of mergers and acquisitions, which I’ve called the consolidation games. Now, Covid has accelerated that shuffling by turning up the financial pressure on the industry.

So, in a sense, the two subjects have become one. Covid has forced publishers to realize their three-year plans in three months. While the outlook for many looks grim, there’s a lot that we saw coming.

What are your thoughts on the pivot to paywall? Is it an effective solution for the problem of declining advertising revenue, or just be another silver bullet that doesn’t pan out?

Well digital subscriptions are certainly nothing new. The New York Times rolled out its first digital subscription paywall in 2011, and most other dailies followed suit in the following years. Digital subscriptions are definitely an increasingly vital part of a publisher’s revenue strategy, especially as advertising money continues to dwindle and is hoovered up by Facebook and Google. 

First every publisher needs to have multiple revenue streams; relying on digital subscriptions alone as a financial model is a gamble that won’t work for dailies. I still think advertising has a critical role to play as a source of revenue, and I think that publishers that have ceded digital advertising to the duopoly are making a mistake.

Second, there are two critical components of a smart digital subscription strategy, and both need to be in place for it to work.

It’s vital that, if you want people to hand over money to read your content, you have to make sure you’re offering them journalism they can’t get elsewhere. Your reporting needs to be original, because people are far less inclined to pay for something they can read somewhere else or that you just grabbed off the wire. Providing content that’s original, and local, is very important in convincing readers to subscribe.

And, you need to have the technical chops to pull off a subscription strategy properly. You need to know your users, so ideally you’re having them sign in before they can read much, subscription or not.

You need to know where they’re coming from, how they landed on your site, what they like to read and what kind of value prop is going to be most convincing to them.

Any good paywall strategy has to be tightly linked to user research and analytics. And the payment process itself needs to be smooth; even the smallest bit of friction can dissuade a potential subscriber.

Any publishers you have your eye on?

The Daily Memphian comes to mind; I wrote about it about three months ago. They’re a news media startup with scale, so it’s an interesting site to watch. I think they’re doing some really interesting things.

What’s one trend in media/journalism that you predict will gain popularity this year?  

Reducing print days. A lot of places have already cut their Saturday print, but look for more publishers to start eliminating even more print days. Many are now doing it, given the Covid-driven ad depression.

Cutting down the number of print days can actually be a really smart strategy — if you’re not also reducing the size of your newsroom. Alone, it’s an effective cost-saving measure; but if you’re reducing print days and shrinking your newsroom, you’re cutting costs but you’re also cutting coverage. And diminishing the value proposition to the reader. That’s a faster declining spiral downward. 

What’s a project of yours that you’re especially proud of or think is particularly interesting? Either past or upcoming.

I’m launching a media company of my own, called Lookout Local, that puts into practice everything that I’ve learned and preached about for the last fifteen years. It’ll have a multi-pronged approach to revenue that’s customizable, and it’ll meet readers where they are and establish authentic connections with them.

It’ll be a digital-only, mobile-first, newsletter-driven operation. Hiring top talent will be a core part of it; we’re going to have 13 employees, eight of whom will be on the editorial side.

Rapid Fire

What are your favorite things to read online?

News from a variety of places, of course, then The Athletic for sports, Vulture for arts and entertainment, and Slate and The Atlantic for longform cultural coverage.

What’re you watching right now?

I’ve been really tempted to start rewatching “Mad Men,” because I missed some of the beginning the first time I watched it, but I’m not sure; it’s such a big commitment.

I know tonight we’re either watching “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” or “The Life of Brian.” Both of those feel like good lockdown-friendly options.

What podcasts do you listen to?

A lot. Definitely “The Daily.” I think they’ve really set a new standard for news podcasts; they essentially invented the “news podcast” genre outright. Also “How I Built This,” “This American Life” and “Gilbert Gottfried,” for laughs.

Have you picked up any new hobbies during Covid?

Gardening! I’m actually looking at it now, I just planted everything in new soil. This is funny, but I built a database of which flowers are perennials and which are annuals, so I know which ones I’ll need to replant. We also have a pretty good vegetable garden, but that’s not new.

Check back in in six weeks and hopefully my whole yard will be in bloom.

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