At LATimes.com, the future is now
In a time of gloom-and-doom around the newspaper industry, I often hear people from newsrooms ask, “is anyone working on a new business model or a different way of doing things?” From now on, I’ll point to LATimes.com for evidence that, yes, someone is working on a new way of doing things.
There you’ll find a world-renowned copy desk that is a one-stop web publishing shop and award-winning reporters and editors who are skilled in cultivating online communities and reaching out, developing additional content from outsiders. They are even making plans to use the web content management system to publish the newspaper.
“We don’t have three years to figure this stuff out, we have a matter of months,” Rob Barrett told an audience of about 200 at the Westin Hotel in Seattle today as part of the Kelsey Group’s Local Marketplaces conference. “But we have to make this transition while remaining a trusted source of information.”
Barrett is Senior Vice President of Interactive Media for LATimes.com, a $75 million operation that has experienced 25-30% growth in unique users and page views during the past 12 months. A one-time journalist at the News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., Barrett has also worked at PrimeMedia, ABCNews.com and Time.com. He’s been at LATimes.com for three years.
“Most of what I’m working on is not visible online now,” Barrett said. “We’re restructuring the business and undergoing a fairly fundamental paradigm shift to change the way we think, and to change the technology.”
Armed with a staff of 25 in 2005, he now has more than 200, including a Chief Technology Officer and someone with a PhD. in computer user experience who has a researcher that works for him. Their daily focus is observing regular users and how they get their information online. In all, Barrett and his team hired online staff mostly from non-newspaper web sites and brought in people who focused on product strategy, customer, and revenue.
“We had to justify the additional expenditure of resources in a resource-constrained environment,” Barrett said. So he and his team developed audience and revenue projections that suggested online operations could supply 50% of the company’s cash flow by 2011. “And we feel those projections are fairly conservative,” he added.
This forced some serious content and strategy discussions for the newspaper. Barrett said that since there are certain things that are “California and LA,” the organization needed to “double down” in those content areas, (entertainment, regional travel, autos). The organization also came to the realization that people need more than the newsroom can produce so they decided to aggregate and develop other local content sources.
“The readers trust us to curate. They want us to add what’s not there. We want to be a trusted guide and look at areas where we can have an impact,” Barrett said, adding that reporters and editors are working with local experts on a paid and unpaid basis to provide more context, comment and criticism to staff-produced content.
“Our reporters and editors are now skilled at outreach and managing contributions from outsiders. That was something that was not part of their job before,” Barrett said. “We’re combining L.A. Times content with industry insiders who we’ve invited in and seeded the site with. These are people who used to appear only in quotes in the newspaper.
“Newspaper articles don’t cut it online,” Barrett also said. So LATimes.com adds aggregated third-party content, interaction and other voices to increase the engagement with readers. That is why rebuilding the technology that powers LATimes.com is a huge part of this undertaking.
Us “new media types” like to talk about the importance of new skills combined with a significant culture change for news organizations trying to survive and thrive. They are still critical, and many newsrooms are making good progress in these areas. So it is becoming increasingly apparent that technology and the platforms many of us operate on are in serious need for redevelopment and enhancement.
“The site will be fairly unrecognizable by the end of the year,” Barrett said, noting that it will feature different topic areas than the newsroom has traditionally focused on and be highlighted by conversations, community, and aggregated content.
Next up for LATimes.com: HollywoodBacklot.com, which is scheduled to launch Tuesday. It will offer behind-the-scenes photos from the sets of Hollywood’s films and TV shows and will build on relationships with industry-insider bloggers and others. And like The Envelope, the LATimes.com’s year-round entertainment awards niche site, content created for online will be published in print. Content from The Envelope, in fact, powered 15 special print sections last year with remarkable cash-flow margins.
If you work for a newspaper (or are hoping to someday), the fact that one of the largest news organizations in the U.S. is rapidly innovating is a positive bellwether for the industry. Sure, only a handful of newspapers could ramp up their online staffing at the same rate, but where LATimes.com finds success in innovation, it will show the way for other news publishers and lower the barrier to entry for the next models of revenue and content.
As I said in my book: “Ideas are cheap. Execution is everything. The future is now.” And I’m so impressed with how well - and how quickly - LATimes.com is embracing the future.