Transcript: Building A News Publication in Today’s New World

Good morning. I’m Kinsey Wilson. I am the head of Newspack, which is a small team within Automattic that I established about 2 and 1/2 years ago to help small and medium-sized news organizations just get up on their feet. And with me this morning, our Neil Fox I’m sorry, Neil Chase and Kim Fox, respectively, the CEO and the Head of Product for calì matters, which is one of the sites that’s on the Newspack platform. And one of the real standouts in the emerging world of digital media. Let me throw to you and ask you to briefly introduce yourselves and tell folks a little bit about your own journey as creators, as editors, as founders and entrepreneurs now working at CalMatters. Neil, you want to lead it off? Sure, happy to Kinsey and see how matters been here. About 2 and 1/2 years before that, I was the editor of the Mercury News in San Jose. I have a career that is mostly journalism with some marketing and content marketing and a little bit of time on the dark side and a rather slimy sales organization that I won’t bother naming. But my journey kind of. It sort of went along two tracks at once, Right, journalism and technology, I was the editor of my college paper and I ended up getting a job at a newspaper that became the first newspaper to publish on the desktop using a tool called Talk Express and a beta version of something that was later renamed Photoshop. And from there, I think the intersection of journalism and using the technology to commit journalism has kind of driven pretty much everything I’ve done all the way up to running a news organization that’s now on Newspack. And given the practical matters, I’ve worked at the intersection of editorial audience engagement and technology for the past 25 years, I kind of backed into my career in media. I attended journalism school back in the 90’s, left due to financial constraints, and jumped right into the early days of the web. So I at that time, you still could jump in as a web designer, I later got into project management, working across multiple industries, finance, telco, all that good stuff early. 2,000 got really early mobile tax, so wireless access and trading for Fidelity Investments and introduced the first mobile app in Canada. And then I wanted to take a break for a bit. So I and you’ll see this theme. I’m a bit of an entrepreneur. I started working with the founder of the International Film festival in the Marshall McLuhan family to launch this festival of the future, which was a spectacular failure. From there I went to another startup where I worked with the Second City in Chicago, we started a boutique agency, Second City Communications, and we used improv methodology to sort of teaching collaboration at the corporate level, pivoted back into media using my digital project management with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, launched the first social platform in Canada for them. And then through a weird series of events and news stories like the Egyptian uprisings, G20 in Canada, the Haitian earthquake, I wound up accidentally on air and ended up being an on-air reporter, often covering the social angle on our version of CNN. Then I went and worked for a company called ScribbleLive blogging technology, the originator of live blogging tech. Like most startups, it failed too thanks to big media realizing they could do their own live blogging technology. And then over the past few years, I’ve come back to media, working across television, radio, digital career and legacy media. So I’ve taken the long route but the common themes are I love to pursue difficult difficult problems. I’m really obsessed with this liminality. Right? so the space between what has been and what is to be where, I think media spends a lot of time and I’m really enamored about how technology connects folks. That’s in some ways, kind of a classic digital adventure. I mean, the things that so many things have changed so many times over the course of last 20 years or so, it’s not surprising that you’ve moved in and out of. So many different roles. But the story of what’s happened in the news industry is probably pretty well understood at this point. But it’s probably it may be worth touching on just briefly to kind of frame the conversation about what you guys are both doing and what we’re seeing across the industry as a whole. But essentially, I mean, the short story is with the advent of the internet and the ability to offer and distribute content at close to 0 marginal cost, news organizations, classic news organizations, whether they were newspapers or broadcast, lost their so-called economic vote, the enormous barriers to entry, financial barriers to entry that gave them a distribution advantage that in turn allowed them to command an enormous amount of advertising revenue. And it’s when I reflect on this and sort of look back when I got in and 1995 is so much of this. In a way it’s a bit like climate change. You kind of knew what was happening and the signals were there and maybe we didn’t know exactly how it was going to play out or what the time frame was. But the endgame in some ways, the die was already cast and it has taken a good fifteen, twenty, 25 years to play out. But the effects have been pretty profound that half of newspaper journalists have lost their jobs since. I think roughly 2000 for newspapers or media, I think generally has lost about $35 billion in advertising over a comparable period of time. And entire communities have lost the news organizations altogether, the creation of so-called news deserts. So it’s the effects are profound. We’re not going to dwell on that today. There are also lots of really promising signals that we’re seeing with Newspack and of which you’re an exemplar. I think CalMatters. And Kim, I’ll throw it back to you. Maybe you could talk a bit about where CalMatters is positioned and sort of this larger digital media ecosystem and what its mission is and how it thinks about the way journalism is evolving and perhaps most importantly, sort of how you have to address audiences today compared to the prior era when your distribution was in some ways guaranteed. Sure well, CalMatters is a nonprofit, nonpartisan site, and we’re committed to explaining how. Works and why it matters, we do a really good job of breaking things down in a simple and accessible way, complex topics, we cover some core themes like politics, justice, environment, health, and we specialize in context and depth. So we’re not the place maybe where you’re going to come to see breaking news or the headlines. But will be the place where you can really start to understand what does this mean? How does this affect me and my fellow Californians? And what really drew me to how matters is I think more and more people are kind of realizing it, the aspects of explanatory journalism we do and service. Right I think a lot of our industry lost the way of service in media. If you’ve been in any metro newsroom, people kind of scoff at that. They think it’s like bathing suit bodies and where to get your next meal. But I think service is really important. And in the last year, I think we’ve all really we’ve seen that we so are our funding structure is mixed. So CalMatters we have some fun with in the beginning, the Knight Foundation, and the Emerson Collective really helped to get us going. In the past few years, we’ve attracted some California funders, national foundations, the college teachers foundations, California Health Care Foundation. And we also have a nascent member program which is growing as we focus efforts on it over in and around 3,000 people. And we partner with 200 news organizations. We give away our content for free. All of these things are very different from where I come from. I’ve worked in subscription based and advertising based. And so it’s a very different business model. So and in terms of what you were talking about with disruption, I’d like to echo what you said in the tail end of that. I think it’s a good thing. Right I recall watching Neal give a talk and he talked about something that really resonated with me, which was that journalism has had a 400-year-old product cycle. We have not had to think right. And sure that we haven’t really had to be worried that we’ve moved very slowly. And as we know, we’ve moved further and further away from our audience, our customers. Right and so now with all of this disruption, I think we’re forced to gravitate back to that. I can think of it sitting in my first ever news meeting and I observed a few things back back in the mid two thousands, the disconnection from the daily reality. I grew up poor and I knew my family and circle didn’t care about half the things we were talking about didn’t resonate with me and the unhealthy culture of intellectual bullying in news organizations that. And so now my point about focusing in on the consumers, they’re more in control and we as an industry are being held accountable across the board where we’re being forced to move from sitting back position to being far more engaged. We’re being forced to look for market gaps. We’re using data and engagement tools to communicate with the audiences and to understand their needs and frankly, to move away from what was maybe an irrelevant position. So I’m excited. I’m excited about where we’re going because, like, who doesn’t want to be relevant? It’s interesting that you mention the news media in some ways the symbol of how newspapers used to operate because it was where all the top editors gathered and where the notion that you’re sort of handing down almost tablet, like the dictum about what’s the news of today and how it’s going to get COVID and so forth. And there was always intense competition in those meetings, people to test one another and to compete for the limited amount of space that was available on the front page. It’s I remember the New York Times thought for a brief moment that the world would be interested if a live streamed their news meeting, and that was a quick sale that they learned from. But how I’m curious and maybe you can get into this, but I mean, this has been a calamitous year everywhere, but particularly in California with drought, with wildfires, with the governor that’s being recalled potentially. How have you decided to focus the coverage? And what do you hear is of the greatest importance for your audience? I mean, do those events inevitably drive along with the pandemic, drive the bulk of the coverage, or have you been more selective in how you attack it? And has it been a period of economic hardship or did you actually benefit from the news business, if you will, of the events of the past year and a half that benefit from the pain of others? Yeah, we did. We we did get some additional support during the pandemic from people who said we realize how important your coverage is and we want to support it. We want to give you the money to do the extra coverage. We’re able to beef up our health care team. We were able to start translating everything into Spanish. We did a lot of things during the pandemic to grow our audience, I guess, and grow the way we try to direct our coverage, to be clear, I wasn’t here at the start. I’ve been here 2 and 1/2 years. It started six years ago. But when they started, there was a very clear focus. And I think it’s not very much different from every entrepreneur who’s starting a publishing business right now. Large, small, ambitious, whatever. One person, a gigantic company, they saw a need. And the need they saw was that every news organization in California, every major news organization, needs to have a Sacramento Bureau. There were dozens, maybe hundreds of reporters covering state government, telling people in California what was going on at the state level. And this stuff is both. If you’re not if you’re not careful, it’s boring, but it’s super important. Everything about your kids education, a lot of things about your health care, all those things actually come from the state level in California. It is the biggest state. It’s the biggest economy in this hemisphere outside of the federal government. It’s 40 million people. One out of eight Americans live in California. And nobody was covering nobody. Very few people were covering the state government. And so this is a kind of a combination of journalists and philanthropists got together and said, we need to fix this. They raised the first the initial founder who’s our board chair, gave the first million. They went out and raised another four million and they said, OK, with $5 million dollars, we could do this for three years. And they hired some reporters. And the goal was, let’s write about state policy issues, give those stories to the big newspapers that used to cover this stuff. They’ll run the stories and people will see it and they’ll learn. And we’ve replaced the coverage and they did a great job of that. But as we’ve grown and as the newspaper business has changed, we’ve been able to pivot to saying, let’s be that primary news source, let’s be the direct source people go to rather than relying on all of our partners. And so now a lot of our readership is on our own products, our website, our newsletters. A bunch of it is still with our partners. And that’s great. We we give everything away for free and we want everybody to read our coverage, which makes us unique in journalism and probably competitive with nobody. And the original focus was really on policy issues. But during the pandemic, I think we started two things. The pandemic was one and a project that we launched before the pandemic to focus on income inequity. Because when you look at a state like California, we have Silicon Valley, we have Hollywood, we also have Mahomes without running drinking water than Flint, Michigan, ever did. And we have more people in poverty than any other state. We have more of everything in California because we’re the biggest state, but we have the biggest gap between rich and poor and a lot of it in housing, in education and health care, just ridiculous injustice in a state where there’s enough money to fix this many times over. So we focused on that before the pandemic. We doubled down during the pandemic. And what we found during the pandemic for really the first time was individual Californians coming to us for specific information they needed to navigate their lives. We had seen that before, during the elections. When we have an election in California, we have a specialty here of writing the most ridiculous ballot propositions that are crafted to confuse people. And that let a lot of people to come to us during the past elections and look for explanations on this things. That’s where most of our traffic has come from in recent years. But during the pandemic, we found a huge appetite for help me get my benefits, help me understand the health care issues, help me understand how to take care of my parents and my kids. We did virtual events and I think we learn from that and from this income inequity project that we can serve more people much more directly. And that’s been kind of a major pivot for us in content and audience. It’s a real evolution in the way journalists like to, particularly about state house coverage and policy coverage, because so much of it was either legislative or political play by play, which was really of interest primarily to insiders and only occasionally the story about what it meant and the consequences of it, and probably even less on the impact of the kinds of communities that you’re describing. And that’s I think that’s a pivot we’ve seen in a number of places. And then you guys have kind of been at the forefront of, you know, if you pull the lens back and I’ll ask both of you to address this and beyond what you’re doing with CalMatters is that you look across the industry. I mean, you both work inside traditional established news organizations. You’ve worked for startups, you work for digital media organizations. What what are the trends that you’re seeing that you find promising or hopeful or part of a sort of gradual evolution as we start to cope with this version of climate change and actually get things right again? Kim, we want to lead off and I mean, I would start with the fact that in my opinion, the fight to be audience first is kind of over, right? I’m not saying everybody’s getting it right, but I think everybody now appreciates that you need to focus, whether you’re talking about product development or editorial or your business, you need to be audience first. And that’s a relief after many, many years of folks denying that. Other trends that I’m really excited about is I think for the first time, we’ve got a long, long way to go. For the first time, we’re having some very honest conversations about the makeup and the culture of our newsrooms. And I fundamentally believe, like when you’re building a product team, for instance, if your product team tends to be all white men, that’s going to affect the product that you produce. You’re going to have biases and blinders and what you offer the world is going to come from there. So we’re having really, really real discussions about who we recruit, who we retain, how we create a culture where they can be successful. And I’m really excited about that, although once again, I will say we’ve got a long, long way to go. I think that folks are realizing that we need to in the industry in general, we need business literacy. Right so you’re starting to see schools introduce business for journalism schools, introduce business courses and product courses. I’ve done a lot of teaching and different sort of newsrooms about financial literacy so that journalists can have a better understanding of the business in which they operate, because for so long they didn’t have to think about it. Right that was the other side of the house. And then finally, I’m a big advocate for this and I’m seeing it across the board. I was inspired by other news organizations, the integration of products into editorial. So let’s not repeat the mistakes of the past. Know there’s the wall and sales are over here and editorials over here for a while, product was over here and an editorial was over here. And I to joke. Right it’s like we’re asking a group of people to build a car, but they can never see a car ride in a car, smell a car or feel a car. But they have to build a car. And by the way, when they deliver that car, we’re going to hate that car and we’re going to complain about it. It’s just an overall realization that we need cross-functional teams to deliver upon. And then my one last thing is that I think an opening to journalism is a craft, not a profession. Emily Bell said that to me once. It stuck with me about 15 years ago, that before it was always on high, we were professionals and you had to go to school. And obviously there’s education and experience. It’s really important, but it’s a craft you can continuously work on. What does that mean? When product people are embedded in newsrooms, they can become journalists, they can become Corps members of the team. And I think we’ve got a little ways to go for reporters and editors with that. But I do see it starting to happen. It’s interesting to sort of bring together the editorial on the product discipline. One of the real breakthroughs when I was at the New York Times and they created NYT cooking their cooking app because they were sitting on 17,000 recipes and they thought they might be of interest to the people. The real breakthrough was when Sam Sifton, who was sort of the Maitre d, if you will, of the times cooking, really got interested in the product side of things. And instead of a separate product group spitting it up and asking the newsroom to essentially funnel content into it, he became sort of a prime mover and got fully engaged with product. And it completely transformed the quality of what was being built and the experience of the audience. But that’s a great point. I at the times before you wrote and Sam was an editor and reporter there at the time. Here’s somebody who knew a topic different from what he covered and ended up building a whole product out of it. There’s a when I was an intern at the Washington Post in 1985 the editorial system we used to publish the newspaper was built by Raytheon, the defense contractor. It was a gigantic proprietary million system. The terminal I was typing on probably cost more than a year’s worth of my Newspack fees right now. Anybody who wants to be a journalist can do it, and that’s obviously there’s a lot of folks out there who are not doing things that we would consider journalism, but there’s a lot of folks out there who are starting something new from scratch, whether it’s a journalist who wants to start a cooking app within the New York Times or somebody who lives in a neighborhood who thinks nobody’s covering my neighborhood, my neighborhood needs journalism. People need to know what the city council is doing. I’m going to start doing it. The ability to do that and the ability to build it yourself, to do it. One person can do it. A small group that’s enabling people who care to do something that used to be reserved for a private cloud. And that’s where we’re seeing a lot of places in California where a trusted community news organization is the place where people are getting the actual information they care about and trust about the vaccine, about health care, about the recall, about fire and drought and things like that. And those are if we can foster that and support that effort, that’s a big positive change. How do you I mean, the ability to be able to publish individually, to be able to start to reach an audience without the huge investment that they’re previously required has, to some extent run ahead, if you will, the ability to earn income behind that and sustain that effort. As you look across the industry, I mean, I think there are two we’re starting to see some glimmers of hope and things coming together and best practices and so forth. But to talk about that for a minute, because that has lagged and it’s been a struggle for many of these startups. This is where I think, you know, like you said at the start, journalism used to be a highly profitable business because big news organizations have a monopoly in their markets. If you wanted to advertise, you had to go there. They made millions and millions of dollars, billions of dollars, like you said, 30, $40 billion a year. And revenue is gone now. That money’s never coming back, that kind of advertising, that kind of monopoly is not going to come back, but journalism is a public good. It’s important. It’s the only business in the Constitution. It’s something we need in our community and our democracy. And so we have to start treating it as something that is somewhere between a business and philanthropy. Right it’s possible to run a news organization and make a profit. Probably not a lot of money at this point. But what we’re seeing, I think, is an appetite for your commenter’s is exclusively supported by philanthropy, as are some other nonprofit news organizations. What we started to stand up in California is just a show right now, but is the idea that if you want to be a local journalist, the community should be helping you, right? If if you’re part of a chain of newspapers, that chain is providing all of your tech support, your tech-savvy, your HRR, all that kind of stuff. If we could build an infrastructure where someone who wants to be a community journalist gets some centralized support, probably from philanthropy, to do the things that can be done easily across a bunch of different publishers. And your job is just to go into your own community and build the local journalism and the local marketing, local journalism that covers the stories and informs people. The local marketing brings in enough revenue from your newsletter, from a couple display ads, from some events, from other kinds of things that I think is the model that we’re going to have to settle on if we decide that journalism is important enough to have in every community. Otherwise, we can’t just rely on the markets to support something that is no longer a market sustainable thing. Yeah, it’s that sort of Revelation is part of what motivated this great news package is the notion that individual solo entrepreneurs or small newsrooms shouldn’t have to build and rebuild their tech stack over and over again, that there should be something at scale that makes sense. And I think there’s a real opportunity to start doing that around certain business practices and even certain editorial functions that can be performed at scale but can then be localized to the data, which was a prime example of something that could be gathered nationally but localized in a way that made it really relevant and people cared what was going on immediately around them. You’ve been working with you’ve had a project sort of, I guess, education to tackle matters where you’ve been working with Black and Hispanic and Asian publishers across California to try and both help them through this period of economic distress that came with the pandemic but also to really get up on and get a solid digital footing underneath them. Can you talk a little bit about that project and how that’s been going? You actually described it? Well, we realized early in the pandemic that a lot of smaller publishers, especially community publishers who still relied on print, you know, it’s hard for a lot of folks who are in the digital news business now to understand or to think about this. But there are a lot of publishers out there that still print a printed newspaper delivered to people around town and make money off it. When the pandemic hit, the distribution went away, because if you gave your paper out and racks around town, nobody’s outside. The advertising went away because all the businesses were closed. And a lot of these very important local news organizations that have the ear of their community. All of a sudden saw their revenue and their distribution dry up. And so we raised the money of that in partnership with a couple of other groups in California to get support for these publishers and to help them make the pivot to a digital business that a lot of other publishers had already made. And so we’re hoping it is mostly right now Black Spanish language Asian publishers, folks who reach communities in California that are generally underserved by journalism, by media. We’re helping them get onto a digital publishing platform, which happens to be news. Back with a lot of support from your team, which we appreciate. We’re helping them come up with new business models, whether it’s a membership or donation model newsletter, advertising side advertising events. We’re trying to bring them the intelligence that we have that other publishers have about what works and what doesn’t, and that’s shared sort of support infrastructure to be able to run that business, ideally sustainably in the future, probably smaller than it used to be, but in a way that still serves the community. It’s great. We have we have a little bit of time left and we have some questions from the audience. So we want to put those on screen. The first is, what is your formula for polished video mixed with smart phone footage from multimedia journalism? I’ll let whoever wants to go for that jump ball. That sounds like a clear question to me, not the form, because we don’t have one yet. But what would you do, I think can be wrestled with this before? I mean. Yeah, sorry. I’m switching gears here. I mean, there is no formula, I will say there is no formula, but I think that the business of video is a challenging one, right. Especially as a small creator, if you’re a creator, I think. I think at the end of the day. Video is hard to monetize. We’ll speak from the first video, it’s hard to monetize, video is hard to operationalize audiences love videos. So when I look at a lot of our coverage, when we cover elections, the younger demographics really, really gravitate towards that. So what we’re doing is we’re starting to experiment small. We’re slowly building our capacity for viewing. Many people are familiar with the days of the times and other organizations who went all in on video, hired hundreds of journalists, took a big bet, and then quickly scaled back that killed Mike to open the organization. So I think at least two or three times they’ve done that. I think it’s important. We can’t disregard it. I think I recommend with everyone to start small, to be very specific, to focus specifically on a topic and to build up. So that’s my general answer. Yeah, it’s interesting. I mean, I was seeing in your even in your hesitation in answering the question of the fact that there probably is nothing harder in digital media than video because video is resource intensive. The truth the hard truth is, well, it’s never been easier to shoot to make it watchable requires production values of a certain sort. And we got involved when I was at the times with Snapchat and discovered very quickly how even abbreviated stories in that format, which I would hope could be turned around in fairly short order, were a big, heavy lift. So it’s one question I might suggest. Take the word polished out of that question. I think the most effective journalism that you see, the film’s most effective video journalism you see is honest, fresh stuff that nobody else can see. We gave cameras to homeless people during the first part of the pandemic and asked them to shoot the situation in their encampments and got some video back that we would have never gotten, probably if we walked in there with a camera crew, get honest, meaningful stuff. I think people watch it. They’ll appreciate it. Next question. My concern is that blogging is fading and podcasts are the trend. The exception is using a blog to promote other products, books, YouTube, podcasts, services. Is this true? You know, it’s interesting, I don’t know that blogging is fading necessarily, certainly more people are using podcasts, but in both cases, you’re finding a way to communicate with people. And I guess my question back to the questioner would be, is this about a publication method or a revenue source? Write write on a blog. The best way to make money is to use affiliate tools and promote stuff. I think if somebody is doing something that the Bills are following, that really is useful and compelling. There’s a lot of people who aren’t listening to podcasts and being able to do it in more of a blogging or website format makes is good. The other thing that we’ve tried to do in a lot of places I’ve been is see if you can’t be in both places. If you have a blog plus an audio version, you might get more people right. It’s hard to it’s hard to say we should be in one format. And one of the other. And I would build on that and say that platforms and write newsletters were big and then they went away. Another big thing with blogging, I will say I have a background in audio and podcasting. Good audio is really tough to produce. right? it’s resource intensive. And I like to joke that, with videos you can hide the quality with imagery, right? With audio. Bad audio is bad audio. So I wouldn’t say anything’s dead and trending. I think you need to start with your story. Start with what you’re trying to tell, unpack that and experiment with different platforms to tell that story. That’s great. We’re coming up against the limit of our time. Any just thoughts about I mean, if you were getting into this as a solo creator or entrepreneur at the start of your career, at this point, any particular pointers or guides that you would give folks that? I would just say that the decisions you make early on are important. So often we are very reactive. We’re in the moment that they will try to be thoughtful in how you set something up and the tools that you use, the team that you bring in, the people that you collaborate with, because whether you realize it or not, you’re building a culture around your offering or your company. And I think it’s really important to be thoughtful about that. Good all right. Thank you both. Really appreciate the time and the insights and observations. And we’ll see you around news back. All right.

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