Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Future Of News: Opportunities for Entrepreneurs

Serving as team lead for the November 18th MITEF dinner program "Breaking News", I had the privilege over the last few months of 2009 to interview more than 20 executives in the news industry and hear their thoughts on the future of news. Our moderator Todd Bishop of TechFlash did a marvelous job capturing the top takeaways from the event. To supplement Todd's report of the event, I want to highlight new business opportunities for entrepreneurs interested in providing products and services news executives identified as critical for the growth of the industry:

1) Driving in market behavior: Newspapers traditionally played the role of driving consumer traffic to retailers and service providers. With the demise in circulation for print offset by growth in online (Seattle Times reports 347K paid subscribers for the print edition as compared to 1.4MM monthly unique visitors to it's website), online editions of newspapers need to better connect the virtual to the terrestrial. Whether through couponing, product reviews, comparison shopping, mobile connectivity, etc. revenue is waiting to be unlocked. Newspapers are not the only industry to be challenged by this problem-- think direct mail, yellow pages, and display advertising- all could benefit from a much tighter integration between the "buy it now" conditioning of the consumer and the traditionally disconnected buying process endemic to print. Some success stories this holiday season in the mobile apps space include companies like ShopSavvy, RedLaser, TheFind, ShopStyle and PriceGrabber.com.

2) Authenticating Trust: Without trust news truly is a commodity that holds little value. As brands like MSNBC, Seattle Times, West SeattleBlog and others have demonstrated, both consumers and advertisers benefit from trust. However, with the proliferation of news sources relying on UGC (especially through Twitter and the blogosphere), consumers and news organizations are left to wonder who to trust. Local news blogs like WSB build their network of trusted sources through manual review and gut instinct, while large organizations like MSNBC, who recently acquired social news platform Newsvine, and Patch, owned by AOL, are trying to automate the process through ratings and relevancy. Given the example of Trust-E in authenticating and protecting online privacy, there are certainly opportunities to automate and standardize who we should trust when it comes to the accuracy, and perhaps more importantly, the editorial bias of the news sources we rely on.

3) Transforming data into news: With more access to raw data from government agencies-- as well as the private sector-- data holds the potential to become highly valuable news. Just as saavy service professionals scour the local classifieds for consumers and businesses in need of their services, news organizations are now surfacing publicly available data and packaging it into news. Everyblock, another recent acquisition by MSNBC, specializes in publishing mundane data such as issuance of liquor licenses, restaurant inspections and land use bulletins and turns them into highly relevant news delivered by zip code to hyper local audiences. In a similar vein, a dot com survivor, Onvia, has become the go to resource for contractors wanting to know which government agencies are distributing federal stimulus dollars.

4) Tranforming readers into revenue: On a similar theme as above, news organizations need the help of database marketers and information architects to help them unlock the gold mine of data they hold about their subscribers. Tying personalization to subscriber information would allow news organizations to deliver highly relevent news and information while simultaneously helping advertisers reach consumers more effectively than traditional media. One relatively straightforward opportunity we identified would be to connect the email data of paid print subscribers to their online profile. Doing so would help the newspaper industry leap decades ahead of where they are today to better connect-- and ultimately monetize-- their readers. As Patricia Lee Smith succinctly summarized during her company presentation for The Seattle Times, "we don't have readership problem, we have a revenue problem."

Thanks again to our speakers, our event sponsor WNPA, my dinner program colleagues who worked tirelessly to identify our speakers and organize the event, and all of the folks at MIT Enterprise Forum for making this event possible.