By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Tag: Howard Owens

What a Bing News deal might mean for journalism

cash_register_20091130I can’t remember the last time the media world was as excited about a business deal that may or may not be consummated as the one involving Microsoft and Rupert Murdoch. The reason, I think, is three-fold.

First, it potentially moves us beyond the tired old debate about pay walls (I say “potentially,” because we don’t know if Murdoch will give up on that misbegotten notion).

Second, it could provide an answer to the question of who should pay whom, and how.

Third, it could represent a monetary boost for paid journalism at a moment when the profession is in the midst of an existential crisis.

In simple terms, here’s how the deal might work. Microsoft is said to be offering to pay Murdoch and other newspaper publishers (and you’d need a lot of them; Rupe can’t do this alone) to make their sites invisible to Google, a simple matter that involves inserting a line of code. Thus if you wanted to search for a news story about, say, President Obama’s upcoming speech on Afghanistan, you would have use Microsoft’s Bing instead of Google.

Bing News would compete with Google’s automatically assembled Google News service. But, unlike Google, Microsoft would share advertising revenues from Bing News with the news organizations to which it is linking.

To be sure, Google News is the most benign of aggregators. It places no advertising on its home page. That’s important because it’s a customizable substitute front page. Most people read a news site by scanning headlines and ledes, and only occasionally clicking on a story. Thus, if Google were to try to make money from the Google News home page, it could rightly be accused of stealing the most valuable parts of newspaper stories and profiting from that theft. (And, as we know, there are aggregators that do precisely that. As I’ve argued before, Michael Wolff’s Newser may be the most blatant.)

If you search Google News, you will be shown ads related to what you’re looking for. But as Howard Owens has pointed out, if you are searching for a news story on a particular topic, then you are going to click through. Those are valuable readers whom Google is sending to news organizations. And, as Jeff Jarvis argues, it’s not Google’s fault if newspaper executives haven’t been able to figure out how to monetize the audience Google is sending to them.

With that bit of background out of the way, let’s turn this on its head. One of the things about Internet commerce that makes for such fascinating — and frustrating — debate is that it’s unclear which direction the money should be moving in. Even though Google has attempted to step lightly with its news service, Murdoch and some other news executives argue that Google should share ad revenues generated by Google News.

But imagine, if you will, an alternative universe in which newspaper sites were rolling in advertising revenues from readers Google sent their way, but in which Google itself couldn’t find a way to make any money. (Such a scenario requires you to believe a number of ridiculous things, but never mind.) Can you imagine what the debate would be? You’d hear demands that cash-fattened newspaper owners share some of their newly gotten wealth with Google. You’d hear threats that Google would exclude news sites that refused.

My point is that there isn’t really any underlying principle as to who ought to pay for what online. Rather, the debate is driven by who’s making money, who’s losing money and — here’s where we get back to Microsoft — the business model of any particular Internet company.

What is Microsoft’s business interest with respect to Bing? Simply this: to build market share, establishing Bing as a serious search alternative to Google. Bing has a long way to go, with 10 percent of the market to Google’s 65 percent. That said, Bing has received good reviews since its debut earlier this year. And it’s really the only search engine to emerge as any kind of rival to Google pretty much since Google slipped into view in the late 1990s.

Bing News, as a partner of news sites rather than a rival, would have some advantages over Google News. The biggest would be that it wouldn’t have to pussyfoot around with regard to advertising. Since it would be sharing revenue, it could assemble an ad-laden home page, and make its search results more advertising-driven than Google News’ are.

Since it would be sharing those revenues, the news organizations, rather than complain, would be cheering Microsoft on. And if users came to understand that they had to visit Bing in order to search, say, the world’s 100 or so biggest and best newspapers, then Bing would quickly gain market share at Google’s expense.

Sadly, this would represent a significant setback to Google’s vision of indexing all the world’s knowledge. But there has always been an inherent tension in leaving it to a private corporation to carry out such a utopian plan. Look at the ongoing battle over Google Books, which would benefit everyone, but none more than Google.

It would also represent business as usual for Microsoft, which dominated the 1980s and ’90s not by offering more to its customers but by crippling its competitors. This is a company that, as legend would have it, built market share for its spreadsheet, Excel, by rewriting MS-DOS — its Windows precursor — so that the leading program, Lotus 1-2-3, wouldn’t run properly. “The job’s not done till Lotus won’t run” is one variation of the supposed battle cry heard in Redmond. Paying newspapers to pull out of Google is just the latest iteration of that theme.

But will it work? Is there any way a Bing News service could generate the sort of advertising revenue that would make up for a significant chunk of what the traditional media have lost? Somehow it seems doubtful. Still, it strikes me as a far more worthy experiment than whatever Steven Brill has been cooking up with his paid-content scheme for lo these many months. I hope we’ll get a chance to see how this all plays out.

Take two and call me in the morning

These two pieces really need to be read together. In today’s New York Times, media columnist David Carr takes a look at Gannett’s Journal News, in Westchester County, which has essentially fired the whole staff and invited everyone to reapply.

It sounds brutal — OK, it is brutal — but with the business model irretrievably broken, it makes perfect sense to blow everything up and start over. If it’s inevitable that the paper is going to end up with a much smaller staff, then it’s vital that the right people get to keep their jobs.

The second piece is a blog post by Howard Owens, the former GateHouse digital-publishing director who’s now publisher of the Batavian, a community news site covering the area between Buffalo and Rochester, N.Y.

Although much of Owens’ post is about why it makes sense for newspaper companies to separate print and online news operations, the heart of it is that since online advertising can only grow so much, the proper response is to cut expenses in order to reach break-even. He writes:

In a market where the newspaper newsroom might cost $10 million, I knew how to make $1 million online, or even $2 million, but I didn’t know — and still don’t — how to make $10 million.

So if I can make a million online, why do I need operate a $10 million newsroom, especially given the greater efficiencies of online publishing?

It’s possible to make money in online journalism. What may not be possible is for large, legacy news organizations — especially newspapers — to survive unless their executives are willing to rethink everything they do.

Howard Owens talks about The Batavian

My spring-and-summer video tour of innovative online news organizations continues with Howard Owens, publisher of The Batavian, a for-profit news site in western New York state that he founded when he was director of digital publishing for GateHouse Media.

Owens left GateHouse earlier this year and took The Batavian with him. I visited him in late June and spent a few days interviewing him and other folks in Batavia. Owens, though, is the only one I captured on video.

Here are links to my earlier video interviews:

  • Christine Stuart, editor and publisher of CT News Junkie, which covers political and governmental news from the Connecticut State House, in Hartford.
  • Adil Nurmakov, Central Asia editor for Global Voices Online, whom I interviewed in Almaty, Kazakhstan.
  • Solana Larsen, managing editor of Global Voices.
  • Paul Bass, editor and publisher of the New Haven Independent, a non-profit news site.
  • Debbie Galant, co-founder of Baristanet, a for-profit community news site in Montclair, N.J.

On the road again

I just arrived in Batavia, N.Y., where I’ll be for the next few days. I’m doing some reporting for my book project on the Batavian, an online-only newspaper published by Howard Owens, the former director of digital publishing for GateHouse Media.

Owens and I are meeting tomorrow morning at the Pok-A-Dot. I’m also meeting with Tom Turnbull, publisher of Batavia’s Daily News, as well as a few community folks before heading back on Wednesday.

Internet access at the Holiday Inn where I’m staying seems pretty slow, so I’m not sure how that’s going to work out. In any case, expect blogging to be light.

Howard Owens takes over the Batavian

Big news out of little Batavia, N.Y. As I was expecting he would, Howard Owens has announced that he’s taking over the Batavian, the online-only “paper” he launched last fall when he was still working for GateHouse Media. He’s going all-in, selling his house and getting ready to start covering the news and selling ads next week. He writes:

My wife and I are listing our house in Pittsford for sale and as soon as it sells, we will rent a place in Batavia (or maybe elsewhere in Genesee County). I expect we’ll see my wife’s byline in The Batavian before too long.

Best of luck to Howard. If he can make this work, it will be a model for a business desperately in need of some good news.

Howard Owens is back online

Turns out the former GateHouse new-media guy was converting his blog from WordPress to Drupal. Don’t ask me why — that’s well beyond my meager technical knowledge.

Howard Owens has left the building

Howard Owens, GateHouse Media‘s director of digital publishing, has left the company, according to an internal memo by GateHouse president Kirk Davis that was obtained by Media Nation.

“Beginning today, Brad Dennison, VP News, will assume the additional responsibilities inherent in overseeing our online news operations and support,” Davis wrote in the memo, dated Friday. “Brad will be incorporating Howard Owens’ duties, as Howard has left the company. Howard did volumes to advance our digital strategy and leaves GateHouse with our deep appreciation.”

As you will see, I am missing point #2 of Davis’ memo. [Not anymore. Added at 11:46 a.m.] If anyone would like to pass it along, I will give you a free lifetime subscription to Media Nation.

GateHouse Media is a national chain that owns nearly 400 community newspapers, including 125 in Eastern Massachusetts. Though most of those papers are weeklies, some are among the best-known dailies in the state, including the Patriot Ledger of Quincy, the Enterprise of Brockton and the Framingham-based MetroWest Daily News.

Within journalism new-media circles, Owens is a highly respected thinker. Before joining GateHouse in September 2006, he helped launch pioneering new-media ventures at the Bakersfield Californian and, before that, the Ventura County Star, according to his LinkedIn profile.

At GateHouse, Owens pushed a strategy of Web-first journalism, exhorting reporters and editors to post breaking news stories on the company’s Wicked Local sites before running them in their print editions. He was also a strong advocate of quick-and-dirty video for the Wicked Local sites. In addition, he’s a co-founder of the Wired Journalists social network.

Owens’ blog,, appears to have gone dark, although a “whois” search reveals that he’s still the owner. Worth keeping an eye on, I’d say. He continues posting to Twitter.

Owens possesses one of the more interesting minds I know in new-media journalism, combining vision and practical experience. Yet his blunt, occasionally caustic manner has not played well with many of GateHouse’s reporters and editors, who work long hours for short money.

I interviewed Owens for a feature on GateHouse Media last fall for CommonWealth Magazine, a time when finances for GateHouse were perilous, but before the economy had gone off a cliff. Owens was particularly proud of the Batavian, a Web-only “paper” he had launched for GateHouse in Batavia, N.Y. (not far from GateHouse’s corporate headquarters, in Fairport), which he hoped could serve as something of a model.

“The overall revenue would be less than what you would get from a print newspaper,” he said, but added that by eliminating the cost of printing and distribution, he hoped the project could break even relatively quickly.

But Owens put his foot in his mouth when I asked him about complaints within the company that people didn’t have time to devote much energy to executing the company’s online strategy while also putting out quality print editions.

“There are some incredibly talented hardworking people in New England who are asked to do an incredible amount of work,” he said. “There are also slackers, and at some point you have to hold them accountable.” The “slackers” comment reportedly got him in some hot water with his superiors.

More recently, an internal e-mail Owens wrote became an issue in the legal dispute between GateHouse and the New York Times Co. GateHouse sued over’s Your Town sites, charging that’s practice of automatically “scraping” Wicked Local sites for headlines and ledes violated its copyright. (The suit was settled before it could go to trial.)

But though it might look as though Owens was endorsing the sort of copying and linking practices that was engaged in on its Your Town sites, the issues were different in subtle and important ways. If you’re interested in learning more, here’s an overview I wrote for the Guardian.

What could be motivating Owens’ departure? Perhaps he left entirely on his own. If not, my guess is that Davis and chief executive Michael Reed have decided to run as lean an operation as possible in order to get through the recession.

In any case, Media Nation extends its best wishes to Owens, one of the good guys in the ongoing struggle to reinvent journalism. Davis’ memo follows.

DATE: February 20, 2009
TO: GateHouse Media Publishers
Regional Managers
GateHouse Media News Employees
Online Operations Employees
Fairport Employees

FROM: Kirk Davis
RE: GateHouse News Division

As we adjust to the challenges confronting us, it is critically important that we remain positive and determined to emerge from this economic turmoil stronger than ever. As you know, the decisions we make must balance many needs ranging from controlling costs, maximizing our resources, evolving our print and online strategies and demonstrating to our employees that we’ll move swiftly and communicate often as we navigate this recession.

Today, I’d like to outline some important changes with the aforementioned context in mind.

I’m pleased to announce an expansion of the services provided to you and our employees through the GateHouse News Division. Beginning today, Brad Dennison, VP News, will assume the additional responsibilities inherent in overseeing our online news operations and support. Brad will be incorporating Howard Owens’ duties, as Howard has left the company. Howard did volumes to advance our digital strategy and leaves GateHouse with our deep appreciation.

In his expanded role, Brad will oversee and foster a stronger alignment of our print and online strategy, organizational structure, training and support. In turn, this will enable Bill Blevins to focus more on accelerating our online revenue performance, but more importantly, devote more time to strategic planning, identifying new digital opportunities and developing business models to support them. While there are many other benefits we’ll realize, I’m particularly excited due to:

1) The confidence I have in Brad and Bill, working closely with me, to bring greater clarity, responsiveness, support and service from a “field” perspective.

2) The opportunity we have to bring greater continuity to our overall content strategy and product development on all platforms, with a premium on scalability. This will allow us to make big plays when we want, where we want. In other words, we’ll benefit from simplified implementation of next-generation products en masse.

3) Our company’s ability to step back and appreciate what we’ve all accomplished together, but to welcome a fresh approach by bringing our vast corporate talent in online development and support together with our premiere news division and its contagious enthusiasm and culture.

4) Our company’s increased capacity as a result of these changes to make a greater commitment to long-term and strategic planning so that we can all feel increasingly inspired about where our hard work can lead us. The possibilities are endless.

As Brad and Bill meet with staff and focus on this transition, I’ve asked them to be prepared to share their plans with us within the next month, which will no doubt allow them to take into consideration any suggestions they receive from you, our digital staff and our outside consulting firm (FTI).

Thank you!

Update: Owens writes on Twitter, “For those who asked: It’s not quite true that I’m out of a job. I’m just no longer employed by GHM. Details in a week or two.”

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