Interview with Logan Molen

logan_011Mansfield: What’s your current title and role in Bakersfield?

Molen: I’m the vice president of Interactive Media, and oversee our online operations (which include Bakersfield.com and 10 other local websites), our Colorado-based software development team, and our mobile efforts. I don’t directly oversee our online news or advertising staffs, but I do have excellent, dotted-line relationships with the VPs and top managers overseeing those divisions.

Editors note: The Bakersfield Californian hired Alan Jacobson and Brass Tacks Design to redesign its print product in 2004. They recently rehired him to redesign the Californian and baskersfield.com. Jacobson is one of the leaders of revenuetwopointzero.com. Molen’s request to participate in revenuetwopointzero.com is unrelated to the upcoming redesigns.

Mansfield: What do you believe the biggest problem in funding online journalism is right now?

There’s a terrible sense of panic in the news industry that I think is detrimental and has prompted rash decisions that are unhealthy. I think there are huge challenges for newspapers, but I think the debt-driven problems with the major chains have created a doom-and-gloom scenario that ALL newspapers are near death. They’re not. We need to take a deep breath, look hard at the value we can bring to our advertisers and audience, and work quickly to transform ourselves. But we do ourselves a disfavor by spending so much time bemoaning the industry’s woes, what could have been, the glory days, etc. There are huge challenges that demand immediate resolution but we’ve got to think quickly but thoughtfully, not in a panic.

OK, vent over. Specifically to your question, there are a few problems:

1) We need to focus our online-revenue goals so EVERYONE in a media company can rally around them. I like that Scripps Interactive has launched a corporatewide program called “56.2012″ that aims to fund its current level of newsroom budget with NEW, online-only revenue by 2012. That’s a big-ass goal, requiring huge year-over-year revenue gains. But through some very impressive sales of Yahoo behavioral targeting nationwide, they’re way ahead of that goal. They’re making huge sales in markets bit and small and to businesses big and small, with four-fifths of those sales to NEW advertisers and with very high renewal rates. It’s early, but those are impressive numbers for online news companies.

The key is everyone at each paper (whether it’s Knoxville, Naples, Ventura or Redding or Memphis) knows what the challenge is, what the goal is and what the reward is. So you have news editors and reporters paying attention to online-sales opportunities for the first item because they can understand what is a simple concept (if we sell this, we can keep that). We need that kind of synergy at all of our newspapers.

2) As much good online journalism as there is, we’re still very print focused in our thinking and workflow, delivering the same news in the same way even though our audience has shifted dramatically. We’ve got to flatten newsroom workflows, determine what makes sense online (most of what’s in print doesn’t translate online yet, we continue to shovel it up there) and focus what resources we can online to creating/collecting/massaging the type of content that has true local impact that triggers an important emotional reaction every single page. And that’s key: Every page view has to trigger an emotional reaction – positive or negative – with a reader or we’re toast. If we can trigger feelings, preferably warm-to-hot ones (think Facebook, Twitter, your favorite sites/blogs), we can earn the trust and loyalty of our advertisers and audience.

3) Classified upsells are the crack cocaine of online news. That crack pipe is running out of life as it’s currently designed. We’ve got to overhaul our classified strategies to rethink pricing in a world of free so that we can continue to draw revenue and audience share. Craigslist works but it has a huge weakness: There’s a major lack of trust among buyers and sellers. Every negotiation is like a drug deal because you don’t know who on the other end. I think we can exploit that weakness (and in fact, Facebook is taking on that challenge, with its new Marketplace for people with real identities and online personas).

4) I think we as an industry are trying to do everything to pick up nickels and dimes in hopes of helping to feed the till. We need to focus on the important difference makers in terms of advertising and audience and stop doing the rest. One of the reasons we hired Alan to help with some online redesigns is I like his concept of limited but high-impact display advertising. One large ad per page of relevant advertising makes so much sense from a sales and readership perspective. Yet, we tend to pack 3, 5, 7 banners of run-of-site on every page, forcing readers to navigate a meteor storm to get to what they want. We need to approach our solutions from the perspective of an advertiser, and build relevant, trusted content around that. We currently do it the other way around.

Side note: Unfortunately, our initial number-crunching shows that those 3-7 banners will bring in more revenue than a single large display ad, but I think there’s lots of long-term upside there if we execute and completely rethinki our existing revenue expectations).

5) At many newspapers, print sales staffs typically do the bulk of our selling. But they don’t value online advertising like they do print advertising, and often see no problem cutting a deal for $5 CPM on a $20 rate. We’ve got to raise the value of those ads, whether it’s delivering more relevant targeted ads (like using Yahoo’s new ad-serving tools) or rethinking our sales models (pay per click vs. CPMs) or using print as an upsell when selling bundled packages to advertisers.

Mansfield: What will that be in two years?

Molen: We’ll all be much different companies in two years. I think our print products will be smaller or at least published with less frequency. I think we’ll be tackling more niche publications. And I think we’ll be more nimble in meeting audience demands in a rapidly changing marketplace.

But the real opportunities at the local level will involve sales to small businesses. That’s where the huge revenue opportunity is because the large percentage of those businesses aren’t current news company advertisers. The big challenge is the cost of sale is so much higher with small businesses because 1) many don’t yet “get” online so they require more hand-holding, 2) they don’t have much money to spend, and 3) we have horrible self-serve tools. We’ve got to have killer easy-to-use self-serve if we’re to reach those small-businesses and build low-margin but high volume revenue.