TL;DR: The Newspack team brought participating publishers together for the first time last November for a two-day deep dive on the current capabilities and future vision for Newspack. Our chief correspondent, Steve Beatty, wrote an exhaustive account of the meeting, which is a great primer for anyone seriously considering switching to Newspack.
Journalists from 28 small or medium-sized newsrooms from seven countries came together recently in St. Petersburg, Fla., for the first Newspack Conference, engaging with team developers, funders and — most importantly — each other.
It’s the first of what we hope will be a long line of Newspack conferences designed to build an active, involved community across newsrooms that will continuously help our new platform evolve.
About 30 of us gathered informally the night of Nov. 18 at Bacchus St. Petersburg for adult beverages and a chance to meet each other without name tags. It made for a more comfortable start the next morning for the two-day conference at The Poynter Institute for Media Studies, a world-renowned training center for journalists.
HOW WE GOT HERE
WordPress.com President @kinseywilson opened the event with a keynote speech that started by taking the audience of 45 visiting journalists through the origin story of Newspack and how the platform has been developed in cooperation with the original 11 charter publications. He said he knew his team could put together the kind of content-management system he and funders had in mind, but he wasn’t certain he could drive adoption to great number of newsrooms.
“Your presence here today is the early proof that there’s really strong interest in this and that we have the potential to scale this up to hundreds of organizations,” Wilson said. “If we can do that, I think we can all collectively benefit.”
- Conference agenda
- Newspack team lead Jefferson Rabb’s presentation
- Report on publisher needs and pain points by News Revenue Hub
- Attendee list
- Demo of homepage posts block
He pointed out that WordPress.com will be able to share exclusive, anonymized benchmarking information with the publishers once they’re on a common platform, so they can gain a sense of how well they’re performing against their peers. Further, functionality suggested by one newsroom can be made easily available to all newsrooms, and specific code can be shared among newsrooms.
“That’s always been the theory and objective of open-source (software) but the reality has been that it’s very difficult to do that kind of sharing without some kind of central hub to coordinate and help manage that,” Wilson said.
The overarching goal of Newspack, in addition to being an easy-to-use and affordable platform, is that it reflects and incorporates the best practices of journalism — and the business of journalism, he said. The Newspack team will be constantly building out the tools that publishers need to build a sustainable publication in their communities.
LEARNING FROM PUBLISHERS
Wilson then detailed some of the research undertaken by the News Revenue Hub that identified the pain points publishers had with their CMS, whether WordPress or otherwise.That study involved in-depth interviews and visits with several publishers, as well as a written survey of hundreds of others. One happy finding was that two-thirds of the news organizations are already using WordPress in one form or another.
One main problem publishers identified is layout homepages and other “landing” pages. WordPress is good for publishing, but traditionally not very good for arranging things on the page. On the business side, publishers were frustrated because WordPress was never designed to support their digital business models.
But because open-source developers have created tens of thousands of plugins, most concerns have been addressed at some point. It’s the job of the Newspack team to find the right solutions and ensure they work seamlessly and with the highest level of performance.
Overall, Wilson explained, the goal wasn’t to build to the specific needs of the initial charter newsrooms. It was to capture industry best practices and make sure we were applying them in a way that would work for the widest possible group of publishers. The second cohort of 34 pilot newsrooms will further identify and refine those best practices.
In working to balance a high level of CMS functionality with low cost, Wilson said the Newspack team won’t be able to cater to specific design requests from each participating publisher, as a custom development house would. But he said the developers will listen to requests and add widely sought functionality. (In fact, developers took home a lot of good suggestions from working with the publishers at the conference).
The result should free up resources for newsrooms.
“Ideally you don’t need a developer in house,” Wilson said. “An editor can do it.”
For newsrooms with developers already on staff, their time can then be better spent adding value to the journalism with engaging approaches, not simply maintaining and rearranging a website.
Wilson closed by addressing the unusual situation of a for-profit company like WordPress.com getting grant money from foundations and corporations to finance development and initial deployment.
A PATH TO SUSTAINABILITY FOR NEWSPACK
He said Newspack is not expected to be a major revenue generator for Automattic, but that foundations supported the concept and wanted to give the company enough runway to get established and reach sustainability. Wilson said a client base of about 200 newsrooms likely would ensure the continued development of Newspack with the team in its current form. He said Newspack is well positioned to reach that in three years.
More than 500 newsrooms worldwide applied to be part of the two rounds of charter newsrooms helping with the platform’s development.
He said WordPress.com is motivated to be good stewards of the program and keep costs reasonable because, as an open-source project, anyone can pick up the code off of GitHub and set up their own business managing Newspack installations.
He said he expects publishers are most likely to trust the team that built and will maintain Newspack, and that they’ll benefit tremendously from the community it is fostering.
The first year of development of Newspack is being funded by Google, the Lenfest Institute, ConsenSys, and the Knight Foundation, and representatives from three of those were on hand to discuss what they expect from the project
Jim Albrecht holds the title of Director of Product Management, News Ecosystems at the Google News Initiative. He said Google 15 years ago was just a little startup in Silicon Valley and generally shared the tech view there that “information wants to be free,” in all senses of the word.
Many entrepreneurs, in news and elsewhere, thought ad revenue would make that possible. They chased a business model built around bringing in massive numbers of readers to serve them ads, even as the value of those ads was steadily declining. In the end, sites were left with clickbait ploys they hoped would go viral, but the effort yielded little money. Worse, the gimmicks used to trick readers and search engines ended up destroying customer loyalty.
“It probably took longer than it should have for most news organizations to realize that reader revenue, for instance, was a really important thing,” Albrecht said. “Not just because of the money, but because it refocused the discipline of building a brand on the fact that you really have to make something that connects with the customer in a durable way.”
Newspack helps newsrooms in these areas by offering an easy-to-deploy tool as well as tools for reader engagement, such as integrations with newsletter providers.
He said Google has a responsibility to make sure it supports the health of the news ecosystem, and in that spirit, he chose to support Newspack. Beyond Newspack, he said when considering new features at Google, they ask themselves: “What are the things we can build and do to shape the health of the ecosystem?”
Albrecht recalled a conversation several years ago with Mitch Gelman, then the vice president of product at Gannett. They were at a journalism gathering where people were talking about the content-management systems they were designing.
“Think about all the money that the people in this room are spending on CMS,” he remembered Gelman saying. “I mean, we can build a CMS that can put you on the moon for this kind of money.”
That’s why he was immediately interested when he was approached by Wilson about the idea that became Newspack. And he said it’s important that Google not try to fix the problem itself, but that the stakeholders in the local-news ecosystem get involved in building a common CMS to maximize its use and adoption.
WHO LOVES THEIR CMS?
Paul Cheung is a program officer focusing on technology at the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Knight has long supported digital innovation for local news and information. This year, it committed $300 million over three years to local news initiatives.
Before taking his current job, he had been in four major newsrooms in his career, and he was plainspoken about the general view of content-management systems:
“There’s never a CMS that anyone loves, right? That’s a fact,” he said. “The choice really comes down to which is least painful.”
Like Albrecht, Cheung said he’d seen too many newsrooms blowing money creating their content-management systems.
“What I’ve been noticing over the years is a lot of publishers are spending an enormous amount of time to figure out what they need to build and then they end up overbuilding,” he said. “And you spend a lot of your precious dollars integrating this system that will only work for a couple of years, at best. Then you have to reinvest again and again. And that’s just not sustainable.”
He said Knight hopes that Newspack will provide a common, stable platform that will be constantly evolving and updated without much effort by newsrooms. Their funding was guided, in part, by asking: “What system presents the least barrier for journalists, who might not be technologists, to get on board with a system and to be able to make smart choices?”
For him, Newspack is a way for publishers to focus on journalism and make smart choices about features you want while avoiding the technological hamster wheel.
Ken Herts is the Chief Operating Officer and Director of Operations at The Lenfest Institute for Journalism in Philadelphia, the organization that owns the Philadelphia Inquirer and philly.com.
“Our role, as we understand it, is to find sustainable business models for quality journalism,” he said. “We want to help small news organizations survive and thrive.”
He said Lenfest was attracted to the idea of an easy-to-use CMS with built in tools for raising money.
Herts said beyond the obvious metrics of revenue, sustainability and growth, the effectiveness of Newspack could also be measured by civic engagement, or how many professional journalists are working at each outlet using the platform and contributing to the service of democracy.
Cheung likewise said Knight would measure success on revenue and the conversion rate of readers to paying supporters. He said he also wants to measure the money newsrooms now spend on technology compared to after relaunching with Newspack.
Albrecht said Google would see Newspack as a success if, in two years, the newsrooms that start off with Newspack are proportionally stronger compared with those who don’t.
In response to an audience question about Google pulling ad revenue away from small publishers, he said the amount of money Google makes from local news content is de minimus.
He said unlike how a search for skiing equipment results in a number of skiing-related ads on the results page, news stories will rarely have any ads. He said that a search for “Trump impeachment,” for instance, isn’t likely to match the criteria set by any advertisers.
“We have the same problem you do,” he said. “When it comes to news content, nobody wants to buy that on Google.”
Panel moderator Jim Brady invited each of the panelists to finish the thought, “When you heard about the project, you said, ‘Sounds good, but…’ ”
Cheung said publishers should have a Plan B if things go bad with Newspack. He said it’s easy for Knight to underwrite the costs of publishers joining Newspack; it’s not so easy to help dozens of publishers migrate elsewhere.
He offered advice to those in the audience: “You need to figure out how to get out gracefully if you absolutely hate Newspack.”
Albrecht said he had two concerns. One is that a platform built to serve many newsrooms runs the risk of becoming too full of choices, eventually diluting the effectiveness of having a tightly focused platform.
The second is what would happen if Automattic loses interest in the project, or if there’s “regime change” and Wilson isn’t there to advocate for his project. He said the open-source nature of Newspack is a hedge against the company shuffling off or abandoning the project, because others could pick it up.
Herts was more blunt. “Our biggest fear is that it won’t work. But we think this is a really good bet. The team is good, and the fact that there’s this many people in the room today is really encouraging.”
GRANT APPLICATIONS FOR PUBLISHERS ON THE HORIZON
Two audience questions were on the subject of cost. One was about the possibility of grant subsidies underwriting the monthly costs of Newspack after Feb. 29, when the development period ends. The other was whether Newspack considered a lower price point so subsidies wouldn’t be needed.
The monthly price for Newspack will be $1,000 for companies with gross revenue under $500,000, and $2,000 a month for those with higher revenues.
Cheung said he’s working on a grant to support the adoption of publishing systems that can meet the business needs of non-profit and local publishers to increase revenue, membership and audience engagement. The grant can cover a variety of solutions which could include Newspack, as well as migration to other systems, licensing fees or training. He said he couldn’t discuss much more at this point, but that publishers should be on the lookout for when applications to that one-time grant are announced.
Albrecht said he and Wilson discussed the cost at length.
“The price was actually a thing we were concerned about as a funder,” he said, “because we wanted to make sure it was actually serving our funding goals, which was to make a system that was cheap enough that the kind of publishers we were thinking about would benefit from it.
“Kinsey rightfully was concerned that this not be a thing Automattic loses interest in over time. He was thinking, ‘Where’s the price point where I’m going to be able to make this sustainable,’ so he didn’t have this eternal argument with his CEO around ‘Are we just just wasting money doing this?’
“His struggle is to find the price point with the right number of customers where this becomes at least a break-even proposition.
Discussions will likely be ongoing among Automattic and the funders to ensure that the benefit of Newspack gets as widely distributed as possible, Albrecht said.
He said publishers should look closely at what they’re paying now for technology, not just in hosting, but also staff time and contracted developer costs, not to mention what an initial site redesign might cost.
Cheung chimed in to close out the panel:
“Your business is growing. How much of that is for technology? If your business is important to you, you have to invest in technology. It’s not a one-time cost.”
QUESTIONS THAT CAME UP OVER THE COURSE OF THE CONFERENCE
What existing technology costs could presumably go away with Newspack?
The Newspack subscription covers hosting, security, backups, a dedicated account manager and 24/7 customer support by text, along with other basic infrastructure costs. Newspack reduces or eliminates the need for internal development resources or contract dev resources. Newspack will provide SEO support through Yoast and advanced Google Analytics through Automattic’s Google 360 license. Newpack will come with premium versions of Jetpack and WooCommerce features. Group rates for selected third-party services are being negotiated.
Is there any flexibility on the pricing model and/or how prices are derived?
Not at the moment. We are trying to strike a realistic balance between keeping the cost of the service under 5 percent of the news organization’s total expense and providing sufficient support that we can realistically meet the expectations of customers. Automattic expects to raise and contribute $10 million in philanthropic support to Newspack over the first three years.
How will we handle companies with multiple sites?
We’re open to negotiating a bulk rate for multiple sites
Will there be any SMS capabilities?
We’re not building any yet, but open to any specific ideas and implementations.
What’s known about Newspack’s SEO performance and associated traffic boost?
The three launched sites are all achieving SEO scores of 90+ when tested with Lighthouse.
How do we handle features that deviate from AMP?
One of three ways: 1) We can work with the vendor to see if we can make it AMP-compatible; 2) we can see if there’s another existing option; 3) if there’s no other solution, we can see it we can replicate the feature in an AMP-compatible way.
What enhancements to media-management tools are in the works?
None, we’re using the existing tool set.
Can we get more clarity on what the full feature list is?
Hard to define a feature set, since Newspack is really a combination of Newspack features, Gutenberg features plus the features of all the plugins associated with Newspack. Easier to use the tool and see what’s there than to provide a defined feature list.
Can content be shared within Newspack cohort sites?
Not yet, but happy to discuss.
What trust features will be built into Newspack?
We’re talking to The Trust Project out of Santa Clara University, and it seems likely we’ll partner with them to embed some trust features into Newspack.
Will there be support for non-English speakers?
We don’t have any planned for the time being.
Will there be multiple authoring tools?
Yes, similar to Gutenberg.
Can commenting (or other features) be walled off for a specific audience, i.e. members?
Will Newspack ingest feeds, and can it also produce them for the cohort sites?
WordPress’ default RSS feeds will still be available.
Will there be a secure contact method for those who want to provide info anonymously?
There are proven tools that already do this, and we think it’s smarter to use those than try and match those tools ourselves.
What are the revenue tools you see being included in Newspack?
Many. Ads, membership, paywalls will all be supported, and we’re working on some new revenue lines as well.
What engagement tools will be in Newspack and what traffic impact will they have?
There will be many engagement tools, but we’re wary of predicting any kind of performance, since we can provide the tools, but how effectively they are used really depends on the publisher. So performance will vary, which is why we prefer to benchmark results across the cohort rather than make concrete predictions.
Can you share the list of currently blessed plugins?
You can find that list on this document.
What are the timelines? What happens when? Will there be a road map of development phases?
You’ll all be hearing from Phil over the next few weeks, and he’ll lay out the details here.
How will clients make feature requests or suggestions?
In the initial pre-launch process, straight to Phil, where he’ll work with you on finding the right solution or feed directly into the product team.
Is there a plan for best practices to be curated and shared?
Yes, but we’re working on the best way to do this.
Will there be a user manual?
Again, because Newspack is a combination of so many different systems and plug-ins, this would be a massive effort and would not provide value.
Will there be a pre-migration checklist for new cohort sites?
Phil will walk you through this.
Who will the benchmarking information we provide be shared with?
Nothing site-specific will be provided to anyone outside the project. The benchmarking will allow Newspack sites to compare relative performance, and isn’t designed for anything external.
Will the cohort have KPIs that we’d be required to report back to WordPress.com?
No, but we have a number metrics we’d like to follow, if you’re willing, to help us judge the success of Newspack and make improvements where necessary. Phil is discussing these with each newsroom.
How would clients be able to port to a new platform if Newspack doesn’t work out?
Because Newspack is built on WordPress, moving to another WordPress site would be relatively easy. If you’re moving outside of WP, it depends on what system you’d be moving to.
What level of support can we expect as the number of participating sites increases?
Basic support will be provided by the broader WordPress.com support team, which is massive. So we would not expect support to be an issue. All Newspack sites will have an account manager as well.
Without a service-level agreement, or SLA, how can we be sure to get support in a timely fashion?
We’re looking into this because we know the lack of an SLA has some sites concerned.
How would we hold WP accountable if support isn’t sufficient?
This is connected to the SLA question above.
What will the emergency support be from WP?
This is connected to the SLA question above.