Screen Shot 2018-01-06 at 6.07.59 PMKinsey Wilson is a leading digital news executive. He has held top editorial and business positions at The New York Times, NPR and USA TODAY and played a key role in the digital transformation of their businesses. He is currently an executive with Automattic Inc., where for two years he served as President of WordPress.com, the company’s flagship commercial product, whose namesake powers over a third of the web. Since February 2020 he has headed Newspack, a grant-funded technology initiative he founded to help independent digital news organizations find a path to financial sustainability. More than 200 news sites have launched on the platform, with dozens more signed on.

At The Times, Wilson held dual masthead titles as Editor for Innovation and Strategy and Executive Vice President for Product and Technology. A member of the company’s executive committee, he led a team of more than 900 technologists, designers, product managers and editors responsible for guiding the company’s digital strategy and creating products that give expression to New York Times journalism, including its pioneering podcast, The Daily. He was closely involved in the development of the 2015 strategic manifesto, Our Path Forward, which set the stage for The Times’ enormous gains in subscribers and digital revenue.

Wilson joined The Times in February 2015 after six years in senior leadership positions at NPR. As EVP and Chief Content Officer he oversaw NPR’s worldwide news gathering, programming and digital operations. Under his leadership, NPR became known as a leading digital innovator, pioneering new forms of listening including NPR One, a popular one-touch digital listening platform. During that time, NPR’s journalism was recognized with major honors including duPont-Columbia, Peabody and Emmy awards.

Wilson began his journalism career at Chicago’s storied City News Bureau, covering cops and working the overnight desk. He was a newspaper reporter for 15 years, including seven at Newsday. He moved into executive leadership in 1995 at Congressional Quarterly, where he helped move the organization beyond its weekly magazine roots through the development of a lucrative legislative tracking service. Later, as Editor-in-Chief of usatoday.com and Executive Editor of USA TODAY he helped define the standards for online journalism through coverage of major news events including the 2000 presidential election, 9/11, the Iraq War and Hurricane Katrina.

Wilson is a member of the board of the Institute for Nonprofit News and the board of visitors for the Knight Journalism Fellowship at Stanford University. He also sits on the Board of Directors of the Berkshire Eagle in western Massachusetts and serves as advisor to Hark Audio, a podcast listening startup. He has been a visiting fellow at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University, a trustee of the Poynter Institute, and a member of the advisory board of The Telegraph in London. He was an early leader of the Online News Association and president of the organization in 2007. And he has served as a juror for the Pulitzer Prizes in journalism.

Wilson is a graduate of the University of Chicago and lives in Cambridge, MA.

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Newspack marks its 200th launch: Reflections on the value of shared services for the future of news


The Better Government Association of Chicago and Signal Cleveland are separated by 100 years of history yet share remarkably similar missions.

Founded in 1923 to promote voter participation, BGA is a Pulitzer Prize winning investigative force that teams with other Chicago newsrooms to shed light on government activities and hold public officials to account.

Signal is one of a growing number of digital-news startups combining traditional shoe-leather reporting with greater citizen participation in news gathering.

Both unveiled new websites in the past week on Newspack, an open-source publishing platform that in just three years has launched 200 independent publications to help publishers find a path to financial sustainability.

We’re proud of that accomplishment. But Newspack is part of a wider story of how local newsrooms are finding support from a growing network of organizations,   some for-profit, some not-for-profit. These groups spread the cost of technology, training and back-office services so that local news operations such as  BGA and Signal can focus on what they do best, namely reporting stories and connecting with readers and small businesses.

The model is familiar to anyone who has worked within larger newspaper chains or broadcast conglomerates, where technology, HR, legal, finance and other services were consolidated.

But unlike those commercial concerns, which often put corporate profit ahead of public service, the new crop of so-called “shared services” organizations are designed to promote independence and local control.

The logic is pretty straightforward. The technology required to operate any modern digital news site with best-of-breed advertising, audience development and reader-revenue systems, is not that different from what powers The New York Times or The Washington Post.

But small local sites lack the capacity to deploy systems of that sophistication. And even where they can tap into a larger system, the business expertise to operate them is often in short supply.

And local newsrooms have an equally urgent need to speed the development of digital journalism skills if they are to survive and thrive. That’s generally best done by organizations that can deliver technology, business operations and training at scale.

Richard Tofel, the former President of ProPublica and now a consultant, took issue with the growth of these “intermediaries,” as he termed them, in a pair of Substack posts last week. He questioned whether some of the philanthropic money flowing to these service organizations would be better directed to individual news organizations.

“[A] great deal of good work has been and will be done with such money by these and other fast-growing intermediaries,” Tofel wrote. “But I am convinced that more good might have been done by directing much of institutional foundations’ money instead to the most deserving news nonprofits…”

Read the full article on Newspack.pub

Poynter: How Newspack is working to crack the code on local news


Despite the pall that hangs over much of the news industry these days, there are real bright spots, even in smaller local markets where the effects of a now two-decade-long economic disruption have landed hard.

As Poynter’s Rick Edmonds noted back in May, the local news digital startup scene is surging and looks significantly more promising than it did just a few short years ago. From Santa Cruz, to Akron, to Vermont, to Memphis, there are beacons of hope everywhere on the horizon.

And yet, the question of how to build on these still nascent glimmers of success, fast enough to offset the continuing loss of thousands of reporting jobs in local communities, remains elusive.

It’s not for lack of trying. Over the past three years, Google, Facebook, The Knight Foundation and others have plowed more than a billion dollars into efforts to study, catalog, test and support local news initiatives with everything from training to direct financial subsidies.

It’s generated an immense body of work that, taken together, can provide an aspiring news entrepreneur with some of the basic building blocks of a sustainable model for local news.

But it can also feel overwhelming. And at the end of the day, no one has found a simple, repeatable formula. More often than not, success depends on the skills of the editor or publisher. Their vision, their business savvy, the talent they attract and perhaps most important, whether they grasp how to build a step at a time, without getting overextended or undershooting because they haven’t mastered every detail.

In more than 25 years of driving digital innovation across the news business, I’ve come to understand — often the hard way — that technology, timing and execution are far more important than the next new thing.

So what will it take to get the industry to a point where it can move with pace and confidence?

Two years ago, a small team I put together at Automattic, the parent company of WordPress.com, began building a publishing platform for small- and medium-sized local news organizations we called Newspack. (The project was jumpstarted with support from some of the aforementioned funders including Knight, The Lenfest Institute and the Google News Initiative, which has provided the lion’s share of the funding.)

The premise was simple: provide local news publishers with access to some of the same tools that larger organizations already enjoy at an affordable price so they don’t have to constantly struggle to figure out their own technology needs.

But the ambition was grander. With technology as a foundation, we hoped to incorporate the emerging business and editorial insight being developed across the industry to help local news organizations find a path to a more sustainable economic future.

Read the full article on Poynter.org

Addressing the crisis in local news


Efforts to address the crisis in local journalism have accelerated in recent years, but not fast enough to arrest a more than decade-long decline in news gathering capacity that many view as a profound threat to democracy

Google, Facebook, and Knight have committed close to $1 billion to the problem in just the last few years. Organizations ranging from the American Journalism Project, to ProPublica to Report for America have launched significant local news initiatives. 

But the question looming over all of these efforts is whether they can truly turn the tide. As Ann Marie Lapinski, former editor of the Chicago Tribune and head of the Nieman journalism fellowship at Harvard put it in an article headlined Journalism needs a Strategy: “A central challenge for the industry is whether innovation, new platforms, and alternative ownership structures can progress fast enough to make up for the loss of legacy journalism.”

The financial fallout from the global pandemic has given new urgency to the question as more and more newspapers face financial extinction and some 36,000 journalists have been laid off, furloughed or had their pay reduced in just the last six weeks.

Michael Luo, writing for the New Yorker, suggests that the economic shutdown created by the spread of COVID-19, has cast profound doubt on the future of ad-supported news and with it, the entire media ecosystem. “The question at this point,” he writes, “is how much of it can survive and how can it be rebuilt.”

There’s clearly no silver-bullet. Calls for Congressional relief may help in the short run, but will do nothing to alter the disruption of traditional media business models. And accelerating investment in local news startups runs up against the question of how quickly those ventures — crucially dependent on individual leadership and community connection — can actually scale.

There’s one area of potential promise, though, that has been largely overlooked, even as media organizations have begun to move from a dependence on ad revenue to a reliance on membership and subscription: namely the role that public radio could play in speeding the transformation of the local news ecosystem.

With more than 250 locally run news organizations across the country, a deeply entrenched public service mission and a long history of member support, public radio embodies many of the editorial and business-model attributes that local news startups aspire to build.

And with over $1.2 billion in annual revenue and a largely centralized digital infrastructure that can serve the entire system, it is both self-sustaining and scalable.

Among its core attributes:

This is not to say that public radio by itself is the answer. It suffers from some of the same institutional challenges as other legacy news media. Radio has been slow to be disrupted and innovation in public radio has been uneven. There are also cultural and governance issues that often get in the way of needed change.

Yet at a time when media models are shifting to a reliance on subscription and membership support; when local media is attempting to build relationships with foundations and major donors; when digital audio listening is on the ascent; and when not-for-profit models are challenging previously dominant commercial models, there is not only much to learn from public radio, but much to build upon.

The question is how to leverage those assets without getting bound up in some of the institutional obstacles to change and to do so with a speed and conviction that is suited to the urgency of the moment.

Simply throwing money at existing institutions is not likely to yield the best results, whether that money is directed to public radio, newspaper chains or even digital startups.

A more promising and scalable model would be to provide funding for business outcomes that compel collaboration across existing institutional boundaries — in this case by combining smartly-run local digital startups with innovative and well-managed public radio stations.

They are already aligned in important ways in terms of mission and business model. And they have the potential to bring complementary strengths to the table:

  • The best public radio stations have broad, general interest orientation; while the smartest startups tend to focus on selected areas of coverage where they can differentiate themselves and deliver journalism of distinction.
  • Digital startups tend to be savvier about exploiting new technology and reaching younger audiences. Where public radio still enjoys enormous reach, allowing it to amplify its reporting.
  • Both, at this stage, tend to have similarly sized reporting staffs.
  • Public radio enjoys wide public support, but from an aging listener base. Digital startups are still in a growth phase, need runway, but have an opportunity to build loyalty and reach among younger, more diverse audiences. 

How would this best be undertaken? I recommend a three-pronged approach:

  1. Rapid research: Examine the most promising models that have been pursued to date where the advantages of legacy and digital development have been combined:

Start by looking at the merger of digital startups and public radio stations in New York, Philadelphia, Denver and Los Angeles and assess what’s worked and what hasn’t. This is already underway under the auspices of the Public Media Merger Project, funded with support from Google News Initiative and led by Eizabeth Hansen. First findings due in June.

  1. Focused experimentation: Fund a series of directed experiments with requirements that support desired outcomes, not merely the preservation of institutional players (whether legacy or startup).

Identify, in consultation with public radio, the American Journalism Project, INN and others, communities where there are promising public radio and other locally owned media that, with appropriate investment, could combine their efforts. Or if no digital startup is present, could accelerate the transformation of local public radio.

  1. Capital formation: Begin to build a coalition of potential funding partners outside the usual media-funding circles who see this as essential to the future of democracy.

Community foundations have begun to see the financial collapse of journalism as a threat to democracy and to the broader civic fabric of their communities. But they struggle to know where to place their bets. This could serve as a way to leverage additional investment and give the best models more runway — appealing to the historic philanthropic support that public radio has enjoyed while extending it to a deeper support for journalism in the interest of democracy.

This approach alone will hardly answer the future of local media. But by building on one of the strongest remaining pillars in the local news ecosystem and providing incentives to combine with the most forward looking digital players, it could ensure both that the legacy of publicly funded media is not squandered and that emergence of a more modern and sustainable set of local media institutions is accelerated.

NiemanLab on Newspack: A toolkit for local newsrooms


Around two-thirds of smaller and medium-sized publishers use WordPress as their CMS (that’s content management system for the newbies) — but how many publishers can say they’ve developed a sustainable business model?

The optimistic answer: More in 2019 (the realistic answer: unclear), or at least they’ll get closer to cobbling it together.

WordPress.com is launching a new toolkit, called Newspack, for small and mid-sized publishers to streamline their technical decisions — and make choices that add to the potential of finagling a business model. Kinsey Wilson, former digital guru at NPR and The New York Times and now WordPress.com’s president, is leading the initiative, working with the News Revenue Hub and Spirited Media as development partners…

“It’s not simply a CMS for a newsroom,” Wilson said, “but a full business system that enables publishing and monetization at the same time.”

Read the full story at NiemanLab.org

For one-time NPR and NYT digital chief, a new adventure: WordPress


When Kinsey Wilson was leading digital transformation at USA Today 15 years ago, WordPress was emerging from a single bit of code that helped pretty up typography for casual writing.

Since then, Wilson went on to spearhead digital change at NPR and at the New York Times, and WordPress became the world’s biggest self-hosted blogging tool, powering 29 percent of all sites on the web.

This morning, Automattic Inc., announced that Wilson would become president of its flagship commercial venture, the WordPress.com publishing platform. That effort integrates social and ad tools for some of the leading digital publishers.

Read the full interview


First published on NiemanLab as part of their 2018 predictions for journalism.

“Either Facebook and Google are platforms, in which case they need to manage their infrastructure in a way that allows independent journalism to thrive. Or they are publishers, in which case they need to provide direct financial support for the journalism their platforms deliver.”


With a hat-tip (or apologies) to Axios and Mike Allen, who have reinvented the email newsletter and made it a must-read…

1 Big Thing: The next big battle with the platforms

As more and more news organizations turn to paid subscriptions to offset dwindling digital ad revenue, the next big issue they’ll confront is who controls the customer: publishers or platforms. Specifically, who determines the pricing, bundling, and fulfillment of subscription payments in an aggregated news environment.

Why it matters: Depending on how it plays out, the platforms could lend added muscle to efforts to find a sustainable business model for digital news and information. Or they could rob editorial enterprises of one of the last remaining points of economic leverage, namely their trusted relationship with the reader.

To their credit, Google and Facebook are in the early stages of testing how they might support publishers’ subscription models.

So what’s the rub? Digital subscription and membership models have yet to prove themselves as an industry-wide solution. A handful of big publishers (and several smaller niche publishers) have seen real success. But most have so far struggled to generate meaningful revenue.

In a news-feed environment where readers encounter a mix of free and paywalled content, there is a real question whether they’ll be willing subscribe to a multitude of different publications. If they don’t, it’s almost inevitable that the platforms will urge publishers to blend and bundle multiple titles into a single coherent subscription package.

And publishers will find themselves with a Hobson’s choice: Try to drive standalone subscriptions in a crowded marketplace, where only a few thrive. Or give in to bundling and turn over to the platforms their relationship with the reader in return for fractional shares of the bundled price. Neither outcome is likely to be satisfying or sustainable.

Independent, fact-based news gathering is the foundation of an informed society. In disrupting the business model for news, Facebook and Google have done so without replacing the essential news gathering on which democracy depends. (Indeed, to their chagrin, the platforms have lately become purveyors of an alarming amount of misinformation.) In that environment, the question of their obligation to news publishers, to journalism, and to society looms large. The solution is fairly simple, if not easily achieved.

Be smart: Either Facebook and Google are platforms, in which case they need to manage their infrastructure in a way that allows independent journalism to thrive. Or they are publishers, in which case they need to provide direct financial support for the journalism their platforms deliver.

Simply put, that either means providing tools for publishers to manage their business on the platforms (via APIs and direct ownership of the customer). Or it means paying publishers for their content.

Google has taken an important first step in giving publishers control over how many stories can be viewed for free when readers click through from search.

But it is merely the first step in a larger conversation over control of the customer that will unfold in the year ahead.

Kinsey Wilson is a digital executive with The New York Times

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