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The Vision Thing and the Crowd Thing

20 Jul

I was reading Jeff Jarvis’ post reacting to the news that BusinessWeek is up for sale, and it got me thinking.  It seems to me that The News Media have two editorial/journalistic paths to address what the Web hath wrought:

1) The Vision Thing — Have an editorial vision and express it.  Deliver great journalistic product. Build community around “fans” of that vision. See The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic and many, many independent news blogs.

2) The Crowd Thing — Have a brand that attracts an audience.  Have a brand that attracts and engages those readers — and encourages them to contribute. Deliver content that drives community reaction and builds audience.

The Vision focused media will need to see getting people to pay for their content as their primary source of revenue.

The Crowd focused  media will need to view delivering an audience to advertisers as their primary source of revenue, whether that is through links and clicks, affiliate relationships or advertising.

The Vision folks will reduce costs by not being over concerned with perfect  alignment with their readers, as Stephen Baker recounts the typical editorial process at BusinessWeek.   They will create ways to listen to readers, and for readers to interact with each other and the editorial staff, so that editorial is inherently in touch with readers, readers feel “a part of something.  And the product may challenge and annoy the readers as well.

The Crowd folks will play the vital role of filtering the news to meet the perceived interests of their audience. They will give up a measure of control to the audience itself — putting journalistic effort behind what interests the crowd and and bringing editorial standards to crowd-sourced reporting.

Newspapers cling to a Vision while dipping their toes into the chilly waters of the Crowd.  Media with a Vision risk trying to hard to activate a Crowd that would prefer to be engaged.

And since these days, every organization is a media organization — what path will your company take — will you drive your Vision, or run with the Crowd?

How to Be the Media

22 Jun

“We are the media” is a common Web 2.0 rallying cry. The upshot — every business needs to think about itself as if it were a multimedia producer with a goal of generating attention, awareness, interest and action — or sales for the business.

Adam Singer talks about this on the Top Rank Blog in the context of an organization’s agility.  His point is that it’s vital to find ways to keep contributing fresh content to the web — it impacts search engine results, improves digital PR, meets growing consumer demands and has a host of other benefits.

But what does it mean to think like the media? Or, to put it another way, how do the media think, and how can thinking like the media improve marketing and corporate positioning?

Here’s my list, and I’d welcome input from actual media folks:

1. Find stories and tell stories. The hallmark of journalism is the ability of reporters to observe, ask questions and bring people’s stories to life.  I’ve had the opportunity to play reporter for a client’s internal newsletter, and the results have been rewarding — I talk to their people and let them tell their stories — about successes and challenges and their own interests and concerns. The results are rich stories that inspire other employees to learn, strive, collaborate, innovate and sell.  These stories may well find their well to external audiences and I hope they do — there’s value in these stories — in themselves and in the conversations and ideas they can generate for the company.

2.  They generate attention. Being the media isn’t “art for art’s sake” — tbey want people to read, and view and interact with them.  From a business standpoint, we’re talking about creating content that will interest and excite your constituents — customers, prospects, partners, investors, employees, and community. Perhaps more importantly, it will encourage them to generate conversation…to whit…

3. They spur conversation..and word of mouth…and keep it going. The media want to make a difference in the lives of their audience.  And, besides the satisfaction they get form this, they want more people to consume what it creates, so that they get more subscribers, can charge more for ads and make more money.  So when The Atlantic comes out with a new cover story on “what makes people happy”, they get that story out influencers, they blog about it and they do everything they can to make sure people know that they have something exclusive, unique and special.

4. They plan ahead. The trade media are good at this.  They create ‘editorial calendars’ each year.  They lay out milestones — trade shows, seasonal events, conferences, special issues.  Then they tell people what’s coming, so advertisers can advertise and companies can participate. Can businesses to the same?  Sure — there are a lot of company events you can plan for — product launches, prime selling seasons, key trade shows, quarterly earnings — and have a content strategy for each.

5.  They listen…and react. Or at least they should be.  New media companies do. They are watching web analytics to see what stories are doing well … they’re even promoting stories by showing their site users what articles are most popular and most emailed, and offering them tools for sharing stories. They are opening their content to conversation — sometimes moderating, sometimes not — and participating in ways that keep it going. And they’re scanning the rest of the web to create links and to be sure they know where their story is going, so they can react quickly to changes.

This discipline is particularly critical in a crisis.  The question:  are you listening, and do you have the tools and skills necessary to react…quickly…in a crisis.

6. They meet their customers where they are. You want to roll your eyes when you see your daily newspaper editors talking about Twitter — it sounds like Grandpa talking about “the hippety hop music”.  But the truth is that it’s a sign that they’re paying attention to where their audience is — or is going.  Are you?

7. They think about their audience constantly, and communicate every day. Here’s where daily media and new media are strongest. Every morning, your daily newspaper or TV news organziation holds a meeting. They talk about what they’re seeing out in the world…what’s happening…what’s interesting…what’s news.  Do you do that for your organization?  Every day, every minute your online presence is saying something to your constituents.  Is what you said yesterday relevant today?  Is what you’re saying today moving people?  Are you getting the reaction you want?

The tools are there — from blogs to Twitter to YouTube to Flickr to iTunes your own website and email lists.  What’s on your channel today?

Any media folks want to add a comment…What can we learn from you?

Readings About Newspapers

16 Jan

Some interesting things I read about  newspaper business lately. 

James Surowiecki writes in the New Yorker  that

The peculiar fact about the current crisis is that even as big papers have become less profitable they’ve arguably become more popular. The blogosphere, much of which piggybacks on traditional journalism’s content, has magnified the reach of newspapers, and although papers now face far more scrutiny, this is a kind of backhanded compliment to their continued relevance. 

Usually, he says, when an industry runs into trouble, “it’s because people are abandoning its products.” 

But people don’t use the Times less than they did a decade ago. They use it more. The difference is that today they don’t have to pay for it. The real problem for newspapers, in other words, isn’t the Internet; it’s us. We want access to everything, we want it now, and we want it for free. That’s a consumer’s dream, but eventually it’s going to collide with reality: if newspapers’ profits vanish, so will their product.

David Brauer of MinnPost covers the media and has been must-read for tracking local media layoffs.  Recently, he reported about the concessions being asked by the StarTribune’s owners of its blue collar union.

I’ve written a bunch about the newsroom cuts, but it seems pretty clear the Strib sees bigger savings whacking anyone whose job is tied solely to the physical paper. The Teamsters are being asked to take more sizable reductions, and have resisted more fiercely; for example, they rejected summertime concessions the newsroom accepted.

Here’s a valuable Q&A on the StarTribune’s bankruptcy filling.

Finally (for now), The Atlantic’s Michael Hirschorn weighs in on a potential bankruptcy filing for the New York Times, possibly this spring.  He cites the move toward lifestyle fluff that started in the 1970s as a prime contributor to the erosion of a great journalism brand.

Under the guise of “service,” The Times has been on a steady march toward temporarily profitable lifestyle fluff. Escapes! Styles! T magazine(s)! For a time, this fluff helped underwrite the foreign bureaus, enterprise reporting, and endless five-part Pulitzer Prize aspirants. But it has gradually hollowed out journalism’s brand, by making the newspaper feel disposable. The fluff is more fun to read than the loss-leading reports about starvation in Sudan, but it isn’t the sort of thing you miss when it’s gone. Not many people would get misty-eyed over the closure of, say, “Thursday Styles,” fascinating as its weekly shopping deconstructions often are.

And in case you have any loose change around, Hirschorn predicts that the New York Times might, theoretically, be available for as little as $1 billion.

Re-thinking the News, Part 3

7 Jan

Adam Singer left an excellent response on my previous post.  He wrote, in part:

“I wouldn’t necessarily call it random. Take FriendFeed, for instance. If you follow smart people, you’ll get smart links. Follow people who are into LOLcats and you’ll get a bunch of randomness that may or may not add value.

“Not saying there is anything wrong with LOLcats, but you see what I’m saying. You can piece together your own editorial team made up of everyone from scientists to marketing people to botanists. In essence, as professionals we are defining the information we find valuable. That’s the future.”

Which all sounds very cool. But (if I’m warping the Meatball Sundae metaphor correctly) isn’t this “editorial team”, however carefully chosen, serving up the whip topping on the much more expensive and time-consuming work of professional reporters writing stories, and the editors and organizations who confer credibility on what these reporters report?

Here’s the thing:  We need high-quality professional news organizations. We need journalists. We need the news organizations that, till recently, resided most resolutely at daily newspapers.  

The problem is that they believe we need them.

The daily newspaper is a public service masquerading as a business masquerading as a public service. As a service, daily news reporters take it as their duty to define and report and agenda set and comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable and maybe educate, inform and entertain while they’re doing so. As a business, the news is an enticement that fills the spaces between the ads.  As a service, daily newspapers provide a vital service to democracy, challenging government excess and empowering the public with knowledge.  As a business, the newspaper delivers potential customers with folks who have something to sell. 

Back in journalism school, we talked about the business and journalism sides of a news organization as like church and state — separated by something as powerful as the Constitution, no less. But when the proliferation of media challenges whether the daily newspaper is necessary in its current form, it brings the business side back into the news room. 

And when business looks closely today, you see that the service of journalism in a daily newspaper is completely separate from what it sells. For newspapers, this is no longer a viable business model.  For anyone else, it’s questionable.  

I’m far more interested in saving news organizations and jouralism than I am newspapers. The question is, how can you maintain — fund — vital, vibrant local news organizations?  I don’t know the answer — plenty of smart folks have spent far more time on this issue … But, if I were trying to market a newspaper today, I’d start rethinking the newspaper like this: 

First, I’d embrace the idea of “The News Paper.” Call it “rebranding” if you must.  Pitch the paper as representing the unique point of view of a smart, dedicated, team of professional journalists focused on delivering “The News” in our community.  It’s not about expressing opinions — it’s about expressing a point of view.  The News Paper offers a unique perspective on what’s important today for our community — whether that’s local or around the world — and the people, trends and institutions who shape that community — for good or ill.  Stop pretending to be objective, stop acting like reading the newspaper is the right thing for responsible citizens to do, and stop apologizing for printing it on paper by chasing every new technology for reading the news.  Embrace the idea that you, as a team of journalists, are in the business of creating a news product that people want.

Then, raise prices. If it’s worth producing, people can pay for it. Think about increasing prices for corporate subscriptions as well, or making deals for businesses in to pay increased but reasonable prices to share the newspaper in public places. Yeah, you’d lose some readers, but you’re running a business here. If businesses don’t see you as a customer deliver vehicle, they are not advertising. If they aren’t advertising and they’re not buying the product you’re producing, where does that leave you? Exactly where you are today…

Open up the news process in a big way.  Online, share transcripts and post audio of interviews. Let readers in on the decision-making process of what becomes the news — not just by writing articles about it, but by, say, streaming the editorial meeting in video, or running a daily morning chat with interested readers.  

Bring in more voices.  Take advantage of infinite space online to offer a forum to a wide range of community voices — not just the unmoderated rabble of news article forums but articles and blogs and vlogs chosen by the smart folks who run the paper. 

Rethink format and frequency. What would readers choose if the the newspaper embraced high-speed on-demand digital printing? Could we print the paper we want at a local kiosk?  Would some StarTribune readers, for example, cut out Variety and International news, because they get their entertainment and international news elsewhere? Or would they appreciate the local editors’ choices as part of their chosen editorial team?  

I wouldn’t offer “just the news we want” … I’d offer the the chance to read our great product on a variety of topics.

And, maybe just start over.  What if, as a local newspaper business executive, you seeded a brand new news organization.  One that could restart the business of covering the community from the ground up. Give them a year to create their own business model, one that embraced the web and its economies as well as journalism and its professional traditions. What would they create? Could they sell it?

The result, I think, would be more investigative journalism, an organization more engaged with its community … and, as a result, one that is more valuable to its community.

Your turn!

Next up:  A few links to what I’ve been reading on the subject of late…

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