The surest sign that the golden age of newspapers is over is that politicians, so often the target of their wrath, have begun feel sorry for them. Indeed, it is truly a shocking indictment of the newspaper industry that the general public are prepared to spend more on their morning coffee than actually buy a newspaper.
So, here we go with twenty ideas, issues and/or factors that could help transform your common-or-garden variety newspaper company into a news media company:-
The first step in solving a problem is actually realising that you have one. A mythology surrounds newspapers – that the news needs newspapers and that without them it’s not news. The brutal truth, however, is that no medium has ever survived the indifference of 25-year-olds and we are heading for a post-newspaper society. All the projections indicate that publishers pursuing a business-as-usual model will find their operations unsustainable sooner rather than later.
Check out Antonia Senior’s article on how the media is defined by two tribes, but there is only going to be one winner. Tom Foremski (@tomforemski) has another fine piece here on how disruptive media will continue to claim jobs in the newspaper industry while the bosses of several notable Irish media organisations have their say on the future of journalism. Meanwhile PricewaterhouseCoopers’s Bartley O’Connor argues that the media is at a crossroads and it is time to embrace digital or die.
The challenge now is to produce something that people can’t get for free, but that they are willing to pay for or, alternatively, that advertisers are willing to sponsor. Essentially the challenge is to produce something someone will think is worth paying for.
The newspaper companies that will survive will not consider themselves newspaper companies. Check out the Dallas Morning News publisher’s letter to his staff to mark the newspaper’s 125th anniversary: “we’re no longer a newspaper company. We’re a news media company. The newspaper is just one way we package and distribute the content we publish”. Publisher Larry Kramer echoed those sentiments last week: “we are trying to think of USA Today not as a newspaper, but as a news company”.
News professionals have got to acknowledge the fact that inconvenience is killing newspapers or they face the prospect of the daily paper going the way of the milkman. Here’s an interesting piece from Jordan Weissmann (@JHWeissmann) on why pornography and journalism have the same problem i.e. nobody wants to pay for their products.
In actual fact we are entering a golden age for journalism. In our back packs, as David Carr (@carr2n) suggests, we have more journalistic firepower than the entire newsroom of thirty-forty years ago. And, the model that will save the journalism we all love so dearly is such open-mindedness. The internet and social media are an opportunity, not a threat, to journalism.
The long-term survival of the traditional media companies will depend on their ability to create products and services to attract and delight consumers and advertisers. And, what emerges from the rubble of the newspaper industry will be a fresh, vibrant and very different kind of journalism. It will make a lot of traditionalists uncomfortable, but it will ultimately be an evolution of the profession into something more dynamic than anything we have ever known.
Fifteen months, for example, after the launch of TheJournal.ie the site grew to become the number one Irish news provider in social media – 128,000 likes on Facebook, 30,000 followers on Twitter and 200,000 mobile apps downloads.
CEO Brian Fallon argued that “the phenomenal growth in TheJournal.ie is due to the fact that unlike other news publications, we’re designed for online not print. Our readers get to interact with our stories and our journalists in a way that is not possible elsewhere”.
Good journalistic work matters and it will be rewarded. Good journalists, those who are prepared to embrace change, will thrive. And, they will relish the challenge of creating the future.
Zach Seward (@zseward), as Lauren Indvik (@laureni) points out, has the right attitude. Seward (social media editor at Quartz) has engineered a light bulb which lights up every time someone mentions @quartznews on Twitter.
Mathew Ingram (@mathewi) has a terrific interview with the New York Times media writer David Carr where this talented duo discuss a golden age for journalism. Johnny Hustler argues that we are privileged to find ourselves presented with a front-row seat to the evolution of the news industry while Howard Owens (@howardowens) outlines ten things journalists can do to reinvent journalism. Here’s Craig Silverman (@CraigSilverman) arguing in a new age for truth how it has never been easier to “expose an error, check a fact, crowd source and bring technology to bear in service of verification”. Steve Buttry (@stevebuttry) is the inspirational sort – check out some of his best material on a potential future for journalism (here & here), the lessons he has learned from his journalistic career and how journalists need to get beyond resenting change.
The culture of the newsroom, especially the regional newspaper newsroom, needs to change. Far too many are still clinging to a this-is-the-way-we-do-business ideology. Such an attitude leads to denial of the seriousness of a situation that Steve Doig (@sdoig) famously summed up: “some years ago I discovered to my horror that news media companies need to make money”.
Take a disciplined approach to justifying every position and business expense in your organisation. If it is not related to the core of your business then reduce it, stop it, sell it or outsource the damn thing. Keep the good people – journalists are some of the sharpest and most creative people around. Put those imaginations to work.
Start with training – in February 2012 the Journal Register put a new spin on newsroom digital training for editorial employees of its Connecticut properties. Those employees can now go to Digital Ninja School, a martial arts-themed training program. The program covers five areas that are essential for anyone working in the modern newsroom: digital publishing, social media, blogging, video and data journalism. On completion of each category trainees are then rewarded with a new ‘belt’ – on completion of all categories they receive a digital ninja black belt.
Thomas Baekdal (@baekdal) has written a terrific article on changing attitudes in the news room while David Fagan (@djfcm) describes how News Queensland worked to place digital at the very heart of its production process in a state-of-the-art open-plan newsroom. Meanwhile Matt Thompson offers a little help in understanding your staff – Four types of journalists: How they tick and what we can learn from them.
Successful news media companies will be defined by their determination to tell the public something they didn’t know, something that they want and need to know and not what they already know. They will make noise, be daring, make sense of the world for their readers and if they can sink their teeth into any politician’s ankles at the same time then all the better.
Remember EM Forster’s cautionary tale of the stone-age storyteller, the only member of the tribe who was excused hunting. The condition was that he told tales around the camp fire which never, ever sent his colleagues to sleep. If his stories did he was duly killed.
News media companies must endeavour to get their first – the Confederate general Nathan Forest was once asked what the key to victory on the battlefield was. “Who gets there firstest with the mostest,” he replied.
Commit to social media. Do not treat Twitter as a glorified RSS feed and do not over-estimate the value of your homepage. Please, please read Adrienne LaFrance’s (@AdrienneLaF) article on how the value of the homepage is shifting. The majority of traffic, for example, at leading media companies like the New York Times, now bypasses the homepage.
Embrace the shrinking news cycle and put digital first. Understand that digital first journalism views stories as a process and not a product, that digital first journalism likes to get their first, but also likes to link when it is not and understands, as Jeff Sonderman (@jeffsonderman) points out, that when you want your work to be shared you must make your readers feel something. Aim to solve problems, understand metrics, take advantage of mobile and be prepared to fail eight times a day.
Alan Rusbridger (@arusbridger), the editor of the Guardian, insists that his organisation is committed to digital first: “we are a giant website with a small team dedicated to the newspaper”. Mr Rusbridger believes that if the journalism is of a high enough quality it will lead to a business model.
Here is Mathew Ingram on why digital first matters, Steve Buttry on ten ways to think like a digital first journalist, Emily Henry (@EmilyHenry) on ten reasons why online journalists are better journalists and Joe Talcott on how the message always trumps the medium in the news media industry. John Ensslin describes his dream newsroom while Ellen Foley has a terrific article on transforming your newsroom.
Understand that yesterday is not news. As newspapers rethink themselves editors should consult a road map for how newspapers can live alongside new media which was drawn up more than fifty years ago by Bernard Kilgore. When Kilgore became managing editor of the Wall Street Journal in 1941 he inherited a business model that technology had undermined.
Founded in 1889 to provide market news and stock prices to individual investors, the Wall Street Journal lost half its circulation as such basic information became widely available. Kilgore observed that the new media, such as radio, meant that market news was available in real time. Some cities had a dozen newspapers that had gained the Wall Street Journal’s once-valuable ability to report share prices. And, technology increasingly meant readers would know the basic facts of news as it happened.
Kilgore announced at an editorial meeting that “it doesn’t have to have happened yesterday to be news”. Indeed, Bernard Kilgore argued that people were more interested in what would happen tomorrow.
On the morning after Pearl Harbor, most newspapers recounted the facts already known. The Wall Street Journal’s page-one story however began: “war with Japan means industrial revolution in the United States”. It outlined the implications for the economy, industry and commodity and financial markets.
Bernard Kilgore led the Wall Street Journal’s circulation to one million by the 1960s from 33,000 in the 1940s by adapting the newspaper to a role reflecting how people used different media for news. Kilgore’s rallying cry was: “the easiest thing in the world for a reader to do is to stop reading”. His critical finding was that readers seek insight into tomorrow much, much more than an account of yesterday.
Cater for your loyal core audience whether that is on a geographic or interest basis. Identify your most loyal users and work harder to meet their individual needs – focus on what you do best and curate the rest. Be passionate about the community you represent and do your best to meet its informational needs. Make sure your products are essential to the community that you serve. The general public will trust news organisations that look out for their interests. Be that kind of news organisation.
Abandon voice-of-God journalism – the day of handing out news on engraved tablets is over. The audience must be converted into a publishing partner. The public cannot be regarded as a passive audience. And, the platforms and the technology need to be developed to help the public get involved.
The Atlantic Wire, for example, has experimented with permitting the public to observe and participate in its story pitching and editing processes by conducting same in an open comment thread. Readers are invited to pitch stories and give feedback on existing articles, as well as observe the pitching and editing process. Meanwhile Norran, a pioneering Swedish outfit, involves its readers in the daily editorial decision-making process. The approach has been a massive hit with users and advertisers.
Paul McNally neatly summarises the efforts at Norran to develop an open newsroom and its attempts to involve the public in its decision-making process while Mark Little (@marklittlenews) explains that journalists need to get comfortable with risk, transparency and collaboration. Take a look at Paul Linford’s (@paul_linford) article on the Northern Echo who pieced together a front page by consulting its readers via Twitter.
Find new ways of doing business. The movie Moneyball has an important message that correlates with our changing industry. Moneyball is a great example of challenging contemporary philosophy in order to create a new dynamic. Similarly we need to challenge the imagination deficit in the news industry.
Those nice people at the Register-Citizen (see here & here) have one such idea – in Connecticut members of the public can walk in off the street and visit the newsroom as well as attend the afternoon story conference. The California Watch and the Winnipeg Free Press have engaged in similar experiments where editorial meetings are hosted in public cafés. Such a departure may not suit every circumstance, but it is, at least, an attempt to address the issue.
In his book Bowling Alone the Harvard scholar Robert Putnam observed that individuals who are involved in the life of their community are those who are also most likely to read the local newspaper. News media will thrive if they can flip the Putnam rule on its head – that is if they can foster civic engagement and spark a rise in news consumption.
Adam Westbrook (@AdamWestbrook) has written an exceptional piece arguing how the approach to running a news media company has to change while Richard Gingras (@richardgingras) considers the eight questions that will help define the future of journalism. You can also check out Andrew Phelps (@andrewphelps) on California Watch’s open newsroom project. Last year the Wichita Eagle tested working out of a branded café which was/is open to the public. Amy Chown has highlighted the reader-value strategy at the Atlanta-Journal Constitution and here you can find Steve Buttry discussing the Oakland Tribune’s community media lab. Finally, check out Lauren Indvik on the Wall Street Journal’s initiative to provide a free wi-fi network through more than 1,300 hot spots.
Take a good, hard look at event-orientated journalism – when Evan Smith (@evanasmith) launched the non-profit Texas Tribune (2009) he set out to get the community engaged in their government again. For the Texas Tribune events are journalism. The Texas Tribune hosts public events – all free – which attract influencers, audiences and corporate sponsorship.
At its core the social economy is about connecting people through the issues that they care about and successful news organizations must work hard to produce the tools that allow for this kind of valuable interaction – such community engagement is the Texas Tribune’s journalistic strategy.
Check out Ken Doctor’s (@kdoctor) articles (one & two) on insourcing – the days when publishers could rely on advertising and circulation revenue streams are over. Doctor prescribes that news media companies develop their business portfolio into marketing services, insourcing printing and distribution, custom publishing, event management, syndication and, of course, ebooks.
Debra J Saunders (@debrajsaunders) has argued that e-books offer a much-needed way to make writing pay while the Guardian Shorts have set a fine standard in this area.
Other notable forms of diversification have seen Northcliffe Media launch a digital marketing agency which provides internet marketing strategies, techniques and solutions for small and local businesses. Then you have the Boston Globe selling .boston domains, Slate doubling down on podcasts and courting niche audiences, Adrienne LaFrance has highlighted the fact that Dutch designers are now turning newspapers into desks, lamps, and other objects while Paul Linford located a postman who turns copies of regional papers into handbags.
New media companies need to develop unique/signature content – Ken Doctor has a terrific article here on the newsonomics (sic) of signature content. Normally we would argue that paywalls break the fundamental way that the web operates – when you erect a paywall members of the public can’t link to, blog about, Tweet links to or share your stories because there’s no point. But if you can create a platform and associated content that a focused audience is prepared to pay for you will have succeeded in creating a “business class for news”. The only realistic way publishers can charge for online content is by investing in the creation of premium products and services that readers can’t find anywhere else. This leads us happily to majority reader revenue – the Neiman Journalism Lab has a closer look at the issue right here.
Ask yourself whether you would prefer advertisers or readers to support your journalism? This is a new question and it is posed by a couple or notable shifts in the news market.
If you are truly interested in this fascinating area kick off with Clay Shirky’s article in which Mr Shirky heralds 2012 as the year of the newspaper paywall. Clay penned that piece in January, an article that turned out to be more than accurate. Here’s Dean Starkman (@deanstarkman) on how the Financial Times now has more digital subscribers than print ones. Check out Rachel McAthy (@rmcathy) along the same lines while Joe Coscarelli reflects on the fact that the New York Times is now supported by readers and not advertisers. Indeed Reg Sorgatz argues here that the New York Times now needs to go a step further and build more meaning and more value into a “membership” program. Jeff John Roberts also reckons that the Chicago Tribune could be on to something with an innovative scheme which sees content from The Economist and Forbes magazines included behind its paywall.
The exciting thing about majority reader revenue is that it could make something like the terrific investigative journalism project based in Northern Ireland The Detail sustainable – check out an interview from Journalism.co.uk with editor Ruth O’Reilly.
If you’re confused about paywalls why not take a look at Howard Owens’ article on how David Simon is wrong about paywalls – do paywalls maintain the history of newspapers companies avoiding meaningful innovation?
Create, curate and conquer – the public is clearly overwhelmed by the growing volume and weight of digital content. The idea of the journalist as curator is front and centre as the tools to make and tell stories are now in the hands of almost anyone.
The public is desperately trying to figure out where to look for the information that means most to their lives. Journalist-led curation can help sort through the huge fire hose of information. As content curators we need to be more concerned with the act of content curation rather than ownership. That said content curation should not always be about giving readers the news that they want. After all if you choose all your own news you will be less well read.
Check out Steve Buttry who insists that news curators must collect, summarize, make sense, add value, attribute, link, intrigue and entice. If you want to learn more about curation (and aggregation issues) check out the excellent Mathew Ingram and the outstanding David Carr on this very issue.
News media companies need to develop communities around their news products and to do so specific staff need to be dedicated to same. Therefore news media companies must invest in community management – too many news media organisations appear to think that they can grow an active community around their website without investing in it. The online community manager role (social media manager, digital media co-ordinator) is a growing and developing profession. And, it is now one of the most necessary roles in the digital newsroom. The precise definition of a community manager varies from organisation to organisation, but his/her primary role is to encourage, facilitate and develop relationships. Be a spokesperson, referee, mediator and babysitter of the web site and social media presence while also working to create original content with SEO value, generate buzz (hate that word), develop social media campaigns, interact with community members and, of course, grow traffic.
Define the role of your journalists, give them a mission – society doesn’t need newspapers, but it does need journalism. Quality journalism – the type that verifies claims, shines its light into every corner and demands attribution – is expensive. Journalists who are good at their job should be well paid, but they must also realise that they need to create value for their employers and avoid churning out commodity value. Too many journalists share the same skills sets and take the same approaches to stories. Creating value demands that journalists stand out by reporting unique content.
Check out the Irish Times’ Hugh Lenihan (@hlinehan) asking a pertinent question: do journalists understand what’s happening to newspapers? While Steve Buttry insists that the gatekeepers need to find new value when the fences have been blown away.
Have a go! Stop managing decline, articulate a vision, think and act strategically, express confidence in those who work with and for you, make decisions, develop a portfolio of news products that deliver news, information and advertising in many print and electronic forms; products that are just as likely to be built around databases and user-generated content as traditional journalistic practice.
The future of newspapers, rather than being determined entirely by sweeping trends, can be significantly affected by company culture and management. You must battle against the culture of inertia and develop an appetite to take risks. Placing your print product online was never going to be enough. You can’t solve a problem by using the kind of thinking you used to create it. Newspaper companies need to start thinking like start-ups, like a company with no legacy business to disrupt. Don’t fail because you are afraid to change.