Keeping an Eye on Content
About 14 years ago I attended a convention of the National Newspaper Association in New York. The publishers of all of the major newspapers in America were there. The keynote speaker was Bill Gates of Microsoft. Later I asked an officer of the NNA why it chose Gates as the speaker. I told him that I believed that the Internet would become the greatest enemy of newspapers. He angrily dismissed my concern. …
The New York Times is now suffering because its publisher chose to put the paper on the Internet. The bean counters at The Times discovered too late that the paper could not make the money on advertising on the Internet that it made the old-fashioned way, by placing ads in the newspaper itself. It soon found that no advertiser would pay the price of an ad placed in the newspaper for an ad on the Internet. And advertising is the life’s blood of the newspaper industry.
The Internet is doing what radio and television could not do: It is killing the American newspaper. And until every newspaper publisher in America rebels and says, “No, we are not going to put our newspaper on the ‘Net,” the slow death of newspapers will continue.
Dan concurred, saying that “content is king” — by which he meant that the audience is after the content, which therefore ought to be placed behind the revenue stream like a castle behind a moat. I’d suggest that, while Dan’s assessment of a media organization’s value is dead on, his defensive strategy is misdirected, if understandably so. The alternative began to emerge when caller Chris offered the following comments (which begin around minute four in the mp3 file that Dan helpfully had his producer post for me):
I think the proposition has to be about value, and the newspaper has to have currency. That’s what the value of your show is; you bring a currency to the topics that you don’t get in print media. But the print media can certainly provide a quick read and synopsis of the news events that are going on out there and then provide a link or a reference in the article to their Web site, where you can get more details, and in that Web site location provide a link to their sources, if they can disclose them, so you can make your own opinion — validate the integrity of the paper. Then you’ve got a value proposition.
Dan paraphrased this as using the Web site as a “backup or development spot,” rather than “a duplicative spot,” but the specific suggestion isn’t the key element, as evidenced by the easy transition that Dan made to decrying online newspaper “feedback” sections, which he likened to blog comments (with unflattering reference to another RI site). Both Dan and Chris are describing ways in which newspapers can use the Internet to add something — presumably of value — to their existing product. The critical difference that makes Chris’s suggestion insightful and reader comment features dubious is that his plugs into the new reality of media distribution, while blog-like anonymous “reactions” attempt to trample it.
One can imagine the conversation in a hypothetical newspaper office boardroom: The executives saw the emerging force of bloggers and other Internet media as a threat and sought to leverage their own market clout to carve out a safe area. The goal was to “keep readers on our site,” returning to pages (and triggering ads) again and again. As Dan stresses, though, any success in that area came at a huge loss of self-definition and credibility:
Dan: Why the newspaper business has tried to duplicate on the Internet what blog sites do is beyond me.
Chris: And that’s where they lose their readership, because you look to the newspaper for consistent factual reporting.
The content, to return, has to be king. Newspapers have to invest in and reclaim their core competency: gathering and transmitting news. That doesn’t mean that they should lock their content up on dead-tree pages and fight the Internet as so many journalistic practitioners would like to do; in general, the realities of new media won’t allow such a thing. Tim Giago claims to have managed it, but his experience was at some unspecified time in the past, and more importantly, his audience was niche: a regional American Indian market. The same is true for the retrograde newspaper editor whom David Carr recently highlighted:
Finally, I thought, a story about a print organization that has found a way to tame the Web and come up with a digital business approach that could serve as a model. Except that TriCityNews of Monmouth County, N.J., is prospering precisely because it aggressively ignores the Web. Its Web site has a little boilerplate about the product and lists ad rates, but nothing more. (The address is trinews.com, for all the good it will do you.)
“Why would I put anything on the Web?” asked Dan Jacobson, the publisher and owner of the newspaper. “I don’t understand how putting content on the Web would do anything but help destroy our paper. Why should we give our readers any incentive whatsoever to not look at our content along with our advertisements, a large number of which are beautiful and cheap full-page ads?” …
“I don’t allow our name to be used on any kind of content on the Web — not bulletin boards or listings or anything,” Mr. Jacobson said. “I don’t want anybody to connect The TriCityNews and the Internet. I don’t want anything that detracts from the paper and the presence of those big, beautiful full-page ads.”
Mr. Jacobson hasn’t stumbled upon a revolutionary strategy of ignoring the Internet; his paper has a well defined niche, so the Internet hasn’t smoked him out, yet. TriCityNews has bought itself some time, but it should use that leeway to adjust to the evolving market, not to set up barricades against change. Jacobson may not want TriCityNews associated with the Internet, but that won’t be a choice that he’ll be able to make for long. Aggregation sites will eat into his audience. His writers will make their offerings available online. And even the print pages themselves will be digitized in one fashion or another.
The scary thing, for newsies and we who rely upon their output, is that nobody’s found the magic formula for online profitability, yet. Personally, I think the Era of Pay for Nothing is running its course, and if the newspaper industry would focus on what it does best, it could bring the online culture around more quickly to a willingness to pay for desired content by some mechanism.
For one thing, the mainstream media should let the blogs be blogs. I know corporate wants the “eyeballs” to impress potential advertisers, but they’re missing the real lesson of blog economics. Perhaps a couple of dozen regular readers will engage in extended conversations on newspaper Web sites, but a greater number of readers will be attracted by letting independent blogs into the mix. Consider the result when high-traffic blogs allow smaller blogs to acquire links and traffic by tracking back to individual posts: To rack up their currency of readers, the smaller blogs race to write pieces that link back to whatever the bigger blog puts up; readers then tend to use the bigger blog as an aggregation site for topics initially of interest to its owner.
The same would happen if newspapers made the decision to let their readers comment on somebody else’s Web site by means of a “what the bloggers are saying” feature. Let some hobbyist Web site commentator deal with the vitriol. New participants and rhetorical pugilists will ultimately go back to the source. And if bloggers and other readers have to pay a subscription to access more details, they’ll do so more willingly if there’s a wall between the room where the spittle flies and where the professionals make their wares available.
What will develop is a tiered market, in which the basic facts of any given story are free and widely available online, in which blog-level analysis is free (or just about free), but conducted on the wooden nickel of the blogger, and in which in-depth coverage justifies advertising and subscription revenue. That will mean that journalists will have to produce something for which people are willing to pay.
That’s a frightening prospect for some, I know, but if the Internet is killing the newspaper star, it is only because it undermines the profitability of easy content. Newspapers won’t be able to continue to be aggregators, themselves, because their medium just isn’t ideal for that task. It is no longer enough — and never will be again — for a few hundred papers around the country to fill their pages by recycling AP stories, Washington Post reportage, and New York Times analysis, with a few syndicated columnists to flesh out the opinion section. (Especially when there are local bloggers who could use the money!)