Content distribution revolution
A couple of week’s ago I was moderating a discussion at the INMA Mobile Strategies Conference on the pros and cons of distributed content. The session was timely given Emily Bell’s speech at the University of Cambridge the week before, titled “The End of the News as We Know It: How Facebook Swallowed Journalism.”
In it Ms. Bell’s talked about how journalism has been disrupted by social media and the ramifications of that; more specifically:
Newspaper publishers have lost control of distribution
Social media companies are continually increasing their power
News and journalism companies must radically alter their cost base to be sustainable in this new ecosystem Around her first two points, I asked the audience to share their thoughts around the platform paradox and the internal opposition they face when recommending new channels of distribution to management. It was an interesting discussion, where I heard everything from “Whatever, we just want the eyeballs” to “I don’t care about people in Denmark who visit on my site because I work for ______ and only write for people in my city” to “My reader isn’t on Facebook, so I don’t do anything there.”
Needless to say, the broad spectrum of responses I received made reaching any kind of consensus on the value (or threat) of distributed content a challenge. The audience was all over the map.
When we started to discuss the need for a radical change in the cost base, I was reminded of the Global Editors Network Summit last year in Barcelona where I participated on a panel with Piano Media and Blendle. The moderator asked me who out of the three of us would survive in a couple of years.
I said that I would be more interested in knowing who out of the traditional publishers would survive. I went on to suggest that it would be those who optimally manage their cost base. The digital pure plays (e.g. Vox, BuzzFeed, et al.) have the advantage because they do not have the massive operating
expenses needed to support print houses, distributors, unions and, let’s face it, overblown staff. Meanwhile, traditional media continues to hold on to its financially-burdened baggage and is losing ground as a result.
Losing, not because people suddenly lost their need for quality content, but because of their own engrained and generationally-fostered belief that they need to own the distribution channels; that apart from fostering journalism and spreading democracy, they should control every single step in the process of how that democracy is spread.
Some of that mindset is fading because third party channels that give readers what they want, when they want it and where they want it, have proven that they can do digital distribution much better than publishers. However, some old habits die hard with too many media executives insisting readers come to them for content.
Third party distributors should not be seen as competitors trying to eat publishers’ lunch. They should be seen as a way for media companies to manage costs by allowing them to focus on their core competency of creating unique, quality content personalized to the meet the needs and passions of their readers.
But quality journalism doesn’t come cheap, which is why it is often the first thing sacrificed on the chopping block when budgets are squeezed and publisher purse holders ask, “What’s the ROI of serious journalism in today’s digital world where exclusivity lasts mere seconds because our content is being repurposed, republished and commoditized as fast as it takes to click, ‘Share’?”
Answering that question often results in media executives taking the position that serious journalism is no longer worth the investment. They cut editorial staff, start dumbing-down content and repurposing others, turning themselves into distributors of click-bait.
As this continues to happen, Ms. Bell postulates that “posting journalism directly to Facebook or other platforms will become the rule rather than the exception. Even maintaining a website could be abandoned in favor of hyper distribution. The distinction between platforms and publishers will melt completely…What happens to the current class of news publishers is a much less important question than that of what kind of news and information society we want to create and how we can help shape this.”
I think her last statement speaks to, “What’s in it for you as the publisher.” If your primary mission is to have a well-educated, well-rounded, and democratic society, then be committed to it. Don’t hold on to the operational baggage that is decreasing the potential of realizing your mission. Learn about and understand the plethora of platforms available to you and use them to your advantage. Recognize how they complement your mission; do not perceive them, prima facie, as the enemy.
Bottom line…I think the questions that need asking are these, “Do you truly understand what your mission is? Can you honestly sit down and explain it to yourself, investors, staff and readers?” Because if your mission is anything other than creating content that spreads democracy for the public good and is relevant to your readers, then I would politely suggest that you’re probably in the wrong line of work.
If you haven’t had a chance to read Emily Bell’s speech, I highly recommend that you do. And then let’s talk. I’d love to hear your views on the subject.