When good isn’t good enough, dare to be great
Earlier this year I interviewed Ken Doctor of Newsonomics about the future of publishing and what to look for in 2017. We talked about the rise of locally-based chains in Charlotte, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Denver — online-only publishers that were getting traction with people in their mid-twenties to late thirties who want a voice.
I’ll never forget what he said, “All of these chains also have journalistic sensibility. That’s why we’re seeing this level of interest while old brands are just fading away. I really do think, so sadly, they [old brands] are committing suicide.”
He went on to clarify that, “Newspapers can’t recreate that old world. But unless they do more for readers and citizens, the business is going to be tiny and it will continue to recede.”
As much as it pains me to think it’s really coming down to that, it’s pretty hard to argue with his opinion when you see how many mainstream media companies have been hacking at the core of their business — journalism — for the past 15 years. And, sadly, it’s not slowing down.
Recently I was reminded of Ken’s comments when I read that News Corp was cutting dozens of photographer and subeditor jobs to restructure their newsroom to “preserve in print and excel in digital” — a move that followed a December bid to slash US$40 million from the Australian newspapers.
The Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) and The Age are announced that are also laying off journalists to save US$30M. That wasn’t really a big surprise as newsroom all around the globe self-inflicted victims of “death by a thousand cuts.”
But what did astonish me was their plan to outsource more content to freelancers and share more syndicated news because, as the managing director of Australian Metro Publishing, Chris Janz, said…
“While quality content is our raison d’être, scale remains important to our digital advertising business. As subscriptions grow in importance, we can’t lose focus on producing great stories that are of interest to a wide audience. We must attract a large audience, keep them engaged, and convince them to return. We can only do so through high-quality journalism.”
Why would anyone go specifically to the SMH to read something that is available elsewhere?
I feel like media “down under” is upside down in terms of where to focus its energies. Instead of outsourcing their “reason for being”, why don’t publishers outsource what isn’t — i.e. technology and distribution?
Why don’t they see how technology partners can help them? Why do they continue to hold industry suppliers in as much disdain as they do their readers? It’s truly a shortsighted and sad state of affairs for an industry that desperately needs both of them to survive.
Don’t be afraid to give up
John D. Rockefeller, probably the richest person in modern history, said, “Don’t be afraid to give up the good to go for the great.” Excellent advice since no company can do everything and be great at it all.
Unfortunately, too often we see publishers doing the exact opposite — sacrificing the great ( journalism) for what, frankly, they’re not very good at (technology and distribution solutions).
Like it or not, the industry relies heavily on supplier-side tech companies. Which is why our standard mantra has always been that publishers need to focus on their core competency — creating quality content — and let the experts in technology do the heavy lifting. This is how the rest of the world operates. The publishing industry is not unique in that sense.
Unfortunately, the industry as a whole often fails to recognize what suppliers are doing well; they are reluctant to bring technology companies into deeper discussions about the issues that keep publishers awake at night.
Instead of listening and understanding where a supplier fits into the vision for an industry in desperate need of help, they say, “We’ll come to you when we feel we want to know more, or when we’ve already made up our minds; then we’ll just pick and choose.”
Now you might say that publishers could easily be inundated with sales pitches from suppliers and you would be right. But the industry has ways to prevent this through vetting from associations whose job is to understand the whole publishing ecosystem, which includes the suppliers.
These trade organizations should be offering a platform for suppliers to share what they do and the value they bring to the industry, rather than only showcasing the vendors who pay to share the stage with publishers.
A lot of great work does indeed go unseen and unsung. Nobody knows about it. The suppliers are investing a lot of money into development and unfortunately it gets lost on the radar. Look at almost every newsletter that gets circulated or every trade magazine that gets published. Most of them are all about the publishers; they don’t talk about the opportunities suppliers can bring to the challenges media companies are facing.
We work very closely with travel brands, surveying their members to discover the content strategy going forward, and what we hear from that is that print is checking out of hotels and airlines around the world.
United Airlines recently cancelled all print aboard their international flights; Qantas, British Airways, Lufthansa, Virgin Australia and others have reduced it. And without going into details on some big deals we are closing soon, there are many more hotels and airlines about to pull the plug on print in favor of giving their customers what they want — quality content on whatever device they chose to use.
Recently we signed a deal with a major hotel chain who decided to reduce their print subscriptions and offer PressReader’s 6,000+ titles to their guests instead. Many publishers understood that it was the guests who wanted more variety and choice of content on their mobile devices, but it didn’t stop one circulation department from removing their digital product from this entire hotel chain, somehow believing that move this would drive print engagement up. And in case you’re wondering, it didn’t.
We pointed out that the world is changing and that we would be happy to work with the brand to ensure its visibility at all these venues, but to no avail. The publisher’s distribution strategy was print, and nothing but print, even if it meant losing out on reaching hundreds of millions of people they could never reach on their own.
Go for the great
Unless you’ve got a deep-pocketed technology entrepreneur at the helm like The Washington Post, you can’t build an R&D center out of a publishing house. You’re already struggling with continuously sliding advertising income and subscription revenues that are not catching up. Sure, they’re creeping up in some cases, but you’re talking about the numbers of subscribers, at what price? You’ve been selling your 13week subscription for $1! I subscribe to one US newspaper’s emails and they have been on a continuous sales spree from before the US elections, through Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, Valentine’s Day and Easter.
So, where are you going get the money? Consumers certainly aren’t going to pay for your technology and all of the continuous investment needed to build and evolve it.
I remember when we were laughed at for continuing with the digital replica content presentation (in addition to offering and continuing to evolve the non-replica format) back in August 2010 when the first iPad was released. Pundits said, “It’s like putting a blanket over a TV and coming up with a radio.”
This attitude spurred publishers into investing in new ways to present their content and they started pumping millions of dollars into creating flashy applications for the iPad. They were pretty proud of their shiny new toys, but then they were faced with a myriad of new devices that needed unique apps and technology upgrades.
Suddenly they were unable to keep up and quickly began running out of cash. So where did they cut staff to get more money to continue a losing battle? The last place they should have ever culled — the newsroom. Now, I understand the need for optimization, but don’t cut off the hands that feed you. Quality will suffer and we all know where that will lead.
Sure, The Washington Post is now a profitable company, but that’s because Jeff Bezos had the cash to convert it into a tech company and then added a high degree of quality journalism on top of it. That’s not the same as being a struggling journalism company trying to add technology to it.
One might ask, “Is that the trend that’s driving us towards a mass consolidation of the market? Is Facebook going to be that technology and distribution platform where a publisher’s only role will be to supply the content for it? Is this the end game for the industry?” I don’t know, but the status quo is definitely not sustainable.
American businessman, Mark Cuban, learned early in life the power of knowing and focusing on his core competencies.
“Know your core competencies and focus on being great at them.” Mark Cuban
If your dream is to change the world through journalism, then focus on making that happen by investing in your core competency. Because, as I’ve said it before, and it’s worth repeating, you must deliver the right content to the right audience at the right time through the right channels at the right price.
So, hire, not fire, talented reporters, writers and editors who produce the highest quality content for your audience (know thy audience). And then, take a hard objective look at today’s new reality and recognize that you can’t do it alone. If you do that, you’ll start to see a much brighter future.
Because, although the winds of change cannot be reversed, you can adjust your sails to reach your dream destination with the help of others.