Tuesday, September 11, 2012

If the key to newspapers is content, then many companies are letting go the key to future digital success

You can file this story under "Flogging a dead horse". But once again I plead with media executives to stop looking at their content talent as an expense but as an opportunity to become "serial launchers."

If content is worth paying for, then quality content should be a profitable commodity. If the news staff is what is producing that content, then having a fully staffed newsroom should be a money maker.

Ah, it only things were that easy, right?

Not a week goes by that another paper is reported to have instituted layoffs in its news room. Likewise, not a week goes by when some news executive touts their paid content strategy – make the readers pay, the mantra today is, even as readers angrily decry the declining product they are being forced to pay for.

Like any for profit business, newspaper executives have to manage their P&Ls – lower revenue will force lowering expenses, and on and on. But often these same execs are saying that in order to institute new digital initiatives, in order to become "digitally-focused" cuts in staff will be necessary.

While I understand the need to sometimes reduce expenses, blaming digital is both wrong headed and less than honest.

What I see is a failure to see the newsroom as a resource for profits. Too many newspaper executives see profits in ad revenue and circulation, as if these things happen by themselves. What we are seeing is a failure of imagination – call it a failure of seeing digital media's true potential.

Each section of a newspaper, each columnist, each blog, each ad category, can be a potential new product when one thinks of digital media. The key is creating a newspaper company that can exploit this fact.

This is the major reason I have criticized the outsourcing of app development to third party vendors – I'm not talking publishing systems here, but total outsourcing. Outsourcing increases costs and in no way contains them. The company that gets the contract must turn a profit and so must pass on any costs plus an addition amount that will make the project profitable. The cost to launch dozens of apps, or create new websites or mobile products ends up being prohibitive.

But once the capability to launch a mobile, tablet or web product is created, product launches can follow.

Why don't more papers launch new digital products? Today's launch of Splash, for instance, may be modest (and the product laughable) but the idea is sound. In fact, the only questionable part of the launch is the print part!

A great example of digital thinking is SB Nation, formerly known as Sports Blogs. SB Nation is owned by Vox Media, the same company that launched The Verge.

SB Nation is a collection of 300 separate websites that together grab 100 million page views monthly. Very simply, the company utilizes the individual talents of a group of bloggers to create a business unit that can succeed in the digital media arena. The one site I have bookmarked is McCovey Chronicles, the blog written by Grant Brisbee that covers the San Francisco Giants (that's "first place Giants" to you).

The concept of SB Nation is pretty simple to understand: each bloggers one or two posts a day can be exploited when the traffic attracted can be combined with the traffic of other bloggers.

Any reporter, columnist or blogger can be a "brand", producing news not only for a print product, or posts for a website, but for their own digital products.**

Unfortunately, newspaper execs see this talent as useful only for "feeding" into the existing products. The focus is too often on the number of stories that can be produced for a website, the number of tweets that will drive readers back to the paper's website – it's not New Media thinking, it's old media thinking about digital.

(This is why I find myself so amused by our newspaper gurus who say they are "digitally-focused" while they actually appear to reside in a time warp that sends them back to the late nineties and the start of the web. They are fighting the last battle, working hard to drive traffic to legacy brands while new digital products are leeching away readers and ad revenue.)

Here is a real world example of what I'd driving at: I certainly applauded the NYT's move to bring on Nate Silver, the blogger behind FiveThirtyEight blog, but the move was made exclusively to help the paper's existing print and web products. The true potential of "FiveThirtyEight" is lost within the greater NYT brand, limiting the potential. So, two years later, when the NYT launched a mobile app for the 2012 election, the paper chose to brand it as the New York Times and simply incorporate Nate Silver's content. A more "new media" move would have been to launch a FiveThirtyEight mobile app that would not only incorporate NYT content but would be free to move beyond the NYT into new areas that could include all sorts of ventures.

** Many news folks hate the word "brand" – but here we are talking about creating products around talent, but just using that talent to promote the existing products. Think "brand' the way a CPG does: the main company can be anonymous, while its brands are where the profit is.