11 March 2013

It's Not You, It's Your Content - 2 of 2

Bringing Readers Back Into the Fold:
Or how newspapers can stop apologizing and start regaining their audience.

In case you missed it, click here for part 1

In my last post, I began a long, slow dive into the issue of content: its importance, its necessity and its apparently new addition to the world of marketing. And I posited the question, in light of content being such a heavy focus for advertisers and consumers in 2013, what are newspapers to do? How can they hope to compete?

Well, before any journalists reading this go looking for the tallest building, let’s think for a second about what sets newspaper apart from these other media; what is the one thing it does better than any other?

Wait, wait, don’t tell me.

Oh, I know. It’s content. (See what I did there?)

Yes, content, the two-syllable word from where my diatribe sprung. Newspaper and print are writer’s mediums (I’m a writer, I would know). They are a haven for those who still love long-form stories, in-depth reporting and investigative journalism. They still provide a weight of authority to most of what is reported within their oversized pages. So, the recent shift in sensibilities, to a completely online world, should be easily countered with a strong focus on quality content with a distinct voice.

That’s not what happened.

Instead, as newspapers felt the crunch of lost advertising revenue and dropping circulations, they made cuts across the board, jettisoning employees to keep their organization’s afloat. And unfortunately, that means they laid off writers, journalists and creators of CONTENT. So, now, in a world where content is king, newspapers find their serfdoms severely depleted.

And they find themselves struggling to entice more advertisers to their pages when they have less content to offer their readership now than ever before. It’s sacrificing long-term success for short-term financial viability. And it’s a strategy that is already backfiring.

Now, I have never run a multi-million dollar corporation—heck, I’ve never run a lemonade stand—so the true intricacies of P&Ls and board meetings might be a little lost on me. But as a consumer, a media professional and a writer, I can tell you that trying to convince consumers that something is valuable, when it in fact isn’t, is the most dangerous game of Uncle you can play. Because once you’ve destroyed the consumer’s trust, they’re not coming back again.

How Newspaper Can Save Itself

Before I start citing the ways I think newspaper can save itself, let me first assert that I do believe the printed newspaper broadsheet that has been around for centuries is an antiquated form of media and it will go the way of the dodo. How soon, I’m not too sure, but I would imagine that in five to seven years, we won’t be worrying about ink-smudged fingers.

However, the viability of newspapers goes beyond the printed edition. Its value does not lie in the method of distribution, but in the content (I’m beginning to notice a pattern), and that content can be just as useful online as it is in print. So really, when I speak of the longevity of newspaper, maybe the better term is the longevity of journalistic content. Journalists still perform a very needed function in our society, and print journalists even more so – they report on the news. They don’t offer a lot of commentary (unless in the form of a blog or op-ed) and they don’t embellish. Their job is to know their beat, know their sources and report on the information and news that will most affect their readers. Journalistic credibility is still important, especially when any crackpot can create a blog and post content in the form of news. And while broadcast journalists, at least at the local news level, perform a similar function, the nature of television is not deep – it’s sound bites. In this case, print’s abundance of space is its most useful feature.

Of course, newspapers other primary difference is its local focus. Newspapers are a part of the community in a way that no other media truly is. Reporters work their beats and find the stories by being a part of their neighborhoods. And while a similar argument could again be made for broadcast, the celebrity of broadcast news in some ways forces a distance between the reporter and their constituents. Newspaper journalists typically are, and will continue to be, fairly anonymous.

So, what’s the answer? If newspapers provide such great content, why the heck can’t they keep their circulations and page views up? Well, there are many different facets to that question, but as we’re discussing content, I’ll address that one first. It is the most important.

The newspaper industry, and editorial staffs especially, need to broaden their definition of content. It is not solely the inches they get from their reporters, columnists and writers. It is everything that goes into the newspaper (and onto the web). Comic strips, horoscopes, ads, weather, photos, lifestyle stories, sports scores, contests, polls – the things that most reporters look at as filler, are viewed by their readership as content. The average newspaper reader does not differentiate between a story the writer spent three days on and a movie review. Both are content which makes both valuable—especially when communicating the value of the newspaper to the community.

This is the other lynchpin – communication. With the fragmentation of media, it is no longer a given that people will make newspaper a part of their news routine. Not when they can check Twitter, Facebook or the morning news, to get their update of headlines. Whether you believe we’re a society slowly dying 140 characters at a time or not, these snippets are the ways people prefer to receive their news. Newspapers have fallen out of favor, and it has less to do with cost or the economy and more to do with competition.

It is time for newspapers to let their freak flags fly: it is time for them to stop apologizing for being a print product and start embracing the differences. Are newspapers a relic of a different age? Maybe, but the modern newspaper doesn’t have to be. The modern newspaper could be so much more if we all agreed that change is inevitable and that’s okay.

People no longer read the newspaper because “their parents did” (many of today’s parents didn’t), and they don’t need to pick it up for the ads or the circulars when they can use their phones or tablets to get the same data. That’s not going to change and no amount of value-drive product campaign is going to convince them otherwise. What will convince them? In my estimation, it’s about communicating what the newspaper stands for: what is the newspaper’s brand? Why should someone read your news over someone else’s?

All major media companies have a brand – even newspaper companies, like the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune. Because it’s the brand that sets them apart. If everyone is reporting on the same news, what makes your content more valuable—or likable—than someone else’s? Personality; if your newspaper doesn’t have one, you’re going to have a tough time convincing anyone that you’ve got something useful to say.

More to Come

In the coming weeks, I’m going to continue to address this issue of content, including strategies for newspapers and all media organizations who are struggling to produce more content with smaller staffs. Because I believe this is the most important and critical issue facing media today, as it touches so many other areas: copyright infringement, technology, user-generated content, social media and so many more.

So, maybe the marketers have it right and this is the year of Content Marketing. Or maybe it’s the just year that we all started paying attention to how important it is to market content.

06 March 2013

It's Not You, It's Your Content - 1 of 2

Note: So, I started writing this little blog post and it quickly turned into a "Jerry Maguire"-esque mission statement. As a result, I've split the post into two parts and I will post the 2nd one in a couple of days.


2013 and What that Means for Content

It tickles me just a bit that this year’s newest marketing buzz-phrase appears to be “content marketing.” And it makes me giggle for a couple of reasons.
  1. If you’ve got a website, what else exactly would you be marketing except content?
  2. As a business, what precisely do you think consumers want besides content?
  3. In 2013, is it really a revelation that we should be marketing substance versus platitudes? 
If your answer to any of these questions was something besides ‘nothing’ or ‘no,’ then I think we’ve got a problem. Of course, companies market their goods and services to their consumers in the hopes that they will win the battle at the point of sale, but as our world becomes ever more global and our technology becomes more widespread and affordable, the differences between products of similar design will barely be more than a logo or slogan. Marketers no doubt realized this (a little late in my opinion) and have now coined the term “content marketing” as if it is the savior of the modern capitalist economy.

Content Marketing: A Definition

But what does it mean? As with so many buzzwords, definitions can be vague and often contradictory, but content marketing appears to have first been defined in 2010, but Joe Pulizzi, who co-authored a book about it: “Content marketing is a marketing technique of creating and distributing relevant and valuable content to attract, acquire and engage a clearly defined and understood target audience – with the objective of driving profitable customer action.” (Source: PR 20/20)

Over the past five or so years, marketers have attempted to fulfill this notion by using a variety of tactics, including company blogs, press releases, case studies, advertorials, webinars, videos, social content, research, surveys and more. Collectively many of these tools have been lumped into other buzz-phrase categories such as guerilla marketing or organic marketing.

It seems though that 2013 will be the year of “content.” Don’t get me wrong, I think this is GREAT, but I also think it poses a particular challenge for organizations whose sole source of income is in fact, content.

Take for example, my favorite whipping boy, print media. Since the introduction of the printing press and ships that could circumnavigate the globe, print has been used to disseminate content. News, chariot scores, beheadings, coup d’etat were all part of the initial print makeup. Print was used as a mouthpiece for leaders, dictators, the church, the anti-church and just about every group in between. In America, it was the first and only medium available to rich and poor alike. Regardless of your social standing, print media was accessible to just about everyone, making it possible for those who could read to learn about developments in the free world and beyond. It was the first form of true mass media.

Now, it’s obvious that other media that followed—radio, TV, Internet—are also used to spread content. However, these media were also initially born with the idea to provide entertainment. The arrival of the radio made the recording industry fearful for their livelihoods; the introduction of the television made radio men and Hollywood executives quake in their wingtips; the birth of the Internet made cable companies freak. Why? Because each of these media was viewed as a direct threat to the business’ main form of income which was based around entertainment, which was not newspapers sole reason for being at its inception or even through today.

The Importance of Defining Content Correctly

Entertainment IS content. Music, videos, movies, TV shows, puzzles, games, talk shows, whatever you can find flipping the dial or flipping the channels can be classified as content. This is something radio, TV and online have monetized quite well; early in their development each medium embraced entertainment—radio with soap operas, TV with serialized dramas and online with games and email. There was no prevailing thought among these media bigwigs that perhaps these things might be beneath them or unworthy of the mission they were attempting to fulfill.

But print, yes our good, old friend print, took umbrage at such “silly” pursuits. Integrity and ethics must rule the day. The separation of advertising and journalism, certainly a much clearer divide today then the murky church and state definition from which it sprung, must remain pure and untainted.

Initially, newspapers probably maintained their news-only edict as a way to differentiate themselves from other media; you could get games and other forms of fun from radio, TV, but not newspaper. You needed newspaper for news.

But radios went on air from day one with news, as did TV. It was only a lack of widespread adoption among consumers that kept radio and TV growth from exploding. These two media were slow to grow because people did not physically have access to them.

With technology and economics working for them, newspaper and print didn’t need to worry much about their flashier brethren. However, the dawn of the Internet age soon brought print to a crashing halt – the proliferation of connected devices and access to them was so much higher than it had ever been with television or radio. Now, people could get all the news they wanted, whenever they wanted. TV responded by building the 24-hour news cycle, radio responded with satellite. And print responded with … well, nothing.

Because print has always trafficked in content – however, it has never really monetized it well. Newspapers didn’t (and still don’t) make money because of their content – they make money because of advertising and circulation that has to do more with readership than anything else.

Why Newspaper Isn't Thriving in a Content Marketing World

If it were simply a medium issue, print newspapers would be able to parlay their legacy readership into a huge online presence, via their websites. But this isn’t about the medium, although many people under the age of twenty-five find ink-smudged fingers decidedly unattractive. It’s about the fact that newspaper has never sold itself based on content – perhaps in some of the larger cities where you’ve got a Siskel and an Ebert sparring across the aisle or in Washington where a Woodward and a Bernstein are running down a scandal – but otherwise, newspaper has promoted itself, based on one premise – coupons and advertising.

Now, with a fragmented media space that grows more cumbersome every day, advertisers are able to judiciously pick and choose where their advertising money goes. The old guard of print is no longer all that attractive – it’s too expensive and not targeted enough. Where at its conception, the biggest boon to newspaper was its ability to reach people over large geographic areas, this widespread reach has been its downfall in the Internet age. Which leads us to another buzz-phrase for 2013: Big Data.

While the term conjures images of ten-gallon hats and Texas barbeque, it simply means, organizations are going to look for more ways to tap into the massive amounts of data being collected via the Internet every day. And why? Because this data will more accurately help them target their consumers, which will hopefully reduce the amount of wasted advertising spend while simultaneously raising their profits. It’s a win-win for just about everybody, but newspaper.

Newspaper data is at its best flawed. It mostly relies on recall by consumers, filling out paper surveys or answering ones over the phone. The only true way to get data regarding newspaper readers is to find a newspaper reader and talk to them. We cannot drop cookies on their countertops or attach a machine to the paper and track the number of page flips. So, in the age of Big Data, newspaper will once again be left out, relying on antiquated (and often expensive) information gathering methods while the world goes digital.

So, what is newspaper to do?


To be continued very soon! But I'd love to know your comments. What do you think newspaper and print should do to survive the digital age? Can they do anything or has that ship already sailed?

04 February 2013

The Media Revolution Will Be Digitized

Hello, my name is Megan and I am addicted to media. 

There, I said it. I am and have been addicted to media for quite some time. I amassed mountains of books in my youth, going so far as to create my own card catalog to keep track of them (for those of you younger than 25, ask your older colleagues what that means). In second grade, I pretended to edit a magazine, recruiting an editorial board and holding "story" meetings. Our magazines were actually blank pages full of scribbles stapled into manilla folders, but hey, we were generating some good content.

When I got older, I started to appreciate other types of media, namely newspaper. There was always a newspaper in our house on the weekends when I was growing up, I was used to the smudgy fingers and ad circulars, the horoscopes and the crosswords, and especially the comics. During my "Garfield" phase I cut out every strip that was in the paper and saved them. Yup, every one.

In college, I was lucky enough to work for the campus newspaper. I applied for the job partly because I liked to write and partly because I was a little enamored of my mass communications teacher who was an old-time newspaper/media guy. He said, "You want to be the person who stays until the end of the credits at a movie," and "You want to be the person who reads the paper," so I became both. 

I loved working in the newsroom - loved the camaraderie of the other reporters and editors, how much we all knew about current events and the fact that we all had an opinion we weren't afraid to share. It was awesome.
After college, I worked for an advertising agency, which my favorite professor viewed as a form of betrayal, but what could I do? They were hiring. During those years I learned about media from the other side and started to really explore the depth and breadth of this new tool called "the World Wide Web." 

Now, ten years later, after having worked for three interactive advertising agencies, and getting my master's degree in professional writing, I seemed to have brought everything full circle. I'm working at a newspaper once again, a major daily in one of the Top 20 DMAs in the U.S. Not as a writer, but as a marketer. And if you think newspaper marketing is an oxymoron, you haven't been paying attention.
I firmly believe via the research I've done and the current state of my working environment, that the day of reckoning between digital and traditional media is upon us. Until now, they have been barely coexisting, pretending to work in tandem, when really, they're working at cross purposes. It's mostly due to the fact that there is still an old guard in traditional media who is scared out of their minds at the rate at which digital media changes and can't believe how fast it's grown into a legitimate competitor. It's also due to the fact that digital media proponents don't really understand or value traditional media. They see it as a roadblock to growth and innovation. 
Neither side is right and continuing to butt heads will only result in an implosion that will take the print world down in a blaze of glory. Newsprint burns hot.
Throughout 2013, my goal will be to examine this day of reckoning and the factors leading up to it. Just as wars are fought for a variety of reasons, this battle will be waged from many different angles. Will there be an inciting incident like the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand or the invasion of Poland? It's hard to say; things have been simmering for so long a rolling boil can't be far behind. 

Some of the topics I plan to address include:
  • RIP: Original Content
  • New Consumers are your Lifeblood
  • Advertising isn't the only answer
  • Don't reinvent the microchip - What New Media can learn from Old 
Having worked for over ten years in a variety of media environments and with companies that were both successful and struggling, I've got quite a lot of knowledge and insight I'd like to share. I don't know if I'd call myself an expert, but if someone else did, I wouldn't mind. Maybe I'll be able to shed some light on this showdown that's coming. Maybe I'll just douse the fire with lighter fluid. It’s the not knowing that makes it fun.

18 January 2012

Five Reasons Why You Don’t Want SOPA to Pass

SOPA and PIPA are the latest acronyms to flood the interwebs, many of the articles promising death and destruction should either of these bills pass in the Congress. I whole-heartedly agree they are not good for America, Americans or the world at large, however, I think the real issues surrounding them, while alarming, have kept us from focusing on some of the other byproducts such laws would create.

I do not intend to cause a frenzy, however, I do want to draw your attention to the less discussed fall-out of the passage of bills like these.

1. Censorship is a slippery slope and we won’t gain traction back quickly.
No matter how anyone spins it, SOPA is a form of censorship. The language written into the bill does not directly state it, but then again, it never would have gotten as far as it has with a blatant mention of the “c” word. In fact, there is language at the front of the bill that expressly states it’s not meant to infringe on the 1st Amendment.

(1) FIRST AMENDMENT- Nothing in this Act shall be construed to impose a prior restraint on free speech or the press protected under the 1st Amendment to the Constitution. (Source)
As we have discovered in the past however, the road to hell is paved with such good intentions. SOPA is meant to censure any website that so much as thinks about copyright infringement or offers a mechanism that could allow for copyright infringement. That means comment sections, photo uploads, back-linking etc. You know, all the things we do online. But perhaps the scariest thought is that once you say ‘yes’ to censorship, it gets harder and harder to say ‘no.’ Set the precedent and the really difficult legwork has already been done for any Internet denizen with a bone to pick.

2. A free flow of ideas breeds innovation.

Let me quote Sir Isaac Newton, you know, the guy who put a name to gravity: “If I have seen farther, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” I’m not saying that people don’t come up with new ideas or inventions; they do. But, most of the things that are being created now are building upon someone else’s creation or discovery. We wouldn’t have thought to break the sound barrier if we hadn’t known one existed. We wouldn’t be trying to cure cancer, if someone hadn’t discovered it in the first place. See where I’m going with this? Innovative thinking is an organic result of the thinking that came before. It is spawned from the “what if?” question that often follows the discovery of something and then leads to the next. By limiting what is available and how someone accesses that information, we are limiting those who would share their work and discoveries with the internet at large. Crowd-sourcing would become the first casualty. What is effectively online brainstorming, bringing together people with different knowledge, backgrounds and experiences, could be considered the epitome of copyright infringement.

3. The Internet has done more good than harm.
While it is not truly universal or available to everyone (there are still limits to access based on income, connectivity, etc.), it is still quickly becoming the most accessible media. Unlike newspaper, TV, radio or telephone, the internet needs very little to get carried from one city, one state, one country to the next. If we disregard connection issues for the moment, how else can we explain the ubiquity of the internet and its role in global movements, such as the uprising this past summer in Egypt or even opposition to SOPA? The beauty of the internet is that it shrinks our world, allowing us to garner information from others who have different views and experiences than us. It has also made things like medical information, education and news available to people who did not have access before.

4. Passage of SOPA won’t stop online piracy.
Newsflash: the people whom this bill is designed to stop, i.e. online pirates who take great pride in stealing Hollywood’s latest blockbuster or the music industry’s latest album, already KNOW THEY’RE DOING SOMETHING WRONG. They don’t need legislation to tell them that. Passage of this bill will not cause them to sit up and say, “Oh no, that’s illegal? I better stop then.” It will simply encourage them to find new and more creative ways to make pirated content available.

Put succinctly, SOPA will not stop the pirates, but it will punish the rest of us who are trying to share our ideas, our favorite stories, our family photos, etc. with other friends, family or the internet at large. It will prevent us from engaging in a good, healthy debate in the comments section of a blog or other news source, because somewhere on that site, someone will have infringed a copyright and the site will be forced to go dark. It will also punish businesses and website owners who may not have the time or resources to police every comment, photo, video, audio clip, link that is shared on their site. It will allow the big boys to get bigger while the little guys shrivel up and disappear. One of the provisions of SOPA is that search engines (i.e. Google, Bing) must remove all pages of the offending site from their index. Do you know how long it takes a site to build up search engine credibility to get listed in the first place? It’s not an overnight process. So, the damage of penalizing a small site that might finally have hit its stride can be ongoing, as they will need to start all over again once the site is deemed “okay” by the powers that be.

5. SOPA is a machete.
This is not the job for hacking with a giant, unsharpened knife. If anything, it’s the job for a scalpel, and one that is wielded by an expert (or team of experts). Website owners and content creators/managers will need to be involved in writing and enacting legislation that will not only work, but is easier to follow and enforce.

Whether SOPA or PIPA actually pass or are even brought to a vote before Congress is not yet apparent. As today’s web black-out comes to an end, we will need to wait and see what type, if any, effect it had on those in Washington who first proposed SOPA. The White House has already come out against the bill, stating: “While we believe that online piracy by foreign websites is a serious problem that requires a serious legislative response, we will not support legislation that reduces freedom of expression, increases cybersecurity risk, or undermines the dynamic, innovative global Internet.” (Source). So, this is good news, but the fact that the White House wants some type of legislation still makes it a scary proposition as we’ll need to wait and see what the next bill and its language encompasses.

The best thing we can hope for is that this first proposed bill has shed enough light on the situation that people now understand how important and potentially damaging such a law could be. This should aid the cause in the future when the new language is proposed and help 1) to determine if the new proposed language is better than the current incarnation and 2) to mobilize the general population faster to ensure that we continue to let the government know we will not allow such a bill to pass without understanding its intricacies and how it will affect everyone.
Read the full language of the Stop Online Piracy Act Here - Library of Congress Website

21 December 2011

Why Content is King

Let’s think about this for a minute: There are two things that set websites apart from one another:
  1. Content
  2. Quality
Whoever has the best combination of both is going to slice through the online noise and win eyeballs.

Aside from sounding creepy, that probably also sounds all but impossible. How can you win the quality content war when posting a 140 character tweet takes less than thirty seconds, making your Facebook status update which clocks in at 45 seconds, obsolete? The answer isn’t faster or quicker – it’s more.

Before the internet or long distance phone calls, there was a glorious tradition in this country of the printed word. Newspapers published both morning and evening editions and competed in large and small markets for pennies. Hearst and Pulitzer, two giants of industry and media, duked it out in New York City at the turn of the 20th Century, treating their rivalry as a war fought on American soil. They undercut each other’s prices, gouged the delivery boys to make a few extra cents and forced workers to cross picket lines. They poached reporters and photographers on an almost weekly basis, offering more money and benefits if they thought one journalist had a better chance at getting a scoop than the other. They were two of the most powerful men in a country gearing up for an industrial revolution and the start of a new century. And they got rich doing it.

Obviously, the advent of technology has debilitated the power of the printed media. Newspapers have been forced to adapt, many of them building websites and mobile versions that impart the same content as their printed counterparts, without the added inconvenience of ink-smudged fingertips. In some larger markets, a few newspapers have disappeared, suspending their print versions to transition to an online-only model, while others have started to construct a paywall, charging a fee for a subscription to the online website.

The backlash to the latter has been less than expected, but the very idea is still enough to cause publishers and editors to break out in a flop sweat. And here’s why: they know their online content isn’t any better or more in-depth than the hundreds of websites reporting the same thing who don’t charge a premium to read it.

Similar to my recent post on nostalgia, many newspaper and media outlets are banking on our feelings of nostalgia to keep their sales afloat. Memories of grandpa or dad nursing a cup of coffee on the porch and flipping through different sections; fights over breakfast for the funny pages; even Thanksgiving day game-planning with the pile of sales inserts, are all memories and traditions many of us who are over the age of 21 cling to. And newspapers are using this as a key selling point, believing that this nostalgia and sense of tradition will keep people subscribing to the paper. So far, it’s worked. 

But nostalgia will only get you so far, and we are nearing a tipping point in media, social, and news. With the cluttered marketplace competing for precious bits of our already cluttered lives, something’s gotta give. What will encourage one person to keep reading the paper or visiting the website, when the same news is available through a Twitter feed or the morning radio. It used to be the in-depth level of coverage available in print far exceeded the snippets one could find on the evening news or during morning drive time. We craved more information, details, all four ‘w’s and an ‘h’, not just the bare minimum. But now, we don’t have the time. If reading a five paragraph article doesn’t really tell us any more than the one paragraph synopsis, there’s no incentive to waste those precious minutes.

There is an answer though, hopeless as it may seem. And unfortunately, it flies in the face of most current budgeting and planning in the media. Devote more quality resources to editorial content. Spend the money to build a strong reporting core of journalists who can not only gather facts but are interested in digging deeper to uncover new angles and insights.

Similarly, build your opinions section back up. We’re not really a nation of free thinkers any more. There are too many competing voices saying ‘almost’ the same thing. We need smart people to analyze the messages and tell us what to think. I say this in all sincerity – spend any time actually trying to listen to a politician as they stand on their soap box and I challenge you to actually tell me the difference between his platform and his opponent’s. That’s right, you can’t. I attest the goal for opinion and commentary writers is not to be less biased, but more. 

As we ponder paywalls and become the latest casualties in the media’s battle for relevance, I guarantee you that these two things – content and quality – are what will set everyone apart. They are what will drive readership and revenues and what will ultimately spell success or failure for websites.