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.

No comments: