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.

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