connecting the dots

Another printed newspaper went away today and with typical media self-absorption, the paper reported their own obituary with an in-depth report complete with a full page front page farewell. This death comes on the tails of last week’s Pew Research report that apparently shows that the public is not concerned with the demise of newspapers.

First off, I think the reports of the death of newspapers are widely overstated — because they’ve been over reported by the subjects themselves.  The Narcissus Media demands that other news orgs report on other news orgs. So the Seattle and Denver news deaths were front page news from the NY Times down to the Podunk Weekly Times (circulation 51).  The editors of other papers were interested in the deaths of these papers so they thought you would be too.

Plus some of these papers (which are actually for-profit businesses!) needed to die just like some banks need to die right now. Over-consolidation and over-monopolization of newspapers have caused unrealistic expectations from shareholders of these bloated behemoths corporations. (Radio, you’re next!) The reality is that with more available media outlets some markets can no longer support more than one major daily newspaper. (but what about the San Francisco Chronicle, you cry? Prediction: If the Chronicle does go under, there will be a new nimbler newspaper pop up in its place within a month.)

Despite the naysayers — there will always be a market for news and information. Sure, now is a rough economic time for any industry that depends on ad dollars — but a sensibly run media organization that’s looking to the future will be OK in the long run. That doesn’t mean that information will always be printed on sheets of dead trees and thrown on your doorstep. That model is going / will eventually go the way of the dodo. I think the Seattle Post-Intelligencer is a good coal mine canary to see if a traditional newspaper can transition to a new distribution model.

Every pundit, guru, and almost everyone in media has put their two cents in about the journalism “crisis” and have come up with a plethora of ideas from micropayments to new distribution models to crowdsourcing. Some have merit and some are “just rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic” (a favorite phrase of the pundits). From my seat in the nosebleed section, I see that newspapers (and all traditional news media) have two main problems that need to be solved before the ship sinks:

Problem 1) — a house divided against itself cannot stand
I rail and rant against organizations that have no marketing/business strategy. And while having no strategy is a bad problem, there’s something that’s even worse — and that’s having two strategies. News organizations are particularly prone to this problem because of the supposed “editorial wall” (there’s a great post here about this problem). Walk into any traditional media outlet and ask 5 people what’s the organization’s plan for dealing with the new realities of communication, and you’ll get 5 answers that will be biased by the side of the wall they’re on.
REALITY: People read the newspaper for news. Go try to sell advertising in a paper that has no news content and see how far you go.
REALITY: Reporters want a paycheck. That Mac needs electricity to run. Advertising supports the economics of journalism.
SOLUTION: Every news organization needs to kill their separate internal tribes, come up with one war strategy that everyone agrees on, and fight the white man before he takes your land.

Problem 2) — the Brand has been forgotten
There’s a disconnect in perceptions when it comes to news coverage. While the news orgs are saying “You’ll miss us when we’re gone!“, the public is saying “uhhh, no we won’t“. It doesn’t matter who is right. But guess which group’s perception matters to the bottom line and staying in business?

Brand is perception. Perception is reality. What changed the public’s perception of the news brand into something they think they can live without?

Alot of people blame the emergence of online media for journalism’s current troubles. And while it’s a major factor, online is not what is killing newspapers. Newspapers saw the Internet coming way before you had your first AOL account. The trouble was that their first line of defense didn’t work in Web 1.0. When Web2.0 rolled around, they saw they missed the opportunity so now they’re trying to out amateur the amateurs — which is killing the brand image they’ve been cultivating for 50, 75, or 100 years. It’s not hard to find ameutuer-ish crap on the Internet, but it is hard to find sources of information that you’ve trusted for years.

The news media have not done a good job selling their USP. Instead of focusing on the one thing that they could do better than anyone else (local news), they wrapped 2% of news into 98% of other stuff that could easily be replicated by competitors and sold it as such.

The sale to the news consumer is not “you can’t get this type of information anywhere else”. It devolved into “buy a subscription and get a CD and an umbrella“.  News media have forgotten what they’re really selling so the consumer has forgotten as well. The public thinks they won’t miss the newspaper because the newspaper has cultivated a brand that they are the place to get the items that the public can now get other places in better ways. But there is no better way to get local news.

Problem 2 is the bigger problem and the one that will take the longest to fix. But the fix needs to start today.

Plus there’s a third problem of trying to fit old mass media models into new media which I addressed last fall.

Chris Houchens is a marketing raconteur & writer. Connect with him on Twitter or Facebook.

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7 comments on “connecting the dots
  1. mark van patten says:

    Newsrooms have always been disconnected from the rest of the newspaper and the rest of the community.

    Consider this: (and I have many other views on your post) if students right out of college were paid a decent wage to start work on a small town paper, and perhaps find a mate, and spend 3-5 years in a town, they might find some connection outside the newsroom.

    Instead, newspaper companies pay poorly – all throughout the ranks – causing turnover. Reporters don’t know community. Community doesn’t know reporters. (TV has the same poor pay, but the visibility gives the community a sense of connection.)

    Reporters hang out with other reporters because they are all broke.

    In order to earn more: A. reporters leave for larger news organizations (or PR) or B. they get promoted to be a mid-level editor.

    The silo was built long ago and editors like it that way and publishers don’t have the real power to force change. The silo reaches all the way to the board rooms. “It’s always been done that way.”

    Oh, and preventing reporters from drinking and smoking in the newsroom was a major contributor to the loss of newsroom veterans too.

  2. @mark van patten Replace the word “reporters” with “salespeople”, or “carriers” or “pressmen” or any other dept in any news org and there are similar problems. It’s not just a newsroom issue. It’s a holistic cancer.

  3. mark van patten says:

    Wrong, Tropicana breath!

    Sales and circulation are more connected because of the nature of their jobs and personalities. These people have to please other people to be successful. A reporter often has to really hack people off to be successful: they show up at crime scenes and fires and accidents.

    On the “manufacturing” side, these people are not instilled with the “ivory tower mentality” that reporters are taught.

    Reporters are taught a “profession” but are treated as craftsman/trades when it comes to pay. Their own union argues in favor of them being classified as a trade so that overtime is mandatory. Newspapers have dodged this by devising a convoluted “employment agreement” that is specious.

  4. @mark van patten Not so fast, M&M breath!

    I tee-totally agree there’s a “how dare you pierce the journalism holiest-of-holies” ivory tower mentality, but there’s also a silo-ed mentality across the board.

    Readers/advertisers won’t “get” online? — online people think “gooberville is behind the times”

    Client turns down the big advertising pitch and decides to spend money elsewhere? — advertising people think “they’re making a big mistake, guess they don’t know how much they need us”.

    Results from advertising might please people, but salespeople don’t please people. They convince people to part with money in exchange for a service.

    Making media buys for a client several years ago, I was spending 10s of thousands of dollars a year with a newspaper. I physically saw my salesperson twice over the span of 5+ years — once by accident at another business’s event and once when they asked me to come into the newspaper office to sell me a promotion that I didn’t need. Meanwhile, I faxed (in those days!) press releases to the same newspaper and got decent coverage with reporters showing up to do a full story several times. Which one was more connected to my community?

    But the whole community argument is secondary — the big point I was trying to make in the post was about communication between both sides of the wall. It’s hard to win an external war when you’re fighting a civil war.

    The trouble is the whole procedure is a manufacturing process instead of a resourceful roll-with-the punches practice. Manufacture news >> which manufactures readers >> whose eyeballs are sold to advertisers. One department makes their part of the widget, then delivers only what is absolutely necessary to the next department, and down the line until a final product is produced every 24 hours. After years and years and years of doing it that way, it freaks out and angers every department when a new variable is added to the mix.

    The media has proven that it can adopt new technologies pretty quickly, but it’s going to be near impossible to change the culture / attitudes on both sides of that wall.

  5. mark van patten says:

    “the big point I was trying to make in the post was about communication between both sides of the wall. It’s hard to win an external war when you’re fighting a civil war.”

    …and of course with this I will not disagree because you are right.

  6. Jim McBee says:

    @ Chris Houchens
    So what does breaking down the wall get you? In what way does de-siloing make a news org. more responsive, nimble, whatever?

    The primary reason for the wall, as you know, is because ad people try to get news people to do sleazy puff stories that will satisfy ad buyers. (A lot of that goes on in spite of the alleged wall, but that’s another story.)

    If the two sides make peace, what are the terms? What is won or lost on either side? And then, apart from reduced friction, where are the gains?

  7. @Jim McBee — I refer again to my house divided against itself analogy. When you’re not fighting each other, you can fight the threats and become a responsive nimble org.
    I don’t know what the terms of the truce would be, but it would probably revolve around some change up of the “The enemy of my enemy today is my friend today” philosophy.
    I can’t see why it’s even a question. The whole concept of two groups inside one organization fighting with each other while the walls fall down around them is insane.