A wise editor I know described his newspaper’s situation this way: “We have two houses. One is on fire and the other isn’t built yet. So our problem is that we have to fight the flames in the old house at the same time we’re trying to figure out how to build the new one.”
The burning house sits on the foundation of media’s old business model, which is built on volume: reach and frequency in mass media terms, unique users and clicks online. This house is doomed to commoditization as the abundance and competition the internet spawns drive the price of the scarcity we once controlled — media time and space — toward zero. Yet this is the model that still makes us our money and so, just to survive and perchance to invest in an alternative future and home, we must still feed that fire with cats, Kardashians, and every new trick we can find, from programmatic ads and so-called content-recommendation engines (which commoditize media yet further) to native advertising (which, when it fools our readers, only depletes the seed corn that is our trust and brand). We know where this ends: in ashes.
Meanwhile we are building our new house, our future, without blueprints. No one has a clear plan for what will work. In Geeks Bearing Gifts, I proposed a way of reconceiving of our business based on relationships, on knowing people as individuals and members of communities — no longer the mass — so we could serve them with greater relevance and value.
I got some things wrong in Geeks. I pinned too much hope on the growing local ecosystem of news, on the opportunity for unemployed journalists and caring community members to start hyperlocal blogs and join together with other media in kumbaya networks to share audience, advertising sales, and news. For the New Jersey news ecosystem, where I’ve worked with others to build this model, I offered free training at CUNY to build your own “beat business.” We couldn’t fill the class. There weren’t enough people — especially journalists — willing to risk starting such an entrepreneurial venture for the promise of ramen noodles. Yet the need and opportunity to serve these communities remains. And so I shift attention back to the legacy newspapers that are now desperate for innovation and change. I tell them their future lies in building relationships.
The relationship strategy requires learning new skills: listening to communities to discern their needs; empowering teams that cut across our organizations to develop products and services that are more targeted to the needs of those communities and how they use information; building user profiles so we can gather, analyze, and act on data about our people as individuals; and building new revenue from new lines of business, such as events, commerce, and membership. We also need to see how we can bring these new skills and data to advertisers in new ways (hoping they still need us). How do we do all that — experimenting and inevitably failing along the way — at the same time we’re hanging onto the damned fire hose?
In the year-plus since writing the book, I have been testing these ideas with media proprietors of many stripes: new and old; print and digital; local and global. I’m gratified to see acceptance in theory — but not so much in practice. Many say they need help, asking: How do we get there from here? In the book, I tried not to give exact instructions: “If I had a plan, I’d be eliminating possibilities,” I wrote. That’s all well and good but damnit, man, the house is on fire!
It’s time for me to put my money where my mouth is and propose what I would do if — not that this would ever happen — I found myself in charge of a newspaper, magazine, or other news enterprise in flames. Here is what I would do to begin the process of transformation, to implement the principles I explored in my book in practical terms, to build the future while surviving the present (nevermind preserving the past). The problem, of course, is that everything can — no, will — change again overnight. Instant Articles will come. Instant Articles can go. And future phenomena — augmented reality, the power of audio to deliver targeted information, natural language processing, artificial intelligence — hang out there with uncertain impact. That is why, in the book, I stuck to principles and strategies rather than tactics, so its advice could last. But here, I’ll try to take what we know and see coming today and propose a path, focusing primarily on the relationship strategy.
You should take for granted that key journalistic values — investing in investigative journalism, holding the powerful to account, acting as a watchdog on officials, dealing in uncomfortable truths, battling for justice — must be saved and served in my vision, all the more today than in my lifetime. But that’s not what I’m focusing on here. In this post, I try to deal with the guts of what used to be a newspaper: serving the community (or now communities) at sufficient scale to sustain the journalistic goals I just listed and to enable that work to have an impact. Let’s be honest: Only a slice of newsroom resources ever went to High Journalism. Much of our resources went to reporting what just happened, features, service, repackaging others’ news, and producing the daily miracle of the printed newspaper. Here, I’ll argue for reallocating those resources to build greater trust and value with the publics we serve. Rather than merely creating a product called content and attracting an audience to sell to advertisers — our old model — we can now reconceive of journalism as a service to our communities, convening them into informed, civil, and productive conversation and helping them improve their lives. Nothing less.
If there’s a fire you’re trying to douse
You can’t put it out from inside the house
— Thomas Jefferson & James Madison in Hamilton
It is tempting to begin — as most publishers do and as their owners, public or private, demand — with worrying about the present, the flames and this quarter’s traffic and revenue. But before I address how to do that emergency work, it is best to step outside the house and decide what we are trying to build for the future, so our needs for tomorrow can inform our decisions today: knowing what to cut and what to save, what to learn, what to build, what data to gather, what alliances to make, what to promote with the megaphone we still have, whom to hire and train.
The business goal is clear: We must build a fully sustainable digital enterprise before the day when print is unsustainable. That is the only useful definition of “digital first.” Set a date — closer than you dare think — when print will become unsustainable because print circulation falls below critical mass and more advertisers — particularly coupons and circulars and then legal ads — disappear. We must build uniquely valuable digital products and services to replace our one-size-fits-all, mass-market product, The News, which is becoming less valuable by the minute as it is commoditized by aggregators, algorithms, and summarizers.
When we do become fully digital — as, for example, London’s Independent did when it decided to stop printing its unprofitable print product — the battle is hardly over. Then we must figure out how to break our addiction to the business models we imported from old, mass media, building our future on value over volume. Yes, we’ll still need reach to have enough prospects to convert to higher-value offerings — but then we need something of value to convert them to. We cannot still shovel our old product — content — into this new reality and think we will find new ways to support what we used to do. We must reconceive of media and journalism as a service, not a product.
I will start here: We need to build new services that deliver relevance and utility and thus value to individuals and communities, earning us data, loyalty, and revenue in return. Whom should we serve? I see three answers:
- Communities: Because our strength in newspapers has long been that we are local, our reflexive opening bid when we hunt for communities to serve is to pick a town or a neighborhood. Having beat the hyperlocal drum for more than a decade now — too optimistically, as I confessed above — I won’t argue against serving local communities. But there are many other communities to consider as well: retirees, small-business owners, ethnic diasporas, parents of small children, addicts, activists, teachers, first responders, gay men, lesbian women, divorcees, young African-American men, and on and on. Beware demographics — I have less in common with people who look like me than pollsters and marketers would lead us to believe, and making a product or service for a statistical grouping (“what do women want?”) risks patronizing them. Beware also the false community, defined externally, such as millennials or Hispanics. And beware the hubris of the news brand and the belief that people who happen to buy our product think of themselves as members of our community. Instead find communities that are self-defined and somehow underserved and learn how to serve them better.
- Interests: Almost all communities are, in the conception of Benedict Anderson, imagined communities — that is, groups of people who probably have not met but who will gather around a common need or desire. Even if I do not know other cancer patients and even if I would not consider myself a member of a cancer community, it is certainly clear that as someone who has had cancer I share information needs with them (and different needs at different times). There is, of course, no scarcity of interests that can be served: pro or college team fans, environmentalists, crafters, foodies, people selling homes, people buying homes, job-seekers, pet-owners, etc. Here beware thinking that people organize their interests around the USA Today taxonomy we traditionally offer: news, life, money, sports. Also understand that topics do not necessarily equate with interests. Google News head Richard Gingras likes to use this example: He was fascinated by the story of former New York Rep. Anthony Weiner — infamous for the very public pictures of his privates — not because Gingras was interested in New York politics or Weiner’s genitals but because he cannot resist the story of a fall from grace. Interests must be defined not in our terms — the content we happen to have, the way we assign and organize our newsroom — but instead in the terms of the interested.
- Use cases: Here is a sorely under-explored opportunity in reimagining what news can be. In Geeks, I argued that mobile forces us to imagine and serve the many different use cases of news, just as mobile forced Facebook to build or buy services for different use cases of social connection: Facebook for organizing friends’ information, WhatsApp and Messenger for communicating with them, Instagram and VR for sharing experiences with them. Some examples of use cases for news: waking up and wanting a quick view of what’s been happening since the day before (a home page is a rather poor excuse for a product that serves that need as it is built to serve our desire to promote our stories, not the user’s need for a kind of information); following and receiving alerts on stories that matter to us (the original Cir.ca, which I praised in Geeks, tried to answer that use case but sadly it turned out to be an insight without a business model and it folded); getting background or explanation on a story (Vox began creating background “card stacks” to compete with Wikipedia); connecting people with other members of their communities to talk or to take action (comments are a woefully inadequate mechanism for doing that). We need to start with people’s needs and serve them in the context of their use, differently on Facebook than via Amazon Echo or Snap.
Note well that in each of these situations, we must shift from media-centric products — our newspaper, our content, our home page, our comments — to public-centric services: a place for people to come together with residents of their town; a place where seniors can find the right adult development for them; continuing alerts about developments in an issue a high-school parent cares about; a means of connecting with others who are concerned about filthy park to get it fixed; and so on. I am not talking about personalizing the serving of the content we already have (though that would be a good and necessary start). I am talking instead about building new products to serve specific constituencies in new ways.
It is tempting to imagine that we know the communities to be served and what they need, because that is how we have long operated. And, to be fair, until recently we did not have all the means we now have to listen to the public we serve. But now we do have many ways to listen before we decide how to serve a community. We need to work on that skill. Start with the community, not the content.
In CUNY’s Social Journalism master’s program, which Geeks inspired, Dr. Carrie Brown and I have our students find a community whose members would self-identify as a community (not millennials or Hispanics, which are externally defined). Then we assign each student to observe and listen to people in that community to understand and empathize with their problems, needs, and goals. I am quite explicit in my instructions that students should not to take an idea they already have to the community for reaction. No, first bring back evidence of the community’s needs and then — and only then — should you imagine how the tools of journalism can help them. Next, take a proposal and then a product back to the community to test it with them. Adapt. Rinse. Repeat.
I am describing a variation on “design thinking” or “human-centered design,” which is taught at the Stanford D School and is much in vogue in Silicon Valley. Nevermind the hype or the particulars of the methodology; Post It Notes are not mandatory. Simply pay heed to the fundamental idea that whether you are making a widget or a news service, whether you are serving what you think of as a market or a community, it is wise to observe and listen before building.
In the first year that I taught Entrepreneurial Journalism at CUNY, two of our star students decided that they wanted to build a service to help people in their twenties to better manage their money. I sent them out to talk with people of that age to learn their needs. The students returned with a clear message: People in their twenties don’t have enough money to manage; they couldn’t have cared less about the service the students envisioned. So the students went back out and spoke with people in their thirties, who did indeed need such help, and a business plan emerged around that idea. After graduating, one of the students built that service at a newspaper.
My CUNY colleagues Sandeep Junnarkar and Jere Hester led an impressive project with students to investigate the plague of mold in New York public housing. In partnership with the New York Daily News, they told the story to the wider public. I call that externally focused journalism — telling someone’s story to the public in hopes that this knowledge will lead to awareness and changes in policy. That always has been and always will remain a vital role for journalism. But the CUNY team also practiced what I have come to see as internally focused journalism — that is, telling the community what it needs to know to fix its problem, from measuring mold to reporting it to authorities and holding them accountable to dealing with the health consequences of the scourge. We can argue about whether that is advocacy; in Geeks, I made it clear that I have no problem with that role for the journalist.
When he presented his lessons from the mold project to our first class of social journalists — leading to our exploration of the idea of externally vs. internally focused journalism — Junnarkar said that long into the project, a public housing community leaders thanked him, Hester, and the students for not just helicoptering in and out to exploit a good story, but for staying to help the community learn, take action, and cope. But then this resident asked why the CUNY team had chosen mold as its subject. It’s a big problem, she affirmed — but it’s not the community’s worst problem. Could CUNY’s considerable journalistic resources have been put to better use for the community if its members had had a role in deciding where to direct them? Therein lies the imperative to observe, listen, and ask before providing what we think are the answers a community needs.
In the mythical, impossible-to-imagine newspaper that makes me boss, I would begin by sending the paper’s reporters and editors as well as business colleagues, technologists, designers, and marketers out to report in a new way — not at first with a beat to walk or a story pitch in hand, but instead with an ear for a need rather than a story. Ask people what communities they say they belong to. Ask them about the information they need to better manage their lives and communities. Observe how they get their information now. Ask what works and what doesn’t. Ask what they need or want.
Then have the staff return to compare notes and lessons and begin identifying communities — across the three types I outlined above — that seem to be under-served. Have a truth session and ask how well the paper serves those communities now, if at all. See whether these needs are better met elsewhere. Then pick a few of those communities the staff believes it can better serve. And finally, think about how to serve them.
Now to develop new products. I use both those words — “product” and “develop” — advisedly. I would prefer “service” over “product” to make clear that we aren’t manufacturing and marketing a finished thing; we are helping people do what they want to do. But “product development” is the job title already well-established at the core of reinventing news organizations and so I will use it. I also hesitate to say “develop,” for I am not suggesting for a moment that every newspaper in America create new apps for every community and every use case. Building a new service could mean anything from assigning a reporter to a community, to creating or contributing to a Facebook page or group, to scheduling a series of events, to creating a curriculum. When technology is required, I will always suggest starting with a search for whatever is already available. Some argue that news companies need to become technology companies to compete with Silicon Valley and survive. I am not convinced that we are capable of learning these skills, after decades of demonstrating that we’re bad at technology. On the other hand, The New York Times, The Guardian, The Washington Post, Springer, Schibsted, and other large news organizations boast sizable staffs of developers and they are producing much good work (though I do cringe when I hear most media companies think they are so special they need to build their own content management systems). When I say “develop” I could simply mean “start” and when I say “product” I mean serve: Start serving your communities in new ways.
In our past, when it came time to build something new, editorial would dream up a new feature or section without market research, then go knock on the door of the technology department and take a number behind some large number of higher priority projects — along the way perhaps letting the business side know that something is up. That doesn’t work. Instead, at the start of this process, I will urge a news company to convene a small, cross-functional team representing editorial (or as it may soon be known, product), commercial (that is, revenue of any stripe as that might include events or membership in addition to advertising), audience development (though I also dislike the passive word “audience;” this used to be called circulation), technology/design, and data analysis (if that skill exists in house). Assign and empower them to learn a community’s members’ needs and then conceive of ways to serve them, with economic sustainability in mind from the start. Keep in mind that your news organization does not work in isolation; it exists in a media, information, and technology ecosystem, which might necessitate creating something complementary to what already exists or collaborating with others. Collaboration and sharing— with other news outlets of all kinds (newspaper, public radio, nonprofit news organization, local and specialist blogs, and critically also Google, Facebook, et al) is an important means we should be using to extend news organizations’ work and audiences and to make us far more efficient.
Let’s say that you choose to serve young parents. It has been a few years since I was one, but I hope I can still remember their needs, very few of which would be answered with beat reporting and news articles. Young mothers’ and fathers’ information needs on parenting, health questions, potty training — you name it — are universal and well-met elsewhere. What can a local news organization provide? Perhaps matching and scheduling services to meet other parents with children the same age for play dates. Perhaps discounts on local goods and services. Perhaps advocacy to fix local parks. Perhaps ratings from fellow parents regarding daycare companies. The business opportunities are many: more targeted advertising; commerce; possibly events.
Let’s say we want to serve small-business owners. Even in their heyday, newspaper business sections did little for them beyond providing the occasional article of relevance. Working with local entrepreneurs, I’ve seen that they find value in connecting with each other. A local news organization can convene business people to online discussion as well as events. The journalist formerly known as a business reporter can observe that discussion, discover the community’s information needs, and then answer them — getting on the phone to explore a question about a new tax regulation or bringing in an expert to explain its implications, for example. Thus the news organization enables a community’s flow of information and adds journalistic value to it. The business opportunities are clear: targeted B-to-B advertising and commerce, events, education, and marketplaces for services and jobs.
Another: commuters, or communities of shared misery. Perhaps news organizations should have created Waze, a perfect mechanism for enabling the sharing of information. (A decade and a half ago, I did write a business plan for a service to enable commuters to share information about traffic with those following behind. The idea was foolishly ahead of the technology available; all I could come up with was a clumsy system of user profiles, phone calls, and texts.) Today news organizations can take advantage of the APIs Waze and Google Maps provide to give their audiences a preview of the commute before getting in the car. More to the point, we can give commuters a way to connect with each other in the imagined community that already exists around Chicago’s Eisenhower Expressway or San Francisco’s Bay Bridge or the Long Island Railroad’s Ronkonkomo Branch, sharing questions and answers, frustrations and tips, complaints and desires. (See, for example, Clever Commute, which solves New Jersey Transit’s annoying refusal to post tracks more than three minutes ahead of departure. It uses historical data to give commuters the odds of which track they’ll be on.) Here, too, a reporter can listen to the passing conversation and add journalistic value, going to the police to find out what the hell made I-95 into a mess this morning, studying Waze data to bring dangerous traffic spots to public attention, getting answers to commuters’ complaints from transit officials. The fringe benefit to the overall business: learning where a commuter lives and works so it can target more relevant content and advertising.
One more example on a national or local level: Cat owners. Yes, cat owners have information needs beyond sharing darling pictures and memes. My wife kept our dearly beloved family feline, Hailey, alive for more than a year — curing her diabetes by changing her diet — thanks to advice she received from dedicated and experienced community members online. Journalism could convene cat owners and experts, debunk crackpot advice, review products — and, yes, share cat photos, too. The business opportunities revolve mainly around commerce. And the costs are low.
I’m often asked how serving so-called niche communities scales. The first answer is that not everything has to scale to mass media proportions if the service is efficient and valuable. The next answer is that what scales is the skill of identifying, listening to, and serving communities; once we figure out how to do that a few times we can do it many times. I would say that abilities to listen and serve can become key strategic skills for news companies. This is a competency we can also sell to the clients formerly known as our advertisers. BuzzFeed doesn’t so much sell media space and time as it sells a skill (“We know how to make our stuff viral so we can make your stuff viral, too”). Ditto Vice (making stuff cool). Similarly, we in news can sell the skill of serving communities, bringing along garden centers to our gardening community, hospitals to our cancer community, or breweries to beer fans. Today we tend to think the only skill we have to sell is storytelling, and we sell that in the form of native advertising, in which we too often mix poorly labeled paid-for content with our independent reporting, confusing our public about which is which and lowering our standards and trust to the level of a huckster. We can do better.
With such community-centered design and service, I believe we can start to build the new house room by room, building more relevant and valuable products, resetting our relationship with the publics we serve, gathering and acting on signals of interest and need (that is, user data), exploring new revenue streams (membership, events, data, commerce, advertiser service) and reinventing our businesses. We will not change our business models, newsrooms, and organizations overnight . But we must start building and learning before that old house burns to the ground.
So let’s say that we figure out how to build real relationships with people, knowing and serving their needs and no longer just producing a one-size-fits-all web site. Then fate — also known as the internet — throws its next complication our way: the distributed net. We can no longer operate under the hubris that our public will always come to us. We must go to them. We cannot rely on producing destinations. We must be distributed across Facebook, YouTube, Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter, Alexis, Google Home, and whatever comes next. And we cannot just distribute the articles we already happen to have (just as we cannot merely personalize the serving of those articles and call that a relationship). We must build content, products, and services appropriate to the use cases each platform serves.
It’s very nice that Facebook created Instant Articles to speed up and improve the experience of clicking on links to our content — and lets us serve ads there — but do we really believe that users want to stop exploring their streams of enticing tidbits, gossip, photos, videos, and memes to read our 1,000-word think pieces? Only sometimes. When Facebook finally tried to become more transparent about the principles that govern its algorithmic decisions in putting together your News Feed, it made clear that friends and family come first — of course — and that information shares a secondary priority with entertainment. Facebook’s real lesson to publishers should be that we must learn to produce content in a form that suits users’ needs. I once saw a Google executive try to impart the same lesson to a roomful of newspaper editors and publishers, suggesting they should meet YouTube creators to learn about creating compelling video. The news executives sniffed: Who do you think we are — publishers or Pewdiepies?! They missed the point. When I attended Vidcon, a conference of primarily YouTube fans and creators, I learned that for the thousands of fans there, content is not a destination. It is a social token. When my daughter shares a video with a friend, she is doing so not as a recommendation but instead because the video speaks for her or because it says something about her or her relationship with the friend. Content becomes a tool for what someone else wants to do. How do we bring journalism to people’s conversations wherever and whenever they occur?
See, for example, how during the last election, the group Occupy Democrats made Facebook memes — a photo or video with text to encapsulate facts or arguments — in hopes that this will speak for people and that they will pass it around (earning Occupy Democrats 100–300 million impressions on Facebook each week). See how AJ+ and NowThisNews adapted to the fact that Facebook automatically played videos in the News Feed with sound off and so they perfected the silent movie for the social age. For that matter, see how Quartz, Politico, Skift, and many others make excellent newsletters that adapt their ideas of content delivery to the platform called email. They are making shareable, usable tools.
Do not think that social platforms are merely outlets for content delivery, even if that content is adapted to each use. No, social platforms are also a means to listen and serve. I just spent many long paragraphs arguing those are the key functions of journalism in the future. So what does that drive us to do? It means that we need to consider building products and services entirely off our sites and on the platforms as ends in themselves, not just as means to drive traffic to our own destinations. If I were one of my entrepreneurial students today, I’d consider building a business on Facebook, letting the platform take care of technology, production, distribution, and sales, hoping that Instant Articles, monetized video, and a version of native advertising can provide enough to support my very efficient enterprise. (See as a model Jersey Shore Hurricane News, which was built on Facebook before these means of earning revenue were offered there.) If I were heading the mythical newspaper foolish enough to hire me, I’d build products on Facebook with the goal of earning revenue there but moreso to build relationships, learn how to serve specific communities, and generate data about individuals’ needs, interests, and affinities. Imagine you serve, say, Manchester United fans on Facebook with news, interviews, videos, memes, special-event live video, and more. Some users you’ll serve only on Facebook and some users you may entice back to your site or to YouTube or to wherever they want to go with the knowledge that they are Man United fans you can superserve elsewhere. Could Facebook change the rules and pull the rug out from under us? Maybe. But we’re not serving Facebook. We’re serving Man United fans there and if we do a great job of it, we can find the ways to maintain and find value in those relationships.
What about old-fashioned news? you ask. What about covering City Hall, dogging the mayor, working the big game, reporting the election, sharing breaking national news? Yes. But here I would follow the formula of Anita Zielina, head of product at Switzerland’s high-brow Neue Zürcher Zeitung. She categorizes news and the new newsroom into fast, medium, and slow departments. Fast news is the commodity stuff people can learn about from TV and a score of web services. Spend as little time, effort, and resource on that as possible. Curate it. Medium news is where you add value. In NZZ’s case, that is with a likely PhD who offers unique perspective and analysis. In a metro newspaper’s case, that is offering unique reporting. It might also mean offering people context and — in the model of the Solutions Journalism movement — ways to take action. This is where you put most of your effort. Slow news is more like the output of a think tank or university; the NZZ or the Guardian or even The New York Times is more likely to offer that than your essential metro news operation.
Across these kinds of news, keep in mind that they should be offered in relevant forms and across relevant use cases: Take to Facebook to make memes and to Twitter to tweet and when possible, fully inform your users there; link to an article when an article is necessary and not redundant. And when possible, make news relevant to the communities you are now serving: Don’t write up the school board meeting but explain to parents the impact of a fight over charter schools and what they can do about it. Don’t cover the game and turn a score into a story but support the community of fans with conversation; they can get scores anywhere. Don’t predict who’ll win the election but listen to the concerns of citizens and get the politicians to listen. Unless you can add unique value to that big national news story with something that truly makes a difference to people in your communities, don’t rewrite it; link to it.
Get out of the commodity news business. Become uniquely relevant and valuable. Build relationships and trust. Let TV and Twitter tell people what just happened. Offer more.
So how does this mythical, remade newspaper — or magazine or broadcast station — make money? The relationship strategy provides a number of opportunities across multiple revenue streams and efficiencies.
Start with advertising. At the most basic level, if you are making products and services that are more useful, engaging, relevant, and valuable to people, then you will get greater loyalty, engagement, and usage, and even under the old, CPM-based advertising business, you will have more ad inventory. More important, knowing about people’s interests and needs — at an individual level — will enable you to sell higher-value and highly targeted advertising.
The only way we can fight media’s commoditization at the hands of programmatic and retargeting advertising and the large platforms is by gathering our own first-party data. And the best way to gather that data is not by forcing our users to give it to us through registration, by inferring it through demographics, or by sneakily compiling data from privacy-pillaging services such as Acxiom. No, the best way is by making an open transaction and compact with users, delivering obvious value in return for data. If you learn that someone is a young mother because she uses the great service you provide for young mothers, then she is giving you her consent to use that information — if you use it to her benefit. You will also be able to invite advertisers into the relationship so long as you are both respectful of that mother. That, after all, was always supposed to be the core value proposition of media for advertisers: not sharing impressions, exposure, or even attention — billboards do that (and so it is appropriate that the first and worst form of digital advertising was so named). Rather, we in media are supposed to build relationships of trust with the public and that is what advertisers want to benefit from.
The value of the relationship strategy is perhaps easier to illustrate with another revenue stream publishers are beginning to experiment with: events. It’s a tad ironic that one of the new opportunities in this digital age comes from bringing people together not online but IRL; that is the opportunity Scott Heiferman identified in 2002 when he founded Meetup. Yet many publishers are finding success in convening people to a wide range of events: interviews, lectures, panels, classes, concerts, craft fairs, reaces, festivals. The New York Times built a stage it uses for big-name interviews. Texas Tribune grosses more than $1.5 million a year from its festival and also from weekly, sponsored, public interviews with politicians and officials (including free lunch). The Guardian holds an impressive array of classes (though backed off building a large facility for events). Billy Penn makes lists of the top professionals in one field or another in Philadelphia (an old staple of city magazines and local business newspapers) and then brings them together for events; this accounts for more than half of the startup’s revenue.
Events provide two obvious sources of revenue: tickets and sponsorship. They also bring new costs — venues, booking, ticketing, catering, A/V — and require new skills. It is difficult to make events scale. But there is hidden value in events. There is data here: If people go to the effort to leave home and come to and perhaps pay to join your interview with the home team’s quarterback, your bridal fair, your food festival, your investment class, or the pug Meetup you organize, then you have a strong and reliable signal of their interest in these topics. The key is gathering and using that data to mutual benefit elsewhere, letting it inform your content targeting and creation and how you serve your advertising. The value to the user is not just your content but also the other people in the room: the potential community there. You would be wise to foster ongoing connections among them. When building any of the community services I spoke about above, I would check to see whether and how events could play into your strategy.
Another new revenue opportunity aided by data — one that is still almost unexplored in our industry — is commerce. I keep waiting for the moment when Jeff Bezos turns on a spigot of commerce revenue at the Post. Bezos is the person in the world best positioned to execute on the relationship strategy, for no one knows more about gathering, analyzing, and acting on a user’s data to return relevance and recommendations and to maximize revenue. Amazon and Google are each delving into same-day — and even one-hour — delivery. That should send a jolt up the alimentary canal of every local retailer and of the newspapers that still depend on retailers’ advertising. With highly targeted merchandise recommendations and pricing offers and with convenient mobile ordering and now delivery, I believe local American retail will experience a profound blow. Oops, there goes another newspaper revenue stream.
How can local media companies get a piece of this commerce revenue? At the simplest level, I would experiment with replacing cheap and irritating remnant advertising with commerce units — for example, simple Amazon recommendations and links — taking the often-measly affiliate fees, just to start learning. When items sell well, you can make your own, better deals with merchants and directly with manufacturers. A small set of companies — Gizmodo (nee Gawker) Media, Business Insider, New York Magazine, Wirecutter, Purch Media, and Condé Nast — are beginning to learn the keys to success in commerce. They are essentially creating a new kind of native content, only native to commerce recommendations instead of advertising. The conflict of interest is obvious but so is the this bright side: The success of commerce in media depends on trust and credibility with your users, not audience volume for its own sake. The good news is that commerce can make us less dependent on dwindling advertising. The bad news is that — given customers’ preferences for where they are most likely to shop — commerce will also make us dependent on Amazon just as we are dependent on Google and Facebook for audience and ad revenue.
Clearly, commerce is going to work only with effort in merchandising (one of the many new skills a news organization needs) and that must be fed, once again, by first-party data as well as with relevant content. And so the real benefit of starting commerce now, even before you’re ready, is that it will motivate the business to start building that data. If you know this user is a young parents because she or he uses your young families service, you know which store’s commerce units to serve. If you provide more granular services and you know how old their children are, you can serve more relevant and profitable commerce links. By buying and building large-scale commercial marketplaces, the two most innovative publishers in Europe, Springer and Schibsted, are learning some of these skills.
The bigger question for our mythical metropolitan news organization is whether there is any local commerce revenue to be had with our old friends and customers, local retailers. There are two problems to solve here. The first is delivery. Uber et al are tackling that. Walmart flirted with turning customers into a delivery network. A few newspapers have fantasized about repurposing their trucks to deliver the proverbial piano. The US Postal Service — which is a key competitor in the business of delivering print advertising and thus is as desperate as we are for new revenue opportunities — could well meet the local express delivery challenge. If there is sufficient scale of local, delivered commerce, I hope solutions will emerge for media companies to help local retailers online.
The second problem is data: the stores’ data. Their inventory is usually not stored digitally and thus it cannot be exposed online to customers. To compete with Amazon, local retailers must digitize their inventories. Could we help them? OpenTable found that to offer restaurant reservations online it had to enable restaurants to digitize their own reservation books. Should we do the same thing for retailers? I once wrote a business plan for such an enterprise.
Just as we need to see ourselves as a service rather than a content factory for the public, so do we need to see ourselves as service providers rather than just audience funnels for our advertisers. What else could we do for them? Perhaps we could also help them build and analyze their customer profiles — that would be an example of taking a skill we learn in the relationship strategy and reselling it.
So far I have proposed that we develop revenue streams from the public via events and commerce. Why not subscription and pay walls? In Geeks, I argued that selling content works if you’re making unique content such as entertainment but not if you’re making commodity content such as news and information.
I do, however, believe we have opportunities to earn consumer revenue through membership and patronage — as well as premium content — and I would explore those possibilities with every new community-based service I develop. In thinking through membership, we need to explore new tribes, new rewards, and new contributions:
New tribes: As public radio in the U.S. has learned through long experience, there is a limit to the number of people who will display an affinity to and are willing to pay and support the institution of a radio station: between 6 and 12 percent, I’m told. Membership efforts need to connect with other affinities people have — perhaps around a show or a journalist or a project, in our terms, or better yet around a community in the public’s terms. This speaks to the core of the relationship strategy. I likely will not want to be a member of the Podunk Daily Disgrace, but I might well want to be a supporting member of the Podunk Environmental Club or Society of Volunteer Retirees or Drunk Bakers Club. Identifying self-defined communities is a strategic skill when it comes to enticing customer revenue.
New rewards: We must be aware of a person’s motivation in becoming a member of an organization so we can offer them appropriate incentives — besides just access to our content. They might want social status (the proverbial #humblebrag Public Radio totebag) or a feeling of accomplishment (supporting, say, the Guardian’s project to count every death caused by police in America) or bargains (shouldn’t the Pug Club offer coupons for dog food from our sponsor?).
New contributions: We need to accept and reward value from the public in forms other than just cash. People can give us marketing (recommending our services in social media), sales (bringing in other members), effort (bringing us information), expertise (years ago, accountants and engineers volunteered to work with a Gannett paper’s investigation of hurricane relief in Florida), and data (interests, demographics, behavior, purchase intent — whatever we can use to mutual benefit).
None of this will work if we do not at the same time reconsider the metrics we use to build and run the business and motivate staff. Yes, reach is still valuable for volume-based advertising, which (we hope) will not leave us quite yet. And yes, reach is still necessary for conversion of users down the funnel to higher-value relationships, including commerce and membership as well as subscription and premium content. But reach alone is not a business anymore. It is the beginning.
I would measure my mythical newspaper’s performance on relationship metrics: how many people we know as individuals and members of communities; what we’re doing to get them to provide signals of interest and intent to us (that is, what targeted value we deliver them); how many of those signals we gather; what we know about conversion, and so on. As I argued in Geeks, we need to account for the variable value of a user, driving our business on maximizing the value of each relationship. I would also try to measure how much we are trusted in our communities. And I would track our impact in improving people’s lives as the best indicator of our value. See the work that Chalkbeat, the Center for Investigative Reporting, and Pro Publica are beginning to do here. They are creating mechanisms for reporters to set goals for public-centered impact — not traffic or attention — before they do their work.
What will our organization look like when we start moving into the new house? I’m not yet ready to offer a new org chart. In fact, the last thing I would recommend is tearing up the newsroom around an untested strategy. I hear from many newsrooms that staffs have salvation fatigue. Though the shape of the organization is not yet in focus, what is becoming clear is the range of new skills needed on both sides of the business. At CUNY’s Tow-Knight Center, we research the current (and future) skills needed in news companies. We are building new curriculum, degrees, and professional development offerings around these skills. We are also convening and supporting professional communities of practice in some of these disciplines, bringing together the top 20 product development or audience development or commerce executives so they can share needs and best practices and advance their fields. We hope this creates a virtuous circle: We learn what is needed in each field and provide graduates capable of filling jobs there.
In a news organization as in a journalism program, I envision giving every employee on all sides of the business not only a firm understanding of the journalistic values and verities we affirm but also a core set of skills (for example, everyone in editorial needs to be able to take a decent picture on an iPhone, maintain a social account, and understand how to use social media for research). Then we can provide opportunities for individuals to develop specialties or super powers as we like to call them in our CUNY J+ professional development program (e.g., the ability to make well-produced web videos or to manage a brand’s social presence or to develop products). Schools and employers should help students and employees compile what I call skills transcripts — areas of expertise built atop basic abilities in core skills — to develop their careers and to fill the needs of the industry.
The list of needed skills will continue to develop as we find new opportunities (who’d have thought that The Washington Post would hire full-time Facebook Live producers and The Wall Street Journal a Snapchat producer?). Among them:
- Media: In my notion of a skills transcript, both newsrooms and journalism schools need to rank skills and tools at these levels: (1) knowledge of the tool and what it can provide to include in news coverage, (2) ability to spec requirements with a developer or expert, (3) ability to adapt what has been developed without screwing it up, (4) ability to make the thing, and (5) expertise or the ability to teach the tool or skill. An organization should set minimum skills across these skills (e.g., everyone can make a decent phone picture) and provide opportunities for students and employees to become expert (e.g., data journalism genius). At the end of the day, newsroom management should have at the ready skills needed to take advantage of any opportunity to do journalism well and journalism schools should provide students who fill those needs. At CUNY’s J+ program, the school is also augmenting these skills in newsrooms. Those are the skills we already know we need. Employees and students should also be encouraged to experiment with the newest tools — lately 360-degree photography and video, AR/VR, and such — without wasting time on being cool for cool’s sake.
- Social: Everyone will need to maintain a social presence across multiple platforms and some will need to be expert (though at our audience development community of practice, we learned — counterintuitively — that the best people to maintain a news brand’s social presence probably aren’t social-media stars themselves, for then they can concentrate the brand as the focus of their work). Social skills should extend far beyond pumping a newspapers’ stories to get more traffic — that is, marketing — to understanding how best to listen to the public, not only to aid reporting and see what’s trending but also to serve the relationship strategy I’ve outlined here: understanding a community’s needs to serve them better and gathering data to feed conversion funnels. As with content management systems, news companies use various analytics tools — Chartbeat, Parsely, Google Analytics, Omniture, and on and on — so training will vary. And I have just argued we need to move past media-centric measurements (how popular is our content?) to relationship-based metrics (what do we know about people and how does that enable us to serve them better? … who is more likely to convert to being a member or a commerce customer?). A key requirement under the relationship strategy is building, analyzing, and acting on data in individual user profiles and working with other tools, such as Salesforce.com.
- Data: This category is still too broad, encompassing everything from scraping, analyzing, presenting, and visualizing data for the sake of storytelling to gathering, analyzing, and acting upon data for both audience development and revenue. Investigative reporters need one set of skills and tools, audience development people another, membership people and commerce people yet others. Still, just as with social skills, it will be critical for us to develop fundamental data literacy in our students and employees. In the case of journalists, that means curing the fear of numeracy.
- Product development: Building a product — that is to say, service — and working in teams to support that work will be useful across every department: editorial, revenue, marketing, technology, data. It’s also clear that product development and product management is an expertise news organizations will require in the C-suite. Building new products is core to building a new strategy and new means of sustainability in every media company.
- Revenue: As news organizations come to depend on multiple revenue streams, they will also depend on a wide array of new skills. Of course, publishers are already acting like ad agencies, creating native advertising and building media plans around it. Events require having people who can handle booking and logistics. Once commerce becomes successful, it will mean hiring people who can merchandise effectively. Membership campaigns require a different kind of marketer than the old circulation director — people who are more like commercial community organizers. And across every revenue stream, there will be a need for expertise in data: from managing user profiles to analyzing audience behavior to managing programmatic ad relationships.
- Leadership and innovation management: At CUNY, we hear constantly of the need to retrain existing executives in new skills around managing change and also to give the young leaders of tomorrow the business, management, and strategic skills they cannot necessarily learn on their rapid and deserved rise to key positions. (I am working on a curriculum for a new professional development and degree program to fulfill just this need at CUNY. Stay tuned.)
So what becomes of the old paper (or magazine or broadcast)? For the most part, publishers are sending old Grandma Newspaper to the hospice, milking her pension as long as it will last but otherwise neglecting her, feeding her swill (trending wire-service stories), and waiting for her to die. Given that I’ve argued in favor of a digital-first strategy, you might think that’d spark schadenfreude in me: Fine, let her die, the old coot! But no. I say this is an opportunity to rethink the use case of the legacy publication or broadcast and thus revitalize it. I’m not suggesting that we keep it on life-support past its profitable lifespan. In fact, I will caution against succumbing to the temptation to subsidize a newspaper’s print operation with subscription pricing models that throw in and devalue digital subscriptions just to eek out higher-value print advertising and prolong the life of print for its own sake. I won’t suggest investing a lot of product development in print. But I will argue that as long as we keep print around — to feed off its cash flow and subsidize and promote new product development — there’s no reason we can’t reconsider what a print newspaper or magazine or radio or TV show is and what it can accomplish.
Recently in Germany, I picked up a copy of Der letze Zeitungsleser (The Last Newspaper Reader) by Michael Angele, a charming elegy to the old form and its disappearing reader that is symptomatic of our tendency to sculpt memorials to our old products, treating them as holy, shielding them from change. In our circular self-justification, we keep saying people like the newspaper because some still buy it when it is the only thing we give them to buy. I see even more cultural protectionism in TV news, a form whose often insipid orthodoxies could stand challenge. The magazine might be the most defensible legacy form we have because it does provide a different experience, receding from the rush, and serves a community of interest. But the newspaper? How absurd that it is barely changing. Who needs a product that gives you what you already know and tries to fool you, like airport sushi, into thinking it’s fresh? What could and should a print newspaper be when most of its functions have been taken over by the net? From the user’s perspective, it could deliver background, explanation, perspective, opinion, and civil debate around the news and its issues. From the business’ perspective, it could promote the hell out of what the news company is doing digitally, driving users to new products often simply by sampling the best of them in print.
Now it’s true that the death of the print newspaper has been oft foretold and the prophecy has not come to pass. But we all know that its sweetest revenue stream, classified ads, is long dead and retail continues to evaporate. The last best reason to continue printing and distributing a newspaper is inserts and we see what is happening to that business; for McClatchy, the free-standing-insert business has been declining at a rate of about 20% year over year. I imagine that the papers that have already shifted from a seven- to a three-day-a-week publication schedule will reduce to weekend production so long as the last Best Buy circular exists and so long as the fixed costs of printing and distribution do not doom the enterprise. I can well imagine a weekly New York Times or Guardian — modeled after Germany’s Die Zeit — surviving for quite sometime as thoughtful magazines, competing with The Economist.
So as the house burns, I’d take a few of my brightest and most inventive and give them the short-term task of rethinking the print product: call it The Last Redesign. I would follow Advance’s digital first policy of not permitting print editors to manage the new newsroom. I would make it explicitly promotional of the company’s digital efforts and of the audience’s efforts, too — honoring the best contributions of opinions or photography from the public by rewarding them with ink. I would assign someone from the business side who is, yes, probably not far from retirement to maximize cash flow and the subsidy to the digital business. If it hasn’t happened already, I’d obviously slough off printing and distribution hardware, real estate, and operations.
And when the day comes from Grandma Print succumbs, I wouldn’t mourn, I’d celebrate — if in the meantime I’ve helped create a new company that can survive without her.
So what does my newspaper company look like in the end?
It’s much smaller than it used to be — it already is — and freed from the ridiculous requirement to maintain its high-water-mark levels of revenue and scale. (“When will digital replace my print revenue?” “When will digital revenue support the newsroom I’ve had since we ran a monopoly?”) It can be highly efficient and profitable.
It — like many other sectors of the economy in the digital age — operates as a service company rather than as a factory making a product. That is what fuels its staff and culture, who should begin every day asking what they can do to help communities meet their goals and end every day asking the community whether they succeeded. It will house a wide variety of skills.
Its staff will be organized in empowered, cross-functional teams around the communities they serve rather than in production silos (a photo department, a copy desk, a circulation department). It will be nimble and able to foresee new opportunities to make and improve services.
It will exist in an ecosystem, working closely with and depending upon others: Yes, that means exposing our soft underbelly to Facebook, Google, Amazon, et al because we have no choice. They, too, depend upon the flow of credible information and so we can work together on that basis.
It also means being complementary to others in our markets: the hearty few local blogs who continue; other media outlets (now that TV is realizing it cannot rule forever); other news startups (a Texas Tribune for every state); complementary news outlets (let The Washington Post or The New York Times provide my national news so I can specialize in local).
It will be quick and clever about adapting technologies but unless somebody gives me the reigns of The New York Times or The Washington Post, it won’t be able to afford the ego of building its own content management system (whatever that means in a service era) or many cool mobile apps and bots.
It will eagerly collaborate with others in the industry who do invest in making cool technology.
It will develop and depend upon multiple revenue streams: advertising of many forms and higher quality and value; consumer revenue from multiple spigots including perhaps subscription, membership, events, and commerce.
On the business side as in the newsroom, it will organize its efforts around service over product.
It will rise up in quality, no longer spewing commodity content but becoming a relevant, valuable suite of services for its communities.
It will grow and scale by developing new skills it can reuse and resell.
It will become expert in listening.
It will be a house of many rooms, built and tested one and then a few at a time, some abandoned and many rebuilt along the way.
It will value, not fear, change.
All that is just a short-term strategy, a way to reinvent and rescue news before it is too late. We need to buy ourselves the time to then reinvent journalism because we can — because there will be so many new ways to meet our mission — and not just because we must. Of course, there is no guarantee that my strategy will work and no way of knowing until someone will try. So please try. There are only two guarantees: that not reinventing ourselves will result in sure death and that we are at the beginning of a long process of reinvention. We don’t know what the internet is yet. We don’t know what journalism can be yet. But here’s a start.