Analog Dollars for Digital Pennies?

Mitch Joel wrote an interesting post today to which I want to respond, but my response was longer than a blog comment so I’ve written it here.

Mitch notes six interesting questions that media companies should ponder, and then follows up with this: “why don’t traditional media companies create a new physical area (how about an office space away from everyone else) and set-up those interested in the above challenges and questions. Let them spend a few months tinkering and experimenting.”

I suspect that it’s going to take a lot more than sitting people in a room to work out the new model. That’s not because it’s so difficult, but rather because a) a lot of that work has already been done – by the NY Times, notably; and b) some of those dollars are just gone.

The problem for most media companies – particularly paper-based media companies – is that they no longer have a platform to build upon. Readers (and advertising dollars) are leaving, and have been leaving for years – and companies are hamstrung. They think it’s “the internet” that’s done it to them, but they’re wrong – it’s their reaction to new media over the course of 10 or more years that has put them where they are today.

Sure, some of the dollars are simply gone. Consider newspapers. A Big Guy at a major Canadian broadsheet mentioned to me several years ago that the classified ad business – which accounted for over a third of overall revenue at such papers – was dead, due to Craigslist. Newspaper people have known that a major revenue source was drying (or had dried) up for years now, and they did almost nothing about it.

That’s the past now. Those dollars have fled, and there’s likely nothing to do about that. It’s still significant, though, because right off the bat the pot is that much smaller.

As far as the rest of it goes, I actually don’t think it’s that difficult. The traditional media outlets have to understand their unique value proposition, the same as any company selling a product or service. For any content business on paper, that value is in the editorial quality, and when those properties are good, they do things that no one else – and particularly not blogs – can do as well as they can.

For me, that’s in-depth, factual reporting. NOT opinion, op-ed, or columnists – in a blog world, no one gives a damn about some former reporter’s opinions on anything (except maybe politics, where a reporter’s history of access to political players gives a clear value add).

The nice thing about news and investigative reporting is that it serves as a platform – by opening up the archives making sure everything is searchable and directly linkable (with human-readable links), a company starts creating value that it can leverage. Gravitas has value. Being the organ of record has a real value.

That value can be packaged online by editors who take that work and develop collections, but also by leveraging the blogs discussing those stories. Make it simple for bloggers to refer to stories – and have their opinions linked FROM the source of the reporting (automatically via trackback or through other means). The Montreal Gazette and La Presse should be THE definitive source for information on any subject in Montreal over the past 50 years. Until they take steps to become that source, that reference, I don’t think there’s much that they can do to stem the tide.

For me, print media have over-invested in opinion, columnists, and light non-reporting journalism, and that they did so as a direct reaction to the expanding media market that the Internet represents. What they didn’t understand is that the value of opinion journalism goes down, not up, when opinion writing proliferates (as it has with the rise of blogging). They made a bet starting over a decade ago – and it was exactly the opposite of the bet they should have made.

(Note that this assumes that Canadian newspapers are having the same problems as they are in the US – the last I read, Canadian dailies are holding their own, and the Canadian magazine market seems as healthy as ever).


  1. “…that value is in the editorial quality…in-depth, factual reporting…leveraging the blogs discussing those stories…” Mike, thanks for this. Great thinking in here.