Content Is Cheap, And News Brands Are Under Attack

November 13, 2009

In the past month three new “public interest” news gathering efforts have been launched and I have been told that as many as three more may be on their way. The three efforts already daylighted, Chicago Current, the Chicago News Cooperative and Chicago Public Radio’s rebranding into “Chicago Public Media”, all call for production of new “public interest” reporting to be distributed on multiple platforms. The other three still-gestating efforts also focus on the “public interest” news arena, each with a different business model.

And then many of Chicago’s established news brands are attempting a retool:

The common thread through these efforts is that nobody seems to think getting skilled reporters is difficult. Never has high quality, experienced, news-gathering talent ever seemed so inexpensive.

Simultaneously, Chicago’s bigger news brands are under attack more than ever before. Chicago’s news media outlets have unclear and undefined brands and it is difficult for news consumers to make news purchase choices.

“The intangible sum of a product’s attributes: its name, packaging, and price, its history, its reputation, and the way it’s advertised.” – David Ogilvy defining “brand”

One of the things you learn in business school is that the value of a brand is hard to quantify – but once it is established, it is the most valuable asset your organization can own. For this reason the Chicago Reader and “Chicago Public Media” deserve praise for publicly recognizing they have a specific niche in Chicago news – even if neither organization is capable of voicing it.

The other news brands undergoing their retools as well as Chicago’s new public interest news organizations also lack clear brands. Who are they serving? What unique service do they provide?

It is no longer enough to merely provide “hard-hitting” news or lots of it. Because news-gathering is cheap the market is becoming saturated with news outlets – all preparing to provide the same content – in-depth “public-interest” reporting. Occasionally one will scoop the other, allowing them to crow a bit. But how do these various outlets differentiate themselves?

I am sure each of Chicago news outlets believe they have a well-defined brand. But unless the average reader knows and understands a product’s brand then the product is in trouble.

What is NBC Chicago’s brand? CBS2? The Chicago Reader? The Sun Times?

The big guys are having trouble telling us their brands. It’s never been cheaper to start and operate a high-quality news operation. So who’s going to be the one to establish the most powerful news brand in Chicago?