News Media Observations After Two Months Out

August 10, 2013

I’m working on my second month out of news as a vocation, which has at times felt like lifting my head above water after swimming in the deeps. All of a sudden I feel like I can see further.

Now that I’ve spent two months as a marketer, here, in convenient listical form, are some observations:

1. Most big city dailies and television news still don’t have clear demographic/psychographic targets. Watch local TV news. Except for Spanish language stations, they’re all chasing the same stories (BTW: Watch that stuff! Those guys have got it figured out!) Big dailies are generally writing about the same kinds of stories everywhere: local government, local celebs, restaurants, what to do today/this weekend. None of it seems interest-targeted, e.g. young people, old people, rich people, poor people, African-American. Chicago’s Red Eye and Metro in Boston definitely have a youth vibe, but who are the dailies serving? Totally not clear, and totally uninteresting unless I want to “feel involved” and read about the latest city/state/county corruption scandal. Bleg.

2. National/international news publications are getting smarter about targeting. Have you seen Quartz? Defense One? Those pubs, along with BuzzFeed, Business Insider, The Verge, etc. totally know who they are aiming for and what it takes to keep them. You can just tell: Content, types of advertising, design. Everything reeks of the psychographic they’re targeting. Why is this sort of disciplined thinking limited to national/international publications?

3. Lots of pubs are going up market, but few are going downmarket. I keep harping on this, but retail had to deal with the hourglass economy twenty years ago. There’s lots of money and aspiration to go up market, so people will buy that. Then there’s lots of people who want cheap, no-frills, so they’ll buy that. Sak’s and Walmart. Why aren’t we seeming more of that? If I ran a newspaper, I’d print a 20-page daily dropped for free all over my city’s poorest neighborhoods filled with cheap ads. People would read it, and I’d sell ads. Yes, it’s “undesirable” (not sexy), but it’s a market and as a publisher, I’d keep my printing press rolling.

4. Content is still everything and that lesson is still not sinking in. Not just quality content, but targeted, useful content. Creating another general interest publication with no clear, segmented audience does not solve the problem. See #1.

5. Many of the smartest writers, producers, etc. of my Generation X are fleeing/avoiding news to work in commercial enterprises. It might be soulless to write “journalism” for BigCo newsletters, but it’s steady work, you get resources to do your job and the companies are often better managed than news orgs.

6. Interest in content as marketing is still growing, will only get bigger, and will blur the line with news in a big way. Look around, and you’ll find a bazillion “content marketing” jobs out there. Sure, many of them are wage slave jobs, but many companies are thinking hard about quality content as figure out how to engage with customers in a meaningful way beyond the transaction. News competes with this, since it is also a “methods of informing,” so I think we can expect more and more talented news people jumping over to content marketing positions as the months unfurl. For a great example, check out Siemens’ Sustainable Cities Collective.

7. Being a high volume publisher doesn’t mean what it used to mean. This article in Digiday charts out how some somewhat high quality publishers are also some of the highest volume ones. HuffPo, BuzzFeed and Business Insider all produce a lot of link bait, but each of them also produce some important original reporting too. It is a far cry from the Demand Media and stuff of Web 2.0. You can crank out a few dozen articles a day, and still be small potatoes nationally. The consumer content consumption beast is ravenous and insatiable.

8. I still don’t understand why the Sun Times laid off their whole photography staff. I’ve been trying to think in an open-minded way about the value proposition behind the move. Perhaps Sun Times thinks nobody looks at photos online, but what about their print product? Maybe they think they’ll train up street reporters like digital-only DNAInfo, but why would you give up an established superior, competitive position? Maybe they needed to just cut costs–then why eviscerate their team instead of keeping a skeleton crew that can work with street reporters? If you possess Occam’s Razor logic for this, please share it with me in the comments.

10. Among editorial people, the news industry has gained a tint of self-help desperation. “Ten ways to use social media to boost readership.” “How to increase reader engagement.” “Headline tricks to get noticed.” I’m exaggerating here, but not much. While it’s honorable to try to improve yourself, there’s a certain desperation pervading news editorial today. Frequently, the first thought in a writer/editor’s mind is not, “What’s valuable information here?” but rather, “What will people want to read?” This is nobody’s fault, and everybody’s fault. There’s a reason BuzzFeed, Politico, HuffPo and Business Insider are killing it: readers love addictive popcorn. But it has skewed every editor’s thinking, as everyone is pulled towards more general interest readers rather than specifically targetted readers. As a result, it’s forced many journalists to become primping seductresses, hoping to lure readers into reading their story instead of the next guy’s.

11. The profile of people who buy news organizations is totally unlike those of the past. Buffett? Bezos? John Henry? For decades the people who bought news media were not even “media people.” They were “media companies.” The business was so successful that entire enterprises were built around trading the properties like so many Vermeers and Picassos, the value inexorably going up. But now, as the Boston Globe managed to lose 95% of it’s value in 20 years, individuals are picking up the properties for a song. And to the last, the new owners have already made comfortable fortunes in other industries. They are buying news media because they’re civic-minded, attracted to fire-sale prices or believe they can apply their business acumen to a category with a sexier and higher profile. And nothing is higher profile than news (have you seen the Washington Post’s coverage of Bezos lately?).