Logging In: Have It Your Way

New news versus old news

A bright media analyst recently asked me, “Sometimes I think The New York Times’ strategy is to be the last one standing. All the other newspapers are cratering. Someone has to survive. Makes sense, no?” No.

It may be the strategy the paper is hoping for, but it is no strategy because the very premise of the observation is wrong. It assumes that there is something called “online newspapers,” and that a “newspaper” must survive. It confuses presentation (a fixed thing with sections and subsections and articles) and distribution (a fixed thing delivered to your door), with a unique and user-centered offering. It presumes that the content is not replicable — that, as the analyst further said, “There is only one New York Times.” Perhaps the greatest unspeakable point is that audiences now have the near-infinite ability to find content in narrow, vertical areas that are better, and plenty of broader news that is “good enough.”

Broad news juggernauts like CNN, BBC, MSNBC and even Fox have their issues, but are they assuredly good enough? RealClearPolitics, Politico, The Huffington Post, The Daily Beast and countless other smaller, less traditional news sites, are remarkably good and relevant and gaining audiences. Give me Buiter, DeLong, Roubini, Krugman and countless other blogs to make sense of this financial crisis over almost any “newspaper” — online or otherwise.

I’m not just another “game over” voice in the cacophony of news doom-and-gloomers. The thing is, I do  believe traditonal news institutions create not only great value, but also have at least two enormous and distinct competitive advantages.

The first is their commitment to old-school reporting. When the Walter Reed Army Medical Center offered criminally negligent treatment to our returning veterans, no doubt pictures posted on a blog or videos on YouTube would have had impact. But nearly four years of journalistic digging by The Washington Post got the story right, thus creating real change that will likely put some bad folks in prison.

The second is that news institutions offer experiences — not just content — where like-minded and less polarized people can read, gather and share insights that they can integrate into their own social networks however they want. Studies show a current rush to political polarization — conservatives reading only conservatives, liberals only liberals. This election has shown that many people want a place to go that is more evenhanded. They believe they are in an environment that they are able to judge based on the quality of the experiences, tools, content and audiences.

But “on users’ terms” is so hard for traditional folks to reach. Sure, there are “readership” studies, but one doesn’t need a marketing study to get to the essence of it all. People want what they want when and how they want it, and they want to share, comment and ask about it, to boot.

Upon Drudge’s debut, the upstart offended many newspaper execs. More recently on Charlie Rose, a top newspaper editor decried Google as not caring about content. But what is missed here is that the likes of Drudge, Digg and Google have put the user first. People want many opinions, many resources and many ways to aggregate and communicate their own truths.

On users’ terms there is still value, quality, uniqueness, insight and ways to engage with and share. This — not distribution, nor previous presentation, nor a sense of historic entitlement — is the core that most traditional media companies have been unable to grapple with.

My analyst friend notes, “You’ll never pay for a newspaper’s cost structure,” and he’s right. But the future lies not in saving the newspaper’s infrastructure. It is in being highly user-focused on audiences’ terms; building new, targeted experiences; leveraging unique attributes of the organization; and facilitating the participation and conversations.

The ability to leverage audiences as your marketer’s is unprecedented. Sounds more profitable to me. 

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