The Web disrupted print. Mobile disrupted the Web. Dominant social media and tech platforms are threatening the very idea of media brands as a consumer destination. Easy access to free content eroded subscription revenue. And now the last big source of money supporting journalism is threatened, as the concept of advertising itself is disrupted.
There’s a common thread through almost every major upheaval publishers have faced over the past 10 years. The digital transformation was not primarily a change from paper to screen, but a fundamental shift of power from brands to individuals.
In 2008, Craigslist helped people find what they were looking for and sell stuff they didn’t want, better and less expensively than newspaper classifieds. And so classifieds vanished.
In 2015, the recommendation of a friend on social media, search engines and smart recommendation algorithms point them to the goods and services they need, so why wouldn’t they install an ad blocker to avoid the barrage of publishers’ increasingly desperate and intrusive display ads?
By 2020, one thing is certain: technology will have exponentially advanced that empowerment of the individual. Media outlets who did not focus on user experience, engagement, customer service and relationships will be left behind.
The Audience is Your Lifeline
Reader engagement has moved from buzzword to lasting focus in many newsrooms. But the publishers on the other side of the building are running circulation departments with outsourced customer service that can barely fulfill a simple subscription request or answer a question. They’re presenting websites that are slow, laden with intrusive and deceptive advertising that don’t work on mobile. And their strategy for reader revenue is a bundled-with-print paywall in which barely anyone pays for digital-only access. The traditional print readers who don’t cancel get a big rate increase but never log in for access beyond the paywall, either.
“They are taking their audience and their community for granted. They’re not showing them the respect they deserve,” said Robert Hernandez, a professor at the Annenberg School of Journalism at the University of Southern California. “…There’s got to be a better way. There are other ways.”
The industry urgently needs innovation in advertising, Hernandez said, and that will require getting past “elitist church and state” dogma. Revenue and editorial staff (and developers, and designers) need to sit down and talk about how to serve the audience’s needs through both advertising and journalism.
When “advertising is done right, you’re helping someone,” he said, and tricking people through advertisements that look like articles but aren’t labeled transparently isn’t doing it right.
He said the advertising side needs developers, “creative storytellers” and user experience experts.
And similar to newsroom staff, ad sales reps need to develop relationships with the communities advertisers are trying to reach, not just the advertisers themselves.
Are publishers really serving their community or an advertiser well when their answer is to make the ad bigger, take over the home page, move the ad around the page so it’s hard to avoid, make the “close” button really hard to find?
“Let’s betray that relationship with the person who is coming to us for information,” is the message, Hernandez said, and the rise of ad blocking technology is “a symptom of how bad we are with our design and our customer service.”
“I think we know what’s coming: Readers shifting to mobile, growing expectation for video, outcomes-based selling, non-display revenue, deeper engagement with audiences on significantly improved multi-media display to produce increased loyalty,” said Todd Benoit, publisher of the Bangor (Maine) Daily News. “I think the upcoming shift already can be seen in the growth of native content, which five years from now will look like a crude form of deeper audience engagement and will move the industry away from display and toward information services. Social platforms are already well down this road, and newspapers will follow. Membership is one way to express this, but the key will be using data to more accurately deliver useful information to readers and consumers at the right point of their journey through a topic, product or service.”
Damon Kiesow, head of mobile initiatives at McClatchy newspapers’ interactive division, said, “It really comes down to focusing on the audience.”
“Their expectations are being set by a hundred or a thousand other media experiences they have on a daily basis,” he continued, “and the non-news experiences they consume on the same devices.”
“Crappy user experiences cannot change fast enough,” said Steve Buttry, former head of editorial innovation at Digital First Media who now oversees student media at Louisiana State University. “Print customer service departments can’t start a subscription or deliver a paper for a customer who didn’t get one. Websites load slowly or block the reader from the story she clicked on and intended to read.”
John Robinson, former editor of the News & Record in Greensboro, N.C., said he wishes he had learned more from “the Amazons and the Googles and the eBays” when he was leading a newsroom, “to understand that the real value to customers was being reliable, easy to use, quick and delivering relevant results.”
“Newspapers continue to have terrible customer service problems. They continue to cover things that readers really don’t want or need,” he said. “…(And) hearing a reader say, ‘I don’t go to your site because it’s too much trouble,’ should scare the bejeezus out of you.”
“If people have a stronger relationship with a news organization, they are more likely to pay for that relationship,” said Buttry. “More important (because other sources of revenue are more important than subscriptions), if a news organization develops strong relations with the community through effective engagement, people will spend more attention on the existing (and new) products. Wherever we are headed with content or revenue strategy, the attention and relationships that develop from effective engagement will be the foundation upon which we build our future.”
Hernandez and others see opportunity—and soon, perhaps, necessity—to move beyond the Paywall 1.0 concept of “pay up to keep reading” toward more public media-style memberships.
And which would you rather have? An enthusiastic community of readers who cherish your product and the experience of your brand so much they voluntarily give you money and proudly put bumper stickers on their cars? Or someone who hates your paywall, installed an ad blocker because of your website and would rather go to the dentist than call customer service?
Melody Kramer, a 2015 Nieman fellow at Harvard who studied new models for public media memberships, sees opportunity for newspapers, especially if they can look beyond short-term cash transactions.
“I think there are opportunities for legacy publications to create communities around their content. I also believe there are opportunities…to create loyalty and inspire people to contribute— through in-kind donations which may save the publication money,” she said.
Kramer suggests enlisting readers more aggressively in moderating online story comments, and categorizing and tagging archival content—things that could improve the product, save the expense of staff time and build a community of readers who feel like they are “part” of the effort rather than just customers.
And membership programs show more promise than paywalls, perhaps, in gleaning information about who your audience is and what it needs.
“I think there’s a badly needed role that applies equally to content and revenue,” said Benoit. “If we are going to inspire loyalty, we need staff members who spend their time looking at audience needs through direct encounters, surveys, analytics, etc., and fulfilling them. This is different from taking action based on occasional or regular marketing surveys. It’s a day-to-day process that allows the newspaper to respond quickly to audience or client interests.
“I think of this role as audience management, and it’s very service oriented. Does a region need to understand more about a school budget? The audience manager gathers, synthesizes, analyzes and presents the information in the most useful way possible. Maybe they add original reporting, maybe not. Does an advertising client need support in analyzing the drop-off in their purchase funnel? We need to have someone on staff who can walk through it with the client and identify opportunities.”
Finding the Future
Publishers have a long way to go in simply holding on to and serving existing customers. Reaching millennials and the generation that will come after them will require different thinking.
“Their experience of news is already fundamentally different than their eldest counterparts,” said Jesse Holcomb of Pew Research Center. “Whether publishers and editors can reinvent news for a new generation, that may very well involve going back to square one and questioning all of the assumptions about the news norms and routines that have been so established and engrained for decades.”
“We put these blinders on about what news is and how to create it and what it should look like and what it means to the community. If we’re not covering that stuff, we’re not covering their lives, and we’re becoming increasingly distant in relevance for them,” McClatchy’s Kiesow said. “This isn’t hard to fix. All you have to do is first admit you have a problem. The second step is to start talking to your audience, and not just people who are your current audience. We’re already over-serving our current audience. And what we’re doing is risking the entirety of our new potential audience.”
That’s a big enough challenge for tech and digital startups who are establishing a workplace culture from scratch.
There’s an elephant in the room for legacy media organizations—a workforce beleaguered by years of no raises, benefit cuts, furloughs, industry turmoil head trash and the ever-looming threat of layoffs and buyouts.
“Businesses have abandoned the implicit compact with employees that said: ‘Work hard. Excel at craft. Together we’ll prosper.’ Today, work ethic and high performance may just as easily earn a layoff as a laurel. Media CEOs delude themselves if they think they can operate this way and still enjoy the loyalty of staff,” said Jill Geisler, a professor at Loyola University and author of the book, “Work Happy: What Great Bosses Know.”
Geisler said that most newspaper employees aren’t “loyal to the company, but rather to journalism and to their immediate supervisors—provided those managers are good.” And the managers who are good at reducing “the inevitable stress that comes from feeling like trapeze artists flying non-stop without a net,” those who focus on the “human side” of management: “communication, conflict resolution, collaboration and motivation,” should be seen as invaluable by media CEOs.
“Companies and managers are so disrespectful to ourselves…to the craft,” USC’s Hernandez said, and it’s squandered a workforce that would be happy to give their all for low pay because they feel a higher calling. “It’s the culture. It’s the boss. It’s not all about money.”
He believes it’s time to “let digital people lead,” and to motivate rank-and-file employees by giving them the room to experiment and innovate and the safe place to fail along the way.
“The Washington Post has a breath of fresh air right now because it has an owner who comes from digital culture…he’s asking people to innovate and iterate,” Hernandez said.
“You’ve been fantastic running print or TV, but you’re not qualified to run digital,” is the tough message he believes some publishers and ad directors need to hear.
“If I could go back with a magic wand, starting in 1990, 1992, 1995, every time you lay off two copy editors, you should hire one developer,” Kiesow said. “We’re really understaffed in some organizations, especially at the local level, in people who can do data journalism on the front end, and handle the back end stuff with making the CMS serve the newsroom and journalism, and to create new workflows in video, metrics.”