Newspapering in an Unbundled World

By: Steve Outing

Surely you’ve noticed that music stores (in my younger days we called them “record stores”) are dying off and there are few of them left in your town. The number of people buying music albums is dwindling, as more and more young people (and even boomer geezers like me) buy music by the song digitally.

The idea of buying a disc with a bunch of songs on it — many of which you probably don’t want — is an anachronism in the days of iPods and iTunes. Compact discs are an absurb notion when you listen to most of your music on an MP3 player. I honestly can’t remember the last time I purchased a music CD.

As many a music and tech industry pundit has pronounced lately, the CD is nearly dead.

Anybody notice the parallel with newspapers?

Just a little ways behind

In my most recent column, some smart people whom I asked to peer into the future suggested, in effect, that the news business is headed the way of the music biz. That is, news will no longer be delivered only as a physical product that aggregates a bunch of content and demands a concentrated chunk of a consumer’s time, but rather news will be broken up into little bits, and cast about cyberspace and the digital mobile realm for more random consumption.

News consumers will receive these pieces of news — from a variety of sources — throughout the day and on a variety of devices: work PCs, laptops, mobile phones, screens in airplanes, buses, cars and trains, portable media tablets (e-books, etc.), game players, podcasts, radio programs (including on-demand), and who knows what else that hasn’t been developed yet.

This isn’t to suggest that I think newspapers are going to outright die anytime soon. It’s more of a slow and painful decline for print editions that will take quite a few more years. But I do think that the behavior of the mass of news consumers will in the coming years alter to look something like this:

— News search engines will evolve to become more important and more commonly used by the mainstream.

— More and more news consumers routinely will get their information from a variety of the best sources rather than relying on one or two news brands. (Those might include a credible newspaper, direct competitors to that paper, and non-traditional news providers like bloggers and grassroots media.)

— Ergo, any single news brand will have a harder time laying claim to consumers’ attention.

— This river of news will be delivered throughout a consumer’s day on a variety of devices, moving with him or her.

— The consumer moving into this new form of news consumption will be better informed, by virtue of pulling the best coverage from the best sources and not settling for just one or two.

— Personalization tools will ensure that consumers are better versed than they are now on current news involving topics of special interest to them.

(Some of that has already happened, of course, and for many readers of this column, that’s already your pattern of media consumpion. But I’d argue that it hasn’t yet reached the mainstream fully — but will.)

OK, so if you buy into that vision of the future (and I’ll acknowledge that there are probably some in the news industry who don’t), what should your news organization be doing to get ready for the news-is-everywhere-all-the-time future? Here are a few ideas.

Cast a new eye on your content

Do you think about what your content will look like when it appears on other media services, blogs, mobile news-on-demand services, etc.? You should, since increasingly it will appear elsewhere than your own publications and websites. It’s not hard to imagine a day in the future when, say, a New York Times story appears in some form in front of more eyes on venues outside of NYT’s control than on the company’s media properties.

Take a close look at your news content’s RSS feeds. As feeds of your content become more important — as more and more people encounter your content on others’ websites, e-mail newsletters, cell phone news, etc. — make sure that you’re sharing the right amount of content (to get people to come to you for the full story). Make sure you monetize your feeds by including relevant, succinct advertising on them.

Get your stuff on Flickr, et al

Photo-sharing services like Flickr (owned by Yahoo!) are increasingly popular and important. When a major news story breaks and there are lots of eyewitness photographers around, Flickr typically becomes home to lots of amateur news photos. If you’re looking for photos of yesterday’s hurricane or big tornado, Flickr is now a supplementary source for news photography.

News organizations should be getting their images on Flickr and similar services. Simply get a Flickr Pro account and get your programmers to automate the process of getting news photos onto your Flickr area, along with appropriate tags. Next time a hurricane hits and a wave of people head to Flickr looking for pictures of it, your professional photojournalism will show up in the mix — encouraging people to go back to your website for more coverage, or simply being the end-point for delivery or your photos.

For your professional photojournalism that you’re porting to services like Flickr, it makes sense to watermark them with your brand.

Ditto for video

Newspaper companies increasingly are moving resources into producing video. Early adopters like have been doing it for years, but now even small newspaper companies are trying their hand at video and going toe-to-toe with local news broadcasters — or experimenting with new forms of video journalism.

If you’re going to the trouble and expense of getting into video news, then make sure you spread it around; don’t horde it on your own website and expect that to be enough.

Unlike some of the TV networks these days — which send out the lawyers when one of their clips gets uploaded to YouTube by zealous fans — newspaper companies should jump for joy that their video work can be distributed and seen by Youtube’s huge audience. Think about getting your video work on multiple video services (there are lots of them).

Important, of course, is effectively incorporating your branding onto the videos. In caption fields, include the URL to get viewers to your website. Include a watermark logo in the video, and an intro that covers who produced this video, and perhaps sponsors.

Just as with newsworthy photos and Flickr, major news video can attract a significant audience on Youtube, et al. Newspaper companies should take advantage of what these online video services can offer in terms of exposure. And don’t just tolerate your video work showing up on such services — actively encourage and promote it!

Got widgets?

A proactive way to get your content onto other websites and thus expand the audience for you content is by developing “widgets.” Web widgets are simply portable chunks of code that others can insert into their webpages, and have your content show up (fed from your website or database).

A recent example comes from the Morning Call in Allentown, Pennsylvania, which created an online database to go along with a major investigative story about the state’s reputation as a big puppy mill. The paper’s web staff also created a widget that allowed other websites to let their users access the database without having to come to the Morning Call’s Web site.

It’s easy to imagine something like that being picked up and used by a variety of websites: blogs about pets and animal rights issues; advocacy organizations; volunteer groups; etc. … Even other news organizations could pick it up! If this widget were from a major metro newspaper, for example, smaller suburban papers might put it on their sites, or local TV news sites might use it.

Now that’s an interesting notion — and one that a few years ago would sound absurd, and maybe even result in the lawyers being called out. But in an environment where news consumers access many news brands, if they pick the website of a local TV station, then it’s a good thing when some of your newspaper content shows up there. As with the Morning Call’s puppy mill database widget, the key is simply to make sure your branding is overt, and that your content as it appears outside of your own website serves to monetize itself with your advertising.

News organizations should be doing lots more of this. Just as YouTube videos turn up all over the web — because YouTube makes it simple for any website or blog to include its videos, for free — news sites should be doing the same thing.

Publishers who are smart about the Internet now realize that they can’t focus just on their Web site and their print edition. The focus must be on specific content, and getting it onto many channels — those controlled by your news organization, as well as non-related ones.

The game isn’t always about luring people to your Web site or convincing them to pick up your newspaper. The new game is also about getting your content published by countless others — individuals, bloggers, corporations, non-profit groups, other media — and reaching the audience through them.

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