If ever there was a time in media for radical change, it’s now — but publishers have been too cautious about seizing it.
Yes, most magazines and newspapers (shockingly, not all) have launched online, in one form or another, but far fewer have figured out a way to get people to consistently pay for or read stories and visual content that used to drive newsstand sales, print subscriptions and advertising, all of which have been squeezed over at least the last decade. And still, publishers of magazines and newspapers seem focused on how to carry on with all of those things instead of testing entirely new ways of delivering and paying for content.
Why, for example, didn’t The New York Times create its own “news feed” operated as a platform for readers? Why didn’t Condé Nast or Hearst, with their archive of photos and relationships with photographers, models and celebrities, create an interactive platform for such image-heavy content? Why did local publications continue to rely on classifieds in the wake of Craigslist? Why did, and do, any of these arms of media take content that would be paid for in print and put it online for free?
Hindsight is always 20/20, but there has been ample opportunity and inspiration for newspapers and magazines to make some fundamental changes to their operations, instead of leaving it all to social media disruptors. So why do publishers continue to make only the smallest of changes to the way their core operations function?
“Everyone is very quick to blame digital or quick to blame mobile or quick to blame Snapchat or Facebook, and to be fair some of it is Facebook and Google cannibalizing some ad dollars, but that is not the complete story,” said Amy Webb, a former journalist turned quantitative futurist and New York University professor.
Through her extensive data-based research, Webb, who comes off as rather frustrated by the slow pace of change in the industry, has singled out a number of areas relating to the way people consume media that will do little but cause publishers more pain if they go ignored.
First, there’s the industry notion that young people will eventually come around to reading and appreciating a print product, which Webb says is unlikely for so many consumers who did not grow up reading in print and have no basis for that behavior to form. Then there’s the increased relentlessness of the news cycle itself, which has major natural disasters all but forgotten in the course of a week, and fighting for attention among everything from daily presidential scandals to high-profile accusations of abuse, leaving readers to engage much differently with content than they did even five years ago.
Both of these relatively new phenomenons need new solutions, but the fight for our ever-crowded attention spans shouldn’t excuse publishers’ lack of innovation and experimentation with not only content, but distribution and revenue.
“If you talk to a lot of news organizations, they will say they’re experimenting with all kinds of brand new ideas and lots of new models for revenue and subscriptions. But if you take a narrower look at the details, literally nobody is doing anything new,” contended Webb, who has advised most major U.S. publishers. “There is no traditional news organization I can look at and say, ‘You know what? They are experimenting with radically different business models for news or magazine content.’”
While all of Webb’s work and recommendations for the companies she advises is done under non-disclosure agreements, her general advice is “courageous leadership” on behalf of executives, who need to be willing to devote significant time to planning and testing new things. Since research shows a majority of readers have become accustomed to reading (if one can call it that) articles and sharing them almost immediately, with no critical thought in between, maybe news outlets should start devising new ways of packaging and distributing content? Maybe readers would like to choose the format they get their news in, be it video, blurb or full article? Maybe advertisers would like that too? Maybe the entire construction and presentation of newspapers and magazines, little changed in roughly 125 years, is due for an overhaul? Or maybe publications should take a page from social media and get together to build a single news platform, where readers can get reported pieces and interact?
Webb’s point is that there can be no solution if leadership simply asks “what’s next?” and waits for technology and readers to advance past what their publications are offering. At the moment, she sees little change in media beyond brand partnerships and “tiny” tweaks to ad metrics. “It’s totally scattershot,” she said.
On the one hand, it’s obvious that the industry has a lot to contend with, and combine that with shrinking budgets and increased costs, one can empathize with a desire to try and make an existing model work. On the other hand, no risk, no reward.
Rick Edmonds, a former news editor who’s now a media business analyst for The Poynter Institute, a media think tank and school that owns Florida’s St. Petersburg Times, said that many newspapers are still stuck working to get a proper “E-edition” out there and to figure out how to package and price digital subscriptions for print products. He noted one local metro paper is trying to charge people $800 for a year’s subscription. Although that only works out to about $2 for a daily issue, its a number likely to give any reader pause.
“When you cost it out, it’s a lot less than a cup of Starbucks every day, but there is sticker shock,” Edmonds said.
Beyond digital subscriptions, which one can’t help but think should have been figured out some time ago since the Internet has done little but grow since the Nineties, Edmonds said more publishers are starting to offer advertisers digital marketing services, ranging from campaign add-ons to email design, and launch ticketed events to increase revenue. He noted that an operation like the Texas Tribune is pulling in around $1 million a year from ticketed events, but said he’s not sure “how long or how much it can be expanded.”
Even now, while they’re thriving, events and digital marketing services aren’t enough to make up for ad losses, leading Edmonds to speculate media will be going through more of the same consolidation and revenue struggles for the foreseeable future. He said it’s “tough to forecast” when things in the industry could level off.
It could be, to Webb’s point, that the industry won’t thrive unless it figures out something that’s truly new (subscriptions, events and services are not) that will sustain it for a long period of time.
Webb admitted that publishers tend to take issue with her stance that not one publisher is doing anything new — the split seems to be between her definition of new being something that’s never been done before and an industry definition meaning a tweak to an existing model, which may feel major to those involved — but she stands by it, noting the dizzying rate of change in almost every other major industry. Even the areas that publishers will push as evidence of their evolution — namely, a focus on video and augmented and virtual reality — Webb sees as unrelated to what should be every publisher’s focus: “How do you get people to pay for this stuff?”
This is by no means a question that would surprise any publisher or news organization, but the lack of serious and consistent effort to come up with innovative solutions to such a fundamental problem is alarming to Webb. As an example of the typical style in which news has handled the question, Webb said there’s a major news organization that invited her to be part of an upcoming workshop on imagining its future. She refused after learning it had done no “prework” — something that should include months of modeling, research, testing of scenarios and gathering of data — a sign to her that this is little more than a glorified brainstorming session.
Webb agreed she’s not familiar with what every single media operation is up to but, generally speaking, said, “I have yet to see a media organization taking this seriously and do serious work.”
And she insists that she’s pragmatic, not pessimistic, about an industry that she values and has a vested interest in being maintained at a high level — she subscribes to numerous print magazines, gets her newspaper delivered, publishes regularly and even made her methodology open source. She knows that the industry could be operated very differently. But it’s not.
Time Inc. may be one of the clearest examples of what can result when the apparently typical pattern of hand-wringing, outside consultants and cost-cutting, sans any genuinely new product or business model, is applied. The legendary media company went through a decade of cuts and hundreds of layoffs, only to be acquired by Meredith Corp. and mostly broken up and sold for parts. The worst part to Webb is that a decade of bleeding was ultimately for naught — “What did it matter? There is no more Time Inc., it’s gone.” And much of the industry seems to be going down a very similar road.
“It’s like watching a horrible traffic accident,” Webb lamented, “where you know there’s going to be end of life and the cause of the accident is distraction… and I’ve been watching it happen for two decades.”