Dear future media house

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BitDepth#1004 for September 01, 2015

It’s been decades since a newspaper has been printed using letterpress type but too many of today’s mediahouses use procedures that began in that era. Photo by Franck Boston/Depositphotos
It’s been decades since a newspaper has been printed using letterpress type but too many of today’s mediahouses use procedures that began in that era.
Photo by Franck Boston/Depositphotos

Anyone creating or moving a publication online quickly discovers the challenge is not journalism, it’s money.

Peter Drucker’s axiom regarding business holds true. Many decades ago the famed management consultant opined: “The business of business is business.”

And that business is lubricated by money, or, more accurately, profit.

Without profit, a business is a hobby, a doomed venture, a pie floating rather unrealistically in the sky.

So there’s that immutable fact.

And journalism of any kind cannot exist without income and serious journalism costs serious money.

I’ve had at least one media manager look me in the eye after I answered the question of what to do with their publication online in detail and depth and say with great gravity and unquestioned sincerity, “I can’t do that. I can’t risk the [significant six-figure income] that I get from advertising every day.”

I never discussed the matter again, but I never forgot the brusque seriousness on that manager’s face.

It’s a rock and a hard place problem. How do you unhook your fortunes from a profitably running engine to tie them to something that looks like it’s powered by a rubber band?

There is growing momentum behind the idea that you can’t avoid the commitment, but it hasn’t become mortally pressing in T&T just yet.

That buys media houses time, the most valuable asset you can hope for in any migration from atoms to bits.

According to Alexa’s rankings of traffic (currently 30 days old), trinidadexpress.com holds the top spot at 27,468 globally and is #11 in T&T.

This newspaper’s guardian.co.tt is at 45,972, and 21 locally, while newsday.co.tt is at 64,814 and 31. Alexa only ranks the top 100,000 websites in the world, so showing up on the global list is a big deal. The New York Times is at 110, the UK Guardian (theguardian.com) is at 140 while the more populist dailymail.co.uk is at 107.

Any traditional media house is an aggregation of several components that are not unfamiliar to any business owner. You have staff, you have plant and you have a process that marries the two into a system that generates profit.

At the core of modern media is a process that works assiduously to disaggregate the two with new processes. The plant becomes a series of interlinked computers, the most important of which often aren’t even owned by the business, but instead are leased through payments to hosting services.

But for an established media house, there eventually comes a point where you have to leap from a sinking ship to a new vessel and you have to do so with the chains of the existing business wrapped firmly around your bottomline.

How, exactly, do you prepare for that?

First, you need to forge a new relationship with your journalists. The employee-employer relationship works just fine in the old system of plant and process, but collapses in the face of Internet consumption. What media houses need are journalists who are both digital natives, no matter how recently transplanted, who are also entrepreneurs keen to work the space, helping with their every digital action to sell the product.

So, no more blocking Facebook and Twitter at work, and eventually, no more showing up for work since what you need is appealing and informative content, not friends around the watercooler.

While you’re doing that, you need to reestablish a new relationship with your audience. The best way to do that is to create an online brand that plays to the acknowledged strengths of the media house and puts those assets at the tip of the digital spear.

This is the exact opposite of the traditional newspaper approach which creates a curated product that seeks to meet all reader needs. Nobody goes to the Internet for that. On Alexa, the rigorously focused local website trinituner.com enters the charts globally at 43,546 and is ranked 14 in T&T.

Begin the process of making your archives accessible. A publication or broadcaster of record which has no deep public-facing collection of its own coverage is failing the second responsibility of journalism, reporting it being the first.

This calls for a significant change in approach. When I first began freelancing for a newspaper, I wandered into the paste-up room to find yards of text generated by typesetters. This material was painstakingly fitted around the ads and stuck into place by a gummy glue on a roller was called “matter.”

For decades, the work of journalism has been seen as producing the daily product, but the most valuable asset of any media house is all that matter it’s been producing (and tossing into a backroom) over the decades.

Rescuing this material and presenting it as bits will be crucial to creating the kind of authority that makes for a resonant online resource. These aren’t solutions to the money problem, but they are crucial to being a successful player in the new information marketplace.

If you don’t show up for the dance, no advertiser is going to ask you for a set.

  • daniel cockburn

    nice article.

  • Reading this in context to the new article on July 4, 2017 which see that local newspapers after the almost two years that this article was first published, have not learned one iota. And that “media manager” who did not get it, I am sure, is out there in the business sector steering some other organisation down the drain with his “un-evolved” thinking.