Laurice Taitz has straddled the world of print and online media, and sees problems increasing for her print colleagues if they don’t stop grieving the past and get smart.
“Starbucks is adding some digital to their lattés,” was the headline of a recent story announcing that the coffee chain was launching a “slick iPad-optimised news and media site”, designed to replace the newspaper stacks at its cash registers.
It should be no surprise that the local coffee shop has decided to get into the business of curating news. It is in a long line that includes countless Facebook fans, bloggers, the twitterati and my mother, who could compete with The Star in finding bad news to spread.
There’s a lesson in that. All of them, including my mother (forgive me), are responding to – if the proliferation of sources is anything to go by – an increasing appetite for news. And while that grows, ironically it’s the traditional purveyors of news that are struggling most to cash in on the trend.
So, where did it all go so wrong? As newspaper sales and ad revenues decline and the monopoly on news diminishes – and the world remains in the grip of an economic slump – many newspaper executives have been too busy rehearsing the five stages of grief to feel any sense of renewed purpose.
So there’s denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance and then cutting – the sixth stage at which accountancy gets mistaken for strategy and those least connected with newspaper audiences now know best. This wouldn’t be so bad a response if the changes were likely to slow down and the status quo return to normal.
But in today’s world, normal is change; an accelerated pace that affects not only what type of information we want to consume but also how we want to consume it. Forget broadsheet versus tabloid or a skinny edition. Now you can get news on a phone, in an SMS, on a tablet, in an app. It might sound Dr Seuss-ish, I know. But then, we already get news in a box from Fox.
And then there’s the public’s growing appetite and expectation of free content. And while none of this is entirely new, most newspaper companies are spending their time debating “paywall or no paywall” (subtext: “let’s hide the news from our audience and then let’s see who our true friends really are”). Not a bad plan if your news is ‘special’. Not such a good plan if you’ve finished cutting that newsroom to the bone and the best news you have is the news everybody else has.
But newspaper executives aren’t the first to face the challenges of providing content to an audience who wants it free. So it’s worth taking your head out of your hands or wherever else you have put it and taking some lessons from those who have faced similar challenges.
Now is the time to think about what Keith Richards would say. The rock dinosaur would announced that the Rolling Stones will tour in 2011. He says they will put on a show that will have audiences wanting more, creating an experience that will have people fighting over tickets. And while more people will probably download free Rolling Stones songs and share them with their friends, the Stones won’t have to cut back. Their audience will grow, and concert ticket sales will keep Keith Richards in whatever it is he likes to be kept in.
If ever there was a time to put on a show, it is now. We know the future is digital, so it’s a time to innovate, to protect the talent, and to encourage creative solutions. It’s time to make space for fresh ideas to work.
Never before has there been so much opportunity to reach audiences, to go back to basics, to engage, entertain and occasionally surprise your readers. There’s now even more opportunity to ‘reward’ them for their loyalty in fun and interesting ways. A recent article I came across on memeburn.com by Niel Bekker talked about “gamification” – about applying “game mechanics and design principles to help web publishers foster community engagement”.
To create a successful game online, one has to engage the audience in a way that they like to interact online. Bekker suggests that online publishers could allow readers to ‘unlock’ rewards as they read. So, for example, a reader devoted to a business column who returns to your site a few times a month to read it could get a virtual reward – a discount on a product or service that is related to his or her interest. It’s an interesting idea and it’s underpinned by the thinking that your audience isn’t lucky to have you – you’re lucky to have their attention in a space where your competition is just a mouse click away.
So stop dishing out that formulaic treatment that utterly devalues your relationship with those who you expect to pay for what you’re putting out. Stop thinking that your reader owes you something and start thinking about how to give them something to value.
This story was first published in The Media magazine.