I recently wrote an opinion column for the Cape Times (Do we really want to make life less comfortable for those on the street?). It appeared in the print edition but not online, except for the e-dition, which is available to subscribers. (I know because I searched their website and the only references to Gootkin – and there are several – are to articles about the many high-profile cases my husband Rael, a lawyer, has acted in.)
Rael and I subscribe to both the Cape Times and the Argus; we can’t imagine living in a house without newspapers. Rael buys the Argus mainly for the sports section; I barely look at it – too much like a tabloid. But we both page through the Cape Times every morning as part of our getting-ready-for-the-day ritual.
Excited to have my first piece in Cape Town’s morning newspaper, I told people to look out for my column in the paper the next morning. But I was surprised by how many people don’t regularly buy newspapers and asked me instead for a link to the online version of my column. As there wasn’t one, I put it up on my blog and sent them that link instead.
I was equally intrigued by how many people had actually read the column without me alerting them to it. I know some people don’t buy certain newspapers for ideological reasons, but the wider issue of print versus online news reminded me of a discussion I heard a while ago.
Earlier this year I attended the Israeli Presidential Conference: Facing Tomorrow 2013. One of the sessions I really enjoyed was a panel discussion titled: ‘Has traditional media been caught in the web’? It was chaired by Jane Eisner, the editor-in-chief of The Jewish Daily Forward, a Jewish weekly (I know, I know) newspaper based in New York.
The panel represented: Ha’aretz, Israel’s oldest daily newspaper (Aluf Benn, editor-in-chief); MSNBC, an American cable and satellite news television channel (Phil Griffin, president); Hot Air, a conservative American political blog (Ed Morrissey); HBO, an American premium and satellite cable network (Richard Plepler, CEO); and Hebrew University of Jerusalem (Renana Peres, assistant professor of marketing, School of Business Administration).
The blurb in the programme referred to Marshall McLuhan’s iconic statement, “The medium is the message”, asking whether “new media technologies restrict, disrupt or enrich the messages and content to which we are exposed?” It also promised discussion on whether old media felt threatened by the new reality and what we, the consumers, stood to gain or lose from the monumental change.
I’ll start with the contribution of Aluf Ben, editor of Ha’aretz, as it was the most relevant to my digital versus print experience. Ha’aretz, which has seen its fair share of controversy this year, has more online (paywall) than paper subscribers.
Ben confessed that he sometimes looked longingly at online-only outlets that didn’t spread themselves across two mediums, but Ha’aretz’s reality is that many people still want print and are prepared to pay for it. (Interestingly, their weekly print subscribers now get free access to the digital version, too. I hope the Cape Times is reading this.) I identified with what he said about the ritual of reading a newspaper in its various different sections; I save some for later when I have more time to pore over them. Those who are used to this routine don’t want to give it up.
Ben’s overriding message was that, no matter the medium, the basic elements of a good story don’t change. He advised media businesses to adapt to the way their audiences want to consume their products.
Phil Griffin, president of MSNBC, shared his views about how the web changed TV. MSNBC was forced to create a niche; they chose a politically progressive stance and found an emotional connection to their viewers. Griffin rates knowing your audience as even more important than producing quality content, tying in with Ben’s comments about adapting to your consumers.
Richard Plepler, the CEO of premium TV channel HBO, attributes his channel’s phenomenal success to “differentiation”, their raison d’être. The way to monetise a media business, according to Plepler, is to create something with an original voice, telling a story in a way which is utterly original. HBO carries no advertisements; their revenue is from subscriptions only. (One of the selling points for Ha’aretz online is that there are fewer advertisements, which I suppose forces advertisers to greater creativity when creating and placing ads.) He used Game of Thrones as an example of their passionate engagement and core gut connection with their audience. People don’t just like the show, they are obsessed with it. Word of mouth, often conveyed using social media, interprets traditional media and gives it a lift.
Plepler concluded by noting that we are in an age of tremendous and unparalleled optionality, hence the need for differentiation. He also spoke of the catalytic power of social media, through which they and their viewers tell people what is going on.
This tied in well with the next speaker. Ed Morrissey, a political blogger going by the nickname Captain Ed, writes for Hot Air and The Week as well as for his own Captain’s Quarters blog.
Morrissey maintains the real revolution is consumer choice, not the internet, and he credits HBO with starting the consumer choice revolution.
Morrissey started blogging as an outlet for his own thoughts and found a market for people interested in political commentary; even when they didn’t agree with it they enjoyed commenting on it, broadening his market. The barriers to publication of, and commenting on, a blog are very low – anybody with internet access can enter the discussion. Morissey explains the challenge as identifying your audience, aiming at them, and then broadening your message beyond them. Precisely because the barriers to entry are so low, you have to protect your intellectual integrity, treat subjects with respect and be honest in your opinions – who are you, what do you think, and why? You can build a community around your point of view.
The last presenter, Dr Renana Peres, is the assistant professor of marketing at the School of Business Administration of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Her insights, drawn from various studies, wove a compelling connection between all the other presenters and it’s her thoughts I want to leave you with. Dr Peres feels the new is not replacing the old, but rather complementing it. She used the metaphor of people consuming media as a sprinkler, not a waterfall.
Her own and other research shows traditional media is not replaced by new media from the user’s perspective. People use new media to enhance and complement their experience of traditional media in a multi-channelled world. She advanced three pieces of evidence to support this view:
- People use different channels to talk about different topics, proving that the medium does in fact shape the message. A study tracked what people are talking about through which channels. It found that people talk in totally different ways on- and offline. Online, people talk about social topics; offline, topics they discuss topics that evoke emotions. They use a variety of channels to refine the match between content and topic.
- People engage new media to enhance traditional media. A large study showed that many people are actively engaged in social media while watching traditional TV shows. A Nielsen study tracked communication and viewing behaviours of 1 700 Americans. Subjects would read a newspaper while watching TV, tweeting and posting to Facebook. It found that when you watch TV while tweeting, it’s as if you are watching with other people, making the experience more social. If you enjoy the show more, there is a greater chance that you will watch it again.
- New media impacts on traditional media; you need traditional channels to attract new consumers, but you need new media to retain them as customers. Readers/viewers come because of traditional media channels, but stay because of new ones; the two complete each other.
Far from being a threat, Peres believes that new media, which includes social media, may be the greatest opportunity the traditional media industry has ever had.
IMAGE: Wikimedia Creative Commons /U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service