There’s the philosophical riddle about the tree falling in a forest when no one is around. Does it make a sound? Now try this twist: If a journalist has a story, but there is no market for the news, is it worth doing?
The business model for journalism is crumbling. So an informed discussion of journalism today must include an awareness of new business models and marketability.
Can marketing save journalism? It’s a heretical question for some to consider, I’m sure, since journalists have long valued their practice as more “pure” than marketing and public relations. But these seemingly disparate forms of communication are melding together, and journalism can benefit from integrating new marketing strategies and tactics.
This type of marketing is not advertising, or slogans, or logos. As it has evolved in the digital age, it has become more transparent, authentic and collaborative, which I will argue are all traits that describe good journalism today, too. “The Cluetrain Manifesto” outlined this shift nearly 10 years ago with 95 theses on “the end of business as usual.” The first line on its original cover read, “Markets are conversations.”
A few years later, the concept that “news is a conversation” invaded mainstream journalism and is now universally embraced, at least in concept. So it stands to reason that if both markets and news are conversations, the practice of journalism today requires an awareness and capacity for the marketability of that journalism.
What follows is one thesis from Cluetrain. In reading it, see if you can identify the mainstream news industry in it:
Corporations do not speak in the same voice as these new networked conversations. To their intended online audiences, companies sound hollow, flat, literally unhuman.
Match that assessment with the most recent Pew research on the public’s perception of journalism, in which credibility has hit an all-time low. See how journalism’s disconnect with its community is helping play out the dire predictions from Cluetrain, including:
The community of discourse is the market. Companies that do not belong to a community of discourse will die.
Think Social Capital
Ironically, this situation cannot be addressed by the marketing department at a news organization. Instead, it’s about creating “social capital” by becoming the “trusted center” within a structure of relationships through digital communication. French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu suggested social capital can be developed through purposeful actions and then transformed into conventional economic gains. This concept very closely aligns to the traditional business model for news of generating revenue based largely on a public service.
For several years now, journalists have taken positive steps into the digital age by adding blogs and multimedia to their craft while increasing interactivity and immediacy. Simultaneously, news organizations have shed jobs, and their stocks have taken a pounding on Wall Street.
So why isn’t this strategy working? Because journalism’s brand is broken.
News organizations struggle not only with public perception of journalism but also with brand value in their local community. As I travel and talk with news professionals looking for ways to add Web 2.0 elements—comments, forums and user-generated content—to their online operations, I’m no longer surprised to hear an editor or reporter say, “Readers won’t do that on a news site.”
But this type of response is an admission of failure, especially when we find start-up companies like Flickr and Craigslist gaining more brand cache in a local community than a business that has been serving a community for decades. Even worse is when a local, independent blog generates relevant and constructive discussion based to a large extent on the news reported by the local news organization and the original news Web site’s conversation is either dormant or misguided and destructive.
Building targeted communities of discourse with a layer of journalism on top can help. The Bakersfield Californian, for example, has been a leader in creating and cultivating such communities with projects like Bakotopia. And the beat blogging movement started by Jay Rosen’s NewAssignment.net is about doing this kind of journalism by convening a community of discourse in the form of an online social network.
To maximize a news organization’s social capital and marketability, its journalism today must be transparent, authentic and collaborative. This is why blogs and Twitter work for news organizations. Neither will replace traditional journalism, and that shouldn’t be the objective. These new digital tools bring journalists closer to readers and readers closer to journalism by removing barriers to a more networked conversation.
They help journalists avoid sounding “hollow, flat, literally unhuman” as Cluetrain warned against. And they build influence for the journalists, which Philip Meyer argued in “The Vanishing Newspaper” leads to economic success.
Judgment and Strategy
Recently I was part of a strategic content planning session for a traditional newsroom. I suggested that one priority should be content that is “marketable.” Some translated this to mean running celebrity gossip on Page One. Not so, I tried to explain. Marketable content means that the target audience is desirable to advertisers, either because of its size or quality. TechCrunch, for example, succeeded in doing this, and in fewer than two years has become the leading source for technology business news, eclipsing such coverage by The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and local Bay Area newspapers.
News operations are struggling to find the right balance between quality and quantity. Local news sites are organized based on the print sectioning—local, sports, business, lifestyle—that was invented because of press configurations. Advertisers can’t put their finger on the demographic they might reach with this kind of mass-appeal formatting. It’s not nearly targeted enough for today’s digital world. So smart news operations launch niche sites, targeting moms, dads, pets, shopping, home and garden, and more traditional categories such as arts and entertainment. If not topical sites, then they go hyperlocal.
These are definable markets, ones that a sales representative can use to easily explain to a prospective advertiser exactly who will be reached by positioning an ad in a particular section.
What about the news organization’s cornerstones of reporting responsibilities—breaking news and watchdog journalism? These are a news operation’s loss leaders, and they don’t form a specific market. But they can draw a transient audience because of their popularity online. Once visitors arrive, they are introduced to the rest of the site’s content, which then might attract a more loyal following. This reporting also improves social capital by keeping a reader informed and protecting his or her interests.
News operations need markets, and markets are conversations. Shoveling content into separate categories isn’t enough. It’s time to end business—and journalism—as usual.
A Holistic Approach
Can journalism be pursued with a blind eye toward the market realties of the business models that have supported journalism? Not if journalism is to have a future.
This is why college journalism programs should be teaching the basics of business and marketing as part of journalism training, as Jeff Jarvis is doing at the City University of New York and Dan Gillmor at Arizona State. The reality is this: With fewer traditional jobs in journalism available today—and probably fewer tomorrow—there is a greater need for the study and practice of entrepreneurial journalism for students and for out-of-work journalists who still want to serve a community.
This holistic approach—blending business strategy with journalism—is already guiding independent, hyperlocal start-up news efforts around the United States. Self-sustaining operations will proliferate as traditional news organizations continue to shrink and digital tools evolve and lower the barrier to entry even further.
Digital entrepreneur Elizabeth Osder visited the University of Southern California last fall and spoke frankly to journalism students about this new environment, according to a summary posted by Online Journalism Review. She presented the following recipe for entrepreneurial journalism:
Start with the impact you want to have. Figure out what audience you need to assemble to have that impact and what kind of content is needed to do that. Then price it out: How much money do you need to do it?
After one student complained that this felt too much like business school, Osder defended the new approach as bringing to them a necessary discipline. “It forces you to be relevant and useful versus arrogant and entitled,” Osder replied.
For me, this isn’t just a concept; it’s my new reality. I resigned my position at The News Tribune in Tacoma, Washington in October to pursue entrepreneurial journalism with a start-up company founded to serve local news publishers with technology and strategy. We will succeed if we can help publishers connect to the networked conversation in their markets. The technology is irrelevant, but critical to sustaining journalism are these new traits: an entrepreneurial mindset, measureable success tied to establishing social capital, and a recognition that authentic, transparent and collaborative work is the foundation for viability and sustainability in the marketplace.
Mark Briggs is CEO of Serra Media, a Seattle-based digital innovation company, and principal of Journalism 2.0, a strategic consultancy formed as a spinoff from his book of the same name. He served as assistant managing editor for interactive news at The News Tribune in Tacoma from 2004–2008 and new media director at The Daily Herald in Everett, Washington, from 2000–2004.