A number of recent articles and conference speeches show the magazine and newspaper businesses trying to figure out how to become more relevant, attract new audience and abate the erosion of circulation. Ironically, it’s Oprah Winfrey who shows them the way.
The state of print media
Thomas O. Ryder, chairman-CEO of Reader’s Digest Association says the current state of affairs of the magazine business is “the worst I’ve seen since I started in this business” more than 30 years ago. “And it’s going to get progressively worse.” He and other magazine execs were discussing the challenges facing their industry at the American Magazine Conference in Phoenix last week.
Among the magazine industry challenges mentioned at the conference: the current lull in advertising, subscription plans that undervalue the product, long production lead-times, expensive materials, production and distribution costs, as well as problems with distribution methods.
An Aspen Institute conference this summer, noted the challenges facing newspapers: The changing definition of journalism, the shaky financial foundations of traditional media, shrinking news operations and change-averse culture.
In a LA Times article on Sunday, On your day’s to-do list, is reading the paper a must? Boston Globe editor Martin Baron suggests something even more dire: “We have become disturbingly disconnected from average Americans,” he said, “from their most basic concerns about getting by day to day, paying the bills, educating the kids, holding together marriages, making it through work.”
How to survive
William Dean Singleton, CEO of MediaNews Group Inc. and the current chairman of the NAA, addressed the Associated Press Managing Editors last week, urging the following solutions to survival: focus on local content, provide content and voices for the growing diversity of readers and embrace the web.
“It’s the content, stupid,” Singleton said. “Local connection is the name of the game in our business. We have to keep talking about it and strengthening it.”
True, there is some value and competitive advantage to encouraging these positions. But none of it is particularly insightful. As Sandra Mims Rowe, the editor of the Portland Oregonian, said in the LA Times article, “Many papers that have tried to be relevant have mistakenly interpreted ‘relevance’ as only what happens within a 20-square-mile radius of the office...,"she said. “… relevance and what is useful also has a much broader definition and involves more complexity and depth and understanding.”
Perhaps it’s not the content that is the problem. It’s a fundamental misunderstanding of the social life of information in the network economy. Ironically, it is Oprah Winfrey, the least-experienced editor speaking at the American Magazine Conference, who understands this the best.
“We don’t sell magazines,” Winfrey told the crowd of editors and publishers, “we sell connections to words, ideas, fun and fantasy.”
Media companies will need to rethink and reposition their print products in the always-on, networked economy. A once-a-month or once-a-day cup-of-coffee engagement with your audience may no longer be enough. In the spirit of Oprah, here’s a few connections that print media should consider:
1. Continuous connections: Magazines and newspapers need Internet counterparts that are providing continuous updates to their audience. This doesn’t mean a web site filled with shovelware content. It needs to be a 7x24x365, living, breathing, reacting extension of your brand. Increase the frequency of connections with daily email newsletters or RSS feeds.Adapting in the network economy
2. Network connections, online and off: Use your content (print and online) to guide and direct readers to additional news, information and experiences on the web, and on other media. Your customer’s media diet is becoming more varied and vast. Don’t leave your product in a cul-de-sac.
3. Enable intercast connections: Clay Shirky recently wrote, “Communities are connected through intercast — the communications that pass among and between interconnected members of a community.” We believe that a successful news web site is a platform that supports social interaction around the story. Print media must begin to engage and grow online community in order to build affinity and loyalty to their brand experience. As well, your community can engage the journalistic process — providing valuable commentary, increasing the number of subject matter experts, providing grass-roots reporting and acting as filters for their fellow readers.
The new role as sense maker
The network economy and the proliferation of media is leading many in the news industry to believe that the future role of journalists is one of “sense making.” As noted in the aforementioned LA Times article, “People want help making sense of the day’s events.”
During an AdvertisingAge roundtable in 2001, Newsweek editor Mark Whitaker explains, “What’s at a premium today is reflection and the ability to stop and think.… In the media environment right now, (magazines) help people figure out what they think about things, and they do it with writing, they do it with analysis, they do it with pictures, they do it with stories.”
The best description of the sense making role is put for by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel in their book The Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect.
“The new journalist is no longer deciding what the public should know. She is helping audiences make order out of it. This does not mean simply adding interpretation or analysis to news reporting. The first task of the new journalist/sense maker, rather, is to verify what information is reliable and then order it so people can grasp it efficiently.”
Participate: What do you think is the new role of journalists? How should print media adapt in the network economy?
Some traditional publishers will hire forum managers and perhaps even revise their missions from “gathering/distributing information” to “nourishing networks.” But redrawing organograms and tweaking mission statements won’t lop off 19th century headcounts and overheads. Most will fail, unfortunately. Lots of research suggests that new, much smaller players will arise to seize (and invent) the new opportunities.