When less journalism is more

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There is a truth to digital age publishing that is so obvious, that I’m almost embarrassed to put finger to keyboard to type it:

In an attention-poor age, we need to be more thoughtful about what we publish. Adding to our readers’ over-saturated content diets without good reason isn’t helping them or us.

I’ve written about this many times down the years this site has existed, but for all that, people still seem vaguely surprised when a publisher or researcher reaffirms the truth of it.

A case in point: Dr Joy Jenkins’s new research into local news models, and this rather excellent quote:

Nice-Matin’s Sophie Casals said that to produce high-quality paid content, journalists need time and managerial support. As she put it, ‘Publish less, but publish better’.

Publish less, publish better

Now, to be fair here, the reason we’ve taken so long to absorb this idea was twofold:

  • More than one early digital media guru promoted the idea that we should switch from asking “why publish this?” To “why not publish this?” back in the mid-2000s. They were wrong then, and are still wrong now.
  • As ad rates fell, publishers needed more page views to deliver the same revenue — and often more content was the only obvious way they could deliver that.

However, both approaches ignore one critical idea. There are two scarce resources that you have to get into balance:

Your time is a scarce resource because it’s the defining factor which decides how much an organisation publishes. Publishing is low cost or free, so the constraining factor is either your staff’s time, or your resources to buy freelancer time.

The reader’s attention is scarce because an abundance of information and entertainment creates a poverty of attention. I wrote about this at length two years ago, and you can see similar concepts explored in this video:

The content trawlers

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Photo by Fer Nando on Unsplash

One of the things that baffles me is that over the digital era most organisations still see this as an opportunity to publish MOAR CONTENT.

Now, this can work, if you function as an attention trawler: throw out vast nets of highly search and social optimised content, and, if you produce it cheaply enough, you can monetise the attention you gather. The problem is that only a handful of massive players can make that work, and the margins are desperately tight. It’s a lucrative game, but one only a few really big players can play.

For the rest of us, we need to ensure each piece of journalism is doing a job. That’s why knowing the value and role of your journalism in your business is so important. If you’re spending the majority of your precious valuable time producing content you know aids your readers and the business, you’re in a good place.

Saving local journalism with analytics

And, as local journalism is pushed towards the brink of extinction in many countries, some players are starting to learn the hard attention lessons:

Many interviewees have embraced a shift from the daily rush to produce a constant flow of online news to an emphasis on ‘lean back’ content, as Westfalenpost editor Jost Lubben described.

They are making a trade-off decision here: do I produce a high volume of short-lived “flow” content, or a low volume of long-lived “stock” content, which might deliver higher rewards (in terms of traffic or conversions) when measured over long periods of time? One of the things that I find fascinating in this report is looking at the ways people have articulated this idea, and worked it into their editorial processes.

For example:

The Westfalenpost staff underwent a similarly transformative process that aimed to unite workflows to better reach online target groups. Deputy Editor-in-Chief Anne Krum said the most important step was to create new editorial dashboards and heat maps showing how well content performs and its effectiveness in drawing users to the website and creating new subscribers, which alerts editors to assign more of those types of stories.

Too many newsrooms are still wedded to just tracking the effectiveness of their success through page views. Not all page views are created equal. To use a personal example, my iOS14 warning was the most-read story here for months, by a margin. But I gained virtually no subscribers. However, Thursday’s piece saw a notable uptick in subscriptions.

Gratifying though those big numbers were, they didn’t actually grow my audience in any meaningful way. The samller, but more engaged audience I brought in last week was more valuable.

Do you understand the value of your journalism?

So, yes, you can publish less, and publish better. But first you need to understand what content is actually delivering value to your publication, and you aren’t going to do that, unless you’re using your analytics to examine much, much more than just your most popular pieces of content each week.

In an age where people are bombarded by “content”, we need to be very sure in a concrete, articulated way what value our work is producing. If you understand that, you can measure your success — and start making smart decisions about how you should spend your time.

This post was inspired by the excellent research by Dr Joy Jenkins for the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. You can download it as a PDF

The information within is applicable far beyond the local news sector. It’s really worth your time.

Originally published at https://onemanandhisblog.com on September 28, 2020.

Written by

Blogging since 2001, journalisting (which isn’t a word, but should be) since 1994, and sleep-deprived since 2012. Journalism lecturer, consultant and trainer.

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