Building a new pipe

Why media companies need to pivot—again


Media nerds like me spend a lot of time thinking about the “future” of news, entertainment, and information. We talk incessantly about “engagement,” “partnerships,” and “content.”

But a recent email exchange with a friend helped me think about all of this in a new way: distribution—not content or even audience—is the real product.

First, let’s take a step back. Historically, newsrooms had a firewall between the two key halves of the business: editorial and advertising. Each side created a different product for a different audience. Editorial wrote or produced content for people who wanted to listen to, watch, or read it. Advertising sold and produced the ads that put their clients in front of prospective customers. It was a symbiotic relationship: the ads funded the editorial content, which attracted the audience advertisers needed.

Then the internet screwed it all up. News organizations suddenly lost control of both content and audience. The audience was no longer captive; people could go anywhere for news or information. And in most cases, content was no longer as valuable or unique: anyone could publish anything and deliver it instantly.

One might argue that the content system was broken: it was print when it should have been digital; it was static when it should’ve been interactive. This is the logic behind efforts like the New York Times’ Pulitzer-winning story, “Snow Fall,” or Digital First Media’s Project Thunderdome: if we create content that’s compelling enough, the audience will come.

Conversely, you could say that the audience system was broken: news orgs weren’t “interacting” with their readers; they’d lost touch with what people wanted; there was too much friction in a system that simply took a print news product and plopped it onto a homepage.

Both are true, but both capture only a portion of the overall picture (the analogy of the blind men and the elephant comes to mind). My friend Frank Yeh, one of the smartest and most thoughtful people I know, puts it this way:

The disruption of newspaper as distribution was nothing less than the obsolescence of the product itself. The newspaper used to be this rather well-used pipe of information, that happened to carry both news and advertising, and then along came this really amazing network of tubes called the Internet.
The value of a pipe is that somebody is sending something from one end and someone else takes it up on the other end. Advertisers wanted to send something to people at the other end. News was just a way to get people to gather around at one end of the pipe, and this audience helped the rates that media could charge for the privilege of conduit. It was an economic coincidence that the same audience of people for advertisers was also paying something to gather at that end of the pipe to get some news. The ad-sales team said: the audience gathered at the other end of the pipe is the product. The journalists said: the news we’re making at this end of the pipe is the product. I say, the pipe itself is the product.

Stop for a moment and think about it: The pipe itself is the product.

This is why creating the world’s most amazing content won’t be enough—and neither will click-bait headlines that draw meaningless audience. No single strategy will work. We have to build a new pipe. And in order to successfully deliver the right content to the right people at the right time, the new pipe has to be flexible and responsive in a way the old pipes never were.

So what does that look like?

As a Knight Fellow, I’ve had the good fortune of talking with many of media’s top innovators. I haven’t found a silver bullet (yet), but I’ve gleaned a few broad-brush insights:

1) Get (and use!) meaningful metrics

The smartest media companies are already scrapping the pageview in favor of data that offer more meaningful insight on what resonates with their users. This is huge. Measuring attention, as Upworthy does, signals an appreciation for the user experience. “Personalized” content doesn’t have to mean an echo chamber. Instead, it can mean being aware of what a particular type of user wants at a particular time, and how she wants it.

For example: I’ll read a long-form story on my laptop (or even in print, gasp!) on a Sunday afternoon—and startup magazine California Sunday is aimed at exactly that use case. During my Monday morning commute, though, I want hard-news headlines, preferably as audio content, on my smartphone. The ability to measure how and when mobile versus desktop users come to your stories—not to mention how long they’re staying—is essential to building the right pipe.

2) Think like an ecosystem: build partnerships

Buzzword alert: platform + publisher = platisher.

Quick translation: Twitter and Salesforce are platforms. The Washington Post and the San Francisco Chronicle are publishers. Vox is both—a “platisher.”

Jim Bankoff, the CEO of Vox Media, recently spoke about the dangers of “platform dependency.” While I’m a fan of Vox’s Chorus platform, I’m not convinced that every news organization can (or should) become a platform company. There’s a place in the ecosystem for content creators who are skilled in leveraging existing platforms—from aggregators like Flipboard to “megaphone” sites like RebelMouse to all those startups that are still just a sparkle in some Stanford grad student’s eye.

The bottom line, though, is that collaboration is a good thing. If you’re stronger on the publishing side, find platform partners to help amplify your content and introduce you to new audiences. My favorite example is Connecticut’s Independent Media Network—a consortium of some 40 hyperlocal blogs, united under an umbrella organization that provides basic tech support and can attract bigger advertisers by compounding the readership of its member sites.

3) Be nimble, be quick, and don’t get too attached

Essentially, this means that media companies must act like their consumers. Think about your own online habits: if a story is boring, you stop reading. If a website takes too long to load or an app has bugs, you go elsewhere.

Media companies themselves should act the same way. Try stuff, and if it doesn’t work, try something else. Please, please don’t pour thousands of dollars into a homepage redesign or a new app. Instead, why not see how existing platforms can serve you? Seed stories everywhere, in a host of different formats. Keep what works and scrap what doesn’t. Rinse and repeat.

4) Engage—authentically

“Engagement” doesn’t mean spamming people on Twitter. It means being yourself, and/or your brand, in a transparent, authentic, personal way. And just so you know I’m not making it up, here’s Knight Foundation VP of Journalism and Innovation Michael Maness on the value of subjectivity:

http://vimeo.com/9214801

I could go on about this stuff forever; I won’t. Instead, I’d love to hear your thoughts (and authentically engage!). Find me on Twitter at @aschirtz or email me at aschirtz@stanford.edu.