Yesterday, a dear friend and longtime newspaper editor was grousing online about the term “reader revolution.” He wanted everyone to know that 10, 20, 30 and 40 years ago, we served readers, too. It’s true: We delivered quality information and big, important stories, obituaries, the first draft of history and a lot more without all the technological advantages young journalists have today.
With respect, however, I think he entirely misunderstands the concept and is deluding himself about our mindset when he and I broke into the business in the 1970s. At the time, we took enormous satisfaction in being “the gatekeepers” who sagely decided what was news and provided heaping helpings of information vegetables to an unwitting public. Government meetings, high school gamers, movie reviews. We told them what they needed to know, or so we thought. We had a monopoly on the means of production, 25 percent profit margins and there were few alternatives for a local business other than to advertise in the local newspaper that cost consumers less than a quarter. Circulation revenue was just fun money.
Nothing breeds arrogance like success, and any honest journalist from the period will cop to a certain swagger. New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet noted as much when he said at a recent gathering at Stanford that coming up as a reporter in Chicago he never heard from actual readers, and that if one ever called him in the newsroom, he wouldn’t know how to respond.
Then, some smart young people — the kind of folks who gravitate to the Online News Association and the recent ONA19 conference in New Orleans — set about creating an internet for the consumer. Steve Jobs envisioned a time when everyone would have a supercomputer at home, then in the pocket of their jeans. A lot of us couldn’t believe it. Guess who was right?
Let’s stipulate that the legacy media companies did not make the most of their existing capital nor their head start as information brokers. Craig Newmark and a hundred others were agile, open minded and smart, and they stole our market share.
The end? Man, I hope not.
As the newspaper industry and other legacy media companies shrank, suffered and stumbled, the new media elite at places like Google, Facebook and so forth behaved like businessmen and not high-minded journalists on their high horses. They sought to provide consumers with information they wanted and concentrated on user experience. Those are two things that, while not unimportant at legacy newspapers of the period, were not top of mind for many editors prior to the year 2000.
A.G. Sulzberger recently characterized the concept of the reader revolution simply as “making something worth paying for.” Notice, that doesn’t mean dumbing down the New York Times. Packages like the recent look into the Trump family finances and the 1619 Project are as ambitious as anything the newspaper of record has ever done. I’m sure that these days tremendous thought goes into marketing this work, sanding out the rough edges that would drive away digital and print users, and putting it into its proper place in the organization’s overall revenue mission.
Ed Malthouse, a data scientist from the Medill School at Northwestern, spoke at some length at ONA19 about “optimizing for willingness to pay.” He and his colleagues shared findings from their Local News Initiative, which analyzed data from dozens of large- and medium-sized newspapers. Perhaps not surprisingly, readers are more inclined to be “sticky,” to stick around, for differentiated content. That is, stuff that isn’t a commodity found all over the worldwide web. (Did you know there are more than two billion Google hits for recipes? Think adding some on your site is going to impress anyone?) Differentiated content merely means anything that only you provide, or that you do better than anyone else.
What was surprising to me was that “regularity” is the key. “Reading habit is the new north star,” Malthouse said. That means you provide something of value that people return to again and again. That fact leads to somewhat surprising coverage decisions. For example, in a separate ONA19 session, San Francisco Chronicle Editor Audrey Cooper said her team found that Oakland A’s fans are relatively few among her readers, but that they are very loyal and come back every day in the season for coverage. It, therefore, behooves her to beef up that coverage and to charge for it.
Interestingly and counterintuitively, Malthouse said increased pageviews on a newspaper site is associated with churn among subscribers. He theorizes that frustration with overzealous advertising and the appearance of commoditized, none-local news on these sites teaches readers that this information can be found elsewhere and with less upset.
Cooper said the study was a revelation in San Francisco, where they have backed off on eye candy listicles and slideshows so as not to alienate readers. “We have been drowning in data, but with very little insight” until now, she said.
So, what do we do with the knowledge that user experience is key and that differentiation is important?
Take a multidisciplinary approach. At a place like the Half Moon Bay Review, that likely means more partnerships. Work in tandem with social service providers, outside graphic artists, ad reps, local academics… It’s simply not enough for five people to sit around a table on a Wednesday and do whatever we want to do a week later.
Question assumptions. For me, that means activating our Editorial Advisory Board and start with questions like, “What are we doing that doesn’t interest you?” “What needs do you have that we aren’t filling?” “How would you accomplish these desires, unencumbered by the inertia of our past?” I realize many savvy publishers are well beyond that, but we need to ask again.
Engage with readers: Later, I’ll talk about a newsletter I want to start, one that morphs off of the Post Mortem concept. It will talk about the impact of our journalism and how it relies on support.