Sorry, We Don’t Deliver
The newspaper industry, at least on the journalism side, often talks about collaboration when it looks at how to tackle our biggest societal issues. And it seems that once we have figured out how to collaborate we will turn to Facebook and Twitter to deliver our work?
What is not being talked about enough is that this is the root of the industry’s problem. It’s not that today’s journalism isn’t excellent, or deep enough or that the coolest new tools for storytelling are not being deployed quick enough. We have lost sight of that fact that we never launched our own digital distribution platform. It’s an important point of failure to discuss. Sure we created websites, but those have morphed into online picture frames to display these high-value works journalism. Active, engaging digital distribution blew by us and we never noticed.
Like it or not, along with journalism there is the second most important part of the business model, circulation. Yes, circulation. Seems obvious right? But it’s safe to say that in the past most journalists were not concerned with the mechanics of circulation. Owning a mass audience, that we alone delivered to, was one of the reason advertisers signed on with newspapers. One of our top value propositions was just ignored and the big platforms took it over.
Delivery is not easy, delivery costs money and there you see lies the rub. The business side of the industry abhors adding cost. Cost kills revenue. And in revenue, there is profit, with profit there can be an investment in journalism. The reality is that the industry was glad to see someone else spend money on distribution and technology. We avoided the cost of a delivery infrastructure. It’s like paying commercial printers instead of spending hundreds of millions on presses and press operators. In the distance, we could see the cost savings we were about to experience. No paper cost, no delivery cost, no capital expense. We were drunk on the promise of these future savings. In all, it’s outsourcing gone wrong. It has not worked the way we hoped.
Circulation is not interesting, it costs money, it does not save the planet or expose bad actors in our government. Circulation was simply trusted to carry the message. Today the industry keeps working on improving the message as if it’s not good already. Local publishers need to deliver the message themselves, not Facebook or any other platform. We need to talk about collaborating on delivery
Relying on other businesses platforms to deliver our work has proven far less than viable, it’s proven deadly. Thousands of hours of journalistic effort and we throw it into some other platform’s algorithm and hope for the best. We do not exist without delivery.
For hundreds of years, we controlled what was above the fold. Today our free content delivered on giant social media platforms makes their shareholders very happy. We have embraced them as the defacto 21st-century paperboys. We have spent countless hours and millions of dollars hoping that we’re doing digital right. We’ve tweaked our presentation to meet the needs of the social media giants. We hired experts and tagged content so SEO would push our story to the top, above the fold, of a search engine’s algorithm.
Facebook continues to tell us how important local news is to them. Yet the latest cat video, from a friend I’ve never met, is something that their algorithm has determined I must see. Really? We foolishly redirect our focus toward what Facebook says is the next thing. They keep changing, and they keep making money. We keep changing for them, and newspapers are disappearing. Facebook is the scorching sun of our local news deserts.
The instant response to the idea of a locally owned platform has been, “You expect to compete against Facebook?” “Why ? Facebook has everything everyone needs already. It owns the social media audience.” But that’s defeatist thinking. Why not compete at a niche level, like a special section in a newspaper. How about our own niche social delivery medium? small, local,… boutique news if you will. Subscription models are working for Netflix and music streaming services are welcomed by digital natives and widely adopted. So even our original model for fees for our content service is acceptable today. Let’s take our one of a kind local content, offer it on our own platform, build a social media customer base and grow subscribers once again.
But, let’s build a shared platform based upon what we learned from the people who adopted Facebook and Twitter. Personal relevance and the focus on “me” are of utmost importance. If we never try, we can’t possibly succeed. So why not try?
Is there one thing, one connection that everyone shares? How about starting with our roots. The places we live in. On its surface geo-location might seem to be about a point on a map. It is however very much about the emotional connection people have to place. Where do we start? Why not start in the past when we were successful when we delivered the content? A time when newspapers were seen as the pillars of the community, not the enemy of the people. Let’s go back to our hometowns and start over again. It’s not too late to do it. Let’s start on that small dot on the map where we grew up.
Circulation/distribution is half of our value proposition and it’s been ignored. Is it so hard to believe that thousands of newspapers and local content providers don’t have the ability to create a delivery platform? Let’s start there! If we fail, we can blame ourselves and try again. Or we can keep blaming Facebook, and watch more of our hometowns turn into news deserts.
What if there was a franchise opportunity, where our hometown publishers benefit from their strength in numbers. Where local media scales up and keeps the lion share of the platform’s revenue. We might have to spend some money to make some money, but isn’t that just business. Not creating a social delivery system of our own has left us where we are today.