News organizations, where are your T-shirts? (The emperor has no shirt.)

On building brands that people love

Michelle Holmes, vp of content for Alabama Media Group, addresses 2017–18 JSK Fellows. (Photo: Michael Bolden)

Earlier this month, Michelle Holmes — vice president of content at Alabama Media Group, JSK alumna and Center for Collaborative Journalism advisory board member — gave the best talk I’ve heard during my time at Stanford in an informal lunch conversation with current fellows.

Before she became a part of the national news conversation with a strong rejection of Roy Moore by the group’s editorial board, Michelle was well respected among JSK staff, fellows and alumni for her innovative work in Alabama. I would go as far as to say she had a bit of a fan club here.

A mug for Reckon from AL.com, “a new place for reporting and discussion about important issues.”
Merchandise for another Alabama Media Group brand, This is Alabama.

In 2013, Michelle arrived at the state-wide media organization serving multiple communities that had cut print runs to three days a week, and many predicted a moribund future. Today, the Alabama Media Group is a revitalized media company with important investigations, a number of growing sub-brands and some very creative projects.

Take a look at the post-presidential election Alabama/California Conversation Project with Spaceship Media; the Facebook home for the group’s hard-hitting news coverage, Reckon by AL.com; the funny “It’s a Southern Thing” YouTube channel and especially the poignant Whitman, Alabama.

As Michelle shared these and other efforts during her talk, she explained that her goal was for the Alabama Media Group to become an integral part of its communities and create brands that people love. People “should want to wear the T-shirt.”

With that last comment, she transported me back to a blog post I planned (but never wrote) five years ago. When I started the Center for Collaborative Journalism, I wanted to put together a uniform of sorts: jeans, jacket and a T-shirt from various news organizations.

Right away, I ordered my New York Times, NPR and BBC shirts. But I didn’t get much further. Most of the other news organizations — from major international newspapers to national nonprofits to local and regional outlets — had nothing to offer. I could find more stores offering products from their advertisers (SkyMall-like storefronts) than stores offering news-branded items.

Shirts for AMG’s YouTube/Facebook-based brand It’s a Southern Thing

This was a shock. Coming from a magazine where we (and most of our peers) viewed sales of T-shirts and similar items not so much as a revenue driver as a sign of brand strength, of whether we were doing something our readers valued and wanted to share.

Granted, it may be easier with magazines aimed at narrower, more well-defined audiences, but I knew these outlets had fans. Why were they not cultivating them? Did this reflect an insufficient number of fans, a lack of confidence on the part of the news organizations or a lack of conscious thinking about who their audiences were and what they wanted?

Michelle’s comment brought all of this rushing back and reconnected me to the underlying reason behind my JSK question.

That question — “How might we use data about news stories and products to build stronger trust and attachment to news brands?” — is really about the T-shirts.

Underlying the question is an assumption that, as we’ve shrunk our newsrooms and our news products and chased clicks, we’ve lost sight of our fundamental value to our readers and communities. We’re torn between a paternalistic, “eat your broccoli” sense of civic duty and a base pandering to superficial wants (based on superficial signaling).

As a result, while there is still much great journalism to be found, we have undermined it in an attempt to survive and hastened our own decline. We measure a click, but not whether the reader* found the article useful, not whether the article made the reader trust the journalist and outlet more, not whether it made the reader more likely to come back and to subscribe. And, notably, we don’t measure when (and determine why) someone doesn’t click.

My question is whether we can find useful metrics for the types of journalistic stories and products that built trust, loyalty and utility (all the things that go into making something valuable). Those are the activities upon which lasting, great companies are built. Everything else is chasing after the fake rabbit.

It’s sometimes been difficult to keep that in mind as I’ve thought about metrics. At times, I’ve wondered if we’d be better off following our passions and abandoning metrics altogether. There’s danger there, too. But maybe we’re in a “pick your poison” situation.

Michelle reminded me that it’s not really about the metrics. It’s about the T-shirts — building brands that people love. We can measure whether we’re doing that. And investing our passions into that work may be the only way to get it done.

If you have any thoughts on what aspects and qualities make you (or readers in general) value news stories and products, please share them in the comments or via email, trp (at) stanford (dot) edu. [And a shameless plug for superficial signals: feel free to hit the “clap” button a few times if this post resonates with you.]

*I use reader as a sort of metonym for all consumers — readers, viewers, listeners, game players, quiz takers, etc.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.