Recently, I read a post on Recode that defined the work of publishers in a way I simply cannot believe: “Publishers create and aggregate information and present it to users in return for their attention, which they sell to advertisers.”
I mean, sure, that’s what publishers spend a lot of time doing right now. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Competing in the attention game is a race to the bottom, so we as news producers should step out of that game entirely by focusing on something else: the purpose we accomplish and values we convey. The only way for news organizations to survive is to create better products that embody these things.
This isn’t a new idea, but it’s very, very important. After years of ceding control over their audiences to Facebook and Google, journalists have come to hate those entities, and their own work has become unrecognizable, with editorial decisions being driven by the tech companies’ goals. From pointless posts that are nothing but “shareable” to hyping controversy to drive “engagement,” journalism has become less about protecting democracy and more like that Recode description — emphasizing aggregation and attention-grabbing in a desperate attempt for ad money.
I think we’ve all come to learn that ceding editorial control isn’t sustainable, and now that we’re here, publishers are trying to find revenue in subscriptions, newsletters, and live events. They’re attempting to transition from capricious audiences on social media to loyal audiences who will keep coming back.
Every product we create is an opportunity to do something meaningful for an audience. Most of the time, too much of what we do is rooted in business or institutional goals rather than audience goals. Business goals are usually simpler to measure, and it’s easier for leaders to incentivize their staffs to pursue them, whether they’re pageviews, average video time watched, or “organic” shares.
Our staffs are full of smart, talented people, but when those people focus their efforts on chasing KPIs like this, we create a culture where the end goal is to please…