Many things going on that I want to talk about… Excited about working on Mozilla Drumbeat, a project the Mozilla Foundation that is getting ready to launch. Open Data stuff at the City of Vancouver (some new things are afoot). Watching (in the background) In the Loop – amazing, hilarious and dark. But, for now ruminating on my conversation today with Mathew Ingram (currently of the Globe, soon to be with GigaOM) and an interview I did with a Ryerson Journalism Review writer on the future of media and newspapers.
One of the things that struck me about newspapers is that their conundrum is even greater than we think. Mathew and I were talking about how the “magic” and “mystique” of the newspaper has disappeared. There was a time when we could pretend that columnists in the Globe actually had 300,000 or 400,000 (saturday) readers. But this was in an era when we couldn’t actually measure readers. We pretended (and still do) that each newspaper got read, sometime multiple times.
The first scene is a 2003 meeting with Mel Karmazin (then CEO of Viacom) at the Google campus with a sweaty Brin, Google’s other co-founder Larry Page, and CEO Eric Schmidt. At the end of a his visit, Karmazin tells them he is appalled that Google is “fucking with the magic” of the media business by actually telling advertisers which ads work and which ones don’t.
The internet is has fucked with the magic of newspapers. And that’s scary for anyone who grew up under the old model. Forget about the advertising (that’s the part google messed with). What about the simple ego bash and job justification crisis of suddenly being able to see exactly how many readers looked at your piece and how long they chose to stay. And what about discovering that that number is nowhere near what you’ve been telling yourself for years.
The era of collectively lying magic is over. The average globe weekday circulation is 330,145, the Star’s is 446,493 and the Post’s 209,211. How many of those papers got read? Half? (the morning was too busy, kids had early practice, didn’t have time for a coffee break today, no one grabbed it from the airport lounge or hotel room). Of the remaining papers, most readers skim the paper and maybe read one or two of their favourite columnists plus a news story or two that really catches there eye. In short I suspect most columnists maybe get read, in print, by 60K people. But we don’t know, cause there are no good metrics.
Online, the world is different. The editors know who is getting read and who isn’t. No ifs, ands or buts. Suddenly your value to the newspaper (financially) becomes very clear, very fast. Valuable columnists and reporters attract what website people call “uniques” (e.g. a unique person visiting your website – each unique visitor may click on several articles and thereby generate a number of pageviews). Advertisers care about the unique visits, since 100,000 different people seeing an ad is worth a lot more than one person clicking around the site 100,000 times and seeing their add over and over again.
And what attracts lots of unique visitors? The same things as what drives everything else on the internet. Reputation and thus… brand. The most successful writers (or, er… bloggers) are those that people wake up everyday saying… I want to read her! This is even more true today where there is SO MUCH content being created most readers simply cannot separate the noise from the signal (even with twitter, which is probably the best tool). So having a strong brand is essential. This should be a good news story for newspapers and media companies since they have established brands and so, in theory, should have a leg up on bloggers like me.
The problem is – I suspect – that the brand that matters doesn’t solely or even primarily reside with the newspaper. People need someone to connect with – a newspaper is a nice filter, but it offers no connection, no intimacy. The personal brand of columnists and journalists will likely become equally, if not more important than the newspaper.
But this doesn’t mean newspapers are dead. Just that they need to be sure they know how to manage talent in an era where that talent’s brand is more and more important.
And we have a model for that. Sports teams.
For years Sports Teams have had to increasingly co-manage their own team (media platform) brand with the brand of the players (writers). The rise of the sports superstar has altered how sports franchises work in much the same way they may the newspaper biz.
So the bad news is, the talent is going to consume more of the value generated by news organizations. The good news is threefold. First, good newspapers have always managed talent – so there is some skill and process already in place around this. Second, newspapers now have real tools by which to measure their columnists. Who’s being read and who isn’t? Essentially, every managing editor should pick up a copy of Moneyball stat. A good newspaper is going to have its senior talent – its stars, if you will. But it also needs to have a mix of people on the second and third line it is grooming for later – in case a star gets injured or, is simply too expensive to justify.
Finally, there is a larger and deeper talent pool to draw from. Not only are there the local papers and a number of niche community papers to look at, there are an army of bloggers (many of us aren’t that good, but what we lack in talent we make up for in sheer numbers). And successful bloggers come with established audiences and the advantage of maturing in the online world and not the “magic” pre-internet media environment. They are used to looking at the hard numbers of pageviews and unique visitors. The opportunity to write more seriously, get mentored, and access a platform that can deliver more eyeballs will be tempting to anyone who writes well.
But I suppose none of this is that shocking. In a world where human capital is increasingly the most important asset and where personal brands are more easily established, maybe every organization is going to look more and more like a sports franchise.