Fixing the News Business (For Now)

Jeff Jarvis, former founding editor of Entertainment Weekly and creator of Buzz Machine, and now professor of Journalism at CUNY,  has written a very profound article on how to save newspapers. The article is relevant not only to newspapers, but also to any publication that seeks to maintain its life in the current digital environment. In this environment, there is competition for attention, and an almost infinite supply of news, both fake and real, and entertainment.

As an experienced partner to publishers (since 1999), we would like to recommend that they think about some of the points Jarvis makes in his article. He begins by setting the stage:

The burning house sits on the foundation of media’s old business model, which is built on volume: reach and frequency in mass media terms, unique users and clicks online. This house is doomed to commoditization as the abundance and competition the internet spawns drive the price of the scarcity we once controlled — media time and space — toward zero. Yet this is the model that still makes us our money and so, just to survive and perchance to invest in an alternative future and home, we must still feed that fire with cats, Kardashians, and every new trick we can find, from programmatic ads and so-called content-recommendation engines (which commoditize media yet further) to native advertising (which, when it fools our readers, only depletes the seed corn that is our trust and brand). We know where this ends: in ashes.

Well, we all know that. Now what do we do about it? Jarvis says we have to build our businesses on value over volume, and we must develop relationships that go deep into communities. And by communities he means not just localities, but affinity groups and other self-identifying niches and segments — perhaps parents, perhaps, transgender young adults, perhaps cancer patients. The key here is self-identifying.

This means not buying data, but developing our own — first party data that comes from talking to our current customers, subscribers, visitors, and finding out more of what they want. For some publishers, this is more difficult than it would seem. As publishers, we’re used to putting out content and assuming we can target the audience from outside. We can target, for instance, Hispanics. But Hispanics don’t necessarily define themselves as Hispanics; they have characteristics that cut across the obvious label.

Note well that in each of these situations, we must shift from media-centric products — our newspaper, our content, our home page, our comments — to public-centric services: a place for people to come together with residents of their town; a place where seniors can find the right adult development for them; continuing alerts about developments in an issue a high-school parent cares about; a means of connecting with others who are concerned about filthy park to get it fixed; and so on. I am not talking about personalizing the serving of the content we already have (though that would be a good and necessary start). I am talking instead about building new products to serve specific constituencies in new ways.

And what do we do to solve this?

Start with advertising. At the most basic level, if you are making products and services that are more useful, engaging, relevant, and valuable to people, then you will get greater loyalty, engagement, and usage, and even under the old, CPM-based advertising business, you will have more ad inventory. More important, knowing about people’s interests and needs — at an individual level — will enable you to sell higher-value and highly targeted advertising.

The only way we can fight media’s commoditization at the hands of programmatic and retargeting advertising and the large platforms is by gathering our own first-party data. And the best way to gather that data is not by forcing our users to give it to us through registration, by inferring it through demographics, or by sneakily compiling data from privacy-pillaging services such as Acxiom.

This is your decision, publishers. What kind of publication do you want to be?