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What if Quality Journalism Isn't?

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Written by on June 12, 2014

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Joakim Jardenberg

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By now you have probably already read the leaked Innovation Report from The New York Times. And if you haven't, you should. It provides a great overview of the challenges and thinking that are happening in the industry, not just for The New York Times, but for every newspaper and magazine.

To very quickly summarize it, The New York Times has had a ton of success with its digital subscriptions, but despite that, is facing a continual decline in digital traffic.

And like all other media companies, they blame this on the transformation of formats and a failure to engage digital readers.

They say the solution to this is to develop more digitally focused 'growth' tactics, like asking all journalists to submit tweets with every article, be smarter about how the content is presented and featured, and generally focus on optimizing the format for digital.

The NYT Innovation Report details all of these things in a very nice and comprehensive way. There are many good suggestions in it (and some rather pointless ones).

However, The New York Times then goes on to make exactly the same mistake as the rest of industry. They absolutely and totally refuse to even consider a change in their editorial focus. We see this quite clearly from the very beginning. In the Executive Summary, they start with this (my emphasis):

The New York Times is winning at journalism. Of all the challenges facing a media company in the digital age, producing great journalism is the hardest. Our daily report is deep, broad, smart and engaging - and we've got a huge lead over the competition.

At the same time, we are falling behind in a second critical area: the art and science of getting our journalism to readers.

First Look Media and Vox Media are creating newsrooms custom-built for digital. The Guardian and USA Today have embraced emerging best practices that have helped grow readership. And Huffington Post and Flipboard often get more traffic from Times journalism than we do.

In contrast, over the last year The Times has watched readership fall significantly. Not only is the audience on our website shrinking but our audience on our smartphone apps has dipped, an extremely worrying sign on a growing platform.

Our core mission remains producing the world's best journalism. But with the endless upheaval in technology, reader habits and the entire business model, The Times needs to pursue smart new strategies for growing our audience.

This is something I hear from every single newspaper that I talk with. They are saying the same thing, which is that their journalistic work is top of the line and amazing. The problem is 'only' with the secondary thing of how it is presented to the reader.

And we have been hearing this for the past five to ten years, and yet the problem still remains. There is a complete and total blind spot in the newspaper industry that, just maybe, part of the problem is also the journalism itself.

Instead, they move the problem out of the editorial room, and into separate and isolated 'innovation teams'... who are then charged with coming up with ideas for how to reformat their existing journalistic product in a digital way.

But let me ask you this. If The NYT is 'winning at journalism', why is its readership falling significantly? If their daily report is smart and engaging, why are they failing to get its journalism to its readers?

If its product is 'the world's best journalism', why does it have a problem growing its audience?

You see the problem here? The New York Times is contradicting itself in the very introduction of its innovation report.

You can't be the world's best and fail at the same time.

Again, I hear this from every single newspaper I talk with. Each one is 100% totally convinced that there is nothing wrong with their journalistic product, and are instead pointing their finger at anything they can think of outside it.

The result is what we see in The New York Times Innovation Report. Everything in it is about trying the solve problems around the newsroom, rather than in it. And we get recommendations that focus on tactics, marketing, and this:

Our recommendation is to create a newsroom strategy team that serves as an adviser to the masthead. We envision a small newsroom team that would seek to support the masthead in its goals, serving to better arm The Times's leaders with insights and analysis that will make their growing jobs easier.

The team would serve as a catalyst for launching desk-level experiments in these areas and be charged with communicating those results to the newsroom. It would also provide valuable training ground for future leaders by offering a deeper look at the challenges and opportunities facing The Times.

This team would be distinct from the business side strategy team. But like that team, it would not have an operational role. It would be a neutral internal adviser dedicated to improving everyone's game.

So the outside-the-newsroom group that wrote this report suggests creating another outside strategy group. This group will have no influence on the editorials, nor look at the journalistic work itself, but merely look at other things, like this:

The core function would be ensuring the masthead is apprised of competitors' strategies, changing technology and shifting reader behavior. The team would track projects around the company that affect our digital report, ensuring the newsroom is at the table when we need to be.

And everything in The NYT's Innovation Report is like this. They are so afraid of challenging the core product of journalism that all their suggestions are about all other things not directly related to their actual work, or changing how they work. Their 'innovation' is more like an added extra, like suggesting that their journalists become more active socially. That's not a bad suggestion, but it implies that social is just an extra task, while the core journalistic product can just stay unchanged.

In other words, their innovation is seen as a marketing issue, not a product issue.

You see the problem?

What if the real problem isn't digital? What if the problem is the journalistic work itself?

I know that what I'm about to say is a form of blasphemy to newspaper people, but just consider if the real problem doesn't have anything to do with digital at all. I know you don't want to hear that, but just consider it for a second.

Actually, let me tell you a story about what your world is really like. In Ofcom's annual "Adults' Media Use and Attitudes Report 2014" (PDF), they asked which type of media activity people would miss the most. The result is what you see below.

People age 16-34 didn't even consider newspapers as a vital channel, but they absolutely cannot live without their mobiles. True, you can also read the newspaper on a mobile, but that's beside the point.

And just as we have people talking about being cable-TV cord-cutters, we hear more and more about people simply not reading newspapers at all anymore.

Is this what 'winning at journalism' is like? No, of course not.

This is combined with study after study pointing to incredibly low relevancy and trust ratings for newspapers, often only scoring marginally higher than politicians and lobbyists.

Is that what you get when you produce the world's best journalism? No, it's not.

So, I decided to do a simple test. I went to three of the largest newspapers in my country and judged them in relation to how useful they were to me. I ranked each story that day based on five criteria.

  1. Relevant: The story has direct impact on my life.
  2. Interesting: The story doesn't impact me, but I would like to know about it anyway.
  3. Entertaining: A form of 'interesting', but has no serious use.
  4. Not relevant: The story is completely outside my interest areas.
  5. Superficial: The story could be useful, but was written in a way that left me feeling even less informed.

Here are the results for the three largest newspapers in my country:

Keep in mind that this is in relation to me personally, but it is still shockingly bad. Only one of the three newspapers has relevant news stories. And if we combine relevant, interesting and entertaining stories, none of them exceed 30%, with the worst one only reaching 15% of the articles.

So why would I subscribe to a newspaper whose product has such little relevance to me as a person?

But, wait-a-minute, I hear you say, this is just in relation to you. If we look at the market as a whole (mass-market approach), each article is relevant to the percentage of the audience. And you are right. Each article is relevant to a percentage as a whole, but to the individual you are not relevant at all.

And this is why newspapers fail. You are based on a business model that only makes sense to a mass-market, but not to the individual. This is not a winning strategy. Yes, it used to work in the old days of media, but that was as a result of scarcity.

Think about this in relation to the world of retail. What type of brand are newspapers really like?

Are newspapers a brand like Nike, Starbucks, Ford, Tesla, GoPro, Converse, or Apple? Or are they more like Walmart, Tesco, or Aldi?

Well, companies like Nike, Starbucks, Tesla and GoPro are extremely niche brands targeting people with a very specific customer need, within a very narrow niche. This is the exact opposite of the traditional newspaper model. Each one of Nike's products, for example, are highly valuable to just their niche, but not that relevant outside it.

Whereas Walmart and Tesco are mass-market brands that offer a lot of everything in the hope that people might decide to buy something. They trade off relevance for size and convenience.

In other words, newspapers are the supermarkets of journalism. You are not the brands. Each article (your product) has almost zero value, but as a whole, there is always a small percentage of your offering that people need.

That doesn't necessarily sound like a bad thing, but people don't connect with Walmart or Tesco. They don't really care about them, nor are they inspired by what they do.

No matter how hard they try, supermarkets with a mass-market/low-relevancy appeal will never appear on a list of the most 'engaging brands', or on list of brands that people love.

And this is the essence of the trouble newspapers are facing today. It's not that we now live in a digital world, and that we are behaving in a different way. It's that your editorial focus is to be the supermarket of news.

The New York Times is publishing 300 new articles every single day, and in their Innovation Report they discuss how to surface even more from their archives. This is the Walmart business model.

The problem with this model is that supermarkets only work when visiting the individual brands is too hard to do. That's why we go to supermarkets. In the physical world, visiting 40 different stores just to get your groceries would take forever, so we prefer to only go to one place, the supermarket, where we can get everything... even if most of the other products there aren't what we need.

It's the same with how print newspapers used to work. We needed this one place to go because it was too hard to get news from multiple sources.

But on the internet, we have solved this problem. You can follow as many sources as you want, and it's as easy to visit 1000 different sites as it is to just visit one. Everything is just one click away. In fact, that's how people use social media. It's all about the links.

Imagine what would happen to real-world supermarkets, if every brand was just one step away, regardless of what you wanted. Would you still go to a supermarket, knowing that 85% of the products you see would be of no interest to you? Or would you instead turn directly to each brand that you care about?

This is what is happening to the world of news. You are trying to be the supermarket of news, not realizing that this editorial focus is exactly why people are turning away from you.

One of clearest examples of this is how Washington Post is absolutely failing to engage people on YouTube. Every single day, they are posting a bunch of news videos about random things. Each video is well made (great production quality), but there is no editorial focus.

The result is this:

Here we have a large US newspaper that is barely reaching any people when it uploads a video to YouTube. And it's not that the videos are uninteresting. There is one about iPhone cases that you can buy at the 9/11 museum (and the controversy of that), with only 687 views. There is a motivational speech (usually a popular thing to post on YouTube), with only 819 views. We have social tactics, like "5 awkward political fundraising moments", with only 101 views.

Then we have a video by the super-popular George Takei that we all know from Star Trek. This is a person with millions of fans, but his video on Washington Post only attracted 844 views... in two weeks! If this had been posted by any Star Trek focused channel, this very same video would have reached 50,000 views, easy!

What the Washington Post is doing can only be described as a complete and total failure. It cannot get any worse than this.

The thing is, this is not a problem you can solve with 'innovation'. Nor can you solve this with marketing or digital 'tactics'. The problem here is that Washington Post's content has no editorial focus or purpose. It's non-targeted and random content.

They are all over the place, and as such there is nothing that we as viewers can connect with. There is no momentum, passion, or reason for watching any of these videos.

In other words. The problem here is 100% with the editorial strategy and purpose. This can only be solved from within the newsroom itself, by the editors. The finger is pointing directly towards yourself.

This is what you get when you are the supermarket of news. When your business model is identical to that of Walmart. You have a ton of content to offer, but nobody cares because you have nothing to connect it with. Neither a purpose, a focus, a passion, a need, a desire, nor an interest.

It's just random products on random shelves. Newspapers are just like Walmart.

The online supermarkets of news

So... am I saying that we won't have supermarkets online? No, of course not. There are many extremely popular online 'supermarket' models that work extremely well. But they are all very different from what we see newspapers doing.

Let me give you two examples.

The Amazon model

The first example is Amazon. Amazon is by far the largest online supermarket. It is selling all types of product, from books, to clothes, to garden equipment. Anything you can think of, Amazon probably has it.

So, in that sense, Amazon is just like Walmart, right? Well, not exactly. The difference is all about 'intent'.

You see, when you visit a Walmart store, you browse around as you are walking past the isles. Of all the time you spend in a Walmart store, you spend 95% just looking at the 'options' available to you.

Amazon is the exact opposite of that. You never go to Amazon just to browse around. You go to Amazon because you have a specific intent. You are looking for something specific, and you have turned to Amazon to see what price they are offering it.

In fact, this is so prevalent, that Amazon is largely the cause of the phenomenon called 'showrooming'. It's when people visit a physical store, but before they decide to buy something they use their mobile to look up the price on Amazon.

Amazon might be a supermarket in terms of the variety (and randomness) of the products offered, but it's business model is based on fulfilling people's intent.

And when compared to the traditional editorial focus for newspapers, we see this very problem. Newspapers, by editorial design, are made as a package of random news. As such, you are preventing people from engaging with you when they have a specific intent.

This is also why advertising is failing for newspapers. In a digital world where intent is paramount for advertisers, it's far more valuable to target your advertisers for when people are looking for something specifically, rather than the random 'I don't know what I'm going to get' that we see from the newspapers.

Sure, newspapers often have a higher reach, which is why brands used them in the past. But in the digital world, reach is secondary to intent.

And we see this with the many newspaper and magazine apps. The way they are designed is a reflection of their random editorial focus. One example is 'paging', the preferred navigation method in iPad apps made by traditional publishers.

The 'paging' navigation concept means you are forcing your audience to go through your publication aimlessly. You have no idea what will be on the next page, so you can't target your behavior. You are forced to read without a specific intent.

Google Search and even Google News is the same. Google Search is a service based around having a huge selection to offer, but it's 100% intent-based. You don't browse around Google Search. You start with a specific intent, and then go to Google Search to find the best matches.

The Social Model

Of course, Amazon and Google Search are not the only 'supermarkets' online. An equally popular model is what we see from the social channels, like YouTube, Facebook and Pinterest.

As platforms, they too are supermarkets. They are filled with all types of random content, most of it being kind of crappy. And when you go to Facebook, for instance, you really have no idea what you are going to see. You are completely at the mercy of what someone else decided to post.

This sounds very much like the newspaper model. Tons of content, about all kinds of things, published by others... and you won't know what you're going to get.

But there is a very important difference with social media models compared to the newspaper model. And it's all about 'interest'.

On social channels, we define what we are interested in by following people and brands that match what we care about. And while people don't know what they are going to see tomorrow, they do know who they are going to see it from, and what those people are mainly about.

For instance, I follow Jamie Oliver. And while I don't know what he will post tomorrow, I do know it's probably going to be about something awesome in relation to food.

This is how social works. While the Amazon model is based on 'intent', the social model is based on 'interest'.

Again, we can compare this to the newspaper model. Here, for instance, is the Twitter profile of The New York Times:

Just look at this. There is no intent and no interest. It's 100% random "you don't know what to expect" mass-market focus.

Following The New York Times on Twitter is just like paging through a print newspaper. Each tweet is about something completely unrelated to the tweets before it. And this is the opposite of why people usually follow people and brands online.

It's not surprising that The New York Times have a huge problem with engagement. They have nothing that people can connect and engage with.

We see the same with news aggregators and apps like Flipboard. They reason why they work is because it is tied to our interests. For instance, if you are interested in the French Open 2014, Flipboard has a tailored collection of content just for that... perfect for you to follow.

Or if you are interested in Star Wars, Flipboard has a ton of collections just for that.

Or if you are into something slightly more serious, there are a ton of targeted and highly specific collections of stories about Ukraine.

This is why Flipboard is winning. Yes, as a platform Flipboard is filled with random content about all kinds of things (the supermarket model). And yes, you never know what you are going to get when you open it.

But you don't approach it as a random reader. Each Flipboard is redefined specifically to the very focused interests of that individual, which is exactly the opposite model of newspapers.

This is the difference between the digital and the print world. In the print world, because of the scarcity and the limitation of channels, people prefered one generalized package of everything (the supermarket of mass). It was a far easier and more convenient package than chasing 100s of separate sources.

But in the digital world, we have no scarcity and there are no limitations. As such, the editorial model of a generalized package doesn't really work. Instead, we have three other models:

  • The Amazon model (the supermarket of intent). Here you start with people's intent, and then you deliver that with the highest form of targeting possible.
  • The social model (the supermarket of interest). Here you start with what people are interested in, and then you build your offerings around those interests for that specific individual.
  • The niche model. This is what goes into either the Amazon or the social model.

The point is, you can't solve this by using tactics or innovation. This is not an innovation problem. Creating a new app, embracing mobile, or creating a fancy site isn't going to help you.

The difference is in your editorial approach to what you focus on in your newsroom. It's about how you work, and what your newspaper is about.

Today, the newspapers' editorial focus is to create random packages of news. This is like clicking "I'm feeling lucky".

Update: Also read the follow up Plus report to this article: Strategic analysis: The Next Step For Newspapers

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Joakim Jardenberg

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Thomas Baekdal

Founder of Baekdal, author, writer, strategic consultant, and new media advocate.

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