Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Finding the value in media disruption

The ever-popular media game of Media Buzzword Bingo continues apace; most recently, Curation has been shouldered aside in favour of Disruption (used in a 'go, team!' way, rather than the less-upbeat dictionary definition as found here).

The latest person to lament the lack of disruption being carried out by the media is Ross Levinsohn, EVP of Yahoo!’s Americas region. 
Speaking on a panel he complained that “in the traditional media, there aren’t disruptors anymore", adding that media leaders were “fearful, not fearless. Who’s taking those chances? Google, Apple. Silicon Valley is fearless when it comes to disrupting." 
Levinsohn made this plea for more disruption ('innovation' would be a more appropriate term, I think) on March 26; nine days later, Yahoo announced it was cutting 2,000 jobs (14% of its staff) as part of multi-million cost saving exercise.
Frankly, that's pretty disruptive from the corporate and individual perspective.

And, speaking from, if not inside the belly of the beast then at least from a nearby vantage point, I would further suggest fighting disruption with disruption isn't the solution. We're mostly just trying to hit on something that works. 
There's the vexed question of free content. The Guardian and The Times are the high-profile names slugging it out in the Battle of the Paywall, but they aren't alone in such explorations. 
Trinity Mirror (my employer) says ubiquitous content will not be placed behind a paywall, but consumers would be charged to access ‘high-value” unique content of its national titles.
Johnston Press also ruled out a paywall for web and mobile content, although its strategy does include charging for tablet apps. 
Midlands News Association - which placed its content behind a paywall in April 2011- scrapped that strategy after nine months and opted instead for paid-for tablet apps.
Another of the regional press companies, Newsquest, has placed its Scottish titles’ content behind metered paywalls
 The common factor is... well, the common factor is everyone is trying something different. I don't think this meets the dictionary or Levinsohn definition of Disruption, and I'm not even saying qualifies as innovation - experimentation is probably a better description for what's being tried out. 

Robert Picard  says the “fundamental problem for media firms” is that of selling 19th and 20th century products in the 21st century, often without altering the value of what is offered, or the relationships with customers 

He's right; the economic model of the modern Press typically follows this pattern: 
1. Create content with assumed commercial value - news, ads, photos, whatever. Some paying customers (advertisers) have a degree of control over the content they've funded; others (readers) do not.
2. Attempt to sell content via one very expensively produced platform
3. Distribute said platform via extremely expensive methods
4. Make the same content freely available on a separate, inexpensive, easily distributed platform, which also allows real-time interaction with users, feedback and sharing
 
Alan Mutter's excellent post 'Four ways newspapers are failing at digital'  looks at similar issues, citing week digital product portfolios (including the shovelware issue), an ageing audience and lack of diversity, limited revenue opportunities, and feeble competitive response. (If that sounds too depressing, he does also have a series of suggestions for what to do next.)

I think there's another way newspapers are failing at digital, and that harks back to Picard as well. I think we've lost track of what's valuable.
With regards to value and relationships, most news executives would admit the brands are not the essential part of their customer's world they once were. 
People who say there's no money in digital (yes, there are still people who actually do say that) overlook the fact there is a Googolplex of cash in digital.
Google and the Apple are making money hand over fist, packaging up other people's content, distributing it on their platforms, and selling either data, or consumer insights, or advertising around that.
Meanwhile, the Huffington Post's packaging up and distribution of others' content led to a very profitable outcome for Arianna.
That content is searchable (and findable - two things that are mutually exclusive on many regional news sites), it can be shared easily, consumed quickly, works effectively, can be consumed or discarded without consequence. 
But mostly the content offered by Google and Apple is wanted, because the user has selected it (the app, the link, the social tool etc). 

I was talking to our new(ish) YourCardiff reporter today, Jessica Best, who told me the most popular article she'd written since starting was about local activities for Easter. On WalesOnline, a broader article about things to do nationally for Easter garnered 2,000 hits in a couple of hours. 
No one in the newsroom would have considered Things To Do At Easter great journalism, because it's not. It is, however, a great, searchable (and findable) resource for families looking to do a mix of free and paid-for things in Wales over the bank holiday. It was also well-shared socially. 

Great journalism has to be supported financially, and if we're going to do that through building audience, then we have to know what the audience wants - by asking, listening, responding, experimenting, and refining. It's not disruptive but it is a break from the norm, and it adds value.
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