I’ve been enjoying a recent issue of Monocle, an unusual magazine that has a lengthy feature on companies around the world that are proving that some of the truths we hold as givens aren’t really true at all. The article highlights newspapers that are growing in circ because of great local investigative journalism, small bookstores that are opening and thriving, CD stores very much in the black, and so on. These businesses are doing well because – what for it – they are focused on meeting real wants and needs.
And it got me to thinking about how much we in the media business tend toward lemmingness, in that we draw conclusions based upon the conclusions that others are drawing instead of thinking – really thinking – about how to meet changing consumer needs and preferences.
I think the US newspaper industry is the poster child for this tendency. It appears that many papers saw the success of TV and free online content and determined that the best way of responding to these trends is to make newspapers more like those kinds of vehicles. Shorter articles, more celebritrash, getting rid of many of the local staff to focus in favor of focusing on cheap content spoon-fed to them by companies and political figures.
The challenge, of course, is that what works in one medium doesn’t work in another. Let me pick on TV for a minute. When a 24-hour news channel displays four Twitter posts as if it is totally attuned to the public will and is as fast with trends as social media, it looks beyond pathetic. The whole idea of Twitter is participation and the cacophony of voices that you can choose (or choose not) to follow. And inasmuch as TV wants to be seen as at least a little more concerned about professional journalism than me and my friends mouthing off from our cell phones as we go to work, covering Tweets like they are the equivalent of the Watergate hearings makes them look beyond silly.
Similarly, when a newspaper tries to become more like TV – more of a headlines service – it fails at both what makes newspapers cool and as a competitor to TV. What makes newspaper journalism so distinctive – and dare I say popular with the people who choose to read it – is that it is both broad and deep. You read a newspaper because you want to get more than a headline and 4 minutes of two yutzes on political extremes throwing metaphorical crème pies at one another.
I get it that newspapers and other media need to do what they have to do in order to make ends meet. Fish gotta swim and birds gotta sing, I get that. But you don’t win by losing. You don’t win by trying to be more like things that are patently different from what you offer.
I don’t believe that Millennials who don’t pick up newspapers wouldn’t be interested in breadth and depth. Rather it simply needs to be delivered to them in ways that are relevant to them. That meet their needs. That give them a role in the discussion. All data seem to indicate that Millennials are more socially conscious than the generations that precede them. Given that, it’s nigh on impossible for me to believe that real investigating reporting, for example, wouldn’t appeal to them. It might not be on broadsheet newsprint. It might not be an entirely professional-reporter-class driven offering that would be appealing to them. But there’s a way to touch them and gain their loyalty.
The meteoric rise of Fox News provides an abundant example of how what newspapers do is actually very relevant to millions and millions of people who may not be picking up issues from their front steps. Fox News took the sensibility and approach of what the UK calls “Red Tops” and reshaped it into something that works on TV. By saying that Fox News is broadcast tabloid is not something I mean as an insult to Fox News. A UK tabloid is rather different from the US’s Weekly World News. It ultimately takes important issues and redefines them in the context of what matters to ordinary people in the street. It serves up news with visceral emotion.
OK, OK, and throws in a lot of pictures of Posh and Becks as well. But Fox News proves that the essence of at least one form of newspaper journalism has loads of legs.
Media challenged by the changing environment and the advent of digital need to think less like lemmings and more like Steve Jobs. To focus on transformation rather than a race to the bottom.