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Print Media’s Five Suicidal Assumptions

(Photo: What you think you know can kill you. Credit: Tombstone Generator.)

I meant it last August when I said print journalism was killing itself by its own hand. On Friday, I teamed up with Community Media Workshop Vice-President, Bike-the-Drive Gordon Mayer, to talk about Internet and social-media success models with a local niche print publication that shall remain nameless. I’ll call them the Anonymous Lectern, and I appeared before their entire staff at the strong invitation of their management, based on my experience as a Windy City web producer and strategist.

I’ve known and respected their publication for some time. I know how keenly the paper wants to be taken seriously in the new-media-centric 21st century. Yet, I’ve also watched them repeatedly stand in the way of their own electronic success.

Friday, I told them so. By meeting’s end, the Lectern‘s staff probably wished it hadn’t occurred at all. As I was later told myself, the role of hatchet man had fallen to me because no one on the publication’s own staff felt comfortable sharing the bad news internally.

Ever the good cop, Gordon took care of the second hour of the meeting, leading the more than 20-strong group of reporters through a round of Beth Kanter’s seminally informative Social Media Game. However, during a decidedly less-jaunty first hour, I asked the Lectern‘s staff to describe for me, in detail, what their goals for the paper’s success looked like to them, the strategies they were using to achieve them, and how well they were working.

I had a hunch that Anonymous Lectern‘s lack of web success was attributable to the same cause I described last year (and is regularly bemoaned by Newspaper Death Watch): journalistic hubris on the part of print reporters. An industry based around the concept that its product is above reproach as the unique agenda-setter for its community of consumers (in this case, readers), produced by individuals trained to think of themselves as having the ability to become at-will experts on any subject (reporters, of course), is apt to hit the wall when faced with a wholesale changing of the ground rules.

Like, say, the ascension of a worldwide electronic network capable of distributing among all human beings with an Internet connection the ability to research, write, share, and comment on the news, utterly dissolving any real ability for print-only publications to make a profit.

Too often these days, in an effort to cling to anything familiar, some journalists believe beyond reason that by hiding atop an appropriately lofty tower or inside an appropriately narrow niche, they can still manage to monetize the old, ink-and-paper industry.

Here are five such suicidal assumptions shared with me Friday by the staff of the Anonymous Lectern (ironically enough, the same day the New York Times threatened to close the Boston Globe), together with the almost-verbatim riot act I read the staff regarding them:

1.) “We don’t have the time for this web stuff.”
Really? What makes “this web stuff” any different than other strategies for success that your publication’s using? Websites, blogs, Facebook groups, and Twitter accounts are useless to a newspaper on their own if they’re not being used to further organizational success goals. They are tools to this end. And frankly, it’s 2009–your readers (unless you’re the perennially head-in-the-sand New York Times) expect to connect with you and debate the issues in electronically based community forums.

If you don’t come to the party your readers are already attending, in this day and age, they’re certainly not going to head down to the newsstand to try and find you. Deploying a web strategy is a fundamental requirement for media survival today. Saying you “don’t have the time” for it is the direct equivalent of saying you don’t have time to succeed. Plain and simple.

2.) “We have the time to do the job that larger papers don’t.”
What on earth would make you think that? Print publications large and small all exist in the same, time-hurried, Internet-obsessed environment. The attention span of the average American is not somehow magically greater for readers of modest community papers versus behemoth citywide mastheads. It’s barely long enough to keep readers browsing a given website for more than a few seconds at a time, much less keep them waiting around for your industrial-era niche publication cycle to grease its rusty wheels, heave out a groan, and turn–once–every few weeks.

The economic reality isn’t any different, either. Contemporary information consumers expect to be kept engaged not only every 7, or 30, or 60 days when your book hits the maildrop, but every day in-between. That’s what those nifty Internet tools referenced above are for. And you better learn how to deploy them and create content in the lulls that you think exist–but don’t anymore–between your publication dates if you want to maintain the relevancy that your printed masthead used to earn for you–but doesn’t anymore (notice a pattern?)–on a newsrack.

3.) “We’re saving money by not adopting modern journalism content management systems.”
So in your terms, the fact that one of your cub reporters just quit to take a job at a lower salary with an Internet news media outlet–and told you they were jumping ship because your lack of a modern CMS or coherent web strategy was damaging their career marketability in contemporary journalism–is really a payroll-saving boon? You were listening when another one of your reporters said right here in this very workshop, not 10 minutes ago, that they were learning a modern CMS on their own, right? How long do you expect them to be sticking around?

4.) “Good journalism has legs, people will always find it.”
That’s funny. I have one for you, too: if a tree falls in the forest and there’s no one there to hear it, who the hell cares? You complain all the time about the limited and declining readership numbers of your print book, so where, exactly, is the supposed evidence that all the fine journalism you do is being found by anyone, translating into improved brand and issue awareness, or attracting better ad revenue and financing?

You don’t have any evidence because there isn’t any. I don’t care what they taught you in journalism school to prop up your professional confidence. You’re wrong, journalism in a vacuum (read: not promoted in a strategic or consistent manner on the Internet) suffocates and dies. And you’ll kill your paper if you keep believing otherwise.

5.) “Is it OK to update our website every 60 days or so?”
That’s funny. Wait, you’re not kidding, are you? Oh my God, you’re not kidding! You’re really not kidding! You have so much potential “live-news” content that comes up in between publication dates while your earnest reporters are working on stories. Haven’t you ever thought about blogging that content and building a daily or weekly discussion around it to keep people interested during that mythical lull time you think you have?

I’m hearing crickets. OK, try this. Do any of you guys read blogs that are only updated every 60 days?

Or do you simply forget that they exist?

Friday evening, a slightly tipsy Gordon told me that was the moment I finally got through to the Lectern. “Their jaws were on their knees when you said that,” Gordon marveled. “Surprise! The same Internet rules that apply in your own life apply to your readers, too.”

We were sharing tapas with our Philadelphian-Hoosier hybrid colleague, Emily Tastykakes, whom I led to dinner straight from a doctor’s appointment. Gordon kept the well-earned sangria flowing as we three settled into slight stupors, all agreeing that wake-up calls of the ilk I gave the Lectern staff are necessary to blast away at pernicious assumptions held in place by print-reporter pride and fear. Admitting the problem is Step One, after all.

Calling it a night, Emily noted a potential problem of her own as she prepared to retrieve her car. “It probably wasn’t a good idea to drink with the medication my doctor gave me today.”

I didn’t miss a beat. “In your defense,” I said, “it’s probably not a good idea to drive home, either.”

But Emily had been self-aware enough to stop drinking long before she got anywhere near her vehicle. She was making it home successfully that evening.

Unlike the Lectern, she knew the rules of the road.

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Michael Thaddeus Doyle

I'm a NYC-native, Latino, Jew-by-choice, hardcore WDW fan in Chicago with an Irish last name. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I do nonprofit development. I've written this blog since 2005. Believe in the world you want to live in.

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5 replies

  1. Terrific piece. I would have loved to have been in the room when you spoke truth to power (fading power, that is).

    I think the biggest change the paper press needs to grapple with is that credibility has changed. It used to be authoritative stance and “stop the presses” editorial oversight. Now, credibility is expressed as frequent, conversational engagement with the audience. Journalism can still stake out authority by offering frontline news discovery (which on-the-ground media can do well) plus perspective and analysis.

    Lately you read so many comments by print journalists lulled into complacency by the idea that anybody can write a blog and regurgitate content coated with a glaze of attitude. But, they fail to recognize that there’s value (and an audience and a market) to be found in doing that well: Write well and frequently (responding to feedback), regurgitate relevant content (effectively and with attribution), and do it with attitude (e.g. with entertaining, insightful perspective).

    Bottom-line: Journalists should take heart (but not get cocky) that few bloggers in their underwear can beat pros at that game, if only they’d join and play the new game.

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