With the Christian Science Monitor and US News & World Report curbing print production in favor of online publishing, some media powerhouses may be misunderstanding the nature of the current problem. Although slashing the frequency of print editions may succeed in cutting some costs over the short term, it doesn’t address the fundamental problem: a dearth of unique, indispensable content.
The proliferation of publishing outlets, both online and offline, creates a serious supply problem. Historically, in order to stand out in the media space a publisher needed to have a powerful brand, superior distribution channels, or unique and compelling content. The nature of these factors has changed considerably over time, however.
An established brand no longer guarantees eyeballs, as the aforementioned publications have discovered. Brand still provides an important edge, but consumers seem more willing to accept new sources of information, especially online. Moreover, the time it takes to establish a recognizable brand has shrunk as the electronic world accelerates the spread of information among interested parties.
Distribution channels remain a challenge for many media providers. In the past, this meant getting an FCC license to broadcast, partnering with hotels or airlines to disseminate your print edition, or establishing a network of delivery partners to provide your copy to homes and businesses in specific geographic areas. Now, however, there are more potential ways to distribute content, which isn’t necessarily a positive development for publishers and producers or consumers. While it provides access to more perspectives and sources of information, it makes it increasingly difficult to match quality publications with targeted audiences.
But the real challenge right now is the lack of unique and compelling content from media sources, both new and old. Far too often we see “me too” journalism where newspapers and broadcast outlets use syndicated content (things like Associated Press wire stories or video from network affiliates). A failure to provide unique information and perspective is a surefire way to lose audience share in a hypercompetitive marketplace.
Even those content producers that shun syndicated content frequently fall into the trap of covering the same stories as everyone else. To some extent, this may be impossible to resist. But to the extent that a story in one publication reads almost the same as one in another, it devalues that individual outlet. It encourages consumers to choose content based on convenience or happenstance rather than luring them in directly.
Rather than producing the same old content and simply publishing it online, traditional and new media alike should seek to identify key differentiators for their product. Unique sources or angles can be effective tools in helping a media outlet stand out from the pack. In some cases, the answer may be to narrow the focus considerably to become an expert in a particular niche. Others may choose to identify with a particular point-of-view in order to cater to certain audiences. (One must remember that newspapers of yesteryear had very pronounced biases — something that is arguably better than those outlets that seek to pretend their reporters have no viewpoint.)
Of course, shifting to an online focus actually increases the need for content for many publishers. The daily demand of online consumers may well dictate a need to “feed the beast” more frequently, unless a publication sets a clear expectation for less frequent updates. Any media organization seeking to switch things up like this would be wise to consider the true costs of the change.
Ultimately, traditional media ought to stop bashing the printing press and instead embrace meaningful content. Those that offer unique products stand a much better chance of survival, even in the midst of the current media storm.