If you’re old enough to remember Saturday Night Live in its glory days, maybe you remember the hilarious sketches set in “the Scotch Tape Boutique at the old mall.”
The bit was centered on, and got its laughs from, a ridiculously narrow business model centered on a single product, sold in a retail location that was no longer the cool place to be. (I’d love to link to a clip here, but I couldn’t find one. NBC must be closely guarding its copyright.)
Those sketches came to mind this week as I was trying to think of a metaphor for the newspaper business and its relentless concentration on news. News continues to be our industry’s central purpose and the heart of its business model for attracting audiences.
I laughed out loud when it occurred to me that we might be well on the way to becoming the Scotch Tape Boutique. But the idea is as painful as it is funny.
Before I go any further, I need to say this: News is a high calling, and I am by no means suggesting we abandon it or cheapen it. Doing the news continues to be a critical function in a free society, and news well done continues to be a powerful attractor of audiences.
The problem is, it’s not enough anymore.
The digital revolution has forever changed the world around us. The range and number of “products” competing with news for the attention of our audiences has exploded beyond measure and beyond imagination.
News, like Scotch Tape, is still a great product, but it’s less and less adequate as the sole basis of a media business model.
To develop the metaphor: Over at the new mall, where it’s cool to go, are things like Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat, and even old-timers like Craigslist, Autotrader, Yahoo, and AOL.
In the old mall, there are lots of once powerful businesses like newspapers, books, and magazines, struggling to attract consumer traffic and sales.
To correct the metaphor, the old mall and the new mall are not really specific and separate places on the Web.
Instagram is only a click or two away from any newspaper or magazine Web site. But our audience metrics at Morris reveal that people in our markets visit “shops” like Google and Facebook 10 to 20 times as often as they visit our news shops. In that sense, we are the old mall, and they are the new mall.
A lot of people in our industry seem to think that if they can only get the news storytelling right, or the presentation or the subject choices, we’ll win traffic back to our shops.
Certainly we can gain ground that way, but we’ll never catch up with the new giants by peddling news alone. (OK, we also offer events calendars, obituaries, classified advertising, and other tangential content that’s not exactly news. But really, our sites are all about news, and that’s why most of our visitors go there.)
Here’s my point: We have to stop trying to sell only the product we like to make and start thinking how to produce “new mall” products our audiences will eagerly consume. And this fits our core purpose just as well as news does — but more on that in a moment.
Rethinking our product set is critical, because our audiences live in a totally different world from the one in which news became the dominant form of content. They now live in a world where they can get any type of content they want in seconds, from infinitely abundant supplies. (Except, apparently, videos of old SNL sketches.)
Think about people this way: Every individual is a consciousness surrounded in 360 degrees by the subjects, issues, concerns, and activities that make up his or her life.
Life surrounds us in 360 degrees with subjects, issues, situations, opportunities, and problems. For most people, news occupies only a few degrees of that large circle.
Back in the days of the “old mall” — the traditional media — people could only get limited amounts of information because it was so difficult and costly to prepare and distribute content. Only experts like publishers and broadcasters had the means to do it, and the quantities they could produce in a day or a year were very, very small.
So, as an individual consumer, you could get only a little bit of content on subjects you cared about by going to newspapers, magazines, books, radio, and television. Most of your life consisted of subjects the media rarely touched. You were on your own to figure those out.
The “new mall,” however, is all about those issues.
On the Web, you can find content directly related to every big and little interest and concern in your life. You can get content that’s immediately useful in what you’re doing or about to do — content that’s suited to exactly who you are, what your life situation is, what you care about, what makes you laugh, what you are considering doing right now.
And, with a smartphone in your hand, you can get all of this in seconds, anywhere you are.
Most of the “stores” in the new mall were created by figuring out something that touched a place on the circle that wasn’t being well served. They figured out a need or desire that wasn’t being fulfilled, an occasion in a user’s life when they needed or would like a solution and none existed. So they created a way to fulfill it.
No wonder people’s media attention time is now being spread to so many places other than news. They will self-administer huge amounts of content that relates to their lives, while news, at best, will win a few minutes of their attention per day.
I’ll quote from “Part III: What about news?” — one of the three initial posts that started this blog:
The good news is, even in the Infinite Media Era, people still live in communities.
They still get up every morning with things they need to do in the local space, places they need to go, things they need to buy or sell, interests they want to satisfy, problems they need to solve. So they still need local information — far more, in fact, than they need news, which now seems to be everywhere.
They want the kinds of personally relevant local information that will help them get things done in their lives.
So it’s time for a fundamental awakening in local media businesses.
We need to stop thinking [only] of our communities as places where news happens and we report it. We need to start thinking of our communities as places where people lead their lives and we help them do it. We need to figure how to provide solutions they will regard as essential in their own lives and will use over and over every day.
News has its place in this, but it’s a far bigger assignment than news.
The same is true for magazine companies.
They don’t usually deal with a geographic place; they deal with a specific interest. Their audiences share that interest, and the circle of their lives may include broad swaths of activities, decisions, and concerns related to that interest.
How can a magazine company supply the content and enable its audiences to go forward in those areas?
Nobody is forcing us to keep trying to build a business around selling Scotch Tape in the old mall. Opportunities are available all around us to help people lead their lives in new ways. It’s our job to figure them out.