Media folks, can we all agree on this statement? We’re in the audience business.

If you disagree, we need to talk, and we’ll do that in a minute.

But first, here’s the nut graf:

As an audience business, we’re overdue for a drastic rethink of what we do. Too often, we’re still doing 20th-century audience thinking amid the starkly different realities of the 21st century. We’re getting pounded on the audience front, and we have to figure out what audience strategies will work in this new environment.

Now let’s see if we can all get on the same page regarding the importance of audience:

  • If you’re thinking we’re in the news business, you’re right. We love the news, and we’re proud of what it does for people. But the business reason for doing news is to have an audience. Without an audience, we don’t have a business.

  • If you’re thinking we’re in the sales business, you’re right. But what we sell is access to our audiences. Without an audience, we don’t have a business.

Audience is the starting point and the centerpiece of our local media businesses. That’s because, as Bob Gilbert, Morris Publishing Group’s vice president for audience, says: “Revenue follows audience.”

The massive change

To see our way in the 21st century, we need to understand and accept what’s happening to audience right now. We need to adapt our existing business models and adopt new ones if we want to prosper.

The graphic above speaks volumes. It shows how the flow of information (the green pipe) is expanding exponentially as digital technologies drive us from the mass-media era into the infinite-media era.

The mass-media business model was built for the very limited information environment of the 20th century. The few who owned printing presses or broadcast equipment produced content aimed at the mass audience – namely, news and entertainment.

The masses flocked to us because there wasn’t much else. Advertisers flocked to us because we had the mass audience.

What’s different now

Consider these crucial differences in the 21st-century information environment:

  • The volume of accessible content is zooming toward infinity.

  • Access is getting easier, faster, and more universal.

  • Content is being originated by almost everyone, and shared with audiences large or small.

  • The Internet landscape is populated by billions of content sources producing or sharing content on every imaginable topic.

  • The “masses” are no longer reachable in any one place. They are zooming around in the infinite space of the Internet, getting what they want from millions, even billions of sources.

People have been liberated to go get the specific content they want. And most of it, not surprisingly, is stuff that’s directly pertinent and interesting to them individually, and not necessarily to the masses.

News for the masses still has a place, but it is a shockingly smaller space than just 10 or 20 years ago. News isn’t about “what I need” or “what’s going on in my life,” and it’s in direct competition with a vast amount of content that is.

Painful outcomes

There are two painful outcomes for us:

  1. We’re getting a much smaller audience share in print than we once did. Many local newspapers now have household penetrations of 25% or less on weekdays and 35% or less on Sunday. Just 10 years ago, our penetrations were twice that high.

  2. We’re getting a much smaller audience share in digital than many other players.

We all know No. 1, although we try not to think about it. But a lot of us aren’t fully aware of No. 2.

The chart above shows the ranking of the 20 most popular Web sites in one of the Morris newspaper markets, based on the number of visits made by people living in the market.

Facebook and Google are eating our lunch. Our news sites get less than 1% of local visits in every one of our markets, and yours do in your markets, too.

No wonder we’re all having trouble making significant money by selling banner ads on our Web sites. We’re tiny compared to our competitors.

This is not an indictment of news, or of us. It simply shows that news will only get you a small share of the local audience’s attention in the digital era. The Internet is about “me,” and news isn’t.

So there you have it – the audience game is now totally different from what it was in the mass-media era.

And here we are – local media companies that depend on audience to make our business models work.

Key facts

What are the key facts on which we need to build our next-generation audience strategies?

  • Nobody will ever own a majority of the audience again, either print or digital.

  • Advertisers need more complex help as they try to reach their target consumers in the uncharted vastness of the Internet.

  • Fewer and fewer advertisers even want to reach a mass audience anymore. They want to reach specific individuals who are in the market for particular products.

  • No wonder, then, that targeted digital display advertising is by far the fastest-growing local digital category. Advertisers are using programmatic bidding to reach consumers who fit their customer profiles or those who have searched recently for the products they sell.

Newspaper companies face a double imperative:

  1. We have to figure out how to deliver high-value narrow audiences that match advertisers’ targets in a post-mass age. We need to break out of the mass-audience mindset that shapes almost everything we do.

  2. Meanwhile, we also need to sustain our mass audience (mainly print) for as long as possible, because it’s still the main source of our revenue.

We’ll keep doing No. 2, because it’s what we do. I would urge that we try hard to provide more individually useful information in our markets, recognising what people want now.

However, I’m more concerned about No. 1.

What we need to do

We need to do some hard thinking about which audiences in local markets have the most value and therefore are most worth pursuing. This is an ongoing process at Morris, among our vice presidents of audience.

Home buyers? Car buyers? Job seekers? Finance, insurance, and mortgage customers? What else? Then we need to set appropriate priorities among the most promising target groups and figure which solutions will work best for each of them.

In some cases, the answer may be to create a product or solution targeted specifically at that audience segment. Web sites? Mobile apps? Lead-generation initiatives? Narrow print products? Or what about in-store events, promotions, and contests?

In other cases – in many cases, I believe – the better answer may be programmatic Web display advertising that targets specific consumer attributes across multiple Web sites. We need to be selling our local business into the audiences of the monster sites that are out-drawing us on audiences in our own markets.

And in all cases, local businesses need help being found when local people search. This means that search engine marketing and search engine optimisation are now becoming critical audience-delivery services that local media companies need to provide.

And these few thoughts are just the beginning. The days are over when local media companies could just do news and count on huge audiences, and we have a lot to learn.

Changes of this magnitude are like the death of a loved one. They need to be acknowledged and grieved – and, at the same time, we need to move on.

Today, we need to become sophisticated audience thinkers who understand where the people are going and can deploy multiple tactics to reach them. The businesses in our communities need our help.

We’re under pressure to grow in our skills and understanding. It’s a time when we need to be changing who we are and what we are capable of doing. Will we rise to the challenge?