Media industry becoming less homogenous than ever, an analyses of the future of news media.
Media industry becoming less homogenous than ever, an analyses of the future of news media.

Emotions run high these days when talking about the definition of success among news media companies. 

The old barometers of profit, revenue, and circulation are often replaced with the new barometers of valuation, audience, and engagement. 

No wonder media companies seemingly under the same umbrella have difficulty fathoming their peers’ futures (and choices). 

The tectonic plates beneath the news media industry are shifting. While each genre of company identifies what drives value, the broader storyline for news companies continues to blur. 

Here’s why. 

Whereas we once comfortably talked about clear buckets for newspapers, magazines, TV, radio, and more, those lines are mashing together into a digital space that is only now being defined. 

The newer buckets are national media and local media regardless of platform or format – print, mobile, desktop … text, video, multi-media. 

For national media, the definition of success is eyeballs at all cost, preferably within an audience storyline. The very clear future is digital, with national players like Vox, Vice, and Business Insider colliding with legacy newspapers and magazines for the creative class among Millennials. The transition game among legacies is about porting high-passion news relationships from print to digital. 

This is very different than local media. 

For local media, the definition of success is geographical penetration or reach. The transition game among legacy local media is about disaggregating a print bundle and re-assembling its parts in digital platforms – frankly, a more difficult challenge than national media.

I suspect advertising success is about cobbling together reach – whether your news brand by itself or in combination with other factors. Advertisers assign fewer bonus points for eyeballs beyond a certain geography. 

My guess is that print’s role will be more important for local media either in the reach for reach or as a brand vehicle.

You can see how the battle lines between free and pay play out across different landscapes. You can see why it is likely wrong to compare the paywall experience at a national brand vs. a local brand. The real battle in free vs. pay will be at the national level over Millennials: will the growing subscription culture take root?

I read an article recently about the failure of the owners of the United States’ leading metropolitan dailies to reinvent themselves as local digital media companies. I couldn’t help but think: “Versus whom?”

For all of their “failure” to replace print revenue with digital revenue and preserve newsroom scales, what the analysis failed to point out was that these legacy local media companies are the leading digital media companies within their geographies. Is success being No. 1, or is success transforming what nobody in the world has yet done? 

We can argue over the degrees of difficulty in the transformation of local media vs. national media. Yet it is clear that there is no homogenous path forward for national media and local media. There has been a divergence in fortunes and measurements of success. 

The two items legacy nationals and locals share are financial scale and newsroom scale.

At the recent South By Southwest (SXSW) conference in Austin, Texas, executives from Mashable and Vox Media were asked to share where they are financially. There was a lot of hedging and half-answers until finally all acknowledged that profitability has not yet found them.

For all of the vast valuations, most of the aspirational legacy companies continue to live off of venture capital. The demise of Gigaom in recent weeks, while a likely outlier, was a sobering reminder of this. 

Most urban and national digital players, from a revenue perspective, are a fraction of the size of small community newspapers – which remain profitable even if “quality” is questionable after so many cutbacks. 

If financial scale is the Achilles Heel of the digital pure-plays, the ironclad need to preserve newsroom scale at all costs is the Achilles Heel of legacy media – locally and nationally. I have heard this over and over in my travels from today’s owners: The value to ownership is supporting big journalism. “Small journalism” can be for the next generation of owners.

Nobody lambasts the digital media companies for having tiny, young editorial staffs and inching staffing upward as VC funding comes available. Yet there is a press release or a leak every time a legacy company cuts one-tenth of 1% of its gigantic workforce. One is portrayed as “smart business,” while the other is a “betrayal.” 

Two ends of a rope … burning toward each other. 

Be wary of one-size-fits-all analyses of the future of news media. Depending on the reason for ownership or the genre of news brand, print circulation at all costs or geographical digital penetration or an audience storyline may be what drives a company’s value. Profit volume or profit margin or audience growth may be the foundations for these storylines.

So be aware: Your value proposition may no longer be your neighbour’s value proposition. Respect those differences and contexts before passing judgment.