It used to be much simpler for news publishers to distribute content. Print a newspaper and truck it to newsstands.
The digital revolution changed all that. And within that revolution there have been many more, with the fall of platforms and the rise and monopoly of others.
Newsrooms face deep challenges in finding new audiences and commercialising them to save society’s fourth estate.
Audiences are so fractured and shrinking newsrooms are divided further by the need for staff with new skills: SEO experts, videographers with journalism degrees, multi-media artists, engagement editors.
The challenge is not in creating new forms of content. Journalists in for the long haul are fundamentally invested in the future of their craft. Clever, industrious, up for new challenges, and — by and large — younger with a broad skills base.
Digital/print newsrooms now pump out videos daily, cover major events live, bash out phone alerts, package e-mail newsletters, create rich interactives, and handle multiple social accounts to distribute content.
The challenge is continually engaging these new audiences and commercialising them.
At the Herald Sun, we’re heavily invested in building a digital future for Melbourne journalism. To keep the politicians honest, shine a light in dark places, champion our community.
We are building a base around quality local digital journalism readers are willing to subscribe for, staying clear of the sensationalist grab-and-smash approach many intruders into our audience space have chosen. We are being fiercely local in our focus and creating new forms of content to engage people — from fantasy football games to podcasts.
We recently appointed an engagement editor, Mitchell Toy, a talented staffer who used to cover state politics. He has broad skills and can illustrate, edit video, and dream up crazily good ideas.
Mitchell has mostly free reign to try concepts that engage people in new ways and experiment with creative story-telling ideas outside our usual content focus — a good thing when trying to find new audiences in new ways.
His latest native video, primed to engage a Facebook audience, was a parody of cheap late-night television and Web ads — the “buy it now, get a free set of steak knives” sort of thing.
It’s called Goon Suit.
It’s not very Herald Sun. But it was fun, engaging, and experimental.
And it took off. It had 38.5 million views on Facebook, 167,000 likes, 379,759 shares, 242,000 comments.
Toy, who also stars in the video, says: “Mostly it went very well because it had a suit with alcohol in it. Aside from the obvious, it made a point within five seconds, had subtitles, and was in square orientation. The subject matter was relatable and unexpected.”
It was such a hit, you’d think we would have cashed in on this incredibly successful video, making enough to fund the next idea.
The issue is, no, we didn’t. Mark Zuckerberg made all the money out of that bit of creativity.
And herein lies the publisher’s challenge.
To reach new people in new ways, we have to play into the hands of the money-making machine that is Facebook. The only reward for us is in gaming its algorithm to get greater visibility for other content that might draw subscriptions.
Facebook is eating everything around it, narrowing the conversation and draining all intellectual property into its ecosystem to profit from. Why this doesn’t send the angry class out with their pitchforks is a little curious. Maybe Facebook is still too cool to be angry at.
The perception the Internet is this free, open space giving everyone opportunity is not the reality. More and more it is falling under the commercial control of a small number of giant corporations like Facebook and Google.
In the meantime, news publishers are forced to play the game, continue to experiment, and try to find new ways to keep the important role we play commercially viable.
The lesson is to be bold, experiment, and have a purpose. For us, it’s to engage audiences and expose everything we offer to more and more people so we can do the important job of journalism for many years to come.
It’d be nice if we could do that on a level playing field.