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One more time: Our content is failing our industry

By Steve Gray

Morris Communications

Augusta, Georgia, United States


The year was 2005, and the scene was a meeting of the Newspaper Next Industry Task Force — some of the best and most innovative minds in the newspaper business.

In midstream, the brilliant and irascible Lincoln Millstein, then head of digital for the Hearst newspaper group, threw down this challenge (not his exact words, but my best recollection): “You can’t name any other business that would leave a manager in charge of a product whose sales have fallen every year for the last 30 years!”

He rammed home the point: Newspaper circulation had been falling steadily for decades, and yet newspaper companies had left the same kinds of people in charge of content, doing the same old stuff. When were we going to get serious about changing the content to produce better results?

Amen, Lincoln. I’ve never forgotten your point. It’s as deadly accurate today as it was 12 years ago — and the results keep getting worse.

On this blog, for five years, I’ve written repeatedly about why and how our our content needs to change. We keep acting out that old cliché about insanity — doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results. This time, instead of trying to come up with yet another way to say it, I will point back to 13 of my previous posts. Or should I say, 13 previous attempts to open this industry’s eyes to the desperate need for change in content.

What local content will really drive audience engagement?

Excerpt: So we need to start with a different question. Not, “How do we fund journalism?” but “What is the content that local people really want and need?” And that points me back to the core purpose of local reporting. It’s not “doing journalism.” It’s providing information every day that meets genuinely felt needs among the people who live in our communities. Our purpose should be to figure out what those needs are and go get that information.

3 reasons to have hope for the media business model: Millennials, metrics, math

Here I discuss the tiny share of Web traffic we’re getting with news, what Millennials consider to be news, and a metrics approach that can lead us to more successful content.

Millennials, news, and the Borneo effect

How the explosion in available content has reduced the demand for news, with a parable from a friend’s experience in the jungles of Borneo: If you grew up with an infinite supply of every kind of food, how much rice would you eat?

Millennials grew up with access to every kind of information; no wonder they don’t consume a lot of news. What should we do about it?

Why we need to change the audience game

The stats (presented in this blog) show we’re losing the audience game in a big way. So we need to do some hard thinking about which audiences in local markets have the most value and therefore are most worth pursuing.

Excerpt: “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.”

Publishers, is your business model as ludicrous as a Scotch Tape Boutique?

How an old Saturday Night Live sketch about the Scotch Tape store at the old mall parodies our businesses’ relentless concentration on news.

And how at the “new mall” — 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.”

Why the definition of news must change in the age of print + digital

To understand the new landscape, every news person should take up a challenge from magazine blogger Andrew Davis, who said:

“I challenge you to put yourself in the shoes of your primary audience. Spend the day consuming the content they consume, visiting the Web sites they visit. Then, ask yourself what you could do to make your print product more valuable given the experience you’ve just encountered.”

And not just print, of course. We’re a local information franchise, print and digital. To get back to success, we need to start over by understanding the appetites that are driving our desired audiences today.

The big picture: Mass media era was the blink of an eye

Excerpt: “Let’s put it in individual human terms. For 200,000 years, you could get hardly any information about anything. For 150 years, you could get whatever someone decided to print or broadcast. And now, from about the year 2000 on, you can get just about any information you want, from just about any source, wherever you happen to be.”

Excerpt: “On a planet where everyone can get virtually any information, what new models can we discover for engaging their attention, for being indispensable, for supplying information they aren’t willing to live without?

“How can we help businesses take advantage of the vast new range of audience-reaching channels and technologies that are penetrating every waking moment of human consciousness — and get paid for it?”

Desperately needed: more innovation on the audience side

Here is a visual rendering of the change in our world that’s destroying our old, keyhole-based business model.



We’ve lost the keyhole effect. Now how do we attract an audience? This post contains a list of seven specific kinds of content that would draw like crazy.

Everyday goal for media companies: be the greatest show on Earth

Now that we’re in competition with all the information available on the planet, we have to win our audiences every day by the value of what we offer them. So the job of the publisher, the editor and the vice of content/audience (if there is one) needs to be produce content throughout the day — every day — that no one can live without.

Seven kinds of “new news for the 21st century

This is a deeper description of the seven kinds of content that would draw audience like crazy in any local market.

Mass media bubble bursts, leaving publishers vulnerable

Here is my first explanation of the paradigm-shattering concept of  “The Infinite Pipe.” This is one of three foundational posts from which virtually every other post in my five years of blogging is derived.

“The Infinite Pipe”  the history of human access to information over 200,000 years  reveals what’s happening to the entire mass media business today, and why.

Mass media has changed drastically in recent years.
Mass media has changed drastically in recent years.

End of Mass Media Era means end of mass-media business model

What happens when information goes from limited to infinite? This post outlines five basic changes that are swamping the mass media businesses in a tsunami far larger than we can imagine.

News is no longer enough to support a geography-based media business model

In this post, five years ago, I threw down the gauntlet for the first time:

“So it’s time for a fundamental awakening in local media businesses. We need to stop thinking 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.”

In conclusion

Folks, the game isn’t over. But we will continue to lose if we don’t wake up to the fact that we are responsible for producing content that works in today’s information systems, for people who are living today’s lives.

It’s change or die.

About Steve Gray

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