Media industry can’t continue to build it, hoping audiences, revenue will come

By Maria Terrell


Dallas, Texas, USA


Being somewhat of a veteran in this industry (15+ years), I’ve finally had it. To be fair, we’ve been misguided by the movie biz. “Build it and people will come,” said James Earl Jones in Field of Dreams.

This was in reference to a baseball field in the middle of a corn field in Iowa. Sounds like a totally viable and well thought out business plan, right?

The media industry can't just throw down bases and benches and hope someone shows up to play.
The media industry can't just throw down bases and benches and hope someone shows up to play.

Sadly, it is precisely this “build it and people will come” (hence forth known as “BIAPWC” for the purposes of this blog) mentality that has been a big part of the downfall of the news media industry, specifically print.

Here’s what I mean …

When newspapers needed more revenues, special sections were the solution. More print. That’ll solve it. More sections. That means we can sell more advertisements.

It’s the President’s Day special section, Independence Day special section, Mother’s Day special section — you name the day, I guarantee almost any publisher in the United States can come up with a special section that will help boost ad revenues and save the day.

They built it and they came — in that, they built it, ad sales staffs sold ads in it (poorly, hurriedly, without logic or strategy, and usually discounting something for a short-term sale), and they moved on. The section brought in temporary ad revenues.

But, did it spark engagement? Subscriptions? Deeper relationships with your readers? Your advertisers? Or was it a flash in the pan, and it boosted that month’s revenue just enough to keep a publisher/ad director/sales director from getting fired?

Ouch! Did that hurt? It was meant to.

This BIAPWC special section salvation was not created out of demand or strategy, but rather reaction and panic.

Audiences didn’t reach out to the newspaper and ask for an additional 12-page section dedicated to the last 23 presidents of the United States. No one called the newspaper begging for a 16-page insert on the history of the steam engine.

Yet, somehow, more is the answer. “Quick, ideas on a special section! Go!” can likely still be heard echoing from the musty walls of now-contracted newspaper offices across the United States.

“More” has become the answer to a question no one is asking. It has now extended into the digital world — a world where publishers are also building it and (assuming) they’ll come.

Publishers are (terrifyingly) extending outside of their wheelhouses, trying to capitalise on that whole “digital” or “mobile” trend, and not truly grasping what any of it really means to their core competency of quality journalism, local news, and being a trusted source of information for your community (however you define your community: regional, topical, etc.).

Trinity Mirror in the United Kingdom recently launched a news aggregation app. The “BIATWC” lunacy comes in that it appears no one has asked for or wants this service from the company. A direct excerpt from the article left me practically incensed:

Asked by Press Gazette how the app will be monetised, Sher said: “Money at the moment is not the biggest priority. We want to build up the audience first and then we’ll see what our options are.”

Asked what size audience is being targeted, he said: “We don’t really have a number in mind. I think it’s just seeing how rapidly it grows and what our daily active users look like ... What really interests us is once we get the word out how quickly can it grow organically ... that’s what we’ll be looking out for.”

Sher said monetisation has “not been fully thought through – I think we’re waiting to see what the audience size is like.” But he said native advertising and subscriptions could be considered.

OK, not to sound completely rude here, but, SERIOUSLY!? As publishers (not technology companies, not app developers, not programmers, and not venture capitalists) are we really now developing technology (aka, digital special sections) to see how it shakes out?

Yes, no doubt innovation is key to survival. But to throw something out there that doesn’t seem to solve a problem, a need, or a basic request, without a business plan or idea of how to monetise it? That seems a bit more “throw it to the wall to see what sticks” versus innovation.

Innovation is a lot more thought and strategy than the name leads on, and usually is based on solving a problem or addressing a need in a new or different (hence “innovation”) way.

For an industry that’s not got much fat left to trim, waiting to see how something is monetised or what the audience will be seems a lot like setting a pint of ice cream in the sun to see what happens. We all know it’s going to melt and go bad. And you just wasted good money and ice cream …

This blog is about satisfying audiences, and in all these “innovations” I’m seeing lately, there’s a BIATWC approach being taken when no one’s stopped to ask the audience any questions.

What do publishers want? I thought it was revenues. What do they need? I thought it was revenues and audience. I’m now starting to think it’s a frontal lobotomy and hearing aids.

Ask what your audience wants or needs. I guarantee it isn’t another special section — print, digital, slapped-together aggregator, or otherwise.

Stop, ask, listen, and think. You’d be surprised at the answers. And I guarantee you the monetisation for it is part of the solution.

I get it: Thinking is hard. But apparently blind faith that if you build it, it’ll all shake out in the end is easier to wrap your head around.

About Maria Terrell

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