The audience is the media and newspapers are just their platform

I have loads of stuff to catch up on this week, waiting accusingly in my google newsreader box. But I just wanted to post a little about a concept that is striking me as a growing area as I’ve been browsing around.

We should let the audience make the content. We should just print it up for them

It came it to focus for me as I read an article by in the British Journalism Review by journo/management prof Dr John Hill called tomorrows world is digital.(Hey, I’m supposed to be an academic after all.)

He suggest that newspapers are struggling because they are a ‘one size fits all’ product in a market that wants a more personal approach. To succeed he says papers need to become more like consumer goods manufacturers:

Ideally this means providing each reader with a range and depth of stories in which they have expressed a personal interest. In short the ‘me’ newspaper.

He reconginsies that this is a not a new concept but argues that it’s been ignored by newspapers in particular because ‘traditional printing presses cannot be modified sufficiently to make it economically viable’. Until the technology exists and is embraced by all, Hill suggests an intermediate step of segmented coverage. Not just in geographic terms but also on demographic, psychographic and behavioristic needs.

Now that was written in 2006 so there are no awards for being ahead of game in anything other than recognising how late newspapers where to this whole web thing. But reading Jon Fines post betting on which major newspaper group will ditch print first it rang some bells.

It tweaked a little feeling I had when earlier this year I read about Trinity Mirror’s plans to start publishing free newspapers filled with stories gleaned from its hyper-local citizen journalism. Darren Thwaites, editor of the Teesside Gazette told Journalism.co.uk:

“The reality is that we would not have been able to populate papers at such a hyperlocal level without the content that has come to us through the micro-sites, we simply would not have the news content,”

You could argue that this is just an extension of the resource starved newspapers using punters to do what they should be doing anyway. But the idea that print could flourish from from the way community and hyperlocal can flourish online, punters and newspapers, is one that is gaining ground.

It’s a point that is picked up by by ex-Gannet journalist K. Paul Mallasch talking to Matthew Ingram (which I linked to in my post about hyperlocal) about his CJ project the MuncieFreePress.com.

“One of my short term goals to increase cash flow is to start-up a print component (free, weekly tabloid reverse-reverse published from website content.) There’s another 5 to 10 years worth of (big) revenue in print … at least.”

And what would he do with that money? He wants to pay his contributors. You still get a newspaper, you can still sell ads but you become a facilitator of the conversation and the audience is benefiting as well.

And that’s what really struck me about this approach. It’s a model that could really work because it puts the punters in the driving seat when it comes to deciding what is important. It puts the print product in the position of distributing that to a wider audience- less involved practically but no less interested. Tapping in to that market seems to me to be the heart of this hyperlocal debate.

The problem seems to be in identifying the relationships and attracting them to your site. Identifying those relationships and defining the separate segments Hill talks about is proving the big challenge.

In a great post, Ryan Sholin, suggests that there are plenty niches – hyperlocalised areas of interest – that can be exploited if you know where to look. He warns about the coverage of demographics:

Sell to a niche, not a demographic. Local moms are a niche; Women are a demographic.

Ryan suggests that ‘If your newspaper isn’t covering it, it’s unserved’. Maybe so. Or maybe they are serving themselves.

Newspapers are built around demographics and increasingly these niches are rejecting their style of broad identity and serving themselves by simply engaging with the new technology that newspapers are just about getting to grips with.

Vin Crosbie at Rebuilding media comes at it with another angle but thinks he sees a more pressing reason when he comments on Fines post and talks about newspapers not closing but outsourcing.

The real problem, Mr. Newspaperman, isn’t that your content isn’t online or isn’t online with multimedia. It’s your content. Specifically, it’s what you report, which stories you publish, and how you publish them to people, who, by the way, have very different individual interests. The problem is the content you’re giving them, stupid; not the platform its on.

Given the struggle to identify an audience in such an individualized market place and the lack of resource given to generate effective content at a local level, maybe the model of giving the audience control over the content at a local levl is what we need to do. And maybe publishing it for them is the role we are increasingly destined to take.

I’m not suggesting that would work, or is desirable at all levels of the industry. We still need to exercise that journalistic muscle to tell people whats important even if they don’t think it is (Ryan title his post ‘Find yourself a nice comfortable niche and sell it like blueberry pancakes’ and we all know that people will gorge on the pancakes when stuff that is good for them is available).

But simply offering the capability to print and distribute it in return for the right to advertise around and maybe reuse the content elsewhere could be the niche that everyone is looking for. It takes hyperlocal to its logical conclusion and makes more sense of the convergence of old and new media. It could make Parish pump a reality when a purley digital hyperlocal strategy is obviously struggling to find a foothold

In his conclusion Hill says that for newspapers to survive ‘ a new printing process is imperative’. He sees the segmentation, the appeal to the niche as a stepping stone to the necessity of a printed publication based on an ‘individuals’ requirements. A real ‘daily-me’.

I don’t agree. That’s trying to make a process fit a need that it was never designed to do. But I agree that a new process is needed. The process of making a newspaper has to change if print is to survive. As Hill concludes:

Those papers that do not change, or which delay those changes inordinately, will disappear.

11 Replies to “The audience is the media and newspapers are just their platform”

  1. I agree with the sense of this but the problem you have to break down is the silo mentality of newspapers – most of them struggle to link out to another website even though this could help them spot new contributors and improve the quality of the information being exchanged.

    The Gazette is a great example of what can be done and it would be good to see contributors supported financially, looking at many of the associations that write on the Gazette site this money could be channelled back to helping them provide more assistance.

    I suppose there is even the option of doing a print on demand service, sites like lulu.com seem to be making it work, or even select the pages you want and then print!

    As you highlight much of the tech is there, it’s whether newspapers are willing to sit around the same table as their readers and listen that will ultimately make something like this work.

    All the best, Craig

  2. Hi Andy,

    Interesting thoughts.

    The hyper local or niche concept has been put forwatrd by a number of people as the future for newspapers.In some senses we already have it (eg community blogs).

    As you point out it won’t work for all newspapers and perhaps the mark in the sand should be based on distribution and circulation patterns(it certainly wouldn’t work for a national paper)

    The concept of print your own paper,I believe is a non starter.In a way the internet and its tools already provide the individual with a method of selecting his own news agenda.Taking this a stage further by printing a pesonalised paper is a stage too far.

  3. Nigel

    The daily me was something that DR Hill was something that needed to happen. All that stood in the way was the ability for the presses to do it cheaply and a level of understanding of the individual audience member beyond the one size fits all of the current mindset.

    I agree with you that the idea of a daily me is, and should be, dead in the water for those that run the presses but perhaps that later point – getting a better handle on your audience – means you can go someway to using cheaper printing technology to reach a more specialised but, in the longer term, more committed audience.

    The problem there is that the larger print organisations can’t afford, literally afford, to take their audience in anything more refined that a demographic. To go hyperlocal means, to borrow a phrase from an earlier post hyperpersonal and that doesn’t fit medium to large scale publishing on paper. The result is they increasingly can’t hit the demographics they need and can’t produce content that suits the demographic they do. Letting the community in as an equal or even controlling partner at a local level would seem one solution to explore given the move to embrace ‘community’ and the relatively successful models that are out there.

    So perhaps the aim of my post was to suggest less of the Daily me idea and more the Daily We.

  4. Adrian.

    Thanks for the link and it looks like it works well there, a bit like the TM plan and a move to a more sensible way of using community. It still smacks a little of using the audience to do the legwork so that they can reap the ad rewards but at least they are looking at print output based on their communities.

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