Misplaced values

Imagine General Motors bringing out an ad campaign that essentially says “remember those days you and your family would drive to the countryside in your Hummer? The fun?  The feeling of security as you drove in your steel-clad, gas-guzzling behemoth? Sure there are other, more efficient, green and safe vehicles out there today, but you can still get those feelings with a Hummer, so get rid of your Prius and buy one today.”

I get a similar impression as I read a series of editorials from my local newspaper touting “the value of newspapers.” (Here’s the most recent editorial which, ironically, you can find online). Give them credit for trying to sell the “value” of newspapers. Unfortunately, the value isn’t necessarily in the yellowed ink-on-paper example cited in the editorial, but the words or image that is captured on that medium.

In this particular example, it mentions finding a newspaper clipping in a scrapbook. I’d bet if we look at that same scrapbook, we’d find an old film photo (or, for some of us, an old Polaroid photo), also yellowed with age. The old photos bring back wonderful memories, but it’s the image, not the format, that we value.

Today, scrapbooks are more likely to be found in the form of albums posted on Facebook or numerous sharing sites like Flickr or Picasa. Likewise, Facebook and blogs are becoming the new refrigerator door as links, photos and passages of one’s personal and family history are held up to the world (or the world that the originator allows to enter).

And, if we need hard copies of that history, we can choose to run it out on our own printers.

These editorials, while noble, continue to show that some newspapers still don’t get it. The core product — the value — is in the content a newspaper (or any news organization) generates, not the ink-and-paper part. Instead of waxing nostalgic and hoping to shame a nation back into reading patterns of a half-century ago, newspapers should be redefining themselves to develop and sell content that is of value to the individual reader, not the mass audience.

Why, for example, aren’t more newspaper looking at modifying Amazon’s system of tracking customer patterns and making recommendations that might be of interest to them? Why not take that another step and develop a product that uses that model to deliver a personalized news product to a reader, on the platform he prefers, at a time that best suits his schedule? And, why not charge a subscription for that?

Why not use that information to develop laser-like audience targeting for advertisers? Why not help advertisers get their messages out through social networking as well as in print and online?  Why not provide advertisers with data that can help them support or modify their campaigns online and in print?

Or, why aren’t more newspapers adopting the “If you can’t beat Google, steal their thunder” model, going to news aggregation? Why aren’t more offering readers content that is both original and from other sources? And why not charge a subscription fee form that? (An aside: while writing this post, the Poynter Institute’s Al Tompkins posted a story about a former TV newsman who has done just that, and at a profit. Read it here.)

Why isn’t a national organization like NAA looking to create content sharing pacts among newspapers, allowing for a “kickback” for sharing content from one organization to another to provide added value for readers?  Why aren’t newspapers offering products that allow transplanted readers to get information from their hometown, as well as from the community they now live in?

It’s past the time that newspapers break the bonds to paper. Paper is not where the value is.

Content is the golden egg. Focus on it and create new ways for readers to embrace it. Then sell that to your audience.

Now that’s something of value.

Miami Herald tries an online ‘tip jar’

I read with a bit of bemusement about the Miami Herald’s push to ask online readers for donations as their read stories on the website. The plea is subtle, with a button at the bottom of each story asking to  “support ongoing news coverage on miamiherald.com” The link takes you to a more detailed page where, with a credit card, you can give as much as you wish.

At first, my colleagues and I reflected on how the industry has come to a point where we’re doing virtual panhandling (“Here’s a great story, buddy. Can you spare some change?”). Or, better yet, we’re adopting the Salvation Army business model to save the industry.

But,  after a few moments, I thought, “Well, why not?”

Certainly give the Herald credit for trying such an out-of-the-box idea to raise some revenues. With the sympathy/guilt factor beginning  to build for the newspaper industry, it could gain some momentum among newspaper web sites. It’s simple to set up and maintain, and is totally voluntary among the readership.

It is, in effect, an online tip jar. If a reader values what he’s just read — in the same way he values that perfect double-shot mocha the Starbucks barista just drew — he’s likely to drop some extra change into the jar.

But the key remains ‘value.’ Any waiter can tell you that the best tips come from outstanding service. If a newspaper expects to turn over revenue through this method, it must continue to look at what it is offering readers and assure that the content is unique and relevant. It must be of value to the reader in order for the reader to pay for it. There are still a lot of publishers out there that haven’t figured that part out.

I hope the Miami Herald find some success in this.  It won’t be the savior of the industry, but this has a lot of potential to provide a revenue stream.

And if it earn enough to keep at least one more journalist employed, then it’s definitely worth it.

Some light in the vacuum of innovation

Two news items this week shine some light in the vacuum that has been innovation in the news industry:

* The announcement this week that Time Inc., Conde Nast, the Hearst Corporation, Meredith and the News Corporation are developing an industry standard electronic platform to display their wares. The interesting thing about this is not that they’ve developed something new that may be workable, but the fact that these five companies had the mettle to work together to come up with a platform that has the potential to bring give the industry a means to attract and maintain new readers, based on the readers’ demands.

Judging from the video, the new platform also recognizes the future of news means being able to tell a story in a number of formats: Words, videos, audio, interactive graphics and apps, etc:

* In San Francisco, a novelist and publisher is launching a broadsheet newspaper that takes the spirit of the Sunday paper — big, splashy, with expanded features including a book review section. It’s not cheap at $16 a copy, but the publisher hopes it will remind people of the potential of print.

Granted, the San Francisco venture is the trickier of the two — I believe you’ll need a lot to convince new readers of the potential of print — but again you have to give credit to anyone trying something new and different.

After viewing the demo of Time Inc and partners’ platform venture, it is quite splashy and cool. But I can also hear a cacophony of publishers, after  looking at both ventures,  say “that’s nice for magazines, but it won’t work for us.”

To which I say, ‘Why not?”

In today’s cable news/online/Twitter/Facebook world, newspapers have become irrelevant in being the source of breaking and up-to-date news. Most stories in the morning paper are 6 to 24 hours old,  which is well past its freshness date in the online world. To adapt to readers, print needs to redefine its content to what it can do best: Analysis, human interest features, trend pieces, watchdog journalism.

Sounds like a magazine, huh? Or, at least a Sunday paper?

I’ll wager that the electronic platform — if rolled out and marketed well — will be a winner with readers. We’re already seeing some interest among readers who are using Kindles-type readers. An open standard that could be shared by all — publishers and device makers — will save us from the ‘standard wars’ that have plagued other technologies, such as high-def DVDs and videocassettes.

I also expect that, when said and done, the hardware and software costs will be far less what most publishers pay for their presses and supporting facilities.

It’s a good and smart gamble that could be the bridge to the next generation of news.

It’s nice to see someone finally stepping forward to lead the pack.

In the battle of the Titans, Google flinches

Is Internet juggernaut Google no match for Media Baron Von Murdoch? A day after the news mogul blasted Google and its ilk  for ‘stealing stories’ and in turn taking away revenue from media organizations, the search engine released a statement that they would allow publishers to set a limit to the number of ‘free’ articles readers can access from news sites.

Murdoch has been the vocal leader in the move to put news content on lockdown. You want to read a story online? Put a dime in the jukebox, pal. No more freebies. The newspaper industry is on life support, and Murdoch’s response is to get the freeloading online customers to pay their fair share.

Google, on the other hand, has made a fortune in the ability to gather and supply customers with content harvested from the free range of  the Internet. By providing a service which has become ingrained in daily ritual for millions around the world,  Google is attractive to advertisers it its ability to identify customers and target with laser-sharp accuracy.

So why would Google give up some of its free range? Actually, it’s looks like a good business move. Considering Murdoch holds the reins of some of the biggest names in the news industry — and with clout to coerce others to follow — the concession to allow publishers to limit free time on their site still gives the search engine the ability to adapt and cultivate what is out there and free. Hey, if a paper throws up a fence around its content, it’s not Google’s fault. They’ll  find some other place for readers to graze.

What’s more baffling, however, is why Murdoch and company haven’t looked at Google and taken a  “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” mentality.  Why haven’t newspapers realized that the draw is content — unique and verifiable — but the money is made the packaging and delivery to customers? Delivering content an individual wants, when and how he wants it, is far more efficient and doable than it was a decade ago.  And, as any business will tell you, customers are willing to pay a premium for something that is convenient and/or time-saving.

But until that revelation occurs, online content remains in this Cold War, and the industry continues to suffer as a result.