Newspaper innovation: Not too much but too little

If you’re a newspaper editor, and you want some much needed inspiration, you’ll want to add the blogs of Melanie Sill and John Robinson to RSS feeds or daily reading, and follow both John and Melanie on Twitter. John recently stepped down as the editor of the Greensboro News & Record in North Carolina, and Melanie recently made a similar move, leaving the top job at the Sacramento Bee in California. John wrote an excellent post about rebuilding a newspaper’s relationship with its community last week, and in her most recent post, Melanie looks at newspaper innovation. It comes after the ombudsman at the Washington Post, Patrick Pexton, agreed with some readers who thought the Post was innovating too quickly. (As someone who lived in Washington for seven years and considered the Post my local paper, it was always a schizophrenic place with a lot of digital innovation under Jim Brady while the print offices in Washington tried to change as little as possible.)

Melanie’s thoughts on the pace of innovation?

Most newspapers are stuck in the late 20th century formulas, scarcely varied across the country, for section concepts (even names) and types of coverage. These conventions, moreover, carry over into digital forms, and only in the past couple of years have we begun to see new forms made only for digital channels.Amid legitimate struggle in newsrooms to make this outdated formula work with vastly reduced staffs and greatly increased production demands, there’s not enough attention on creative breakthroughs — the kind of conceptual innovation needed today. What should a print edition do in a 24/7 news world? How is it differentiated from other platforms in content, format and organization?

Yes! Digital is different. It’s something digital folk have been saying since the 1990s. It’s not enough to shovel print content onto the web just because both print and the web are largely text-based. Just as reading a newspaper out on TV would seem silly (although there is some value in the newspaper reviews common on European television), simply copying text to the web was always an approach lacking imagination.

  • How is digital different?
  • What is possible in digital, on the web and via mobile, that isn’t possible in print?
  • How does this change audience expectations about news and information?
  • How do we meet those expectations?
  • How can use those differences to come up with new opportunities for revenue to support the work we do?

This is what I’ve been thinking about since I first became an ‘internet news editor’ in 1996. We’re at a pivotal time, and it’s great to see leadership from veterans like John and Melanie. I look forward to working with leaders like them in the future.

Unique content part of metered paywall success

Last year, a university journalism classmate of mine and I were talking the various plights of journalism, and he told me some advice that a business-savvy relative had given him. Roughly, it was this:

To be successful, you have to know how to create value but also how to capture value.

Basically, this means, that yes, you have to create value. Many journalists are focused on this part of the equation, the valuable service that we provide and the social value that we create. However, to be a sustainable business, we also have to know how to capture value. From that service or social value that journalists create, how do we get a return on it so that we can continue to provide the service? This is really the pressing business issue for digital content businesses, including journalism. How do we capture the value of the service that we provide? Subscriptions? Advertising? Events? Consulting? Marketing services? Most likely all of the above and more.

It’s worth interrogating the first part of that and being pretty ruthless and honest with ourselves as journalists about what value we are creating. There is a lot of redundant content out there right now, and as I said over and over in 2011, content is abundant; attention is scarce. Metered paywalls such as those at the Financial Times and the New York Times seem to be working. Is it because of the metre or the content (or a bit of both)? Adam Tinworth has a view on that:

I was involved in a significant amount of work in my final year at RBI looking at exactly what kinds of content people will pay for, through what mechanism, and how to create more of it. Uniqueness was certainly one key factor – as was the amount of business value that investment returns to the reader, which is exactly why the FT does so well.

Adam was responding to Frédéric Filloux’s most recent Monday Note looking at how both the Financial Times and the New York Times are increasing the cost of their printed product, which makes their paid digital product seem less expensive by comparison for loyal readers. Filloux also keyed in on unique content:

Of these three factors, the uniqueness of content remains the most potent one. With the inflation of aggregators and of social reading habits, the natural replication of information has turned into an overwhelming flood. Then, the production of specific content — and its protection — becomes a key element in building value.

To me unique content and a strong, active social media strategy builds audience and engagement. Note that I said an active social media strategy. The only thing that has continued to propel my career forward has been a personal active social media strategy, engaging my peers and also my audiences. This isn’t just about promoting myself or my content via social media but also connecting with people and connecting those people with information that I think they will find useful, whether I reported and wrote it or not.