Journalism 2019: Don’t stop at hello

Hello … by Iain Farrell

A few years ago I spoke about Peak Content, the distortions that I saw in the Attention Economy. As I wrote then:

The democratisation of production brought by digital technology has made it easier than ever for people to create content, but it has also made it more difficult than ever to get paid to create it, both for individual creators and many companies. This cannot last.

When I wrote that two years ago, venture-capital funded digital media companies were ascendent, and with money flowing from VCs and the funds of legacy media companies, it seemed like we were set to see a new wave of truly digital native media companies unbound by legacy concerns.

Unfortunately, even at that time, it was clear that a digital shake-out was beginning, and it only accelerated in 2018. And sadly, for all of the money poured into these start-ups, I don’t think we’ve really moved the dial much. I mean, Buzzfeed has gone from native advertising pioneer to flogging tote bags in a half-baked membership scheme.

Where does that leave us?

I recently spoke with Emily Lowes with the Online Journalism Blog about the daily newsletter that I’ve been writing for the last six months or so. Refining what I said to Emily, my newsletter is grounded in my view that one of the things that is broken in the Attention Economy is the glut of content.

One of a journalist’s roles is to help people understand what to pay attention to. And in a world where there are so many things – many of them good, some of them excellent – to pay attention to, a trusted guide is invaluable.

Like the Nieman Lab piece which talks about blending algorithms and AI with traditional journalism skills (“growing hooves” as the author calls it) I have always sought ways to use technology to help me filter information, find patterns and, to be honest, cut out repetitive tasks. I’d rather robots do the robotic work so I can focus on the human part.

That’s why I use Nuzzel for my personal newsletter. It is the latest tool to use social media networks to filter content and pick out what’s relevant to my professional interests.

But no matter how sophisticated the technology, I have always found that I need to periodically retune my filters. At the moment I have to wade through more content than I would like because of all the noise generated out of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue that journalists share on Twitter. If I were starting from scratch with Nuzzel, I would create a very finely curated Twitter list with media business professionals who mostly tweeted about strategy and who did little media criticism.

Suw also tells me that Nuzzel has proven less effective for niche subjects, such as the women in STEM content that she’s looking for. She’s actually been having to search elsewhere for content to put into a daily Nuzzel newsletter but, with only 60 subscribers, she’s moving to a weekly schedule to cut down the time demands.

Learning How to Earn Attention

But the biggest challenge is that there are so many things vying for our attention that building an audience is one of the key challenges in the 21st Century for a content maker. A newsletter is a good place to learn lessons on how to earn attention and build that audience.

You can learn not only curation and reporting, but also how to build a voice and a brand. I didn’t learn this at journalism school, but I have learned them throughout my career not only as a journalist but also as a business owner.

Constantly Learning

The other point I was trying to make in my interview with Emily is that newsletters are also a good format for journalists to learn how to use data to learn how to better serve audiences. Nuzzel emails me every week to let me know the stories that my subscribers read, and it gives me subtle cues on what they are most interested in. As much as this might sound like a cliche, my readers seem to respond most to actionable intelligence, strategies that they can apply, and developments with respect to the social platforms.

Throughout my career, I have always been challenged by people who say that by taking the pulse of my audience like this that I’m pandering to the audience or veering towards producing clickbait.

It all depends on what you’re using the data to optimise for. I never lose sight of my public service mission. And for those who say using data to maximise impact I would say this: If you create a piece of journalism that no one watches, listens to or reads, have you actually committed an act of public service?

From Platforms to Personal Commitment

And that brings me to my final point. For the last few years, there was such an obsessive focus on platforms that we mistook ‘Hello’ for ‘I love you’. What I mean by that is that there were strategies that thought the platforms were the end goal. Instead, platforms should be considered the top of the conversion funnel – the hello, the introduction to our journalism and to our brands.

What we need to do is cement that relationship with our audience, our customers, our public, and newsletters are a good next step after the platform. For some businesses like The Skimm, the newsletters are so well done, the engagement strategies so effective, that they are a standalone product unto themselves.

For many other brands, like The New Yorker, newsletters are integral on the journey from hello to I love you, from casual consumer to subscriber. As the data scientists at The New Yorker found out, the single strongest predictor of whether someone will subscribe to The New Yorker is whether they first subscribe to one their newsletters.

Success depends upon developing strategies that invite a deeper connection to your journalism, from the casual user via social or search to a newsletter subscriber to an app user to a paying subscriber or a member. It takes determination, focus and patience. Here’s to beginning that journey.

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