Newspapers versus Netflix: Adventures in the attention economy

Newspaper circulation continues to decline at almost all of the national newspapers in the UK (with the notable exception of the ‘i’), with sales down 1.4 m over the past year, according to ABC. Pat Smith at The Media Briefing highlighted this and also drew attention that over the same year, Netflix added 1.5 subscriptions. Pat made this observation (emphasis his):

A coincidence? Maybe. On-demand TV and films are hardly substitutional for newspapers. But what this shows is there is a vast audience out there willing to pay for digital content. As desire for print media falls, enthusiasm for paid-for digital services grows.

It doesn’t matter to me whether people decided to drop their newspaper subscription and use that money to buy a Netflix sub instead. This isn’t about whether TV and films are a substitute for newspapers and journalism, but rather the staggering rise in choices for how people spend their time and where they spend their attention. In the digital era, content and entertainment choices are exploding, but the one finite resource is people’s time. My friend Mohamed Nanabhay, the former head of Al Jazeera English, put it this way:

My colleagues who work on the broadcast side of the business can easily say our competitors are CNNi and the BBC. But I don’t get that luxury, because we’re competing with everybody who puts up a webpage on the internet. And everybody who tweets, or posts on Facebook, or anything.

That might sound hyperbolic, but it isn’t at all. American journalist and digital pioneer Steve Yelvington broke down online attention when the news group he works for announced their “audience first” strategy a little more than a year ago. Look at the graph he created, and see the big slices of the pie that are Facebook and Google. Hell, Yahoo Mail even beats the local newspaper in the market he analysed.

I will take this one step further, which is why I think that Pat is right to compare sales decline in print with subscriber growth for Netflix; in the attention economy, journalism competes against everything that competes for people’s time and attention. What this means is that we’re moving from mass media to relevant media. Netflix created a model that killed the local video store by mailing DVDs without a hard return date and then pivoting to take advantage of digital delivery.

How does journalism compete against Netflix, XBox, Apple TV and YouTube? Mahendra Palsule said in looking at this shift that we should move from “information overload” to “filtered, relevant information”.

If you want this shift put more in a journalistic context, journalists need to add value. Journalists need to move away from thinking that it’s not old unless it’s told by me, to thinking about whether the story is relevant to their audiences and how they add value. In a world swimming in information, the who/what/where/when has become commoditised, Jim Moroney, the publisher and CEO of the Dallas Morning News, says. Now he adds that journalists need to provide PICA – Perspective, Interpretation, Context, Analysis. At the International Symposium of Online Journalism in Austin this spring, he said that the more relevant your content is the higher the value. Relevant, differentiated content is more valuable and more valued by audiences, he says, and people might just be willing to pay this content. (Special thanks to @cindyroyal for collecting Moroney’s comments on Storify).

It’s the editorial side of reach versus each, which Alan Mutter highlighted in terms of advertising earlier this year. Smart content sprinkled with a little technology can help deliver more valuable, more relevant content to audiences struggling to sift through all of the choices for news, information, entertainment and distraction.

I also believe that active social media strategies where journalists and editors engage their audiences help build loyalty. Relationship and relevance are key to rebuilding journalism’s relationship with the public. Competition is fierce in the attention economy, but I believe that journalism can compete and win.

Below is my full talk about how journalism can succeed in the battle for attention. I delivered this talk at Digital Directions in Sydney Australia in 2011.