By the early 2000s, most of the folks I worked with had accepted that the Internet would be a game-changer for journalists. However, as unsettling as that realization was, many — myself included — did not perceive the depth of the threat to traditional news media.
It was apparent enough that if we didn’t react, we might simply be run out of business, inasmuch as the Internet provides a cheaper, quicker platform for delivering the news. It also was apparent the potentially damaging effect upon our accuracy — and thus our credibility — if we fudged on verification as we tried to quicken the reporting pace. We also fretted that by trying to excel on print and digital platforms, we would excel at neither.
These dangers are real, of course, but they are the dangers that come as monkeys develop prehensile tails. The greater fear is monkeys walking erect, developing language and ... I don’t know ... listening to iPods. At some point, they cease to be monkeys.
In the past decade, newspapers have gotten pretty good at news websites. Many are the dominant Internet news source for their local markets, and many that are not are trumped only by the websites of another “old” medium, TV. There have been successful online start-ups, of course, but most of those are national in scale. Most “hyper-local” news providers, though occasionally innovative, are trying to figure out how to be profitable, just as newspapers are.
Turning a buck is difficult because news providers, both new and old, don’t simply compete with each other for audience or the right to deliver an advertising/marketing message. The universe is much bigger these days, with companies using their own, search-engine-optimized websites, social media and other tools to take their messages straight to the consumer.
I’ve been reading a lot lately about “content marketing,” though I freely admit I don’t know much about it. In fact, there are probably several people reading this who could school me on the subject.
But as I understand it, this is the creation and distribution of “soft-sell” marketing material, designed to engage and inform a target audience. Or, as the Content Marketing Institute describes it, “Instead of pitching your products or services, you are delivering information that makes your buyer more intelligent.”
Traditional-media companies are very good at this sort of thing. In fact, some of them are branching out (or branching off) to provide content for clients’ websites or other marketing efforts. Others are selling their content to syndicates, which in turn license it to companies that can use it in their marketing. Coca-Cola, for example, might like to have on its website an Associated Press story about people who collect Coke Christmas memorabilia.
The satirical publication, The Onion, more or less stumbled into this new business venture when Microsoft sought its help with an ad, which would appear on the Onion website, to tout its new IE9 browser. The collaboration yielded “goofy shorts, in which a man attempts to use psychotherapy to work through his pathological hatred of Internet Explorer,” according to a report on the website Mashable.com.
The publication was so pleased with the results, it created the Onion Lab, which aims not only to do similar projects for its advertisers, but for those who plan to advertise and market elsewhere, too.
This suggests the potential for new revenue streams for traditional media, particularly those with a creative bent. But it also opens journalism to corrupting influences, and there is much debate about whether those influences can be kept at bay.
As Ken Doctor of the Nieman Journalism Lab acknowledges, “native advertising” and other content-marketing concepts can blur the lines between what is journalism and what is promotion. “It’s easy to maximize staff efficiency by having a staffer write for the readers on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday and for marketers on Tuesday and Thursday.”
He might have had in mind the practice of Mashable, which recently enlisted editorial writers for articles commissioned by an advertiser, as The New York Times recently reported.
As content marketing proliferates — as surely it will — keep an eye on traditional media business practices.. Long steeped in the distinction between editorial and advertising content, will they be able to keep its reporting and promotional functions separate? (As an aside, I hope those who see value in such separation cheerfully pay for online subscriptions, as revenue derived from this source reduces the pressure to “sell” our content in other ways.)
Finding financially stability while maintaining an independent voice will be the real challenge for journalists in the next few years. Clearly, the industry must evolve, but too much monkeying around might turn us into something we never intended to be.