A discussion on the linked in group Specialist Media Network argues that the future of business media is not content but audience. Hard not to agree. In the old model, where we earned our corn from the publishing of magazines, we used content created by professional journalism to attract an audience which we could then monetise with advertising. Although we were very interested in journalism it was not the purpose of what we did, it was simply the means we used to generate revenue.
The debate about the future is often muddled. Journalism does matter but it turns out that in the new business media world it doesn’t matter as much as it used to. Journalists in national papers, regional papers and the trade press reasonably complain that as costs are squeezed the quality of journalism falls and this weakens the papers on which they work. They cannot understand how their bosses can’t see the connection between the two.
The truth is that everyone recognises that papers and magazines are fundamentally altered by the squeeze on content costs. Most would agree that printed products are not as good as they used to be. The problem for journalists is that the media owners no longer think the impact matters all that much. It might matter in a philosophical concern about the state ofthe fourth estate, but it is not very relevant to the business we are in.
There are many ways to skin a cat, and in the digital world there are many ways to build an audience and to engage with them. Journalism is not only,no longer the only way to do it, it is in danger of becoming not even a very important way to do it.
However content can be a useful way to attract an audience. Just look at the traffic success of the free to air newspaper websites. But on its own, as evidenced by the low level of page views per visit on most sites, it won’t create real user engagement that can be monetised on a scale sufficient to fund the costs of content production.
The commercial solution is becoming clear. Business media companies are beginning to understand that providing network tools, research, training, work flow tools, data, events, lead generation and more will create a sustainable model.
The answer to the philosophical question about the future of journalism is much less clear. Journalists are going to have to work out how their skills can make a meaningful contribution to the development of audience engagement. To begin there needs to be an acknoeledgement that it is not only professional journalists who can create great content. For many journalists such a concept is anathema. Citizen journalists, bloggers, expert witnesses all have a role to play. Some a re good, many are not. The professional journalist has a role to play in sifting, organising, validating, editing, assessing, commenting, following up, verifying, linking, challenging all this content.
When a journalist writes for the web, what is his or her job? In print it was simply to persuade readers to read what was written. On the web every journalists mission must be to persuade their audience to read something else. A journalists job is not finished when the last full stop is placed at the end of the final sentence in the final paragraph; it has only just begun. By taking this approach it is possible that the owners of media companies will realise that if content is no longer king, it certainly deserves a place at court.
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- Rethinking the Role of the Journalist in the Participatory Age (pbs.org)
- Journalists say offline media will shrink in future (newstatesman.com)
- Digital journalism: More work, more pressure but more opportunity (guardian.co.uk)
- Michael Wolff: So the Publishing Business Didn’t Die, After All (huffingtonpost.com)
Emaps decision to make a dramatic change to the editorial structureof Local Government Chronicle is very significant. For some time I have been telling anyone who is prepared to listen that part of the problem with the b2b print model is that it has barely changed in twenty years. This despite the impact of the Internet and the effect on media consumption habits.
Many publishers are worrying that ad yields and volumes are under presssure but have not yet tackled the likely cause. It is too simplistic to blame the recession. The facts of the matter are that advertisers have sensed that business magazines are not read in the way they once were. We should not be surprised. Before the days fof the web every piece of research I conducted on magazine readership showed that readers wanted to know about news, jobs and products. The problem in the internet age is all of this is readily avaialable from numerous sources on the web.
What is the value of news pages in a print mag published weekly? Emap have made what I think is welcome decision to abandon the old News, bridge, features structure, replacing the old content with a series of long analytical articles. I haven’t managed to get hold of copy so I can’t express any view about the execution, but the priniple seems sound.
Let’s look at some of the evidence. Almost every paid title in b2b has seen copy sales and subscriptions fall. As this effect is universal we must conclude that something important is happening. Readers don’t need mags in the way they used to. They have been subsituted for the Web.
Oddly most CC titles continue to pump out the same number of copies as they ever did. For many, a good part of that distribution propped up recruitment advertising response. But with recruitment now being almost entirley a web only play, what is the value of that circulation toda? Worse, a key motive for picking up the magazine, a browse through the jobs, has vanished.
As revenues have fallen, costs have been cut, impacting on the quality of features journalism.
So, pick up a typical business mag, tear out the news pages, whats left of the jobs section and the “ad get” feature and what are you left with? Not much. No wonder engagement with magazines is falling away and advertisers are voting with their feet.
The answer is not to give up on print, but rather to create a new print model which offers the kind of content not readily available or easily consumed in a digital format. I don’t know whether Emap have come up with the right answer, but on this issue at least, it appears they may be asking themselves the right question.
My own view is that there is a future for print in b2b, and I have some thoughts on what that future might look like. I might yet get to put it into practice!
I try not to write about individual magazine closures but I cannot let the passing of Press Gazette go unremarked. I had the privilege of publishing Press Gazette before selling it to Piers Morgan and Mathew Freud when we broke up Quantum Business Media. It was never an easy title to get right. It’s readers were passionate about it, but unwilling to pay for it. Recruitment, which hadbeen the bread and butter of the magazine all but dried up with the regional newspaper groups operating an effective boycott in favour of their jointly owned Hold the Front Page website. The press awards were a cauldron of ego, hatred, boorishness, controversy, boycotts, politics and occasionally a celebration of the best in journalism.
There is not enough independent comment on the media. I told Dominic Ponsford, the last editor of PG, that his job was one of the toughest in media. He made a great fist of producing a readable magazine about journalism on very limited resources. His boss, Les Kelly, whom I also know well, is nothing if not a realist. We probably shouldn’t be sentimental about PG and Les is paid a salary not to be. But even when this is the right commercial judgement for Wilmington, my own view is that the fourth estate is the worse for the passing of the title.
On a personal note I considered it an honour to have been associated with PG. I wish Dominic and all who have passed though its pages and passed its pages, the very best of luck.
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- Press Gazette To Close (iaindale.blogspot.com)
- PressGazette: Wilmington – Press Gazette magazine to close (blogs.journalism.co.uk)
- Why I Won’t Miss Press Gazette (onemanandhisblog.com)
If you ask the right questions there is chance you will find the right answers. Is it possible that in business media we are asking the wrong questions? Many business media companies are asking themselves how they can manage the migration from print to online and how they can maximise the cash generated from the legacy business in the meantime. The right answer to the wrong question won’t build the new model we are striving for and my contention is that this is the wrong question.
The problem with the question as phrased, is that it leads managers to replicate the offline model in the online world. Content sourcing and selection is done in the same way as for magazines. We try to sell display advertising with display advertising arguments and metrics. In the legacy business we manage our magazines as cash cows, driving out costs but plugging away with the same failing model.
There is an old cliche that if you are hitting your head against a wall and are discovering that your head is hurting, the best answer is to stop hitting your head against the wall.
Let’s use that analogy as as starting point to rephrase the question. Let’s begin by thinking about our aims. We want to build a new model for offline publising that will deliver sustained growh over the long term. In addtion we want to make new profits by using the distribution medium of the Internet. If these are our aims then the question we have to answer is different. What does a successful business magazine look like in a world where news and comment is consumed via a screen? What service can we provide online that will lock in targetted groups of decision makers and how can we help suppliers convey their marketing messages to those prospects in a way which leads our customers to increased sales?
Now that sounds like a more interesting way of thinking about the problem. Let’s think about the magzine question first. What do we know? We know that readership has fallen over time. We know that much of the news we publish in our magazines is out of date before it reaches the reader. We know that classified and recruitment advertising is being eroded by job boards and other online solutions. We know that declining readership means declining reponse and lower advertising yields. We know that as we cut costs our competence to write credibly about our markets is being undermined.
What do we know about online publishing for b2b communities? We know that building traffic is possible. We have discovered that our target readers are butterflys using search engines seek out nuggets of information. We know that sophisticated Internet users are as likely to read our content in RSS feed as they are to read it in our livery. We know that when readers come to our sites they will often consume only a few pages. Two or three is not unusual before they vanish off to some other information source. We know that b2b advertisers don’t understand how to use our audience to make money and the devices we give them often offer disappointing returns with low CTR.
Ok. So that is not comprehensive and isn’t even universally 100% true, but wouldn’t you agree that as a broad description of our world it rings some bells? So lets try and tackle the issues at the heart of this argument. In magazine publishing we need to produce titles which are worth reading even when news is available on the net. We need to construct the content on a lower cost base than before. We need to do this without thinking about migration, but rather do it for its own sake. If we try and migrate then we risk being out thought by nimbler online only providers. There are many ways we could do this and there is not a single right answer to content construction, but this is one approach that might be interesting.
1) Abandon the idea of writing breaking news or seeking scoops. Instead act as a summariser and aggregator of all that has happened this week in your niche. Think “The Week”. For those whose RSS feeders are full, or who worry they might have missed a key story or event, what better than to have an experet (a b2B editor) sift, summarise and edit the most important stuff of the week and put it in one place.
2) Tear up your exisiting features plan. You almost certainly can’t afford to produce it to the standard you would like. Decide to publish fewer features but make them longer. Long articles are not easy to present well on the web. (One comment left on this site noted how much easier to read my rather long winded writing style would be if it was properly laid out in a magzine) and are better presented on a dead tree.
3) Source your features from new sources. Don’t depend on journalists. Tragically in the new era model you can’t afford to hire many of them anyway. Instead recuit a cadre of expert witnesses in your niche and get them to write about the key flexion points in your niche. The test of a good feature in the new model is how useful is it to the target niche in helping them make better decisions.
4) Think about all the things you can do in a magazine that you can’t do on the web and then do those. Examples? You have time, so write longer. Paper is cheap and distribution costs are not weight driven so make it look beautiful. If the web is about instant access to every document on earth, read ephemerally, make the magazine about slow considered, thoughtful and essential matters that will be read repeatedly. If you want someone to read a magzine it has to be essential. Examine every article and really ask yourself, if I didn’t publish this, would it matter? (If you want help with this do call me). Write about what’s on the web. Provide lists of sources of further reading. Look at experimenting with QR codes, run series of articles which mean that once you have read the first you will want to read the next (Thackray’s glib sayng of the day, “the purpose of this edition of the magazine is to get people to read the next edition.”)
5) Think about the ultra niche concept. Writing an article about Gordon Ramsay is entirely different if the audience is hotel General Managers or Chefs. The best magazines, we used to say, had the readers name on them, (The Grocer, Farmers Weekly, Fleet Car Buyer, Hairdressers Journal, Personnel Management). Think the same way today, but define the grouping more narrowly. By all means have more than one grouping.
5) Never, ever re write a press release and publish it as a story.
So much for magazines. There is more but the answer will be different for each magazine and is a longer project than I can do justice to in a post. What do you about circualtion policy? How do you re engage the enthusasm of advertisers and will it make money are all important lines of enquiry.
In the next post, we will have a look at answering the second part of the question.
What service can we provide online that will lock in targetted groups of decision makers and how can we help suppliers convey their marketing messages to those prospects in a way which leads our customers to increased sales?
As little primer for that discussion if we know a little more about what a feature in magazine is, what is a feature online? An interesting perspective on this from an RBI inmate at his blog here . Tip of the hat to Adam Tinworth who re tweeted this and brought it to my attention.
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