The future of news: hyper-distribution or hyper-branding?

Perhaps, the most innovative thing you can do if you're a publisher these days is to ignore the action bias - and not innovate.

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Jeff Jarvis, who’s admirably trying to prevent the news industry from becoming the next music industry, recently wrote an interesting blog post in which he heralded “hyper-distribution” as a valuable new business model for news organizations. Responding to some industry pundits who propose embracing shrinking audiences as an effective means of consolidation and audience loyalty, Jarvis argued:

“Since when did it become OK for media people to shrink their audiences? Since they gave up on the ad model, that’s when. But I am not ready to surrender to the idea that advertising, which has supported mass media since its creation, is over. Yes, ad rates are lower; welcome to competition. That’s all the more reason why publishers must attract larger audiences publics – make it up on volume – as well as more targeted and valuable communities.”

To grow audiences through hyper-distribution, Jarvis proposes that news outlets utilize readers as distributors and embrace the very hyper-fragmented forces of the social web that might pose the most existential threat to them: reverse-syndication, “embeddable paper” formats, APIs, specialization, and engagement on social networks.

These are viable concepts (and some of them are already used, i.e. by the New York Times, the Silicon Insider, and others) but, if you were to be cynical, you could also view them as belated means of catching up to a new media reality in which the traditional notion of an advertising- funded news market is no longer valid. While hyper-distribution may provide formats for the post-article era, it still clings to the idealistic assumption that the world needs professional news organizations. But what if it doesn’t? What if the student who famously told the New York Times a year ago, “If the news is that important, it will find me,” doesn’t really consider news media to be trusted sources of news anymore, no matter how good they are in deploying social distribution channels to push them to him? What, in fact, if news brands don’t really matter anymore to Gen Y – as sources of news, trusted or not?

Arguably, CNN has lost some cachet through its #CNNfail debacle during the Iranian election (and similar defining news moments that seem to have shifted the intertwined powers of authority and attention to Twitter, i.e. the Hudson River plane crash and so on), and already, individual experts manage to establish themselves as the nimbler news aggregators on Twitter, cultivating individual audiences (of followers). What if the new news brand is @name? Or newsrooms, dispersed online, that converge amateurs, professionals, and experts? Google’s Marissa Mayer has hinted at what this scenario might look like: "hyperpersonal news streams," in which stories break like (Google) “Waves” and become the publication of collaborative processes rather than finished articles – constant iterations instead of interpretations.

Hyper-distribution may indeed overestimate the demand for trusted commercial news providers. As long as NPR, BBC, and other public services provide first-hand news coverage for free, chances are that the blogo-and Twittersphere will self-aggregate and hyper-distribute news without the mediation of commercial hyper-distributors. For them, innovating their distribution formats to catch up with social media may not be enough – they may want to innovate the very meaning of news. Rather than trying to generate incremental value against over-supply, they could generate disruptive value by creating a new kind of demand – pursuing a “reconstructionist” approach and yielding the type of “value innovation” that is commonly labeled under the sticky metaphor Blue Ocean Strategy.

And yet, two of the venerable US news weeklies, Time and, recently, Newsweek, are pursuing a third way out of the industry misery. They are neither adapting to the new rules of competition in a ‘red ocean’ nor are they creating a ‘blue ocean’ – instead, they are carving out a blue ocean within the red ocean, so to speak, by increasing their publications’ exclusivity. Both are deliberately reducing circulation to create a more loyal and targeted readership, and shifting their positioning from mere news engine to high-end background reportage and political commentary; and both are diametrically opposed to Jarvis’ hyper-distribution paradigm. Newsweek, 76 years old, is determined to shrink its circulation from 2.7 million to little more than half of that. Time’s circulation, which 20 years ago was close to five million, is now at 3.4 million.

Interestingly, it is another renowned weekly that presents the exception from this trend, and boasts surging circulation and ad revenue numbers: The Economist. According to the Publishers Information Bureau, the magazine’s revenues increased last year by a whopping 25 percent, whereas Newsweek’s and Time’s dropped 27 percent and 14 percent, respectively. With its US circulation nearing 800,000, The Economist may ultimately even overtake Newsweek in the States. Given that this growth trajectory has been consistent in the past few years, what is it that makes The Economist thrive while others are drowning in red ink? Michael Hirschorn, in a recent article in The Atlantic, opines that “The real value of The Economist lies in its smart analysis of everything it deems worth knowing – and smart packaging, which may be the last truly unique attribute in the digital age.”

Smart packaging of course means smart branding. The Economist has successfully branded itself as the de-facto print magazine for the global elite. “The secret to The Economist’s success is not its brilliance, or its hauteur, or its typeface,” Hirschorn contends, “The writing in Time and Newsweek may be every bit as smart, as assured, as the writing in The Economist. But neither one feels like the only magazine you need to read. You may like the new Time and Newsweek. But you must – or at least, brilliant marketing has convinced you that you must – subscribe to The Economist.”

Magazineer

Similar value is associated with Tyler Brule’s Monocle, a “briefing on world affairs,” as the monthly describes itself, delightfully packaged and suavely combined with fashion features, frequent traveler tips, and stylish gizmos – plus, online, a truly earnest old school radio podcast. The Economist and Monocle are both examples of the power of niche positioning, as Michael Hirschorn points out: “In the digital age, razor-sharp clarity and definition are the keys to success. Knowing what and who you are, and conveying that idea to an audience, is the only way to break through to readers ADD’ed out on an infinitude of choices. General-interest is out; niche is in. The irony, as restaurateurs and club-owners and sneaker companies and Facebook and Martha Stewart know – and as The Economist demonstrates, week in and week out – is that niche is sometimes the smartest way to take over the world.”

News doesn’t build a brand anymore,” says serial German Web entrepreneur Alexander Görlach, who is poised to fill a niche with his new online magazine The European, which will launch at the end of September. Görlach believes that “To date, online formats have been designed as extensions of print outlet. But [in Germany], there is no autonomous online news brand that focuses exclusively on commentary and opinion.” The European will give experts and authors a voice, and cherish a culture of debate without violating the principles of the web by offering text-heavy articles. “Strong opinions. Journalism for the Web. No perks,” the tagline provides cues for what to expect. For US audiences, this formula may sound familiar: When Görlach promises rich multimedia programming and a departure from conventional section structures, one can’t help think that the Huffington Post is coming to Germany. In any event, The European, targeting 25-60 year old web users who earn more than 2,500 Euro per month, is one to watch, especially with a classy title like this that indicates that the publisher seems to have a good hand with branding and a confident, somewhat ironic grasp on history: "The European" was also the name of a British weekly newspaper in the 90s, billed as “Europe’s first national newspaper,” as well as that of a privately circulated cultural and political magazine that was published in the 50s. Obviously, neither lasted long.

The main lesson to be learned from the success of The Economist and Monocle and (quite possibly) The European: Culture beats economies of scale. Hyper-distribution (and hyper-localization) might be a (controversial) option for newspapers; it is certainly not an option at all for distinct magazine titles. For them, creating artificial scarcity in a sea of abundance – the essence of branding – remains the main imperative. I’m not saying that all outlets in the high-end category – The Economist, Monocle, Vogue, Vanity Fair, the New Yorker, and others – can survive simply because of their strong brands, but they stand much better chances of maintaining loyal audiences because of it. Access to information is important, sure, and innovative distribution models are to be explored, too, but it all comes down to the power of branding, the power of your voice. Distinction saves you from extinction. What do you stand for? What do you know? What do you have to offer as a handle on the world, a firm point of view in a world that is increasingly complex and full of ambiguity?

If brand is so important, then why is BusinessWeek up for sale, a supposedly strong name? Well, maybe precisely because its brand has suffered. By pioneering a compelling, state-of-the-art web presence – one of the best among business publications – BusinessWeek may not have done itself a favor; rather, it inadvertently over-extended its brand and diluted its editorial voice. It has experimented a lot but not really carved out a new identity: Is it a business magazine, a news portal, a blog network, or a social network?

While BusinessWeek expanded into digital formats and gradually blurred the boundaries between its print and online offerings, The Economist succeeded by sticking to it guns. It was very late to the web game and in fact never really caught up to the latest trends (and fads) of online journalism. It did not embrace the principles of the “link economy” as BusinessWeek did so fervently, and if you ask anyone about The Economist, you will certainly hear that it’s a weekly print publication. That’s all. Similarly, German business monthly Brand Eins, an award-winning collection of philosophical essays and reportages on the people behind the numbers, has never really hidden its disdain for the web – and its print circulation keeps growing. Both Brand Eins and The Economist have never compromised their print brands, never open-sourced their content to anyone, and are now in the most enviable position to defy Jarvis’ calls for “hyper-distribution.”

Perhaps, the most innovative thing you can do if you’re a publisher these days is to ignore the action bias – and not innovate.

 

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