The headline is of course a red herring. The newspaper business is dying.
But as late as last year, there was one sector of the newspaper industry that was still growing (at least in several geographies): local weeklies. Amazingly, advertising salespeople in this niche are just now turning to the web to augment the advertising packages they offer to clients. As I’ve been posting recently, locale-specific web advertising works. The challenge for any media company is to include quality locale-specific content along with the advertising. Citizen journalists, like the mythical shiftless immigrants that take the blame in other industries, are supposedly stealing jobs from “real reporters”. In fact, there is a collusion of events and circumstances that have gutted most news gathering organizations. Sadly, a vicious cycle compounds the problem: the more anemic a news gathering staff becomes, the less capable they are at producing quality content, the less the readers want to read, the less the advertisers want to pay, the less money the paper has, the more anemic a news gathering staff becomes…
Steve Yelvington is a brilliant man who (based on what I can tell from his brief bio) has worked in the newspaper business all his career. But he is one of the few thinkers in this area, with such a background, who has broken out of his shell and is coming to pretty solid conclusions about how to move forward. It’s cool to read about his work to implement a content management system for his company, but also get his perspective on the issues facing his industry as a whole. Many of the issues are related to the newspapers trying to drive revenue and thinking they can charge for their online content.
One interesting conclusion he has come to is that combining the online and traditional print organizations into a single entity often fails. I find this counter-intuitive. But when I read his reasons for stating this, it is purely to do with human nature: the way people resist change. I truly believe that if a media outlet were to launch tomorrow and they built a combined web/print model from the ground up, the combined effort would be much more natural.
Another key point that Yelvington tries to get people to listen to: unique visitors is a bogus statistic. If you think you can capture 10 percent of the “85 zillion” unique visitors, you’re dreaming. What you really want to focus on are the return visitors. People who like your site enough that they keep coming back. Yelvington warns that this number is usually surprisingly low. His dire statement: “If you can’t get people to come back for free content, what makes you think they will pay?”
Yelvington also remarks frequently on his blog about something that is really at the heart of Media 3.0 thinking: technology matters far less than the community. All the assumptions that the innovations in software and bandwidth are what really drive growth are discounting the power of social media: it’s about people not technology. Yelvington cites Pownce versus Twitter. Pownce was slicker, faster, and easier to use. But it is gone now. Twitter had the critical mass of people interacting (so much so that the community on Twitter has a joke about “fail whale“: what happens when the traffic gets so heavy that Twitter just stops working). The Twitter team has worked diligently to overcome the scaling problems and the “tweeting” community continues to grow.
I will continue to read Yelvington’s blog with interest. It’s great to see new thinking coming out of an industry that most technology pundits have simply written off.