What We Can Learn from Legacy Media

The news that the news as we know it is ending is not news. Go ahead say that five times fast. The folks who write the news, many who started their careers writing obituaries, are writing their industry’s obituary. And yes, they are aware of that profound, even sobering, irony.

The decline was due to the change in how their audience absorbed their information. The fall was because of us, because of the web. Their readers started getting their information elsewhere.  The world changed. They, in turn, needed to do the same. Most didn’t.

Pre-internet, newspapers relied on three revenue streams: subscriptions, commercial advertising, and the classifieds. I had to hyperlink a Wikipedia page to help anyone under the age of 30 understand what the classifieds were. You’re welcome. The web either cut into or destroyed all three streams.

Institutions that had been the bedrock of their industry for more than a century met this change first with denial, then disdain, and then with hard-fought acceptance. This change was also when institutions started making some pretty poor decisions that have sent the industry into a veritable death spiral. Here’s what we – as business owners, as employees, as marketers – can learn to make our futures death-spiral free when change (eventually) comes a-knockin.

Change is Not the Enemy

A good – and dare I say wise – friend of mine, while working for her local newspaper said, “Soon we will go from being a newspaper who has a website to a website that has a newspaper.” It was a prophetic statement that ruffled many a feather of the old guard.

Months later, due to that statement or the continuing faltering revenues, she was let go. That newspaper has subsequently become more of a newsletter with fewer and fewer sections/stories/editorials. The newspaper industry is still fighting how things have changed. As a result, when it comes to employment, the industry has halved in the course of a few decades.

The real enemy for the legacy media industry is holding on too tightly to the things that have worked in the past. Many newspapers are finding success EMBRACING instead of FIGHTING how their product is used. Publications that are providing rich media advertising, like featuring video on their sites, are seeing a rapid increase in that revenue stream. It’s the best way they can compete with the rapid growth of online-only news sources like Vox Media, the Huffington Post, and BuzzFeed.

Know What You’re Selling

I know. I know. At first glance, this seems painfully obvious. But when things change, too often it’s not. When the newspapers’ audience changed how they used their service, they didn’t change what they were selling. They were no longer selling subscriptions, ads, and classifieds. They were selling eyeballs. And in this new attention economy, eyeballs are precious.

If they had embraced that change and developed a viable business model around a news website instead of a newspaper, my friend might still be gainfully employed at her old gig. Consequently, she now works for a company that leads with their website as their most important offering.

So continually reevaluate what you’re selling. What was important last week may not be today. Ask yourself, “What are we really selling” and don’t be satisfied with the first answer. Do you make shovels? What would happen if you thought about shovels through the lens of your consumer? In truth, your customers aren’t buying shovels – they’re buying holes. Now, with that insight in mind, how do you proceed accordingly? Perhaps some new messaging is needed.

Trust is Your Most Valuable Asset

When newspapers were losing eleventy bajillion annually, staff had to be cut. Most papers got rid of a very valuable position, the copy editor. Now legacy media outlets, who had gained their reputation for accurate and clean content, were asking reporters to be their own editors. The results were disastrous. The audience lost faith in the content one typo, run-on sentence, and misquote at a time. For example, a copy editor never would have let “eleventy bajillion” into this article. It’s sloppy and self-indulgent.

Trust is a tricky thing. It’s the bedrock of every relationship, and the relationship with your audience is not different. If you don’t have someone who continually takes the position of defending your audience, find someone who does. Can’t find that person? Become that person. If you don’t, your brand will find itself outside the Circle of Trust.

Will newspapers turn it around? I hope so. The New York Times is drawing a line in the sand with their new positioning. As with any change, there will be casualties. I hope these legacy media properties find their way. And I hope you can do all the things to ensure you or your company never gets lost in the first place.