Surviving the Net Crunch: A Practical Guide for Print Publications in a Digital World
Forget about easy answers, and don't think that the latest hip tech craze will save: PopMatters' Jason Gross offers advice for how long-running print publications can adapt to this brave new Net-driven world.
Ten years ago this month, I started writing for print publications. While I've been very honored to be a part of the world of journalism, I've become dismayed and disgusted by what I've seen happen to it. I'm not necessarily disappointed about the overall quality of work, though I do see plenty of dreck. I'm angry when I see what's happening to the industry as a whole. Not a day goes by that you don't read a notice at a journalism hub like mediabistro.com that yet another newspaper or magazine is offering buyouts or eliminating jobs or slashing their budgets, sometimes even killing off entire sections. The purpose, of course, is to tighten their belts to deal with a shrinking ad market and make their investors on Wall Street happy. Even such supposed rock-solid bastions of print like the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post are having their share of headaches. And yet while editors give pep talks insisting that they can magically do more with less, the fact of the matter is that they can't, unless they force more work and longer hours out of their smaller staffs. That's great if you want to burn out your work force, but not so great if you want to keep your paper going.
In the midst of this chaos, hand-wringing, and series of disasters, everyone is desperately scrambling for answers. What is the magic formula that's going to save these publications? I'd been wondering about this myself while reminiscing about my own little journalistic anniversary, and thought I'd try to offer some advice as a way to give back to this industry that I care about so much and don't want to see evaporate like an polar iceberg. Not to toot my own horn, but I do have a bit of a unique perspective to the plight of journalism now. I work in it not just as a writer but also as an editor -- I've run my own online zine since 1993 and while I haven't done it as a commercial enterprise, I've also worked as a freelance editor now and then (one caveat is that my background is in music journalism so a lot of examples I cite come from that world).
In addition, I entered the world of technology in the early '90s, just when the Web was first becoming a phenomenon. I've worked as a programmer, consultant, and project manager for a number of large and small companies and learned a lot of lessons about technology -- not just its uses but also its many abuses. Between some combination of tech and scribing, I humbly offer up these bits of advice. I just hope that this provides some guidance to any publication out there, to help it stay afloat and maybe even to serve as a model for other publications to make it through the dreaded Net crunch.
Forget about easy answers. That's not going to cheer you up, but might as well learn the truth up front. Any tech-head who tells you otherwise is lying to you or trying to sell you something. The reason for this is that in this Net age, everything changes quickly. Whatever software, application, or website is hot today might be forgotten sooner than you think. Anyone remember Netscape, which was once the end-all and be-all web browser? How about Friendster, the popular social networking service that was buried by MySpace and Facebook? Let's say that you had long-term agreements with either of these companies. You'd probably have a horrible case of buyer's remorse by now. The good news is that once you get into this mind-set of ever-changing rules in the Net world, a lot of the other points below will fall into place and you'll be better situated to deal with the realities of the Net and your publication.
Forget about long-term answers too. It stands to reason that if you're not going to find a quick-fix solution to get your paper healthy again, there isn't going to be a solution that's going to last for years and keep you comfortably afloat. Even before the Net up-ended everything, journalism wasn't a cakewalk necessarily -- you still had to worry about advertisers, shareholders, deadlines, etc. This problem of long-term solutions is again indicative of the Net: it's a fast-moving virtual world that doesn't like to rest or stay any place for long. As such, you'd better get used to thinking and acting that way too.
Fear and ignorance drive the technology industry. It's a dirty but true secret. Here's how it works. A new product or piece of software comes along and it gets some buzz. Companies snap it up, thinking, "I better be a part of this." Other companies start thinking the same thing and do the same. (Never mind that the buzz is usually driven by the software company that puts out the product.) What then happens is that companies get fearful and say "I don't know what the hell that is but we better get it now!" They'll still go ahead and buy it even if they don't know what they're going to do with it -- they just don't want to fall behind. My favorite example of this is Shockwave, which was kind of a predecessor to Flash (which you can see/hear running music on MySpace pages). Potentially, it's a neat little tool that lets you embed animation, music, and interactive play. But it's definitely not suited to all companies, unless you can find a practical way to put it to work for your paper. Otherwise, it was used just to make cute little animations that could have been done much more easily and cheaply. The way that you avoid this trap is to skeptically but carefully examine each piece of software or new program and ask yourself, "What benefit will we really get from this?" If more companies did that, there would be millions of dollars saved every year that are otherwise wasted on digital junk.
Don't think that latest hip tech craze will save you. That goes along with the warning above about fear/ignorance. Jumping on a tech bandwagon doesn't always get you a smooth ride. That is to say that even if a tech solution is working for one place, it doesn't necessarily mean that it's going to work for you. The most obvious example is the Los Angeles Times and its wikitorial experiment (more on that later). Blogs are another tech angle that won't necessarily save your publication -- just because you have them doesn't mean that you'll attract web users, but that doesn't necessarily mean they won't work for you either. If you find that they are valuable to your situation, you must embrace them and make them your own. That means getting the most mileage as you can out of a tech idea or a piece of software and maybe even doing something unique with it. In the case of blogs, it means constantly updating content with interesting and worthwhile things to say. The Guardian's blog is one of the best models for this as it constantly provides smart, thought-provoking writing. Let's say that another publication starts up its own networking service for carpooling or dog walking in its area and it's a hit. You can go ahead and do the same but if it's just a carbon copy of what the other publication is doing, you'll look like a copycat. You must make the site your own, put your own stamp and spin on it. If you do this well enough, other publications will start wanting to even copy you.
Stop resting on your laurels and stop crying about the past. In an age where the largest publications out there are getting squeezed, you can't afford either luxury now. You have a brand name and a reputation for your publication that's been developed for decades now and has become a reliable source of news for thousands or millions of people. But so what? The Net is leveling the playing field more and more every day. The harsh reality is that established names in the news field are losing their cache and upstarts that are springing up on the Net are getting their own reputations in a fraction of the time. As this Ad Age article points out, having a solid print presence doesn't mean you'll get good web traffic. That's got to be incredibly frustrating for any publication to face, which is why many of them publish stories bemoaning this and pining for the good ol' days. Some readers will definitely sympathize, but you have to move on from that or you'll look like a tired, confused old fogey. Nobody wants that unless you're heading up a publication called Curmudgeon. Then again, there might be a market for that...
Don't hate on the newbie tech sites -- make your own online presence. Bloggers have become the bane of this industry. They're supposed to be responsible for its downfall, along with Craigslist. They piggyback on the news stories that "old media" puts out there and, subsequently, take away their readership. As someone who blogs in two places (here at PopMatters and another one at Blogspot that I've done for a few years), I'm kind of sensitive to this criticism, but I don't totally discount it either. People do have limited time and popular blogs do sometimes take away from the time that they could be spending scanning through your publication otherwise. Crying about it isn't going to do any good; why not try to beat these supposed upstarts at their own game by making your own Net home a think of wonder and beauty? This means not just having blogs with active discussions on current topics, but also presences on places like Facebook, Bebo, MySpace, LinkedIn and elsewhere. "That's just going to make us look cheap and desperate!" you might think -- but you're wrong. These are places that you can connect with and reach out to people, and if you do it the right way and give your pages on these sites the right look, you stand to gain more readers. For some examples, publications like the Boston Globe and the Village Voice have made some tentative steps to having a MySpace presence. On Facebook, the New York Times page has photos, headlines, a quiz, and 20,000 fans (compare that with the lackluster ones for the Washington Post and the Village Voice that are there).
Take risks and risk failure. This just gets scarier and scarier, doesn't it? In addition to evaluating what technology is going to serve you the best and make you look good, you should also try to take some initiatives yourself. There's two great reasons to go out on a limb and do this. First of all, if you do come up with a winning technology idea, you are going to look great. You are going to be a hero. Other publications are going to have to write about you and what you did. That kind of recognition is priceless and something that you can take a lot of pride in. Also, if it's really a killer idea, you'll be helping out the rest of the industry as other places will try to use the same technology for their own good. And why worry about copycats? You'll still be noted as an innovator. That's why I don't think that the Los Angeles Times should looked upon as a total failure for their Wiki experiment -- it flopped because the paper failed to anticipate how complicated it would be to maintain and control. But give the Los Angeles Times credit for one thing: at least it tried. It took a lot of guts and though it didn't pan out, I have a lot of respect for them for at least making the effort. And in the end, it's not a total loss if other publications can examine this and think about how it could have been done better and how they might try it themselves. Another example? Though it has yet to produce results publicly, Rolling Stone is testing out the idea of tracking readers with ads. If it does pan out, except other pubs to follow suit and with good reason.
Keep innovating. Even when you latch onto a good idea, you have to keep tweaking it, playing around with it -- at least a little -- to make it fresh. This goes back to the idea that nothing stays idle on the Net for long, even great ideas that attract millions of people.
Work closer with the tech eggheads -- they might be your best friends. At most companies, there's a sharp division between the people who come up with the content (in this case, writers and editors) and the techies. The former see the latter as a bunch of pathetic nerds who are only good for setting up their laptops, keeping the network running, and updating the website. The IT people see the content folks as a bunch of ignorant technophobes. Both stereotypes aren't fair, of course, but what makes both sides in this equation equally brainless is that they don't see the value of working more closely together. Writers and editors do have to be at least somewhat Net-savvy in this day and age, but unless they work directly in the IT field, they're going to be kind of deficient in techie knowledge. Similarly, the techie people know their jobs, but don't necessarily know how to write a good story or get their message across to web users. These two groups together can help make up for the shortcomings that each has and be better poised to evaluate and implement technology that would work best for a publication. I know, I know... turf battles always happen in these cases where each department doesn't want to cede any ground. But your publication has to get over that and get these two departments working together. Sometimes, each of them is going to have bad ideas but other times, one of them might have a good idea that the other department can help them develop. Sounds like a nice Utopian fantasy but it can work if there's a will within the company and each of the departments.
Squeeze as much use as you can outta tried and true web technology. In relative terms, the web is a grade-school kid, only about eight years old now, but there's already some good, solid technology out there that you can and should be using for your publication's website -- this is where being friendly with your tech people becomes a real plus. Already, numerous sites make good use of photo galleries and video which can be set up pretty easily with a few lines of code -- two great examples include this article about the Caribou Studio and this one about Aztec death music.
Your web presence is global, not local, so you need to act that way. In many of the articles that give advice about how to fix your publication, there's one golden rule that comes up again and again: think locally. There's some sound reasoning in it. A publication that serves a specific locale has as one of its primary strengths an intimate knowledge of that area. While there may be plenty of other places online or offline that can provide national or international news, the local angle is something unique you can present to readers and have them keep coming back to find out more. But all the prognosticators who chant the "think local" mantra forget about one important point: once your info is online, it's not local news anymore. The whole world sees your publication's website and then you're not dealing with a local audience anymore. There might be some people who have interest in your local news but many more of them will be surfing around the web with low attention spans, just looking for articles about topics that they care about. Ignoring this vast, larger audience is insane and self-defeating.
That's the problem with the argument of thinking local -- you're limiting yourself to a bigger potential audience. Also, you need to think long and hard about what you really mean by "local", as this Newspaper Next article wisely ponders. That doesn't mean that you should give up on local stories though. Again, that's a unique strength that you can and should take advantage of. But at the same time, why would you ignore the outside world when it's potentially knocking on your door? Even with the cutbacks that newspapers have had to go through, laying off people on particular beats or closing down whole bureaus, there's still plenty of opportunities to process the raw news out there otherwise. There's all sorts of commentary that you can have and zeitgeist pieces that connect the dots between all sorts of recent phenomena and think pieces in general which try to thoughtfully examine a topic in detail.
Think of what you can learn from other industries stressed out by the Net. The most obvious example is the music industry. While a lot of exciting opportunities are opening up, there are a lot of artists and labels that are still figuring out how to maneuver through the Net world. And there are also some answers out there. While album sales plummet and label-authorized downloads don't take up enough of the slack, other sources of money are being sought out by bands. In addition to getting their songs placed in more and more commercials, film, TV shows, and video games (not to mention ringtones) to take up the slack, they also rely on touring and merchandising sales. How much of this can publications adapt as their own? Very little as it turns out, though Rolling Stone is looking to merchandise tote bags and T-shirts now.
As these examples indirectly demonstrate, when the main product that you've monetized ain't bringing in revenue, look to the periphery for other ways to make do. And what are those other ways? We shall see... One model that the publishing industry is picking on from the music industry with good results is the pay-what-you-want model, which Radiohead made a splash with. Paste and Premiere Guitar magazines both did the same last year with their subscriptions and both were rewarded with big boosts in paying customers. The idea of "free" not being such a bad way to hook people in also caught on with Spin, which put its entire contents online for free in January with a MySpace tie-in and got a 50% subscription jump to show for it. That sounds peachy but even Radiohead itself admitted that it couldn't sustain this kind of experiment with future releases and magazines also shouldn't look to this as a panacea. Still, a good idea's a good idea...
Another interesting example is Time Inc.'s Maghound, which, taking its cue from Netflix, allows customers to mix and match subscriptions to different publications at will. Granted, this model only works when one company has multiple magazines, but if it really takes off in December, you can bet that others will follow suit.
Think partnerships. Even if ProPublica isn't gonna take up your slack for investigative reports (as they recently claimed on PBS), there are other sources to work with. The example I gave above about Spin and MySpace is something to ponder. In January, Paste magazine was in talks with Starbucks to distribute their publication there. Also, Hearst Publishing will be distributing some of its goods on Facebook, MySpace, and elsewhere, even though this involves select material from their mags.
Keep scoping around for ideas. You're not alone in your search for answers. Sometimes, you even get a gift from other articles trying to explain worthwhile ideas like this Marketwatch article, this Ad Age article, or this brilliant suggestion from the Australian about cultural networking. Maybe you've even found some useful food for thought in this article itself. And maybe you could write your own guide to help other publications too -- I'll be looking forward to reading it and so will plenty of desperate scribes and editors too.