paperA recent comment by Josef at Citizen Europe asking me about the future role of traditional media got me thinking about this. Here’s a few first musings.

Despite tales of doom and gloom, I think there’s a real future for big-name publications. With millions of loyal readers who rely on them for opinion pieces which could not be replicated by bloggers or other types of citizen journalism – the results of the type of reporting which requires sources, quality-checks, perseverance and a lot of time – they will remain in business. However, I do suspect that most smaller publications – regional papers and the like – will cease to exist.

In addition, I think big name publications will look very different. For starters, they’ll only publish online. Secondly, I think they’ll come to resemble online communities/social networks, which will be reflected in 1) the nature of content; and 2) the prevalent business model.

Papers as social networks

This isn’t as odd as it might appear at first. First, big-name newspapers already have ready-made communities which most aren’t at all leveraging, namely their loyal readership or subscribers: people who invest in their paper of choice, proudly acknowledge that they read it, and buy into where it stands on the left-right divide. Being a Guardian, Le Figaro or La Repubblica reader means something, and that’s a fantastic asset for any organisation to have.

So then what: how does that community become an online community/social network? Practically speaking, by engaging readers in a number of ways, from allowing them to comment, interact with each other and people at the paper more easily, and to have a more direct say in selecting content. This will require that each user is given a profile option that is less basic than that provided by most papers today: each user’s profile can show, say to start with, a few personal details and all interaction with the paper so far (comments, articles.)

The nature of content

It’s not so much that content will change dramatically. After all, newspapers are about providing content, and if the model of content goes, the loyal readership we’re talking about might not remain so loyal. What will change is that content will be determined by the community to a greater extent: in practice, this will mean that aggregation and syndication will play a greater than they do at present. There will be more citizen journalists and bloggers from within the community providing content on their own blogs and sites which will then be aggregated on the site (a little like the Guardian’s commentisfree section, although content there is published directly onto the site.) These writers must of course  adhere to the same standards as the journalists employed by the papers. The community should also be given a say in which sections are developed or if certain investigative stories are pursued; and most of all, it should feel that people at the paper are listening to it. Interaction within the community and between the community and the paper (ideally the paper should feel that it is part of the community) should be easy and frequent.

In addition, it should be easier to publish material via syndication on other sites and blogs than it is at present, including anything from widgets in sidebars to Facebook applications showcasing latest updates. This is quite prevalent already, but it should go much further. The vast majority of community members (and beyond) should be showcasing content from the paper on their own blogs, sites, and other social network profiles.

The different business model

This is trickier and I’d be rich if I had a real answer to this, but I think the recipe for success still lies in advertising rather than subscriptions or the like. But to make it work, newspapers really need a big, lively, bustling community of online readers (who comment and interact as well) and they need to know a fair bit about each profile. Without this, they could not develop a viable model.

Assuming that they have the community, then what? First, they can develop a classified ads system for people within the actual community. At a low cost, they can post their own ads and target them to relevant people (you’ll have basic details i.e. geographical, age, and interests – based on what they read and comment on.) Second, this same model can be applied to external advertisers looking for highly targeted advertising opportunities. For now, papers will all testify that they don’t make much from selling banner space and that people don’t really click on banners. But if you develop a community and know more about the people in it, it’d be possible to make advertising far more effective.

In truth, these ideas aren’t new by any stretch, and a number of newspapers are doing affiliate marketing, bannering, classifieds already. I stress, the crux really lies in nurturing the community: making it grow and become more dynamic and loyal by engaging with it, providing it with incentives, allowing it to become involved in how the organisation develops, and mobilising it so it helps to spread content. In this way, the community will grow, engage and spread the paper’s mantra even further, help the paper develop so as to best fit the needs of its readers, which in itself makes it a better proposition for advertisers. And it must be said.. a more active community will mean learning more about its members, ensuring that they only receive promotional messages they’re really interested in – an even better proposition for advertisers.

press-room1957-ike-strokeWhether you’re a pressure group strapped for funds or a multinational, you’ll want an excellent online press centre where journalists can easily find your latest news and other relevant material they might use for a story. But it should not just contain a long list of press releases: with everything the web has to offer in terms of showcasing content, it’d be a wasted opportunity. Ideally, your press centre would also do some of the following:

  • Allow journalists to subscribe to news updates at the click of a button
  • Contain material in multimedia formats i.e. especially video (which journalists increasingly appreciate and make use of)
  • Allow for commenting so journalists can get an idea of public reaction to your news
  • Enable journalists to find content very easily via keywords or tags rather than searching through a whole list in chronological order
  • And not to be forgotten, be SEO friendly so your content helps boost your site’s search engine ranking

Looking at that list, it sounds an awful lot like the features of a blog. And herein lies the answer to the “how do I build an excellent press room that makes the best use of all the tools available to me” conundrum. Just set up your press page like a blog: present all your newsworthy content, whether a press release or the 2-minute video interview with the CEO you filmed on your iPhone, as blog posts. Have categories and tags so users can easily find material. All your newsworthy material will be presented in one place rather than scattered around your newroom, which I suspect journalists will appreciate (although do be careful to not deem too much material as newsworthy); and you won’t feel restricted by the press release standards e.g. you can publish a very short post or a post just containing a video.

Result? More varied content + far better accessibility = happy jounalists.