Two routes to a new future

Publishers can choose to chase audience or authority. SIMON HOLT weighs up both approaches, and argues news organisations are so intent on maintaining levels of print penetration that they are missing opportunities to create real business models.

Two routes to a new futureBrisbane Times managing editor Simon Holt

When challenged with an argument of quality journalism, digital news advocates will usually provide a rhetorical response: “What is quality?”

It is trite, and a condescending way of broaching audience demand – not necessarily condescending of the journalists who are creating the content, rather it is belittling of the audience which is controlling the direction news organisations are headed.

New structures would support the argument of those who believe the filtering and checking process has been weakened. Newsrooms are doing away with sub-editors, the checking of stories has become a one- or two-step process depending on the urgency of the breaking news cycle, and production work is increasingly being absorbed by reporters.

In contrast, technology has sped up news gathering. Information which once took three days to collect is now housed on a database. The checking of facts is similarly simpler thanks to the information cloud. Then there’s spellcheck, grammatical filters and a keen production eye at the end of the story-filing chain.

Old-school journalists will continue to pay homage to the good old days. The newer school might argue nobody really ever cared about the odd literal.

Behind the defensive facade however, lies a deeper and far more important argument. How does a company’s business strategy affect the future of journalism?

News organisations are so intent on maintaining levels of print penetration that they are missing opportunities to create business models for growth, hence the entry of global mastheads into the Australian market.

Not only do we know how many people are reading each story, we can now put a value alongside it. For example, if a page on average generates 10 cents, and the company is seeking a six to one return ratio on investment, a journalist who is paid $1000 a week would have to generate around 60,000 pageviews a week to justify any semblance of existence.

Journo-nomics, if you like, is playing a conceivable role in how newsroom roles are structured and there’s an upside which will soon emerge as a result.

All the evidence of a digital future points to smaller, more nimble newsrooms. Yet, as business strategists become less pre-occupied with the management of decline in larger print-legacy newsrooms, they’ll again look at ways to build. Beyond the tangible figures will come tangible goals. And if journalists and newsrooms meet those collective goals, there will be rewards which will lead to more content, higher quality and industry development.

It won’t be the industry as we knew it, but it will be an industry built as our audience demands it.

The move has already begun. There are two key tactics being employed by digital news organisations:

An eyeballs at almost any cost approach

This is an aggressive strategy based almost entirely on traffic. Quality suffers, the “Buzzfeedification” of stories gives us five ways to do just about everything and social media plays a massive role in helping readers discover what they “never believe happens next”.

Still, there are proven benefits. Based on a “cost per thousand” business model, high numbers generate guaranteed revenue which allows organisations to value higher quality journalism, as is happening at Mashable, Huffington Post and the perceived nemesis of journalism, Buzzfeed.

On the flipside, high bounce rates mean advertisers have often been sold a dud when it comes to confident brand association and customer loyalty. In other words, people don’t hang around long enough to read the ads.

Put simply, the strategy is thus: Build the audience, and the quality will come.

The loyalty approach

This is a slower burn strategy employed by organisations which pride themselves on integrity, honesty and all things noble. They’re a little more serious, at times to the point of boredom. However, they’re reliable and a trusted go-to point, particularly when big news breaks.

The key benefit is a hope that advertisers will look at engagement figures, trusting that there’s a higher value proposition from a loyal audience who cares as much about the masthead brand as they do the content.

The flipside is whether advertisers, trained on a legacy that high readership numbers are better, actually understand the value of engagement.

Put simply, the strategy is thus: Build a quality product, and the audience will come.

Regardless of the strategy, the future looks significantly brighter than it once did. Now all we need is for people to realise it.

Simon Holt is the managing editor of the Brisbane Times.

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