In search of meaningful
From the individual who needs to get her idea in front of the right people, to the New York Times, which faces a ticking clock to figure out the digital landscape, all of us are in the media business. There's a gold rush for attention going on, and, given how much the media likes to cover the media, we hear about winners and losers, those doing it right and wrong, and most of all, the template for what we ought to be doing if we want to succeed.
I fear that right now, many are laboring under Buzzfeed Envy.
Since 1989, when I first started doing online media, people have been transfixed by scale, by numbers, by rankings. "How many eyeballs, how big is the audience, what's the passalong, how many likes, friends, followers, how many hits?"
You cannot win this game and I want to persuade you (and Dean Baquet at the Times) to stop trying.
1. Are you generic? Over the last few years, the Times has lost Lisa Belkin, Nate Silver, David Pogue and other big name writers, not to mention the opportunity to do more with Michael Lewis and the Freakonomics guys. Here's the thing: when you read what these singular voices create, you know where it came from, and you have an opinion about it.
Buzzfeed doesn't focus on who is speaking, they focus on writing something clickable and shareable and urgent in the moment. Those that want to own a valuable 'brand' like the fact that it belongs to them, unlike the demanding star writer, who might leave at any time. The value all goes to the system, not to the individual contributor.
(Buzzfeed is well on its way to becoming a dominant media company. But the Times isn't Buzzfeed, and neither are you.)
The problem with generic is that it's easy go as well as easy come. The Onion just launched their own sharable silliness and to those that spread it, it doesn't matter at all if the person writing it works for one brand in the genre or the other one. Staying ahead and gaining scale gets more difficult, not less for those in this segment.
Kasey Casem is remembered precisely because he refused to become generic. When he left his show and started a new one, so many people followed him that he was able to buy back the original show and run both of them at the same time. We were connected to him, not the idea of a radio show.
2. Is it for the reader or the search engine? Here's an excerpt from how editors are deciding things at the Times now: "There was praise for headlines that had contained the right words … to maximize online search results."
The most important thing any individual or corporate media entity needs to learn is this: One subscriber is worth 1,000 surfers. Newspapers learned this a century ago. The Philadelphia Inquirer created one of the richest families in America on the basis of a focus on subscriptions. And Time magazine has turned into a nearly valueless relic because they forgot to focus on subscribers and pandered to the newsstand and to the listicle instead.
[A subscriber, by my definition, doesn't have to pay with money. Sometimes, it's sufficient to pay with attention.]
3. Would I miss it if it were gone? And here's the key question, the one that gets to the heart of meaningful. When we deliver meaningful content, it means we show up, invited, with words and images that matter. It means that we are trusted enough to be permitted to speak the first few words, and talented enough to keep the attention we've worked so hard to earn. Most of all, meaningful can't possibly work for everyone with a smart phone, for everyone in every potential audience, because there are so many ways to be seen as meaningful, so many different tribes of people thirsting for different kinds of connection.
Here's the key flaw in the bigger-is-better reasoning: It's entirely possible to become an important voice merely because everyone is listening. (Walter Cronkite, or the front page of Yahoo in 1999). When everyone is listening, anyone who wants to be part of everyone also has to listen. That's certainly why the most viral viral videos get so many views–the second half of their views are people who don't watch viral videos, but need to get clued in.
There are still some advertisers who want the biggest mass they can find, who will pay extra to reach more people who care less, but those advertisers are going to find someone bigger than you to advertise with.
It's no longer possible to become important to everyone, not in a reliable, scalable way, not in a way that connects us to people who will read ads or take action, not to people who aren't already clicking away to the next thing by the time they get to the second or third sentence.
But it is possible to become important to a very-small everyone, to a connected tribe that cares about this voice or that story or this particular point of view. It's still possible to become meaningful, meaningful if you don't get short-term greedy about any particular moment of mass, betting on the long run instead. And we need institutions that can reach many of these tribes, that can bind together focused audiences and useful content creators.
Newspapers used to work because they were local, delivered and urgent, with few competitors.
Today, all four components have changed dramatically. Craigslist and others have stolen a lot of the revenue that came from local, anyone with email can be delivered, and the news cycle has bypassed the daily rhythm of the newspaper. And few competitors has become infinity competitors.
The future of newspapers (and for anyone making content) is to act more like a magazine, like Fast Company and Wired and The New Yorker of fifteen years ago. The center, the urgent center, of a smaller everyone.
My advice to the Times starts with this: Every reporter (and probably every editor) ought to have a blog (or be part of a focused group blog), and post every single day. That's perhaps 600 blogs, every single day, each charged with finding a group of people who care enough about that voice and that topic to hear about it daily. If a reporter can't write cogently and passionately enough about his topic to gain a following, he probably needs to work somewhere else. And if the paper can organize to hire and train and reward people who can do work like this, if they can figure out how to get out of the 48-page paper mindset, if it can create stars and pockets of true connection, it's inconceivable to me that they won't be able to turn a profit.
Of course, one straightforward act isn't going to change the future of the Times, but it represents a symptom, a visible sign that the focus is changing from making an above-average (or even excellent) newspaper for the masses into creating circles of expertise, organizing tribes, building subscriptions based on attention and publishing outside of the finite world of paper… (And I firmly believe that this applies even more to individuals and smaller organizations than it does to legacy newspapers).
The future of media can't possibly only lie in random mass viral entertainments, generated with the aid of computers and aimed at the lowest-clicking denominator. For most organizations, that can't lead to useful ads, it doesn't lead to subscriptions, and most of all, it doesn't lead to impact. Entertaining the people who click on 50 things a day will get you numbers, but it won't make a difference.
If it's not worth subscribing to a particular voice or feature or idea, if it's not worth looking forward to and not worth trusting, I'm not sure it's worth writing, not if your goal is to become meaningful.
The three questions to ask, then, at every editorial meeting:
Who is this for?
Will we be able to reach them?
Is it meaningful?
And here's the rhetorical question I'd ask the publisher of every media company, from the sole practitioner to the Times: If you had the loyal attention of the powerful, connected, concerned and intelligent people in any given (valuable) tribe or sector, and you regularly showed up with anticipated, personal and relevant content for those people, could you make it into a business?
[More on this (and Clay, too)]
PS From six years ago… Sorry to repeat myself.