Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Don't Shoot the Messenger

David Carr has a column in the Media & Advertising section of today's New York Times that's worth reading, whether you're a provider or consumer of news: Newspapers Jettisoning Top Talent to Cut Costs:

"Right now, the consumer has all manner of text to choose from on platforms that range from a cellphone to broadsheet. The critical point of difference journalism offers is that it can reduce the signal-to-noise ratio and provide trusted, branded information. That will be a business into the future, perhaps less paper-bound and smaller, but a very real business."
Carr takes the example of Circuit City, who fired all their most experienced (read: highest-paid) employees and then saw their customer service ratings tank, which ultimately put the company into bankruptcy. The same thing is happening with newspapers, according to Carr--and the tech trade press, I'd add. "It is not just the cutting, but the cutting of more-experienced staff, a kind of slow-motion suicide," in Carr's words.

I needn't point out my blatant self interest in siding with Carr. But in the small world of the tech trade press, we've all seen the results of taking the Circuit City route. Colleagues get laid off, editorial quality declines and advertisers look to other venues. That has helped some smaller fish like Portable Design (full disclosure), but the overall effect has been a decline in quality coverage of the industry. There are fewer of us left and we're all stretched pretty thin.

What's the Alternative?

Ultimately content is king and the vehicle for providing it is secondary. This may be reassuring news to editors and journalists, but it doesn't address the problem faced by publishers. Print costs continue to escalate while ad budgets decline. That's one reason for a big shift from print to online advertising, which is cheaper. But as any publisher knows, when your advertisers trade print ads for online ones, you're trading dollars for dimes--which is largely why advertisers are going online. Your publishing costs decline sharply but your revenues decline even more sharply. So the cost of your editorial staff now becomes your number one expense. What do you do?

Killing print entirely is one option. If you were having trouble making money on print before, keeping a smaller version of a magazine going once ads move online is even less cost effective. Why not kill it off altogether and go 'online only' as Byte, eNews and many others have done long since?

Because rumors of the death of print are both exaggerated and premature. Computers are a better retrieval mechanism than print pages, but the latter are still a helluva lot better presentation medium. I read four newspapers online every day--and check in on numerous blogs--but I far prefer to read feature articles in print. I read the news in EE Times every day but read the print editions of EDN and Electronic Design in preference to their digital editions, which I notice they're starting to flog of late.

I also actually read ads in print, where you can glean much more technical information than you can possibly fit into an online banner ad. Granted, click-through information is useful--though not very, unless you construct separate landing pages for each ad---and even then you need to cajole readers into registering in order to capture any really useful information. Just put a URL at the bottom of your print ad and you get the same results. When I click through from a banner ad, I'm usually just curious; when I go to a web site after reading a print ad, I'm serious.

So print is the preferable place to push products.

Product Mix

So my simple answer to a complex problem is: you need variety of information outlets, all of which channel the views and opinions of the best people in the business. News goes online, features in print, show coverage in videos and interviews in both video and print. The perceived value of each of these channels--which will vary directly with the value of the content you deliver through them--will determine the success of any business plan built around them.

With the publishing industry going through a major transformation right now--the dynamics of which the best and the brightest are all trying to decipher--it's prudent to spread your bets by maintaining a wide product mix. None of those elements alone may prove sufficiently successful, but in the aggregate they should.

If you have compelling content.