I'm trying to advise a publisher of newsmagazines on their crossmedia strategy, and I've been toying for a while with a radical idea that I haven't voiced so far. I'm tempted to tell them: ditch (most of) your existing website, and go back to the basics.
I know that this may sound ridiculous at first, for the whole publishing industry is moving in the opposite direction, downgrading and downsizing their print products and shifting resources online - where the audiences are moving, too, not to mention the advertising money (some of it at least).
But I've been wondering whether this shift is 101 percent delusion-free, or whether we have been so good at convincing ourselves that the future's default setting is that of "content on every screen" and "all the information, anytime, anywhere", that we have lost sight of a couple of fundamentals.
The first is that journalism is about providing news, facts and analysis to help understanding, but it is also very much about relationships, about connecting people. The established publishing model, by differentiating producers from consumers of journalism, has significantly raised the standards of information but at the price of discounting the relationship (yes, many people have a strong loyalty to "their" newspaper, but that's an asymmetrical, not a dialogical, connection). During the last ten years, the Web and other tools have created the premises for that to change. One of the most remarkable aspects of the interactive digital environment is the progressive vanishing of the lines dividing the producer and the consumer of information. Many journalists and publishers feel threatened by this shift, they are terrified about losing relevance. And are mostly reacting by doing more of the same, just online.
Some of it is correct: a daily newspaper without a constantly-updated and expansive sibling website is today unthinkable, at least in dynamic media markets. But some of it isn't - and here let me remind that I'm advising a publisher of magazines, monthlies and newsweeklies, in Europe, and that the thoughts exposed in this post refer specifically to this category of publishing.
Here is my question: why should a weekly newsmagazine today have a fully-fledged, updated-by-the-minute, wide-ranging website? In a context where all dailies and television news channels are doing that; where most of that information is anyway redundant, the same Reuters or AP story published by everyone from newspapers sites to YahooNews and then picked up by blogs (including sometimes this one); and where it's basically already possible to follow a breaking story online without even going to a newspaper or TV station's website, just by following the bloggers: in this context, is a website the best possible use of a magazine's scarce resources?
I went out and asked a couple of editors of major magazine websites in Europe, really big ones with lots of resources: if you had to start from scratch, would you do what you're doing? Their answer was an unequivocal "no".
They weren't sure what their right course of action would instead be, but clearly they felt that the resources poured into online to, basically, do a job that wasn't theirs - reinvent the wheel of what dailies were doing - could have been better employed for other things. I have an idea what those things may be. So my advice to my publishing client, which (important detail) has only a basic presence on the web so far, will go something like this:
- keep the website to a minimum (the magazine's contents; a searchable and usable archive of stories; marketing and subscription and contact info);
- focus most of your resources into doing the best magazine you can do, producing great journalism, reinvest and reinvent and modernize;
- give all your journalists a blog, train them on blogging, help them to get over the fear of the direct contact with the reader and the panic about criticism, encourage them to engage with the "former audience" and to be a bit more entrepreneurial;
- use these blogs to re-invent the relationship with readers, to invite those readers into the magazine's fabrication process, to increase transparency and accountability, to call for ideas and information, and also to provide more information (about the magazine's workings, and about the topics covered in it).
Or, put it in a shorter way: do the best magazine you can possibly do and - using the online tools - do it together with your readers.
Sure, journalists' blogs have so far been a mixed bag: while some are great, others are boring or just contain leftover materials that didn't make it into the print magazine. Often, journalists are eager to ask the audience to help with reporting (which is of course OK) but they don't engage in any discussion. The context here would be different, because this would be both an individual and a collective effort (the blogs could be organized to be strong individually and collectively by creating an aggregate page, for example), and it would be integral to the newsroom's work - and journalists could even get paid for it. For having observed the BondyBlog trajectory I know that blogs are also a good way to create contagious enthusiasm in a newsroom and connect with readers in a totally novel way.
Apparently I'm not the only one thinking about these things. I just read an interview that Josh Quittner, the editor of Business2.0 (a monthly), gave the other day to IWantMedia. Josh is asking every journalist at the magazine to start a blog, and they will get paid for it - based on the traffic they generate. He says that the experiment has been inspired by Om Malik's leaving the magazine to blog full-time: "I loved the daily interactions he was having with his community of readers [while he was at B2.0]. It made him sharper and more valuable to me at the magazine. And so I thought, how can we encourage our people to do a similar thing?", he says. He's not even asking people to blog on specific topics, just that "they have some kind of connection to business" (and of course he's not ditching the B2.0 website: it's a strong one, with TimeWarner's resources behind it).
Encouraging journalists to become active bloggers has a key advantage, says NYU's Jay Rosen: it "teaches them about the Web, and what it really takes to succeed online". And it has a side-effect: basically they will be creating their own communities, fragment the readership, and build up their personal brand. Readers will start connecting directly with people rather than with the magazine. My take is that publishers should actually encourage this, promote them, make each of them individual brands within the collective brand because each supplemental glint in their brand will brighten the magazine's. Josh seems to have a similar take:
IWM: Could having all of your journalists blogging without oversight create the potential for them to jeopardize the brand?
Quittner: I think they are the brand. Business 2.0 magazine is the totality of our collaboration. (...) I trust each one of them to represent us.
Magazines, he says, over time "will need to reinvest in their magazine-ness". Which is what I meant at the beginning by "going back to the basics".