The Nail in Old Media’s Coffin

Today was the nail in the coffin for old news media.

For what feels like 2 decades now, the debate has raged on: “how can newspapers and magazines adapt to the internet?” What they didn’t realize is that newspapers and magazines as we know them would not exist anymore. Adapting to a technological change as radical as the internet, and now the iPad is not a matter of repurposing your content for a new publishing medium.

That’s the problem: big publishers have had their blinders on so narrowly that they only have seen the internet and mobile devices as a new publishing medium, not a new business model.

Think about it: why would anyone pay $1/day for The Daily? In case you missed it, it’s an iPad news publication announced by News Corp earlier today. I saw this tweet about it:

News Corp. + Apple have launched The Daily, a $30m iPad-only newspaper where u can find out what happened in Egypt yesterday

Not only can any of this content be accessed online for free today, but you can read much more insightful commentary by bloggers. Even stepping outside of the traditional tech-blog scene into something like politics, there is no doubt that editorial content, previously dominated by a few columnists, has been supplanted by bloggers who are passionate on these topics. You would be hard pressed to find anyone who would argue that the famous “talking heads” provide better commentary than what can be easily acquired elsewhere.

Rupert Murdoch’s argument, as he presented it today:

The magic of good newspapers — and good blogs — is a deft editor’s touch.

Really? Are you going to tell me that someone like John Gruber would be more magical with a “deft editor”? What about Dan Benjamin’s 5by5 TV network? Does he need a production team to put together stories so he can just talk about them?

Ironically enough, today “The Aol Way”, their new master plan was leaked to the internet. This is what happens when you add some “deft editors” with some sprinkle of MBAs and “internet media executives”:

  • AOL tells its editors to decide what topics to cover based on four considerations: traffic potential, revenue potential, edit quality and turn-around time.

  • AOL asks its editors to decide whether to produce content based on “the profitability consideration.”

  • The documents reveal that AOL is, when the story calls for it, willing to boost traffic by 5 to 10% with search ads and other “paid media.”

  • AOL site leaders are expected to have eight ideas for packages that could generate at least $1 million in revenue on hand at all times.

  • In-house AOL staffers are expected to write five to 10 stories per day.

  • AOL knows its sites are too dependent on traffic from AOL.com, and it wants its editors to fix the problem by posting more frequently, with more emphasis on getting pageviews.

Content farms. And bloated ones at that. Ones that employ about as much staff to analyze and talk about the writing as they do people who actually write. That is what the future of news media has become. For a company the size of Aol to be profitable, they have to write, not based on what their passionate on, but on what will drive traffic. Is that really who you want to be getting your news and commentary from?

Contrast that with Shawn Blanc, who a few years wrote an insightful post on why he blogs:

Those of us that do blog started our sites because we had a hint of creativity or passion or hope that simmered up inside us. There was that moment when the spark of inspiration hit us and we realized that we would love an outlet to share our passions: graphic design, language arts, technology and gadgets, or even sewing. A weblog is a perfect outlet for anyone to cultivate their passions and share them with the world.

Yeah, I’m pretty sure that’s who I’d choose to read. Maybe it’s not immediate, and maybe a “deft editor” didn’t touch it, but it exudes passion. Even better is that as time goes on, and bloggers link to each other (the linked list is a glorious thing), you start to develop networks of blogs that you trust enough to read.

Some people like John Rust, Aaron Mahnke, and Ian Hines have jumped on it and started sites that bring together interesting writers. John started Seedling1 and Aaron and Ian started Read & Trust. These new curated blogger networks call for passion and great, insightful commentary, not content farms.

The final nail is monetization. These writers want to make some money, but it’s because they’re passionate, not because they want to make money. If you go into blogging wanting to make money you will fail (or at least write some terrible content). That also means that they write on the side, and generally have other ventures to fund that time.

What’s wonderful is that they can monetize their sites. Ad networks like The DeckFusion Ads and Carbon Ads are invitation only for both the advertisers and the publishers. Bloggers can make a passive income doing what they’d already be doing and advertisers get outstanding performance on their ads. Another new option for income is Readability’s new service, which I covered yesterday that allows readers to pay a subscription and pays out to people when they save it in readability. Brilliant.

Even outside of the cutting-edge tech blogging scene, my wife pointed me to this couple who started blogging about some DIY home improvement projects three years ago and have become so successful they have taken up home improvement blogging full time. They’re passionate and great writers, and even they admit they only arrived where they are through writing quality content. That just goes to show that this isn’t isolated to just the cutting edge tech people.

Some sites that gain traction even have sponsorships that pay for the site. John Gruber epitomizes that fact, but late last year smaller sites such as Shawn Blanc and Minimal Mac launched $199/week sponsor programs. They seem to be working out pretty well, and I know an extra $199 a week is worth putting out some great content for. It’s not multi-billion dollar media conglomerates, but single people that write great content.

This doesn’t apply just to news.

Dan Benjamin, as a one man show2 has entirely supplanted my radio listening habits. Even Frank Chimero through kickstarter got enough funds in 24hrs to write a book. As of right now people have pledged $54,375 for him to write a book. His key was writing great content for years, not playing SEO tricks.

There’s also the case of how content is consumed. Services like Instapaper and Flipboard allow users to easily create curated magazines of content that is entirely interesting to them. Back when I’d read magazines, I know that a good issue would have about 50% of the articles that appealed to me. Now I can always have great content to read all the time. My Instapaper queue probably is at least two pages long, and who knows when I’ll get through it. Why would I buy another magazine on the plane when I have all this content curated by me to read?

To be successful, people have to want to read what you write. Pure news is a commodity, I don’t care if I get it from The Daily, The New York Times, or Engadget, but it has to be great because it’s so easy to access anything. It’s hard to be great. It takes time to be great. But it doesn’t take a staff of hundreds to be great. Murdoch’s argument is that it takes hundreds of people to be great. He is wrong. It takes passion.

For decades, we’ve been debating the death of old media. In time, I think we’ll look back on today as the day that ended that debate.

  1. Disclosure: I curate the Business section of Seedling []
  2. He may actually employ a few others to edit his shows []
February 2, 2011