Following on from my recent critique of the newspaper paid-content debate, I've been trying to think more positively about solutions to the problem. I'll post about that sometime soon. For now here are just a few musings, not necessarily in the right order or coherent. Read at your own peril.
Idea #1: News content brands are not consumer brands
An example: if your work involves doing strategy around new media, you probably start your day by skimming all the articles that paidcontent.org and a few other sites have published in the last day. What you are looking for here is not content (although content is part of it), but rather an overview of what you should know about. If an entry is relevant to you, you follow the link and often land in a newspaper site. This could be a major brand like the WSJ, the Guardian, etc, or a newspaper you had never heard about, in Australia, thus just happened to have an interview with a key executive.
The crucial thing to note here is that the newspaper's name – its brand – is largely irrelevant to you. You followed the link because Paidcontent told you should read the article. The fact that you ended up reading the Guardian's version of a story rather than the Times' is a result of Paidcontent's choice, not yours. The newspaper's brand had no effect on your actions, but it may have had on Paidcontent's.
Note two more things: first, the main service that the Paidcontent people offer is not their writing (or anyone else's), but rather awareness of content across the web that you need to know about (and this is a service more than a product). Second, for paidcontent.org you could substitute your Twitter feed, your email inbox, your Facebook page, Google News, the Drudge Report, the Huffington Post, Martin Sabe's blog, whatever. The point is that you start by visiting a place that will tell you what you should read across the web.
Idea # 2: Aggregators are consumer brands
Note how this view contrasts with the notion of "content discovery" that you often hear. Paidcontent's role is not just to alert you to a newspaper article that you may or may not have found interesting even if Paidcontent had not existed. To a large extent, the article is interesting because Paidcontent and its peers (or your friends, or the Drudge Report) linked to it. Paidcontent has that power not just by virtue of its good editorial judgement, but also, and crucially, because its readers know who its other readers are – namely, their peers. Paidcontent helps decide what you peer group is reading today – and, by implication, what you should read if you want to be in the loop.
(All of this just says that aggregators are articulators of social identity, much like fashion brands: they reflect and are targeted at specific communities.)
Aggregators are consumer brands in a second sense too: unlike the content they link to, they are actually chosen by their readers. Some compete for the same readers (e.g. techcrunch vs valleywag vs gigaom), and they all invite repeated, loyal custom.
You don't discover news content. You discover aggregators. And if you like them you come back, or subscribe.
Idea # 3: The web, like print, is a push medium. It's just that the pushers have changed
In marketing lingo, in the example above Paidcontent was a channel, and newspapers' content was distributed in a push, not a pull way. But the pusher was not the newspaper; it was Paidcontent.
Granted, if instead of Paidcontent the pusher is your Facebook friends then things change a little in that the pushers are not businesses but other consumers. But still,
- What you read was pushed to you by someone
- That someone had it pushed to him/her by a business, or by someone who in turn had it pushed to him/her by a business
- In this chain, the first business that pushed the article was the newspaper's own front page
True, the old brands are no longer in control of our attention, and now we (the readers) have a lot more say in deciding what content we read. But between us and the old brands now sit the aggregators, who are malleable. "If it doesn't spread, it's dead" said Henry Jenkins. True. But there are entire industries involved in the spreading.
Idea #4: The main structural change that the web has brought to the news business is not the digital distribution of content, but the separation of aggregation and content
Scenarios like the one above would not have been possible before the internet, and would have been rare as recently as four years ago. But that is changing quickly.
Today it is possible to run a successful aggregation business (like the Drudge Report) without having much of a content business. This lowering of barriers-to-entry has lead to an explosion of niche curators whose products are far more targeted and comprehensive than any integrated business could dream of.
The reason that traditional businesses cannot compete is not that they would struggle to produce enough targeted aggregations to satisfy small niches – with enough resources they could do that. It is because firms in the traditional, integrated aggregation-plus-content business have strong incentives not to link to other websites (I've written about this conundrum before). But to satisfy a web-savvy niche audience you just have to send people to all sorts of sites across the web. This is not just because you can't hope to cover all relevant events with your own content, but your readers audiences demand to be taken to the 'original' articles, clips, etc. Put differently,
Idea #5: Readers don't expect aggregators to report on world events; they expect them to report on web events
By linking to a newspaper article, Paidcontent need not have implied any sense of endorsement or recommendation of it: the PC blurb might be inviting you to read the article to see its questionable reporting, which you should be aware of. Paidcontent's promise – what it asks you to trust it on – is to keep you up to about with what is being said. If what is being said turns out to be unreliable that has nothing to do with the promise.