We Need to Increase Online Profits! Cut the Video!
Seems insane, but it’s what’s happening – as newsrooms trim to save dollars, they let a lot of strong multimedia journalists go. Or, worse, they make weak multimedia folks to mainstream stories. It takes skill, it takes talent and it takes time to tell a story well in video – and if you’ve never done it, you just don’t know what it takes. (Of course, you could insert any skill set into that statement and it would probably hold true.)
Ken Sands over at Poynter points out that it’s hard to get advertisers to buy placements around bad video – which sort of defeats the business reason for doing video, doesn’t it?
The scope of this goes FAR beyond video on the web. I continue to be amazed at the lack of pure common sense when it comes to the business of running news publications. Can’t ANY publishers see that the insistence on maximizing short-term profits is threatening the very existence of news organizations? This economic climate is making everything worse. Survivability is in question, anyway. But the way many publications are coping is a suicide run.
The only reason, the ONLY reason people patronize news publications is for professional quality reporting and information — information they can trust. Information that’s relevant to their own lives.
But news staffs continue to get cut to the point that news publications can no longer provide a useful product to audiences.CEOs and publishers blame the internet, but ultimately, poor management and business practices are at the heart of the crisis.
I can’t say I’ve been in the biz long enough to witness the genesis of the problem, but I’ve witnessed the cycles characteristic of the news industry. During the recession of the early ’90s, newspapers started laying off staff to cope. (I got laid off twice back then). When they returned to profitability by the mid ’90s, with smaller news staffs, they were making record returns: 25, 30, 35 percent profit margins. More and more newspapers went public and shares were traded on Wall Street. Everybody wanted in.
Anyone understanding the cyclical nature of the business would know that those returns were unsustainable, but most newspapers did their darndest to maintain those profit margins, mostly by cutting news budgets – staff, equipment, training, etc.
In my opinion, newspapers simply weren’t prepared for the challenges that the internet currently presents. Instead of creating cash reserves and re-investing in staff and development during prosperous times, they were feeding ravenous shareholders. It didn’t matter if some had foresight of the coming turmoil, they had no resources to weather the storm and make a less desperate transition.
So newspapers continue to cut news staff and rid themselves of more expensive but talented personnel, even when they have a good thing going. And the result is even more flight from inferior products.
A significant part of the problem is whom newspapers see as their customers. All too often, management sees advertisers as their chief customer base. But in reality, readers and viewers are the REAL customers. Without them, there is no incentive for advertisers to invest in news media. It seems elemental to me, but I see little evidence of that understanding by those much higher in the hierarchy of the business. Why is that? They are more interesting in finding ways to inflate the number of internet hits with software than actually generating interest in their product.
As a result, to save our jobs and our profession, much of the onus will be on journalists to generate a buzz about our products. And we’ve done a poor job at that, so far. Journalists tend to be passionate about their work, but there is still a disconnect between ourselves and our audiences. The challenge, I think, is to sell the public on what we do. In significant ways, it’s the same challenge that all educators have – to make learning fun and rewarding. After all, journalists are educators — we teach grownups about the world we live in. The challenge is the same. How do we capture an audience? Certainly not with the inferior products and uncommitted efforts that are currently being foisted on audiences.
My prediction: publicly traded companies will get out of the news business, eventually. Good riddance, I say. Wall Street and The Press make poor bedfellows. Leave the dissemination of news and information to those who actually care and understand its vital role to a democratic society.
So who will be our employers in the future? Hard to say. I’d love to see a return of more family-owned newspapers. The giant conglomerations are attempting to sell off their unprofitable publications, but there has been few — if any — takers, and the publications end up getting shut down. Hopefully, some people with means and vision, who actually understand the role of The Press in our society, and are satisfied with profitability at a reasonable and sustainable level, will step up to the plate. Right now, more and more journalists are becoming self-employed and entrepreneurs out of necessity. And they are doing some interesting things to keep an eye on. Perhaps that’s the future.
However it plays out, journalists must be just as muteable and changing as the digital age itself. It’s a challenge, for sure. But in the end, the passion to inform and teach must be in our hearts.