Courage and aspiration to look beyond the obvious are two qualities that characterize great journalism. These qualities not only help publishers produce interesting stories, but they also make it easier to distinguish the offering from the competitors’.
Therefore, it is surprising how opportunistic media companies can be when it comes to their own business development. The obvious pattern is that media publishers look at each other (and especially at the New York Times) to quickly agree on what is currently the supreme survival strategy. Most often, this strategy changes fundamentally about every second year, with the result that the ideas you invested in haven’t had time to gain a foothold until the next super-important strategy is launched.
Ten years ago, online video was the new kid on the block. News publishers invested in their own video production units and launched ambitious programs around current affairs. Unfortunately, it turned out to be difficult to make advertising-financed video profitable (the viewer numbers were too low), and soon enough focus moved to other potential revenue sources. Today, it is hard to find videos at all on many of the leading news sites, although it has a clear value for the users.
The next big thing was the iPad, which arrived in 2010. Suddenly, newspaper makers saw a product that looked like a magazine and was possible to carry with you. “Hooray, now we can make digital publications the way we really want them, in portrait format! This changes everything”. You know how it went... Today, you mainly find iPads in the rear seats of family cars.
And then came social media. With free traffic from Facebook et al, a lot of media publishers focused on building an ad-funded reach business. "We are the biggest on Facebook" some publishers proudly proclaimed, until the day Facebook changed the algorithm and restrained free traffic. “Oups, what do we do now?”
The given solution was to take a u-turn and make users pay for the content. "By adding all content behind payment walls, we will finally be able to charge for our journalism". But if this was absolutely true, isn’t it strange that the industry did not come up with this solution earlier. The truth is, of course, that payment walls are not the full solution, just a piece of the puzzle.
This anxious behavior to follow the stream, and time and again believe that a new strategy will solve everything, is not a sustainable way forward. The long-term shift from print to digital media involves extensive behavioral changes, and these take time. Changing direction 180 degrees every second year, makes it difficult to establish any kind of business model.
This does not mean, however, that media companies should refrain from testing new ideas. They should try new ideas continuously, it’s the only way to innovate. But please don’t kill existing projects that are just starting to gain momentum.
The media companies biggest challenge in 2019 will be to adopt a more holistic view of its businesses, and balance short-term test-balloons against endurance. The solution is not only spelled paid content, or display advertising, or native. The winning strategy will include a mix of all these activities, preferably organized in such a way that they reinforce each other.